Graham Garrison is a writer and editor who lives in suburban Atlanta. He has covered high school and college football games as a newspaper reporter, completed an internship with the U.S. Army at its National Training Center in the Mojave Desert and tested WaveRunners and Runabouts as the managing editor of a national boating magazine. He’s written about battlefields for America’s Civil War, interviewed medical innovators for Georgia Physician and even penned an editorial for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. When he’s not writing, he’s chasing his two-year old son Nicholas and their Beagle, Baxter around the backyard with his wife, Katie.
Visit the author’s website.
List Price: $13.99
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Kregel Publications (September 21, 2009)
AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:
There were no famous last words from Michael Gavin. Nothing like George Washington’s “I die hard, but am not afraid to go,” or General Lee’s “Strike the tent.” When Michael stopped talking late in the night, he simply held Lynn’s hand. When he was too weak for even that, she took the weight of his pale left arm in hers and gently rubbed his palm. She watched his chest as it registered, however faintly, the struggle for each final breath, until she could barely tell if the battle was still joined. Finally, his eyes, once steely and strong, faded to a dull, dark black. Thirty-nine short years after his arrival, Michael Gavin, American hero, was gone.
It was a Monday.
Lynn Gavin sat by the bedside for fifteen minutes, with Michael’s lifeless hand still in hers, before reaching for the phone to call his parents. She felt selfish for taking that time to mourn alone while the rest of the family was unaware of his passing, but she had lost this fight with cancer as much as he had.
That horrible day when Michael was diagnosed.
The trips to chemo.
The sleepless nights as Michael shivered against the disease.
The day-by-day erosion of the strongest man she’d ever known.
Lynn dampened her sobs to a persistent, ragged groan that seemed to settle deep in her chest, and she started thinking as a parent instead of simply a wife. Addy, their six-year old, had slept over at Michael’s parents’ house last night, at Lynn’s request. She hadn’t wanted to expose Addy to the final throes of death, or to anything more than she had already experienced in the last few months. Even before Michael’s cancer, Addy had seen more from this world than any child should have to. A six-year-old should be singing along to Veggie Tales and laughing at Sesame Street, not tiptoeing around IV lines and smelling of disinfectant after hugging her daddy.
Guilt crept in. Shouldn’t everyone be here? Why did I want this time with him to myself? What kind of person am I?
She felt an impulse to ask forgiveness, as if Michael had died in the early morning hours only because there was an empty household for the first time in three weeks. She reached for the telephone on the nightstand and dialed Michael’s parents.
Betty Gavin answered on the second ring. Only one person would be calling this early.
“Mom, Michael’s gone.”
Betty had braced herself for those words, but they still struck like a hammer to the ribs. She stifled a reflexive sob. “Oh dear,” she said, dropping the spoon she had been using to stir her tea. “I’ll be right over.”
“What should I do?” Lynn asked.
“You just sit tight, honey. I’ll be right there.” There was no correct protocol for times like these. Lynn had been so good about making the tough decisions during Michael’s illness. When friends or family stopped by to offer prayers or a kind word, Lynn would be consoling and encouraging them by the time they left. Now it was time for others to lift Lynn up.
Betty had just enough presence of mind to tell Lynn not to worry; that they would figure out what to do next, together. Then she found herself at the front hall closet, fumbling with the buttons on her coat.
If things took a little longer with arrangements, then that’d be fine. Addy would be fine at their place until they sorted things out. There was always someone around the neighborhood to help in a pinch, and this was one of those pinches the entire town would come around for.
She covered her face with her hands, her body convulsing. “Oh Lord, oh Lord.”
Paul Gavin didn’t have the best hearing in the world after sixty-seven years, but he had a sixth sense about when his wife needed him. At the crack of dawn on Monday, he was where he always was, sitting on the front porch, sipping coffee and tying his shoes for a morning jog down the same street where he’d beaten the pavement for years. He was religious about his morning constitutional: five days a week, rain or shine, he’d circle the neighborhood cul-de-sacs and wave to the commuters embarking on their forty-five-minute commute from town to city. He didn’t need to be at work at the local college until nine, the reward of tenure from teaching graduate-level business courses for more than a decade, following his service in the Army. This morning, instead of going for his jog, Paul opted to enjoy the sunrise and read the city paper. He’d make it up this evening, he told himself.
Paul didn’t hear the phone ring, or see Betty collapse onto the sofa, but he had a feeling he was needed inside.
As Paul stood to his feet and folded the paper under his arm, the front door opened and Betty stepped out onto the porch, ashen faced, the key to the Volvo dangling absently from her hand. Paul instantly knew what had happened.
Tossing the paper onto the rocker, he reached for Betty, wrapped her in his arms, and hugged her for all he was worth.
“Could you—” Betty’s words dissolved into a sob, and she tried to catch her breath.
“Don’t worry, sweetie, I’ll take care of Addy. You go.”
After Betty drove away, Paul returned to the front porch and sat in his rocking chair to sort through his thoughts and make sense of everything that would now be required.
Phone calls to relatives and friends. A Call to the newspaper to have an obit made so out-of-towners would know the details of the funeral. The family had made some of the arrangements in advance but still needed to finalize a few things with the funeral home.
Then there was the package he promised Michael he’d deliver.
A promise was a promise.
Analyzing decisions was Paul’s way of getting through tough times. Like Michael, he had a knack for remaining calm under duress, making snap decisions that others found too difficult or too emotional. But even now, as he sat in his rocking chair ticking off the preparations to make before saying good-bye to his son, his eyes retreated to a certain spot on the front lawn. The clearer the green became, the less he thought about the arrangements, and the more he walked through memories of Michael’s childhood.
He envisioned a ten-year-old boy with dirty knees, a Braves cap, and a big, broad grin on his face, winding up to toss the baseball back. Or sprinting for all he was worth toward the far corner, football helmet askew and arms outstretched for “just one more pass, Dad, before we head in.”
Paul stopped his mental checklist and just stared at the grass.
Word traveled fast in a town like Talking Creek, with or without cell phones. Granted, cell phone towers had popped up in this corner of northwest Georgia like in every other part of the country, and a cell phone company had put a store over on Main Street five years ago, but it’s not like the residents needed all that. You could shout from one end of Main Street to the other and someone could easily hear you, it was so small. And with a population of just under six thousand, everybody knew everybody, and probably knew everybody’s relatives, too. Only about a thousand of those folks came and went, those being out-of-town students of Tributary University, the local liberal arts college.
The west end of Main started with a hamburger joint and a pizza place, then proceeded through town, passing two banks, the grocery store, a busy café, the drug store, a combination book and coffee shop, the barber shop, hair stylist, and post office. On the east side, the town’s two big churches, United Methodist and First Baptist, sat on opposite sides of the street, close enough for parishioners to wave to one another before walking into their respective Sunday services.
Talking Creek’s claim to fame was the annual fall firemen’s parade. As home to one of the finest volunteer fire departments in the state—and possibly the entire Southeast, the town rolled out its big red engines every year and invited towns near and far to bring theirs too.
Gene Woods, one of Talking Creek’s volunteer firemen, lived three streets down from Paul and Betty in the town’s lone subdivision. Like Paul, he was a creature of habit. Up at the same time every morning, he showered, put on a dress shirt and tie, brewed a cup of black coffee, read the paper, and hit the road at 6:30 sharp for his job at the local power plant. Gene’s routine coincided with Paul’s run, and the two usually exchanged waves halfway between their two homes. Today, however, Gene noticed that Paul wasn’t running.
Gene knew Michael, and about his fight with cancer. Well, everybody in Talking Creek knew Michael. Many remembered him as the kid who’d broken all the state passing records in high school. Others still half-expected to see him hiking the Georgia mountain trails with those kids from the foster care retreat. Everyone knew what he’d done in the war; about the big, shiny medal he’d earned, and how quiet he’d been about it when he returned.
Gene’s wife, Mary, was in Betty’s prayer group at the Methodist church, and she had relayed Betty’s prayer concerns as Michael’s cancer had worsened. Each time Mary brought bad news, Gene would just shake his head. How could a strong kid like that get beat by something that starts so small? The power and frailty of the human body never ceased to amaze Gene. How in the world could a person live on pizza, beer, and cigarettes all their life and make it to eighty, while some middle-aged marathon runner has a heart attack at fifty? Or what about some stupid kid who drives drunk as a skunk and crashes head-on into a Suburban. He survives, with a few scratches and a bump on his head, but the family in the SUV doesn’t? And how can something no bigger than a speck when it starts cut down a tree trunk like Michael? It just didn’t make any sense.
Gene slowed as he neared the Gavins’ property. To most folks, spotting Paul on the front porch wouldn’t be cause for concern, but Gene’s heart sank. He knew his friend should be getting his laps in before work. Guys like Paul and Gene didn’t mess with their routine just for the heck of it. Maybe the polite thing to do would have been to keep on driving and let Paul be; but that didn’t set right with Gene, and he was in the business of doing the right thing. He pulled his Dodge Ram into the driveway and hopped out.
Paul and Gene were part of a close-knit fraternity. Both were combat veterans, Paul in the Army, Gene as a Marine sergeant. Their rival service loyalties elicited jabs and good-natured jokes between the two, but not today.
Paul stood and nodded as Gene got out of his truck. Gene took three steps down the walkway and paused. What should he say? He was always at a loss for words at times like these. He clenched his right first, frustrated at his lack of words. Then it hit him. He pivoted slightly toward Paul and in a crisp, forward motion, lifted his right hand to his temple.
Paul returned the salute.
“This town won’t ever forget your boy,” he said.
Ten minutes later, Gene was doing what he always did in a crisis: taking charge. He walked into the fire station storage room and grabbed Big Glory, the biggest American flag you’ve ever seen. Then, climbing the steps of the tallest landmark in Talking Creek, the fire tower they used for drills, he unfurled the flag and attached it to the brass hooks along the edge of the parapet. It seemed the right thing to do.
“Hey Gene, what in the world are you doing?” It was one of the paramedics on shift, looking up from the ground below. “Parade ain’t for another two weeks.”
Gene mulled over what to say. “You’re needed at the younger Gavins.”
Gene watched as his words sank in.
“Okay, we’re on our way.”
After securing the flag at half mast, Gene went down to the dispatch room and called the chief of police.
“What’s up, Gene, is there a fire?” a groggy Heath Jackson muttered into the phone. He wasn’t due at the police station until three cups of coffee from now.
“No, no fire,” Gene said. “Paul’s son passed away this morning.”
“Oh, I hate to hear that, Gene.”
“Yeah, listen, you think you should send some of your boys down to the house to make sure everything’s all right?”
“Consider it done. Thanks for letting me know.”
A few miles away, Betty and Lynn tried to collect themselves. The shock was wearing off, but numbness crept in. That’s when Betty decided to call the funeral home to come and take Michael, and they received the first of many surprises from the town of Talking Creek.
“Yes, ma’am, the police department asked permission to handle your request,” the funeral home receptionist said. “And we’re really very, very sorry.”
She probably shouldn’t have been, but Betty was taken aback at how fast word had traveled. “Thank you,” she managed. “When do you think they will get here?”
“Ma’am, it should be there already.”
Skeptically, Betty looked out the window. Sure enough, parked by the fence was an ambulance, flanked by two squad cars. By the time Betty and Lynn walked out the front door, two more police cars had arrived. Police Sergeant Mark Lovejoy met them halfway, head slightly bowed. Betty didn’t bother asking him how they knew.
“We’re here to escort Michael,” Lovejoy said.
The ambulance and police procession through downtown to the funeral home proved more effective than any newspaper headline. One glance at the convoy set off a firestorm of discussion up and down Main Street. Once the people who knew—mainly Gene walking into Reese’s Café for his second morning coffee—gave the news to a few of the town’s movers and shakers, word spread quickly to shops like Smith’s Pharmacy, into the faculty offices of the university, and among parents in the carpool lane at the elementary and middle schools.
Talking Creek High School assistant principal Gus Hilliard caught wind of Michael’s passing from the front office workers. As Sue Holton was about to press the talk button on the school microphone for the daily announcements, Gus gently tapped her shoulder.
“I’ll take this one,” he said.
Gus never did the announcements. He hated public speaking. He did most of his talking behind closed doors, lecturing kids busted for chewing gum in class or running amok on school property. He was good at cracking skulls without touching them; just forcing the fear of God into misfits with his deep voice, broad shoulders, and harsh scowl.
The front office folks immediately hushed their conversations when Gus wrapped his knuckles around the microphone.
“This is Assistant Principal Hilliard,” he began. “We’ll be doing announcements differently today. Before we say the Pledge of Allegiance, I want to have a . . . a . . . moment of silence.”
The front office ladies let out a sigh, thankful he hadn’t said “moment of prayer.” Someone no doubt would have raised a fuss at the next school board meeting.
“And if you want to pray,” Gus continued, “well go ahead and do that too. And if anyone is offended by that . . . well, they can come and talk to me about it.”
Eyes rolled behind his back.
“A former Talking Creek High student died this morning. Michael Gavin. If you didn’t know him—and that’s probably just one or two of you—you missed out on knowing a good man and a true hero. He did a lot for this community, and a lot for this country, and we here at Talking Creek High are all going to miss him. Please take a moment or two now to remember him.”
Ralph Frink, owner of Southern Décor, got the news around lunchtime from one of his production managers. Southern Décor, a manufacturer of outdoor decorations, was Talking Creek’s largest employer, outside of Tributary University. Yesterday, the company had put the finishing touches on some Christmas decorations for a central Alabama town, and the production line was up and running. Frink didn’t have to think too hard about this one. He called a company-wide meeting in the plant, asked for a vote, and it was unanimous. The next day, Southern Décor would shift the line over to making large yellow ribbons and American flag decorations to wrap around every sign and streetlight from here to the county line. He’d foot the bill.
The churches geared up early. Mondays were Bible study days at both the Methodist and Baptist churches, and two group leaders who did their grocery shopping in the morning before class bumped into each other in the produce section, like they always did. Joanne Reed, a lifelong Methodist and friend of Lynn’s and Michael’s, was noticeably shaken.
Naturally, Liz Montgomery was concerned. She gave Joanne a warm hug and asked her what was wrong. When Joanne told her about Michael and Lynn, Liz’s eyes welled with tears. Then she got determined.
“Call your group leaders, and I’ll call mine, and we’ll figure out what to do.” By the afternoon, there wasn’t a cold oven in the city limits.
Smith’s Pharmacy ran out of Hallmark cards by 3 p.m. The first to go were condolences. Then encouragement. Then thank you cards; because by that point the only other cards in the racks said “Happy Birthday” or “It’s a girl.”
Mondays were also soccer days at Glenn Park. Kids walked out of the elementary school with their cleats and shin guards in hand, down the hill to Glenn Park and over to the soccer fields. The parents pulled up a few minutes before game time, helped their kids into uniforms, and then plopped lawn chairs on the sidelines to catch up on the latest news while cheering on a mass of children circling a ball for an hour.
The games couldn’t start without the national anthem. A Boy Scout or Cub Scout from one team would be in charge of raising the flag up the pole at the edge of the field while everyone saluted. Jesse Blackmon, a Tenderfoot, and by far the smallest kid on his team, got the assignment this time. His coach whispered something in his ear, and although he was a little confused by the request, Jesse dashed to the flagpole and, as everyone began singing, did exactly what his coach had told him to do. He raised it to half-staff.
Talking Creek football coach Bud Lawler didn’t let the news pass his team by. The current Eagles were a far cry from the glory days of Michael’s run at quarterback. Coach Lawler would know that better than anyone else; he’d been a tight end on those teams. He’d been back at his alma mater for seven years now, and was trying to rekindle some of the old magic. His resume included five winning seasons and two playoff berths, largely because of the Summers boys: Tripp, Taylor, and Travis. None of the three was very big, or had an arm like Michael’s, but man could those kids run. A few brave souls in town had even suggested—whispered is more like it—that they were as fast, if not faster, than Michael. During their respective senior years, Tripp, Taylor, and Travis had each led the county in rushing. Times had been good again for the Eagles with the Summers boys in school. During Taylor’s senior year, they’d even found themselves in the Georgia Dome for a semifinal game against powerhouse Buford. But that was three years ago, and now, in order to get the “Summers over” tag off his back, Coach Lawler needed to do something with this latest crop of boys.
The Eagles were 3–1 and preparing for their first regional game, against archrival Calhoun, which was ranked fifth in the state and had a three-game winning streak going against Talking Creek. A win against Calhoun and the Eagles would be in the driver’s seat of Region 5-A. A loss, and they’d be right back in the middle of the pack, where they’d been since the Summers boys graduated.
Fifty teenagers in blue and gold trotted out of the fieldhouse and onto the practice field across from Grady Stadium. It used to be that Talking Creek squads practiced on the stadium field, but seeing as how everybody else had a practice field for practice and a playing field for playing, Talking Creek boosters had chipped in to pay for some nearby brush to be cleared and a field to be readied. The team broke off into offensive and defensive squads. Coach Lawler limped out of the fieldhouse a minute later, game plan in hand and a scowl on his face.
“Boys, hats off and huddle up,” he said. The Eagles squeezed together amid sounds of chinstraps unsnapping and helmets coming off. “You know this week’s a big week with Calhoun. Well, it just got a lot bigger.”
He paused, checking to make sure he had everyone’s attention. “Michael Gavin died this morning. He put all those trophies in our gym. He brought a lot of great memories to this town, and now it’s our turn to make some more memories.”
“On Friday, that place”—he pointed behind his shoulder to Grady Stadium—“is going to be packed tighter than a can of sardines. And it ain’t just ’cuz we’re playing big, bad Calhoun. It ain’t ’cuz they’ve whipped us the last three years and their blood is up; and it ain’t ’cuz they want to shut you seniors out a fourth and final time.” He pointed to his two team captains.
“It’s ’cuz a lot of people are going to come to the game to remember what Michael Gavin did on that field years ago. And you know what? We’re gonna give them something to remember him by! So, you ain’t just playin’ for yourselves or for this team this week. It’s bigger than that. We need to do him proud.”