The Boys of Nodaway Ridge
"The good die first…" – (Wordsworth)
A tiny sliver of white light from the midmorning sun shone through a half-drawn window shade in the tiny hilltop church where Frank and I, along many others, gathered, focusing on one particular star on the American Flag draping the metal casket resting in front of a wooden alter adorned only by a simple cross. Particles of dust in the air, reflecting in the sunlight, gave the illusion of twinkly stars welcoming home a wounded, but weary traveler, seeking rest from travails of the world, lying in the midst of comfort and relief. The same mid-morning sun, dodging fully leaved and stately oak trees, cast shadows about the ground, bathing the newly dug gravesite in the adjoining cemetery with the warmth of late spring. Preparations were complete to give Pvt. Jeremiah Jackson Tolliver, Sammy's older brother, killed by an unknown enemy on some unnamed gravel road in a faraway foreign land, his final resting place.
Jeremiah never intended to enter that undeclared war in that distant land when he enlisted in the army, but he could not, would not, avoid it either since his enlistment was of his own choice; a way to provide for his growing family, giving him the opportunity to receive the college education he knew he wouldn't get if he remained in Nodaway Ridge.
Post-high school graduation found Jeremiah in the recruiter's office at the county seat. While filling out the necessary paper work, the recruiter questioned him concerning his family and marital status, not quite believing Jeremiah was married with one child and another on the way. The eighteen-year-old, anticipating these questions, produced a copy of his marriage license and a copy of his son's birth certificate to satisfy the intense questioning by the recruiter.
Pregnant at sixteen after more than one tryst with Jeremiah, Jennifer and Jeremiah married quickly in this very same little church. They'd known each other since grade school, were inseparable, and one thing led to another, then another, then another, until the inevitable happened! Neither of them thought of using condoms to prevent pregnancy, besides they both enjoyed the feelings of bare flesh piston against bare flesh, tight in the depths of a warm tunnel. Not one to shirk his responsibilities and abandon her as some others might, Jeremiah proudly joined her as her husband, loving her more than ever. Their second child was born while Jeremiah was completing basic training, straining their resources in providing for their two sons. His monthly wages from the government were sent home to Jenny. Health care was provided through his enlistment and she supplemented their resources by living at home with her parents and utilizing food stamps and other aid from the county.
She was not unlike many others in Nodaway Ridge. We're located in one of those pockets of inhabitation located in a hilly, wooded, poor farm county where employment was limited, as it always had been, and the word "recession" would signal good times for most of the residents! People didn't move in or out of Nodaway Ridge very often, thus most people were related to each other in one way or another or had known each other almost all of their lives. If a person was born there, then more than likely, that person would die there and be buried there also!
Given the relative poverty in the county, folks in Nodaway Ridge were still fairly content with simple pleasures and uncomplicated lives, but their worries were no less than anyone else in the world. They worried about love, family, food, money, illness, and friendships. For many, the reliance on their faith, family, themselves, and their neighbors bolstered their spirits in hard times, providing hope for the good times to come. Neighbors helped neighbors when it was time to butcher, harvest crops, or build a house. Their larders were stocked with game and fish they harvested in the neighboring woods and rivers, their own garden produce, and meat from their small farms. Fiercely loyal to each other, passionate in protecting their loved ones, and overflowing with pride, they accepted their lives as being good compared to others. They may lack much, but in many ways they had everything. What they lacked in material goods, they made up for in things that couldn't be quantified!
Jenny Tolliver sat sadly, quietly, pensively in the front pew of the church, young Gregory by her side and baby Jackson nestled in her arms. The baby was oblivious to the events around him, sleeping peacefully as only a baby could. Flanked by her parents and Jeremiah's parents, hoping to provide her support and comfort in this time of grief, both sets of parents were trying valiantly to fight back the tears welling in their eyes as they faced the flag-draped casket resting in front of them. Off to the side of the pew, on straight back metal folding chairs, sat the military escort who brought Jeremiah here and would carry him to his grave with the full honors befitting a fallen comrade.
Jenny's two younger brothers and two sisters sat in the pew directly behind her parents and four of Jeremiah's five brothers were seated with his parents. The rest of the church was filled to overflowing with relatives, other friends of the families, and friends of Jenny and Jeremiah. Jenny glanced around a bit, seeing Frank and me, smiled faintly at us, expressing her appreciation for our attendance and support for Sammy, and looked back at the casket, not quite believing, yet knowing, Jeremiah was in there, never to hold her in his arms again. Suppressing a sob, she cuddled Jackson closer and brought Gregory snug against her side with a gentle hug of her free arm.
It was such a sad, sad day for the family and all of Nodaway Ridge. The funeral music, at Jenny's request, was not by the regular church choir, but provided by the small local group Jeremiah played fiddle and sang with. Oh, and play they did! They played the sorrowful, haunting hill songs that told stories of death, love, heartbreak, and redemption. The songs were those passed from one generation to the next, never written down, but learned at the feet of the old timers. Once heard, these songs would forever be imbued in one's heart and mind; once played, the musician would make it a part of him or herself, slowly adding the variations and intonations that would make that particular piece of music part of his or her life to be passed on to the next generation.
The little music group consisted of piano, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and, substituting for Jeremiah on the fiddle, Sammy, who, despite tears cascading down his cheeks, was doing an admirable job with the music. The assembled congregation joined in choruses and other places where it was appropriate, interspersing the music with a periodic loud "amen" when a particular piece or phrase inspired them as it touched the deep emotion pervasive throughout the church.
The preacher presiding over the service, clad in a black, very worn clerical robe, worn thin by use after serving this little congregation and community for many years, (Jeremiah's great uncle), told Jeremiah's story, as only a loving uncle could. Jeremiah's story was a story of his birth, baptism in this very church, his marriage to Jenny and the birth and baptism of their sons. The good reverend spoke softly, with eloquence and deep love, of Jeremiah's excellence in school, his ambition to do as no one else in his family ever done, attend college after his stint in the service. But the deepest emotion, the most heart-rending portion of Jeremiah's story, involved his love of singing, playing the hill tunes, not only with his group, but also for family, friends, and for his church as his skill with the fiddle and his deep baritone voice moved listeners to tears of sadness, then brought them back to foot-tapping, hand-clapping unbridled joy! Jeremiah was so special, the preacher relayed to the knowing congregation, he captured everyone's heart from early on in his short life, always to be counted on to do what was right and just for the occasion.
After the final song was played and sung, the military pall bearers rose to carry Jeremiah to his place in the graveyard, the preacher extended his hands in the air over the casket to offer his final blessing, stopped momentarily, and wiping his tear-filled eyes with handkerchief, spoke lovingly to the body enclosed in that cold metal container.
"Nephew, you sang so many people to their grave in your short life, but I'm afraid I just can't do it for you now." He choked a bit, swallowed hard, sighed with renewed effort to continue with his blessing, when a voice from the rear of the church proclaimed, "I can!"
A young lad, light brown in color, comely, spare in stature, light of weight, walked purposely down the short aisle to the front of the church, all eyes upon him as he neared the waiting catafalque.
"Who is he?" Frank whispered to me.
"Don't know his name, but he goes to our school. I think he's a couple of years younger than us. I think his mom works with mine at the hospital. I'll ask her a later."
"He's a good looking young stud," murmured Frank, "probably with a cock the size of my arm." I jabbed him in the ribs and reminded him we were in church. He just shrugged and added, "Well, I'll bet he does!"
The young man approached the casket-laden bier silently, standing for a moment before Jeremiah's casket, looked for approval from the soldiers standing at the ready, and receiving a nod of approval, reached out with both hands, placed them on the casket, and addressed the now silent body of Jeremiah Jackson Tolliver residing within, saying tenderly,
"You sang for my Daddy when he died and now I sing for you," and began to sing.
His voice, full, sweet, strongly tenor, reached out to the congregation, to the very heavens, as he did more than an adequate justice to Dorsey's "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." Singing without accompaniment, his voice carried the very emotions of the day, expressing the love of family, friends, congregation, all of Nodaway Ridge and his own deep-felt grief for the loss they all experienced when Jeremiah Jackson Tolliver died so far from home.
When he finished the last verse, completed the last chorus, letting the final note echo into the surrounding hills, reverberating to the very heavens, he leaned forward, gently placed his lips on the flag covering a friend of all, turned, and walked silently to the back of the church.
The military escort lifted the casket on command and, in a slow, measured cadence, followed the pastor down the aisle of the little church, out the front door to the nearby cemetery grave site. Following Jenny and her boys, her parents and Jeremiah's parents, the congregation gathered with them around the canopied open grave, now resplendent with the flag covered coffin of her husband and the community's hero.
A hush fell over the assembled group as Jenny and family were seated and the pastor opened with a few words of prayer, extended his hands over the casket and pronounced his final blessing for his nephew. The crowd continued in hushed silence while taps was blown, the military escort carefully, reverently folded the flag into its customary triangle shape, and wept silently when the flag was gifted and presented to Jenny. The American Legion firing squad loosed its first volley from shouldered rifles, startling the small babe, Jackson, in his mother's arms and set him shrieking in terror from the noise. His wails appeared to express what so many others felt; the grieving for a father he knew not or ever would!
Jenny's efforts to quell the crying youngster's terror and bring silence to the proceeding were to no avail! The baby continued his lament until my Mom stepped from the crowd, took Jackson from his mother, cuddled him close, and began softly whispering and singing in his ear, calming the distraught child. It was often whispered among the locals that not only was Mom a nurse-practioner and a midwife, but perhaps a conjure woman also. Whether she was or not made no difference; she was there when needed, to heal the sick, deliver their babies, and give comfort and relief to the dying.
After the graveside service, Pastor announced the family would welcome all to a luncheon at the American Legion Hall in Nodaway Ridge, since the church basement was too small to accommodate the many, with refreshments provided by the church ladies and neighbors. People began moving toward their vehicles and Frank, walking with me on the way to the pickup truck, asked, "Should we ask Sammy to ride with us? He looks so low he could sit on a sheet of toilet paper and still have room to swing his feet."
"Nah," I responded, "he's got to be with family right now. We'll see him in town at the Hall."
With a wave of my hand to Mom, Grandpa and Grandma Harris, who were also preparing to leave, and receiving an acknowledging wave from them, I climbed in behind the steering wheel of the truck while Frank occupied the "shotgun" position of the seat. We fell into line with the procession of vehicles winding its way down the narrow, dusty country road toward Nodaway Ridge. We decided not to slip away this trip, even though Frank cupped my crotch and massaged it gently, but instead go to the luncheon and give Sammy our support.
The Literary works of Nicholas Hall are protected by the copyright laws of the United States of America and are the property of the author.
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