My Life So Far…

By Jeffrey L. Carrier

I have always thought that a memoir should be written by someone who was living a very exciting life, someone who was a brilliant writer, an expert on world affairs and domestic politics, an intellectual, a politician, teacher, a poet or an accomplished performer or singer. I am none of those things. My life has been extraordinarily ordinary. The half-way point of my life passed long ago and I haven’t held office, raised a family, made a lot of money or become well known.  I haven’t even had a successful relationship. But I have been in love, held down a series of jobs, owned homes, traveled a bit, been happy and been unhappy.

No one knows my life better than me. The memories I’ve accumulated will die with me unless I write them down, so while my memory is still reliable and before I forget, I have made a record of what I have seen and what I have felt and what I have thought. I’ve also written about some of the people I’ve known, people who have played a role in making me the person I am today… friends, relatives, lovers and a movie star!

I was born in the proverbial buckle of the Bible Belt, the only son of a Baptist preacher and yet I grew up to be a gay Democrat. How could that happen? As I approach my 60th birthday, I still don’t know the answer to that question, but my life has unfolded in a way that seems very natural to me. Perhaps it was always my destiny.

As a child in a small town, many problems of the world were unknown to me. I did not know that people were treated differently because of their skin color. As I was growing up, I was not exposed to racism, but it must have been there, under the surface. I did not hear the “N word” until I was in the third grade. A very pretty Black girl was in my class and one day I overheard some other students taunting her and calling her that terrible name. The teacher must have heard, but she said nothing.

I did not know what the word meant and when I got home from school that day, I asked my mother. She looked at me with a combination of anger and surprise, but then she took me in her arms and started singing softly.

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.

And then she said that if Jesus loves all children, no matter what color their skin is, we should, too. I have never forgotten her words.

There were a few Black students in my high school. They were the star athletes, and very popular. I wish I had gotten to know them. I did get to know a Black family who attended our church. Clarence and Martha Lee were wonderful people and they had two darling children, Lynetta and Daniel.

Martha was member of the choir and my father loved her voice, a rich and warm contralto. She was every bit as good as Mahalia Jackson, and dad would often ask that she sing a solo during the worship service. She always chose a negro spiritual, with her husband accompanying her on piano and harmonizing.  She would belt out those songs with a big smile on her face and the chorus of “amens” was deafening! Her favorite was It’s Gonna Rain and I loved to watch my father as she sang that rousing song. It was not easy for for him to sit still. He wanted to jump out of his chair, and start shouting!

They seemed to be loved by everyone in the church, although I do remember hearing one ugly comment. One Sunday, as everyone was leaving after the benediction, an older woman said to my father “I thought the coloreds had their own church. Why is that family here?” My father looked a little surprised, but then said “All of God’s children are welcome here at First Baptist.”

I later learned, however, that certain people were not welcome at the church. Members of the LGBTQ community were not invited to attend services.

Learning to be comfortable as a gay man was a long process and I had to let go of so much that I had learned in church as a preacher’s kid. The Baptists can be very close-minded and unforgiving about such things and in order to preserve my sanity, I had to leave that church and dismiss some of its teachings. But growing up in a Christian home taught me to be kind to other people and to appreciate God’s wonderful creation. I can feel His presence all around me. As Emily Dickinson said so poetically:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –

I keep it, staying at Home –

With a Bobolink for a Chorister –

And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some periods of my life were much easier to write about than others. It was not easy to re-live the months of my mother’s illness and death when I was 14, and even harder to write about my father’s second marriage. My mother was kind and sweet and loving, a gentle and caring woman who seemed to be liked by everyone, but my step-mother was her opposite, a woman who was cold and overbearing. Much to the surprise of everyone who knew him, my father married less than five months after my mother died, which profoundly changed my life. My step-mother seemed to delight in putting me down and it has been very difficult to be kind when writing about her. Perhaps she was embittered because of a philandering first husband and two children who were involved with drugs. Perhaps she took out her unhappiness on me. She also demanded my father’s full attention, pulling him away from me. It took more than ten years for us to become close again. Fortunately, by the time he died, our bond had strengthened.

His death at age 57, when I was 28, was almost as hard as losing my mother had been. He had been a pastor for 35 years and was beloved by his congregations. So many people attended his funeral that the over-flow crowd had to sit in the church gymnasium and watch the service on a closed-circuit TV. I have never stopped missing him.

Having to live at home during my high school years was difficult, but I made it through because of the love and support of friends, especially two older women who treated me with more kindness than I probably deserved. One was Mary Whitton, a no-nonsense woman in her 70s who always listened with concern as I talked about the situation at home. She had adored my mother but never warmed to my step-mother. On the day of the wedding, she said to dad, “don’t get her pregnant. At her age, she’ll have an idiot!”

And Bulah Vaught had been my sitter when I was a baby and became a sort of second mother. Whenever I felt depressed or unhappy, she would bolster my self-confidence and lift my spirits. When my father started dating the woman who became his second wife, Bulah warned me that trouble was ahead. I loved those two women, and love them still, decades after their deaths.

I especially liked sharing the stories of my two grandmothers. They were very different in temperament, one like sugar and the other like vinegar, but I was fond of them both and enjoyed being with them. They had both been married to alcoholics, which influenced their thinking and the way they related to their children. My Grandfather Huff was a “mean drunk” who would lash out in anger when intoxicated, sometimes abusing his family. I never heard any stories of my Grandfather Carrier striking his wife or children. It seems that he was just a sloppy drunk who was unable to hold a job for very long and could not properly support his family. Grandmother Huff eventually divorced her husband and Grandmother Carrier was widowed, but they both loved their husbands, and apparently had no interest in looking for romance when their marriages ended.

Not only did they have alcoholic husbands in common, but they both started working late in their lives, after their children were grown. At the age of 60, having never had a job in her life, Grandmother Huff went to work at the local elementary school as a cook and server, a job she loved! In her innocent way, she thought she could continue working even after turning 65, as long as she didn’t tell anyone how old she was. She didn’t realize that her employment application included her date of birth, and when she learned that her job was being terminated, she was furious and thought that her next-door neighbor (who was also employed at the school as a cook) had revealed her age to the school principal. She feuded with that particular neighbor for several months.

When she was widowed quite suddenly in 1951, Grandmother Carrier needed to find a way to earn enough money to keep the bills paid. At first, she worked as a church janitor, but was eventually able to get her name on a list of substitute teachers for the Carter County School System. She did not drive so she could only substitute at one school which was within walking distance, but she was kept busy. There was no mandatory retirement age for that particular profession and she was still being asked to fill in for absent teachers as she neared 70. I remember as a very small boy sitting next to her one day in a first-grade classroom. It’s hard for a four-year-old to sit still for hours at a time, and I remember my grandmother speaking sharply to me when I started squirming.

I wish my grandmothers were still here, but they live on in my memories and in the words of the memoir.

In reviewing my life, it was easy to see that more women than men have had an impact on my thinking, and at the top of the list is Miriam Hilton, who inspired me with her selflessness and goodness and unparalleled kindness. I met her when I was 20 and we remained very close for the next 38 years, until she died in 2021 at the age of 96. I learned so much from her, primarily that the key to happiness is love (both giving and receiving) and putting the needs of others before your own. She practiced what is known as the “Social Gospel,” a religious philosophy that aims to apply Christian ethics to social problems, especially economic equality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tension and the dangers of war. Knowing her also influenced me politically and after being apolitical for most of my young years, I realized that my way of thinking was aligned with the Democratic Party.

As I examined my years of living, I realized that the period in which I was probably the happiest, and certainly the most productive, was from the mid 1980s through the mid 1990s. By the time I was 30, I had achieved some success as a newspaper reporter, had written two books, had worked with silent film star Patsy Ruth Miller on her autobiography, had made a record of all the cemeteries in my home county in Tennessee, had met and become friends with my two favorite authors (William K. Everson and Jerry Vermilye), had assisted biographer Anne Edwards in researching the life and career of Barbra Streisand, was briefly hired by Kathleen Tynan to do research for a screenplay and had signed contracts for two additional books. And I was living in New York City, which had been a dream of mine for many years.

But just as I was nearing 30, the trajectory of my life was altered. My father died, I had to extricate myself from a disastrous relationship and I changed careers. I was no longer able to devote time to the writing and had to give up the contracts for additional books. My confidence had been damaged and I never wrote professionally again. It was as though a light within me dimmed and hasn’t burned brightly since. Maybe there is still enough time to get the blaze of creativity going again.

But I did find happiness in other areas. I have never measured success by the size of my bank account or the number of rooms in my home. All I’ve ever wanted is to be happy and to feel that I am making a difference in someone’s life, and hopefully leaving a few signs behind that I have been here. I used to yearn for a loving and long-lasting relationship but that dream has eluded me. I’ve had four partners, but those relationships eventually fell apart and the fault was probably my own. I have never been able to totally open myself up to someone else. I have always kept a part of my heart locked, and that door has been closed for so long I doubt it will ever be opened. I’m a very private person and that does not work very well in a romantic partnership.

Being self-employed for the last 20 years has allowed me to live in different states, explore new horizons, meet interesting people and discover new passions. I joined two choral groups while living in Michigan and loved the experience of learning the music and performing for smiling audiences. I cannot read music and have to rehearse a lot, but those years of being part of the music community were enormously rewarding.

Looking back through the years of my life, I can say that the sun has shone on my face more than clouds have darkened my skies. My life hasn’t turned out quite the way I thought it would when I was 20 or 30, but it has been a fascinating journey of being and becoming. And the road still stretches out before me, leading me onward into areas yet to be explored. And life would not be any fun if we knew ahead of time every twist and turn in the road. Life does not come with a map. It is constantly changing and surprising us . And hopefully reading the stories of my life will be surprising and entertaining and maybe enlightening. They do not follow a particular pattern and are not in chronological order. They bounce bath and forth between the years and experiences of my life, but at the end, I hope the pieces fall into place and create a mosaic of memories that help to explain who I am.

After spending a year looking backward, it is time now to look forward. Thank you for being with me on the journey through my life so far.

The stories that follow, as well as more than twenty others, have been collected in a book called At the Corner of Guilt and Delight — Growing Up Gay in a Small Southern Town, which is available through Author House, Amazon and other booksellers.

Where the Dead Lie Sleeping

“Ouch!” I exclaimed as I tried to extract myself from a thicket of hawthorns. I had been climbing up a steep hill when I lost my balance and fell backwards.

When I noticed the specks of blood where thorns had pierced the skin of my arm, I wanted to turn around and go back down the hill. I was not sure that visiting the cemetery at the top of the hill was worth the effort. It was still a considerable distance to the top, and it looked like an area of rough climbing was ahead. I was tempted to give up.

The date was October 29, 1979. It was late in the afternoon, an afternoon very warm for autumn, making it an ideal day for cemetery hunting, a hobby I had begun just a few months earlier. Actually, it was more than a hobby; It was an important project.

On July 2 of that year, I had spent more than an hour in the old Donnelly Cemetery on North Church Street, just beyond the city limits of Mountain City, Tennessee. In my hand was a stack of index cards and as I stopped at each grave stone, I wrote down the name, date and epitaph.  Later at home, I alphabetized the cards, pulled my father’s old manual typewriter out of the closet and typed up the information. I was determined to make a record of every tombstone in every cemetery in the county. It was my father’s idea.

He was not only a preacher but also an amateur historian, and he had discovered how important old cemeteries are as records of people who were long gone. In 1975, when he was writing his masters thesis about the history of Baptists in Upper East Tennessee, he spent a lot of time researching the early years of the Mountain City First Baptist Church, where he was pastor. It had been founded in 1794 and the first meeting house was on the north fork of Roan Creek at the foot of Rainbow Mountain. Dad found references in old records to a cemetery next to the church and he was determined to find it.

He finally located an elderly man who lived near the site of that first church building who remembered seeing tombstones.

“I’ll be glad to take you to the spot,” he told my father. “I haven’t been over there in a long time, but the stones are still standing and you can even read some of the names.”

It was on a Saturday morning when my father went looking for the old cemetery. He took me along and even though I was just a kid, I was well aware of my father’s excitement. He was especially hoping to find the grave of the church’s first pastor, James Tompkins.

The old man met us in front of his small house and led us on foot across the road and into a field. He used a cane made out of an old hickory limb, but maintained a steady pace as we traipsed through the tall weeds still damp with the morning dew. We passed a thick grove of trees and then he suddenly stopped. A large swath of the field had been scraped and scarred by the sharp blade of a bulldozer, which was still parked at the edge of the woods. The land was obviously being prepared for a house.

The stones were right over there,” the old man said, pointing his cane toward one edge of the bulldozed area. “I’m positive they were right there, two short rows of them.”

There was no sign of them, and my father’s disappointment weighed heavily on him. As we walked slowly back to the car, his head was bowed and he did not speak. “How could that happen?” he kept saying as we drove home. “How could someone destroy those graves?”

A few years later, in the summer of 1979, no doubt still smarting over the destruction of that ancient cemetery, he told me that the older grave yards in the county would one day disappear and if no one made a record of the names, that information would be lost forever.

“I think it would be a good thing for you to do,” he said. “Go to every cemetery you can find and write down everything… every name, every date and even the epitaphs. You will be making a valuable contribution to the history of this county. And this is the perfect time for you to do it, while you are young and have the time and energy.”

Perhaps my father was worried that I had reached an age where I might get into trouble and wanted to keep me occupied. I had just turned 16, and spending hours in cemeteries is not something teenagers like to do, but for some strange reason, the project did appeal to me.

Beginning on that summer day in 1979, I spent the next six years visiting the cemeteries and grave yards of Johnson County, Tennessee. And on a chilly March day in 1985, when I finished gathering information from several graves in the Forge Creek area of the county, near Nelson Chapel, I had been to more than 300 burial sites and recorded 8,928 names. A fascinating project had come to an end.

During the first couple of years, not many people knew what I was doing. I was a little embarrassed to talk about the hours I was spending among the departed. If someone asked about weekend plans, I’d offer some quip about working on a book. “It has numerous plots,” I’d say with a smile. “And everyone dies at the end!”

The first time I received any attention was in June of 1981 when a reporter from the Johnson City Press Chronicle named Paul Mays called me. He had heard that a teenager was making a record of cemeteries and was curious. “Is that true?” he asked. When I admitted that it was, he drove two hours to our house and interviewed me. I was thrilled! I didn’t ask how he had learned of my unusual pastime, but I suspect my father was responsible.

The first publicity I received for the cemetery project.

When the article appeared, the phone rang off the hook, with people asking when the information would be available and to let me know about old and forgotten cemeteries behind barns, on hilltops and in woodland clearings. So many gravestones would have been missed if not for those phone calls.

Perhaps feeling a little annoyed because I had not let her know first, Gladys McCloud, who wrote a column for our local paper, interviewed me for a feature article that appeared a month later.

“Jeff isn’t interested in becoming a grave digger,” Mrs. McCloud wrote, “but he does spend a lot of time in cemeteries. And he isn’t looking for ghosts. He’s making a census of the dead, which does sound like a morbid hobby.”

The older people in the community were very supportive, and I was even invited to become a member of the local historical society, but I did get a lot of kidding from my young friends. “I always knew you were weird,” laughed one of my schoolmates, “but you are even weirder than I thought!”

I spent many hours among the tombstones. Some cemeteries were large and still in use, the grounds well-tended while others were small and forgotten, many at the head of hollers or in thick forests, the gravestones neglected and obscured by vines and weeds. I even discovered some graves that were all alone. I searched for those old cemeteries in all seasons, sometimes on hot days and occasionally on cold winter afternoons with flurries of snow in the air. I didn’t mind the cold and learned that rubbing a little snow in the grooves of the oldest stones made them easier to read.

I did prefer to do my cemetery hunting in the summer, when the weather was warm. 1981 was an especially busy summer for seeking out old cemeteries, and when I look over the records for that project, I see that I visited nineteen graveyards during that summer. Most of them are a blue in my memory, but I remember two of them vividly.

One cemetery I visited was just outside of Mountain City in Doe Valley. I could see the gravestones from the highway, grouped together on a small hill next to a stand of tall white pines. The cemetery was obviously on private land, so I stopped at a house near the bottom of the hill and knocked on the door. It was opened by an elderly man who squinted at me and spoke in a quivering voice. When I asked about the cemetery on the hill, he offered to take me there.

“I haven’t seen those graves in a long time,” he told me. “My mother and father are up there, and a brother and sister who died when they were small. I want to visit them one last time before I die.”

He clutched my right arm with a shaky hand as we slowly made our way through a field and along a fence of rusted barbed wire until we came to a rickety gate, which he unlatched. We followed a narrow path that led upward along the side of the hill until it reached the grove of pine trees. In a small clearing that was open on one side, toward the highway down below, were two rows of old tombstones, battered by decades of rain and snow and sun. Some were leaning, struggling to remain upright. I jotted down the names as he stood silently for a moment at each grave, honoring the memory of his loved ones. We did not speak, but I thought I saw a tear finding its way through a deep winkle in his face.

When we made it back to his house, he reached out with both hands and grabbed one of mine, shaking it firmly. “Thank you, young man,” he said. “I feel at peace now.”

A month or so later, I saw his obituary in the local paper.

I was at the other end of the county a few days later, near the North Carolina line, searching for an old cemetery that was supposed to be above an abandoned house on a hill at the edge of a forest. After a few wrong turns, I finally found it by turning off the paved road and onto a narrow, graveled lane barely wide enough for my two-door Ford Mustang. A mile or so further on, I spotted the forlorn house with its broken windows, roof of rusted tin and vine-covered walls. I could see the cemetery on the hill, overgrown with weeds and saplings. I had to walk though a field to get there and the grass was waist-high, but onward I went until i reached the old graveyard. It was very quiet, the only sound being two crows in the distance squawking angrily at each other. I had to tamp down the high weeds and push back the branches of small tree to get a good look at the stones. They were very old but still fairly easy to read. When the task was complete, I headed back down the hill toward the road where my car was parked, pushing my way through the tall grass and hoping I would not encounter a slithering snake. Heaving a great sigh, I finally stepped out of the weeds and onto the gravels… but wait… what are those dark spots on my jeans? Dozens of small brown ticks were slowly crawling up both legs, and I discovered several more on one side of my shirt! With a loud shriek of terror, I ripped off the shirt and took off my jeans as quickly as I could. I also removed my socks and shoes. Barefoot and wearing only a pair of Fruit-of-the-Looms, I jumped into my car and sped off, leaving a pile of crumpled, tick-infested clothed in the middle of the road! Driving home as quickly as possible, I was hoping and praying that I could make it home without being stopped. By sheer luck, I made it, and slipped silently into the house.

I did have a few other unpleasant experiences; I once disturbed a yellow jacket nest and had to endure their painful stings as I fled. I did not return to that cemetery until later in the fall, when the bees were sleeping deep in their earthen nest. I also encountered snakes, mostly harmless black snakes who regarded me curiously as I walked by, but once I did see a copperhead, which I chased away by striking it with a rock. I did not think about wild animals, but I did once have to sneak past an angry bull as I looked for an old family cemetery in a cow field.

The oldest cemeteries were often a collection of sinkholes, rectangular in shape and sometimes quite deep. The old wooden coffins were not enclosed within a concrete vault as they are today, and had rotted over the decades, the ground sinking as the top of the coffins collapsed. Many of the gravestones had toppled into the holes and I had to crawl down into the deep crevices to read the names. Most of those graves were in isolated cemeteries, far from any road, and I had visions of myself getting trapped in one of those old sunken grave sites and never being found, my bones mixing with the remains of the original occupant.

I learned to appreciate so much about life by visiting the graves of the dead. I was moved whenever I’d find the grave of a child, and there were so many of them. Child mortality was a serious problem in centuries past and there was nothing more tragic than finding a row of small stones marking the resting places of children from the same family. It’s hard to imagine the numbing grief of parents who had to watch their children die, one after the other.

Spending so much time in cemeteries also gave me a philosophical attitude about death. In each cemetery I found the graves of the rich and the poor, often side by side. Death is the great equalizer and people who may have been enemies in life are resting near each other in death. The many differences between people in life are erased when they die. And I was reminded over and over how short life can be, each moment being an opportunity to learn and love and make a difference. Time is too precious to be wasted.

How I spent my free time from 1979 to 1985.

My exploration of the county cemeteries also helped my father fill in a missing branch of his family tree. He knew that the first wife of David Alvin Carrier, his great uncle, was from Johnson County and had died young, but he did not know her name or where she had been buried. One afternoon when I was pushing away the weeds from some badly worn stones in a very old cemetery near Dug Hill Road in the community of Cracker’s Neck, I saw the name “Carrier.” There she was, my father’s great aunt. Sarah H., daughter of A.S. and C.M. Snyder, had died on December 7, 1912 at the age of 36. And next to her was the grave of a child, Sallie, daughter of D.A. and S.H. Carrier, who was born on November 5, 1912 and died on October 15, 1914, before she was two years old. My father knew that his great uncle and aunt had three sons, but he did not know they also had a daughter, and that Sarah had died only a month after the little girl was born.

The stones of my distant relatives were simple, with only the names and dates listed, but so many others from that era were etched with flowery epitaphs. One of them made a great impression on me. “Our mournful years fly quickly past. Our joyful days and hours are few. We must all slumber here at last. O may our God our hearts renew.”

There were also others that moved me.

“Tis hard to break the tender cord when love has bound the heart. Tis hard, so hard, to speak the words, we must forever part.”

“As a fair maid, we shall again behold her, clothed in celestial grace. With all the beauties of her soul expanded, standing before her father’s face.”

“One by one earth’s ties are broken, as we see our love decay. One by one our hopes grow brighter, as we near the shining shore. For we know across the river, wait the loved ones gone before.”

And my favorite: “Remember friends as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I. As I am now, you soon shall be. Prepare for death and follow me.”

After I walked out of that cemetery in March of 1985 and typed the final name on the final page, I was faced with the chore of getting that enormous amount of information into print.  I thought I had found every tombstone in the county, but I have discovered that I did miss at least one cemetery and perhaps others as well. When my father saw the bundle of pages, he said, “you’ve done well, my son.”

Perhaps I could have submitted the information to a publisher of academic material, but I decided to have it printed myself. My father was not a rich man, and I was a 22-year-old with an anemic bank account, so I had to look for a printer who could produce the book cheaply, as I could not afford good quality paper or a firm binding. I wanted a photo of a cemetery on the cover, but that was too expensive, so I sketched some old tombstones instead.

I chose Upon a Lonely Hill as the title, and it was ready for distribution by the middle of October of 1985. Despite the inexpensive production, it was a very handsome book, which pleased me enormously. Only 1,000 copies were printed, and I had not even finished paying off the bill by the time the print shop closed a few years later. All the copies were eventually sold and I have been grateful for the many comments I have received over the years from people who have found the book helpful as they research their family history. I doubt there are many copies from that original printing still extant, as the pages started coming loose almost immediately. Fortunately, there was a limited re-printing in 2012, with a much sturdier binding.

This photo was used to announce the book’s publication.

As I held the first copy in my hand, I thought back to that October day in 1979 when I was tired and scratched by thorns and almost gave up. Fortunately, I didn’t. After taking a few minutes to catch my breath and remove a couple of thorns from my skin, I climbed to the top of that hill. By the time I reached the cemetery, the sun was sinking toward the western horizon, casting deep shadows under the tall white pines and the autumn-tinted beeches and oaks.

It was the kind of graveyard seen in horror movies. The stones were making a valiant effort to stand upright, many of them leaning in various directions. The tombstones were ornate, carved out of fine marble, unlike the simple stones I had found in most other cemeteries. And the graves were contained within a very old and rusted wrought iron fence, with tall pointed posts like upended spears. The forest had invaded the cemetery, with large trees growing next to the graves, their gnarled roots wrapping around many of the stones. An occasional breeze would bring down a shower of red and yellow leaves, creating a very mysterious scene, and a bird was making a mournful sound somewhere close by.

I managed to climb over the fence and start writing down the information. Other than a few stones with names like Hutchinson and Greever and Johnson, the most common name was Wagner. I quickly figured out that it was the family of Matthias M. Wagner and his wife Mary. I also located a few of their children who had died in the late 1800s. Judging by the quality of the stones and the poetic epitaphs, it was obvious that the Wagners were a family of considerable means.

Every time I visited a cemetery, I always stood in silence for a little while, paying respect to all those who were laid to rest there, and as I was spending the last few minutes in that cemetery thinking about the Wagner family and wondering about their lives, a sudden wind whipped along the ground, picking up the freshly-fallen leaves and pushing them against one end of the fence. When the gust had passed and an eerie calm settled in, I noticed that the wind had uncovered a stone that had fallen over and was lying face-down against the hard ground. I had not seen it before as it was hidden under a thick layer of leaves. I turned it over and rubbed off the dirt. The writing slowly became visible.

“Sacred to the memory of James F. Wagner, fourth son and sixth child of M.M. and M.S. Wagner. Born Friday, June 30, 1837. Died Friday, April 13, 1855. Aged 17 years, 9 months, 14 days. Vita amatus, et letho lamentatus.”

I had to smile a little, as it seemed to me that Matthias and Mary Wagner were pleased that I was there, visiting their resting places, and didn’t want me to miss the grave of their son who had died so young.

I often think about that old cemetery and wonder if a sudden wind stirs the autumn leaves, uncovering the names of those buried there so long ago.

The Woman who Flew a B-17

On a hot September day in 1923, in the rural community of Butler, in east Tennessee, 8-year-old Geneva Slack was playing with her doll in the shade of an old walnut tree on her family’s farm. It was a quiet, peaceful day with crickets chirping in the grass, honeybees buzzing lazily around the daisies and birds tweeting sweetly in the branches. Suddenly a loud roar pierced the stillness, frightening the little girl. It took her a few seconds to realize it was coming from high above her in the sky. She ran out into the field and looked up in time to see a large object fly over, making a loud noise and leaving a thin trail of white smoke.

“It looked like a giant bird, a big, beautiful metallic bird,” she told me, almost sixty years after that eventful afternoon. “I ran into the house and asked my father what it was. He said it was an airplane.”

For the next several days, she looked into the sky and hoped to see another plane flying over. And she wasn’t merely contented to see one; she wanted to be in one, flying it through the clouds, high above the trees and the fields. It became an obsession.

On that summer afternoon almost sixty years later, in 1982, when I met Geneva Slack, she introduced herself as Mrs. Scharlau. “But you can call me Gene,” she added. “You know, like Gene Tierney, the old movie star.”

She had contacted The Elizabethton Star, where I was working as a summer intern in the newsroom, with an idea for a feature story. She said her husband, Robert Scharlau, had lost both of his legs but still managed to run a large farm, even driving the tractor and helping with the harvesting. Our editor asked me if I’d like to interview Mr. Scharlau and write the story. I was 19 and had only been given a few minor assignments, so I jumped at the chance and drove up to Butler. It was easy to find the farm on one of the back roads at the edge of Roan Creek, and it was Mrs. Scharlau who answered the door of the big white house with its expansive front porch.

She led me into the comfortable living room, where I was introduced to her husband. “I know why you are here,” he said. “But I am not the real story in this family. My wife is the one you should interview.”

I looked at him with a puzzled expression as he motioned toward the wall on which several framed photos were hanging.

“Just look around you,” he said. “Go ahead. Take a close look at those pictures.”

It was then that I noticed they were military photos, with women standing next to planes, women in marching formation, women climbing out of fighter jets.  And my eyes fell onto the portrait of a pretty young woman wearing a uniform.

“Is that you?” I asked, turning toward Mrs. Scharlau, and she nodded. She told me the photos were taken during World War Two. “I was a WASP,” she added. “You’ve probably never heard of us, but we played a very important part in the war effort. I don’t think our story has ever been told.”

When I got back to the newspaper office later that afternoon, Rozella Hardin, our editor whom everyone called “Rozie,” asked if I had enjoyed meeting the unusual farmer. “Oh yes,” I said. “He was very nice, but I have a different story. I’m writing about the farmer’s wife.”

Rozie did not seem especially pleased, but did agree to let me write the article with the understanding that I’d go back and talk to the farmer if she didn’t think it was newsworthy. I said that was fine. The next day I handed her the story and waited for her reaction. The way she smiled told me everything I needed to know, and the story appeared in the paper the following Sunday. I did finally interview Mr. Scharlau, but I didn’t get back to their farm until the next summer.

The dream of flying was very unusual for a poor country girl in the 1920s, but Gene was a very determined young lady and never lost sight of her goal. By the mid 1930s she was working at a factory in Johnson City and one day she spotted an announcement in the newspaper.

“A flying school was opening and students were invited to attend,” she told me. “So I applied. The classes were held in the auditorium of a local high school, and when I showed up for the first class, there were three hundred of us, 297 young men and three women!”

It was obvious on the first day that the three women were going to have a difficult time. “We were not taken seriously,” Mrs. Scharlau said. “The male students treated us like sex objects, always making wisecracks, whistling and flirting. And the instructors didn’t have much faith in us, either. I don’t think they knew how to to handle three girls in a such a large group of men. But we stuck it out and worked very hard.”

When the course was over, the ten students with the highest grade point average were given 50 hours of free flying time, which was an invaluable learning experience. Geneva Slack and her two female classmates were three of the ten. She was awarded her pilot’s license in 1938, but female pilots were a rarity. There were very few commercial airlines in the 1930s and they were not hiring women to fly the planes.

“Now that I knew how to fly, and was darned good at it, I wanted to put my skills into practice,” she said. “But I couldn’t get a piloting job, so I had to figure out another way to use my talent.”

Also having an interest in writing, she convinced the editor of the Johnson City Press Chronicle to let her write a weekly aviation column, in which she could discuss the almost daily advancements in the field and promote women pilots. It was called Heard Above the Prop and was eventually picked up by several local papers.

“Amelia Earhart had recently vanished while trying to fly around the world,” Mrs. Scharlau said. “And I used a lot of column space to encourage other women to take to the skies and finish what Earhart had started. I was tempted to try it myself, but I wasn’t prepared to be quite that daring!”

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the United States entered the world war, Miss Slack was no longer satisfied to write her weekly column for the small-town paper. She joined the staff of the Nashville Tennessean as a reporter and also became the public relations officer for the state wing of the Civil Air Patrol.

Her title at the Tennessean was Aviation Editor, but she was also given other challenging duties, which offered her the opportunity to meet and interview important people who were passing through Nashville, including the Prince of Wales and Helen Keller.

“Miss Keller could not see or hear and needed an assistant to interpret my questions and her responses,” Mrs. Scharlau explained. “But I was so fascinated by her lovely face, white hair and clear blue eyes that I kept forgetting to listen to the assistant!”

I was fascinated to learn that her interest in journalism had never waned, and that she had recently completed a biography of a pioneering pilot named Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie “who did more for the advancement of women in aviation than Amelia Earhart. Maybe it will be in print one day, but even if it isn’t, I enjoyed the research and the writing.”

“I’ve also written about my experience as a WASP,” she admitted. “But I don’t think it will ever be published. No one seems to care about us.”

Geneva Slack enlisted in the WASP branch of the military in 1942. The letters stand for Women Air Force Service Pilots. The women were part of a U.S. Army Air Force program that tasked some 1,100 civilian women with noncombat military flight duties during World War II, making them the very first women to fly U.S. military aircraft. During the war, more than 25,000 women applied to be WASPs, 1,074 of them actually graduated and when the war ended in 1945, 916 were on active duty. Geneva Slack was one of them.

“The young women trained for various jobs,” she said. “Some towed targets, others tested aircraft while a few, like myself, ferried aircraft from the factories to the military bases. That was the most dangerous job. The planes only had a few hours of flight time and we were essentially testing them.”

She trained in Sweetwater, Texas and when her training was completed in 1943, as a member of the fifth graduating class, she was stationed in Long Beach, California.

A farmer’s wife when I met her, the former pilot looked back with fondness on her days as a WASP. “Even though the war was an unhappy time for the world, it was a fun time for me,” she said. “I was getting to fly, which was always my first love, and I was helping with the war effort, doing something good for the country and for the men who were risking their lives every day. I was testing the bombers, making sure they were ready for battle. It was a very important job.”

It wasn’t all fun and games, of course. She remembered one day when she and four other girls, in an over-crowded plane, came within ten feet of colliding with a B-13 over Arkansas. “I was lucky,” she said. “I didn’t have many close calls, but a lot of the girls were killed. But it was a risk we were willing to take. Dying for one’s country is an honorable death, even if it isn’t on the battlefield.”

The WASPs were women from all over the United States and from a variety of backgrounds. “In my class, there was a concert pianist, a girl whose brother was the mayor of New York City’s Chinatown and a woman from Chicago who said she had once delivered groceries to Al Capone’s hideout!”

Mrs. Scharlau told me she was very proud of her war service as a WASP. “We were a unique group,” she added. “And we were pioneers, the first women aviators in the US military. When we were flying, we didn’t have radar or advanced technology to guide us. We used an old iron compass and a map. Pilots have it easy today.”

She said that when she and her fellow pilots were doing their work, they were too busy to think about any recognition. But in the years since, she felt that the contribution of the WASPs had been overlooked. “You hear about the WAVEs and the WACs but never the WASPs,” she said, shaking her head. “But there was a time when Hollywood did take notice of us.”

In 1944, a motion picture was released called LADIES COURAGEOUS, which did focus on the women pilots who risked their lives to fly aircraft to the bases. “But it was a bomb if ever there was one,” Mrs. Scharlau confessed with a chuckle. “We were glamorized beyond recognition and the movie didn’t show us flying planes as much as it showed us looking for boyfriends. We were shown kissing men in the cockpits of B-17 bombers, which is a very precarious place to kiss anybody.”

She and a group of other WASPs went to a theater to watch the movie. “We were wearing our uniforms, but as the movie went along, we started sinking lower and lower in our seats,” she told me. “We were embarrassed and hoped that no one would notice us.”

When the war ended and the WASP program was disbanded, Gene and many of her fellow pilots continued working for the government, flying old warplanes to airbases. She remembered one particular assignment that was particularly uncomfortable.

“It was the middle of winter and I was told to fly an old bomber from Ponca City, Oklahoma to an air force base in South Dakota,” she said. “The plane had an open cockpit and before I got to South Dakota, I flew into a blizzard. I had to fly as close to the ground as possible and by the time I reached the base, my hands were so frozen that my fingers had to be pried loose from the controls.”

By 1950 she had flown for the last time and settled permanently on solid ground. But she continued her career as a journalist, first penning articles for the Tennessee Bureau of Aeronautics and then hosting her own radio program called Mike-Flight which was broadcast over NBC. And in the early 1950s, she produced Tele-Flight, a program that aired on one of Nashville’s first television stations.

Another chapter of her life began in 1952, when she married Robert Scharlau and accompanied him to his Army post in Hawaii. From there they lived in Virginia, Texas and Arizona before retiring to Johnson County, Tennessee. “We’ve lived here for almost ten years,” she said. “It’s a quiet peaceful life here. I’ve kept up my writing, and I also paint a little. This is the farm where I was born, so I guess I’ve come full circle.”

As I was leaving, she pointed to a green field beyond the barn.

“Do you see that old walnut tree by the fence? That’s where it all began for me. I still go out there once in a while, lean against the trunk and look up at the sky.”

The Politician

It was a cold day in February 1978 and several inches of snow covered the ground, but the house was warm when I got home from school on a Wednesday afternoon. And the house was buzzing with activity. My step-mother was in the kitchen preparing an elegant meal. The counter was crowded with pans and bowls and plates. Every stove eye was turned on with wonderful aromas emanating from the big pots. Home-made biscuits were in the oven. An important guest was coming for dinner, a Republican candidate hoping to be the next governor of Tennessee.

I didn’t know at the time how unusual it was for my father to embrace a Republican politician. He was a Southern Baptist preacher, but unlike most baptists in the south, he was a Democrat. He kept his political views mostly to himself and tried very hard to keep politics separate from his professional life. Rarely did he mention anything political in his sermons and I am certain that his religious friends and associates assumed he was a Republican.

In the mid 1980s, when the First Baptist Church of Mountain City, Tennessee honored him with a Pastor’s Appreciation Day, a list of his virtues was part of the program, and near the top of the list, in very big letters, was the word “Republican.” I’m sure that amused him and perhaps even embarrassed him a little.

My father practiced something that is very rare in today’s political environment. He voted for the candidate and not the party. If a candidate demonstrated moral integrity and Christian values, that candidate had my father’s support. Most often he voted for the Democrat, but once in a while he voted for the candidate with an “R” by their name.

When my mother died in 1977 and he married Eleanor Snyder Holloway, he joined one of the county’s most hardcore Republican families. He confessed to a reporter in 1982, when being interviewed for a feature article in The Elizabethton Star, “I have accused my wife of trying to convert me. She wants me to be a Republican, but all of my people are Democrats. I have always been a Democrat, and proudly so. However, I have backslid on occasion and voted for a Republican.”

I grew up not knowing very much about politics, as it was something rarely discussed in our home.  My first exposure to the political scene was in the summer of 1968, when one of my father’s friends took me to a political rally at the Bristol International Speedway. The speaker was George Wallace who wanted to be President of the United States. Mr. Wallace is well known as perhaps being the most racist and bigoted presidential candidate in modern history, but as a five-year-old, I knew nothing of his views or policies. What I do remember about that rally are people in the bleachers standing up and shouting over and over “Segregation now and forever!” My father’s friend was a Baptist preacher named Roy Branson. He and his wife, Alice, were also yelling those words and waving their arms in the air.  I didn’t know what the words meant, and I am ashamed to say that I also joined in the chanting. I can only imagine that my parents did not know where the Bransons were taking me when I went to their house to play with their children one afternoon.

The next time I was exposed to politics was in 1973 and 1974, when the Watergate scandal was on the news almost every night. It became obvious to me that Republicans and Democrats did not like each other. When my Grandmother Carrier stayed with us for a short time in the early summer of 1974, recuperating from a heart attack, I asked her why the two parties did not get along. “Republicans would rather throw you in the river than offer a hand to help,” was her reply.

My father was brought up in a family of Democrats and when he turned 18 in 1952 and was able to vote, he cast his first ballot for Adlai Stevenson. He voted for Stevenson again in 1956. Kennedy won his vote in 1960, and he supported Lyndon Johnson in 1964. I do not know my father’s choices in the elections won by Nixon, although I suspect he voted for Humphrey in 1968 and McGovern in 1972. I do know that he was very pleased when Jimmy Carter won the 1976 election and disappointed when he lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980. He wasn’t a fan of Reagan at first, but did support his 1984 re-election. And in 1988, he continued to support the Republican ticket and voted for George H.W. Bush. I am aware of his voting record from reading through the notes and letters he left behind after his death in 1991. He never tried to influence me, allowing me to choose my own political path. I considered myself a Republican when I was a very young person, but was actually apolitical and didn’t even vote until I was nearly 30. By that time, I identified as a Democrat and cast my very first presidential ballot for Bill Clinton.

“To earn my vote, I consider the candidate’s character,” my father told the reporter for the Star in 1982. “And I was pleased to vote for Lamar Alexander as our governor. I think he has done a great job. He has restored confidence to our state government and brought new industry to our state.”

But on that evening in 1978, dad was not sure that Mr. Alexander was the best choice. He had only recently announced his candidacy and his primary opponent was Jake Butcher, a Democrat who had a lot of support. Several years later when Mr. Butcher was prosecuted for bank fraud, I’m sure my father was pleased that he had supported Mr. Alexander.

Lamar Alexander had run for governor in 1974, but had lost to Ray Blanton, who turned out to be one of the most corrupt governors in the state’s history. Blanton was leaving office in disgrace and Tennesseans wanted change. It was the perfect time for Alexander to try again for the top seat in Tennessee government. And when he launched his campaign, his strategy was genius!

He put on a red and black checked shirt, a pair of khaki pants and hiking boots and started walking.

“When I decided to run again, I looked back over the 1974 race, which I lost, and figured out what I could do better,” he said in an interview at the time. “I realized that I had not given the people a chance to know me, and I had not taken the time to know them. I needed to get out and meet people, the farmers, the lawyers, the factory workers. And walking was the obvious way to do that.”

He must have also wanted to meet preachers because, as he walked from town to town, from one end of the state to the other, he made an effort to meet the pastors of small chapels and big churches. He began his walking tour in Marysville, where his parents lived, and then walked east to Mountain City, which took him almost two weeks, averaging ten or 12 miles every day. A few days before he was scheduled to reach my hometown of Mountain City, a member of his team called my father and asked if Mr. Alexander could spend the night at our home. Dad said that he would be welcome.

My step-mother was so excited she had trouble sleeping and spent a great deal of her time preparing for the occasion. By the time the day of his visit finally arrived, the house had been festively decorated, as though the Queen of England was stopping by for tea. Flowering plants had been brought in, as well as a few potted palms. And there had been so much dusting and cleaning that every surfaced glistened. The vacuum cleaner was pulled out of the closet whenever someone walked through one of the carpeted rooms. New towels were purchased for the guest bath and new curtains went up in the guest bedroom. My father was a good sport and helped with the preparations, but he was more comfortable just being himself and didn’t want to put on any airs.

And the meal was sumptuous. The dining room table was extended to its full length and was laden with platters and bowls and serving dishes, all filled with wonderful and aromatic food, including meats and vegetables and breads and salads. Lamps burned softly in the corners of the room and a candelabra cast a lovely glow over the table.

When Mr. Alexander walked into Mountain City very late in the afternoon, my father met him at the Republican party headquarters, where the exhausted candidate was greeted by a cheering crowd. After shaking hands, making a short speech and warming himself by the fireplace, my father brought him home. Also invited to the dinner was Rena Shoun, the Chairwoman of the Johnson County Republican Party. With her white hair and aristocratic bearing, she was a formidable woman. Already in her 80s, she had been the leader of the party in our county since the 1930s. Before any Republican candidate could get a foothold in the county, they had to seek the approval of Mrs. Shoun.

My step-mother had planned the meal carefully, right down to where people would be seated. I remember my father being at one end of the table, and Mr. Alexander at the other, with Mrs. Shoun at his right hand, making it easy for them to talk. Also at the table were my step-mother’s parents, Glenn and Polly Snyder, and a local businessman and his wife, whom my step-mother hoped would make a sizable contribution to the campaign.

Lamar Alexander charmed all of us with his down-to-earth manner and easy-going personality. He regaled us with tales of his journey and the interesting people he was meeting along the way. He enjoyed connecting with people and learning what they liked and didn’t like about government. He talked wistfully about his wife and children, obviously missing them. He said there were a lot of fine people in Tennessee and it would be an honor to serve them as governor.

As I listened to the conversation, I watched my father and could see how much he was beginning to like and respect Lamar Alexander. He had sat down at the table with a few misgivings, but had become a fan and supporter by the time dessert and coffee were served. We all had, especially Mrs. Shoun, who promised that she would do everything possible to make sure he carried Johnson County on election day. “And if you ever want to try for the Big Chair, the one in the Oval Office, let me know,” she grinned. “I campaigned for Dwight Eisenhower and he didn’t do too badly!”

After all the guests had departed and the dishes were washed and put away, Mr. Alexander and my father retired to the den, where they sat talking for hours. The den was directly above my basement bedroom, and I could hear the low mumble of their voices until the wee hours of the morning.

It was my job to rap on the guest room door at 7 a.m. the next day, and I did so nervously, but Mr. Alexander responded politely, thanking me for waking him. He joined us for breakfast and complimented the biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs and sausage. And then he was gone.

He always referred to his campaign as “the long walk from Mountain City to Memphis” and by the time he did reach Memphis a few months and over a thousand miles later, he was lean and suntanned, but he had met thousands of people along the way. Tennesseans had come to regard him as a friend, and on election day, he handily beat Jake Butcher.

And he had not forgotten the night he spent at our home in Mountain City or the long conversation with my father. A few days after his victory, he called dad and asked him to offer the inaugural prayer.

I accompanied my father and step-mother to Nashville for the ceremony on January 20, 1979.  It was held outside, near the center of the city, and although it was a cool day with a light rain falling, the crowd was excited and very enthusiastic, with lots of cheering and applauding. I found a spot near the front and from under my umbrella, I beamed with pride as my father stood at the podium and offered this prayer: “Our heavenly father, today we confess our need for thy eternal presence. As we stand in the threshold of a new beginning, we ask for thy wisdom to guide us, thy love to strengthen us, thy holiness to protect us. We ask thy blessings on thy servant Lamar Alexander. Give unto him the spirit of wisdom. Let integrity and uprightness guard his path. Give him boldness and courage to do thy will. Gracious father, we thank thee for the men and women of every race, class and creed of our state. Grant that we may live in unity and love, willing to learn from one another, caring for one another, giving reverence unto those that have authority over us as thy magistrates of law and tranquility… through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

A couple of months later, the new governor appointed my father to the Juvenile Justice Commission, a position he held for the next four years. My father and step-mother were also guests at the governor’s mansion more than once and when Lamar Alexander ran for a second term, my father supported him without reservation. My father did not live long enough to see Mr. Alexander’s two unsuccessful tries for the presidency or his three terms in congress as a senator, but I am sure he would have supported those campaigns as well. It was not easy for my father to embrace a Republican politician, but Lamar Alexander earned his support, respect and friendship.

After my father’s death I found a folder filled with correspondence, and a couple of years later I decided to contact Mr. Alexander and let him know of my father’s passing. I received a very nice letter in reply.  “Your father made a lasting impression on me,” he wrote. “He was a wonderful person.”

A Tale of Horror on a Warm Afternoon

“May I help you?” asked the woman behind the counter.

When I walked into the small country store to buy a coke and a moon pie, I noticed the dark-haired woman behind the counter but hadn’t really paid any attention to her. But when she spoke, I looked at her with curiosity.

She had an accent, one I had never heard before.  It wasn’t British, but I thought it must be from Europe. Foreign accents stand out in the mountains of East Tennessee, where everyone speaks with a distinct southern drawl.

It was a very warm Saturday in 1983 and I was enjoying a day off from my job as a reporter for the Elizabethton Star. It was my second summer working for the newspaper and it had been a very busy week. A leisurely drive around Watauga Lake near the little town of Butler was just what I needed for relaxing and unwinding. I had turned onto a narrow road that crossed a long bridge and meandered around the base of some very tall hills when I spotted the store up ahead. It was nearing mid-afternoon and I realized that I could use some refreshment, so I pulled into the small parking lot and walked inside. The bell above the door rang merrily as my eyes adjusted to the soft light of the store’s interior.

“I was hoping to get a coke and a moon pie,” I replied.

“Of course,” she answered. “There are some bottles of coke in the cooler and the moon pies are right behind you on the rack.”

There was that accent again, and her voice was low and husky, making everything she said sound mysterious and intriguing. I looked at her more carefully. She was probably about 60, with a face that had obviously been very pretty when she was young. She had dark hair streaked with gray, and it had been pulled back, away from her face, and gathered at the nape of her neck with a small white ribbon.

My curiosity was aroused and I could not resist asking where she had been born. I was learning the work of news reporting and had developed what they call in the business, a nose for news.

“I am from Austria,” she said with a hint of pride, obviously glad that I was interested. “I have been here in the United States since 1947, and behind the counter of this store for almost as long.”

 “You were in Austria during the war?” was my next question.

Her countenance darkened and she closed her eyes for a few seconds, as though trying to obscure the vision of a memory. After a moment, she finally spoke. “Yes, I was there. I have tried to forget those years, but the memories still torment me. Maybe if I talk about that war, I won’t be haunted any longer.”

An hour later, I got into my car and started the motor. But the car just sat there, idling, as I thought about everything she had told me. I then drove back to my little one-room apartment in Elizabethton as fast as I could to put her words on paper. It was a great story. Quite by accident, I had encountered someone who had been a member of the Nazi army!

The following Monday I spent a couple of hours at the newspaper office typing up the story, which I presented to our city editor, Rozella Hardin. “I think you should read this right away,” I said to her. “I hope you’ll agree that it deserves a spot in the paper.”

She agreed, and said it would be on the front page of the Sunday issue, which was an important place for an article to appear. But then I realized that I had not asked the storekeeper if I could publish her story. The memories had poured out of her like a dam bursting, and I had been so caught up in her tale that I didn’t even mention that I was a reporter. I drove back to Butler the following day. She was helping another customer when I walked into the store, but when she spotted me, she smiled. “Have you returned for another coke and a moon pie?”

“I have to be honest with you,” I said when we were alone. “I am a reporter for a newspaper. I work for the Elizabethton Star, and I would like to write about you. Is that OK with you?”

I thought I detected some hesitancy and I began to panic, but then I said that the July 4th holiday was approaching and it would be the perfect story because through her words, we can understand what is so good about America. “You can help us all to be more patriotic,” I told her, and she grabbed my hand. “Oh yes,” she smiled. “I love this country. When I arrived here as a very young woman, after going through that awful war, I wanted to kiss the American soil. Go ahead and put my story in your paper.”

I had brought along a camera and took her picture, but she wanted her husband to be standing next to her. “After all,” she smiled. “He is the reason I am here.” She also gave me a faded snapshot of her wearing a military uniform. “It was my official ID photo. It is probably still in the files somewhere, if any of the Nazi army records survived.”

Austria was “liberated” on a cold March day in 1938. Bordering Germany, the country offered little resistance as the Nazi army marched across the border. Hitler called it liberation, but Hilda Platzer, a 13-year-old school girl in the town of Scharnstein, didn’t feel liberated at all.

“What happened to our wonderful country was a terrible thing,” she told me. “Everything changed overnight. I left school one afternoon, saying ‘treu Osterreich’ to everyone. That means True Austria. But that night, everything changed. Our chancellor, Kurt Von Schuschnigg, addressed the nation on the radio and urged all Austrians to obey the Germans. He said there was nothing anyone could do to prevent the takeover because the Nazi government was too powerful. He ended the broadcast by wishing all Austrian citizens good luck.”

When the young Hilda went to school the next day, most of the teachers were wearing ugly brown uniforms with the swastika. “The teachers who did not wear them, the ones who remained loyal to Austria, were discharged,” she explained. “And at the end of the day, instead of saying ‘treu Osterreich,’ we had to say ‘heil Hitler’ as we left the school.”

She completed her schooling under Nazi rule, graduating from high school in the spring of 1943. Those years, she said, were spent in misery and fear.

“I had to live under Hitler’s cruel hand, hating every minute of it, but not able to say one word against the government,” she told me. “We were forced to walk a narrow line, and if we got off of it, even just a little bit, we suffered and suffered dearly. I couldn’t trust anyone, not even my closest friends, because anything I said against the Nazis would become known.”

I asked if anyone in her family joined the Nazi party.

“No, but we were expected to attend party meetings,” was her answer. “I was always finding excuses not to go. They fed us nothing but propaganda at those meetings, praising Hitler and talking about the battle victories. We knew that most of what they said wasn’t true because we listened in secret to the Allied broadcast over the shortwave radio. It was on every night at nine o’clock.”

“It was against the law to listen to those broadcasts,” she continued. “And we would have been arrested if anyone had found out, but mama turned the volume down so low that it could not be heard outside the window, or even in the next room. I am not sure where those broadcasts came from, probably England, but we knew that we could trust what was being said. We knew it was the truth.”

When Hilda graduated from high school, the war was at its peak. Everyone living in the Nazi controlled region was expected to contribute to the war effort and she found employment in a Nazi government office as a secretary.

“I was constantly under observation,” she remembered. “Several times I discovered that my desk had been searched. I managed to stay out of trouble, but in 1944 I became careless and made a serious mistake.”

Air raids were common and every time the sirens would go off, she and the other secretaries would carry their typewriters down three flights of stairs to the basement.

“One afternoon, American planes flew over,” she said. “We had all learned to recognize the American planes when we heard them, and instead of carrying my typewriter downstairs, I walked over to a window and watched the planes going over our city. I thought that I was alone and, thinking out loud, I said, ‘Ich hoffe, die Jungs schaffen es nach Hause, um ihre Mütter zu sehen‘ … I hope those boys will get home to see their mothers. But I was not alone. One of the bosses heard me. ‘What did you say?’ he asked me, and when I did not answer, he said, ‘One more outburst like that and you will find yourself in a work camp!’ “

She was careful not to say anything else that would offend her bosses, but the damage had been done. A month later, in November of 1944, she received an official letter from the government. She was conscripted into the Nazi army.

“I’m sure I was being punished, but I really wasn’t surprised,” she said, remembering that day. “They were drafting everybody, old men who had been in the First World War and young boys, who were called Hitlerjugend… Hitler’s Youth. Even my father had been drafted when he was 40, in 1942, so why not take a 19-year-old girl?”

Leaving her mother at home alone, she reported to Vienna on January 1, 1945, as ordered. She was assigned a uniform and, by way of Prague, ended up in Olmutz, in what is now the Czech Republic.

“It was near Auschwitz,” she said, “that terrible place where so many Jews were gassed and their bodies burned. We noticed an awful smell in the air, but we didn’t know what it was. At that time, we did not know the horrible things that were happening there.”

Her job for the army was supposed to be in communications, but she was never trained in that or any other field.

“There was no time to be trained,” she remarked. “The war was beginning to wind down by that point. The Nazis were losing and we were always running from the Russians. We were terrified of them, but if someone was captured, they were treated better if they were Austrian. The Germans who were captured by the Russians had a rough time.”

Her memories of those final months of the war were particularly poignant. “The conditions were very poor, but we were young and our bodies could stand it. The hardest part was having to leave so many people behind when we evacuated an area. They were mostly old people and young children, sick and too old to run or fight, and we had to leave them behind to face an almost certain death. It was horrible,” she said and took a moment to gather her thoughts. “But there was nothing we could do. Those were very bad days.”

After a few weeks of eluding the Russians, she found herself in an all-girl military camp near Nuremberg, in Germany.

“One night, while a group of us were in Nuremberg getting supplies, the city was bombed!” She said, and added, “There were explosions and buildings were flattened. I can still hear the sounds of those explosions, and the horrible screaming!” She shuddered and sighed heavily. “And when the worst of it was over, we re-grouped. We were all there and OK, although shaken and very dirty.”

“But as we were starting back to our camp,” she continued “spitfires flew over and started firing bullets. We had to run and dive into a ditch. We lay there head to foot and kept very still. The girl in front of me raised up and looked back at me. Her name was Helga. ‘I hope you are praying,’ she said, but before she could put her head back down, a bullet hit her and she was dead.”

She said that when the bombardment ended, she cut off her dead comrade’s dog tag but left the body in the ditch. “We had no choice,” she said. “We had to get back to the camp in a hurry and there was no way we could carry a body as it would slow us down.”

In late March, with the Nazi defeat inevitable, the girls were told that the army had been disbanded and they were free to return to their hometowns. “I started home on April 2, 1945,” she said, “but many of the girls had no home to return to, as there had been so much bombing and destruction.”

“I managed to get a train ticket,” she continued. “The train would be leaving from Schwabach, in Germany, but the station was bombed before I could get there.” With a train ticket that was no longer valid, she had to hitchhike back to Austria, and it took her almost two weeks to reach Scharnstein, which had been spared the worst of the bombing and was still intact.

“I had only been gone for three months, but I was so dirty and so thin from hunger that no one recognized me,” she said. “But was happy to be home. The nightmare had ended. My mama was still there, but we never saw papa again. Two weeks later the war was over.”

Not long after, several American servicemen passed through Scharnstein and Hilda caught the eye of one of them, a lanky young man from Butler, Tennessee named Lee Roy Dugger. They married and he brought her to Tennessee, where they lived the rest of their lives on the shore of Watauga Lake, operating a small country store. Lee Roy died in 1999 and Hilda lived to be 91, dying in 2016.

The afternoon that I wandered into her store, she was a contented wife, mother and grandmother, enjoying a quiet life on a Butler back road. But she was still haunted by the horrors of that war.

“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night having nightmares about those years,” she admitted. “But when I look around and realize where I am, I feel calm again. Hitler was evil and made people suffer terribly. We were all afraid, but I am not afraid any more.”

She wiped away a tear and looked at me with a smile. I touched her hand and said, “I hope the nightmares never come again.”

The story was published in the paper on Sunday, July 3rd, and it brought her a great deal of attention, with people driving to Butler to meet her and tell her how much they had been moved by her story.

“I am glad you are here,” one woman said to her. “Welcome to America!”

Remembering Joy

“I’ll be taking the 10:59 train to Katonah,” I said into the phone. “Shall I take a taxi to your house?

“Oh no, dear,” said the voice on the other end. “I’ll be at the station to meet you. You won’t have any trouble spotting me. I’ll be the old lady with white hair.”

It was the spring of 1992 and I was living in New York City. After some effort, I had finally tracked down Joy Hodges, who had appeared in several films in the late 30s, and then headlined a few Broadway musicals in the 1940s and 50s.

I had spent the last few weeks trying to find her because she had given Vincent Price his first on-screen kiss. She had the second female lead in the 1938 comedy, SERVICE DE LUXE, which was Price’s movie debut. They shared several romantic scenes and I was very interested in her memories of that experience. I had recently signed a contract with Greenwood Press to write a book on Vincent Price’s career and was already corresponding with Adam West, Gale Storm, Nan Grey and Phyllis Kirk. Their information was invaluable, but I was determined to find the actress who had been with him at the very beginning.

The internet was not yet available as a resource, so I had to rely on an old-fashioned method — the library! The New York Public Library at Lincoln Center had a very large file on her and I spread out the clippings on a table and studied them carefully. She had started as a band singer for Ozzie Nelson in Chicago, then showed up in Hollywood, where she sang for the Jimmie Grier Orchestra at the Biltmore Hotel. Her name first appeared in a movie cast list in 1935 and for the next five years she appeared in almost 20 films, her name moving higher and higher in the credits until she was the leading lady. In the 1940s, between stints on Broadway, she entertained at the Stage Door Canteen and sang with the Glenn Miller Band.  I found several references to her in the 1950s, mostly relating to television, and she surfaced again in the 1960s starring in the national tour of a play called NEVER TOO LATE and as a guest star in an episode of “Perry Mason.” She ended her career on Broadway, replacing Ruby Keeler in the hit musical NO, NO NANETTE in 1972, finishing the run. I also learned that she had retired to the community of Katonah in Westchester County, just north of New York City. The last of her three husbands had been Eugene Schiess, who had died in 1990. All I had to do was call information, ask for a listing of that name in Katonah and, et voila, within a few minutes I was dialing the number.

When I explained why I was calling, she surprised me by immediately agreeing to be interviewed. “Vincent made quite an impression on me,” she said. “But let’s not talk on the phone. Come up and see me. There are a few trains every day from the city to Katonah.”

As the train rumbled along the tracks, I reviewed a list of questions and was looking forward to the interview. It was a Saturday in May, and the day was sunny and warm. The train pulled into the station just before noon, and even before it came to a stop, I spotted her on the platform. She was dressed in blue, which contrasted beautifully with her white hair. I had not described myself to her, but when she noticed that I was approaching her with an out-stretched hand, she smiled and called out my name.

Being from the south, I was able to use my most gentlemanly manner as I complimented her appearance and opened the car door for her. She had a delightful personality and chatted away in a well-modulated voice that belied her age. I had read that she was from Iowa, where she was born in 1915. As she drove along a winding road, talking in that lovely voice and occasionally turning to look at me with her big blue eyes, I had a hard time believing she was 77 years old.

She took me to her house, a large, sprawling ranch situated above the road and surrounded by a grove of tall trees. I could see an oval-shaped pool on one side as we approached the front door. She led me to a charming room adjacent to the kitchen where several tall windows afforded a great view of a back garden just coming alive with bright red tulips and golden daffodils.

“I thought we’d have sandwiches for lunch,” she said. “I hope you like chicken salad.” I nodded and offered to help. “No, no. Just stay there and I’ll bring the sandwiches over. We can eat at that table by the windows. I hope you don’t mind multi-grain bread, and I have a bottle of that delicious Snapple tea.”

Before I could start talking to her about SERVICE DE LUXE, she began asking me questions. Where did you grow up? What sort of work do you do? Do you believe in God?

I was a bit surprised by the last question, but I assured her that indeed I did, having been brought up in a Christian home. She then talked at great length about her membership in the Church of Christian Science and told me the fascinating story of being converted to that church by Leatrice Joy, the silent film star. “When I got into show business, I chose the name Joy because she had been my favorite movie star when I was a girl. My real name is Eloise,” she explained. “I was thrilled when I got to meet her and we became very good friends. She was a Christian Scientist and the more she told me about it, the more I wanted to be part of that church. I’ve been a member for more than 40 years.”

I had been taught in Sunday School that we are born sinners and have to ask God for forgiveness, but she had a very different viewpoint. “Oh no, dear,” she said. “We are born perfect and it is sin that corrupts us and sickens our bodies.”

The time passed very quickly and suddenly it was late in the afternoon and I had to catch the 4:24 train back to New York. We hadn’t even talked about SERVICE DE LUXE or Vincent Price! I felt disappointed as she drove me back to the station, but she invited me to come back the following Saturday. “I promise we can talk about Vincent then,” she assured me.

And she kept her promise. We spent several hours the next weekend sitting in her living room and talking about the movie they had made together. She had a great deal to say about Vincent Price and sharing a kissing scene with him.

“He was already a star in the theater and I was excited to be making a movie with him,” she said. “I had been in a few films before that but they had all been low-budget productions. SERVICE DE LUXE was an “A” picture. We had a really big star in Constance Bennett, and the supporting cast was top-drawer, including Mischa Auer, Charlie Ruggles and that wonderful Helen Broderick.”

She said it had been a happy set with no problems, and that Vincent Price was a total pro and took to movie-making very easily. “You never would have guessed that it was his first movie,” she said. “He knew his lines and it was a pleasure to work with him. Of course, he wanted to be a success and was trying to please.”

She did chuckle though, when remembering the kissing scene. “Our director made us do it over a few times because Vincent could not keep his mouth shut! I remember the director – I think his name was Rowland Lee – saying ‘OK, Mr. Price, Let’s do it again, and for God’s sake keep your lips together!’ I didn’t mind, really. Vincent was handsome and I probably had a little crush on him.”

I asked if she had kept in touch with him after the film was finished and she said no, regretfully. “But I did see him, once, shortly afterward,” she added “I was having dinner with Janet Gaynor and Adrian at the Brown Derby and Vincent Price came in and joined some people at a nearby table. As he walked by, he noticed me and said hello. As soon as he had passed by, Adrian turned to me said, Joy, you’ve been holding out on us. Who is that gorgeous man?”

The book on Vincent Price was never completed and I ended up canceling the contract, but it was the beginning of a close friendship with Joy Hodges that lasted until she died in 2003. When I learned that she had a winter home in California, near Palm Springs, I arranged to see her when I was out there the following December to visit Patsy Ruth Miller, the silent film actress. Miss Miller and I had worked together on her autobiography and I thought it would be fun to introduce the two former actresses.

Joy joined us for lunch at the Monterey Country Club, in Palm Desert, and as soon as they were introduced, they began chattering like best friends. “I sent you a fan letter in 1929,” Joy said to Patsy. “How sweet,” Patsy responded. “I hope I sent you an autographed picture.”

They had both known Mischa Auer quite well and exchanged humorous anecdotes, laughing merrily. They also talked about Constance Bennett and Cary Grant and George M. Cohan. Joy Hodges had been personally selected by Cohan to appear in his 1937 Broadway musical, I’D RATHER BE RIGHT, in which she introduced the song “Have You Met Miss Jones.” Patsy sat up in her chair. “I saw that show,” she said. “And I remember the girl who sang that song. So that was you, huh?” And they laughed again.

I sat between them at the table, delighted that I had put those two ladies together. It was such fun to watch a friendship taking root.

Joy sold her house in New York in 1993 and settled permanently in the southern California desert. I didn’t see her again for several years, although we exchanged cards every Christmas and occasionally talked on the phone. She invited me to attend the ceremony to unveil her star on the Walk of Fame, but I wasn’t able to be there. And later in the 1990s, after the internet was introduced and eBay was launched, I bought a 1935 78-record of “Old-Fashioned Love” with 20-year-old Joy Hodges providing the vocals. I sent it to her and she called me as soon as she opened the package.

“How did you ever find that recording?” she wanted to know. “I haven’t seen it in years! That is the record that put me on the map and got me a contract at RKO. If only I knew where to find a machine that can play a 78!”

She and Patsy remained good friends and saw each other often. Patsy had a cook and housekeeper named Gloria, a feisty but delightful woman who took very good care of the former silent movie star. And when Patsy died in 1995, Joy asked Gloria to work for her. It was Gloria who called me in the summer of 2000. “Joy is not in good health and is bedridden,” she told me. “I thought you might want to see her.”

I was living in Portland, Oregon by that time and booking a flight to Palm Springs was an easy task. A week later I was knocking on Joy’s front door, which was opened by a smiling Gloria.

“She’s been waiting for you,” she said. “Her room is at the end of the hall. Go on in.”

I got to the bedroom door and looked in. Joy was propped up in bed, and she was digging through a bejeweled purse. She pulled out a sparkling lipstick tube and touched up her lips, then looked over and saw me. “Oh Jeffrey, you’re here!” she said with a wide smile. “Come closer so I can get a good look at you.”

I sat on the edge of her bed and we began chatting. She was just as charming as I remembered, although her declining health depressed her. “I can’t do much of anything now,” she lamented. “And when I look in the mirror, I don’t even recognize myself.”

I leaned a bit closer to her and said gently. “You are just as beautiful as ever. Your eyes never change. They are as bright and blue as they were when you were a girl called Eloise.”

She grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze.

“I hope you haven’t called a hotel because I want you to stay here,” she finally said. “Gloria can put fresh linens on the bed in the guest room.”

I stayed there for the weekend and spent as much time with her as possible. We watched television, looked through an old photo album (which included snapshots of her old pals Ginger Rogers and Betty Grable and Buddy Rogers and Lucille Ball) and she tried hard to convert me to Christian Science. She even gave me a copy of Mary Baker Eddy’s “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” and wrote on the flyleaf: “For dear Jeffrey. A gift of Love.”

Joy did not discuss the reason she had been confined to her bed, but I learned from Gloria that her knees had become so painful that she could no longer walk. “It’s that damn religion of hers,” Gloria said. “She refuses to see a doctor. She could have knee replacement surgery and she’d be fine but no, she thinks that she has committed some terrible sin and that God is punishing her. She is just gonna stay in bed, praying for a miracle that’s never gonna happen.”

The plane to Portland left on Monday morning, and when I went to Joy’s room to say goodbye, she motioned for me to come near to her, then she pulled my face close and gave me a sweet kiss on the cheek. “I am so glad you came to see me,” she said, her eyes twinkling. “Don’t forget me.” And then from a nearby table, she grabbed an old photo and handed it to me. It was a glamour portrait of Joy in her prime, and on it she had written “to dear Jeff, a good friend and special pal.”

I was not able to see her again before she died, but I promised that I would never forget her… and I never have.

The Movie Star

On a warm afternoon in July of 1995, my phone started ringing. It was a man I knew telling me that his mother had died that morning. Although the news was not unexpected, it still saddened me. A chapter of my life had closed.

I sat there for a few minutes thinking about his mother, whom I had known for just over a decade. We met when I was 21 and she was 80, and it was the beginning of a fascinating friendship that was marked by happy days and heated conversations, a feeling of giddy delight and almost unbearable stress, sometimes enjoying being pampered and sometimes being rigidly controlled. But I guess that’s the way it goes when a guy who is young and naive falls under the spell of a once famous movie star named Patsy Ruth Miller.

The memories of that friendship are as clear to me now as if it happened last week. Hardly a day goes by that she doesn’t cross my mind, and I am very grateful to her for giving me a brief glimpse into a world that was exciting and glamorous.  I remember very clearly the first time I met her. It was a crisp October day in 1984 and my knees were trembling as I stood outside the bright red door of a very large beach-front house in Stamford, Connecticut.  I had spoken to her on the phone several times and when she invited me to actually meet her in person at her home, I was thrilled and hurriedly booked a flight from Michigan where I was a senior in college.

Moviegoers had not seen her on the screen since 1931, but during the 1920s she had been world famous and by the 1980s was one of the few surviving stars of the silent screen, that long-ago era of Pierce Arrows, jazz babies and speakeasies. She had acted with Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Lon Chaney, appearing in more than 70 movies during a career that lasted a decade, beginning in 1921 when she was just 17 years old.

What will she be like now? Will she like me?  Will I make a fool of myself?

I took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. Expecting a foreign-accented butler or a uniformed maid to answer, the door was opened by an attractive older woman wearing beige slacks, a white blouse and a soft pink sweater.

“Are you Jeff?” she asked in a voice that was husky but warm at the edges.

“Yes ma’am,” I responded rather meekly. “Are you Patsy Ruth Miller?”

“The one and only,” she smiled.

Short, grayish-brown hair framed her surprisingly unlined face and her big brown eyes, a famous feature when she was a movie star, still sparkled with vitality. They studied me for an instant as mine studied her.

“Well, just don’t stand there. Come in!” she finally said, opening the door wide.

As I entered the foyer with its marble floor, I could see into the next room, through a window, across a gently sloping lawn and down to the harbor with its blue water shimmering in the bright October sunlight. The large window framed the scene as though it was a painting.

She put me at ease by offering me some honey-roasted peanuts from a crystal bowl and a glass of Coca-Cola. She had a friendly manner, refined and yet relaxed at the same time. It amused her that I could recite the titles of so many of her films and we were soon chatting like two old friends. It was a magical afternoon spent talking about her career, with me asking questions and she obviously enjoying the opportunity to re-live memories from long ago. She regaled me with stories of her leading men, her romances and her life in Hollywood. I hung on her every word and felt my pulse quicken at the mention of such fabled people as Marion Davies, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Charlie Chaplin.

In mid-afternoon, after a lunch of hamburgers and potato chips was served to us on trays by a middle-aged maid with black hair and freckles, a car pulled into the driveway. The doorbell rang and the maid led a white-haired woman into the room. She was tall and thin and slightly stooped, needing a cane to maintain her balance. Miss Miller rose from her chair and the two women greeted each other with a light kiss on the cheek. I was introduced to Jane Cacciapuoti.

“And who is this young man?” the guest inquired in a reed-like voice, looking at me with curiosity. Her face was angular, with brittle skin pulled over prominent cheekbones. Her eyes were a pale blue and they sparkled within a web of little wrinkles.

“This is Jeffrey,” Miss Miller explained. “He is interested in silent movies and so I’ve been telling him about old Hollywood. He’s in college.”

“Well, he’s come to the right place,” Mrs. Cacciapuoti laughed and I listened with rapt attention as they started comparing notes. I quickly realized that Mrs. Cacciapuoti, as Jane Grey, had also been in Hollywood during that period, working as a fashion reporter for Harper’s Bazaar, and had formed close friendships with several stars, including Renee Adoree, whom she described as “ethereal,” Aileen Pringle and especially Gloria Swanson.

They had also dated the same man, an actor named Ralph Forbes. They pronounced his name as “Rafe,” and from the way their eyes twinkled as they discussed him, it was obvious that their memories of him were very special.

“He broke up with me to marry Ruth Chatterton,” Mrs. Cacciapuoti said. “Oh no, dear,” Miss Miller countered. “I was the one he was dating before he married Ruth.”

They never could reach an agreement, but both said that his marrying Miss Chatterton had been a mistake, calling her a “man-eater!”

As she was leaving, Mrs. Cacciapuoti took my hand and whispered, “Pat can tell you all about Lon Chaney, but if you want to know the real story of Gloria Swanson and her adopted baby, just ask me.” Regretfully, I never saw her again.

When the sun began setting and the sky turned pink, it was time for me to leave, but I really hated to go. She drove me to the train station and before I could open the car door she grabbed my hand. “I have an idea,” she said. “You have asked me so many questions about my life as a movie star and perhaps there are other people out there who would be interested in my career. Years ago I started to write my memoirs but never finished. Maybe I should get back to work on the project. Would you like to help me?”

My eyes widened with surprise and delight, and I managed to get out the words that I would be honored. As we parted, she kissed me gently on the cheek. I graduated from college the following May and a few days later I was once more standing in front of that big red door.

An association began that lasted almost three years as we worked on the book, she dictating and me typing. Pages of the memoir she had started and abandoned years before were scattered around the house in drawers and boxes, making it difficult to piece it back together. Some of those pages were used just as they were while others were re-written and a few were thrown out. And for long periods of time while we were working I lived with her, sometimes in Connecticut, where she spent the summers, and sometimes in her lovely condo on the grounds of a country club in Palm Desert, near Palm Springs, where she enjoyed the winters. When we were in California, she would occasionally hire a limousine and take me with her up to Beverly Hills where we would spend a weekend with her brother. Winston Miller had been a screenwriter and lived on Rodeo Drive next door to Gene Kelly in a house built in the French style, and painted a light pink. One afternoon in Palm Desert a white-haired gentleman dropped by and I was introduced to Charles Farrell. And one morning a man appeared at the back door and wanted to borrow the cook for the afternoon. It was Skippy Homeier. If it sounds like a dream come true, in many ways it was. But in other ways it was a nightmare. She had a way of controlling me by making me completely dependent upon her. If I struggled occasionally against the reins, she would become overly sweet and flirtatious and would put a few bills in my hand, sending me out to see a movie. Miss Miller’s masseuse was a delightful young woman named Dori and when I was given a night off for a movie, I would usually call her. The laughter we shared on those evenings was always just what I needed.

I was particularly irritated by some of her attitudes. She leaned very far to the right politically, was a charter member of the John Birch Society and often made unkind remarks about Jews, blacks and other ethnic groups. When she had first invited me to visit her in person, she ended the conversation by asking “are you black?” “No ma’am, I am white,” I answered, “not that it should make any difference.” “Oh, but it would make a difference,” she said. “Oh yes… a big difference.”

Sections of the book were written, then changed or discarded or re-written entirely. It was often an exasperating experience trying to please her. Some days her mood was light and on other days it was very dark. I never knew what to expect. And making it even more uncomfortable was a feeling that her interest in me was more than professional. She often invited me into her bedroom late at night to watch television and wanted me to lie down on the bed next to her. She’d be wearing a negligee, open wide at the neck to show some cleavage. I did sit on the edge of her bed, but I kept my feet on the floor. She also enjoyed lounging by the pool while I was swimming and always had a towel handy to dry my back, which made me feel rather self-conscious. And every night she wanted to kiss me on the lips before she went to bed. But I must admit that it was flattering in a strange sort of way to be admired by a woman who had once been a movie star and I did not discourage her flirtations. She didn’t know that I was gay, but even had I been straight, I would not have succumbed to her womanly charms which, by that stage of her life, had lost much of their luster.

Despite certain problems, Miss Miller and I did become close. We developed a special kind of friendship. I treated her with respect and had a sympathetic feeling for her. I sensed that, despite her “tough lady” exterior, she was actually rather lonely and probably a little sad that the parade had passed her by. She was particularly annoyed that she had not been invited to be part of the “Night of 100 Stars” television special when some of her contemporaries (Billie Dove, Lillian Gish, Laura La Plante) had been, and she wondered if Hollywood had forgotten her. “I know I was not one of the big stars, like Gloria Swanson or Mary Pickford,” she said to me one night as she sipped a CC and soda. “But I think I did OK. I was popular, and I received so much fan mail that it took two secretaries to handle the flow. Letters used to arrive from all over the world.”

I don’t know why she took a special interest in me. She had been contacted by other young people who had discovered her films and tracked her down, and although she was flattered by their attention, she didn’t seem inclined to pursue a friendship with them. I was naïve and unworldly, but I was attentive and helpful and a good listener on evenings when she had one too many cocktails and was in the mood to talk. I didn’t gush or look at her with a dazzled expression. I wasn’t afraid to challenge some of her political views or get into philosophical discussions. Maybe that is what she liked about me. I’ll never know. It wasn’t always easy to discuss serious issues with her as she was a fearless debater. Her formal education had ended when she was 16, but she had acquired an impressive amount of knowledge during her long life and could hold her own with anyone, regardless of the topic. She spoke French very well, but it was her master of the English language that could cut you off at the knees. She used words as a weapon and she could decimate any opinion or viewpoint with which she did not agree. I only noticed one person who was not intimidated her her vocabulary, and that was her daughter-in-law. Not surprisingly, they did not see each other very often.

Later on, as the final curtain was falling on her life, she did develop friendships with a few other young fans, particularly Austin Mutti Mewse and his twin brother, Howard, two young men from England who visited her several times and have written a delightful book about their experiences getting to know the stars of yesteryear. She also liked Michael Ankerich, who interviewed her at length for his book on silent movie stars. And a young couple whom she nicknamed “the wow kids” amused her so much that she gave them one of her most prized possessions, a large framed portrait of Alla Nazimova that had been autographed to her in 1921.

The finishing touches were put on the manuscript in 1987 and she asked me to stay on with her, as a sort of chauffeur and secretary and companion, but I said no. I needed to be free. She was very annoyed with me, and even took my name off of the book as a form of punishment, but we eventually repaired our friendship and I saw her often during the last few years of her life. She even allowed me to stay in her big Connecticut house one winter while I attended graduate school at New York University.

When the manuscript was ready to be submitted to a publisher, it was sent to several firms, but it was returned each time with a rejection letter. Even securing a literary agent had no effect. It seemed that no one was interested. But to her rescue came an offer from Philip Riley, who had asked her a few years earlier to write the foreword for his book on an early Lon Chaney film. He wanted her to write another foreword for him, but she sweet-talked him into a much larger project. He agreed to finance the publication of her memoirs and they spent the entire summer of 1988 finalizing the details. I’m sure that Mr. Riley had the very best of intentions but, unfortunately, it was a much bigger job than he was equipped to handle and he filed for bankruptcy. The books were ready for distribution, but they could not be released from the printer until a very large bill was paid in full. Miss Miller had to pay the bill herself and “My Hollywood, When Both of Us Were Young” was finally delivered to stores. And it was a handsome book, with a lot of heft. A large hardback, it was lavishly illustrated with photos from Miss Miller’s own files. But there were problems. Mr. Riley was on the verge of a nervous collapse and had not proofread the galleys carefully. There were lots of errors. Some photos had the wrong captions and long passages of prose were out of place. It was an embarrassment. The few minor critics who bothered to review the book were impressed with its design and found the memories of Patsy Ruth Miller to be very entertaining, but they did point out the numerous typos and other problems. Miss Miller did her best to promote the book and made several personal appearances, even being interviewed by Leonard Maltin on “Entertainment Tonight.” I also contributed to the publicity campaign and wrote a career profile of the former star for a magazine called “Films in Review.” One sentence in that article returned to haunt me and later played a role in a million dollar lawsuit.

In the article, I wrote about meeting Miss Miller and collaborating with her on the manuscript, relating a few of her anecdotes that had not made the final version of the book. I wrote about a double-date with Joan Crawford, encountering a sad and lonely Mae Murray on a busy New York City street and that one of her leading men (Charles Ray) fell in love with her, even though he had a wife at home. In the article I made it clear that she wanted to focus on nice stories about the people she had known and not write a “and then I slept with” book. “I’ve had three husbands and I’ve had lovers,” I quote her as saying, “but my private life will remain private.” The quote was accurate.

That article was published in the April issue of 1989. A couple of years later, a book appeared called “Hollywood Be Thy Name” which chronicled the lives of the Brothers Warner and their very famous studio. Patsy Ruth Miller had been under contract to Warner Bros in the 1920s and for a couple of years was their most popular star. In the book, it was written that Patsy Ruth Miller and Jack Warner, the head of the studio and a married man, had enjoyed a sexual affair. When I bought the book, I called her right away and read the passage to her. She was livid, denied the allegation and sued the author and the publisher for one million dollars. The lawsuit never went to trial. During the deposition, she was asked about that one sentence in my article. She said she had been misquoted. “What I said to young Mr. Carrier was that I had boyfriends,” she explained. “I would never have said ‘lovers.’ He probably thought it sounded more sophisticated to use that word.” The lawyers were not convinced.

Her case was dismissed and the quote from my article was given as the primary reason. The day the decision was handed down, she called me. As soon as I answered, she said, “You stinker. You have cost me a million bucks!”

Despite the publicity, book sales were weak and I don’t think she received even one royalty check. She spent the rest of her life trying to find someone who would re-print a corrected copy of her book, but to no avail. She even wrote a few chapters of new material. A few years ago, Mr. Riley negotiated a deal with a small publisher to put out a limited number of new copies, but none of the mistakes were corrected. And it wasn’t until 2016, almost 30 years after the book first appeared, that it was finally reviewed by a renowned critic. Writing for “The New Yorker,” Richard Brody apologized for discovering the book so late but said it was a “masterwork of the genre.” How I wish that Miss Miller had been alive to read that review.

During one particularly trying day as she and I were working on the manuscript, she became frustrated and wondered if all the work we were doing was worth the effort. “I haven’t been famous for 60 years,” she sighed. “Will anyone even care that I used to swim in Nazimova’s pool with Valentino or that I was the first movie star to date Howard Hughes?”

I thought of that comment when, soon after her memoirs were published in late 1988, she appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City for a book signing party and the showing of one of her films. It was the 1923 classic, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, in which she was Esmeralda opposite Lon Chaney’s Quasimodo. Stuart Oderman, A well-known pianist, was on hand to accompany the film and a lot of people had gathered for the event. I was there, too, and I watched with pride as a limousine pulled up in front and she stepped out to greet a cheering crowd. She was swathed in white fur and looked radiant as she blew a kiss to the fans. The years had melted away and in that moment she was once more a glamorous movie star!

The Snow Storm

As I was watching snowflakes accumulating on the front lawn of my house in the city today, my memory took me to the house in the country where I grew up. I thought about the first snowfall of a particular winter many years ago. It was Saturday, November 30, 1974. I was 11 years old and lived with my parents in a modest house on the crest of a forested hill in the mountains of Tennessee. It was surrounded by oaks and maples and birches and beeches, with thick woods in every direction.

The morning had been sunny and mild, but clouds filled the sky in the afternoon and a cold wind started blowing from the north. Guests were expected that evening. My mother’s brother Roy and his wife Mary were driving down from Ohio and we were all excited to see the relatives. It got colder as the afternoon wore on and my father decided that he should split some logs so we could have a cheerful fire in the den as we entertained our guests. He soon had a big pile of firewood.

The hours passed and as the afternoon light gave way to the darkness of evening, the wind picked up and made a whining noise as it whipped through the tall trees all around the house. We kept looking out the windows, hoping to see the relatives arriving, but had to eat our supper without them. About six-thirty, the phone rang. It was Roy using a payphone in Elizabethton, a town about an hour away. He apologized for running late but said they would be there as soon as they could.

An hour later we looked out the windows again… but it was difficult to see. A heavy snow was falling. The flakes were as large as silver dollars and they were falling fast. Within a few minutes, an inch had accumulated on the back porch. It was a wet snow, the flakes big and sloppy, the kind that stick to everything they touch. Soon everything was covered — the lawn, the roof, the street and every tree, from the largest branch to the smallest twig. The snow fell so heavily that it piled up before our eyes, getting deeper and deeper. Within an hour, the tree limbs were bending and soon they were breaking. I’ll never forget the loud reports, like gunshots, as branches split and splintered and came crashing to the ground in thunderous waves of sound. Around nine the lights flickered and went off, submerging us in darkness. But there were occasional bright blue flashes in the sky as transformers were exploding in the distance with loud booms and showers of sparks. With every flash, we could see the heavy fat snowflakes still falling fast. Another hour went by and my parents started worrying about my aunt and uncle. They should have arrived hours ago. In the flicker of the firelight, I could see my mother wringing her hands.

“I’ll have to go out and look for them,” my father finally said. My mother helped him dress in boots and gloves and a long heavy coat, then wrapped a scarf around his neck and put a hat on his head. “Be careful,” she said. “Find them and bring them back safely.”

There was no way he could use the car, as the snow was at least a foot deep, so he started on foot, finding his way in the dark to the end of the driveway and then turning onto the street. It is never totally dark when there is a blanket of snow. Each snowflake captures and reflects even the tiniest bit of light, so the night had an eerie look, with snow-laden trees silhouetted against other snow-laden trees. My mother and I sat in the den, poking at the fire and trying to keep up each other’s spirits. We could still hear the loud cracks as tree limps broke off and fell to the ground, and we were worried that one would crash through the roof.

I looked out the windows often, hoping to see my father returning, but all I could see was snow, lots of snow. A long time passed, perhaps a couple of hours, maybe more when, on one of my frequent trips to the window, I saw the beam of a flashlight at the end of the driveway. I ran to the back door and saw three people making their way toward the house.  Dad had found Roy and Mary!

For the next hour we rejoiced as we sat by the fire. Roy and Mary had been making good time after they left Elizabethton, but ran into the snow about 20 miles from our town. It got worse with every mile and soon they were barely creeping, the headlights having a hard time cutting through the heavily falling snow. They finally made it to the city limits, but there were no lights to guide them. The entire town had lost power, so they tried to find our street in the dark, the car barely able to move through the deep snow. They made it to the north end of town where we lived, but the car suddenly stopped, stuck fast in a drift. This was years before cell phones, so they had no way of letting us know where they were, so they got out of their car and started walking, hoping they could find their way. In the meantime, my father had made it to the main highway and although he did see several cars stuck and abandoned, none of them had Ohio plates. He finally managed to catch the attention of a passing snowplow and rode along as the plow cleared the roadway. As the plow was making its second pass, the headlights suddenly illuminated two people trudging slowly along on the side of the road.

My uncle and aunt were overjoyed to see my father step down from the snowplow and he was overjoyed to see them! They were quite close to our street so they all walked the rest of the way, and they looked like snowmen by the time they reached the door.

They had left their luggage in their car, so my mother lent Mary a nightgown and dad found an extra pair of pajamas for Roy. After they had gotten warm by the fire and regaled us with the story of their adventures, they retired to the guest room. My mother and I slept in the main bedroom and my father, bless his heart, stayed up all night keeping the fire going. It was the only source of heat.

The snow stopped sometime before dawn, but the early morning light revealed a world that was unrecognizable. The trees were no longer standing tall but were leaning and bending, many of them completely broken and shattered. Half of an old birch had split off and was blocking our road. I plunged a yardstick into the snow and it finally stopped at sixteen and a half inches.

It was Sunday morning. My father was pastor of the First Baptist Church and it was his philosophy that church services should never be canceled, so once more he started off on foot, having to step over fallen limbs and branches. It took him an hour to get to the church and he told me later that one of the deacons was already there shoveling the front walk. Five people showed up for services that Sunday. Dad preached and even led the small group in a couple of hymns. By the time he made it back home, my mother was frying pork chops in a skillet over the fire. Someone had collected some containers of snow which was melted for water. When the power failed, our running water was cut off as it took electricity to pump water up to our house on the hill. With no electricity and no running water, we were completely separated from the conveniences of civilization. I’m sure it was hard for the adults, but being a boy of 11, for me it was a grand adventure.

Although they were good sports, Uncle Roy and Aunt Mary were eager to leave, and who could blame them. I’m sure it’s no fun visiting relatives who have no running water or electricity! After lunch, we all walked with them back to their car, carrying shovels. After a while the car was released from the grip of the deep drifts and my relatives drove away. They never visited us again when the weather was cold.

My father kept the fire going as best he could and my mother prepared our meals in the fireplace. I remember scrambled eggs and hamburgers and soup. The electricity was finally restored after three days, and the first thing my father did was to convert the fireplace from wood-burning to gas. Never again did he have to sit up all night keeping a fire going.

So, whenever I see the first snowflakes of the season fluttering through the air, I shiver a little as I remember a night long ago when a snowstorm brought my little hometown to its knees.

An Encounter that Changed My Life

For almost eight years I lived in New York City, and every time I would find myself on 34th Street, I would walk toward 9th Avenue and stand in front of the William Sloane YMCA and look up at a window on the sixth floor. It was at that window on a rainy August afternoon in 1985 that I spoke to a stranger who altered the course of my life.

I had spent a week in Connecticut working with silent film actress Patsy Ruth Miller on her autobiography. It had not gone well. She was not in a good mood and had been very critical of the writing I had done so far. She said rather bluntly that asking me to help her with the book had been a mistake. “I don’t think that you have the ability or the skill to take on this project,” she said.  “I’m sorry, dear, but you just don’t have the talent.” My self esteem was at a low ebb and I had no confidence in myself. I was so discouraged and depressed that I had left her house a day earlier than planned and was spending a night in New York City before flying back to Tennessee the following afternoon.

It was my very first visit to the Big Apple and I was very nervous. I had never been in such a big city all by myself and after taking a cab from Grand Central to the YMCA, I was reluctant to go outside. I thought if I went out the front door, I might be mugged or accosted or caught in the crossfire of a gangland shooting. And hearing the constant sound of sirens was very disturbing.

I was assigned to a room on the sixth floor, and after settling in, I stepped out into the hallway and noticed a bright window at the end of the hall. As I got closer, I could see the silhouette of someone standing there. It had started raining, and little rivulets of water were running down the windowpane. As I got closer, I could see that it was a young man, gazing pensively out the window. I must admit that I was immediately attracted to him. He was young and tall and slim, with an athletic build. His hair was blonde and it had started to thin at his temples. I slowly approached the window, which looked down onto 34th Street, and said, “when did it start raining?”

When he turned to look at me, my heart skipped a beat. He had a handsome baby face, with bright blue eyes. I was still deep in the closet at that time, but I couldn’t help staring at him.

“A minute ago,” he said. “There is something very relaxing about watching rain. It is very soothing.”

I was immediately drawn to him. Not only did he have a gentle manner but he had an accent that caressed my ears. It made everything he said sound very mysterious and poetic. “Yes, I suppose so,” I managed to say in reply. “May I ask where you are from?”

He said he was from Hamburg, in Germany, and was visiting America for the first time. “I’ve been here for only one day,” he added. “Where did you come from?”

I told him that I was from Tennessee and that it was my first time to be in New York City. “I’ve been here for only one hour.” He laughed, and I was hooked.

We stood there at that window for a long time. The rain stopped, the sky cleared and we continued to talk, even as the sun sank lower in the sky, casting long shadows over the street below. We were so curious about each other. I learned that he would be in the US for two weeks and was spending his time in New York. He wanted to see some Broadway plays and visit the famous tourist attractions. He was especially looking forward to walking through Central Park. I told him all about my little hometown in Tennessee, the college in the north I had attended and about the book project with Patsy Ruth Miller that had come to an abrupt end.

Suddenly realizing that we were hungry, we went down to the little restaurant that adjoined the lobby and continued our conversation. I was particularly impressed by how well he spoke English. He said he had been studying the language for a few years and was also fluent in French and Latin, something he had in common with many of his German classmates. I assumed he was a college graduate, but he said no, that he would be enrolling in a college in Berlin that fall, to study computer science and economics. His worldliness and sophistication, knowledge and experience made me think he was several years older than me, probably around 28, but he surprised me by saying he had recently turned 21. We were less than a year apart. It was obvious to me that German students were certainly better educated than American students!

I admitted to him that I was very curious about New York City but did not feel comfortable going out exploring on my own. “I have only seen a little of the city so far,” he said, “so let’s go and explore together.”

It was an invitation that thrilled me, so when the meal was over and the bill was paid, we went out the front door and turned onto 34th street, heading east. We had walked several blocks when we spotted a movie theater. BACK TO THE FUTURE had just opened to rave reviews, and when we saw the title in big letters on the marquee, we quickly bought tickets! We loved it, and the film is still one of my most favorite movies. We later found ourselves on Broadway and walked up to Times Square, where we marveled at the stores, the crowds of people and the brightly lit marquees advertising such plays as THE ODD COUPLE, BILOXI BLUES and BIG RIVER. There was so much excitement and energy around that famous intersection that it was impossible not to be caught up in the mood, which was intoxicating. We walked into an arcade, which were so popular at the time, and spent all of our quarters playing Centipede, Space Invaders and Pac Man. As we were enjoying the sights and sounds of Times Square, I realized that all my fears and apprehensions had disappeared. It was after 2 AM when we finally returned to the YMCA, and despite the late hour, I felt so happy that it took me a very long time to fall asleep.

The plane to Tennessee was departing LaGuardia the following day about 4 pm, so I invited my young German friend to join me in exploring more of the city before I had to leave. We met in the lobby the next morning, had some breakfast at a diner, and walked to the Empire State Building. We purchased our tickets and took the elevator to the very top, the observation deck on the 102nd floor, where we walked out into the open air and looked out over the city and the world beyond, almost able to see the curvature of the earth! I’ve been to the top of that building twice since then, but nothing can compare to the exhilaration I felt on that warm August morning in 1985. When our feet were back on the firm pavement of 5th Avenue, we took the subway all the way down to lower Manhattan, to Wall Street, and walked over to the World Trade Center. I’ll never forget that magnificent lobby with its enormous floor-to-ceiling windows and the bright red carpeting. We went to the highest floor of Tower One, to the observatory. I think it may also have been floor 102, but unlike the Empire State Building, visitors could not feel the wind rushing around their heads as they looked down at the city. It was an enclosed space, and we had to peer through thick-paned windows. But it was just as thrilling, and the windows were tilted slightly outward, so you could lean against them and look almost straight down.

A quick subway ride took us back to midtown Manhattan and we emerged at Grand Central Station, where we grabbed a quick lunch at a deli on Lexington Avenue. It was close to 2 pm already and there was just enough time to walk back to the YMCA, past the famous New York City Public Library with its two enormous lion statues in front. I picked up my suitcase at the front desk and waited for the airport shuttle. I had grown to feel very close to my young friend, and I was delighted when he climbed onto the shuttle and sat with me until it was ready to leave.

“I’ve just realized that I don’t even know your name,” I grinned. “My name is Jeff, Jeff Carrier, and it has been a great pleasure to spend time with you.” He shook my hand and said his name was Christian Pless. “It has been a pleasure for me, also,” he added.

A plan suddenly took shape in my mind and without even thinking it through, I blurted out, “come to Mountain City, Tennessee!” As he looked at me with wide-eyed surprise, I continued, “don’t base your idea of the United States on New York City. You should also get to know people who live in the rural areas. That’s where you’ll find true American values.”

As the shuttle driver announced that we were ready to depart, I scribbled my phone number on the torn half of my Empire State Building ticket and handed it to him. I’ll be home tonight. Call me and we can talk about it.

There was just enough time for him shake my hand again, put the number in his pocket and leave the shuttle before the doors closed and we drove off. I could see him on the sidewalk, watching as we were swallowed by the traffic.

As the plane made its way to Tennessee, I wandered if I would ever see Christian again, if I would ever hear that interesting accent or look into his sparkling blue eyes. But to my delight, he did call me at home later that night. He said he had been to the Port Authority and purchased a bus ticket. “I could not buy a ticket to Mountain City,” he said, “but I did buy a ticket to Abingdon, Virginia. I was told that it is very close to Mountain City. Is that right?” I assured him that it was indeed close, about 30 miles away. He was calling from a payphone and had run out of change, but before he was cut off, he did manage to tell me that he would be getting to Abingdon at 10 am in two days.

At 10 am on that morning, I was waiting at the bus station, my heart beating fast as I watched for the Greyhound to pull into the lot. It was a few minutes late, but when it arrived and I saw him get off, I could not control my excitement and I ran to him with my arms out-stretched. It was a wonderful reunion. He had been on the bus all night and was tired and hungry, so we drove down the highway to Bristol, where we had a hearty breakfast. The road from Bristol to Mountain City winds its way through hills and mountains, and Christian marveled at the scenery. He said it reminded him of Bavaria.

He stayed several days with me in Mountain City. I don’t remember how many exactly, perhaps four or five, and every day was like a dream. By the time I had to drive him back to Abingdon to catch the return bus to New York, I’m sure that I was in love with him, but it was something that I did not dare discuss or allow myself to show. I think he preferred women to men, or at least that was my impression, especially after he told me about having a passionate encounter with a young woman in a Paris phone booth.

Everyone in my hometown who met Christian was totally charmed by him. My father grew very fond of him, particularly after learning that his grandfather had been a Lutheran minister. My step-mother was a bit suspicious at first, but she also succumbed to his charms and surprised him by including sauerkraut as a side dish one night at supper. The only person I knew who did not want to meet him was my dear friend, Bulah Vaught. I had planned to bring him to her house one afternoon, but when she learned that he was German, she cancelled. “I don’t want a German in my home,” she said.  I had to accept the fact that some people of her generation, who had been born during the First World War and had lost friends and family in the Second World War, still harbored ill feelings toward the Germans. It made me feel sad and disappointed.

He made a big hit with my friend, Kay Adams. She was a local radio personality and invited him to spend an afternoon with her during her shift at WMCT, Mountain City’s country music station. She put him in front of a microphone and chatted with him between songs, asking him about his homeland and what he thought of Tennessee. It made him a celebrity for the afternoon! Several people called the station to ask him questions and he was invited to the high school to talk to the students who were learning German.

Kay planned something special for his last night in town and drove us to the Appalachian Fair near Johnson City. We had great fun looking at the livestock exhibits, sampling baked goods, riding the ferris wheel and taking in some of the side shows. I think Christian learned more about America at that fair than he could have by spending six months in New York City. I was a little jealous of Kay. She and Christian were very chummy and I noticed them occasionally holding hands. But I was glad that he was enjoying himself so thoroughly.

There was a popular song at the time by Phil Collins called “One More Night” and it played on the radio as we drove back to Mountain City. I would have to take Christian to the bus station the next day, and as I sat in the back seat as we drove along through the dark, the lyrics took on a new meaning. “One more night, one more night. I’ve been trying, oh so long to let you know, let you know how I feel.”  I felt a tear run down my cheek.

The drive to Abingdon the next afternoon was a sad one for me. I did not want to see Christian leave, but all good things must come to an end. He told me how glad he was that he had made the journey, that I had made his trip to the States exciting and memorable, and that he would never forget his time in Tennessee. And then he his voice took on a more serious tone.

“I want you to promise me that you will search for your destiny,” he said. I gave him a quizzical glance and he continued. “Don’t spend your life in Mountain City. It is a beautiful town and the people are very friendly, but I think you need to spend time in other places. It is too small for you. You have a good brain. Use it to explore ideas and go on adventures. Meet new people and learn from them. And don’t give up on Patsy Ruth Miller. She needs you to help with that book. No one else wants to work with her, so don’t feel discouraged. Make it happen.”

And then he reached over and gently rubbed my shoulder. “I know you are searching for someone to love. You won’t find him until you move away. He waits for you somewhere else.” I could not say anything. 

We had reached the Abingdon Greyhound station and the bus was already being loaded. We stood together near the bus for a few minutes, but I was too emotional to say anything. If I tried to speak I knew that my voice would break and I would cry. I think he understood, because he started to shake my hand, but hugged me instead and whispered in my ear “I will never forget you. To me, you are America.”

The drive back to Mountain City was a miserable one. I don’t think I have ever missed anyone as much before, or since.  But by the time I reached home, I felt better. Meeting Christian had changed me. My confidence had returned and I could sense that something exciting was waiting for me.  I felt a strong desire to go back to New York. He had inspired me to find my place in the sun. And I knew, as though it had been written in letters of fire, that what my heart had been longing for all of my life, was out there, just beyond the horizon.

And I did get back to that Big City, but it took me two years, first to attend graduate school at NYU and then to begin a career. I stayed in Mountain City for several months, working as a reporter for the local paper. The first story I wrote was about Christian, and when I sent the clipping to Patsy Ruth Miller she called me right away. “The story about the young German man was very good,” she said. “I think I was wrong about you. If you work with me on my book and write as well as you did for the newspaper, we’ll have one helluva book!” Her memoirs were published in 1988, and I wanted to tell Christian the good news, but I did not know how to find him. We kept in touch for a few months after he returned to Germany, but the last letter I sent to him was returned marked “Gerührt. Keine Weiterleitungsadresse.“ (Moved. No Forwarding Address). That was in early 1986, and there has been no word from him since then.

Hardly a day has gone by in the last 35 years that I have not thought of him, wondering where he is, what he is doing, what kind of a life he is living. Did he became a computer programmer? Did he marry and have children? Does he ever think of me?

The YMCA is no longer there, but the building still stands, and so the next time I am in New York City I will go to 356 West 34th Street and gaze up at a window on the sixth floor. I will be thinking of a young German who helped a kid from Tennessee with low self esteem to regain his confidence and find the courage to leave home and go out into the world.

I love you, Christian, and I hope that wherever you are, you are happy.