Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War.
When Corey Spates died, something changed in David. Our nightly instant-message chats became more one-sided. He told me less and less about his life and probed more and more for details at home. If he talked about his days at all, he’d tell a funny story or talk about his friends Leo and J-Dave.
Sometimes I’d see them walking behind David if we video chatted, and I could only imagine what their personalities were like and what they knew of me. I wanted to know more about his life and friends, but I tried not to be too probing. With the unit’s first loss, the danger was more palpable than ever, so I tried to keep conversation light. However, I wanted to help him in some way, to comfort him, to do something to make his life better. Though I sent care packages, there were only so many flavor packets for his water bottles, Skittles, and new DVDs that he could store.
So I just did the only thing I could do and stuck to my plan. Since I couldn’t make David’s life better in Iraq, I might as well try to make his life better at home. That meant working — and working hard.
And that work took me to some very strange places.
“American by Birth, Southern by the Grace of God,” I read from the bumper on one of the many trucks lined outside DooDilly’s. The gravel crunched under my high heels as I got out of my car — regrettably, the only vehicle without a gun rack — and I clutched my folder close to my thumping heart. Music wafted through the parking lot and the sky was pitch black. While I willed myself to walk through the door, I listened to the tune emanating from the building.
I live back in the woods, you see, a woman and the kids, and the dogs and me-e-e . . .
I could see into the establishment, which was warmly lit, giving it a cozy appearance. A man with stringy gray hair strummed his guitar for the dozen or so people who sat around tables covered with half-filled bottles, watery rings of condensation, and plates with napkins wadded on them. I recognized the slightly butchered Hank Williams Jr. classic as he sang, I got a shotgun, rifle, and a four-wheel drive . . . and a country boy can survive.
I can’t do this, I thought. Easing back into the car, I shut the door softly, hoping no one inside had noticed me. The interior light of my car was dim, but I could still see page after page of empty lines. My stomach always felt like I’d gone on too many roller-coaster rides when I approached strangers to sign my petition, and this time was no different. It churned. I glanced at my empty sheets and reopened the door.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but the events in this book happened during a presidential campaign cycle, and I worked for one of the candidates.
Now you know.
The reason I hadn’t mentioned it before is the same reason I got into my car and almost drove away from DooDilly’s that night. No polite southerner brings up politics or religion, and for more than a year I did nothing but dive headfirst into both. You see, I didn’t work for Rudy Giuliani, whom everyone admired for his leadership after 9/11. Nor did I work for fellow evangelical Christian candidate, Mike Huckabee, who used every opportunity to talk about the Bible. And, no, I didn’t work for Tennessee’s own Sen. Fred Thompson, who lived within a stone’s throw of the bar I was walking into that very night.
With a forced nonchalance, I walked in and cased the joint. Some local Republicans had told me lots of conservatives hang out at DooDilly’s, which made it appealing for someone who needed to gather a thousand signatures. To my surprise, the place wasn’t a bar at all. Rather, it was a convenience store, a deli, and apparently a showcase for our county’s country musicians. Even though the place was full of music, clanking forks, and conversation, everyone turned and looked at me as I walked in. I looked all wrong. Had I been sitting in one of the chairs listening to Bocephus on a Tuesday night, I would’ve looked at me and thought, Who does she think she is? I was wearing a skirt, when overalls would’ve done. I was wearing tall black boots; they were wearing work boots. My jacket was Anthropologie, when Carhartt would’ve impressed.