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.
“What else can I getcha?” the woman behind the counter asked me when I approached the counter with a Dr Pepper — a token of goodwill that I hoped made me look just like them, a thirsty person needing a drink and maybe some Patsy Cline.
“Well, nothing really,” I said, dreading the fact that I’d agreed to be my candidate’s statewide coordinator of delegates to the GOP convention to ensure he landed on our state ballot. How did a mother of two end up with this job? Anyone in this state with an ounce of political ambition had to work on behalf of our own senator. Since all of the main political activists were obligated to Fred, the campaign reached out to me as a personal favor.
They offered me the job, and I immediately heard my post-Rosie mantra — Spend Less, Work More. I’ve always been enamored of democracy, President Washington’s refusal to be a king, and Benjamin Franklin’s quote, “A republic, if you can keep it.” While politics is not everyone’s thing, David and I had taken an intense interest in this election and had promoted our candidate since 2005 — before he’d even decided to run. We blogged and attended conferences to work the straw polls, but this was my first paid campaign gig. It only lasted three months, so I planned to work hard to add the money to my Dave Ramsey debt snowball. I could do most of the work from home while the kids were at school, with the slight complication of needing signatures gathered from each of Tennessee’s nine congressional districts. “Well, there’s just this one thing.” I held out my folder, as if she had X-ray eyes and would instantly understand. When I saw her blank look, I stammered, “Sorry, well, it’s just a petition thing that I have to get people to sign to get my candidate’s name on the ballot in Tennessee.”
“You ain’t working for Hillary, are ya?”
“No, ma’am, definitely not,” I said.
“’Cause I’d vote for Jesse Jackson before voting for that woman.” I could tell by her raised eyebrows that this meant a great deal.
“No, I work for Mitt Romney,” I said.
“Romney. He’s a governor and he cares about the things we care about.”
“Well, I’m a tobacco-growing, tobacco-smoking, tobacco-loving Christian. That’s what I care about,” she said. By this time, the people who were pretending not to listen dropped the pretense. “Is he Christian?”
This was another reason I didn’t want to bring it up. As you may know, Governor Romney was the most recent member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to run for president (his dad ran in ’68). In other words, I had to convince Tennessee voters to sign their name on behalf of a Yankee governor from Massachusetts, whom they’d never heard of, and by the way, a Mormon. And to support Mitt, they’d essentially have to turn their backs on the drawling, pickup-truck-driving Tennessean who was running (strolling, really) for the same office — a man whose fans proudly slapped bumper stickers on their Ford F-150s declaring, “Proud to be a Fredneck.”
“He definitely shares our values,” I slowly said to the lady, knowing that the Mormon issue might get me kicked out on my skirt. I was walking a delicate line, since I was in a room full of people in the middle of a hotly contested presidential election, on behalf of one of the most talked-about front-runners. Although I’d spent the last year trying to explain that you can disagree with Governor Romney’s theology while supporting his politics, I didn’t want to plumb the depths of everyone’s religious beliefs just to get some signatures. But certainly someone in this place would know that he’s a Mormon and would bring it up?
“Yeah, the government is telling us we can’t smoke in here no more. I’ve been coming here for 30 years and now they’re trying to run them out of business,” said a man standing in line with a package of beef jerky. “Growed adults and can’t even smoke where we want to.”
Great, I thought as I listened to the increasingly agitated conversation go straight to — where else — secession. You’d be surprised at how frequently people go there. When David taught at Cornell, dreadlocked students with hemp necklaces attended secession meetings while smoking cloves — opposite sides of the same coin, I guess. Nevertheless, I’d ignited a firestorm of conversation about whether the new anti-smoking regulations were reason enough to break from the Union.
“What does Matt think about us leaving the Union?” the cash-register lady asked me.
“I doubt he knows you’re considering it. He’s . . . not from around here.”
“No, he was actually the governor of Massachusetts.” If you ever want to rev up a secession conversation in rural Tennessee, take note. The cashier’s eyebrow arched into a parenthesis of disapproval.
“Like the Kennedys?” the beef jerky man said, glancing at me like I had smallpox.
“No, not at all,” I explained. “He’s the opposite of Ted Kennedy. He tried to beat him in the Senate in 1994, actually, but he narrowly lost.”
“I’m not voting for a Yankee,” Beef Jerky Guy said.
And this is how I missed the entire religion conversation that night. I’d carefully honed my arguments about why Romney was the best choice for conservatives, especially compared to the other available options. I could give a pretty good speech about his economic prowess, his heroic stands for family values in hostile territory, and his ideas about foreign policy. But I had not prepared to spend the next ten minutes explaining why Christians could, morally, vote for a Yankee.
I didn’t even need them to vote for him. Their signature just indicated that the person was a registered Tennessee voter who supported the idea of Mitt Romney having his name on our ballot. It was an archaic system that varied vastly from state to state, but it meant my signatures had to be retrieved from across the entire state. And ours is a dachshund of a state — flat but improbably long. If you lived in Mountain City, way up in Tennessee’s northeastern corner, it’d take you longer to get to Memphis than to Pittsburgh. Overall, I had to get 5,000 people to sign on the dotted line. And that meant talking to some of them about Joseph Smith, the popular HBO series Big Love, and polygamy. So that’s what I did.
But that night in DooDilly’s, I’d wanted to step into a room full of Republicans who knew the game, would sign my petition, and be on their way. Since I wasn’t asking for their allegiance, their ideas, or even their support, it should’ve been an easy sale. However, I found people who hadn’t paid attention to the game in quite some time, people with acute political leanings but no recent knowledge. (Was the Jesse Jackson comment a slam on Obama, or was he the last person they knew who ran for president?) I decided I didn’t want to wait around to find out. I gathered up my papers and was about to apologize and get out of there when the guy with the beef jerky turned to me.
“What about the war?”
“He supports it,” I said, which allowed me to stay on safe ground as I moved toward the door. Of all the issues they could’ve brought up, I thought this was a slam dunk in this crowd. But I’d misread the room.
“That’s all I need to know, because we ain’t got a bit of business over there,” he said, getting a little red in the face.
“Here he goes. You can shove your beef jerky up your ass, because I don’t serve communists, Buck,” the cashier said. “My boy did two deployments there, and I don’t want you bad-mouthing it.”
“Those boys are being sent there to die,” he shot back. “You’re lucky he came home.”
At this point, the argument spread over the entire room, which had previously been united on the important issues.
Pro: country boys, dogs, trotlines.
Anti: living in cities.
The man on the stool jumped off it and headed toward us as he told us his brother had lost a lot of friends in Iraq. As the conversation got more and more heated, my head swirled. Although I’d done an inordinate amount of work for Governor Romney on a volunteer basis, I took the paid position because I needed the money. To pull off my Dave Ramsey surprise, I needed to actually get paid. To get paid, I was standing in the middle of a potential brawl. The people around me kept talking about the severe costs of war — Beef Jerky Guy had begun explaining how our body armor was insufficient to deal with al-Qaeda’s explosives. I started feeling overwhelmed — about David’s safety, about my naïve plan to get us out of debt, and about the fact that I was all alone. The scene was getting uncontrollably louder, and not even the babysitter knew where I was.
“You support the war, right?” the cashier yelled at me above the noise, before noticing a little lapel pin David had given me before he left. It had a star on it with the words “Army Spouse.” “Well, bless your heart, honey. Is your husband there?”
I nodded, oddly getting a little choked up. Since David was in the Reserves, we didn’t live on a military base surrounded by other military folks. Every single time I met someone whose family member had gone (and more importantly, come back), I got a catch in my throat. Amazingly, that slight little nod defused the situation. Suddenly, I was one of them. She came around the counter and put her arms around me. Even Beef Jerky Guy looked contrite.
“Okay, so you have to pray for your husband,” the lady said. “And let me tell ya how I prayed my son home.” For the next few minutes, she explained how she prayed — I can’t remember it now, except that it was a combination of superstition and Christianity . . . she prayed every time a bell rang or every time she got hungry.
“Attention, everyone!” she said, after finishing her pep talk. Finding out David was in Iraq was enough to convince her. “This here lady needs you to sign her papers, and I don’t want to hear a word about it.”
I’ve worked on two presidential campaigns — the other was Lamar Alexander’s unsuccessful attempt. (If you are a candidate, pass my name to your opponents for a guaranteed victory.) The point is, I’ve seen a great deal. I’ve interviewed candidates while CNN reporters leaned out the windows of their SUVs going 70 miles per hour trying to get footage of us inside the tour bus. I’ve seen my candidate on Larry King Live and called in during a commercial break to make sure the lint on his jacket was promptly removed. I’ve hosted debate-watching parties and attended galas. But, as the saying goes, all politics is local. I lived in Tennessee, and these petitions had to be done. Somehow, a guy running in Boston has to organize an effort in Tennessee, and somehow a guy running from Nashville has to organize it in Massachusetts.
I took my papers from one table to the next. As I watched them sign their names on the lines, I hoped they were registered voters. When I submitted my forms to the secretary of state, whose office checks every signature for legitimacy, address, and registration, these names might get tossed, so I made a mental note to make sure I had ample extra signatures. One man — and I’m not making this up — apologized briefly before signing his name with an X. “Some banks will take that,” he said, looking embarrassed. In other words, the whole evening might have been a waste. Not only did I wonder about the signatures, it shook me a bit. The truth about politics — the reason I like it — is that it’s not about the glitz or the glam of the campaigns. It’s about America being the most vibrant democracy ever showcased on earth. Not only does our system eschew royalty, but voting gives us the ability to correct our political mistakes every four years when individual Americans go into a booth and vote their conscience.
But this night, with a husband in Iraq at the sole discretion of politicians we cavalierly love or hate, I realized that some “political mistakes” can’t be undone. So as I stood there in DooDilly’s seeing this wonderful democracy in action, smelling the unmistakable aroma of cheeseburgers ordered hours ago, and listening to Patsy Cline, I didn’t know if I should be encouraged by our democratic process or horrified.
“The X is fine,” I said, not wanting the man to feel embarrassed. “Matt won’t mind.”
— Nancy French is co-author, with her husband, David, of Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War, from which this is excerpted.