Tommy’s son burned down the Oldest Church in Georgia West of the Flint River. He did it, not because he hated that church, or anyone in it, or even God. He did it to cover the fact that he had absconded with the audio-visual equipment inside, and somehow, I guess he thought no one would notice that the AV stuff was gone if the whole church was gone. It was a dumb kid thing to do, but then, I guess he was a dumb kid.
The news hit Taylor County hard. In a place like Taylor County, where there aren’t a lot of Recognized Treasures like the Oldest Church in Georgia West of the Flint River, and there aren’t many Sensational Crimes, there was a frenzy of conjecture, gossip, and tongue-wagging. Tommy’s shame was compounded, I think, by the fact that Tommy himself was reportedly passed out drunk and didn’t know his son had sneaked out of the house. At least, that’s what I heard.
You have to understand the glee with which such shenanigans are received in a place like Taylor County. There’s so little entertainment there, and, I suspect, so many dark secrets, that a thing like this is a cause for celebration. Those people turn on the guilty party – excuse me, the allegedly guilty party – like a pack of rabid coyotes. The story is told and retold, with much gusto and flair, embellished freely, and minor details added for emphasis or color. It’s kind of like a collective rejoicing of Somebody Else Getting Caught Doing Bad, or a joyous celebration that everyone is looking at somebody else’s skeletons (keeping mine safe for the moment.)
Not actually being from Taylor County, I didn’t swim in the waters of the celebrants of bad news. (“Not actually being from Taylor County” means that my grandfather wasn’t born there, so I was still an outsider, or, as I heard it put once, “a foreigner.”)
I was one of a rare breed who actually tried not to gossip. I was a Methodist Sunday School teacher, and I truly was trying to live out my Christian faith. Now you see why I didn’t fit in. Gossip is listed among the most grievous sins in the Bible. New Testament, I mean. It was a tenet of my Christianity that I abstain from such behavior. Also, as a church leader, I felt compelled to set a good example.
So I was in the periphery of the hoopla. And I felt bad for Tommy. We had gone to high school together, had had maybe three dates during that time, and had always been friends, but not close friends. I had written him a few letters after he joined the Marines and went to Viet Nam. These days, we seldom saw each other, maybe every year or two, but we were always cordial. We would chat for a few minutes and then go on our way for another year or two. But I knew he was suffering through this storm, and I was sending good thoughts his way.
And frankly, Tommy’s troubles weren’t the biggest thing on my mind. My son Steve and his wife Dawn had just lost their first child, Silas. In fact, we returned from his memorial service in Florida the day after the church burned, and we stopped by to look at the charred embers. So, while I liked Tommy and considered him a friend, I had my own sorrows to deal with.
Consequently, I was totally unprepared a few weeks later when I ran in to Tommy at the grocery store. My first reaction was my usual big smile. “Hi, Tommy! How are you?” His whole countenance lit up. I suppose he thought he’d found a friendly face.
Then, somehow, I froze while my brain tried to remember what it was about Tommy that had made him famous lately. And without meaning to, when it hit me – Tommy’s son burned down the Oldest Church in Georgia West of the Flint River – I turned away from him. I could see his face fall, see the hurt and disappointment that he tried to hide as he scurried away, doubly embarrassed because several shoppers and employees were watching.
I wanted to chase after him and beg his forgiveness, to assure him we were still friends, that I understood that you can’t control everything your children do, to explain about Silas and that was why I was so preoccupied, that nothing had changed between us.
But something had changed. I had kicked him when he was down, and we both knew it.
I watched for Tommy after that, hoping to run in to him again fortuitously, to explain, to apologize, to beg forgiveness, to make it up to him. To be his friend again.
But I never saw Tommy again. Several years later, in his early sixties, he had a heart attack and died on the way to the hospital.
I did attend his funeral, a final goodbye. I was the only classmate who did, except for his cousin Margie. It was a nice funeral, with full military honors, which he earned as a Marine during the Viet Nam War.
Tommy, I am so sorry. You deserved better.