How many of us have wounded warriors in our families, the ones who came home but never came back?
My uncle, J. T. Sherrill, was an eighteen year old farm hand in west Tennessee when WWII started. He joined the army right after Pearl Harbor. He fought in North Africa. He fought in Sicily. He fought in Europe. He served for the duration. How much survivor guilt might be accumulated over four years of war? So far as I know he was never seriously wounded, never lost a limb, not even a digit.
When he came back he wasn’t the same. He drank too much. He couldn’t keep a job. He worked for years at menial farming jobs. He became the black sheep of the family, a source of embarrassment to some of his brothers and sisters. Neither I nor my siblings got to know Uncle J. T. We lived hundreds of miles from him and neither my dad nor my mom talked much about him. We picked up those verbal clues in the little that was said – he had some defect.
My dad died suddenly in 1986. He walked into the hospital for a relatively routine procedure. He was carried out five days later.
My family was gathered at my parents’ house on the day of the funeral. About an hour before we were to leave for the funeral service, a taxi stopped in the street beside the house. I watched a thin man get out and make his way toward the house. I had never seen him before, but he looked like my dad.
The black sheep, ne’er do well, defective Uncle J. T. had taken a bus from Memphis to Gastonia and a taxi from Gastonia to his brother’s house in the little town of Clover to pay his last respects to his brother.
It was one of the most moving moments of my life. I joined in greeting and welcoming him, but my composure was crumbling. I had to walk away, walk outside and be alone for awhile.
Uncle J. T. went to the funeral service with us. Afterward I looked for him, but he was gone. Another uncle had taken him directly back to Gastonia and put him on a bus back to Memphis. I want to forgive that uncle for his misguided action, I know he didn’t understand, but it’s hard.
Uncle J. T. died three years later. I didn’t learn of his passing until weeks after he was laid to rest. It still makes me sad that I didn’t attend his funeral, didn’t pay my last respects to a man I never got to know but who touched my heart with his act of love and respect for my dad.
So here I honor you, my uncle, J. T. Sherrill, who fought the hot fight for four years and fought a cold, lonely, misunderstood fight for forty more. You gave your all.
My heart salutes you.