Much-needed beauty encountered on my lunchtime walk.
“If you truly love Nature, you will find beauty everywhere.” ~Vincent Van Gogh
Last week, I joined Will’s Boy Scout troop for a few days of summer camp at Raven Knob Scout Reservation near Mount Airy, North Carolina. I always look forward to these outings, primarily because they are an opportunity to spend treasured time with Will, but also because I am committed to giving back to the Scouting organization that has given so much to me over the years.
I was particularly looking forward to visiting Raven Knob with Will because our visit would mark the second and third generation of Wagoners being campers there. Raven Knob had been the camp of my father, his brothers, and cousin (Eagle Scouts all) when they were Boy Scouts in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
That was a long time ago. But, I’m a sentimental guy, and I liked the idea of continuing the legacy. And, despite the passage of time, I hoped against hope that I might be able to find physical confirmation of the fact that Will’s and my visit to Raven Knob would constitute something of a “coming home” – and so, upon arrival, I began my search for Uncle Bubba’s water fountain.
Oh, how I wanted to get a photo of Will and me at that fountain. I steeled myself for it not being there. My uncle Bill had looked for it on Google Earth, and saw that a waterfront shelter now stood in its place. “Time marches on,” he said. Still, I hoped. Sure, it had been over 50 years, and no one there remembered, but would they really have gotten rid of it?
They hadn’t. The fountain, though moved from its original location, was still there, right in the center of things at the waterfront, just as I had always imagined Bubba to be. Though there were few left who still had first-hand memories of the reason for that fountain, they hadn’t forgotten.
Back story: On an August night in 1957, my 16 year old uncle Carroll “Bubba” Wagoner was the driver of a car carrying four friends down a mountain road. Going too fast, he missed a curve at the bottom, and slammed into a truck. Bubba was killed instantly, and two of his friends died shortly thereafter.
A couple of years later, a granite water fountain was erected in Bubba’s memory at the Raven Knob waterfront. Here’s a photo of my grandparents, their grief still raw, at the dedication:
I never met Bubba; I was born six years after that hot August night when he and two friends became a tragic example of just how fragile and fleeting life can be. In addition to carrying his name, though, I have always felt that I knew him. Family ties and stories run strong in my clan. I know that he got the nickname “Bubba” because his 3-year old big brother (my Dad) mispronounced “brother” as “bubba”. I know that he was precocious and mischievous, and always in the thick of things. I know that he loved Scouting. I know that, with my middle name of Carroll, I have a lot to live up to.
Here is the photo of the 2nd and 3rd generation Wagoners at the fountain:
My family is deeply grateful to those at Raven Knob Scout Reservation for ensuring that, despite the passage of time, Bubba is still there. I’m especially grateful to Camp Historian Ken Badgett, and Camp Director Keith Bobbitt, for their graciousness and for their interest in knowing more about Bubba’s story.
After a trying day at work, I stopped by a neighborhood bar/grill that I had been to a few times for a burger and a beer. I had found it to be a mellow place on past visits, but tonight I found that it was full of raucous 20-somethings. Oh well.
With no tables available, I took a stool at one end of the bar, placed my order, and started scanning Facebook on my phone, trying to ignore the noise around me. I quickly realized that the otherwise attractive young woman a few stools down was determined to make her presence known, however, with a foul mouth that rivaled anything I had heard in the locker room or fraternity house. Knowing that she was somebody’s daughter, and resisting the temptation to ask her if she ate with that mouth, I focused on my burger and ordered another beer.
I soon wished that I hadn’t, as she was drowned out by the drunk Trump supporter sitting next to me. After a few random Hillary zingers directed at no one in particular, he asked me who I supported. Realizing that he was not to be denied, as he was on one side of me and the wall was on the other, I knew that I had to engage. What the heck, here goes….
“Well, I like Biden, but since he’s not running, I’ll vote for Hillary.”
Incredulous, he bashed Biden, then Hillary, then Democrats in general. Foolishly, realizing that I couldn’t get rid of him and wanting to finish my meal, I tried to have a rational debate with him. He’d have none of it, but it seemed to tire him a bit. He then changed course and conspiratorially leaned over and asked “do you want to hear something funny?”
“Sure,” I said.
(Insert racist joke here).
Recognizing that I didn’t guffaw along with him and probably noticing my clenching jaw, he went back to politics.
“Seriously, though, what about gay marriage? Where will it end? What if I wanted to marry my sister? Or my German Shepherd?”
Coming up with the only response I could think of that might shut him up, I smiled, looked him in the eye, and said “I hope the two of you will be very happy together.”
His jaw dropped, I paid my tab, and left.
So how was your evening?
This past weekend, a group of 15 boys from Charlottesville’s Boy Scout Troop 1028 devoted a day to hiking every inch of the Rivanna Trail loop – a 20 mile jaunt that circles the City of Charlottesville – while picking up trash along the way.
The boys ranged in age and experience from fresh-faced 11-year-old Scouts out for their first long hike to seasoned teenagers preparing for an upcoming expedition at the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. All were challenged (including their adult leaders!) and went to sleep that night with a feeling of accomplishment that few of their non-Scouting friends could have shared.
It’s my continuing privilege to be involved with a program that, at its best, takes an otherwise disparate group of boys – some in Troop 1028 are in public school, some are in private school, and some are home-schooled – and focuses on their commonalities, delivering positive experiences that they will carry for a lifetime. All of the boys face the pressures of adolescence, all enjoy meeting – and beating – a challenge, and all want to be the best versions of themselves that they can be. Scouting helps the boys improve themselves while they improve their world. For that, I am grateful.
When applied to the Confederate battle flag, the “heritage not hate” slogan all too often seems to be spouted out of only one side of a Southern drawler’s mouth, while the other side, given the proper audience and circumstance, may be saying something altogether different. That said, there is some truth to the notion of a Southern regional pride that, to me at least, is as inescapable as the humidity of a summer south of the Mason-Dixon.
When I was a boy, I had a Confederate battle flag tacked up on the wall of my bedroom. I don’t recall when or where I got it. It was likely a gift shop souvenir from one of the many Civil War battlefield site tours that my Dad took our family on after we moved to Virginia in the late ’60’s. All I remember is that the flag was a constant presence on my wall as I passed through boyhood, into my teen years, and then on to college.*
Some of you who are reading this are likely aghast at my flag revelation. “I thought I knew him! How could he be one of … them? How could he have displayed that symbol of treason, and prejudice, and hate?”
The thing is, I did no such thing. Though they looked the same, the flag that I had tacked on my wall was not the same as the flag of the KKK, George Wallace, and Dylann Roof. It was, indeed, a symbol of heritage – a nod to the place from whence my people came. Just as my grandmother’s United Daughters of the Confederacy membership certificate was prominently displayed in a frame on her wall, my Confederate battle flag held a prized spot on mine. Not unlike my grandmother, I bought into the Lost Cause narrative to a certain extent. I displayed the flag because it conjured up ineffable notions of duty, loyalty, chivalry, tradition, and family – with perhaps a bit of adolescent rebellion thrown in for good measure. Slavery, prejudice, and oppression didn’t enter into my thinking. In later years I did come to wrestle with the knowledge that the awful institution of slavery had existed under that flag. But, I knew as well that the Stars and Stripes had flown over the United States’ mistreatment of Native Americans in the 19th century, and of Japanese Americans during World War II, and nobody was suggesting getting rid of Old Glory.
In fact, few seemed to be suggesting getting rid of the Confederate battle flag, either. It was everywhere when I was growing up – bedroom walls, keychains, t-shirts, beach towels, bumperstickers. It was even on prime time TV, on the roof of the General Lee on “The Dukes of Hazzard” – and nobody ever called Bo and Luke Duke racists!
That has all changed, however. No amount of Southern hospitality and gentility can overcome the fact that the bad guys have won this battle. And no, I’m not talking about Sherman’s army and its scorched-earth campaigns, or opportunistic Yankee carpetbaggers. I’m talking about hate-filled racists like Dylann Roof. I’m talking about white supremacists of all stripes, whether they are driven by mental illness or plain and simple ignorance. Just as Hitler co-opted the sacred religious symbol of the swastika for his Third Reich, Roof and his ilk have co-opted the Confederate battle flag for their own vile purposes. It has no business flying on government property, and I congratulate South Carolina for taking it down.
As for the rest of us, it rightfully comes down to an individual decision. Those who advocate making it illegal to display the Confederate battle flag are off-base and need to read the 1st Amendment. No, we are all free to fly the flag – or not – as our conscience dictates.
It was one of the great privileges of my life to be able to speak at my father’s funeral. As tomorrow will mark one year since the day that Dad left this earth and moved on to his next adventure, I believe it is fitting to publish the eulogy in this space. Here it is – this time, without tears – but with every bit of the same emotion as when I spoke the words.
EULOGY FOR JENNINGS L. WAGONER, JR.
January 30, 2013
It’s only been in the past few years that I have really recognized how much of my life I have subconsciously patterned after my Dad’s. As those who know me well will attest, I don’t always have a gift for recognizing the obvious.
Dad went to Wake Forest, and Wake Forest remained near and dear to him. Despite having grown up in the shadow of Mr. Jefferson’s University, I also went to Wake Forest. There was no pressure involved – it just seemed like the right thing to do.
Like Dad, I was active in fraternity life while in college. I didn’t pledge the same one – but I wasn’t trying to be different. I sought out the house where I felt the best fit. It was no coincidence that my Sigma Chi of the early 1980’s happened to be the house that best mirrored Dad’s Kappa Sigs of the late 1950’s.
Dad was a thinker, and a reader, and a writer. He taught me how to write by way of liberal application of red ink to any rough draft that I would show him. The corrections were sometimes difficult to take – but they always helped. In like manner, my kids and many of my work colleagues know that if they ask for me to edit a draft – I will edit the draft.
Dad was a worker. As a professor, his was not a 9-to-5 job. He didn’t clock out when he came home. I am sure that he spent many more hours working at home in his study than he did in the classroom or in his office in Ruffner Hall. While our career paths went in different directions – Dad was in education and I have been in law and business – our habits are much the same. He taught me that work is not the most important thing – but it is an important thing – and it can’t be done well in the space of an 8 hour day.
Dad was a Cub Scout, Boy Scout, Eagle Scout, and Scout leader. I was a Cub Scout, Boy Scout, Eagle Scout, and am a Scout leader.
Dad loved high adventure – while he enjoyed all sorts of outdoor activities, he was drawn to those that involve personal challenge and a gut check – things that get the blood pumping and adrenaline racing. And, he particularly enjoyed making these experiences available to others.
He shared with me the challenge of climbing up a rock face, and the thrill of rappelling back down. I well remember how excited I was when my wife Jennifer finally let her determination – and my coaxing – overcome her fear, and took that first backward step off the top of the cliff at Raven’s Roost.
Together with some adventurous Sunday School classmates, some of whom are here today – Dad took on the world-class rapids of the Gauley River in West Virginia. A year or so later, he invited me to join that group on a Gauley raft. In the years since, I have organized many Gauley trips of my own.
I could go on with the parallels. I want to be clear that I was never trying to be Dad – I could never come close – but I was, sometimes consciously and more often subconsciously – trying to be like him. Sometimes I succeeded, and sometimes I didn’t.
When I pass, I cannot imagine having that event producing anything close to the same outpouring of love and admiration that you and so many others have expressed. So many people have said wonderful things about the impact that Dad had on their lives. Dad’s literal shoes were a size 9 ½, but his figurative shoes were immense. Much too big to try to fill.
It has only been in the past few years that I have realized that he didn’t see it that way. My failures – and I’ve had some doozies – were not disappointments or embarrassments for Dad. He hurt with me. I was always humbled by him, but he never humbled me.
And he reveled in my successes.
As with most parents, Dad gave me many material things over the years. But, his encouragement, his pride, his affirmation, and his love were the most precious gifts that he could offer – and he showered me with them. Those are gifts that I can never repay – I can only hope that I can pay them forward with my own kids.
As with so many other things that I’ve done in following Dad’s lead, that just seems like the right thing to do.