Meanwhile, I fortified myself with eggs, sausage, orange juice, coffee, and that peculiar Southern breakfast item, biscuits and gravy. They eat a lot of biscuits in Tennessee. It seemed as though they were served at every meal. Because they’re dry, people use them to “sop” soup or gravy. At one lunch, Radar Operator Dean ordered a ham steak, which of course was served with biscuits and something called “Red Eye Gravy.” It’s a thin sauce made from ham grease, coffee and paprika. Dean asked if I wanted to try it, instructing me to pour it over a biscuit. It’s unusual to my taste, bordering on weird.
After breakfast, Dean’s son arrived with a monstrous 15-passenger van, and there was about a half an hour confusion and discussion about how to load all these elderly men and their elderly wives into it. Eventually, the seating arrangements were worked out, and I rode in the seat furthest from the front. It involved clambering sideways over a wheel well and a spare tire. It was cramped and uncomfortable, and all I could think about during the drive along those twisty mountain roads was that if there was an accident, they’d have to cut me out with acetylene blowtorches.
We drove to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park museum. While we were there, a white-haired guy came up and introduced himself as Earl W*, a WWII B-24 pilot. There was an instant camaraderie between the men, who shared a conversation that ranged from technical details about the aircraft to the painful losses they had experienced. He posed for photos with the men, then said his goodbyes. Here’s the group (Left to Right: Radio Operator Jim G*, my dad, Tail Gunner Bob M* (behind the wheelchair), Co-Pilot Hank B* in the wheelchair, Radar Operator Dean B*, Earl W*, and Joe S*.
I was surprised how often people would come up to the crew to say hello, and often express their thanks for the service of these men. They were like celebrities, and they loved every minute of it.
After the museum, we drove to Dean’s family cabin, which is located a short distance from the park on a branch of the Little Pigeon river. We were surprised when, just outside the park gates, a police car pulled in front of us with its lights on and escorted us to the cabin. The officer pulled over at the driveway and saluted the vehicle as we pulled in. It was a surprise, and a good one.
Dean’s daughter Ruth and her husband live in the cabin, and it’s a beautiful spot.
Dean welcomed everyone, and we had a huge barbecue lunch. Ruth’s father-in-law brought a flying model of a B-29 with a 7-foot wingspan that he had made years ago (it no longer flies).
After lunch Ruth performed with her old-time Appalachian band, called “Boogertown Gap.” There’s an actual place called Boogertown in the hills of Tennessee. I have to wonder what they call their High School football team.
Dean is a soft-spoken Tennessee gentleman, with a gracious charm. He plays tennis, despite a hip injury that forces him to walk with a limp. And he’s active in his church, playing something called “hand bells” with his daughter Jan at church functions (I guess you can tell I don’t get out to church much). I asked him how long he had lived in this area, and he answered with a twinkle, “85 years.”
He’s the kind of guy who probably could have gone anywhere and done anything he wanted, but he wanted to stay in the Appalachians. And the Appalachians are all the better for it.
After lunch, Dean asked if anyone would like to take a short walk. My dad and my brother-in-law Lee declined, preferring to relax by the river:
Dean grabbed a cane, and led us up a dangerously steep little path along the side of a hill. One misstep, and you’d tumble 40 feet down into the river. The cherry trees were in bloom as we walked, passing an old cemetery and a covered bridge. Dean hobbled along like a mountain goat, outdistancing us all. It must be all those biscuits he eats.