This is a story I am writing about my great-grandfather. Most of this story is true - at least as true as family legends ever are - but I have changed most of the names.
I have never been sure where the stubbornness came from. Perhaps it was just the stock from which he had descended: settlers who chose to stay in the rocky, humid Ozarks rather than seek better lands and better fortunes farther out west. Perhaps growing up as an orphan and a child abandoned by his father made him develop a grand self-confidence and pig-headedness as a kind of defense mechanism.
Not even the United States Army could break his will.
In 1917, Tom was drafted into the Army that would cross the ocean to “bury the hatchet in the Kaiser’s head,” as a popular song of the time put it. Tom’s strong will made an appearance when he was being processed with all the new conscripts. He never had a middle name. He was born simply “Thomas Ash,” but for most of his life had been known as “Thomas White.” A middle name seemed unnecessary. When Tom was processed into the Army, he was told to choose a middle name for himself. Tom White was simply too common a name for the Army to keep tabs on him. He refused. He said that he had been just Tom White for twenty-five years, and that he was fine staying just Tom White. Finally, it was the Army that relented. They assigned him the middle initial N., and for the rest of his life if anyone asked him what the N stood for, he would simply say, “Nothing.”
After his basic training, Thomas N. White was shipped to France, where he joined Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force as it reinforced Allied lines in the trenches of Western Europe. His experience in the war was unremarkable. He was simply another American doughboy in a drab uniform and helmet, helping the historic kingdoms and empires of the Old Country fight it out in the French farms and villages. In my mind, however, I always imagine the resolute Tom White stubbornly fending off a German advance as he attempted to fend off a trash truck so many years later.
The garbage truck continued its reverse toward Tom. The driver, unaware of Tom’s presence, had no reason to slow down or to stop. As the truck neared him, Tom’s native stubbornness became entrenched. He raised his cane and banged it on the back of the truck, in a gesture of pig-headedness and defiance. He continued to beat on the truck until it hit him. It didn’t back over him exactly; it just kind of brushed him back. The driver, noticing that something was wrong the moment the truck hit resistance, stopped immediately and shifted into first gear, trying to get the truck out of the way so he could go help the old man he had just run into. The truck had only caused a superficial scratch or two when it hit Tom, but instead of getting up and thanking the gods of luck that his wounds had been so minor, Tom hooked his cane onto the handle on the back of the garbage truck and held on. So as the truck moved forward, it dragged Tom for about thirty yards. The friction with the asphalt ripped up his pants and tore deep, bloody gashes in his legs. It broke one of his arms and imprinted deep bruises on his torso.
The truck driver jumped out of his cab and ran to see what had happened. He shouted, “Sir! Are you okay?”
That’s when Tom began to curse.
Tom White was a much-experienced and well-practiced master of cussing. It was the railroad that did it; working for his entire career in that sort of environment, he really had no hope of maintaining an innocent, virtuous mouth. Years after Tom’s death, his grandson recalled that visiting Tom was a lesson in the masterful use of foul language. He would sit in his living room recliner, and as he talked to the men in his family, he would punctuate each sentence with phrases like, “Shit-hole…goddamn…piss off…damn it all to hell.” He also had a habit of clearing his throat loudly. So every conversation with Tom ran basically the same course: “Goddamn! Ah-HUM…Aw hell….Dad-durn dog like ta eht me up! However, Tom transformed into a perfect gentleman any time a woman entered the room, whether it was one his daughter, daughter-in-law, granddaughter, or his shrew of a wife. When he was around women, Tom White was gentle, courtly, and polite.
Once, when Tom’s son was a boy, Tom invited him to bring his school friends out to the rail yards one day. He said he would give them a tour and talk to them about what he did with the railroad. On the designated day, Tom’s son showed up with his friends, and he looked around for his father.
Then he saw him. Tom was standing near the rails supervising a group of men. He was shouting at them and trying to motivate them to work faster, and he was using the foulest, harshest, nastiest language his son had ever heard. (I heard this story from Tom’s son, who himself was a master of choice language.) The son was so shocked and embarrassed by his father’s language that he knew he could not introduce him to his friends. Tom's son scanned the rail yard with his eyes, as if he was looking for someone. Then he said, "I don't see him, boys. I guess he isn't here today. I guess we'd better leave."
I was not there to hear it, but those who were said that the sky turned a different color as Tom White lay bleeding on the pavement that day. He wasn’t cursing the driver, himself, or even his misfortune. He was just cursing because it was in his nature to do so.