Earl would tell you how angry I was when we were introduced.
Sitting at the nurses’ station one afternoon I saw him. Tall with dark wavy hair and wearing a blue lab coat, he was walking away down the hall. I leaned toward the nurse I was working with and said, “Ralph, do you see that guy?”
“I’d like to go out with him.” Now, I never dated men I worked with, and I guarded my private life at work. My heart skipped a few beats. How could I think this, let alone say it out loud.
“Haven’t you met Earl? He’s the chaplain,” Ralph said.
Raising my hands as a shield, I said, “Chaplain? Never mind! I don’t want anything to do with a preacher.” There was no room in my life for a Jesus freak to tell me how to live.
When Earl came back up the hall Ralph called him over, “Earl, this is Bert.”
Earl looked me in the eye, “Hi.”
“Hi.” I looked away. How am I supposed to talk to a chaplain?
Earl worked days and I worked afternoons, and he began calling and inviting me to eat supper with him in the cafeteria. We talked. I told him about my three-year-old daughter, Kari. I tried to explain why I’d left her with her father when we divorced but couldn’t. I filled him in on my nightly escapades at The Caravan—my bar. Maybe I was trying to shock him, but I learned he grew up in North Memphis and had his own stories to tell.
He was a seminary student at Candler School of Theology of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He was doing an internship in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) there at Methodist Hospital Central in Memphis. I didn’t know what any of that was, and I didn’t ask.
Early in my shift one afternoon in late August, Earl came to see me without calling. “Can you come out by the elevators for a minute?” he asked. We stood alone, “My internship is over and I’m going back to seminary.”
With my arms folded over my chest I asked, “When are you leaving?”
“My car is already packed and ready to pull out. I wanted to say good-bye.”
“When are you coming back?”
“I haven’t decided whether or not I am coming back.”
We hugged for the first time. A moment. And he got on the elevator and was gone.
I didn’t understand what I felt as I remembered his arms around me. The dam burst and tears poured from eyes that had been dry for many years. I told myself I didn’t care about him.
I spent as much time with Kari as I could. I loved her so much but didn’t know how to show it. I didn’t know what to do with her so I took her to McDonalds. We shared hamburgers, fries and a soda and she played in the playground. I saw forlorn dads doing the same with their kids and I felt like a failure.
On one long weekend off, I called my ex-husband, James, to see if I could get Kari.
A woman answered, “Hello.”
“Uh, can I talk to James?”
When he got on the phone I asked, “Can I get Kari for the weekend?”
“She’s at her aunts.”
We didn’t have any relatives in the area, so I asked, “Who is that?”
Winter came in cold and blustery. I felt like a dead leaf as I tumbled around the streets of Memphis. Barely functioning, I had called in sick so many times I was about to lose my job. One afternoon I overheard the staff chaplain say “Earl.”
I interrupted, “Is he the Earl who was here before?”
“Yes,” he said.
“How long has he been back?” I demanded.
“About a week.”
“You tell him to get his ass up here right NOW!”
Earl arrived without calling. After “Hello,” he said, “About your message. I wasn’t in the office when John got there so he wrote down what you said and put it on the message board for all the chaplains to see.” (I might have said something about my cowboy boots.)
I hadn’t thought about everyone knowing what I said, or how he would feel. I hesitated then said, “I’m sorry,” and followed with, “Why are you back here?”
“I’m doing a second CPE unit.”
We didn’t hug, or even touch, but started eating supper together again.
As Christmas approached, I made sure Earl knew about the party on our floor. It was on my day off so I took Kari, who had just turned four, with me. When she met Earl, she leaned against his legs and chattered to him to keep his attention focused on her.
The day after I took Kari back to James, he called, “Who the hell is Earl?”
“He’s the chaplain at the hospital.”
“Why is Kari naming toys after him?”
WE’RE JUST FRIENDS
The more time I spent with Earl the more I talked about my family. My parents always had some kind of business even though Dad worked at the power plant. The first was the Candyland, a small store where they sold chocolates when I was eight. Next, I helped at Don and Barb’s Recreation Center, a pool hall for teenagers. Then there was Don and Barb’s Café. I told him about my dad driving my mom to the airport and telling my sisters and me, “Girls, your mother has moved to California.” Then I told him about my dad molesting me when I was eleven.
I talked the most about living in “the bottoms.” My dad married Mary when I was fifteen and less than a year later she told him that her dead grandmother came to her in a vision and said that we had to “get away from the world” to be safe. Mary’s solution was to live in a converted school bus along McGee Creek in Mt. Sterling, IL.
I told Earl about my experiences as a hospital corpsman in the Navy. I enlisted at seventeen and turned eighteen in basic training—I received seventy “spankings.” After sixteen weeks, I received orders to report to Hospital Corp School in Chicago. Another sixteen weeks passed and I reported to my permanent duty station at the Navy hospital in Memphis.
After four years in the Navy and in a failing marriage, we moved away from the military beer-drinking crowds we knew. My beautiful baby girl gave me hope—for a while. I got my LPN license in El Dorado, AR then we moved back to Memphis and the same bars and drunks. I left my husband and my daughter in July 1983, but didn’t leave the bars.
I worked the evening shift so that I had less time to drink. Come eleven-fifteen I clocked out, changed in to my jeans and boots and went to The Caravan. Brenda, the bartender, and I often closed The Caravan at two A.M. and went to The Black Sheep. We’d buy liquor out of somebody’s trunk and stay out until the sun came up. That was the extent of my social life.
One night I noticed some of my friends had drifted away and I said something to Brenda. She said, “All you talk about is Earl. You and your damn chaplain!”
I protested, “We’re just friends.”
A year of meals shared and truths told went by, and I hadn’t thought much about our relationship until Earl surprised me at supper one evening, “Would you go out with me?”
“Are you crazy?” All I could think about was how terrible I was. How can he like me?
A month later, he asked again, “Will you go out with me?”
Reluctantly I agreed and on a hot July evening, I sat waiting for Earl in the hospital parking lot because I wouldn’t tell him where I lived. My palms were sweaty and when I saw his baby-blue Thunderbird, I caught my breath. I still couldn’t believe I was going on a date with a preacher. (I’d even had my hair done and was wearing the only dress I owned.)
Getting in his car my voice cracked as I said, “Hi.”
“Where are we going?”
“I made reservations at The 91st Bomb Group restaurant on the Memphis airport flight line.” The restaurant reminded me of one my Uncle Don had taken me to when I was eighteen. After dinner, we sat in the lounge and watched the runway and airplane lights as planes took off and landed.
“Have I told you how much I like flying?”
“Yes, that’s why I brought you here. Doesn’t your uncle fly?”
“Yes, he has a Cherokee 180 now. I remember flying over my hometown as a little girl and seeing Momma waving at me from the sidewalk in front of the Candyland. I guess I’ve loved flying ever since. Uncle Don even let me take the controls a few times when I visited him as an adult.”
We were unusually quiet for us on the trip back to the hospital. Earl parked next to my car, turned and asked, “Can I kiss you.”
“No!” I couldn’t kiss a preacher.
The next morning, I called Ralph. “Hey. You’ll never believe this, but Earl and I went on a date last night.”
“I knew you would.”
My co-workers teased me, “Bert’s chaplain,” and, “You know everybody’s watching you two.”
Earl’s arms around me reassured me that I was OK. After work the night before I’d gone to his apartment and told him I was going to The Caravan. He said, “If you drink too much call me.”
I didn’t drink too much, and I didn’t have a good time. The usual raucous crowd didn’t draw me in as I sat by myself at the bar nursing a warm Budweiser. Anger seethed through my veins. I had changed. What do I do now?
When I saw Earl the next day, I burst into tears and said, “I wish I had just gone home after work last night.” He wrapped his arms around me, brushed my hair back, and said, “I love you.” He’d spoken those words to me before, but after I calmed down, he looked into my eyes and continued, “Will you marry me?”
“Yes. Yes. Yes!” I wanted to get married right away, but Earl insisted we wait a respectable time. He wanted to get married on Christmas Day. “My favorite uncle, Dycus, married his bride on Christmas Day,” he said.
“How about New Year’s Day?”
“No. I want my own day.”
We compromised and set the date for December 29. I called Ralph. “Earl and I are engaged.” He said, “I know.” “Did Earl call you?” “No.” How does he know?
I had gone to Union Avenue United Methodist Church with Earl a few times. We’d always sat in the last pew and never attended a Sunday school class. I didn’t know Jesus but talked to Earl about baptism because I thought a preacher’s wife should be baptized.
After a Sunday evening service, I answered the pastors’ questions appropriately—making a profession of faith. Then he poured a palm-full of cold water on my head. As it slowly trickled down my scalp, I thought, “Shouldn’t I feel saved?”
We put our wedding date, December 29, on the church calendar.
My youngest sister, Bobbi, agreed to be my bridesmaid. Earl’s brother, Greg, agreed to be his best man, and Earl asked his pastor and friend, John Jones, to marry us. John didn’t know me so we met in the hospital cafeteria to talk. Somewhere in our dialog, he found me acceptable to become Earl’s wife. I walked away feeling as if I had known him forever, yet couldn’t remember one thing we talked about.
“Earl, how do you feel about me asking Ralph to give me away?”
“I think it’s a good idea if it’s all right with his wife.”
“Do you think Demita [another nurse we worked with] would hostess the reception?”
Earl and I shopped for my wedding gown together. We looked at several in the first shop. Then I found it! “This is the one, Earl.” White lace covered the simple white gown and formed elbow-length sleeves. I tried it on and it fit perfectly. The “V” neckline lengthened my already long neck. The bodice fit my small chest and the skirt was long enough that I wouldn’t need to have it altered. I turned around and around looking at my reflection in the room of mirrors. I felt like a princess in a fairy tale. “What do you think Earl?”
“I like it but let’s look at some other stores. We can always come back,” Earl said. We drove to a few more bridal shops then returned and bought that perfect gown and a long veil with matching lace trim.
Shopping for my ring happened the same way. I saw exactly what I wanted at the first jewelry counter: an anniversary band with the diamonds inset. “This is it.”
“Are you sure? Don’t you want an engagement ring?” Earl said.
“No. I don’t want a solitaire because I have to wear Latex gloves at work.” Earl wanted to shop around, but we went back and purchased the anniversary band.
“Earl, what about your ring? Aren’t we going to buy you one?” I asked.
“Dad gave me his ring from when he and Mom were married. All I need to do is get it sized,” he said.
We chose tan and blue as our colors and had cream-colored invitations embossed in blue ink. We made a list of friends and family and double-checked addresses. I thought my heart would burst as it raced with excitement the day we put them in the mail.
We ordered our silk flowers: a long bouquet of white roses and baby’s breath for me, a smaller bouquet for Bobbi, a corsage for Demita and rosebud boutonnieres for the men. All the arrangements completed, Earl’s dad made our hotel reservation at the Holiday Inn in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. Earl wanted to honeymoon in the Smoky Mountains where he’d vacationed many times with his family.
Earl showed me around Memphis that fall.
We took the monorail over to Mud Island River Park where I learned that it was built on a sandbar. I took my sandals off and walked in the River-Walk. The scale model of the lower Mississippi flowed from Cairo, Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico, though the “Gulf” held no water. A cleaning crew busily scrubbed the walls and floor. At dusk, Earl and I made out on the backside of the base below the flags of the nations that had owned the land—Spain, France, the United States, the Confederacy and the United States again.
He took me to the Peabody Hotel to see the Peabody Duck Walk. We walked through the opulent stores, shops and empty ballrooms. We listened to bands on the Peabody Roof a few evenings with some of the other chaplains.
We joined several chaplains at John Grissanti’s Italian Restaurant every Friday afternoon for all we could eat spaghetti for $4.99. Several complained that the bread was stale. I said, “It’s Italian! Tear off a piece and push your spaghetti with it. It’ll soften.” They all laughed.
Earl showed me the National Civil Rights Museum—Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. We walked past Sun Studio where Elvis recorded his first record. A new restaurant, Heartbreak Hotel, had just opened and closed down the street.
Our first family date, we took Kari to Libertyland, Memphis Amusement Park, where we road Elvis’ favorite rollercoaster, the Zippin Pippin, and the Old Hickory Log Flume. [Yes, we bought the picture.] Kari drove an old Model T on a rail with Earl by her side. It was her first amusement park and she was hooked.
Earl and I walked Beale Street from the river to Tom Lee Park and back. Earl talked about the history of the street musicians and pointed out B. B. King’s Club. The foot traffic bustled in and out of the many bars along the street and spoke languages from around the globe.
A. Schwab’s Dry Goods Store on Beale fascinated me. There was a huge scale bolted to the floor just inside the door. That store held everything I’d seen in a hundred small country stores and more under one roof. From top hats to coonskin caps. Neckties to a hangman’s noose. Ladies homespun cotton dresses, to little girl’s lace and crinoline pageant dresses. Cast iron cooking pots to sterling silver flatware. Nuts and bolts. Needles and thread. Even voodoo candles.
We dressed up for Halloween and went to Beale Street. Loud music blared from every bar and a couple of street bands. An odd couple, we received many stares. Earl, at six-five, wore a black trench coat with a rubber monster mask and black fishnet hose with work boots. I laughed as two small children screamed and ran away from him. I wore a pink mini-dress with a blue off the shoulder lace cover, white heels and matching pink and blue makeup. The cold temperature and noise ran me out in short time and Earl took me home.
Earl always had something to show me. Something to tell me. Often I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about so I just smiled and looked pretty.
We gathered at the church the evening before our wedding and went through the rehearsal—twice. Bobbi and I looked at each other and knew what the other was thinking. “I won’t remember any of this tomorrow.” John assured me that it would go fine, “Just listen to me and look at Earl.”
Our rehearsal dinner at my future in-laws’ home that evening made me uncomfortable. Tucker was a lawyer and had been a judge. He was the president of the commercial finance corporation for Holiday Inn. He and his beautiful wife, Sue, welcomed me to the family and even teased Earl and me about our courtship. What would they think if they knew the real me? After the meal, Bobbi and I sat huddled on the hearth. Earl stood next to us and I felt safe with him so near.
Saturday afternoon, December 29, 1985 Bobbi and I nervously put on our gowns and checked each other’s hair and makeup. Demita came in and said, “Let’s go upstairs now.” She and Ralph directed us to the sanctuary entrance. Demita settled my veil in place before slipping into a back pew—the same pew where Earl and I had always sat during church services.
I peeked into the sanctuary and saw Earl and Greg standing with John at the altar.
“Ralph, is it time yet?”
Finally, the prelude ended and the service began. Ralph sent Bobbi in telling her, “Go slow.”
“Can I go now?” I asked.
When the Wedding March began, I took Ralph’s arm and he said, “OK. Go slow.”
My bouquet shivered and my mind whirled as I made my way to my future husband. Once there, John reminded me, “Just listen to me and look at Earl.” I focused on Earl’s blue eyes. How had I missed the love they held for me?
John opened the service by reading 1 Corinthians 13, the Love Chapter. We quietly repeated our vows, exchanged our rings, and John said, “Earl you may kiss your bride.” He did so with a grin that matched mine—from ear to ear. John presented us, “Reverend and Mrs. Earl Dickerson.” Holding each other close, we rushed out of the sanctuary.
Our guests laughed as they showered us with birdseed when we left the church. We drove around midtown Memphis before returning for our reception. We slowly made our way through the receiving line in the parlor. My nerves were calm as Earl and I cut our wedding cake, politely fed each other, and opened gifts from our friends.
Earl and I went to dinner at Captain Bilbo’s on the Mississippi river. As we stood on the dock looking at the river tears of joy dropped from my eyes.
Excited about taking me to the Smoky Mountains on our honeymoon, Earl woke me early Sunday morning. I’d never seen the Smoky Mountains so Earl described them to me as we traveled. His dad, a history buff, had taught him and his siblings about the area when they visited on family vacations.
When we arrived at our hotel the sun had set and the Holiday Inn sign glared, “Congratulations Earl Dickerson!” Earl laughed. I didn’t. As we checked in the desk clerk told us we were the only guests in the facility. We unpacked and climbed back in the car. Earl wanted me to see the local area and couldn’t wait until morning. A bar with three cars out front held the only sign of life.
Earl woke up early every morning, and I wanted to sleep late. He took me all over the valley, through the mountains and foothills and up as close as we could get to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Snow had already blocked the road. As we traveled the narrow, icy, snow-encrusted mountain roads in Earl’s car, I could only see air and the tops of pine trees at times. The car slipped on the ice so often that I kept my head down in fear. Earl laughed.
We stopped at almost every lookout area and breathed in the clean, crisp air. The views looked like picture postcards. Most days a soft pillow of white clouds floated over the mountains as far as I could see. On other days, the clouds thinned out and I saw wisps of white smoke rising in the distance and caught the aroma of wood fires from nearby homes. The area seemed raw and uninhabitable, but never the less we saw a few mountain dwellers meager tarpaper shacks. They had less protection from the elements than my family’s bus home in the bottoms.
Cades Cove reminded me of the rural area around the bottoms. The fields and straight tree lines held that fine line between domesticated and wild. Earl drove ever so slow and we saw several deer in the distance. Around a curve, in a dense area of arching trees and brush, we saw three deer loitering in the road. Earl turned the car off and we sat watching them until they moved along.
Every little old church in the cove had a story and Earl stopped at each one to tell me about it. We looked in windows and walked around small family cemeteries. Earl’s voice sounded different, more alive as he subtly taught me Christian history in the Smoky Mountains.
The first old mill we stopped at we walked on three-inch-thick ice, down the path, and over an ice-covered footbridge. Then we slid down too quickly and slammed into the weather worn wall of gray wood planks. The structure was dilapidated, the waterwheel unmoving but the stream—how beautiful it looked and sounded! The crystal-clear water rippled over the stones and tinkled like tiny natural bells. A suspended icy crust had formed along the banks where water had splashed into low brush. It brought back memories, maybe too many. I realized I missed the isolation and simplicity of the bottoms.
One morning Earl wanted to go to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, and I didn’t want to get up. He went on and woke me when he came back. He’d bought the book and told me everything about each picture. His excitement made me wish I’d gone with him. I didn’t ever want to miss enjoying anything with him again.
We walked through shops filled with Native American arts and crafts in Cherokee, North Carolina, and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. The pottery, baskets, beadwork and woodcrafts reminded me of ChucalissaIndian Village in Memphis. We drove to the entrance to Unto These Hills and many other closed seasonal attractions and promised each other we’d return in warmer weather.
Gatlinburg, Tennessee, nearly overwhelmed me with more shops: fudge, taffy, T-shirts and other souvenirs. Ripley’s Believe it or Not fascinated me until intrigued I looked closer. The Guinness World of Recordsopened my eyes to the things some people did to be “famous.” The craft stores titillated my artsy side; I kept saying “I’ve made those” and “I could do that.” So why didn’t I?
Earl insisted on visiting Christus Gardens, which held several life-sized biblical scenes of Jesus as he ministered 2000 years ago. I walked through quickly and waited for Earl to finish. Instead, he called me back again and again to tell me the stories. I didn’t understand “Jesus.”
Discount bookstores in Pigeon Forge, attracted Earl while I preferred the outlet malls filled with china shops, shoe stores and perfume shops. We browsed through antique stores where I saw farm equipment like the tools I’d used in the bottoms: horse collars and harness, singletrees and doubletrees, scythes and pitchforks and hand tools for hewing logs to build log cabins.
We went to Dollywood on Sunday morning and attended worship at the Robert F. Thomas Chapel there. Earl sang with the choir, and we talked with them after church. They and many in the congregation were Dollywood employees.
After the service, we began my first trek through Dollywood. We both gravitated toward the more primitive skills: woodcarver, blacksmith, basket weaver, and glassblower. I checked out quilts, clothes, and handcrafted art of many styles. Earl wandered through several historical displays. We never lost sight of each other. We sat through several of the shows—and I liked a few.
Our last evening arrived too soon. Still the only guests, we sat in the hotel dining room, staring at the small fire Earl had started in the fireplace and held each other. Earl asked me, “What are you thinking about?”
“I don’t want to go back,” I said. The solitude, like that of the bottoms, and Earl’s arms around me, held me safe.
We’d only been home a few days when our telephone rang at five A.M. Sunday, January 13, 1986. Earl answered it expecting the call to be the hospital notifying him, as a chaplain, that they needed his service. Instead, he said, “Bert, its Mary, your step-mother.”
“What does she want?” I grumbled as I got up and took the phone. No one had my number except Bill, and he knew not to give it to anyone.
“How the hell did you get my number?” I asked.
“Bill gave it to me,” she said.
“What do you want?”
“Your dad died at three this morning,” she said. “I woke up with him thrashing and I couldn’t wake him up. He had a heart attack.”
My last conversation with my father churned in my stomach and bile burned my throat. We were sitting in Morrie’s Tavern and he said, “If you ever can’t make it to your apartment (referring to my drinking) you can come to my house.”
I thanked him, and he said, “You don’t understand.”
I said, “I do. After all, you’re my dad.”
Then he said, “If you come to my house you sleep in my bed.” I sat there staring at my beer. “You know I’ve always wanted you,” he continued.
“Yes. I know.” I stood slowly, turned and walked toward the restroom on wobbling legs. I collapsed into the arms of a friend. I told him what happened and he took me out the back door. That was the last time I’d seen Dad.
All the anguish, all the painful memories of my life flooded my mind. It all began with him, and I told Mary I wouldn’t go to his funeral. Earl knew my history better than anyone I’d ever known and insisted I go – for my sake.
We drove to Spearsville, Louisiana and checked into the same hotel where my grandparents were staying. We went to their room and found that Grandma had already helped Grandpa get in bed. He looked so frail under all the heavy blankets he needed to stay warm. Kari had never met her great-grandparents before, yet being herself, she talked with Grandpa as if she knew him.
We arrived at a small Baptist church Monday morning for the funeral and sat on the first pew. I couldn’t stay in my seat. I walked back and forth to the open casket and every time I looked at his cold, dead body, I became angrier. Why didn’t I tell him how much he hurt me?
I wanted to shake him and slap him awake! I wanted him alive so I could kill him with my bare hands! He was my daddy and I hated him! I sobbed as tears crashed to my cheeks like ocean waves on a deserted beach.
When I took Kari to the casket she asked, “Did he die last night?” She thought she’d met this “grandpa” the evening before. She’d only been two-years-old the last time she saw my dad.
“Oh, no come over here,” I said as I took her to her great-grandpa. She sat beside him and started talking just as she’d done the night before.
When the service began, Earl kept one arm around my shoulders and held my trembling right hand while Kari sat on my lap and hugged my neck. I felt sorry for the pastor. I couldn’t imagine preaching a funeral for a man you never met and knew nothing about. If he knew the truth, would he have refused to do Dad’s funeral? I wondered if preachers ever said no.
After the funeral, we ate a meal the church provided then went to the grave. In an instant, I remembered stepping on that particular gravesite many years before when Mary took me with her to check gravestones of her ancestors. When I had stepped on it, fear froze my heart. I ran out of the cemetery and never looked back – until that day.
We changed clothes and loaded in the car to go home. Mary came over and asked me why I hadn’t talked to Dad or accepted his mail in two years. I said, “He’s dead and it doesn’t matter.” She handed me a crisp new twenty-dollar bill and said, “Buy something for Kari.”
We figured that just about paid for our gas.
THIS WAS JUST THE BEGINNING.