I’m having a hell of a time untangling the overgrown jungle of stories, anecdotes, tall tales and colorful characters that took root in my head during our 11-day stay in Tallapoosa, Ga., last May.
In an effort to begin to separate the tendrils, I return to Monday, May 6, 2013, when Anthony and I made a pit stop at Terry Shealy’s place on our way back from the Fruithurst Winery in Alabama.
Terry, Anthony’s cousin, is the son of Shorty and Etta Shealy. Etta was the youngest of John and Emma Clark’s 11 kids. Everyone here pronounces her name “Etter.” I visited with Etta once. It was during the fall of 2002, during my first visit with Clara Williams, her sister. Etta had suffered a stroke and had trouble communicating. I remember she liked sitting in a chair in the evening and watching her beloved Atlanta Braves on television as a breeze blew through a window screen.
When we pulled into town Friday morning, this was our first stop. I knocked on Terry’s door but got no answer. We moved on to the cemetery at nearby Riverside Baptist Church, where we found Etta’s stone. Her death was news (I had heard nothing since Clara’s death on Aug. 26, 2009, 12 days after her 92nd birthday), though I was prepared to find out that Etta had passed away.
She made it to September of last year, when she died at 92 years and three months. She was the last surviving and longest living of all her siblings.
Becky and I visited Terry’s 100-acre spread on Shealy Road back in 2003. Beefy, Anthony’s younger brother, brought us here. Keith Williams, aka Beefy, was a troubled soul. He treated us with unfailing kindness and generosity. When we arrived, we ate scupadines right off Terry’s lush vines and made the acquaintance of Bucky, his 3-year-old deer.
When I inquired about Bucky over the weekend, Anthony unleashed a mischievous smile, a smile which telegraphed an imminent story.
A couple years after our meeting, Anthony said, Bucky nearly killed Terry when he got a little too amped up during rutting season. Bucky gored Terry in the leg and threatened to overpower him.
There’d be no scupadines, no Bucky today.
A train whistle blew in the distance. I thought of Uncle Howard.
Anthony told me a story about Uncle Howard just last night. The Shealy family is a veritable mother lode of color. Howard was one of Shorty’s brothers, and therefore uncle to Anthony and Terry.
This ground we stood upon was once Uncle Howard’s place. He made the money. He bought this 100-plus acre spread.
Howard got drunk one day and tried to drive his old car over a railroad crossing at the same time a Southern Pacific freight was on the track. That was Uncle Howard’s end.
Shorty’s another story. A family legend, he’s one guy who didn’t really need a nickname. Born Herschel Cicero Shealy, Shorty was a wizard with an ax.
Trademark Camel cigarette dangling from his lips, Shorty could carve up a pig the way Tom Brady slices and dices NFL secondaries.
Ben Shealy was the paterfamilias. He had a leg shot off by revenuers and walked with a peg leg the rest of his years. He also had a harelip and a wife named Fanny. She was a full-blooded Cherokee. Nobody recalls or says much about Fanny except that she was mean.
Consequently, all of Ben and Fanny’s kids seemed to get away from home early. They had 12 of them. Shorty made off with one of his brothers when he was 10 and went to Gadsden, Ala., where he got a job pumping gas.
Anthony and I found Terry in his workshop, laboring over brood boxes. He is a quiet man. Friendly and soft-spoken, he seems to have quarantined all the color inside him. He has seen too much color in his days.
Terry and Anthony were in the same class in school. They were more brothers than cousins. Until they were 14 or 15, they were next-door neighbors. Terry lived on the opposite bank of the branch which runs headlong into 78 Highway from the house where Anthony grew up and lives today. Two creosote logs formed the simple footbridge they traversed a million times as kids.
“Terry and I would roam free,” Anthony said. “We would leave here and go across the highway and to the Tallapoosa River, all the way to through the woods.”
Shorty and Etta worked the day shift at American Thread, the cotton gin. Clara worked the night shift. Sometimes she’d go into work a little early and leave Terry and Anthony sitting on the steps outside.
One day, when they were about 6, they stumbled on their fathers and found them in an unusually good mood.
“Uncle Shorty also was a deacon down at Riverside,” Anthony said. “I can remember Terry and I coming around the shed out there, and there was Daddy and Uncle Shorty with a half-gallon jug. They were just ripping with laughter. Then we went and tried it, and, Oh Lord!”
If Terry doesn’t talk much, he says plenty. When he does talk, he speaks softly. His cadence is matter-of-fact. His bearing is tolerant, his eyes small pools of understanding.
Words flow from his mouth with slow and simple purpose, like water tumbling easily over river rocks on its way to the sea.
When we shook hands, something felt a bit funny. Oh, he said, I had a little accident in the shop last year. Sawed off a couple fingers. The doctor managed to save his ring finger with some nifty needlework, but he lost the pinky.
The course of his life had prepared him to greet such a calamity as a minor inconvenience.
On the afternoon before Thanksgiving, 2011, he was out in his yard tending to his bees when his peace was shattered by an unholy racket in the sky. He gazed up and saw a small airplane faltering near his tree line.
He watched as it banked sharply in the direction of his cornfield. He watched as it missed its mark, smashed into a giant maple, broke up and cartwheeled to the ground.
It burst into flames before his eyes. He ran toward the scene, where he encountered a man walking away from the wreckage. Alex Woliver, 24, was terribly burned but alert. His parents, 56-year-old Kim Woliver and 53-year-old Trish Woliver, were dead in the smoking remains of their Cessna 177.
Alex Woliver asked Terry if he might unbuckle his belt. The buckle was burning into his waistline. He was charred to the bone. Burns covered 90 percent of his body. Alex, who was close to getting his degree in mechanical engineering, died in an Atlanta hospital on the following Sunday.
The family was en route to Panama City, Fla., from Knoxville, Tenn.
When Anthony excused himself to go to the bathroom, I asked Terry about the wreck. I said, “That’s something nobody wants to see, to be the first person at an airplane wreck.”
The air between us filled with silence.
Not knowing what to say, I said nothing. Instead I looked down at my shoes, shook my head and muttered something under my breath about how fucked up that was.
Terry shrugged his shoulders.
“I was OK,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot worse.”
A lot worse than witnessing a plane crash and tending to a dying man, well, that lies in a realm somewhere beyond my imagination.
I kept my mouth shut.
My flabbergast couldn’t help but register with Terry. He briefly mentioned his time in Vietnam, where he served as a member of a search-and-destroy unit.
That’s were he saw things a lot worse than a live plane crash, two dead bodies and a dying man smoldering right in front of him.
His battle with post-traumatic stress is chronic. He manages it best he can with the coping techniques he has picked up along the way.
Primary among them are keeping busy and staying at home.
Bees are his therapy. He has more than 40 hives on his property. He was making frames for brood boxes when we showed up and interrupted him.
It’s his comfort zone. He doesn’t dare leave it for long.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he was vacationing in, of all places, Panama City, Fla.
He hasn’t taken a vacation since.
“I’m a homebody,” he said. “And I don’t like change. At all. I don’t even like the furniture moved.”
So he’s OK. As long as he has his bees and their hives to occupy his time and his thoughts, he’s just fine.
Most of the time, that is.
When the Vietnam Moving Wall came to Tallapoosa in 1993, he decided to see it out of respect to his comrades. He soon wished he hadn’t. The experience was too much and sent him into a tailspin.
“I didn’t sleep for two months,” he said. “Now I don’t do anything like that. Period.”
The plane that crashed and burned and killed three people while he watched? He only suffered a couple of sleepless nights afterward.
I thought about the terrible images haunting his head, and his sweet and gentle nature. I couldn’t make it all add up in my head.
Then Anthony returned, and we said goodbye and headed back to Alabama.
Our day was just beginning.