My husband, children, and I just boarded the airplane that will fly us from San Francisco to Charlotte, North Carolina where either a brother or sister will pick us up and take us home to Montcross, North Carolina. We are returning to remember my father, Raymond Johnson, Sr., who passed away yesterday, May 20, 1984.
Dad retired from the Montcross Railyard which was still running full steam in 1965. At 68 years old, he wanted to spend time traveling with Mother. No matter where they traveled or how long they were gone, both looked forward to returning to Montcross.
The textile business was still active and making money in 1959 when I left my home in Montcross at the age of 24 to follow my husband. This will be the first time I have been home in fifteen years because Mom and Dad would visit us wherever we lived at the time for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter. In the 25 years since I left Montcross, we called Centennial, Colorado; Amarillo, Texas; Phoenix, Arizona; and finally, San Francisco, California home. Alvin, my husband, has been a troubleshooter for the Western Pacific, the Southern Pacific, and the Union Pacific railroad. Each town had its own unique characteristics, but they never lived up to the small town experiences I had growing up in Montcross. There have been times I wished my children could have grown up there, but it would have been too painful for me…
As I take my seat on this dimly lit plane, I close my eyes and my mind returns back in time to the years growing up downtown at the corner of Main Street and Todd Street. When I was six years old, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the country was thrown into the great conflagration that was World War II. My oldest brother, Ray, Jr., immediately enlisted into the Marine Corps and I can vividly remember the day he left for boot camp. It was cold and snowy that morning. As we loaded the car, my brother Ray acted like he was not nervous but I am sure Jimmy, Elizabeth, and Mom and Dad knew better. When Ray left we worried that he would never come home again. While 1942 had just started, it would end up being the worst year of my young life.
The day, May 23, 1942, my brother Jimmy passed his flight test to earn his private pilot’s license was the same day my life changed and almost ended. As a youngster, I had a bad habit of riding my bicycle down the driveway at breakneck speed to see how fast I could make the turn onto the sidewalk. But, that day, I missed the sidewalk and flew into the street where a car hit me head-on. I never saw him and he never saw me until it was too late.
I broke my arm and my pelvis. Both healed just fine, but the head injury from the accident would linger for years and occasionally the tentacles still rear their ugly head today, but not like that first horrific year. Mom and Dad worked really hard to help me overcome the effects, but my childhood was marred by the pain and seemingly unending difficulties it caused.
As the plane leaves the runway enroute to Atlanta, I cannot help but wonder what Montcross will look like after all these years. For the next week, Alvin and our three children will have time to visit with the siblings I idolized growing up and their nine children. This will be the first time that all of us have been together at the house on Main and Todd in 20 years, and Jimmy’s son, Ray, will be there with his two children and the first Johnson Family great-grandchildren. It will be good to see Jimmy, Elizabeth, and Myra even though we are gathering to remember our Dad.
My fourteen year old and youngest daughter, Grace, asked, “Mommy, why do you have tears in your eyes? Are you sad about Grandpa?”
“I’m remembering Grandpa, and I miss my brother, Ray, too,” I replied.
“Will Aunt Sara be there this week? And, what happened to Uncle Ray, again?” Alvin, Jr., my seventeen-year-old son asked.
“I don’t think Aunt Sara will make it down from Edenton this week, but maybe your cousin Libby who lives in Charlotte will be there. With Grandpa passing away yesterday and your Uncle Ray getting killed in the bitter fighting on Okinawa back in 1945, it will be hard on Grandma and your Aunt Sara. The memories of both family namesakes will weigh heavy on us all.”
“Was Uncle Ray a hero, Mama?” Alvin asked.
“Yes, Alvin. Uncle Ray fought and was wounded on Guadalcanal. He came home in February 1943 to heal, and while he was recovering, he and Sara were married in Edenton. His wounds would have allowed him to leave the Marines with no one questioning his service, but Ray felt obligated to see his commitment through to the end. And for his loyalty, the Marine Corps conferred a battlefield commission on him and sent him to Okinawa in April 1945. On May 30, in an assault on Sugarloaf Hill, Ray’s squad came under fire from several mortars and a Japanese sniper. Ray and five of his squad were killed or wounded by mortar fire that morning. For his leadership that day, he received the Navy Cross for Valor and his third Purple Heart. His good friend, Dick Hoggren, calls Grandma and Grandpa regularly to check on them and asks if there is anything he can do for them. That shows you the caliber of his friend and your Uncle Ray.”
Alvin was quiet for a few moments, then said, “Mama, I think I might join the Marines when I graduate next month and follow in Grandpa and Uncle Ray’s footsteps. Would that be all right?”
“I can think of nothing better you could do to honor the memory of your Grandpa. I’m sure your Uncle Ray would be proud, too.”
The plane landed in Atlanta, and I was one flight and one step closer to my hometown. The pain of my childhood and the memories of the brother I idolized drove me to leave Montcross in 1959, but I do hope that this homecoming heals those wounds.
Seeing Mama will do me some good, and I will cherish my last conversation with Daddy. He told me loved me and asked me when I was coming home. I wish I’d left that night… (to be continued)
This piece of short fiction is a continuation of the novel I wrote, “The Johnson Family Chronicles: Changing Currents ~ Changing Tides” and if you enjoyed this short story which might become a novel in its own right, I am sure you will enjoy this flash fiction story.