My friend Gordon was diagnosed with cancer before we ever met. It was a type of melanoma. It appeared first as a place on his leg. The story I heard over the years was that it was gardening season and Gordon, who always planned his schedule around gardening, couldn’t be bothered to get it treated. Until it grew to a size where he could no longer ignore it.
Gordon’s sister, Charlotte, liked to tell people that I was the woman Gordon met over the Internet.
The first time Charlotte introduced me that way I liked to have fell out.
While it is true that Gordon and I met over the Internet, it was more on account of that memoir I wrote about my father’s death in Vietnam, and not at all on account of any chat room site. Gordon was a Vietnam veteran. A combat veteran. There’s a part of me that has long believed that Gordon’s cancer was a result of his traipsing around in jungle brush heavily sprayed with Agent Orange.
By the time Gordon and I met, he was involved in clinical trials to eradicate the cancer. Gordon was pragmatic about his diagnosis. He would tell me that he didn’t know how much longer he had left. He would tell me that it was ironic that he’d spent so much of his life after he returned busted up from Vietnam wishing he was dead and now that he was dying, he wished he weren’t.
I would change the subject. I hated it when Gordon spoke about dying. I didn’t want Gordon to die. I needed Gordon in my life. He was a better storyteller than me. He was funny and smart and had a twist of the phrase that only belongs to those who’ve been raised up a ways back. I wish I had recorded all the things Gordon said and the way he said them.
Gordon lived in Tennessee. I live in Oregon. I could count on a phone call from him at least once a day. I looked forward to his calls. Our longest talks, however, were during those days when he had to travel from his home in Crossville to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he was involved in a clinical trial. On those days we would talk for a good hour or more. Usually, Gordon would call about the time he hit Kingsport. Just being in that Kingsport or Johnson City region reminded him of the stories of my dad, which then would remind him of his own stories of Vietnam.
I’ve thought a lot about Gordon this weekend as White Supremacists took to the streets of Charlottesville, locked and loaded, as our president is wont to say.
Gordon loved Charlottesville. He thought it a lovely community. He especially loved the people there at University of Virginia hospital where he was undergoing all those trials. When he’d call, he’d talk about his doctors and his friends there as if they were neighbors we both shared. He told story after story about them. He especially delighted in his witticisms and his ability to get the doctors to laugh. He loved that, making others laugh. I haven’t laughed the same since Gordon died.
Gordon was outspoken, never held back his opinion on anything at anytime. I loved that about him. Of course, I might not have if we didn’t agree on so many things, but we did agree. War had impacted both our lives in harsh ways. Those experiences made us both passionate about injustices.
It would have broke Gordon’s heart to have witnessed the violence erupting in Charlottesville this weekend. He might have climbed into his truck and headed up there to join with those who were marching in opposition to the racists. If he had been on that street when James Fields gunned his car into an unsuspecting crowd, Gordon would have likely pulled out his gun and shot Fields dead.
Gordon had been sent halfway around the world at age 21 under the guise of protecting Americans. There’s no way in hell he would have stood by and not done anything to protect Americans on the streets of Charlottesville. He would have been on the front lines, challenging each one of those armed racists. Gordon didn’t suffer fools, especially ignorant racists ones.
Punks. He would have considered them all punks. Cowards, like the president they elected.
Gordon lost half his face and a good chunk of his life to Vietnam and its aftermath. It took him the rest of his life to heal from all that he lost there in that battlefield where a sniper near about killed him. Intended to kill him.
Electing a five-time draft-dodger isn’t something Gordon would ever have done.
If Gordon were here today, he’d likely be the first to point out that the haters in Charlottesville were not from Charlottesville. They carried their hate with them into the streets of a town they did not belong to, and had no claim, too. They came from other towns, other communities, from places where they were most likely regarded as misfits and malcontents.
Punks, too cowardly to serve in Afghanistan or Iraq, but eager to start a war in the streets of a town they knew nothing about and had absolutely no respect for.
Wars are easier when waged in somebody else’s backyard, not your own.
White Supremacy has long been the identity of the most cowardly among us. Weak men and women, unwilling to do the work of earning respect. They seek notoriety by demeaning the respectable among us. Incapable of doing good in the world, they simply seek to destroy and tear down. The David Dukes and Donald Trumps of the world.
The horror that happened in Charlottesville this weekend is not a reflection of Charlottesville – the town or the people.
The hate witnessed on the streets in Charlottesville immigrated there. That hate immigrated from Nevada. From Ohio. That hate immigrated from Georgia and Tennessee. That hate immigrated from Idaho and Missouri.
That hate was a home-brew variety, crafted by cowardly white men, men who hide behind guns and armor, scraggly beards and tinted glasses. Men who drape themselves in victimhood and rant non-stop about all the wrongs done to them.
Punks. Every Single One of them.
Learn their names. Study their faces.
And look for them in your community.
Because White Supremacy has no shelter among the good-hearted people of Charlottesville.
That is not Charlottesville.
Charlottesville is a town of storytellers, book lovers who welcome people of all creed and color.
Charlottesville is a town of brilliant people doing good work.
Charlottesville is a town where people come far and wide in search of healing.
The way my friend Gordon did.
Charlottesville will heal from this. They will. But the question remains, will we ever be able to eradicate the racism that is a cancer upon our nation?
When Pastor asked us today to envision the face of Jesus and meditate upon it, it was not a bearded man of Middle Eastern descent I saw when I closed my eyes. It was the bloodied and bruised face of Heather Heyer before me.
May her generous smile and golden eyes be ever before us. May each one of us take up her mantle of doing right in the face of so much gone wrong.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of CHRISTIAN BEND (MERCER). Order your copy now.