Down to Greeneville

October 28, 2018

Greeneville, Tenn.  So—why did we decide, just Friday, to drive eight hours to Greeneville, Tennessee, for the weekend? For sure, the nightmarish news from Pittsburgh and South Florida made it seem like a good time to head for the lush, gorgeous mountains of East Tennessee. And with surgery looming in ten days, it would be our last change of scenery for a while.

But also—there’s an also. Sandy and I needed a break from the intense perversity of Republican campaign muck. Unfortunately, we were reminded that the poisonous stew that is today’s political culture has roots extending deep in history.

The fourth “E”

While 15 states have cities named Greenville, only Tennessee has “Greeneville.” The city is named for Nathaniel Greene, a general in Washington’s army who never lived in Tennessee.  In 1784 North Carolina, which included much of what is now Tennessee, attempted to cede its western counties to the federal government. Delegates from the region petitioned Congress to admit several counties to the union as the State of Franklin. The movement failed and North Carolina reasserted control until Tennessee became a state in 1796.

Greeneville folks touched us with hospitality and warmth. The pastor’s homily at Mass at Notre Dame parish was eloquent and thoughtful. Parishioners met us with heartfelt openness.

Yet like most places, Greeneville preens its history, even the dark side, entangling local boosterism with a glib tapdance around the political culture of the Old South. We stayed at the General Morgan Inn, an elegant place in the heart of downtown, such as that is. The inn is named for Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, who between 1862 and 1864 led a small command that fought ferocious engagements with Union forces in East Tennessee. On September 4,1864 Morgan was discovered by Union troops at a stately home in Greeneville, now called the Dickson-Williams Mansion, which stands next door to the Inn. The story told is that while shaving he noticed the soldiers approaching through a window. He was shot as he ran for his horse.

In the telling, Morgan becomes a dashing, colorful hero. We took the hour-long tour of the mansion, which included the bedroom where he spent his last night. Mounted on the bedroom wall is the razor he is said to have used shaving.

Dickson-Williams Mansion

Even more prominent in the city’s self-advertising is President Andrew Johnson, the 17th, who lived in Greeneville before and after his political career. He rose from running a tailor shop to become a U.S. senator, Tennessee’s governor, and Lincoln’s governor-general of the state from 1860 to 1864. When Lincoln was renominated in 1864 by the National Union Party, the Party, not Lincoln, chose Johnson, a Democrat, as his vice president.

img_20181028_1128413571413488048362403121.jpgJohnson initially supported Lincoln’s policy of magnanimity towards the South. As President, he sounded the dog whistle of “state’s rights” that enabled Southern state governments to evade federal protections of the newly freed slaves.  Arguing that he was defending the Constitution, he vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which granted citizenship to new freemen. Johnson claimed the Act unjustly favored blacks over whites, ignoring rampant violence against blacks throughout the South by paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Thousands were tortured, lynched, shot. In  1868 Johnson was the first president to face impeachment, avoiding it by one vote.

Greeneville, which calls itself “A Presidential Town,” boasts a ten-foot-tall statue of Johnson, an Andrew Johnson Visitor’s Center, his restored home, and a replica of the cabin in which he was born. The area includes the Andrew Johnson School, Andrew Johnson Bank, Andrew Johnson Inn, and Andrew Johnson Insurance Company. The 13-minute video of his life shown at the Visitor’s Center includes commentary by local scholars and academics who heap praise on Johnson as a defender of the Constitution and states’ rights.

Married to a Southerner for 40 years, I get it. These unsettled feelings, created in the tragedy of our history, are complicated. Recognizing that ethnic, racial, and economic resentments still simmer is a noble mission. Exploiting them for political gain is the way of the coward. Overcoming them is a calling of the human spirit.





The Short Straw?

24 October 2018

Nearly a month has shot by since late September when we filed the post, “Final Stretch,” that closed out our Las Vegas-to-Woodbridge, Va., road trip, the nine-day slog we never intended to make. Medical things have incredibly bad timing. To allow anyone now reading this to avoid scrolling all the way back to our “Las Vegas” posts, we arrived there Saturday, August 25, turned the van over to our daughter Kathleen, and flew home Monday the 27th.  The next morning we met with a urologist who talked about the “lesion” on my left kidney that showed up in the MRI scan I underwent early on the morning of the mid-August day we left for our On the Road extravaganza.

The radiologist’s report indicated a possible transitional carcinoma. We tried to think it also “possibly” could be something else—not a carcinoma, not cancer, just something, like a freckle, that could be ignored. But now it couldn’t be ignored.

So that was then. A week later I had one biopsy, or an attempted biopsy, which the doc could not complete because the tube from the bladder to the kidney was too narrow for his biopsy tool (enough about that). So he inserted a stent to fix that, and a week later completed the procedure.  The next day we flew to Vegas to pick up the van and resume our trip and our not-quite-carefree posts to On the Road.

The day after getting home the doctor gave us the news: it is cancer. The kidney would have to come out.

Cancer. The disease that happens to other people, including younger brother Bob, who passed three years ago of a highly aggressive strain.

In my case, not a surprise. The nurse practitioner who called us as we arrived in St. Louis told us as much, with her warning that we had to come home for the biopsy. It was in her voice.

I wondered whether the doc watches for the patient’s reaction to the news. We said nothing, maybe shifted in our chairs. He went on: I would need a “nephrectomy” to remove the kidney, ureter, and the chunk of bladder where it attaches to the ureter, just in case the cancer cells have leaked down there.

“Risks for this surgery are minimal, but they exist,” he said. “Injury to other organs, infection, bleeding.” But the procedure is a common one, he added, and after a month or so of light duty I’d be back to almost normal. Lots of people have only one kidney, some are born that way. I’m most likely done with ultra-trail running, though.

We called the kids, my sisters and brother, repeating the doc’s assurances that it’s routine, no worries. I sold it pretty well. Our son Michael, the medical physicist who works with cancer, knew all about it. “You’ll be fine,” he said.

The operation was scheduled for October 15. I had to see our family doctor for medical clearance for the surgery: blood, urine, EKG, chest x-ray. I had been there two months ago when the symptoms first hit. He knows about the trail running, the kidney stones, the three-day stint in the hospital after a bad trail run six months earlier.

“You did everything right,” he said. “You drew the short straw.”

That night Sandy drove me to the emergency room with chest pains. The ER doc ordered another MRI. We finished there around 3 A.M., with instructions to deliver the radiologist’s report to the family doc. The next day he ordered a biopsy of the thymus gland, which is near the heart. A few days later I got that done. Today I feel fine.

Then it got complicated The urologist canceled the Oct. 15 operation because he thought I might consider a clinical trial at Johns Hopkins Hospital. That would mean no surgery. I hesitated and nearly bit on that, but decided against it. After a week of leaving messages, I got through to him to tell him I want the operation. Closure.

Cancer makes you focus. Did I really get the short straw? It’s a metaphor, but I don’t think so. For many, cancer is a path to depression, despair, loss of the love of life. We’ve all heard the tragic stories: diagnosis, surgery, radiation, chemo, ravaging side effects, metastasis, palliative care.

But we’re all on that path, cancer or no cancer. The meter is always running. All those common-sense health habits—eating well, working out—are just a holding action. On Ash Wednesday the priest says, “Remember, man, you are dust, and unto dust you will return.” Nothing about life is more obvious. It ends.

I feel great. This little guy sitting in my kidney will go away. Too bad he’ll take the kidney with him. But after all, I’m 69. It’s not really surprising that things start going wrong. But what do you do about it? You recognize it for what it is: part of life. Something to understand and confront. Maybe a little nudge from the Lord, a reminder that this adventure, this gift of the miracle of life, doesn’t last forever. While it does, we ought to make the most of it.

Our backyard camp

Love those closest to you, love everyone you encounter. I remember wisdom from Thomas Aquinas: “love is the desire for good for the other.” What could be simpler? Make life worthwhile, to yourself, to others, to God.  You still go through the operations and take the pills. But all that is just another part of the holding action.

Forgive the melodrama but life goes on. The kids call, we go the gym, we cook dinner, we go out. For the fun of it, I put up our six-man tent in the back yard, we slept out there. Sandy  is looking for a job. The other day I went for a short run at Fountainhead Regional Park in Fairfax. Today I coaxed Sandy into a three-mile trail hike at Prince William Forest Park.

I missed a 25-kilometer destination run in Tennessee last weekend I had registered for with three other guys in our local running group, the Lake Ridge THuGs. When I withdrew the race director bequeathed my bib to a local runner named Melissa. Hope she had a great race.


Final Stretch …

September 24, 2018

We stayed up late visiting that last night in Greer, then slept like babies. We gathered our gear slowly, as Marie and Mike got the kids ready for their classes. He packed them in their carseats and we hugged goodbye and headed for the van. Final stretch. I glanced at the odometer: closing on 6,000 miles since we left home August 17 to start our adventure in West Virginia.


On an impulse, we stopped at Belmont Abbey College, in Belmont, just west of Charlotte. Kathleen graduated from the school in 2009, about a week before Marie and Mike’s wedding. We walked the campus a bit, recalling our pride when we delivered her there as a freshman, taking pictures, talking with staff people. But not for very long. Then it was back in the van, back on I-85.

The timing had worked out just right, we told ourselves. Had we waited one more day in Vegas, as we planned originally, we would be squeezing something else out, maybe El Paso, maybe Austin or Galveston. I reminded myself that the route amounted to giant detours: due south from Williams, Ariz., to Tucson, east to Austin, then south again to Galveston. But it made sense, in a way, because we were determined to see Laura in New Orleans. Then it’s really a straight shot to Greer, and from Greer, to home.

We could have jumped on I-40 in Vegas to I-95 in North Carolina, and finished the trip in three days. But we had that precious week before I get my biopsy results, so did what we could, saw what we could, saw our girls and grandkids; Scott and Barb in Austin; camped out; took pictures; explored—which was the plan in the first place.


It didn’t work out the way we hoped, and we ended with a frantic rush on interstates, grinding our teeth at multiple rush hours, stopping at countless interstate rest stops, gas stations, and McDonalds. But we came close enough. Lots of breathtaking mountains, deserts, fascinating little towns. Lots of Southwestern heat and Southeastern humidity. Lots of interesting food. Lots of interesting bugs.  Lots—and lots—of miles, a total of 6,428 when we pulled into the drive-way. Lots of togetherness and memories to hold on to, whatever the future brings.