“God has created me for some definite purpose. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connections between persons. I have not been created for nothing.”
— John Henry (Cardinal) Newman
The phone rang last night and the callerID said “James King”. I hadn’t the slightest idea who that was. But when Allison answered and the voice said, “This is Jimmy from Claxton”, I think we both knew immediately the reason for the call. My friend Hugh had died, a couple months short of his 94th birthday. I met him the very first day I went to the nursing home, over 12 years ago now. He was the sole remaining resident that I had known from the very beginning.
Below, you’ll find a reflection I wrote about Hugh about two years ago, that I don’t believe I ever shared with anyone. I hope you enjoy it. (By the way, if you’re on the blog website, that’s his picture, second from the right at the top of the page.)
Claxton, Georgia probably isn’t a town of which you’ve ever heard. In fact, if you have heard of it, that’s probably for one reason — fruitcake. Yes, Claxton is the (self-appointed) “Fruitcake Capital of the World”. Two of the world’s major fruitcake bakeries call Claxton home, and the town is split like the Hatfields and the McCoys over which is the better. I won’t give you my personal opinion; you’ll just have to try them both.
I sit here in Claxton as I write this. I’ve made the 3 or 4 hour drive from Gainesville many times, and not just for the fruitcake. The story behind my semi-regular road trips begins on October 6, 1998, when I first stepped into the Alachua Nursing and Rehab Center in Gainesville, and was introduced to a man named Hugh Carlisle.
Hugh was 81 when I met him, and like many men his age, he served a lengthy tour of duty in Europe and North Africa during World War II. He actually met his wife in Italy, and brought her back to America after the war (she didn’t speak any English). Other than how he met his wife, he wouldn’t talk about the war much, as many veterans don’t. He did tell me one story about a plane flying overhead and dropping bombs on a training center he was at in England, and how he narrowly escaped with his life.
After returning from the war, Hugh never had the chance to pursue any further education, and so he got a job working at the “A&P” — a grocery store, for those of you old enough to remember. He worked there for 26 years, and although he almost never gave me advice, he once told me, “Steve, I hated that job every single day. I hated it with a passion. Whatever you do, don’t ever work a job you hate like I did all those years.” He was almost in tears as he told me this, and I think it is a part of his past he has always regretted.
Hugh and his wife never had any children, and she died many years ago. Amazingly, after all he went through, Hugh is still the most gentle, soft-spoken man you would ever meet. There is no better example of this than the fact that I still call him “Hugh” — as it turns out, I found out after knowing him for several years (from one of his family members), that he goes by “Dorsey”. Apparently “Hugh” is just his given name, but he’s gone by “Dorsey” his whole life. He let me call him Hugh for years and never bothered to correct me! And I still often call him Hugh out of habit.
My friendship with “Dorsey” centered around football games at the beginning. I used to visit him on Sundays when we could watch football together, and I didn’t have to try to think of anything to say to him. Remember, this nursing home thing was new to me. I remember dreading the end of football season, because I didn’t know what else we were going to do together, and I felt bad just never coming to visit him anymore! But as football season ended we “found a way” and continued to be friends. We watched Jeopardy, talked about Classic Cars, and laughed at the crazy people on the “World’s Strongest Man” competition.
When he was 84, he met a woman named Connie in the nursing home, who became his girlfriend, and the two of them actually moved out and decided to take care of each other. It was a miracle, at least for a short while, but it quickly became a terrible situation as Connie’s mental state deteriorated, and Dorsey’s nephew Jimmy, in a moment of true compassion, drove down and rescued Dorsey and took him to Claxton. Dorsey lived with his brother-in-law for a short while before breaking his hip and having to move into the Claxton Nursing Home.
Claxton is where the real magic all began, in a way I didn’t expect. Every time I come up to visit, his family treats me like their own son. They let me stay with them as long as I want, and always cook me platefuls of southern food better than any you’ve ever had in Florida (you know, that state that pretends to be part of the south). I think Dorsey’s brother-in-law Jerome (also a widower), looks forward to my visits as much as Dorsey does. And yet, I have nothing in common with these people. Me: a Catholic city boy from Florida. They: Southern Baptists from backcountry Georgia (you know, hunting, pickup trucks, country music, that kind of thing). Believe me, they aren’t very fond of Catholics up here! And I am equally apprehensive of their culture, and to be totally honest, even have several derogatory terms in my repertoire that I use to refer to people of their type. But every time I come back from Claxton, I feel like something magical has happened there.
The words of John Henry Newman come to mind — “God has created me for some definite purpose. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connections between persons. I have not been created for nothing.” I believe, as Cardinal Newman believed, that these encounters are not “nothing”, but everything, when it comes to sowing the seeds of peace and understanding among people who come from different walks of life. Dorsey’s whole family loves the pictures of Peter that Allison gives me to send; they’ve watched him grow up from day one – yet having never met him. Our mutual love for Dorsey has united our families in a small but important way, and I think on both sides we have been permanently changed.