Waking in Memphis

Monday, January 25, 1999,
5123 Navy Road, Millington, Tennessee -
I am nearly my father's age - the age he was when he traveled down this road for the last time.

I don't know if other people do this, but I routinely compare myself to my own father, in a futile effort to gauge my achievements - futile, because he did so much and I have done so little. By his late thirties, Craig Gilchrist had graduated from a military academy, had earned several college degrees, and had a family with three children. He was a Commander and a pilot in the Navy, and was a leader of hundreds of men. Put yourself beside a guy like that and it'll drive you crazy with frustration. You feel useless, like you've wasted your life, the very life he gave you.

In the twenty-five years since he last rode this eastbound lane, I have often dreamt that my father was still alive. These have not been terrible, waking-in-cold-sweat dreams - no, they're actually pleasant - but their occurrence is always haunting.

For these reasons, and others, I have returned here, to the very place where this great man was revealed as just another fragile human. Here is where, on April 5th, 1974, my father took one risk too many, and where his mighty being became a mere helpless animal, fighting with all his strength, but powerless as all the great life was taken from him. It was right here, at 9:58 p.m., that he sped over those railroad tracks and plowed into a red Ford that had no business being right here.

Memphis is a dark city, and a bright one also. Sitting at the crossroads of the south, it has been a way-station for millions and has treated them all with the same disregard; come here and get what you can and move on. It's your city when you arrive and it's theirs when you leave.

The city treated me to its good and its bad, and it was the stage for my coming of age. I was thirteen years old, and had spent my life pretty much secluded in rural New England and on military bases, and Memphis opened my eyes to the world. For one thing, we had moved here from Maine, where everybody was white, and here, I went to a school where everybody was black. This became a great introduction to the human race for me, helping me grow and learn how alike we are under the disguise of our skin.

1974 was also a bright year for me. I had many new friends, and even a girlfriend. Why, right there, on Ardvale Drive, I actually held a girl's hand for the first time - I mean, really held her hand, with mine shaking and sweating so badly, that I'm surprised she held on. My friends, walking behind us (other 13 year-olds) teased us mercilessly.

I really didn't know my father very well. I now suspect that he was actually a bit uncomfortable around children, unless he was teaching us something, or working on a project with us. He was a very good father, but I just didn't know him. Foremost, I didn't know how human he was - even that he was imperfect. There was something in his demeanor that commanded such an impression, the very demeanor which made him a commander of men.

For two and a half decades, I was content with knowing very little about my father's accident. And as I approached Memphis today, I had little desire to know much more. But I did want to know this place - this stretch of Navy Road which held my father's fate. I wanted to understand what could have been the force that took this man, this tower of strength, this immortal in my eyes and send him down like so much flesh.

He was my king, you should know. Many people live under a king, a person who leads, guides and supports them, but who doesn't let them believe they could replace him someday. They are forever subjects under their royalty.

I now know more about my father's accident than I ever wanted to, thanks to the Millington, Tennessee Police Department. I know how the vehicles collided, I know where they landed. I know the details of the following seventeen days during which my father swayed above the chasm between life and death. I have seen photographs I nearly wish I hadn't seen. All this has stirred memories and prompted some realizations - both of my visits here have precipitated awakenings.

I remember my stay in Memphis as an influential time in my life. It was both a city I hated and a city I loved. It offered me an appreciation for people of other races and sex, and though it held no shiny gift for me, it gave me a lesson wrapped in a tragedy. Here in Memphis today, I can see more clearly that the man I came to rely upon is gone, and that the man I have to rely upon is myself. My king is dead, and there is no more need for comparisons.

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