People take different roads in life. Some lead them around the world to exotic, exciting places, other roads taken do less, sometimes a lot less. Some roads are one-way, an escape route, down which the traveler never returns. Then again, some roads are used to return home, for good reasons, maybe a short visit, burial of a family member or friend, a wedding, maybe your own. Young William Stiller returned home, not of his own volition. He was killed serving his country and was returning permanently to be buried in a public cemetery, a small one with gravestones dating back to the American Revolutionary War. There are other gravestones from all of America’s following wars. This cemetery is a burial place for patriots, and other folks too. Sergeant Stiller never planned to return home, but he has and times are sad.
FORT BENNING, GEORGIA
Someone has laid a magazine on my bunk, it has a picture on the front. Not sure who took that picture on the front page of Popular Magazine, but it’s me hitching a ride, my backside, age 17, running away from home. Probably the driver that offered me a ride took it, a writer for a magazine, a wonderer lost in the backwoods, with a camera, so he’d said. He’s given me a ride into town about ten miles up the road. That road you see in the picture is Sawmill Road, leading from the holler that I left for good. We’re Kentuckians, my family lives there. We farm, hunt for food, dig coal, run a sawmill and make moonshine. All the men run off and joined the military, most do anyway. So far, no male has ever returned to the holler and I have no such plans.
My sisters all married off young, the oldest was 18, the youngest was 16 and lied about her age to a Justice of the Peace just over the Tennessee state line. All four sisters ran away and married in Tennessee to local boys, coalminers not much older than them. As a family, that’s what we do, girls marry young and the men run off and join the military. For most, it’s the shortest road away from a hardscrabble life.
As I recall, the writer’s car was late model, a 1960 Dodge, blue colored with a strip of chrome leading to big fish tail lights in the rear. His clothing was decent, not in bib coveralls like me. His tie was loose, shirt unbuttoned, the colors drab brown. He had no hat to cover a mop of unruly, straight black hair in bad need of a comb. He’d looked straight ahead, careful to watch the road and said, “I’m Ed Cullum, I write human interest stories for Popular Magazine.” Smiling, he added, “You look human.” Broadening his smile exposed straight teeth, except for one on the right side that was chipped. I remember thinking it added character to his face. He’d asked, “Mind if I ask where you’re going and why?”
I’d said, “Reckon I’m human, alright. I’m joining the military, whichever one is in his office this morning, that’s the one I’ll pick.” He’d looked over, his tone serious and said, “That’s a big decision, maybe you want to think about it. It’s a dangerous profession. What’s your name?” He’d ask. I motioned for him to pull over, “Not more dangerous than coalmining. There’s the recruiters office. Stop here. And thanks for the ride.” He’d ask again, “Your name? I want to write a short piece about how and why people move on from their roots. I need a name to make it authentic.” “Stiller,” I said, “William, my friends call me Bill.” “And why are you leaving?” “My options are coal mining, moonshining, or military. Don’t take no genius to make the right choice.”
The loud speaker at Fort Benning blared the starting ceremony to life. “Stiller, William H., front and center!” Captain Martin gave the commands. He was head of the sniper school at Fort Benning. He’d first approached me in Basic Training on the firing range at Lenard Wood, Missouri and handed me orders that led me to sharpen my shooting skills. Now he was presenting me with an award, a plaque that read TOP SNIPER, Corporal William H. Stiller, Third Army.
Southeastern Appalachia is split by Route 25, a concrete road running north to south into Tennessee. Each side is the same. The low lying foothills of Appalachia make it that way, unchanged for a thousand years. Even the coalmines, stills and sawmills hardly make a dent. The portion of side road we’re on is macadam coated but soon turns into winding gravel and dirt roads leading off to low lying foothills. That’s where you find the hollers. I’m Ed Cullum. I’ve been here before and I know the Stiller family, too well, I’m afraid. I know the deceased whose casket rides in a black limousine following the state police car leading a short funeral procession. I’m bringing up the rear.
Somewhere off to the right, I hear a radio blaring a song from the mouth of a holler, not the one we will soon enter. As we pass the entrance, the sound grows louder and I recognize the voice of a well-known country singer, Wagner, I think, and the lyrics ‘we got company coming, we got company coming…’ The music trails off as the trees and undergrowth bring silence. Even a gunshot wouldn’t travel a hundred yards around here and I glad, for I’m thinking this is not the type of company the Stiller family had in mind.
A SOLDIERS BURIAL
Lights flashing, the grey Ford Crown Victoria leads an entourage of Stiller family members and friends of the deceased to a small cemetery located a half mile from here. On approach, I see there’s a military color guard waiting, along with a minister preparing to give last rites. A Major is there holding a tri-folded American flag he will present to the family. His name tag says MARTIN. The funeral is sad, the women and men wailing, unable to hold emotions checked. I move off to the right and take a few pictures, making sure to include everyone.
I spoke in a low voice, solemnly asking, “Major Martin, I’m Edward Cullum, reporter for Popular Magazine. Do you have anything you would like to add to the obit I’m writing for the deceased?” “Did you know Bill?” “Yes. In fact, I gave him a lift two years ago to the Army Recruiter in Williamsburg, Kentucky near his home.” Cullum flinched at the 21 gun salute. Major Martin stood fast, a tear in his eye, and with deep pride and emotion in his voice, said loudly, “Mr. Cullum, you can report the Sgt. William Hedrick Stiller out-shot and out-soldiered 99 percent of the men in the United States Army! We are proud of Stiller and saddened by his loss in combat.” There was loud wailing.
Major Martin strode with majestic military fashion and approached Ben’s mother where he reverently presented her the folded flag. Both his tears and hers blessed the emblem of freedom her son died for. From a distance, I took more pictures. I’ll get their permission before printing my byline and obituary, especially her comments that Bill was the first of her sons to return to the holler, the first and only one buried here. A couple of brothers and all four sisters were present for the funeral, a sad commentary to a young life lost too soon.
I plan to write my story with a theme about an unintended war hero and his long road home.