Long Road Home
Not sure who took that picture, but it's me hitching a ride, my backside anyway, age 17, running away from home.
Probably the driver took it, a writer for a magazine, a wonderer lost in the backwoods, with a camera, so he said. He gave 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'm leaving for good.
We're Kentuckians, my family lives there. We farm, hunt for food, dig coal, run a saw mill and make moonshine. All the men run off and join the military, most do anyway. 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 over the Tennessee state line. All 4 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.
The 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 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, mind if I ask where you're going and why?"Reckon I'm that. I'm joining the military, whichever one is in his office this morning, that's the one I'll pick."
He 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?"
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 asked 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."
"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 for TOP SNIPER, Corporal William H. Stiller, Third Army. The reporter spoke solemnly, "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, 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."
Cullum wrote a note in the margins of the story, "Guess he wasn't fast enough to outrun a bullet. Now he has to take the long road home."