Andy Betz: To Tell or Not to Tell (memoir)
Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born and raised in Missouri and now live (very, very) close to Atlanta. With the exception of college, I have spent my entire life in the South. I most certainly do not miss the snow, or the cold.
To Tell or Not to Tell
After I finished puberty, I more than doubled in size; my duties on my grandfather’s farm became more difficult physically, but more interesting mentally. I remember him offering a job to me to help dismantle a neighbor’s barn and turn over the foundation by hand. My grandfather had that look in his eye that meant this was more than a two day long physical exertion. He was either up to something or knew something, or worse yet, both.
I weighed my options and decided to work the contract. I should have thought my decision through first. I still (40 years later) have my doubts about that day.
We took the truck and he drove a few miles to an abandoned farm. The current owner was the bitter daughter of her deceased parents. As the story go, her father, in 1938, went out of a pack of Lucky Strikes and never returned. Her mother waited for years to no avail. Without a man to run the farm, it fell on hard times; forcing her five children into levels of poverty few have ever seen. Only by back breaking work, sacrifice of all futures, and constant debt, did the mother hang on to the farm until her passing in 1978 (I was now 14 and fully grown). The daughter never married, never saw an ounce of luck, saw an opportunity to rid her of this money pit and decided to pay us to clean up the place for an easy cash sale. My grandfather negotiated the terms of our employment while I unloaded the truck and began my work. I saw him shake her hand and I saw us manually collapse a dilapidated barn with only a rope and an axe handle (side note: I used that technique when I became a firefighter 11 years later to pull down a house, but that is another story for later). We used the truck to pull and stack the reusable timber and then took our shovels to begin digging out the foundation. It would be until 4pm the next day when we finished.
I found pain, aches, muscle spasms, blisters, and a human skeleton. Not just any human skeleton, but a male, almost 6 feet in height, and still wearing a gold wedding band. I was in shock, my grandfather was not. We carefully dusted off the left hand and grandpa removed the ring to read the inscription he somehow knew would be there. Having the farm and the day to ourselves, he spun a yarn I did not expect to hear and a choice I did not expect to make.
Here lay the missing farmer in what used to be the pig pen of this barn. My grandfather knew of the man and was surprised to hear of him walking away from his life and family. With WWII on the horizon, the farmers in this state had seen the worst of the depression and foretold the profitable years before Pearl Harbor of selling surplus food to our future allies. No farmer would leave this bonanza in its prime. The farmer did not desert his family. He fed the pigs and must have slipped in the pen. Unfed pigs eat everything they see and that includes the farmer. One night was enough time to skeletonize his remains and cover it with the feces of the denizens of the pen. All these years and no one ever looked for that rare, but horrifying possibility. Years later, after the war, my grandfather was skeptical about the abandonment story. It took until today for him to prove his suspicion.
Now, you might be asking, where do I come in? That is what I asked him. I was here, not just to work, but to make a decision. In all of these years, the farmer’s family moved on with their lives, his children grew without knowing their father; they married other people, had children, and moved on. Since his wife recently passed, my grandfather placed the decision upon me. I had the body of a full grown man, did I have the will? If I wanted to tell the daughter about her father, it would destroy her world. She would resent her mother and all of the family for not looking hard enough when she was too little to look on her own or understand the significance of her father’s disappearance. Or, if I decided that a skeleton in the pig pen could be one of hundreds found before and during the war (thieves and easy disposal), then the families lives remained unaltered and unshattered by another contradictory set of bad news. My grandfather had the ring, the only proof of the uncomfortable truth. He offered it to me to help make the decision easier.
By the end of the day, the mortician removed (with my assistance) the unknown skeletal remains for a final burial in a pauper’s grave. My grandfather and I sold the wedding band and gave the money to the daughter at the day of the property auction. I told her we found it the barn under a loose floor board.
This is the first time I have ever spoken of that day. It will also be the last.