Valediction of Andrew Jackson Greer

Jeffrey Schmidt

 

I inherited my father’s name. So, Andrew Jackson Greer I became. A newspaper reported my middle name as “James”. But that was not true. Back then, everyone knew me simply as Drew.

I was about five feet ten, skinny, with wavy blond hair and pale-blue eyes. My complexion was fair and unblemished, and still whiskerless (to my chagrin). Studying my lifeless face at the scene, a patrolman opined: “This handsome boy looks like one of Botticelli’s angels. What a pitiful loss, such a shame!”

My final morning at home grows hazy with time. Breakfast was probably a bowl of cereal, with orange juice. Then, I waited for the bus to the county high school. It was a cold and snowy winter day. I remember that much. While waiting, I dreamed of being transported magically to a warm and sunny place where kids were free of parental expectations and useful learning did not require boring school.

I carried a small pocket knife to school that day. It was just something with which I liked to play from time-to-time. Sharpening sticks or carving AJG helped to while away the idle time. When I decided to leave my mark on the school bus seat, I did not foresee the events that would bring the end for me.

We were two days shy of Valentine’s Day. Under the circumstances, it was as good a time as any to run away. To be a perpetual disappointment to my parents was not without cause. Still, it seemed a heavy burden to carry around the school every day. And, besides, all my friends felt the very same way.

My parent’s love for me was never a question. That was not an issue in my self-liberation. But I was restless and impulsive, bored with country life, bored with school. My adolescent mind conflated wanderlust with adventure on the open road. I romanticized myself as a kind of teenage outlaw on the lam rather than a runaway, a missing child, the naïve boy that I really was on that fateful day in 1979.

I was but fifteen years of age back then. My occupation was the 9th grade at a rural high school. I was an average kid in almost every way. My folks were frustrated with my apparent lack of drive and ambition. Well, what’s new? The truth be known it’s always been this way. But that was no excuse to run away!

God knows why I had carved my initials into the school bus seat. Later, a teacher found my pocket knife and connected the dots. And so, I was suspended from school. But I did not go home. Instead, I met up with my best friend, Steve. We spent the afternoon at our hideout in the woods behind his house.

Steve and I parted at twilight. He assumed that I was heading back home but I thought not. My dad would be really pissed off with my suspension. So, without hesitation, I walked out to the main highway and flagged the first ride heading south. Only then, I decided to hitchhike all the way down to the Keys. We had relatives there to provide respite care, along with sand and surf, warm breeze and palm trees.

These things were not to be. I never thought the subsequent chain of unlucky events would victimize me. No, not me! That possibility would not have entered my mind. Nothing bad could happen to me.

I met some creepy guys along the way. But nothing bad happened until Valentine’s Day. That night, I was feeling a sense of urgency. Hitch-hiking for nearly two days, I had come 800 miles from home with little sleep. I could reach Key West in two more days. Then, I would call my mom and try to explain.

A boyish impulse of invincibility launched me into I-75. I guess the driver of the semi-trailer truck never saw me emerge from the dark. Or, maybe, it was too late for him to brake. Whatever the reason for our chance encounter, the impact between flesh and steel was the end for me and for my gift of time.

My death was quick and painless as I recall. I never knew, as the saying goes, what hit me on that interstate highway, in the middle of the night. It happened near Macon, Georgia, February 14, 1979.

They found me mangled and lifeless on the side of the road. My pockets held candy bars and taffy, but no identification. In fact, I had none. And, this was long before there were means for testing my DNA.

My parents would never learn what had become of me during the decades that they waited for news. Their son did not walk through the kitchen door one sunny day as they had forlornly hoped and prayed.

No doubt, they kept such hope alive until they too died and could search no more. There was no closure for them, no solemn goodbye. They carried their prayers and the burden of grief down to their graves.

The Macon authorities buried me in Evergreen Cemetery. I was placed in a pauper’s grave as a ‘John Doe’. Nobody knew that I was Andrew Jackson Greer. Those who loved me were not there to shed a tear or offer a prayer. My death was a senseless tragedy. There was nothing more for those present to say.

To the responders, I was a nameless boy, most likely a runaway. (At least that much was true.) But I was also a son and brother with family in Michigan and in the Keys. I had friends, classmates, a home, and dreams.

At the internment, the official mourners bowed their heads. Silently, they prayed that God would take me into his loving embrace. But all the while, I was thinking about a verse, “…buried along with her name, nobody came…wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave. No one was saved.”

For forty years, a moldering John Doe, I lay in that unmarked pauper’s grave. My folks and a few detectives never gave up the search. But my case grew colder than the Michigan winter. Fortuitously, nature preserved my DNA. And then, one day, on a hunch, I was exhumed for scientific identification. They discovered who had been laid in that pauper’s grave. The lost boy was Andrew Jackson Greer.

What meaning can be taken from my sad cold case? Don’t carve initials into a school bus seat? Don’t become a runaway? Don’t risk your life crossing an interstate? Don’t covet a place you’d rather be?

At first, I thought, Providence was not looking out for me. Where is the justice in my fate? Surely, I did not deserve to die that way. I was just a foolish kid who made a mistake. I meant no harm to anyone.

And yet, my l life was snuffed out in a flash of light from the headlamps of a semi-trailer truck. To die so young from serendipity is the ultimate existential tragedy. If I had survived, today, my age would be 55.

I see now that we exist in a cloud of probabilities. Sometimes, a lucky fool wins a huge lottery prize. And sometimes, Chance strikes down an innocent boy trying to cross a highway in the middle of the night.

My father told me once that we were born under a lucky star. I see now that he meant life brings both some good and some bad luck. But, sooner or later, in the end, we all exit through the very same door.

It took four decades to discover the missing boy from Michigan buried in a Georgia grave. My half-brother, who I knew only as a young child, now directs my final disposition. What remains of me, Georgia will cremate and ship the ashes back to my childhood home. There, I will be laid to final rest among my kin who have passed on since I disappeared without a trace. Andrew Jackson Greer will be carved into the headstone. No longer will I rest under the moniker of an anonymous ‘John Doe’.

Now, with my story told, my cold case closed, I will provide my own belated valediction:

Andrew Jackson Greer ran away from home on a cold and snowy day. He hitchhiked 800 miles in a couple of days. On a dark night, he tried to run across an interstate and was hit by a speeding semi-trailer truck. For 40 years, his mortal remains rested in a pauper’s grave, a handsome boy without a name. But, through a fortuitous connection, his identity was at last discovered. Closure came to Drew’s missing person investigation, but repatriation of his mortal remains was hardly cause for celebration.

Drew barely tasted life. He never drove a car. He did not have a social security number. He ran away from home extemporaneously with a half-baked plan and little cause. He was a tow-haired boy, with eyes as blue as his parka, and a soul as bright as his white high-top shoes. Perhaps, there is something transcendent to take-away from Drew’s pitiful end. But, in the hard light of the chain of random events, Andrew Jackson Greer, it must be said, died in a disheartening and thoroughly meaningless way.

Amen.

 

 

 


 

 

Jeffrey Schmidt lives with his wife in the Midwest and has two adult children. He plans to retire from a long professional career within a few years. Currently, he is the chief executive of an international business and financial advisory firm.

Creative writing is his avocation. His education was in business and engineering. While he has published in professional journals on a range of management topics, he is a newcomer to imagined storytelling.