This is Red and me sharing a laugh. As evidence of my esteem, I actually let him wear my "Willie hat," which once briefly adorned the pate of Mr. Nelson himself.
I seldom leave a funeral in better spirits than when I arrived, but after we had gathered recently to pay our respects and reflect on the long and extremely well-lived life of my cousin Red Atkinson, I felt inspired as well as extremely proud, both of my blood kinship with Red and his wonderful family and of my spiritual kinship with the people of Hart County, Georgia Unlike some funerals, where the words said over the departed render him all but unrecognizable to anyone who actually knew him, the heartfelt tributes from Red’s friends and kin described perfectly the man I knew and admired, a man whose Christianity was not worn on his sleeve, but anchored securely in his loving and generous heart. A shining example of the “Greatest Generation” who would have been just as content to hide his light under a bushel, Red served as a “swimmer” on a Word War II destroyer. Going overboard to rescue the shipwrecked casualties of war from drowning, he became a hero, not because of the lives he took, but because of those he saved. Red never put anything ahead of his family, and he made no bones about being a steadfast Democrat. When he served the people of Hart County on the Board of Education and the Board of Commissioners, his views were not always popular with everyone, but they were always a reflection of his sincere conviction.
When I left the ceremony, I could only think that all of us should try to live our lives in a way that might make us worthy of such a sendoff. However, the service itself was not the only thing that inspired me that day. One of the longest funeral processions I have ever seen in Hart County made its way from the funeral home straight through town and all the way up the Reed Creek Highway before turning toward Sharon Presbyterian Church for Red’s committal service. Proceeding for at least eight miles along one of the county’s busiest roads, we encountered not a single vehicle in motion. Some were pulled onto the shoulder, but many were simply sitting in the road, as if to indicate there was no possibility that anyone behind them would even think of moving until the entire procession had passed. Such a show of respect was well-deserved in Red’s case, but in all likelihood, few, if any, of those who stopped had any idea whose passing was being observed.
What was truly wonderful about this demonstration, I realized, was that the same courtesy would have been extended if the decedent had been the worst reprobate in Hart County. I can’t swear that this was one of the Jim Crow South’s rare colorblind traditions, but it was among all the people I knew. What happened along the procession route last month was a simple display of good manners, one of the vestiges of southern life at its best that, sadly enough, has apparently been “outgrown” in some busier parts of the South. If I am proud to be able claim a fine man like Red as my kin, I am also proud to know that I come from a place where people have not strayed so far from their “raising” that they don’t have time to show respect for the dignity and worth of a human life.