Charles Crane
Joseph Mansfield

It would have been a Sunday afternoon in 1999. I was walking in no particular direction among the headstones in the Chattanooga National Cemetery. There are more than 46,000 soldiers and spouses buried there. Nevertheless I was not much surprised at running across the grave of a man I had known. His name was Charles Foster Crane.

*     *     *

Chip Crane arrived a few days late for the 1962-63 fall term at St Andrew's School. Like me, he was in the fifth form, and in his first year at St Andrew's. He bunked with Jack Wilson, across the hall from me and Bob Watt.

I never knew why Chip came to St Andrew's, nor why he entered late. I suspected that he had done something to make himself unwelcome at his previous school. As had several of us at St A.

In our sixth form year Chip and I were assigned to the honors English course. That meant reading sometimes hundreds of pages a week, as in the ordinary English course, plus turning in a one or two thousand word paper every Friday morning. A paper that one generally got started on late Thursday night. We both wrote for the Crest [school newspaper], and along with others we would drift into the Crest office about midnight. We would make coffee and talk for an hour and then settle down to our papers, sometimes finishing them just minutes before deadline.

Chip had read extensively in twentieth century fiction, particularly the southern writers as well as the fashionable Hemingway and Steinbeck. Name an author and Chip likely knew his works; name a work and Chip would probably quote a few lines from it. He ran circles around me for the scope of his reading, for I was just discovering the twentieth century. Chip was a seemingly happy, outgoing chap. What was inside him I did not know.

*     *     *

Old US 41 connected Sewanee with Chattanooga in those days, before I-24 was built. It included then, as now, a beautiful stretch along the left bank of the Tennessee River, on the north side of the road, a little strip of nearly untouched wilderness.

On the south side of the road the wilderness had very much been touched. There were two tourist traps, “The Jungle” and “Pete's Place”. Both had signs posted every hundred or two yards for a few miles in each direction. Pete's signs were the more imaginative. The last one before his place begged, “For Pete's sake stop at Pete's”. Another, just past it, reprimanded, “Now you've done it! You have passed Pete's!”.

Chip and I both lived in Brainerd, the part of Chattanooga that included the airport. Chip's father, Charles, would drive him back and forth over 41 as the school terms and breaks came and went. As I usually had only the bus to rely on, this gracious man invited me to ride with him and Chip when it was time to travel. We would also cram Watt and someone else, I don't remember whom, into the car, dropping them at the airport and me at my door.

*     *     *

I kept up with Chip somewhat after graduation. As best I could gather, he and his girlfriend, Jane Crabtree, had moved to the Vieux Carré to be intellectuals and writers. The writing did not get done. Rent depended on welfare checks from Charles, and from Jane's father Harry. The checks slowed down. The piano and furniture were sold. The checks stopped. Chip and Jane left New Orleans, in separate directions, and I lost track of them.

*     *     *

In about 1970 I looked up Charles to inquire after Chip. His Brainerd house was not his any more. I found him in an apartment in East Ridge. I also, in a sense, did not find Chip's father. Rather I found Charles himself.

Charles and his wife, Martha [I can't remember her real name but this will do], had divorced. He said something about the rector at Grace Episcopal, and about the bishop, and about the seal of confession. The house had been sold and Martha had removed herself to Florida.

Charles also said something about Chip. Chip had cut communication with him. They had disagreed about some things. He did not know where Chip was. These facts were all he volunteered. I did not press for more.

*     *     *

Had Chip read something? Charles had read everything. Had Chip gone to New Orleans, on Charles's payroll? Charles had gone to Europe, on Uncle Sam's payroll. Never rising above private and never in combat, he spent his time in libraries, museums, cathedrals, bistros. Had Chip written papers for English class? Charles had worked on the editorial desk of the Chattanooga News-Free Press. Chip had been a chip off the old block, never more than a chip.

What happened was that I became a surrogate son to Charles. I went to see him. I spent time with him. I sipped wine with him. I listened to all he had to say. I contributed what little response I could, whether we were talking about Beethoven or Bavaria. When I had sipped enough wine, I would play the piano for him. When he had sipped enough wine, he would say I played well.

There was in Charles a lot of what I had wanted in a father; and in me a lot of what he had wanted in a son.

*     *     *

In time Charles found a lady friend, and not too long after that he passed away. He was only 66 years old. I do not know what caused his death at that young age.

*     *     *

Why was I walking in the graveyard?

In the late nineties I generally attended the Spanish mass on Sunday afternoons at Sts Peter and Paul. I was surrounded by Latinos who, after the mass, went off to their homes—together. I was terribly alone at that time and found it hard to go from church directly to my lonely apartment. I would go somewhere to kill some time first.

But why the graveyard?

It was a quiet, peaceful place, a gracefully landscaped place. But it was also a place where in some sense I felt some companionship, even with the deceased. For they were soldiers; and I have never lost the happy memories I have of camaraderie when I was a soldier among soldiers.

Charles would know just exactly what I mean.

© 2009 Joseph Mansfield
2009.01.23 first draft
2009.01.31 modifications
2009.01.31 posted


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