published Monday, January 30th, 2012

Cook: Robert E. Lee is alive and well

David Cook

The first time I saw Robert E. Lee, he was wearing red suspenders and smiling, standing on his front porch not far from a front-yard garden full of collard greens.

"Come on in," he said.

I had been looking for Karl Marx. Instead, I found Robert E. Lee.

Every so often, I'll leak into the public arena some ideas that don't jibe too well with a more Adam Smith view of the economic world. Having endured years of being called a "socialist" -- an insult always spoken in the same tone as "black plague" or "Lane Kiffin" -- I wondered: What if someone in our city really has the name Karl (or Carl) Marx?

According to the White Pages, no Karl Marxes in Chattanooga.

I did find a John Brown. And a Martin King. And a Roslyn (kind of like Rosa) Parks. But earlier this fall, I received an email from a reader signed Robert Edward Lee -- the same name as the beloved Confederate general.

Violating multiple rules on Southern manners, I invited myself down to see Robert and his wife, Sally.

"I will drag out my cleanest overalls, try to find a matching pair of shoes, and Sally will most likely splash on a little deodorant," he wrote in an email. "We will try to have the hogs fed, cows milked and all the chores safed away. The ole still will be quiet because we ran out of sugar."

I fell for it. Driving up to their North Georgia home, I had my eye out for a rebel flag, a white horse named Traveller or some standing militia pacing in the piney woods.

Yet the Lees' home was as modern, inviting and cozy as any. Their Southern-ness comes in grand hospitality, strong handshakes and good stories.

"When I was born, my daddy was a sharecropper. He had a two-mule farm and could grow watermelons on concrete. But he was determined not to be a sharecropper," said Lee. "And when I graduated high school, he owned a farm of over 100 acres with a nice home on it."

Years in the Air Force during the Korean War led to a job in banking, which led to life in several Southern cities such as Miami and Birmingham, Ala. Yet it was 56 years ago when Lee's life turned, like an army that's both won and been licked.

He fell in love, yet the story's so ironic I can barely type the sentence. Robert E. Lee ... married a woman ... from ... from ... hold onto your grits ... from ...

"Long Island," he said.

I can hear the ghost of Jefferson Davis moan and fall to his knees.

They've been together for 56 years and have two children and three grandchildren they adore. In 2008, the Lees (Sally has a doctorate in education) moved to North Georgia. Lee likes to piddle, whittling wood he finds into some of the most beautiful walking sticks I've ever seen.

Halfway through my visit, I got hit with a pop quiz on Southern life and lore. Thanks to my own LA (lower Alabama) roots, I kept my head above water.

"You know what a brush arbor is?" Lee asked. "What time is Sunday dinner served?"

"Do you have a family trunk? Ever seen a funeral home fan?"

"Do you know what 'lightered' is?"

I surrendered with that one. ('Lightered' is the knot of a pine tree used to start fires.) But it made me think back to earlier times, when it seems handshakes meant more than today, and making a promise stick like a hound dog under a tree was as simple as giving someone your word.

What do our names mean anymore?

When Lee was born, his grandmother secretly took his birth certificate (it came in the mail) and sent it back to the government, having filled in the blanks, bestowing on her new grandson the strongest name she imagined.

It's like some Greek -- or Southern -- myth. What if we all inhabited our names in such a way, wearing it like a coat made only for us, depending on it the way we lean on a handmade walking stick?

"It's taught me humility," he said. "I had a sense of responsibility with this name. I have a name to live up to."

When I left, we shook hands. He knows my name. And I know his. I hope that's enough.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook @blumail.org.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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