published Sunday, September 29th, 2013

Cook: To the men like your father

The package arrived a few weeks ago in her post office box.

It contained two things: A letter, with only six typed sentences. And an object -- dark green, scratched and weighing about 4 pounds -- worth more to her than the Seven Seas.

When Billie Abney read the letter, and then saw the object underneath it, her breath got caught up in her throat like a dove taking flight, and standing there in the LaFayette post office, she did what any daughter would do.

"I began to cry," she said.

At the end of World War II, her father -- Army Sgt. W.L. Abney Jr. -- was leaving France after the liberation of Europe. He and other soldiers boarded an American vessel to bring them back home, and for some reason -- perhaps his own small act of liberation -- he took off his helmet and left it behind on the soil of the French shore.

"My dad was getting on a ship ... and just chunked and flipped his helmet overboard," Billie imagines.

Sgt. Abney would return to the United States and have a long career in the Georgia House of Representatives, as a Walker County probate judge, and as district attorney for the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit.

But like so many others in the Greatest Generation, Abney has since died. Which means his daughter Billie is left with only memories.

That's why she wept in that post office.

Because inside the package was her father's helmet.

Returned to her, 70 years

after he left it behind in France.

"I was shocked," she said. "Blown away."

A Frenchman had discovered the helmet in his deceased uncle's possessions, and spent weeks, if not months, playing detective over the Internet. Abney's military ID (#14100094) is stitched on the inside band of the helmet, which led the Frenchman to the LaFayette cemetery, where Abney is buried.

The Frenchman, who wishes to remain anonymous, found Billie's address and wrote her an initial letter, explaining he had this helmet and asking if she was Sgt. Abney's daughter.

She immediately wrote back to him on email: yes, yes, yes. Six days later, the package and letter arrived.

"Here is your helmet which stayed in France over 70 years," the first line of the letter reads.

Strange, isn't it, the things that matter to us. Abney, who teaches science at Southeast Whitfield High, has had a distinguished career: An all-American tennis player at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, she earned her doctorate and coached and taught at the college level. She has awards, hall-of-fame recognitions, the respect of her students and staff.

But her father's helmet -- a heavy metallic green, with the faint image of a water line on the inside where he used it to cook and shave -- is valuable in ways other things can never be.

It is one more chance to keep her father alive in her heart and mind, and one more reminder that even in this shipwrecked and distraught world of ours, good people do good things.

"He could have kept it, could have given it to somebody else," Billie said.

But the Frenchman didn't.

"I am very happy to give it back to you," his letter reads.

She keeps the helmet alongside the other tangibles of her father's life: the Chattanooga News-Free Press photo of her father -- dapper in suit and tie, pipe askew in his mouth -- being one of the first men in Chattanooga to enlist.

Black and white pictures he took from France: ruined buildings, a wrecked German vehicle, his Army buds.

The obituary from his death: how he campaigned for the House of Representatives by flying in a helicopter, using a PA system to shout campaign promises out the open cockpit door. How he was a 90-head cattle farmer. How he didn't miss a day of Sunday school for 30 years.

But this helmet? Like a prodigal son, it returned out of nowhere, parading straight into the precious places of her heart.

Abney and her two sisters (they live elsewhere, and also wept upon hearing of the helmet's return) are making plans to one day go to France, visit the area where he father was stationed, and the coastal town of Larmor Baden, where the Frenchman lives.

Perhaps on that day, the Frenchman will again tell her, face to face, the words from the last line of his letter.

"It's not necessary to pay for the shipping," it reads. "We are indebted to the men like your father."

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

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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