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In this 2005 photo, Johnny "Digger" Tucker uses a pick ax to break up the soil and rock while digging a grave at the Old Trion Cemetery in Trion, Ga. Grave digging is a family business for the Tucker family.

Saturday night had just turned into Sunday morning — Father's Day morning — and Tim Abernathy, 47, walked off the dance floor at the Menlo Barn Dance near Summerville, Ga.

It had been a long and full night. Abernathy — a dad and granddad — knew Sunday would be sweetly full, too.

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David Cook

So he sat down in a folding chair to rest, his wife Tina next to him.

Then, something felt wrong. His throat felt tight, then tighter. He grabbed Tina's hand, started to stand, then crashed to the floor.

He couldn't breathe.

"His eyes had rolled back," said Tina. "His lips had turned this medium shade of blue, and were getting darker."

One person noticed, then another, then another. The band stopped playing. People started yelling, but nobody stepped forward to act.

"It was like everybody was hunkered down, hollering at him, thinking that would bring him around," said Tina.

Then, out of the crowd, one man shoved his way through.

"I'm not going to sit and watch somebody leave this world if I know I can keep it from happening," said Johnny Tucker.

***

Folks in Summerville say Johnny Tucker is the finest man they've ever known. The type of man you'd call at 2 in the morning for help. The type of man whose handshake is all the guarantee you'd need.

Maybe it's because his daddy always told him to respect others.

Maybe it's because of the decades of hard work.

Or maybe, just maybe, it's because Tucker knows more than most how precious life is.

Every day, he faces death.

Johnny Tucker is a gravedigger. Since he was a boy, he's been digging graves, just like his father did. Not with a backhoe or loud dozer, but by hand. With a shovel and pick. Folks in town call him "Digger."

"He's as tough as they come," said wife Mary.

He's dug probably 20,000 graves, each one measuring 3 feet wide, 8 feet long, 4 1/2 feet deep. In hard frozen ground and wet Georgia clay. In sickness and in health. Families call him to come bury their dead out of state. Funeral directors arrange services around his schedule.

He's got rules: no cussing, smoking or radio playing during the gravedigging.

"I treat everybody as if it's my family I'm burying," he once told me.

Last winter, he was driving down the highway when the car in front of him veered off the road, crashing into a flooded, freezing creek. Johnny jumped out, and pulled the driver to safety.

Saturday night, the shadow of death appeared again, this time at the barn dance.

It was the gravedigger who stepped in once more to save someone's life.

***

Moments earlier, just before Abernathy sat down in that tired chair, Johnny and Mary Tucker were leaving the barn dance, carrying their cooler and headed to their Dodge in the parking lot.

Most Saturdays, they close the place down. But it had been a long day. Really, a long couple of years.

"Non-small cell carcinoma," Johnny said.

Cancer. Tucker got the diagnosis in 2013. He's been on two years of chemo. Saturday night, he was tired, so he grabbed Mary's hand to go.

Then, the band started playing that old Vern Gosdin song, "Chiseled in Stone."

"Our song," said Johnny.

They turned back around for one more slow dance. One more song to hold each other tight. When you have cancer, you just never know how many dances you have left.

"You don't know about lonely" the band sang, "till it's chiseled in stone."

Somewhere nearby, Tim Abernathy sat down in that chair, his throat tight, all the oxygen gone. It felt like he was being buried alive.

Somebody would have to dig him out.

***

"Digger!" someone yelled. "Help!"

Tucker pushed his way through the crowd. He saw Abernathy. Swiped his fingers through his mouth, thinking he could be choking. Started beating on Abernathy's chest. Then, he carried him outside and began mouth-to-mouth. Mary held Abernathy's head in her hands.

More CPR.

More mouth-to-mouth.

Then, like a man brought back to life, Abernathy took a breath.

The paramedics came. The Tuckers slipped away quietly, but everybody there knew the truth.

"If Johnny hadn't have been there, I would be burying my husband," said Tina.

***

On Father's Day, Tim Abernathy woke up, alive and well. (And with one sore chest.)

All day long, the Abernathys — Tim, Tina, their sons — called Johnny and Mary.

"I thanked him for giving me back my husband, the kids their father, the grandbabies their Paw-Paw," said Tina.

"He's a great man," said Tim. "If he hadn't have been there, I probably wouldn't be here today."

He goes to a throat specialist in Rome today. He's still not sure why his throat closed.

"I sat down in the chair, and my esophagus closed off. That's all I can tell you," he said. "I got choked, and that's the last thing I remember."

Tucker's back in the cemetery this morning, with three graves to dig. Another round of chemo soon.

"I cherish life," he said. "I don't want to see somebody leave this world if I know my life could have saved them."

Instead of digging his grave, Johnny Tucker saved Tim Abernathy's life.

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

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