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The Truth About Garnette

"In that moment, I knew the original story changed. . ."
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I

The silos were all so visible as I traveled the road taking me to the Ketler’s farm. Like giant missiles, they rose into the air like tin gods ruling the very ground that grew the grain they were meant to hold. Not only were they the only edifices on the landscape, but there were also many barns and plantation houses, three-quarters of which were enclosed by white picket fences. It was a picture perfect moment as I drove the somewhat deserted sun faded country road, passing an occasional car or truck along my way. Being the photographer that I am, I pulled my car off and began snapping pictures. The photos would fit well into the book I always wanted to write; not in a wordy way, but in a picturesque way painting a picture in the readers’ minds. It was like I was actually coming home, again.

Let me explain. Garnette was once my home, for about a day. When I was born, I was adopted by the Heffelmeyer’s. When I was old enough to understand, they told me they adopted me from a couple in the deep South that did not have enough resources to support a family. I was all right with that. What did I have to lose? I was in a loving family, surrounded by three older sisters, each one supporting me with loving care and affection. I was one of them; I had no need to complain.

As I grew up, I never gave any thought to my birth parents. They did what they felt was the right thing to do, and if giving me up was just that, then I am living proof it was the correct decision. The most important thing, I was happy. Through my parents' and siblings' eyes, I was their true son and brother. Yes, I can honestly say that I had a good life and feel very blessed to have lived it so far.

A couple of months ago, though, tragedy happened. My sisters and I lost our parents to an automobile accident. Mother died instantly from injuries sustained, but our father lived long enough to get to the hospital. The last time I saw and spoke to him was in the emergency room. My wife, Aubrie, stood with me and my sisters, Chelsea, Chastine, and Chamblee, beside the gurney dad was laying on when, before he took his last breath, he pulled me to his level and whispered the word “Garnette” into my ear. That was the last word we heard him say as the last breath eased from his body and God took him into His hands.

We stood beside the gurney, crying for a good five minutes before my sister Chastine broke the sobs by speaking, “Bradley, what did pop mean when he said ‘Garnette’ to you?”

Looking at my sister, I answered, “Chas, your guess is as good as mine,” and I looked at my wife. She just shrugged her shoulders.

What my father said to me weighed heavy on my mind and I couldn’t get “Garnette” out of my brain. I constantly heard my father’s voice whispering it as I went along with my work and daily business. I asked myself, what did he mean? What did he want me to know about “Garnette?” Most of all, what did it have to do with me?

Suddenly, I was sitting at work going through photographs, deciding which ones I wanted to use in my upcoming story, when my boss ran into the office and told me he had an assignment for me. It entailed having to travel to this small town in Georgia, and interview an elderly couple who had recently won the lottery and was making headlines across the nation. I wondered of its importance, but didn’t argue. I just went along. Then, he told me where in Georgia. It was a place called Garnette. I lost my breath and could not speak.

Once I came to get my voice again, I sat and thought about what was handed me. It was like it was meant to happen. I smiled and figured dad was smiling also. It was actually too good to be true, but now I had something to go on. What it was though, I was not completely sure. All I knew, was that I had to go with it.

That evening, I told Aubrie, and she felt the same as I did. After telling her, I called my sisters. Suddenly, my family was behind me as I embarked on my assignment. It was true that support was the best medicine. Somehow, we all knew it had to be what dad was talking about.

That is how I now ended up on the side of the road in this small town. I was now in Garnette en route to the Ketler’s, the elderly couple who had won the lottery, so I snapped a few more pictures. Soon, I was back in the car following the map. According to the map, I had five more miles to get to their home.

When I pulled onto the gravel road, I drove under an archway emblazoned in wrought iron words, Ketler’s Kettle. The gravel road took me to a small framed house, suitable for two people, on acreage that spread out for miles. I was still perplexed by why I was sent to do a story on a couple in Georgia, but it was money in my pocket!

The small white house was not in shambles, but one could tell it was indeed in need of repairs. Now that they had won the lottery, Mr. and Mrs. Ketler could make renovations to the house they called home. As I drove up to the house, an elderly man, who I presumed to be Mr. Ketler, was rocking in a rocking chair on the front porch smoking a pipe. Immediately, he stood up and was down the steps and at the door of my rental car before I even got out. A man dressed in overalls, a wrinkled cowboy hat from obvious years of wear upon his head, he was definitely dressed for his profession. Tall and slender, Mr. Ketler was a true farmer, as was evident of the garden and livestock surrounding the acreage. Impressed by the man, I opened the door to my car, and he spoke with that southern drawl so characteristic of the South.

“Mr. Heffelmeyer, I presume?” he asked, the southern dialect heavy in his voice. I was amazed he already knew me.

“You may call me Bradley, Mr. Ketler. I see my boss contacted you already.”

“Yes sir, he sure did. I told him my wife and me would be happy to tell our story, but I was and still am perplexed to see someone from Indiana wanting to know about it. By the way, you may call me Hemmingway.”

“I thought that very odd too, Hemmingway,” I answered and thought how southern his name sounded. “I am just doing my job, however.”

“Yeah, we all have to make a living. You see how I make mine.” Hemmingway said, spreading out his arms in all directions.

“It sure is a beautiful place.”

“Yeah, but I’ll be, it sure is hard to keep up sometimes! Old Bessie over there can put up a fuss if she doesn’t want to be milked. I swear, sometimes she can be a real heifer!” Hemmingway said and we both chuckled.

After exchanging a few more pleasantries, Hemmingway showed me around. He showed me all he had to take care of and then some. He told me all about what he did, and I stood in awe. I was amazed, but figured if I owned a hundred acre farm, I would have rather done it all myself too.

Upon showing me the barn, the last thing on my tour, he looked at me and said, “Well, that’s all of it. Follow me and I’ll introduce the Mrs.!”

I followed him down a worn path noticeable from the barn to the rear of the house. A path worn from many years of trudging the very stuff that made this family’s life worth living. I actually felt the past of this family under my feet as I stepped. It put a very vivid image in my mind; a vivid image of a past that will never be forgotten.

He burst through the back door calling his wife’s name, “Ellie, come here Ellie, that nice young man has arrived.”

We stood in the kitchen, and even though it was the year two thousand and eleven, the kitchen was still in the heyday of the nineteen fifties. It was very symbolic of those one would see while watching Andy Griffith and seeing Aunt Bea cook or one where the Beaver’s mother was handing Wally and Beaver a glass of milk. I smiled just thinking about that.

Hemmingway closed the door, and Ellie appeared. A short woman, dressed in a floral dress with an apron tied around her waist, she looked the part of the kitchen as much as the kitchen looked a part of her. Smiling, she said, “Mr. Heffelmeyer, what a pleasure it is to meet you. Can I get you a glass of tea or something more to your liking?”

I smiled and politely said, “Yes ma’am. That would be nice, Mrs. Ketler.”

“For me too, El. I got parched showing Bradley the farm. Sometimes taking care of this place and showing it around takes all my energy.” Hemmingway said.

Mrs. Ketler grabbed two glasses from the cupboard, then opened the refrigerator and pulled out the pitcher of tea. Setting it on the counter, she grabbed the glasses again plopping ice into each of them, making them clink the bottom. Pouring the tea and then transferring them to the table where Hemmingway and I sat, she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Mr. Heffelmeyer, you may call me Ellie.”

I sat with them, drank the glass of tea, and conversed awhile then decided it was time to make my way to the hotel where I had reservations. It was getting quite late and there was no need to hold Hemmingway and Ellie up from doing what they had to get ready for a quiet evening together, so I announced, “Well, it’s time I should get going. I am just a little tired from the trip and ready to hit that bed waiting for me at the hotel.”

That’s when Hemmingway stood up and said, “Hotel my foot. Bradley, young man, you are going to stay here. You came all this way to do a story on my wife and me, and the least we can do is give you the spare room. Now, just get on the phone and call that hotel. They can give your room to another patron. My home is now your home until the day you leave, you got that?”

Rendered speechless, I stood up. I tried to say something, but Hemmingway’s strong southern dialect and strong emotion wouldn’t make my voice come into my throat. So, I just tried to make my actions answer for me. I reached into my pocket for my keys, but as soon as I had them, Hemmingway jumped and grabbed them. He knew what I was trying to say.

“Bradley, what in tarnation did I just tell you?” Hemmingway exclaimed, letting his voice come through loud and clear. “Here,” he continued, as he opened a drawer and reached in for the phone book and slammed it down on top of the kitchen counter, “Now call that hotel and cancel those cotton picking reservations,” he said, using the familiar southern vernacular in places meant for curse words. “And while you are doing that, now that I have your keys, I will just get your suitcase and take it to the room, you follow me?” He asked with the hint of demand in his voice.

Ellie laughed and got up to put the glasses in the sink. She did not say a word as she just pushed the phone book closer to me. I couldn’t argue with either of them; it would not get me anywhere if I did. I just opened the phone book to the yellow pages, found the name of the hotel, and picked up the phone to dial. Hemmingway, smiling, exited to my car and retrieved my suitcase. From that point, I was making this small southern home mine for a short time.

Hemmingway entered with my suitcase, and asked me to follow him to the room that was now going to be mine at least for a day or two. He opened the door and plopped my suitcase on the bed, told me to make myself at home, and walked out, shutting the door. Feeling tired, I changed into my night apparel. As soon as I had, I moved the suitcase, sitting it on the trunk in front of the bed and grabbed the book I brought along. I laid upon the bed, opened the book to the page where I last stopped, and began reading, but did not read long. I began thinking about why I was really called to Garnette in the first place. I had to try and find out because, deep down inside, I felt it was not really for the reason I was sent. I contemplated heavily about it, but it was doing me no good. I just put the book down, laid my head on the pillow, and before I knew it, was dead asleep. I actually did not awake until the next morning when I smelled the aroma of coffee drifting through the cracks of the closed door.

II

I looked at my watch and read quarter till twelve as I rose and put my still tired feet on the floor. Almost midday and still felt like I could sleep another ten hours. Since there was still the smell of coffee, Hemmingway and Ellie were definitely all day coffee drinkers, and I was glad, as a cup of coffee was just what I needed.

I looked in the mirror, brushed my hair, opened the door, and headed to the strong aroma. As I stepped into the doorway of the kitchen, Ellie motioned me to sit at the table, and poured me a cup of coffee and even plopped a homemade blueberry muffin in front of me. It was just what I needed to start my day.

Ellie sat beside me and drank her coffee as I ate my muffin and drank my coffee. She was quiet, and for me to not even know her, I could tell there was something on her mind. I didn’t just want to give it away that I could tell something was bothering her, so I thought I would just go and get my tape recorder, pen, and pad. I thought maybe discussing the lottery win would get her mind off whatever it was. Little did I know, it would actually become the topic of the situation. Little did I know it would be the beginning of something big.

I excused myself from the half-cup of coffee and three-quarter eaten muffin, and retrieved the items that helped make a story. Returning to the table with them, I immediately began a conversation, one I didn’t know would turn out the way it would.

“Ellie,” I said, taking the last bite of muffin, “Would you mind if I asked you some questions about yours and Hemmingway’s win of the lottery?”

“No, Bradley, go ahead. I was just sitting here thinking about that.”

“Really?” I asked, and hit the record button. “Let me ask, how did you feel when you first found out that you had won the lottery?”

“Well, like any other, I was stunned. Hemmingway had the ticket in his hand when the numbers were announced on television. I remember him looking at me, and after being married to him for almost fifty years, I had learned that look. I didn’t have to ask him; I knew from his expression we had won the lottery.” Ellie said with no breaks in her voice.

“And how did that make you feel?”

“Bradley, I felt a tingle go down this old spine, and then, just to ease my mind, I looked at the lottery ticket myself. Now that really made my spine tingle. To actually look at the winning ticket, it was pure elation. There is no real way I could explain exactly how I was feeling, but. . .” Ellie trailed off. The enthusiasm subsided from her voice and fell to a more languid tone. It was tone that told me there was something more to it than just a feeling of elation.

“But what, Ellie?” I asked in a quiet, but considerate manner.

“Oh, Bradley, you don’t want to know. It doesn’t matter now. That time has come and gone and I shouldn’t even think about it.” Ellie answered in the same languid tone to where her voice had changed.

“Try me, Ellie.” I said.

Ellie sipped her coffee, which had to be lukewarm by now, and just looked at me. I could tell she was contemplating. Just as I was about to say something else, she opened up.

“Bradley, I said to myself I wasn’t going to ever discuss this matter with anyone, but as long as you can keep what I am going to tell you between us, and I mean not even mentioning anything to Hemmingway, I will tell you. I guess it will help me to get it off my chest.” Ellie responded in a rather serious tone.

“Ellie you have my word,” I said and reached the tape recorder and hit the stop button to show I meant it.

“Okay, then, here it goes. The first thing I thought when I found out Hemmingway held the winning lottery ticket was that, I would try and find the child I had put up for adoption a little over forty years ago.” Ellie replied, concerned she had done the wrong thing.

At that moment, I felt a quiver. I felt it move from my feet and navigate its warm feeling through my body where the prickles settled on the back of my neck and made the hair there stand up. I was speechless. I now knew why I was sent to Garnette and chalked it up to pure coincidence. There was no way my boss knew the real reason. He only sent me to get a story, and a story he was going to obtain, but now, the story he thought he was going to acquire, was not the story he was truly going to get.

I couldn’t let on to Ellie what it was I now knew I had to do. I just answered her the best I could. “Ellie, I promise, what you just told me will stay between us. You have my word.”

In that moment, I knew the original story changed and I was now out to find the true story behind the one word my daddy told me. The truth about Garnette was now going to be found, not that I didn’t already know it myself.

III

There was no need to delay what I had to do. So, after talking to Ellie in that short time, I resolved to start searching right away to find the answer. Being a journalist, having to often search through county offices was not new to me; it came natural that I knew where to begin. I had to first find out where the Georgia State Vital Records Office was located and to do that, I had two options. I could call information and get the phone number and risk Ellie or Hemmingway hearing me, or I could sneak a peak at the phone book hidden in the drawer in the kitchen. I determined the latter was my best bet. I made my way out of the room, searching for Ellie and Hemmingway cautiously. Ellie was sitting on the couch reading the morning paper while listening to the television in the background. I knew I could be quiet enough to keep her from hearing me. As I reached the kitchen, I saw Hemmingway in the yard through the window over the kitchen sink tending to the duties of his farm. I knew I was safe.

It didn’t take me long to spot the number and the address to the office I needed to visit. I wrote down the number and address and put the phone book back in place the way I found it. I already had my keys to the rental car in my pocket, along with my cell phone, so I went to the living room and announced to Ellie I was going out. I made up the excuse my boss had contacted me and needed me to look up some information in town for a story another journalist was working. I knew that excuse would provide me ample time to do what I needed. Ellie just smiled and waved her hand.

Hemmingway met me in the yard. We chatted and I told him the same thing I told Ellie. He did not hold me up and even shut the car door for me. Southern hospitality, what could I say.

I found the building, amazed since I did not know anything about the state of Georgia or Garnette for that matter. I immediately walked in and found the Office of Vital Records. It was then a shiver went up my spinal column and a smile formed on my face because I knew I was just about to find the information for which I was looking. There was no doubt in my mind it was hidden somewhere in the vaults called filing cabinets.

I approached the counter and instantaneously was helped by this young man. Telling him why I was there, he took the information and disappeared. I sat down in one of the chairs opposite the counter and waited. It seemed like two hours until he returned, but in all, it was actually just fifteen minutes. He reappeared holding a manila file. I broke out in sweat, not just in one spot, but over my whole body. He lifted the counter arm and told me to follow him. There was a great deal of things running through my mind at that moment. One of them was I would not find what I was looking for and that absolutely scared me to death because I had already prepared myself for the best outcome. Anyway, I followed him to an empty room where he sat the file on a table then looked at me and said, “Mr. Heffelmeyer, I think you will like what I have found for you. Take all the time you need to go through it.” I thanked him and heard him lock the door behind him as he walked out.

I didn’t even sit at the table. I was too eager to look in the file. I just opened it and there it was. For the second time in my life, I believe, I cried. For I now had the truth staring me in the face and it definitely felt good. It felt more than good, it felt like, well, like, oh, I just cannot put it in words. It felt that good.

I made copies of what I found using the copier in the room. When I was through, I took the file back to the young man, even gave him some money for the copies, and thanked him once again.

Walking out of the office and to the car, I had already begun writing my story in my head. I had all I needed and I knew once I was back at the Ketler’s farm, the room they had provided me would become my hole until I actually had the story written.

Back at Ketler’s Kettle, I walked in, hoping not to show off my new found glow. Hemmingway was still in the yard tending his farm and Ellie was in the kitchen preparing a meal for the night. She did not say word to me as I passed by her. For all she was concerned, I was going to the room to let my boss know what I had found out for him. Once there, I closed the door and made the room my hole until my paper was filled with ink. I did not come out until it was finished. That was my intent.

IV

When I was finished, I looked at what I had written and could not help reading over it. As I read over it, a feeling of closure came over me. I had finally found what my father had hoped for me to find. I knew that not only was he happy, but my mother was happy as well, not to mention that I was happy along with them. Keeping my word to Ellie, I knew it was time to let her read what I had written. If anyone deserved to know the truth first, it was her. So, without holing myself up any longer, I exited the room with the newly written document and found her. She was still in the kitchen cooking.

“Ellie, do you have a minute?” I asked.

“Of course, dear,” she said affectionately.

“Then sit down. I have something you need to read. I finished my story on you and Hemmingway.” I announced as she sat at the kitchen table and looked up at me.

“But Bradley, you hardly asked any questions about us winning the lottery.”

“Ellie, I had all the information I needed. Now, just sit. Take this and read it.”

“Okay, but. . .”

“Ellie, no buts. Just read.”

She looked at me and picked up the story and began. I could see her eyes held every word as she began reading:

Being a journalist, I never know where or when the next story will come. Sometimes a story will come natural to me, sometimes I have to search for one, or sometimes a story is handed to me on a silver platter. In this case, I chalk this story up to fate. I am convinced that fate is what brought this story to me and I will not change my mind otherwise.

It happened when I was sitting at my desk back home in Indiana when my boss rushed into my office with a story he wanted me to cover. I was, at the time, beginning work on another article, but was told to put that one aside. I really did not want to, but when I heard one word from my boss, that word being Garnette, I knew that I had to run with it. Now, I am glad I did.

Originally, this story was to be about an elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Hemmingway Ketler, who lives in Garnette, Georgia, and who had recently won the Georgia lottery. The news of them winning the lottery was spreading across the nation and my boss sent me there to get the real story, if you will, from them. Little did I know that there actually was a real story behind it.

See, in journalism, a story can change dramatically from its primary foundation. It can change in just a matter of words, as in the case here with Hemmingway and Ellie Ketler. My original story was transformed into something more meaningful when I sat down at the kitchen table with Ellie to discuss the winning of the lottery. With just a few simple words Ellie spoke, the original story had transformed from its primary foundation to one that would satisfy not only her, but this journalist as well.

Before I even knew that I was coming to Garnette, my father, who had been in a car accident, whispered a word to me before he passed away. Just like the word my boss had spoke, that word was Garnette. I never told my boss that my father had spoke that word to me and that it did have a significant meaning to me. What I did not know, until now, is how significant that word would be. With that word, it all just seemed to fall into place. Hence, the real story begins.

One day after I was born, I was adopted. Of course, I was told this when I was old enough to understand. I was adopted by Edelman and Elizabeth Heffelmeyer just a little over forty years ago. They brought me into their home and raised me along with my three siblings. In their eyes, I was theirs and in my many years, I knew them as my family. As most adopted children think about their biological parents and who they are, I was happy and never gave any thought too it. Not until now.

Yesterday, while I sat with Ellie Ketler, she told me something that brought the word “Garnette” to light. When I asked her how she felt about winning the lottery, she answered in simple terms, but added another thought. She simply told me that with the money her and Hemmingway won, she wanted to try and find the child she had put up for adoption forty years ago. Well, that comment from her lit a spark with me and that is when I put it all together. That was when I knew that I was actually sitting there at the kitchen table, looking my biological mother in the eye. The only thing I had left to do was actually prove it.

Prove it I did. Without hesitation, I researched, in less than one hour, the records at the place I knew they were held. I did not need any confirmation for myself, I already knew the truth, but felt the need to have that confirmation for the other two individuals involved. There were no words that could describe the way I felt as I opened the folder and read that Edelman and Elizabeth Heffelmeyer had adopted from Hemmingway and Ellie Ketler a newborn baby boy on May 23, 1971. It was a feeling that one got and just did not know how to describe it.

So now, today, when Ellie Ketler reads my story, she can finally let the feeling of winning the lottery set in. Because, by knowing that she gained the long lost son she had given up forty years ago, her true lottery had been won.


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