Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Mississippi Veteran Feature: Earl McGehee, “All Is Not Lost”

By Canaan Vaughan and Steph Gardiner
UM Honors College Students

*Editor’s Note: These features were produced as a “Profiles in Courage” series by Mark K. Dolan’s freshmen seminar class in the honors college at the University of Mississippi. They were originally published in Circle and Square magazine, produced by Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni’s Magazine Innovation Center students.

Earl McGehee grew up the son of sharecroppers before he enlisted in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. McGehee was one of eleven children who picked cotton under the hot Mississippi sun helping his parents, who paid back most of what they made in rent before buying groceries.

Earl McGehee. Photo by Mark K. Dolan.

He despised the long and laborious hours, the sharp stems of the cotton bolls which wore his tiny hands raw. “I was getting off that farm,” he recalls.

McGehee enlisted in the National Guard while still in high school – his mother signed him up – and he performed his service on Monday nights for two hours while still taking classes.

Just the promise of a larger escape he was looking for. It never felt like work. Marching in formation felt better than working rows of cotton.

Four of his family members were in the military, three older brothers in WWII and a brother who served in Korea. Enlisting was the natural thing for him to do. McGehee ends his stories on positive notes. His smiles and chuckles fill a small, quiet room at the veterans home like a grandfather doting over grandchildren.

McGehee saw his share of trauma, first in Mississippi, later on a battlefield. Two stories loom large. The first took place along a stretch of U.S. Highway 315 in Sardis when McGehee was a teenager. There he lost his sister in a car crash. She was in the passenger seat, and the driver of the car, a preacher’s son, crossed the center line around a wide curve, colliding head-on with a gravel truck. They were traveling to a summer revival camp.

“She was waiting on the road for an ambulance,” he said, his voice cracking, referring to the long wait she had for help on that day in July of 1957. In those days, some counties drove hearses instead of ambulances to transport the injured to hospitals – a cruel omen, because she died an hour later after finally arriving in Memphis.

“She didn’t have any external wounds, but a rib had punctured her lung,” he explains tearfully, an otherwise stern face awash with emotion. “She drowned in her own blood.” He recalled vividly each moment of the incident as if the intervening years had only sharpened his memory.

He did not want his sister’s death to corrode his soul. “I just made the military my family,” he says. In Vietnam, he was stationed in Angkor, Matran, Benoit, Bentuie, and Danang, never in any one place very long and spending most of his time in the air.

A second major trauma happened when his lost an entire crew of fellow servicemen in Vietnam. He was not present when it happened though. He did not see the plane go down. He did not see the tens of acquaintances, friends, brothers go down in a puff of smoke and vanish into oblivion in the warm April of 1967. Instead, McGehee had to feel their deaths from afar, adapting suddenly to not being able to see them ever again.

McGehee speaks in quiet, reverential tones when talking about those men, as if explaining the incident opens scars that aren’t quite healed.

These days, he keeps in touch with his military friends and relatives. His brother visits him from time to time, along with McGehee’s surviving sister. Fellow veterans drop by now and again. His cell phone got sent through the laundry and so he’s lost some of their numbers.

The death of his crew in Vietnam tested his faith in God. “My commander on that plane was a God-fearing man, and I wondered why he had to die. Until this day I wonder, but as you grow older and you continue to pray, it boils down to the fact that we’re all going, and He chooses when we go.”

McGehee has had a trying life, both in the heaven-on-Earth some think our home should be, as well as in the Vietnam he fought to get to.

One day, he says, he’ll see his real home, heaven. And so he is not afraid to die. “There is a beautiful place somewhere waiting for me, and I’ll be sitting right there holding His hand.”

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