Joe and me: The rest of the story

Betty BeanKnox Scene

I’ve had requests for the rest of the story that I told in last week’s column, which was mainly about what I learned from a stay in Germany back in 1968, when the conquered country was still in post-World War II mode – divided between East and West.

Joseph Peter Sbuttoni Jr. was a new college graduate, new father and a lifelong Nashvillian. When I met him, he lived in the old Stadium Hall dormitory and played guitar in grungy Ft. Sanders clubs for spending money. He loved the Blues, had a rowdy, college-boy sense of humor and had taught me how to make Italian food. He had soft brown eyes and a big smile. My family loved him.

He did not support the war in Vietnam, which hung like a blade over the necks of the young men of his generation; but he believed he had a duty to support his country and knew that someone would have to go in his place if he found a way out of it. His best-paid job while in college was tutoring football players in English grammar. One day he went to Gibbs Hall to round up his students, and found a note on the door of quarterback Dewey Warren:

“Gone to War.”

The football players had snagged spots in the National Guard, and periodically did short stretches of active duty, which generally consisted of driving officers around. These positions were very difficult to secure, and they had a good time playing soldier.

When he graduated, Joe enlisted in the United States Army and determined to make the best of his time with Uncle Sam. I remember a story he told me about something that happened in Basic Training: I’d sent him a “Ramparts” magazine that his sergeant had found stashed in his locker and decided was subversive. He asked, in an accusing tone:

“What do you think you are, Sbuttoni – a goddamn individual?”

Joe was assigned to the Signal Corps, and after he finished basic and advanced training he was sent to the westernmost area of West Germany, the portion of the country that had been placed under the control of France, Great Britain and the USA at the end of World War II. It became the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, and it was booming. I joined him in the summer of 1968 after our daughter was born.

East Germany, aka the German Democratic Republic, was the Russian “occupation zone.” The Berlin Wall went up in 1961 and separated friends and family. The Russians claimed it was to keep the decadent West Germans out.

Liars then; liars now.

By the early fall of 1968, Joe and I had moved across the Dutch border to the town of Roermond, an old city with a stately cathedral and a town square dominated by a statue of a priest who had sheltered hundreds of Jews during World War II. We loved it there, but our time was cut short by a drunk driver who hit our Volkswagen bus head-on in the stretch between the German and the Dutch borders 10 days before Christmas. We were returning home from a holiday party at Joe’s sergeant’s home.

Joe was silent after the crash; slumped over the wheel. I kept trying to reach him but couldn’t move. Later I learned that both my legs were broken. Rachael was miraculously unhurt; I handed her to a stranger through the broken windshield and she ended up in the care of friends of ours – a soldier from Cairo, Georgia, and his wife (their high school’s nickname was the Syrup Makers. Funny what you remember).

Next thing I knew, I was in a hospital being attended to by nuns. I’d ask for Joe. Nobody would answer. Finally, Joe’s sergeant (a guy named Homer) and a uniformed officer walked into my room. First thing I noticed about the guy in the uniform was the gold cross pinned to his lapel. He didn’t need to say a word, although I’m sure he said plenty.

The rest is a blur, although I remember our Georgia friends bringing Rachael to the hospital so we could be loaded into an ambulance and taken to the nearest US military base. My memory has blanked out where we were when we were carried up to a giant Medi-Vac plane bound for the United States – probably Ramstein – but I remember the officers’ wives singing Jingle Bells and handing out red mesh Christmas stockings full of candy as we were being put on the plane. One of them told me she sure wished she was going home. She may have said I was lucky, but memory is tricky like that.

Rachael was in a little box-like cradle on the bunk below me. She was extremely well-behaved on the long trans-Atlantic flight, and the nurses would put her into my bunk with me from time to time.

Our first destination was Andrews Air Force Base, where we were transferred to a smaller plane and carried south to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, where Joe’s family and mine awaited us. He was buried just before Christmas in an old cemetery in East Nashville. Rachael stayed with Joe’s parents in Nashville while I remained in the hospital at Ft. Campbell until Valentine’s Day. Then my father and mother came over from Knoxville in Daddy’s camper truck, loaded me in and then stopped off at the Sbuttonis’ home in Green Hills to pick up Rachael. There were oceans of tears.

Joe Sbuttoni III was born the following summer. I enrolled in college and wore a black armband to protest the war.

Rachael, Joey and I all attended the University of Tennessee on the GI Bill. Rachael is a graphic designer and multimedia artist in San Francisco. Joey is a lawyer in San Diego.

Conditioned by many months of daily letter writing so long ago, I can still spit out Joe’s serial number: RA12903157.

Funny, what you remember.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for


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