It’s been a couple of years ago, almost three, when I walked into a well-respected horse barn at the foot of Lookout Mountain, not far into Georgia, and caught sight of four black men, silently watching me enter. When I got to their midst, I nodded my respect to each of the four, as I was taught from the very start in my life, before I said, “I’d like a word with Mr. Chaudion Womble.”
The biggest of them said, “That’d be me.” As I reached to shake his hand, all the while looking him direct in the eye, I countered, “I’ve been told on firm accord that you are a bigger character than me. And I just can’t seem to find a good way to tell you how sorry I am about that … I’m Roy Exum and I’ve been counting days until we could sit for a spell.”
Right then was when the magic started. Since the beginning of time, men have bonded on farms, around livestock, their boots equally muddy, their hearts equally pure, and the gentleness of the South lending to the soft laughter of each other’s tales. The conversation, if it's good, will meander like a creek without one person knowing where it's heading and just as many who could care less where it winds up. I promise, the moments are special and, among men who wouldn’t dare share their strong feelings, these moments are exquisite. It’s all that matters until next time.
The noble horseman who I’d sought out was a character alright. Trust me, I couldn’t begin to stand in Chaudion Womble’s shade and it wasn’t lost on me that his right forearm appeared every bit as ravaged as mine. I reckon the group of us sat in that barn breezeway for three hours and then not a one of us wanted to leave. He was a simple man, a noted horse trainer throughout the mid South but, far better, a “horse whisperer” that Burton Brown promised would be among the finest men I would ever know.
The only time he was ever away from his firm north Georgia roots was when “his friends and neighbors” sent him to Viet Nam. But it was there he had an epiphany of sorts. His Marine platoon walked into an ambush and Chaudion, gravely hurt, remembers nothing after a nearby explosion ushered him into a coma. Two corpsmen agreed he was dead … no sign of life could be found.
So they carried him to what they called “the wash room,” where they would clean up a fatality before putting the dead soldier into a body bag. Because there is no other way to describe it, the Viet Cong POWs added his body to a pile of other dead Americans before processing them one by one. When they finally got to Chaudion, one of the POWs jerked away and another raced for medical help. Chaudion Womble was miraculously still alive.
“I wasn’t completely conscious so I can’t tell you much about that, but I found out later that I somehow survived hours without any medical attention … they all thought I was dead. Somehow they brought me back and there hasn’t been a day since then that I haven’t wondered,” he spoke the truth, “that if the roles were reversed, and I found a Viet Cong who was inches from death, what would I have done?. We all had a deep hatred for anything Viet Nam and saw so many atrocities … what would I have done?”
Sometime last Saturday Chaudion got his answer. He died in a local hospital and, because I believe as I do, he didn’t get within sight of the Pearly Gates before Saint Peter told him what everyone who ever met him already knew. Watching him handle a horse, being around this giant of kindness, swapping tales and jokes and banter, I can guarantee that by the time the Viet Cong doctors rushed to the one of theirs barely alive, they’d have found Mr. Chaudion Womble giving his arch enemy mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
You can learn a lot about a man in a barn and I dare say Chaudion doled out lessons in living most every day. He was a people whisperer, too. You could be lucky for a lifetime if you ever met another as fine as Claudion – his brother Jimmy, too – but I can save you a lot of time and a lot of looking – you can find no one anywhere any finer.
Within hours after he died Saturday, one of his nephews called to tell me. He wanted me to know that morning we spent in the barn breezeway was one of Chaudion’s favorite moments. As a wave of emotion came quickly, I managed to tell my caller that day with his uncle was one of my favorites, too. “No need to set your sights high … if you’ll just strive to be the person Chaudion claimed you to be, you’ve already got your True North. Stay on the path … and show us all that being your best has been a family tradition for at least three generations that I know about.”
Today Chaudion’s body will lie in state at the John P. Franklin Funeral Home from noon until the family visitation between 6-8 in the funeral chapel. The funeral will be Saturday at 11:30 a.m. at the Olivet Baptist Church and, on Monday, our dear friend who would rush to the aid of any other man alive, will join that great field of heroes at the National Cemetery. Interment will be at 10 a.m.
“I remember the day of the ambush, our platoon was on alert when this lieutenant ordered us forward. I told the guys, ‘Somebody hand me a rifle … it’s time we fix this!” Chaudion laughed, just as the battle-hardened Marines had done years back over the same line.
With the bunch of us sitting on broken chairs and cushioned by old burlap feedbags just like you’d find in any horse barn I have ever seen, I can vouch that the unanimous belief among us was Mr. Womble would have responded to a critically-wounded enemy soldier the same way he responded to every other day he spent on this earth. He would have done the right thing, because as everyone who ever knew him will tell you, with Mr. Chaudion the right thing was the only thing.
That’s the give-away hint: This weekend’s funeral and burial are hardly goodbye … just so long ‘til next time, as men who sit in horse barns somehow seem to know better than most.