The Story of Aaron
Ruth struggled to keep her tears from falling on Aaron as she tried to dress the squirming three year old into his new yellow traveling clothes. He was so excited about taking the trolley to the end of the line but he didn’t know he wasn’t coming back home.
Francis was helping the twin boys pack their small bags to go on the trip. Wilbur and Willie were excited too about the trolley ride. They didn’t know they weren’t going to see their sisters again for a long time.
Aunt Ellie had picked up the baby Magdeline the day before. Ruth and Francis ran to the back yard and cried after the front door closed when their new baby sister being taken away.
W.H. would take Harvey to the boys ranch, then Ruth and Francis to their new home when he returned from taking the younger boys to Mills Home Baptist Orphanage in Thomasville.
There was no orphanage that would take all seven children, so different homes were found for them.
A month before, Amanda, the beloved wife and mother, had died from a fatal asthma attack brought on by the sulfur treatment used for asthma, a treatment of the time. W.H. couldn’t care for his family in the tiny four room house with only one hand left after an accident. His grief for Amanda left him emotionally crippled and his children seemed so distant to him. Amanda was their caregiver and his too.
“Willie! Wilbur! Hug your sisters and Harvey, then take Aaron by the hands. We’re leaving now.”
Ruth held on to Aaron as long as she could. Francis took both twins in her arms for one last hug while Harvey just looked at their father with contempt in his eyes.
When the girls and Harvey finished waving goodbye, Harvey turned to ten year old Ruth and asked if she could make a peach pie. Ruth had watched her mother bake, but she didn’t know the measurements for pie crust. Year’s later she would laugh as she told Aaron’s daughter that it was the toughest crust anyone could eat. The three of them sat sadly and quietly at the table as they picked at the almost eatable pie filling while they waited for their father to return and take them to their new homes.
The three little boys were so excited from the moment they got on the trolley to the end of the line. Then something happened. Their father seemed to grow cold and harsh as he marched them up a hill to a very large house.
Wilbur and Willie held little Aarons hands between them so tightly that Aaron began to cry. They lifted him up the steps to the front door where a smiling lady reached down and lifted Aaron to her hip. She spoke softly to him and and bounced him back and forth while looking lovingly at the twins. She was going to watch these little boys become men and unbeknownst to her, someday go off to war.
W.H. lifted each boy to his arms and gave them a big squeeze then turned and walked away, never looking back so they wouldn’t see the tears rolling down his cheeks. Four of his children were now gone to live somewhere else and he had to take the other three to their new homes when he returned home for the last time.
That night the loving lady heard Aaron crying in his bed. Her heart was broken for him, so she went to his bed, picked him up and carried him to her bed. She sang softly to him as she rocked him. His tear filled eyes finally closed then they both slipped into the dark night of sleep. She told this story to Aaron’s wife as they both cried after learning he had been shot in Vietnam.
The Mills Home Baptist Orphanage was run on love and discipline. The children had chores and constant companions. The twins were placed in a separate room from Aaron since they were older but they tried to see Aaron as much as possible.
As Aaron grew, his chores did too. He had to rise early to milk the cows and take them to pasture in the mornings. In the evenings he returned to the cows to herd them back to the barn.
School and chores were mandatory. The highlight of the day were meals. There was often chicken on platters on the table when the boys were allowed in the dining room. The chicken had been cut into parts and the older boys knew that if they spit on their hands and hit the good parts that it would be theirs for dinner. Aaron was too small for this tradition so for years he only tasted a wing or a neck.
The home was careful of the the children’s health. Every fall the boys were lined up and given a spoonful of cod liver oil. Aaron hated it. He would hold it in his mouth until he was out of sight and spit it behind the radiator. When the cold weather came, the home would smell like fish oil.
W.H. would visit occasionally and once in awhile he would bring his daughters to see their brothers. He wasn’t comfortable in the situation. Aaron was six years old when Ruth and Francis came with their father to see the boys. W.H. laughed when he told Aaron that these were his girlfriends. Aaron didn’t recognize them. He thought his father had a lot of girlfriends. Ruth was devastated that Aaron didn’t want to hug her. He had been her charge when they were all together with their mother.
Harvey had been left at a boy’s ranch, but ran away and didn’t see his family for years. Ruth and Francis were put in a girls orphanage. Ruth was small in stature but loved to play basketball. Francis dreamed of being a nurse.
Willie and Wilbur turned eighteen and immediately decide to join the military. Willie joined the Navy but Wilbur was colorblind, so the Navy didn’t want him. Then he joined the Army, he was sent to the tank division.
Aaron was left alone at the orphanage and became very clever on how to get his way by gentle persuasion. It was that training that carried him all his life.
Church was another requirement for all the residents of Mills Home, after all it was a Baptist institution. Aaron always said he had enough religion the first eighteen years of his life to last him a lifetime. As he walked out of the church building on December 7 1941, he didn’t realize how his seventeen year old life was about to change within a month.
There was a call to arms and the only way Aaron could answer the call was to run away from the orphanage and lie about his age.
He stood in front of the recruiters desk without a birth certificate. That wasn’t strange in the day, very few people had one. The recruiter asked his age.
“ Eighteen.” said a very controlled Aaron.
“What’s your full name?”
“Aaron Zacherus Spaul.”
“How do you spell Zacherus?
“I don’t know.”
“Oh. Well,let’s spell it Z-a-c-h-e-r-u-s.”
“Okay.” It never occurred to Aaron to care about his middle name.
“What do you want to do in the Navy?”
“Help...how about becoming a corpsman?”
“What’s a corpsman?”
“It’s someone who helps doctors and works in a hospital.”
Aaron went to boot-camp and corpsman training. During that time, he thought about his middle name and decided to introduce himself as A.Z. His initials would be his moniker for life, private and professional.
A few months later, word came that Wilbur had been killed in Papua New Guinea when his tank was hit by enemy fire. Harvey spent the war working as an electrician at the shipyard in Mobile, Alabama. Aaron, now known as A.Z. was sent to be a hospital corpsman sailor on board a ship in the Pacific.
There was a family reunion after the war. The bonds of their childhood were rekindled and they never wanted to be separated again. The baby, Magdeline, found out she had a different family and the three sisters were instantly bound together in love.
The Mills Home Baptist Orphanage was A.Z.’s home for so many years that he wanted to return to a reunion there. It was that night that his eye was drawn to a local vivacious nineteen year old volunteer with sparkling green eyes and raven black hair. She was a mixture of her Scottish and American Indian heritage. A.Z couldn’t take his eyes off of her. They were married a few months later.
The Navy became the career path for A.Z. When the Korean War began. He was there. When Vietnam became a debacle for the United States, he knew he would have to go to be with the Marines. Navy Corpsman were often stationed with the Marines and he was ordered to the First Marine Division in Vietnam.
He had a few months before his deployment from Roanoke Virginia where he was stationed at the Naval Reserve Center. He used his influence at the center to get his nephews, Francis’s sons, in the Navy to avoid the army draft. He spent the summer weekends driving to Farmville VA to pick me up from Longwood College where I decided to begin right after high school.
I usually slept on the ride home, but on the last trip I talked all the way home. Daddy listened to my chatter and said little. Just before we were almost home he said,” Squeeze. Do you remember when we lived in Cary?”
“Yes.” Hearing the tone of his voice, I knew something was coming.
“ Well I heard someone refer to me as the fat Chief in the Navy. I decided to do something about it and began taking diet pills. One day I walked into the hardware store to buy a hammer. The owner asked if the one I bought the day before didn’t work. I didn’t remember buying one the day before.”
He didn’t say anything else. I knew I had been busted. My dorm suite mates were juniors. When it came time to study for final exams, they gave me pills. Daddy’s orphanage persuasion training always served him well, especially as a gentle guide to his children.
As I’m writing about a conversation with my Father, I flashed on one I had with him when I was four years old. It was in the pink cinder block house in Beaufort South Carolina. Daddy was stationed with the Marines at Parris Island. A storm was pouring and the lightning was flashing. I found comfort on daddy’s lap.
We had just seen a movie about WWII and I was interested in the story. Daddy was in the Navy like the men in the movie so I began asking him questions. He told me about WW1 and WW2. I asked about WW3. He hugged me tight. “I pray there is no WW3.” That eighteen years of religion at Mills Home had taken some root.
Daddy did come back from Vietnam on a stretcher. He had been shot by snipers while checking out a village illness. It was time for his thirty years of service in the Navy to come to the end. He chose his “twilight tour” to be in Norfolk, Virginia. He retired there and went to work for DuPont in Richmond, VA as the employee health inspector. Retirement lasted five years. He died quickly of a stroke at the age of 52 leaving behind a son, a daughter and three wars.
This is my memory of my Navy father on Memorial Day.