Joseph “Jay” Whorton was born into that hardscrabble existence 55 years ago. His father taught school and farmed. Brothers Lionel and Lauron were 10 and 14 years older and worked the farm until Lionel was drafted into the U.S. Army.
In November 1944, the family received a telegram informing them that Lionel had died in a field near Liege, Belgium. He was buried there. A little more than a month later at 6 p.m. on Christmas Day, Jay’s father dropped dead of a heart attack.
Lauron took a job on the docks in Mobile and, shortly afterward, Jay’s mother sold the farm and moved to Pisgah. It was just a few weeks, however, before they were convinced for move to Mobile to live with the older brother. Not long after their arrival, Lauron contracted typhoid fever and died.
Returning to Pisgah, the Whortons survived mainly because there was monthly income from Lionel’s military insurance and partly because people on the mountain take care of their neighbors.
When he graduated from high school, Jay took a job loading trucks for Ragland Bros. Grocery in Chattanooga, but shortly afterwards heard that the O.B. Andrews Boxboard Company was looking for basketball and baseball players for its company teams. As was common in those days, he soon had a phony job in the mornings, nothing that might tire him out for a big game.
Unfortunately, the good life ended prematurely when Container Corporation purchased the firm and brought an efficiency expert who quickly got around to asking Jay what his job was. “Baseball and basketball” was not the right answer. He found himself back on Sand Mountain.
He continued to play amateur basketball and baseball in the area and was discovered by Jacksonville State University Coach J.W. Stephenson, who offered him an athletic scholarship. It was one of the coach’s better recruiting trips, for just recently Jay P. Whorton was voted into Jacksonville State’s athletic hall of fame, cited as “an athlete the likes of which comes along once in several decades.”
Even with the scholarship, however, there was only one thing that kept him solvent during his college career. That was Lionel’s monthly insurance check.
After graduation from Jax State, Jay signed a contract with the New York Yankees and headed to Class D Dothan. He got as far as Sylacauga before he got to missing his new bride, Laura, turned his old jalopy around and forgot professional baseball forever. He coached high school sports for a while and ran a boys’ camp in the summer before being offered a job as a salesman on a weekly newspaper.
At the newspaper, Jay discovered he had a gift. He could’ve sold Playboy subscriptions to Billy Graham if he’d had to. And his sales ability meant that his children’s lifestyle would never resemble his growing up on Sand Mountain.
For years he was bothered that his children might never realize that the foundation of their good life had been reinforced with the blood of an uncle they hadn’t seen, a brother he hardly knew. Secretly, he harbored a desire that they should all someday visit Lionel’s grave.
Last year, he called a family conference. He presented them all, including daughter-in-law, Vicki, tickets to Belgium. And he told them the story of his brother.
The Veterans Administration was able to provide the exact location of Lionel’s grave and even had a guide meet the visiting Americans. Henri Chapelle Cemetery lies in the midst of open fields that look peaceful and productive, as they must have been before their desecration by World War II. There were wrought-iron eagles on the cemetery gates, and the grass looked as if it had been manicured with scissors. An American flag was flying at half-mast.
The graveyard was a sea of white crosses. Jay started walking with the guide. The rest of the family slowly fell several yards off the pace. In the distance, Jay could see one cross that had a bouquet of fresh flowers beneath it. As he drew nearer, he realized on whose grave the flowers had been placed. As he knelt beside the little marker for Lionel, he finally thanked his brother with his tears.
Then he walked slowly back to the rented van with his family. He handed the keys to his oldest son, Mike, and got into the rear of the vehicle. Nobody bothered him for a while. Nobody chastised him as he worked his way methodically through a case of warm beer and cheese and smiled like a man at peace.