Losing your first best friend
It hurts to lose your first best friend.
The Rev. Don McConnell died the other day. He was 89. We’d known each other 79 years. We met in a Sunday school class at Beaver Creek Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
We became friends and better friends. We fished in Beaver Creek near Bell’s Bridge. We hunted rabbits and squirrels. We were mule-riders. Don’s grandfather owned a pair and he was permitted to take them out for little ridge rides – for exercise. The mules didn’t work very hard.
For the most part, the mules decided where we were going. Don said there was no danger of getting lost. The mules would head for the barn when they got hungry. The secret was to be aboard.
We were co-investors, $6 each for an old flat-bottom wooden boat so we could move up to trotline fishing. The boat did not leak.
Fishing was fun. Late-night frog hunting was an adventure. Our arrangement was me with a gig and flashlight reaching beyond the front of the boat to spear frogs sitting on the bank. Don sat in the back and was the pilot and paddler.
Powell boys (and some others) thought frog legs were very good eating.
Powell boys were very quick when a snake dropped into the boat. What it was doing on a low-hanging limb over the middle of the creek in the middle of the night I’ll never know.
In no uncertain terms, Don declared “Snake in the boat!”
We evacuated. We got very wet. There may have been many moccasins in the water but we survived.
Come broad daylight, we retrieved the boat from a sandbar. We purchased a new and bigger flashlight at the hardware store, $1.25.
There was a more serious recovery experience. One day our boat was gone, vanished in thin air. The creek, back then, was not a wonderful waterway. Even if it untied itself, obstructions limited the likely distance it could go on its own. We reasoned that someone or several someones had captured our craft.
Search and recovery was not well planned. We armed ourselves with .22 rifles and started walking along the creek in the general direction of Karns. We eventually found the boat and new muskrat traps and assorted gear. It wasn’t easy but we got it all home.
Along the way, we suddenly realized how fortunate we were that the bandits were not on guard. They might have had far more firepower. Someone else might be writing this story.
Fast forward toward young adulthood. Ernest Hendrix, Jack Watson, Don and I became the Beaver Creek Boys gospel quartet. We weren’t bad. We sang on radio. We made three or four guest appearances on TV. We sort of thought we might get discovered. Alas, RCA signed some other group, perhaps The Cathedrals or maybe it was the Blackwood Brothers.
We did strike gold. During Christmas holidays, we were invited to Cleveland for a Cumberland Presbyterian youth convention. We sang in near-perfect harmony. There was enough applause for two encores.
I admit to being distracted. The official hostess and program director was Sarah Jane Blackburn. Bright, very bright. Three-fourths of the quartet teased the bass singer about getting acquainted fast enough to be holding hands a day later.
Less than a year later, we were married.
The quartet split four different directions. Don enlisted in the U.S. Army and served two years during the Korean War. He decided he belonged in the ministry. He graduated from Bethel College and the Cumberland Presbyterian Seminary. He was ordained in 1959.
He was an Army chaplain for 18 years. He served in Vietnam during that war and at military bases in Korea. He conducted services and provided counseling in Georgia, South Carolina, New York, Louisiana, Virginia and Hawaii.
Sarah and I picked the best of those places to visit.
Don received a bronze star and other medals and retired as a lieutenant colonel. He repented for missing our wedding in 1954. Seventeen years ago, he officiated when we repeated the vows at our golden anniversary celebration.
After military, Rev. McConnell served Cumberland Presbyterian churches in Glasgow, Ky., Jackson and Lenoir City. He never made it back to Beaver Creek as a pastor.
“They knew me too well.”
A service celebrating Don’s life will be at 1 p.m., December 11, at Click Funeral Home in Farragut. Interment will be at Lake View Cemetery in Lenoir City with full military honors. Obituary information is here.
Memorial donations may be sent to Memphis Theological Seminary, 168 E. Parkway S., Memphis, TN 38104.