PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C.
Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time to mourn and a time to dance, but lately I can hardly find time to mourn — and I’m dancing as fast as I can.
These thoughts came tumbling down Thursday after the heart-rending news that Aretha Franklin had died. I spent the day listening to all my favorite recordings of the Queen of Soul singing her heart out. When, I wondered, had I stopped listening to the one and only Aretha?
I have loved that woman since I was in high school and spent summers here. “Beach Week” on this storied island, where the marsh marks time with the moon and spirits roam the beach, was set to the music of Motown — and still is. Aretha’s version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” was released as a single in April 1967, the spring of my sophomore year, when my brother was deployed in Vietnam. Those were times of upheaval, marked by the civil rights movement, women’s lib and a war only a few professed to understand.
Through it all, Aretha was there, suggesting that we were all soul brothers and sisters — and that each of us deserved a little more R-E-S-P-E-C-T. You couldn’t then — and you can’t now — watch her perform that song and not feel like jumping to your feet, setting your arms squarely on your hips and testing your body’s resistance to gravity. She was all at once magnetic, magical and spiritual , and you could feel her soul just rolling out to greet and carry you wherever you needed to go.
On Thursday, as eulogies poured in from presidents, entertainers, friends and fans, I kept an ear to the television while unpacking the last few boxes from a recent move. From a pile of mail, I pulled out a small postcard that I instantly recognized. It was one of dozens of such cards I had received through the years from a regular reader and loyal correspondent. Each card always began with “Dear Kilo Papa” (for “KP”). This one, like all the rest, was signed, “Whiskey Delta.”
Short and pithy was the way Col. William Dougald MacMillan IV kept things. Maybe military training and his several combat deployments contributed to this quality. Or, maybe, he knew he stood a better chance of being read by making it easy. All I had to do was flip it over.
“You sure do keep smacking the nail on the head,” he wrote in response to a piece I’d written about an upcoming election. “This is not yet my favorite campaign of the last 60 years ([Harry S. Truman] was by FAR the best Demo. Pres.), but I try to stay optimistic (recalling [Winston Churchill]). I need your help. Remember, if you pass by, come for p.m. . . . best & w/love — Whiskey Delta.”
No wonder I liked the guy. I don’t remember what “p.m.” meant in this context, but given that he lived in Fayetteville, N.C. — and knew I was an I-95 road demon who commuted between South Carolina and Washington — he probably figured I might break for a chat on the southbound leg.
The card was dated June 10, 2008 — more than two months before that year’s Democratic and Republican conventions. Had it really been a decade? Then it hit me. I hadn’t heard from Whiskey Delta in a while. With my mind virtually attached to the 24/7 news cycle, it’s easy to lose track of time. But 10 years? How could it be?
Curious, I searched his name on the Internet and found what I’d hoped I wouldn’t — Whiskey Delta’s obituary. My pen pal had died five years ago. Somewhat oddly, the news sank me low. This man had written me for years, and I’d only begun to learn about him five summers after his passing. He was 87 when he took his final leave.
So it goes in the world we inhabit. All I know about Whiskey Delta, alas, is what I read in his obituary. Maybe one of his grandchildren will find this small meditation of interest — and be reminded that the colonel served his country with valor and briefly shared his thoughts with a humble newspaper writer he called Kilo Papa.
I never did get by for that chat, Whiskey Delta, but I’ll catch you on the next round. If you bump into Aretha in the meantime, just give her a little respect — and an H-U-G — from all of us down here.