Thank you for joining us today to remember my father, Charles Marsh. I want to share a few memories and stories that don’t come close to painting a true portrait of the man we knew. However I hope they prompt you to recall other memories, other stories, so that someone who no longer lives among us will continue to influence us. His kindness, ingenuity, integrity, and his bravery will always influence me.
My father was a native of Atlanta. You can’t see Atlanta from here. In fact you can’t see Dad’s Atlanta from anywhere. The city where children could walk to school and ride streetcars across town to the fairgrounds, where neighbors talked from porch to porch in the dark, where people walked to work, and men and women actively participated in civic organizations, is gone. Although the city he knew as a child and a young man no longer exists, it was a fond remembrance for Dad. There’s no other place he would want us to gather to remember him. There is also no other place he would like to rest than beside his parents, whom he loved, admired, and served with devotion.
Dad passed away in December, yet we hold this service today because it is convenient for all of us. That’s exactly as he would have wanted it to take place: without inconveniencing anyone.
My father was diagnosed with heart failure in December, 2013. I find that ironic. He had a heart that never failed. A pure heart, full of empathy for so many people. People he knew well, acquaintances in the course of daily life, and people he never met.
Dad expressed empathy for the outsider and the underdog. He knew what it was like to be a third child, overshadowed by an older brother who was the able first child, and by the memory of a sister who died as a toddler. He reminded me often to focus attention on each of my children in equal measure.
Dad expressed empathy for people he knew only casually, such as customers in his hardware store. I have a fine .22 rifle because he accepted it in barter from a customer who couldn’t pay his bill. Another customer—a man who had only one arm—tried to buy a chainsaw in Dad’s store. Dad refused to sell it to him. The following Saturday, he left the store early so he could take a chainsaw out to his customer’s house and cut what needed cutting. He understood a person’s unique plight, and he did something about it.
Dad also expressed empathy for people he never met, like the children featured in advertisements for Smile Train, the charity that treats cleft palates in less-developed countries. I suspect this was a favorite charity because Dad knew what it was like to be deformed. For most of his life he was self-conscious about the eye he lost in an acorn fight when he was twelve. Through six weeks of bed rest in a darkened room, a case of sepsis his mother referred to as “blood poisoning,” and pain so intense that he couldn’t bear the sound of someone walking across the floor, Dad never revealed to my grandparents the name of the classmate who had thrown the acorn that hit him in the eye.
Even with only one good eye, Dad saw a lot of things in his long life. Of course he experienced the iconic moments of the twentieth century, but it is his more personal experiences that I find most interesting.
In 1945, Dad and two army buddies visited Reims Cathedral. The cathedral was braced for war, surrounded by a protective wall of sandbags, with only a narrow space for visitors to pass through as they entered and left the 700-year-old building. Exiting the cathedral, Dad blocked the way for a moment while he bought a postcard from a street vendor. He heard an irritated voice behind him say, “Sergeant, may I please get by?” Dad wheeled around with a response already coming out of his mouth. As he turned, his good eye caught sight of his two friends plastered against the sandbags, each rendering a stiff salute. Their appearance registered enough caution in Dad’s brain to moderate the tone of his reply. He managed to reign in his response just in time to say, “WHY CERTAINLY you can… General Eisenhower.” The general scowled as he walked by, his escort smiled, and Dad and his buddies hightailed it back to camp. Dad never mailed that postcard. I found it in his files after he died.
In the mid-1950s, Dad and his parents bought a 200-acre farm in Cobb County. Back then, Cobb County was out in the country. Earthwork from the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain was still visible on the farm. County roads were gravel. One day when Dad was walking through the woods, he saw a black panther lying on the limb of a tree. Panthers are things of legend in the southeast. They appear primarily in Indian lore. Most black cats in the Americas are melanistic jaguars, the exact opposite of albinos. A unique species of black panther has never been documented, but stories of melanistic North American cougars abound. Dad said he saw one. It may have been the last of its kind. Based on my father’s testimony, I believe black panthers once roamed the Appalachian region.
Dad wrote a few memoir installments about his experiences in World War II. One of them he titled, “Never a Hero.” He was wrong about his heroism. On more than one occasion, danger came to him unbidden. He confronted it head-on. For example, near the front lines in Trier, Germany, Dad’s lieutenant sent him to look for a mimeograph machine in an office building. (A mimeograph is an old-time machine for producing copies of a document.) Late one night, he found a suitable machine. He was about to take it when a German guard entered the room. The guard pulled a gun. “Vas is loss?” the German asked: “What’s up?” Unarmed, Dad replied, “Geh raus.” He thought that meant, “Get out,” but he wasn’t sure. Whatever it meant, the German put away his gun and left.
Thirty years later, Dad was in his hardware store on a slow weekday afternoon. A young man came in and asked for a large screwdriver. When Dad turned his back to select a screwdriver from a display, the customer put his hand in his jacket pocket. He told Dad he had a gun, and told him to hand over all the money in the store. Dad opened the cash register and gave the robber about a hundred dollars. The robber took the money and told Dad to turn around and lie down. Dad said, “If you’re going to shoot me, you’ll have to do it to my face, you little coward. Now get out.” (Again with the “get out.” When you find a phrase that works, stick with it.) The guy left and Dad called the police. The chief of police asked if Dad had actually seen the robber’s gun. Dad said, “No, but he had an honest face.” He learned later that police in Florida caught the guy pulling a similar holdup. It turns out he really did have a gun.
Dad enjoyed good company, like the camaraderie of his breakfast buddies at The Shanty House in Kennesaw. He enjoyed being greeted like Norm in Cheers when he walked into a place like Riverside Pharmacy, or even Capital Automobile Company more than twenty years after he worked there. But he also enjoyed solitude. He liked walking alone through a hardwood forest, among a herd of black Angus cows, or across a field where an English Setter ran ahead. He especially enjoyed time spent on a riding lawn mower. When I was a child, he had an old Gravely that he’d owned for about 20 years. Later in life he owned a series of other name-brand mowers. All were inferior to the Gravely. Dad spent many serene hours on that thing. When an acquaintance asked him at a party why he liked a chore like cutting grass, Dad said, “For the peace and quiet.”
In light of Dad’s appreciation for contemplative time spent alone, I want to read a poem called “Solitude.”
I know what pleasure it brings
to lie at night upon my back
and gaze, alone, on heavenly things
that go nightly marching through
Heaven’s expanse of purest blue
and never lose their endless track.
Friendships I have made
with those far greater than I;
sovereign rulers of the sky,
who wield a peaceful blade
and make no war with men.
When stars their lives at night begin,
my place would I trade
to look as they do from on high
at those who are what I have been.
“Solitude,” a poem by Charles Marsh
Dad’s favorite passage in the Bible was the opening verse of John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In Greek, the word for Word is Logos, from which we get “logic.” My father believed in the Word, in the Logos. Although he knew it was futile to try to understand God’s reasoning, he nevertheless admired great thinkers who help us gain insight into the way creation works. He told me the two people he admired the most were Jesus Christ and Albert Einstein. Dad believed, and he sought to understand. My great hope for the hereafter is that someone as faithful and as curious as my father gains a greater understanding of creation than when he was among its creatures.
In John 14:2, Jesus told us, “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” I hope each of the mansions Jesus mentioned has a yard that needs mowing, and a Gravely in need of a driver. If I get to heaven, I expect the yards will look immaculate.
Thank you for honoring my father with your presence today. He was a good man. I loved him very much. I will always miss him.