Guest Column
Tom Reilly

One Saturday morning in the late 1950s I resolved to make a pilgrimage. I got on my bike and rode all the way to Chamblee’s intersection of New Peachtree and Chamblee-Tucker roads. There it still stands: the Manna Pro Corp. building, complete with a tower seven stories high — four of them with windows! I was awestruck.

Neither the building nor I could have known how many other buildings were coming.

The forests were still there in 1960, and enduring mysteries prevailed in their dark hardwood groves and pine thickets. Bible verses had been carved into the smooth gray bark of old beech trees. Unidentified human bones had been found along a creek bank. Abandoned chimneys complete with fireplaces stood where farmhouses had been.

Early one beautiful morning the first mystery’s solution was sitting by a trail side as I approached. He was a slightly built, gray-haired man, a rifle in his hands and a one-eyed cocker spaniel at his side. “Nogel’s my name.”

He was the tree verse carver. He was also a trapper, the last of his kind here, who had lived in the Dakota Territory when the Western frontier was recent history. We met for the last time just after a forest fire swept the region from west to east. I had luckily been moving in the same direction, turned around when I arrived at Hearst Circle and saw the sky filled with smoke where I had just traveled. Nogel was found dead under a tree with two shot squirrels, his rifle and his dog by his side, even as surveyors’ stakes and construction roads began to fill the woods in 1964.

My LCEs (life-changing experiences) would multiply as I now sadly turned toward life in the new suburbs and the swelling city to the south. My Oglethorpe education was continuing in several ways. I was working after school at the first Sears, Roebuck and Co. store in Buckhead. We were filling a new quarter’s psychology classroom in late 1963 when the whole room suddenly grew still. I didn’t see her until she was almost to her seat. She asked only one question — “What were his responses when he got out of the box?” — during the entire course. She performed in a school play as a maid and left Oglethorpe for financial reasons after one year. But she made history nonetheless: She was the first “Negro” to attend the university.

Graduation came in 1967. The LCEs were waiting.

The supreme moral choice of our generation was our position on the Vietnam War. I volunteered for the military draft, remembering how my father and uncles had served in World War II.

The year 1968 found me in an infantry unit operating between Saigon and Cambodia. The Combat Infantryman’s Badge came from a Viet Cong river ambush. The first Purple Heart was awarded after I was hit by a land mine, then helped save other casualties from an accidental brush fire. The second Purple Heart occurred when my raised arm deflected a grenade fragment from piercing my chest, making me the only casualty to walk away that day.

When I tried to insure my Bronze Star for shipment home, I was told that since my medals were “worth nothing,” they were uninsurable. I walked back into our house, in full uniform and carrying the front yard’s American flag, on July 20, 1969 — and saw men walking on the moon.

I had been gone for one year, the longest time I’ve ever spent away from the Brookhaven/Chamblee area.

I had learned that “authority brings out the best in a good man and the worst in a bad man,” that the real medals are inside, that no one ultimately wins or loses a war. I never forgot the shining example set by our brigade commander, the first black field general in American history. The eyewitnessed accidental massacre of 21 Vietnamese children our gunships mistook for Viet Cong in the dark taught me that out of “fight, flee or flow,” flow holds the most promise of making a bad thing better.

An entry in my private journal said, “I now have ten years of preparation behind me. I’m now the freest that I’ve ever been. But free to do what?”

Brookhaven and I would have the next 10 years to find out.

Tom Reilly is a 50-plus-year resident of Brookhaven and a member of the Ashford Alliance Community Association board of directors.