Russell Groover wrote a book, “Tales of Grandpa and Gum Branch,” in 1997, and dedicated it to his cousin, Eugene Talmadge Groover. Russell tells many tales about growing up in Gum Branch and the fun times he had with his many cousins — Talmadge, Miles, Tracey, Glenn, Gary, Lawrence and others.
Russell gave me permission to share his stories. This one is about Talmadge, whom I knew, even though I knew his wife better.
Talmadge married Judy Theus from Ludowici. She was my sister Hazel’s fourth-grade teacher the year she first taught school in Ludowici. When I went on the senior trip to Washington, D.C., and New York City, Judy was one of our chaperones. I remember her going with some of us girls into downtown New York City and riding on a subway. We felt safe with her along, even though she acted as young as we were. We all enjoyed her on the trip.
Today, Judy is a resident of the Coastal Manor Nursing Home.
This is Russell’s story about his cousin:
“For almost two weeks there had been a fine mist dropping like it usually does in the fall in Southeast Georgia. I had been trying to finish a front porch on our little place and get back to my family in Tampa, but the drizzle had hampered my progress.
“‘Russell, what in the world are you doing out here working in the rain?’
“Talmadge appeared as if from nowhere.
“‘It ain’t raining, this is just another Georgia dew,’ I told him.
“‘Why don’t you go in there and put on some dry clothes and ride over to Jesup with me?’ he asked. I thought about it for a second and let my natural instincts for procrastination take over. ‘It won’t take me but a few minutes.’ ...
“Talmadge was waiting for me in his truck for the trip to Jesup. The roads were muddy from the weeks of foul weather, and the truck slipped and slid occasionally. Talmadge would automatically steer with the slide as I had watched him do over the last 40 years or so, maintaining perfect control. I went to many race tracks in Florida, but I realized that my cousin Talmadge was as good as any of those professional drivers had been.
“Then there was the time when I was 14 and rode my old Army-surplus Harley motorcycle to Gum Branch. I know he had never even touched a motorcycle before. All I had to do was show him where the controls were and the next thing I knew, he was headed to Ludowici down 11 miles of the worst dirt roads in the country to see his girlfriend, Judy. If he ever fell, he didn’t tell anyone.
“When he was in high school and 18 years of age, he applied for a chauffeur’s license and got the job driving the school bus until he graduated. A natural at driving, he would never tire. Sometimes, after school, he would run the bus route, then return to the school and pick up the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams, drive them several miles to another town, play as guard in the game, drive the team back to the school, get home after midnight, and then get up the next morning at five o’clock and start all over again!
“I remember watching him maneuver an old Minneapolis Moline tractor, pulling logs out of the swamp with the front wheels up in the air. His touch was so perfect that the tractor kept pulling and the front tires never touched down until the log came up on dry ground.
“The only time that I know he ever had an accident was when he and I drove his brother Miles’ old cut-down Ford to Ludowici. We had just cruised the block-long main street beside the railroad tracks and were turning around when he nicked the bumper of a Studebaker parked nose-end to the curb. The only things that hit were the two hubcaps on my side, and they popped off and went rattling out in the street. A patrolman came by while we were picking up the hubcaps and wrote Talmadge a ticket.
“I thought it was for reckless driving; Talmadge remembered it as careless driving. The only thing he pled guilty to was disturbing the peace.
“‘Why are we going to Jesup?’ I asked, not that I needed an excuse to leave my work.
“‘To see someone in the hospital,’ he answered.
“‘Yep, the hospital is always full of sick people,’ he said.
“‘No, you know what I mean. Is there anybody we know in the hospital?’ I said.
“‘I don’t think so,’ he said.
“I dropped it at that, and we started talking about things in general. It amazed me that Talmadge always knew how I felt about things like integrity and our unspoken obligations to God, and he openly recognized the difference between church doctrine and the Bible. Talmadge had a built-in guide about ‘right and wrong’ that he followed. He understood that I had the same, but I had trouble following mine.
“We talked about all the Army trucks full of soldiers that had run off the road and sunk into the muddy waters as we crossed the Altamaha Swamp and the stink of the Rayonier on the banks of the river.
“The little hospital in Jesup had a bad reputation back in the 1940s. People said you might remember going in, but you wouldn’t remember coming out!
“We walked in the door and the receptionist greeted Talmadge with a smile and said, ‘Hello, Mr. Groover. How are you today?’
“‘Just fine, Shirley. I want you to meet my cousin Russell from Tampa. And you get prettier every time I see you.’
“We walked down the hall filled with hospital sounds and smells. Every so often, Talmadge would look in an open door and greet the patient. They would respond with a greeting of their own and call him Talmadge or Mr. Groover. At the end of the hall, we looked in and saw an old man lying motionless, staring at the ceiling.
“‘How are you doing today?’ Talmadge asked.
“The old man looked over with half-glazed eyes, then turned away without answering. Talmadge walked into the room with a purpose and pulled up a chair and sat down.
“‘What they got you in here for? You don’t look that sick to me,’ Talmadge said.
“‘I’m in here to die,” the old man responded in an aggravated tone.
“Talmadge ignored the man’s attitude and said, ‘I’m from over at Gum Branch on the other side of Ludowici. Do you know where that is?’
“‘Yeah, I know where that is. I used to work at Camp Stewart during the war,’ he said.
“‘You don’t look that old to me.’
“‘I’m 83 years old,” he said.
“‘My name is Talmadge Groover. What is yours?’
“‘George Anderson,’ the man responded.
“For 30 minutes, I watched as Talmadge talked to George about everything from the war to farming. I saw the spark of life come back into George’s eyes when Talmadge disagreed about George’s opinion of President Reagan.
“The conversation was brought to an end when a nurse came in and said it was time for George to eat lunch. As we walked down the hall a nurse caught up to us and said, ‘Mr. Groover, we thank you so much. Mr. Anderson hadn’t responded to anyone in a week. I think he had lost the will to live.’
“‘Debby, take care of yourself and we’ll see you later,’ Talmadge said to the nurse.
“Back in the truck, I asked Talmadge how he knew the old man was in the hospital and needed someone to talk to. All he said was, ‘There are people everywhere that need help and you don’t have to look far to find them. Besides, I’m a deacon and that’s my job. How about we stop at Captain Joe’s and eat some shrimp?’
“As we left downtown Jesup, I thought of all the people that I had heard criticize Talmadge over the last few years since he had had his first heart attack. They talked about him not doing anything with his time. I hope any one of them will accomplish as much as I had just seen him accomplish.
“Talmadge had diabetes in 1993, to the point that he had circulation problems in his legs and the doctors were talking about amputation. At that time, I made it a point to stop on my way from North Carolina to Tampa to visit with him. The October air had been a little chilly as we talked about the things that our fathers and grandfathers had probably talked about — the Bible, politics and the last war. He had been in good spirits when I left, and he told me to bring our cousin Lawrence back with me the next time I came.
“That December, I returned with Lawrence to Gum Branch, but it was to attend Talmadge’s funeral. He had had a heart attack and died instantly Dec. 1, right after he and Judy had finished putting up Christmas lights. It was swift and almost painless. God had spared him the pain and helpless feeling of being an amputee. Eugene Talmadge Groover (May 24, 1933-Dec. 1, 1993) age 60, was buried in Faith Memorial Gardens in Hinesville.
“After the funeral, I cried — not for Talmadge, but for myself, his grandchildren, his family and for all the people who will miss him. The ministers at the funeral did not even come close to paying Talmadge homage. Now, as I write this, I find myself, who knew and loved him so well, not able to do him justice, either.”