Richard Russell Groover grew up in Gum Branch and spent much time with his grandparents, Redding and Mary Groover.
He spent many summers following around in his Grandpa’s shadows. They went hunting in the scary swamp, with Grandpa telling ghost tales as they walked. They robbed the bee tree with Grandpa teaching him about nature. The two could hardly be separated. But all these good times changed when Russell was not quite 7 years old.
It was a cold December day, and the heavy clouds had hung overhead all day. Grandpa was delirious and the family had sent for Dr. Middleton to come from Ludowici and see him. The doctor did all he could and left to see his other patients. Grandpa would only let Russell’s mother, Louise, in the room with him. He had met his daughter-in-law when she was 16 and lived in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He stayed at the same rooming house as Louise did while he was in the area cruising timber. Louise cleaned and washed dishes and helped with the cooking while attending college nearby. Redding Groover became like a father to Louise at the first meeting. Later, she dated a policeman, John T. Groover, only to find out that he was the son of her “adopted father,” who had returned to Gum Branch.
Russell and his brother, Talmadge, took the kerosene lantern and went to the chicken houses in the cold air to check them. As they passed Grandpa’s room, they heard their mother crying softly, saying, “He’s gone.” The boys looked at each other and realized that a very important part of their life had just passed. Light from the lamp reflected on snowflakes falling, the first snow the boys had ever seen. They felt that Grandpa had just given them his final gift.
The Jesup funeral home had returned Grandpa’s body to the home and the custom was for the widow to sit up and keep vigil the first night. Grandma sat in her rocking chair wearing a black dress as usual, but had added a thin black veil to cover her face. Russell had been in his bed thinking about all the good times he and Grandpa had shared. He decided to slip downstairs and look at Grandpa in the coffin. He was surprised to see Grandma with her head tilted back and snoring loudly. He looked in the coffin and saw a stranger, cold and unmoving, not like the rambunctious Grandpa he knew. He tried to say goodbye, but knew it would mean nothing now. While he was standing there, his mama came up and put her arm around his little shoulder and almost scared the life out of him. She led him out to the porch swing and covered them both with a blanket and talked about their life with Grandpa. They cried some and laughed and cried some more.
In this way, they said their goodbyes to Mama’s “Daddy” and Russell’s beloved Grandpa.
Spring came and Mama was busy teaching school at Providence and Daddy was working as a mechanic at Camp Stewart. Russell helped with the chicken houses and in his spare time he wandered in the woods. It was not the same adventures as he enjoyed with his Grandpa. He was not there to answer any questions he had about life. Grandpa had left a large void in Russell’s life and he wondered if life would ever be worthwhile again.
May came, and so did the hot weather. World War II escalated in Europe and the military activity reached a fevered pitch at the newly-formed Camp Stewart. More and more soldiers marched by the Groover farm every day and the drill sergeant let them stop under the large live oaks and rest a few minutes.
Russell was pumping and carrying water to the chicken houses when he saw the soldiers stop under the trees. He saw how hot and tired they were. He thought about his Grandpa and knew that he would pump fresh water for them. Russell offered them the fresh water and the soldiers much appreciated it. That night in bed, Russell thought about his day and felt that he had come back to life again and had a purpose other than taking care of chickens and gathering eggs. His brain went into motion, making plans.
The next morning, he finished his chores in record time with enthusiasm, and took two of the largest washtubs and scrubbed them until they shone. He set them under the oak shade and pumped fresh water and filled them. Grandpa had recently replaced the leather valve in the pump and now it was going to help Russell become part of the war effort and fill the void he had left. By the time he had filled the tubs with fresh water, his little shirt under his overalls was soaking wet from sweat.
Russell heard the troops coming down the road in a cloud of dust. The drill sergeant brought the company to a halt and gave them a 10-minute break. They hurriedly crowded around the water tubs and filled their canteens. Russell continued making trips to the pump and refilled the tubs. One soldier gave him a fatigue cap. One picked him up and put him on his shoulder. Others gave him packs of chewing gum and pieces of candy. One even gave him a small penknife. Before Russell knew it, they took his fatigue cap and passed it around. Nickels, pennies, dimes and a quarter, which was a huge sum of money, were put in the hat. Russell did not expect this. He calculated that, with the quarter, he could buy three cokes and two packs of peanuts.
The drill sergeant saw the confusion on the little boy’s face. He had not done this for gifts but because he had wanted to. The sergeant squatted down to Russell’s level and told him, “Son, let these men give you things and show their appreciation for the water. They are going to be sent overseas in a few days and they miss their families very much. Some of them may not come back, so let them do this. It will be almost like they are back with their own families for a few minutes.”
Russell completely understood, because this was the way he was filling Grandpa’s void.
That night at the supper table, Russell emptied the little cap with all the goodies and coins in it from his day’s labor of love. He remembered his Grandpa’s words to him that he had heard so many times: “It says in the Bible to give when it is needed and you will be repaid many times over.”
Mama Louise asked Russell what in the world was he going to do with all the money. He told her that he did not know and that he had not expected it, as he was only trying to do what Grandpa had taught him. Mama told him that she would put his money in the bank, but she would take all the candy and chewing gum and give it out to her Providence School students at recess. All summer Russell continued to pump fresh water for all the many thirsty soldiers that passed by on the dusty road by the Groover farm in Gum Branch. Mama continued banking his money and giving his candy away.
Grandpa Redding Groover had marked the path well for Russell’s life and he tries to always follow his teachings. The rewards have been enormous.
This story was summarized from one in the book “Tales of Grandpa and Gum Branch” by Russell Groover and used with his permission.