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Throwing Chairs at Phil Donahue

11:11 pm in Uncategorized by alabamagunn

Looking back, the felicity with which the media tracked down victims in a pre-internet world was unsettling. After my Dad’s assassination on March 10, 1993, my mom, sister, friends, and I huddled around the television watching news coverage of the killing, and it did not strike me as significantly odd when the phone started ringing with reporters on the other end. After all, there were phone books and news reports indicating Dad had family in Birmingham—how they knew our location is another mystery as they thought and reported, incorrectly, that we were from Pensacola for some time—and Gunn is a fairly uncommon name. So some persistent wrong dialing would eventually result in a match right?

A TV News Van

David Gunn, Jr, on encounters with the media after his father’s murder.

Yet, when we finally worked out the details of the funeral and opted to bury Dad in Tennessee next to my matriarchal grandfather, we headed out to Winchester on March 11, and I assumed that moving northward would lessen the phone’s incessant din and give us an opportunity to grieve before having to face any media additional media blitz.

The visitation was on Friday, March 12, and the funeral was scheduled for Saturday, March 13. Our planning was complicated by a familial dispute over where the actual funeral and burial would take place. Dad’s family wanted him moved to Benton, Kentucky so he could be close to them; however, after the apocalyptic Thanksgiving just four months prior when Dad cut all ties with his patriarchal family, my sister and I a) did not envision an occasion that would bring us to Benton so a burial there meant we would not be able to visit dad in the future, and b) we felt it best to keep him with the family that did not abandon him and Winchester, we felt, was the best location.

Secondarily, but no less importantly, getting the body from Pensacola, Florida to Winchester, Tennessee while simultaneously getting us and our friends from Birmingham to Winchester proved hazardous given an approaching winter storm unlike any experienced in the South. In fact, were it not for the blizzard in Alabama and southern Tennessee, the funeral would have truly become a national media circus.

Alas, just as they did in Birmingham, the national media found us in Tennessee. People magazine had reporters on the ground asking for interviews as we tried to organize visitation and funeral services. In fact, they caught us on the steps of the funeral home, wanted to interview us on the spot, and quickly snapped some photos outside the picturesque antebellum home converted to funeral parlor and chapel. Similarly, the visitation was punctuated by reporters from everywhere, looking to talk with one or more of us family to get our personal reaction to recent events. In fact, I have vivid memories of talking with a reporter in the funeral home’s basement breakroom while the visitation was ongoing. Having never experienced anything even remotely close to these requests, I tried to be accommodating and polite while silently wishing for some peace. I just wanted to be with my Dad.

The snow hit Winchester the night of the visitation after everyone staying with us made it back to my grandmother’s house. We wondered if the funeral service could continue given the weather developments, and for a few moments the incessant phone ringing abated. While my friends and I toasted my Dad with bourbon and Coors Light we shared stories, laughed, and forgot about the real for a few moments.

On Saturday, March 13 we buried Dad in a snow covered cemetery in Winchester, Tennessee. Of course, media were on hand and they obtained a number of grieving money shots to litter their pages the next day. Some reporters wanted to talk and asked for comments, but it was cold, we were listless, tired, and veritable emotional vegetables so we finished at the graveside, said goodbyes, and huddled back to my grandmother’s to eat, drink, and blunt ourselves so we could get some much needed mental and physical rest.

I’ve never attended anything but a Southern funeral so I do not know if the food avalanche which follows the graveside service is a regional thing or something which is region neutral, but we had a houseful of guests who all brought comfort food for the family. As on the previous night, my friends and I ate and then retired downstairs and engaged in some subdued grief laden mild debauchery. As the day progressed, alcohol flowed, pipes glowed, and I finally relaxed to an extent thinking the gadfly reporter circus moved on to the next American tragedy when the phone rang again.

Mimi’s downstairs phone was one of those old Ma Bell wall mounted affairs with the eight foot spiraled cord and rotary dial. Someone yelled from upstairs where the adults had congregated since I was six and told me the phone was for me. I hesitated before answering, not wanting to answer another question about how it felt, how it feels, what would you say to Griffin, and other questions designed to draw a tear or presage a breakdown.

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The Funeral

9:49 pm in Uncategorized by alabamagunn

Open or closed?  His question hung in my head, a mental metronome undulating. Open or closed?  It did not serve as a mantra used to focus the mind.  No, the attendant’s question precluded focus and only intensified mental molestation as it required an answer.  One would think we could agree upon an answer with relative ease.  For me, though, still reeling at the thought of another funeral, the question hung weightless.  I knew before asked I preferred closed; yet, there was my mother and sister to consider as well as those only a few months ago dad shunned after the nuclear Thanksgiving not yet four months past but who were certain to come, understandably, to bury their boy.  Open or closed?

An open casket

On burying an assassinated abortion doctor.

After mom decided we would have a “proper” funeral, after struggling with the patriarchal Gunns on the funeral’s location, and after, against my wishes, a cremation was vetoed, open or closed was the last pressing question.  We already viewed the casket show room, kicked the tires if you will, and settled on a practical and accommodating model.  We perused the menu of services and opted for the large chapel as we anticipated a crowd.  Though dad was not religious, I did not object too harshly when my maternal grandmother offered up her preacher to perform the service.  It was yet another peace offering of sorts to the other family who would most assuredly object to a more secular service.  Open or closed, though, remained unsettled.

My steadfast closed opinion was due to the ghost of funeral’s past.  I still remember the first time I touched a dead body, a husk of what was.  I was seven or eight years old at my great-grandmother’s funeral.  I was intrigued by death as the too young often are, and my cousins and I dared each other to touch her one last time.  I remember only cold.  Over the intervening years, I attended other great aunt’s, uncle’s, grandparents, and eventually friends’ funerals with some regularity.  Coming from a small town as I do, when a teenager dies, you know them even if you don’t, and you attend the funeral in any event as you would any other social or church function.  There is no question.  You go.

When I was 15 a friend shot himself with a .22 caliber rifle ending his relatively young life—he was 22, coincidentally, I believe—and I vividly remember his lifeless body and how obviously different he looked.  I cannot see his animated face for the memory of his death face and the obvious attempts to mask the bullet in the head.  Four years later after other suicides and drunk driving tragedies, at another open casket affair after my 20 year old friend killed himself and his girlfriend in a drunken single car wreck, I watched his father wrench his carcass from the coffin attempting to shake him back from Tartarus or wherever. I was a pallbearer and even at 19 understood this father’s grief at the loss of his son though I was unnerved by this large and strange man’s sudden grief-epiphany.

Closed.  I am decidedly closed.  My mom and sister both want to see dad, to say goodbyes, to grieve in their own way.  I am sure others want the same.  Who am I to selfishly deny others what may bring some peace?  We reach a compromise.  Visitation for family and close friends is open, but the funeral itself is closed.  I attend the visitation, but my last vision of dad remains the day he left my apartment three days before his murder, and I never see him lifeless and still.  Closed.

The visitation and funeral itself could have been one like any other but for the facts of dad’s death, the media frenzy which followed, and the freak southern blizzard of 1993 which significantly impeded what otherwise promised a SRO funeral.  In fact, many people I later met and subsequently befriended told me they fully intended to come to Tennessee for the funeral but were snowed out.

Before we even confronted the impish funeral director’s open or closed query, the media landed, a harbinger of the coming real storm.  Back in ’93 I still had some fairly strong illusions of privacy, and we were amazed at the speed with which the press located us in Winchester, Tennessee when dad was killed in Pensacola, Florida, and my sister, mom, and I lived separately in Birmingham, Alabama.  Yet, they sherlocked us down looking for the human interest angle to a controversial and promising long term story.  They started calling, obviously, the day the assassination occurred.  It did not relent as we prepared for a memorial and funeral.  Open or closed, indeed.

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A Family Aborted

12:47 pm in Uncategorized by alabamagunn

IMG_0459

Tombigbee River

Sudden violent death creates concentric ripples which spread ever wider washing and crashing over the immediate family on to extended family, friends, and colleagues. Those ripples ebb back to the deceased’s family. Sometimes, what rolls back is sympathy and genuine compassion. In other instances, a dangerous rip tide threatens to pull the family back into gothic familial deep water where the recently aggrieved find themselves struggling to maintain their footing and keep from drowning in those passive aggressive human voices whose motives are more self-centered than benevolent, more angry than comforting.

The men from my dad’s side of the family met each Thanksgiving weekend at a hunting cabin in Pickens County, Alabama. It is in actuality an old farm house adjacent to the Tombigbee River surrounded by grazing land for cattle and a combination of pulp and hard wood trees unique to the south. What started as a weekend of hunting and drinking two generations prior was now an occasion for the patriarchal Gunn family to meet, enjoy supposed fellowship, watch football, talk politics, and share a few meals—the drunken part of the weekend long banished once my grandfather became the family head. He and his eldest son, my uncle, devoutly subscribed to fundamental Christianity of the hair shirt variety so drunkenness was soon off the weekend’s agenda.

My history with my dad’s side of the family was strained at best due in large part to events prior to my birth. My grandfather expected his children to remain close in proximity and obedient to his will even in adulthood. Most of my aunts and uncles never left Benton, Kentucky a rural western Kentucky town that remained segregated as late as the 1980s which was the last time I had any reason to visit where they were born and either entered into the family insurance business or started other business ventures funded with grandfather’s wealth. Though his parents pushed dad to take up medicine as a career, I always felt they wanted him to return home to practice after meeting the right woman (meaning one they approved), marry, and live their idea of an idyllic Christian American lifestyle.

While an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, my dad met my mom. It was an odd relationship bordering on taboo in that they were distantly related and even shared the same last name. As if out of some stereotypical Appalachian folk tale, their father’s knew each other, had grown up together in rural Tennessee, and dad’s grandfather and father fucked my mom’s dad in a business deal which haunted my mom’s dad and tainted his relationship with his cousin/future in law for the rest of his life. I do not know when the respective parents found out about the illicit relationship, but I know neither side approved initially. My mom had to tell her parents when she found herself pregnant in the late 60s with what was to be my older brother. Her father, looking out for his daughter’s welfare, concerned what people would say (about the relationship generally and a child out of wedlock specifically), and distrustful of the paternal half of the relationship, offered her a way out of the pregnancy. Though abortion was illegal, he knew people and offered to arrange one for his young pregnant daughter to save her the embarrassment of single motherhood in 1968 and to prevent a stigmatized union with a family he strongly mistrusted.

Ultimately, mom and dad married and opted to have Chuckie. My mom’s parents accepted the marriage and though dad’s family feigned happiness, looking at how events developed over the years, I believe they never accepted or supported the marriage and looked on their children—and future grandchildren–as abominations. When my older brother died in a car crash as an infant, I think dad’s family secretly hoped it would end the shameful marriage that compromised their beliefs and socially embarrassed them. I also believe they felt it was the result of some divine justice for a sinful relationship. Chuckie’s death, though, kept my parents together, and as my dad finished medical school at the University of Kentucky, I was born in the fall of 1970.

After entering into what his parents considered an incestuous relationship, dad broke the unwritten family code by moving his family out of Kentucky via Nashville, TN to south Alabama upon completion of his residency at Vanderbilt University Hospital in 1977. For an old southern patriarch with deep religious convictions, this decision, I believe, solidified the rift between son and father: a rift my sister and I would suffer though we had no part in its creation but because we were the embodiments of dad’s sin and betrayal.

The Faulknerian twists of my family took years to unravel and now that most of the principals are gone, I still have only a fraction of what I can only describe as something resembling understanding; yet, I realized by early adolescence I wanted limited interaction with my paternal grandparents. After turning away from their faith at an early age and in light of their distance toward my sister and I, my summer visits stopped just before I turned 13 leaving the Thanksgiving get away my only regular contact.

By the Thanksgiving trip of 1992, I attended college in Birmingham and was dating a woman who asked that I spend the holidays with her family. Dad called me on Monday Thanksgiving week and asked that I go with him to the cabin. I refused and told him I had plans, adding that I did not want to see those people (his family) anyway. He asked again to the point of telling me I was going whether I liked it or not. Our relationship was strained, at best, since he and my mom divorced when I was 13, but we were making in roads toward piecing it back together. Due to his persistence and despite my reservations, I agreed to meet him in Aliceville with the intention of spending the long weekend with his family.

This year’s trip was mere days after Clinton defeated Bush 41 and with that victory came the hope that 12 years of harsh, trickle down conservatism was at an end. Conservatives nationwide were shell shocked and angry to the point of histrionics similar to what our current president experiences. Anti-Clinton propaganda and conspiracy theories were rampant even before he took office. The country was seriously divided then—almost foretelling how it is now, and the anti-big government conspiracy theorists’ tales only heightened a pejorative Clintonmania. In this atmosphere, my dad and I drove up to the cabin where our bathed in blood Christian Conservative moral majority relatives waited.
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Go and Tell the Grandchildren

7:29 am in Uncategorized by alabamagunn

A few days ago we were driving along the pine and oak dappled streets passing the brick and wooden houses we pass everyday on the way home. We saw ranchers, split levels, and A-frames as well as the odd gentrified monstrosity that was formerly a 50s, 60s, or 70s styled family home but is now some garish example of conspicuous consumption out of place among the two and three bedroom homes in our neighborhood. Those houses. Damn, they reek of pride and anticipation that soon, very soon, they shall overcome their common surroundings occupied by elderly holdouts and first time buyers as if they are a giant extended middle finger to those adjacent and across from their projected omnipotence.

a graveyard

Explaining the death of Dr. David Gunn to his grandchildren.

We rounded Teller Lane turning left as we passed the soccer and basketball goals in the yard of the family on the corner.

She was beside me in the passenger’s seat and had not said much since I liberated her from those dastardly day care teachers—she hates daycare because they only give plain chips for snack, and though I appreciate her sentiment since I’m no vanilla chip fan, I’m glad her primary school stressor is chips because the pending divorce keeps her sufficiently distracted, confused, and just plain sad.  Typically, she is abuzz with grade school drama or wiped out from hard play—she is a self professed tom boy after all; however, today she was a bit pensive and hesitant.  I could tell something was clearly on her mind, and it appeared she was working out how to unwind the thread of thought as if in some Theban labyrinth.  I prompted and prodded her about her day without getting overly interrogational.  She is adept at avoidance.

She could sense our proximity to home meaning dinner anxiety, homework, and distraction combined with parental tension.  Quickly, and in a sense angrily, she unburdened herself, “Why don’t I have gandpas?”, she asked.  Her shoulders slumped forward slightly but her eyes engaged mine—as if my eyes regarded themselves—in fixed, intense precision awaiting parental profundity.

I was not surprised by the question. She has asked it before and asks some form of it regularly.  Perhaps, after learning to live in two separate houses as opposed to the one she’s known for seven years, she hoped to immerse herself in the past longing for heritage’s familial fealty; or, she could have merely been curious. Who truly knows the motivations of others much less those of the ones we love, and I love her to the moon and back which obviously means I’m an utter failure at discerning her unstated motivations.

I navigated these waters when the man-boy—your grandson is 16, 6’5’’, is a brunette Pa, and I’d describe him as an old soul if I believed in one—was growing up, and I attempted to answer his inquiries with honesty as opposed to supposed soothing southern platitudes ending in “better place,” “God’s ways are…” and/or “you’ll reconcile one day.” Yet, he knew his mom’s dad, had a close relationship with him for seven years, and, therefore, knew life with a cantankerous yet playful grandfather.  Michael’s death was the first man-boy experienced and it shook him terribly just as the recent death of our traditional family shakes my daughter who’s now the Inquisitor.

Prior to having my own children, I seriously studied and in some way practiced how I would answer the inevitable questions. Unlike the deaths of other forbearers, details of yours are as loaded as the gun that killed you. I knew I had to tell the grandchildren the truth at some point, and, if nothing less, thought a written record would best address the problem of evil I had to narrate. In the event I croaked prematurely, I wanted them to hear the stories from me—or in my words, but never mustered the courage to write the answers until now. 

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