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A Christmas gift for the ages

6 mins read

My father had been on my mind. He passed the year before after a two-decade struggle with cancer, and his birthday was coming back around. He would have been 76.

So it was a shock when I got the call that my uncle Rayford, my father’s older brother, had died suddenly. It might not make sense to some, but I was glad my father wasn’t there to deal with that news. He would have been crushed.

My Dad idolized his big brother. He tried to follow him into the U.S. Army, and might have made it if the folks at processing hadn’t caught him during the eye exam. After he read the chart with one hand over his left eye, he was told to cover his right eye and read with his left. Instead of doing that he switched hands and started reading again with his left eye covered. Someone spoke up, and my father’s effort to enlist was over.

You have to be pretty determined to try to enlist knowing you’re blind in one eye, but that was my Dad. He wanted to serve like his big brother.

Sometime after Rayford’s funeral, his oldest daughter, Brenda, contacted me and said she had some things of his she wanted me to see. She and her mother, Lee, had found a scrapbook Rayford had accumulated of old photos, military IDs, awards, certificates, and documents from his travels while in the service.

Brenda said she wanted me to “do something” with it that they would be able to share with the rest of the family.

The scrapbook was huge and packed with well-worn items, some of them more than 50 years old. Without Rayford’s guidance, I felt like I had been given a puzzle that didn’t have a picture on either side to show me what it was supposed to look like. I started to give it all back to Brenda, but when we met again she ended up giving me even more stuff.

Somewhere in this timeline, I got sick with COVID, and my own mortality hit me smack dab in the face. If I died, I thought, God help the next family member who might try to assemble all those items.

I started scanning the photos and awards Rayford had received. The key that unlocked the puzzle for me was a two-page autobiography of his time in the service. I started trying to match what was in his bio with what was in the documents, especially his final discharge papers.

I went to newspapers.com and started looking for old clips, from the military press releases that are sent to hometown papers to submissions like on Veterans Day or mentions in the church news when he and his family visited home.

I built a chronological timeline of his duty postings and ranks. I reached out to Tuskegee University, where he had been an instructor in the late 70s to see if they had any items, but the cupboards were bare.

Brenda said one of Rayford’s responsibilities while he was there was to clean out some of the old files they had accumulated. All I got from them was a scan of a photo page from the school’s 1977 yearbook, but it was welcome.

I asked my brother, a West Point graduate, to help proofread a book I’d assembled to make sure the military information looked right. We gave it to Brenda and her mother. Brenda added some photo pages to the book — I’d built it with the wrong number of pages, duh! — and had it printed and given out to our aunts and uncles and select others during Christmas 2020.

My cousin Carlton showed the book to an officer with the Veterans Affairs Office back home. They agreed Rayford’s career was worth being recognized.

Two weeks ago, some of our family members were able to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Palmetto Patriots Home in Gaffney. And included there in that beautiful facility representing the state and the nation’s ongoing commitment to its veterans’ care was the First Sergeant Rayford K. Manning Meeting Room.

Interestingly enough, it is located beside the facility’s barber shop. After he failed to enlist, my father was a professional barber for a while and he cut hair for years after that.

In my mind, that room might as well have my Dad’s name on it. He can be right there with his big brother again and for all time.

Terry E. Manning lives and works in Savannah, Ga. He is a Clemson graduate and worked for 20 years as a journalist. He can be reached at teemanning@gmail.com.

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