“Have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.” — Exodus 25:8, NIV
Until three years ago, the former Adams County Courthouse had proudly stood since the Civil War as the landmark in Shiloh. After the powers-to-be transferred the county seat to Alexandria during the Depression, the majestic edifice underwent renovation to appease the folks in Shiloh and became the town’s city hall. The elegant lady had worn her nostalgic brick and stone exterior well, but the makeover had been superficial.
Questions have lingered since city officials reported the fire as accidental, cause unknown.
A prolonged Indian summer gripped Georgia. Though already the first Sunday of November, hot and humid weather more suitable for early September caused sweat to trickle unabated down my neck dampening the collar of the fresh cotton polo I had just yanked over my head. The moving truck had pulled away while Liddy patiently watched from her passenger window. I walked up the sidewalk one last time and locked the front door of the colonial brick suburban house we had called home for the past seven years.
I jumped into the driver’s seat, buckled up, squeezed the hand of my wife of forty years, and then reached for the gear shift. “Any regrets?”
Liddy raised her window and turned her gaze straight ahead as a silly smirk appeared. “Nope, Let’s roll! We’ve got a moving truck to meet in Shiloh tomorrow.”
My foot slid from the brake to the accelerator, and our Expedition jolted forward with the packed trailer in tow. Liddy stared straight ahead for the first few minutes. She caressed the manila envelope stuffed with photos, brochures, and paperwork about the house we contracted to purchase for our retirement, but soon dozed off after we turned south onto US Highway 19. I settled in for the long afternoon drive to our destination an hour below Albany.
The all-too-familiar gated communities and shopping centers under Atlanta’s ever-present shadow faded in my rearview mirror. I snapped a farewell salute as we passed Cornerstone Books where I served as chief publishing editor until one week ago. The historic highway narrowed as the scenic panorama of autumn colors revealed more and more farms, fields and forests along the landmark route.
Liddy stirred long enough to adjust her position and place a small pillow between her head and the window. Glancing at her as she fell back to sleep jogged my memory of the first day my eyes fell upon her on the Athens campus forty years ago. My smile over the memory faded when I glanced at the stranger in the rearview mirror. Gray had infiltrated my dirty blonde hair, and crow’s feet pointed to sagging eyelids. After an extended sigh, I reminded myself that I no longer was that spirited undergrad Liddy first met, but a second glance at Liddy returned a grin to my wrinkled face.
When Liddy first suggested early retirement, I turned a deaf ear. Undeterred, she persisted. “Theo Phillips, it’s high time you realized that you can afford to do what you’ve always wanted. Walk away from that job you’ve grown to resent and invest the time to write your own stories as you’ve always envisioned?”
Once my hard head embraced the idea, Liddy wasted little time. She arranged the sale of our home, scoured a mountain of listings, made countless phone calls, and endured long day trips, while I fulfilled my promise to my boss and worked until the end of October. Liddy strutted about the day our home landed an eager buyer, and the following evening methodically spread a collection of photos on the kitchen table of a picturesque, historic home located in a South Georgia town aptly named Shiloh. Not far from our childhood hometowns, the pictures brought back fond memories for both of us. We both felt God had answered our prayers when a day later we received acceptance of our cash offer.
On the outskirts of Albany, Liddy stirred and wiped her eyes as the late afternoon sunlight glistened between the treetops. She cleared her throat and lowered her sunglasses from the top of her head. Surveying the passing scenery, she asked with a drawn-out sigh. “Where are we?”
I pointed to a well-timed road sign. “Albany’s 30 more miles. Reckon we’ll arrive in Shiloh a little before six.” The news earned a smile as she stared back out the window.
Liddy soon turned with a curious grin. “What were you thinking about while I was asleep?”
Without losing my focus on the road, I said, “How lucky I was to have stolen the heart of the prettiest girl that ever graced the Athens campus.”
Liddy giggled. “I feel the same about you.”
We soon turned onto the Flint River Highway, the homestretch leg of our journey. The amber glow grew darker as the sun disappeared below the distant treetops.
Liddy bit her lower lip and clenched my hand. “Do you think we did right? I mean… buying this house and leaving Peachtree?”
A chuckle erupted first. “Hun, I’ve no doubt that the vetting process you orchestrated selecting this house removed any reservations I might have clung onto about my retirement or our decision to pack up and move to Shiloh.”
Her cheeks glowed. “Me neither, but I wanted to be certain you weren’t merely trying to appease me. I’m truly looking forward to sinking deep roots and making a slew of friends.”
My wink brought a smile to Liddy’s relieved lower lip. “You’re right,” she said. “But how well do you think we’ll fit in?”
“Trust me. A town like Shiloh won’t allow us to remain anonymous long.”
Liddy laughed and agreed that Shiloh would be like the small towns we remembered growing up, where even strangers passing through town were addressed as “friend” or “neighbor,” and names were exchanged during a hearty handshake or hug.
Liddy eyed a distant weathered barn donning a rusted tin roof. “We must be getting close.”
She begged me to stop when we passed an abandoned mansion with discolored columns and rickety shutters no longer protecting shattered windows. With critters and termites likely the only tenants, I convinced her we should save a close-up inspection for another day. Plantation oaks with dangling moss lined the rest of the way into Shiloh. The Expedition’s automatic headlamps attacked the growing dark shadows and distant lights welcomed us into town.
On Main Street, Liddy urged me to slow well below the speed limit as we drove into the center of town. She pointed out the quaint drugstore, barbershop, and the other storefronts surrounding the town square. We reminisced about fifty-cent Saturday matinees as we rolled past the movie theater with its illuminated marquee. In fact, Shiloh revealed family-owned shops and businesses, a fading memory in most small towns throughout the South.
The Chamber of Commerce brochure depicted a majestic, antebellum, red-brick courthouse anchoring the center of Shiloh. Instead, we discovered a newly constructed brick and granite city hall with a grand portico and well-lit main entrance. Decorative red-brick walkways cut through manicured lawn and meticulous gardens. As we crept along, Liddy pointed to an illuminated, life-like bronze statue of a young man at one corner of the town square.
“I wonder who he was?” Liddy asked. “He looks so young. There’s nothing in the literature about it.”
I managed a shrug as I searched for the street that led to our house. The word SOLD stood out on the Arians Real Estate sign in the front yard of our corner property. Liddy left little doubt about her eagerness to show me more of the house, but darkness, the growl of our stomachs and fatigue begged otherwise. A couple of blocks further into the quiet neighborhood, Liddy exchanged smiles with two red-haired girls playing out front of one of the elegant mansions among other comparable homes at that end of Calvary Street.
Shiloh’s unified school complex at the southern end of town brought back memories of our school days. The buildings and grounds appeared recently renovated. The football stadium and athletic fields behind the school appeared larger than one would expect for a town of Shiloh’s size.
Once I turned back onto Main Street, flickering yellow and blue neon lights identified our destination for the night, the Shiloh Motel. “Thank goodness! I’m so ready to crawl out from under this steering wheel. Not to mention, I’m famished.”
Liddy lowered her window. “Hey, look next door, Bubba’s BBQ. Sure smells good too.”
Inside the motel office, a silver-haired woman dressed in a blue and white flowered frock eyed us as she slurped down the last of her drink, managing a warm smile at the same time. She yanked off her makeshift paper towel bib, dabbed her cheeks, moments before she wriggled out of her armchair. A sauce-stained, white porcelain platter next to her chair held remnants of her dinner, a couple of ketchup ladened fries alongside a neat stack of sucked-clean rib bones. With a flick of her remote, she muted Aunt Bea from Andy of Mayberry. She adjusted her dress as she approached with contagious smile that made us respond likewise, but her shrill greeting we’d never forget.
“Welcome, folks to Shiloh. Y’all mus’ be Mista an’ Missus Phillips. We’ve been expectin’ y’all.”
Liddy froze but managed an abbreviated nod. I continued up to the counter, choking off an escalating chuckle. Instead, I feigned a cough before greeting the jovial hostess with a suitable grin.
“I’m Barb, Barb Patterson. Me and my husband Bubba are the proud owners of the best motel and barbecue restaurant in Shiloh.” Her cheeks flushed as her fingers sought to stifle her cackle. “Oh, me. Oh, my. The truth is, we own the only motel and barbecue restaurant in town.” A burst of self-indulgent belly laughter followed.
“Well, Barb, thanks for such a pleasant greeting,” I managed to say after snickering at first. “We’re glad to be here after our long drive.” I nudged Liddy. “I’m Theo, Theo Phillips, and this is Liddy, my wife. I believe the two of you spoke this morning.”
“Y’all mus’ be plum tuckered out.” Her fingers flitted in the direction of my hand reaching for my wallet. “You can keep your wallet in your pants pocket for now.” She slid a registration form and pen in front of me. “Please sign right here. We’ve got our best room reserved for you. We’ll deal with the formalities in the morning.”
I pointed to our name and new address already filled in as I slid the signed form back to her. “Thanks, but how’d you know?”
Barb muffled another high-pitched cackle. “Honey, Mista Nick is not just the realtor in town but also a dear friend and regular customer. He stopped by for lunch and told us all about you and that y’all are buying Miss Betty Priestly’s old home.” She stared at Liddy’s raised brow. “Hun, everyone in Shiloh knows the Priestly house. Y’all sure are getting a mighty special home.” She pulled the form from the counter. “Will you need one or two keys.”
I showed her one finger and received a brass key with the number 10 stamped on it.
Liddy’s composure returned. She reached out to thank our capricious but jovial hostess. Barb received Liddy’s hand. “Hun, if you need anything, just dial the desk. It’s a genuine pleasure to be the first to welcome y’all to Shiloh.”
“Thank you, Miss Barb. We’re glad to be here too.” After Barb released Liddy’s hand, Liddy asked, “How late is the restaurant open?”
“Just hold one second.” Barb lifted the receiver of her yellow rotary phone, dialed and tapped her cherry red fingernails on the counter. “Cecil? The Phillips just checked in, and they’s mighty hungry. Will you take special care of ‘em? Maybe seat ‘em at one of the winda’ tables? …Thanks, Ceec. You’re a doll.” Barb hung up and looked at Liddy. “Miss Liddy, y’all are all set. Hope y’all are hungry. Bubba’s ribs are ‘specially good tonight.”
Liddy smiled and glanced at Barb’s empty platter. “Thank you, Barb. We’ll be sure to give those ribs a try. We haven’t eaten since we left Peachtree.”
A tall, silver-haired African-American gentleman approached us with a broad, toothy grin as soon as we walked into Bubba’s BBQ. His white bib apron wrapped comfortably around his slim frame allowing him to tie it in the front. A damp towel draped over his shoulder and provided clear evidence of his busy day.
“Y’all mus’ be the Phillips. Welcome to Bubba’s. My name’s Cecil, and that’s Bubba over there.”
Cecil then turned his head and yelled. “Bob, say hello to the newest folks in town, the couple Mista’ Nick spoke about this afta’noon.”
Bubba, a rotund man with graying dark hair, raised his free hand and shared a sweaty smile but returned to tending the carousel of meat rotating over the smoke pit.
The table Cecil offered us provided a clear view of Main Street. Liddy and I handed the menus right back without opening them.
“Barb recommended Bubba’s ribs. How about two platters with sweet tea?”
Cecil affirmed our choice with an appreciative nod before he headed towards the kitchen and yelled, “Two more ribs.”
Liddy and I soon were ready to bust and shoved our near empty plates aside. When Cecil inquired about dessert, Liddy raised her hands and shook her head.
After we paid for the meal and expressed our appreciation to Cecil and Bubba, we decided to stretch our legs and walked into the center of town. Liddy found a bench next to the brick walkway and admired the unique architecture of Shiloh Baptist Church across the street. My interest fell upon the illuminated bronze statue we saw earlier.
JESSIE MASTERSON, BELOVED COACH AND TEACHER, SACRIFICED HIS LIFE SAVING THE LIVES OF TWO OTHERS THE NIGHT OUR HISTORIC COURTHOUSE BURNED TO THE GROUND, DECEMBER 8, 2010.
I stood arms crossed allowing my thoughts to conjure the possible bigger story that earned this young hero such recognition. Liddy walked up and clutched my elbow, disrupting my thoughts. Her weary eyes told me it was time to head back to the motel. Before we left, I peered over my shoulder at Jessie Masterson and then said, “I was thinking… what a tragic tale that memorial represents. My instincts tell me I should try to learn more about that young man. What do you think?”
Liddy squeezed my hand and winked.
Begin the journey to Shiloh with Theo & Liddy; get your copy of Sanctuary, A Legacy of Memories, go to: T. M. Brown’s Bookstore
Then get the sequel, Testament, An Unexpected Return. Theo and Liddy discover more about Shiloh’s past and how their home is linked to it.
Watch for the third and final story in the Shiloh Mystery Series, Purgatory, A Progeny’s Quest, coming May 5th. Sign up for updates and a chance to advance order your copy.