A Man's Life: Deployed
by Pierce Pettis
July 23, 2010
Pierce Rayvon Pettis IV—my son, Rayvon—is named for me. As I am for my father. As he is for his father. My grandfather, the first Pierce Rayvon Pettis, was born Pierce Ray Vaughn Pettis. He was the first in his family to attend college, having won one of two scholarships awarded in the state of Alabama by the Southern Railroad Company to today’s Auburn University. It was the early 1900s, when all male students there were required to be military cadets and to attend classes in uniform.
It was also around that time my grandfather became bothered by the impracticality of having four names. So he went down to the county courthouse and combined his two middle names, “Ray” and “Vaughn” into a new name: Rayvon.
I have a picture of my grandfather from that time. He is dressed in his cadet uniform, sitting under a tree, his face grimaced—lost in a book. I never knew my grandfather and namesake. But I know the expression he wears. I’ve seen it on my father’s face. And I’ve seen it on my son’s.
My father, Pierce Rayvon Pettis, Jr., was born in 1918 during the great Spanish influenza pandemic that paralyzed the country with fear. So many children were lost, but my father is a born survivor. He survived childhood in the Great Depression, service in the South Pacific as a PT Boat skipper during World War II, financial disaster and recovery—and my sisters and me.
At this writing my father is nearing his 92nd birthday and survives yet.
He had the good sense to go by his middle name Rayvon, or “Ray.” Because, as I quickly learned, growing up in rural Alabama with a name like “Pierce” can be hazardous to your health—not to mention your social life. Being named Pierce seemed slightly worse than being named Percy or Bruce, and I took many a beating for it.
INSTEAD OF GOING BY “RAY,” my son has always been Rayvon. When I first heard he was on the way, I was (being a working musician) away from home, performing in some wretched theme restaurant. I put the phone down and wrote in my notebook: “Well, kid, you’d better have a sense of humor—you’re going to need it!”
And that one trait came true with a vengeance. Older members of the Pettis clan say Rayvon is a lot like his great-grandfather: quiet and stoic, but with a profound sense of humor. Rayvon may well be the funniest person I’ve ever known, which is a pretty odd thing to be saying about your own son.
But it’s true. Humor in quiet people seems to stand out more. With talkers like me, the occasional quip is often lost in all that babble. But with Rayvon, it shines like a diamond on a jeweler’s cloth.
I remember a road trip to South Carolina when he was about 10 years of age. We passed a horse farm in the low country, where a horse was laid out on the ground in the middle of a pasture with two or three other horses standing around looking at it. From the back seat I heard, “I’ve fallen and I can’t giddy-up!”
For his third birthday, I took him to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit?—his first movie in a real theater. He became a passionate movie buff. Even as a small child he would memorize every scene and every line of every film he saw, spinning it out to whoever would listen (or wouldn’t) in incredible detail.
And yet it’s always been hard to get him to reveal what’s really going on inside his head and his heart. There’s always been that dark, quiet side.
Not that he was ever devious or conniving. To the contrary, he was a remarkably open and sincere child. He always told the truth, always did what he was told. The good boy I rarely had to punish. But he played his cards close to the vest. Still waters run deep.
And after his mom and I divorced when he was nine, those waters seemed to run much deeper. There was a sadness I hadn’t noticed before and I see sometimes even now. He drew me a picture during that terrible time. It was of a grand, old-fashioned sailing ship, with sails billowed in the wind, sailing off into the sunset. At the wheel stood the captain, complete with his commodore’s hat. And in the forefront was a high cliff, upon which you could just make out a tiny speck—hardly recognizable as a person. He told me I was the one on the ship, sailing away. And he was the little speck on the shore watching me go.
All these years later, it breaks my heart to think of that look on his face, that sadness. It’s a sadness I can’t reach across, though I’ve tried.
WHEN TIME CAME FOR HIGH SCHOOL, Rayvon decided to live with me and my second wife, Michele. Thanks to his musician-father’s lack of financial security, his only hope of attending college lay in his own efforts by means of hard work and scholarships. On his first visit to the high school here, Rayvon met the J.R.O.T.C commanders, a retired colonel and a sergeant major—one white and the other African-American. He took an immediate liking to these two Vietnam combat vets, both surprisingly gentle and fatherly, and their wonderfully diverse group of cadets: white, black, and Latino, male and female, wealthy, middle-class, and working poor. The colonel and sergeant major became second fathers to him, and his fellow cadets were second siblings. Rayvon found he fit into this world of order from chaos, unity from diversity, and he rose quickly to positions of leadership.
When he had difficulty with schoolwork, the commanders gave him encouragement and organizational skills that brought his grades up. He became a top-notch honor student. He also discovered in himself a remarkable talent for marksmanship, leading his team to championships with scores that earned him recognition as top shooter for the state of Alabama.
Perhaps the biggest surprise came when his commanders urged him to go out for track. It was soon apparent that Rayvon was a born runner, and the trophies began to appear on his dresser. His coaches sent him to state three years in a row, and in his senior year he broke a school record which had stood for 16 years. A week later, he broke it again.
I, who had always been the irresponsible, rebellious, devil-may-care artist/musician found I had a son who got up at 5 a.m. to study an extra hour, pushed himself to and beyond his limits in everything he did, and generally possessed talents and fortitude that I had never even come close to. And I was very, very proud of him.
THE DAY BEFORE RAYVON’S 16TH BIRTHDAY, planes flew into the twin towers in New York and the whole world changed. Something in Rayvon changed as well. He learned to love his country that day. Not in the reactionary, jingoistic way so many of us reacted to 9/11.
I never heard Rayvon utter a word against terrorists, or anyone else. He was not against anything—and politics had nothing to do with it. It was just that with his 16th birthday and that terrible act, he and love of his country—his family, his friends, his home—were bound together in a very personal way. And he determined that in some way he would give back.
So Rayvon set himself upon the incredibly difficult and lonely task of trying to gain a commission to Annapolis or West Point—a process more demanding than gaining admission to Harvard or Yale. Candidates had to achieve the high academic standards required by top Ivy League schools, and be star athletes, and do hours and hours of community service. And after years of struggle and endless tests and paperwork, he did receive recommendations from his congressman and senator to both West Point and Annapolis. And he found himself in that last group of 1,000 or so candidates drawn from across the nation, from which a few hundred are chosen.
What none of us realized at the time was that being from Alabama, he was competing against the number-one two-year military school in the nation: Marion, which in the past 10 years had enjoyed a 100% success rate for their applicants to the service academies.
And he also wore glasses. As I was later told by former service academy instructors, if it came down to two kids of equal standing and one wore glasses, the one with perfect eyesight would be chosen. Simple as that.
Late in his senior year, Rayvon was informed that he was passed over for both Annapolis and West Point.
Then out of the blue an anonymous email showed up. It was from officials at the very school which had likely defeated his dreams: Marion Military Institute. They asked that Rayvon come down and meet with them. The email was sent to an address we rarely used, and had given only to the Naval Academy at Annapolis.
Apparently, someone on staff there was not quite ready to let Rayvon go and had contacted Marion on Rayvon’s behalf.
So we drove down to Marion and sat in an office, where the major behind the desk opened Rayvon’s file, took one look, closed it, and immediately offered him a full scholarship.
After two years, Rayvon graduated at the top of his class at Marion with honors. He could have attended virtually any university in America but chose a National Guard scholarship to Auburn University in his adopted state of Alabama—the same university his great-grandfather and namesake attended so many years before.
He loved his time at Auburn and excelled there. He wrote and published his first novelette, was a columnist for the local newspaper, and produced radio plays and a television pilot. In his senior year he took third prize in a national film competition, just behind a student from Harvard with a $50,000 budget and another from the film school at the University of Texas.
NOW, FOUR MONTHS AFTER GRADUATION and during training at Ft. Benning, he has received word that he will be deployed—likely to Iraq or Afghanistan. As a first lieutenant in transportation, he will be doing very dangerous work. Three times as many of our troops are killed or wounded by IEDs—roadside bombs—as in firefights.
I try not to think about that. And I try not to think about him pulling himself up in his crib, learning to whistle, to ride a bike, to throw a ball—and now leaving for perhaps as long as two years…perhaps longer.
Deployed is just a word. But it has the power to alter lives forever. And a name is just a name. But there is a family, a history, and a person behind each one. One of this generation’s master songwriters and a former staff songwriter in Nashville and at Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama, Pierce Pettis’ career was sparked when Joan Baez recorded his “Song at the End of the Movie” in 1979.
A frequent performer on American Public Radio’s Mountain Stage and National Public Radio’s E-town and Morning Edition, his critically acclaimed ninth album, That Kind of Love, was recently named a Top Ten Album of 2009 by Image Update. His daughter, Grace, recently won the Mountain Stage NewSong Contest heard on National Public Radio.