Front St. Arts
A Miracle Maker
Preface & Reader Response
After the sorrow came upon us all so quick, they began to scream and pray. It was an awful sight to see.
OUT THERE WITH JOHN EALEY
by Gerald (Jerry) Daniel Murley, Jr.
The following story is based on a letter written by John Ealey Murley, my paternal grandfather, to his two sons on 7 March 1957. He was living in Houston, Texas, at the time. He lived until 29 January 1982, when his flame burned out after he was placed in a nursing home by the Veterans Administration to keep him from continuing to walk about Memphis.
Paw Paw, as we called him, stood – and lounged – as a man somewhat apart from our time. I don't ever remember seeing Paw Paw without a tie, though in later years he might be seen wearing his pajamas with his dress shirt and tie. He was not one whom we grandchildren could get close to easily, though he always kept chocolate drops in a box in a closet (hidden from his grandchildren) and possessed a collection of mechanized toys in the basement of his large house in Frayser. Nevertheless, as kids we were comfortable with him and relished his infrequent attention, especially his tall tales and impromptu performances. Paw Paw loved to scare the heck out of us. Even the toys in his basement in the early 1950s were a little intimidating.
Since an automobile accident in the 1920s, that took the lives of his two unborn twins, Paw Paw refused to drive. My grandmother patiently and faithful carted him all over creation. My Uncle Johnny and my dad drove him as well. He was notorious for demanding quick turns at the very last minute.
In the 1930s, my grandmother and father, both of good nature and humor, passed many an hour sitting in a car late into the evening, waiting as my grandfather pursued a business agreement – sometimes a barter arrangement – in the home of a customer. With anticipation, they watched the windows and door. They saw him standing up and shaking hands with the hope and expectation that he was concluding his meeting and that soon they could go home.
Paw Paw remained a man on the move until his final days. When I was in college at Memphis State University in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and years later when I was married and had a home in Midtown, I would occasionally hear reports from friends about seeing my grandfather, in his suit and hat, hitchhiking on Highland Avenue on his way to the bank. He was a banker's nightmare come true by that late age. He was infamous for his audible wisecracks – on the street, in stores and in the bank – meant to be simple observations about women wearing strange wigs and people who appeared particularly overfed.
Paw Paw was tall, fair, and as lean as a young hardwood tree. Thinking that he was ever near a big heart attack or ailment, he plied himself with daily doses of prune juice, praying, Bible reading, and sing-out hallelujahs to maintain his system. He prayed mightily and in late life was heard talking to and about the small preachers behind the glass on his television set.
John Ealey Murley was a tight bundle of contradictions. But there were salient threads of continuity holding it all together in a distinct package. Though sometimes distant at family gatherings, his welcome to people in general was enthusiastic, engaging, and often comically expressive. He knew how to meet and greet. He was highly focused and energetic about business and hellfire. He could press a conversation about a conversion or a commercial transaction until the potential customer relented, even if only to stop the conversation and go home to bed. There was probably a tinge of doubt on the part of any customer about how he would fare in a deal with my grandfather. He had a confident, above-average, but not overbearing, air about him. Most of his activities involved a group with him at the center.
Though usually available for a visit, my grandfather was a more difficult figure for adolescent and young-adult grandchildren to connect with, except when he sensed he had an audience for one of his perilous missionary stories or impassioned personal testimonies. Since his general conversation late in life revolved around Bible verses, religious tracts, and supposed ill health, his urban grandchildren listened respectfully but edged away from frequent or prolonged company. In the 1960s and 1970s, we were probably as much at fault for the generation gap as he was. Still, he had the luxury of being looked after by his two sons on a daily basis. He lived next door to his eldest son and near his eldest son's children and grandchildren in the Memphis State University area. And his youngest son and his family lived but a few miles away.
We did not hear Paw Paw tell many stories about his early life and times. It would have made a difference if we had. He did not talk about his war experience to me until about nine years before his death. And then, it was so laced with religious overtones, his late-life revelations seemed more like sleep-walking trances or allegories, a revised fiction – rather than a reflection of actual life – that was placed squarely in the context of his religious zeal.
With the exception of information from genealogical records and discharge papers, I have not been able to verify or correct all of the details given in his remembrances below about the First World War. He was inducted at the age of 23 years old and was obviously traumatized by his experiences. They must have fed the tone of his life thereafter. If only the gist of the tales woven into his letter is accurate, it is well worth recounting and weighing the whole. I think the stories are basically true, given Paw Paw's general social demeanor and his religious dedication for the remainder of his life.
Yet I find it a stretch to visualize my grandfather as a sharpshooter. I have no such problem accepting that he would easily believe that he was a sharpshooter if someone told him he was – even if the description was meant as a joke or a pretext for sending him immediately into action with minimum disputation. (This is somewhat akin to the kid who too readily comes to accept that he is smart simply because his family members, teachers, and grades indicate that he might be.)
I have edited for spelling, and missing or indecipherable words, and the natural, but topsy-turvy, digressions from linear narration to be expected in a hasty, handwritten letter. I have done as he directed his sons to do at the end of the letter – and more. John Ealey Murley, Sr., was one of a kind, an endurable character who, even in death, has long been a fount of vexation, enjoyment and instruction.
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FOR MY SONS (March 7, 1957)
by John Ealey Murley
My full name is John Ealey Murley. I was born May 25, 1895, in Bolivar, Tennessee, in Hardeman County. My father was Levin N. Murley. My mother was Clarinda Harris Murley. My parents were farmers who raised cotton, corn, hay, and livestock.
I finished my grammar school at Pine Top, Tennessee, and my high school in Forrest Hill, Tennessee, near Bolivar. My first public job was in 1917 and part of 1918, an assistant supervisor at the Western State Hospital under Dr. J. B. Bond of Union City, Tennessee, and my supervisor Mr. Nettles.
In 1918 I was called to duty by Uncle Sam to serve my country in World War I. I was inducted June 24, 1918, at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, and took my first training at Camp Gordon near Atlanta, Georgia. I won a metal or blue ribbon as a sharpshooter over all my battalion. They called me right out of the shooting pit and gave me an award as an expert sharpshooter. After returning to our barracks and having my evening meal and bath, they called, "Private First Class John E. Murley, who is qualified for overseas duty." They called several more from other companies to join me. So we shipped out that same night for Camp Merritt, New Jersey, where I had my long curly dark hair cut off. They clipped it real short – like a shave. I was so upset over losing my curls. Just after my G.I. haircut and a few shots, we departed for Hoboken, New Jersey, ready to sail for England.
We were 14 days at sea. We sailed on an old transport ship, more or less a ration or livestock ship. This ship was taken from the Germans by the English shortly after World War I broke out. We happened to be in the midst of a convoy of 14 ships all sailing for England. On September 13 at about 2:45 p.m., we were torpedoed by a German submarine. It was a very, very beautiful day – beautiful blue sky above us and a beautiful blue sea below us. We had 2500 soldiers on board. I shall always remember what a great noise there was both times we were hit. First time was a glancing shot; the second shot made a hole 25 feet long.
The captain gave the order to cut the steam off and let the ship go afloat. The American soldier in charge said, "There will be two kinds of soldiers: the dead soldier and the other, a live soldier. The live soldier will be the one who holds his head. Now don't get excited and jump overboard."
I did my best to carry out the captain's orders. By doing so I made it back alive. We lost 187 lives – men who jumped before the captain could get them to listen to him.
I had charge of lifeboat number 6. They gave us orders to knock any soldier in the head who tried to catch our lifeboat after we cut loose in the water. But I had to be at one end of my lifeboat – 40 people to each lifeboat. So many were drowning. They grasped at a straw and capsized our boat. I had a long paddle; I held on to it and kicked one foot and made it to a raft of 12 men. I stuck one end of the small part of my paddle on that raft and made me a spring board and caught a submarine destroyer as it pulled by. I got busy and threw out a long rope for a life line that rescued 40 of my comrades, for which I was very happy. Afterward we all went down into the ship and got hot chocolate and sandwiches.
I forgot to say that I was a singing teacher and taught voice. I had a wonderful quartet. We were signing "Over the Tide of Life's Wonderful Sea." Just about the time we got half through the song, the submarine hit and our singing was finished. Some were gambling and some were singing and cursing, but after the sorrow came upon us all so quick, they began to scream and pray. It was an awful sight to see.
We were in the north seas where it was very rough at times. We lost 14 of my very closest friends and buddies during one night of rough seas. They went up on the deck to smoke, which was against the orders. Happened I never did care to smoke, so I did not go up.
We landed at Plymouth, England. With so many of us affected by exposure in the shipwreck, we developed the flu. They came through the camp calling for volunteer hospital workers. Having a little hospital experience at the Western State Hospital at Bolivar, I volunteered. I always did like to wait on the sick. They sent me to Winchester, England, to an American hospital. I recall we had 57 soldiers to die one afternoon with that dreadful disease. It was deadly as smallpox and yellow fever. I had the pleasure, as sad as it was, to pray and lead several to the Lord on their death bed. So many boys wanted to send their last messages to their loved ones, they were calling for me on every side. I sang to a group who knew they were dying. Seems like I can hear those poor things calling me now. I took the flu and like to have died, but the nurses and doctors knew I tried to be faithful to those who needed help when I was able to help them. They gave me the very best attention and, too, God was with me, I know. For lots of nights I stayed up all night and worked some days all day when so many were dying. We could hear the gunfire and the taps burying the dead. Near the hospital it's impossible to describe the agony and heartache in that camp.
I got my orders to go to the front lines with the infantry company to Le Mans, France. Then there were two weeks of rugged drill as in boot camp. It was hell, sleeping in barns and on the ground in trenches under heavy gunfire for four weeks. In November we got orders to move on the front lines as our ration train was blown up. We were without food for 48 hours, no water. But after we got two good meals, we started on our march. As we got within a two-hour hike of the front lines, the armistice was signed. Thank the Lord.
For a few days, we helped clean up the dead people and horses. Then we were placed in the Army of Occupation to police Germany. We were sent to Ettelbruck for the balance of winter. I stayed in a private home and was treated as one of the family. I learned to love them and they seemed to love me. I introduced my captain and lieutenant to this family. If they got sick, they had a nice room to go to.
In 1919, after my war duty, I went back to teaching singing and voice. I had school at Mary's Chapel in Lauderdale County near Ripley, Tennessee. During the two weeks of school, I had an outstanding, charming young lady with a beautiful voice and a pleasing personality, which really and truly just swept me off of my feet. I fell in love with this charming young lady and three months from that date we got married. She was Miss Iona Ozelle Daniels from Ripley, Tennessee.
I began to work for Mr. Bowers in his stores in Memphis after I closed my Mary's Chapel school. I soon got a promotion to manager at Mr. Bowers' store number 38 in south Memphis. I stayed in the grocery business for some time. I went to Hornsby, Tennessee, to manage another big merchandise store for several months, after which I bought a merchandise store at Silerton, Tennessee, on the GM&N [Gulf, Mobile and Northern Railroad] 25 miles south of Jackson, Tennessee. At that time we did not have a post office in Silerton, so I got out a petition for a post office. I sent it to Senator Kenneth McKellar and he made me postmaster.
After a few years I moved to Memphis. In the year of 1925, I engaged in the real estate business – city and farm land. In the year of 1945, I took my oldest son, J. E. Murley, Jr., as a partner with me in J. E. Murley & Son Real Estate Company. In 1947 we took Gerald D. Murley, my younger son, in the building business and real estate company. We changed our title to J. E. Murley & Sons.
In the spring of 1953 or '54, I made some investments in Houston, Texas. I will finish up my work there this year, 1957, and go back to Memphis and join my company to live a quiet and peaceful life with my fine Christian boys and family, which we are very thankful to the Lord for.
Boys, please reword and respell; leave out the things you don't like. You all might add what you can to this. Please add our missions, now a church, also Camp Zion in Myrtle, Mississippi. We started the two first buildings there. Now we have sent out over 162 missionaries and preachers.