Vol. 8, No. 10
March 9-15, 2000
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Purnell Franklin ~ 1916–2000
by Sandra O. Martin

Purnell Franklin was resting alongside the road that bears his name when I made his acquaintance. It was late August, and he was steaming from bringing in tobacco, so he and his helper had thrown themselves down in the grass just where Franklin’s drive meets Franklin Gibson Road.

Who could resist such a scene? Not I. Which is how I came under the spell of this Southern Maryland original.

From Purnell that day I learned just about everything about tobacco that can be passed on second hand. I learned about hogsheads and baskets and bales and how gol darn picky a plant it is and every chemical you’ve got to use and how hard the work of farming tobacco is, which is about as hard as it is to get good tobacco help.

I learned about tobacco and a good deal more, for Purnell Franklin opened history like a book. He traced his family to Robert Franklin, who arrived in St. Mary’s County from England in 1662. On the very spot we had our first visit, his family had farmed since the end of the Civil War. His history was enlivened by stories of daily life, unreeled from a prodigious memory.

This was heady stuff to a newcomer — in 1994, when I met Purnell, I’d lived in Maryland only a decade — marooned by immigration, migration and America’s relentless forward pace.

We’d rambled to how a family got by back in the ’20s when Purnell was a boy — by growing a living rather than earning one — when the sun, by now climbed to zenith, warned me that if Purnell’s day’s work was done, mine was just beginning.

If you’ve been around here so long that the roads are named after you, I ended, what do you mean by that sign ‘Down Under Farm’?

Purnell’s eyes twinkled. “Come back about Valentine’s Day,” he said, “and I’ll tell you quite a love story.”

Who could resist such an invitation? Not I. Which is how I came to know about Honey.

For a spell, history had directed Purnell Franklin’s life far away from Southern Maryland. With Europe and Asia embroiled in war, the 24-year-old Purnell, a carpenter’s apprentice, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He trained as an airplane mechanic before Pearl Harbor, and in March, 1942 his outfit landed in Sidney, Australia. In a few months, life would get tough. But for the nonce, it was exciting.

The country was wonderful, wild and friendly. The girls were beautiful and — since all the Aussie fellows were off fighting the same war someplace else — lonely. Purnell and his buddies divided their free time among amusement parks, beer gardens, movies and nightclubs. In such pursuits, they were seldom without company.

But one night Purnell got stood up. Undaunted, he “sashayed around to a big dance hall, where all these beautiful girls were sitting around.”

His eye lit on Mary Honeyman, a country girl in the city studying nursing. They kept company until Purnell’s unit was ordered to New Guinea.

Twenty-five years later — after each had married, had three children and divorced — Purnell got his Honey.

It wasn’t as simple as that. They’d lost touch, and when Purnell’s letter finally reached Honey her first thought was that “I better not.” But they met again and the old spark kindled. Which, in short, is how Down Under Farm came to Franklin Gibson Road.

For most of his 83 years, life treated Purnell Franklin like that, so he had plenty of blessings to count.

But the time of his life — the time when Purnell discovered his measure as a man — was thousands of miles from Southern Maryland, in the terrible tropical heat of New Guinea where, on top of disease, “the food was scarce and bad and bombing and strafing raids frequent.”

He kept a war journal, writing in it most days of his four-year service, and forever after the ties and memories lived, so that Purnell might raise up from a field of yellow dirt where he was cultivating cantaloupe or tomatoes and be back again on the airfield in Death Valley, ready to scoot as a strafing run came in.

So when veterans were about to lose their final military entitlement, an honor guard at their funerals, Purnell was riled. Ever a man of words, he wrote his delegate, George Owings III, himself a three-term veteran of Vietnam. The honor guard remained, firing a 21-gun salute at the burial March 2, 2000, in the long-consecrated churchyard of St. James Parish, Lothian, of this son of Southern Maryland.

But before that honor, and before the haunting strains of taps played by a single bugler, we heard Purnell’s words, light and clear as in life.

I’m on My Way to Heaven in a P-38

Say St. Pete, won’t you open up the gate?
I’m on the way to heaven in a P-38.
I’ve got the throttles wide open and she’s purring like a cat;
Now you can’t go to heaven in a much better a way than that.

With both allisons wide open
I’m pulling 30 inches or more
So please St. Pete, won’t you open up the door?
The superchargers are whistling, making sounds of a bell.

I’m glad I’m on my way to heaven
Instead of that awful place called … New Guinea.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly