All of the characters in my debut novel, GONE FROM THESE WOODS, are fictional. But there are many "bits and pieces" of real human beings in most of them. Frank Hooper, the neighbor who lives on Hooper Gap Road, not far from where Daniel Sartain and his family live, is a good example. When I needed someone to drive up on Mouse Creek Road after Daniel emerges from the woods, I immediately thought of George Langdale, a man who died suddenly in 2003 and who was someone I encountered on many of my early morning exercise walks around my Winterville neighborhood.
George was a retired USDA soil scientist who helped pioneer no-till farming, a method that clears land using chemicals rather than turning the soil over before planting. Agricultural experts say George's no-till method is better for the soil and prevents erosion. George used this method of farming on Langdale Farm, a tract of approximately 70 acres of undeveloped land in my neighborhood in Winterville, just past the lake that was the inspiration for the lake in my book. This 70 acres was originally part of the Carney Farm, which also included my family's 3.62 acres.
In addition to being a soil scientist and farmer, George fought in the Korean Conflict and was a member of the famed Wolfhounds, a famous regiment that the movie and book, "The Thin Red Line," was based on. George wrote a book about his military experiences, too.
In addition to being a soil scientist and decorated soldier, to me George was the friendly gentleman who drove a battered old 1970s pickup truck up and down Carney Lake Road where I did my exercise walk each morning. As he motored by, waving and speaking to me out his open window, I would hear dogs barking in the back of his truck, which was covered with an aluminum camper top.
Sometimes George would pass me walking on the road and he would stop the truck and get out, waiting for me to catch up. We'd have an interesting chat about farming or the weather or his dogs. Of course, this would slow my exercise heart rate, but talking with George was worth it. During one of these visits, George told me to walk on his 70 acres of farmland anytime I wanted. The last day I saw him, he asked me if I liked turnips.
"Sure," I said. "And turnip greens."
"I've got some in a patch over there," he said, pointing toward his farmland beyond Carney Lake. "Help yourself to all you want. You'll need to bring a bag when you go to pick 'em."
I nodded and walked on and that was the last time I ever saw George Langdale. Two weeks later, he died. I'd been too busy to go pick his turnips and turnip greens or to walk on his farm. I'd been working on a book and had a magazine article deadline and many other things going on in my busy life. I had done my exercise walk each morning, and during each lap around the neighborhood, I'd glanced up the narrow road that crossed the dam to George's property, thought about picking greens and exploring the farm, then walked on.
One morning, not long after George died, I decided to walk across that dam. A couple of surprised deer scampered into the surrounding woods. To my left, past Anderson's lake (one of four in a row on the land near my house), I noticed a series of walking paths with road signs. The "roads" were named after George's army buddies. I walked up and down several of those paths, thinking about George, and wondering about the men he had honored with his signs and special walking lanes.
When I'd finished walking, I found George's turnip green patch. There were plenty of greens and turnips left there. But I hadn't brought a sack that day and I felt too sad to eat George's turnips and greens.
Later on, when I needed a neighbor character in what would become my first published novel, I decided to honor George Langdale by using some of his friendliness, his kindness, and his special essence in the character of Frank Hooper. It was my little way of saying, "Thank you for noticing me on my morning walks around the neighborhood. And thank you for being a Wolfhound and fighting for me and for remembering others in your book and on your special road signs. Thanks for offering the sanctuary of your farm to extend my morning walks. Thanks for the turnips and the greens."
George Langdale's farm will never be developed into a subdivision, thanks to his widow, Eugenia Langdale, who placed the farm in the Athens Land Trust program. This 63.6 acres of prime farm land in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia is protected through the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program of the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Athens-Clarke County Greenspace Acquisition Program funded by SPLOST. This conservation easement ensures that the land will be available for agricultural uses in perpetuity. An old railroad bed that runs through the farm may eventually become part of a walking trail that connects downtown Athens to the city of Winterville, where I live. And when many, if not all, of the few farms that remain in our county are gone, school children will be able to tour these peaceful, gorgeous acres where George no-till farmed and walked his military buddy lanes. I know all of this would make George smile. Who knows what he would have thought about being the model for a character in a children's book, along with his dogs.
I salute you, George -- and your dogs. You made a great Frank Hooper!