By Dr. Jim Ferguson

My stories always find me, eventually. However, this week’s inspiration surprised me. I don’t mean to be disrespectful of our military, but this Memorial Day essay has a slightly different focus. I just hope everyone used the holiday weekend to remember those who made and make our freedom possible.

For many years my homage to our military heroes was to watch the WWII drama Saving Private Ryan and remember that “Freedom is not free.” This quote comes from a friend’s military father and is carved into the stone of the Korean War Memorial in Washington DC. All the memorials to our military heroes stir my soul, but for me the Korean Memorial is most evocative. Washington is a beautiful city. If it were not occupied by denizens of the swamp I would visit there more often.

In more recent years, my focus on Memorial Day has been to shake the hands of veterans or use email to thank them for their service. I have often lamented that I never served in the military. When I graduated from high school in 1969 we were at the end of the Vietnam War era and fewer troops were needed. I was in the military lottery and drew a high enough number that I was not needed and was able to continue my college education. I never burned my draft card or marched in protests and certainly never disrespected our country, the flag or a veteran of any stripe.

This week’s essay comes in a roundabout fashion because school is out and that’s when grandparents, who are on perpetual active duty, are deployed to care for and entertain “cute-ones.” Our Knoxville contingent is a seven and four year old who has far more energy than a 68-year-old seasoned citizen.

Our original thought was to go to Dollywood, but they have been there with their parents, and the prospect of roller coasters which take you upside down and jerk you to and fro was not high on my list. But we also knew that a hike in the mountains and a picnic would not be well received by our young charges. The solution? A morning riding on a ski lift up to the new Gatlinburg Sky Bridge, and after lunch, in the heat of the day, an afternoon at Ripley’s air-conditioned Aquarium.

Gatlinburg is eye candy for a seven and four-year-old, and to get there you pass through Pigeon Forge, a town like no other in our area. Seeing Pigeon Forge through the eyes of my grandchildren and walking the streets of Gatlinburg is very entertaining. Actually, I think the “People of Walmart” have all gone to Sevier County to partake of the many entertainment venues. My favorite vision was in Gatlinburg where I observed a woman drive her mobility scooter into the Earthquake simulator. I asked myself, what could possibly go wrong?

As we drive out of Knoxville, instead of counting buses or trucks in the usual road game, we counted American flags. However, by the time we got to Pigeon Forge we stopped at 100 and just appreciated seeing Old Glory festooned on innumerable establishments.

We used to have a small cabin near Pigeon Forge, but we sold the place because of the traffic and crowds and moved to Townsend’s “peaceful side of the mountain.” The cute-ones liked Pigeon Forge’s eye candy replete with King Kong hanging onto the side of a “skyscraper” and another building turned upside down. We drove on instead of playing miniature golf on a course which featured flying pigs on a merry-go-round turning high above.

Mount LeConte rises impressively above Pigeon Forge. I’ve always been struck by the analogy of comparable elevation change and distance between Pigeon Forge and LeConte, and Jerusalem and Jericho. By rough calculation, LeConte is perhaps fourteen miles from Pigeon Forge and is 5000 feet above the Parkway. By comparison, Jerusalem is fourteen miles and 3000 feet above Jericho. You get some sense of what it was like to traverse that ancient road as depicted in Luke’s Gospel and the story of the Good Samaritan.

Since Becky and I are locals and prefer the more peaceful side of the mountain, we don’t often visit Gatlinburg. However, by my memory it hasn’t changed much in five decades. Perhaps the town’s effort to eschew go-kart racing venues is paying off. After all, there are plenty of these in Pigeon Forge. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so the ubiquitous candy stores don’t do a lot for me. But all of us love Krispy Kreme donuts. Gatlinburg doesn’t have a Krispy Kreme shop, but it has funnel cakes! And if it weren’t so hot and I wasn’t shepherding cute-ones, I’d be content to sit on a bench with a funnel cake and watch people.

However, if I had parked my keister under a tree I would have missed the memorial above Gatlinburg. Most of us remember the horrible fires in 2016 which caused severe damage to Gatlinburg with considerable loss of life and damage to the surrounding forest. I’m happy to report that the city and the forest are recovering and thriving.

Years ago Becky and I went to Yellowstone National Park about a year after the terrible fires there. Predictions were that Yellowstone would never recover. But again, the experts were proved wrong. A decade later we returned to Yellowstone and found it better than it ever was. Though the Gatlinburg fire was not a natural phenomenon, fire is nonetheless nature’s way of clearing detritus and ultimately promotes regrowth just as a phoenix rises from the flames and ashes.

I do my part on Memorial Day honoring our military heroes, but too often I forget our first responders, police and firefighters. Post Memorial Day this year, I honor those other heroes who fought the Gatlinburg fires and rescued folks in 2016.

The Sky Bridge is a fun venue with a breathtaking view of the Smokies, Gatlinburg and a somewhat unnerving clear walkway suspended several hundred feet above the ground. But for me the tattered and rescued flag now preserved at the summit is an inspiring metaphor for our country. We need such beacons of hope.