“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives—choice, not chance, determines your destiny.” — Aristotle

I.

Virgil Wortham held the pen parallel to his eyes as he had done a thousand times before—heck, maybe it was ten thousand by now—as he came into the close.

“You have a young family, Mani, with young children that depend on you, and Saanva. And God forbid if something were to happen to you—these things happen every day—if something were to happen to you then as you step out of this world, the policy you sign here steps in, and makes sure Daksha and Aaryan still have a bright future, and that Saanva can remain safe and secure in your memory. Our rates are competitive, and as a professional with 30 years’ experience here in the Nashville region, I can assure you me and my team will always be available for you. Are you ready to secure a future for your family?”

Virgil remained silent for the close and looked his prospect straight in the eye. Virgil had the soft face, slightly-opened mouth, and downturned eyes to signify a non-threatening posture for Mani. Several plaques and photographs with local little leagues adorned his wall. An official Tennessee Titans football signed by Eddie George. A baseball signed by John Smoltz. A portrait of Virgil and his brother Rhett as kids with Porter Wagoner.

Virgil started cold-calling prospects, first for encyclopedias and then for insurance, and learned early on that one technique to build rapport with a prospect was to “spot the moosehead.” If a prospective customer had a moose mounted on the wall, it was a point of pride, that as a man that prospect had achieved quite an accomplishment. As a hunter himself, Virgil was curious, and this came naturally to him. In his own office, however, he found he could generate rapport with a “reverse moosehead” technique, not of the taxidermy kind, but by posting the Little League and cheerleading and church groups he often sponsored. To Mani, this held little sway.

Mani made a kind of circular motion with his head. Virgil couldn’t tell whether Mani nodded or shook his head. This always perplexed Virgil when the Vanderbilt doctors came into his office. This bobblehead move that they do. Was it a noncommittal stance they were making? Virgil had many international customers now, but it was the Indians in particular that made this circular head-motion.

“It’s a good proposal, but I have an uncle in Knoxville, and he wants to invest in a hotel here in town…my money is tied up at the moment.”

Virgil gave a knowing smile. Mani had said that the uncle wants to invest in a hotel, which means he has not invested yet.

“A rich uncle, you say. I have one, too. Listen, Mani, how do you think a man like that gets rich? How does he stay rich? Someone in the family is getting a divorce, he contacts his rich uncle, and some property or boat is put in the rich uncle’s name to hide it from the wife. Now, Mani, possession is nine-tenths of the law, and if you invest in this hotel, you are taking quite a gamble. I mean, these days, who is traveling? Think about it. Regardless, we have a monthly plan to address your budget.”

Virgil paused. He knew details killed enthusiasm. It was not so much the life insurance Virgil was interested in, as that was pretty much a loss leader. Heck, that was only a hundred dollars a month, and he hardly made much commission off of that. It was the investment tools, the IRA accounts, the college funds, the second house funds, that Virgil could upsell down the road that Virgil was after. The long game. Having the Wortham of Providence presence in Nashville had been a fixture, and it was his marketing, persistence, and playing the long game that kept Virgil on top of his field.

Virgil Wortham was a Nashville native and his daddy, Beau Wortham, was a Vietnam vet and car salesman who on rare occasion had night terrors and hated fireworks. Virgil’s grandfather Christian was in the European theater in WW2 and would regale Virgil and his brother Rhett with stories of dancing with the French ladies on the night following V-Day. On rare occasion, Christian Wortham would tell some of the old tales from his grandfather, Major William A. Wortham of the engineering regiment of the Confederate Army under Nathan Bedford Forrest, as he valiantly fought the campaigns in Murfreesboro and Nashville against General Thomas. When his older brother Rhett was approached by military recruiters in high school, Rhett was enamored with the thrill of the idea of battle, and despite his father’s pleas, joined the ROTC and the Marine Corps in 2001. Two years later, when it was Virgil’s turn to heed the call of patriotism, it was, rather surprisingly, his own brother than cautioned him against it.

“It ain’t what you think, Virgil,” Rhett said. “It ain’t the American way we’re fighting for anymore. You’d best listen to pops and stay home.”

And so, instead of the poppy fields of Afghanistan, Virgil headed off to Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro and eked out a degree in business with a focus on marketing. He sold encyclopedias (while it was still viable) and Christmas trees during the Christmas break and started cold prospecting door-to-door for Providence Insurance, which had the motto, “We always look after your future.”

Virgil had a natural enthusiasm and was far more successful in sales than he was in schooling and was the youngest agent to open a second office in the state of Tennessee at the age of 31. His Ashland City office was thriving as his Nashville office held steady. Yes, the insurance game, or as they called it here, shonce, was good to Virgil.

“So what’ll it be, Mani?” Virgil closed again.

“I am still sending money home to my mother, and between that and this hotel investment, I’m tied up,” Mani countered.

Virgil narrowed his eyes. He usually closed up to seven times on a prospect, but something about the body language threw Virgil off. Mani was still anxious to leave. For all the little league plaques, the community building Virgil had done, Mani was still beholden to his elders in India. Virgil thanked Mani kindly for his attention and traded small talk as he walked Mani out of the office. When he returned to his office, disappointed, he checked his phone. The Ashland City office had just closed on two new accounts, and a text from Rhett.

Virgil got into his Ford F-450 and put Stanley Brothers’ “Mountain Dew” over the sound system. He then called his wife.

“Hey. Carolyn, it’s been a while since I seen Rhett, and he made it sound urgent. I’m gonna go over to Centennial and meet up with him for a minute.

“Yes, I checked on the tuition.”

Stuck in traffic, he listened to Carolyn’s honeydo list. Then he remembered…

“Carolyn, this charge to First Methodist…isn’t that a little high for a tithe?”

“Feed the hungry? Where?”

“Africa? Carolyn, they got plenty of hungry people here in Nashville.”

“Well, that’s just what I mean, Carolyn; see, when you donate to Habitat, it revives the neighborhood, enhances property values, gentrifies it. See, I could justify writing it off, Carolyn. Okay, okay, look, I’ll see you after I meet with Rhett, okay?”

Virgil texted Rhett, “Where do we meet?”

II.

bedford

When Virgil met Rhett at Riverfront Park, Rhett had his wraparound aviators, a flamingo shirt, combat boots, cargo shorts, and his ubiquitous confident smile. Rhett would call up Virgil whenever he came into the Tennessee Valley Authority headquarters for a progress report. Despite Virgil’s wealth and accolades (he was, after all, in the top five percent of agents at Providence), Virgil always looked up to Rhett, two years his senior.

Rhett came back from a tour in Afghanistan and parlayed his ROTC scholarship into an engineering degree at Vanderbilt. After graduation, Rhett landed a job at Soddy-Daisy Power Plant for TVA. Rhett was svelte, clean-shaven, and always prepared with a wry smile and a witty retort. He wore a bolo tie when he met with Virgil, which always kind of rankled Virgil. But on that night, Rhett was concerned.

“Virgil, Nashville’s changed; they trying to pack in this town with outsiders. Traffic’s a mess, ain’t it?”

“Well, it’s good for business,” Virgil replied. “They want to invest in the city and bring in jobs, good jobs. I know what you mean, though, Rhett; it is uncomfortable.

Rhett had narrow eyes he could point like a hawk. “I mean, lookit, we had our own publishing houses, our own entertainment, and now the guys in New York and Singapore own everything, and so what is the result?”

Virgil rocked back. “You mean the protests?”

“That’s exactly what I mean. I’m glad I work at the plant far away from this, but Nashville’s where we grew up, man. I went to Afghanistan because of the people here and my family and hopefully my future. And now they want to change the way they teach schools, change up the neighborhoods and put up some statue of Lenin or Martin Luther King.”

“Sure, I mean, Daddy, Grandad, they all fought for this country,” Virgil proffered.

“It was an agreement between the two sides, Virgil. You know most of the combat contingents come from the South. The most patriotic soldiers willing to kill and die out there in the desert or jungle. And what thanks do we get?” Rhett always slowed his drawl when he was making a point.

“So, we play it like this, we add to our history. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a part of our history, and now, and the way I see it so is nuclear power. The way we save Bedford is to tie into people’s minds that the present and future of Tennessee is power, we can generate our own power through nuclear, and so we need to commemorate that and communicate that to the people. So, we build a statue, a second statue to go with Bedford.”

“Alright, I’ll bite; what do you propose?” Virgil asked.

“The TVA has been profitable for 50 years in Tennessee and has been largely responsible for bringing industry and manufacturing down from the North.”

“And so you’re suggesting we tie in people’s minds the past, represented by Bedford, with nuclear power. But nuclear power is just as bad, Rhett. I mean, people associate this with Fukushima and Three Mile Island.”

“Three Mile Island didn’t hurt nobody!” Rhett countered.

“Okay then, Chernobyl!”

“Hey, look, our reactors are far more stringent than the Ruskies ever were in the safety department. What I’m suggesting, Virgil, is a continuum. We tell a story with this, get the local business leaders involved. I know some of the Yankees still have a problem with Forrest, but they are just gonna have to learn to live with it.”

“I’m with you, Rhett, it’s just that this move is risky, I mean with my business and all.”

“Virgil, the onus is on us. We represent the people of Nashville, we have roots here, and we need to make a stand here on this issue. I mean, do you know about Leonidas of Rhodes?”

“Always with the Greeks,” replied Virgil.

Rhett winced. “What about the Alamo then? Those were mostly Tennessee boys, by the way. Virgil, you can’t keep runnin’ off to Ashland City. Eventually, these big tech companies are going to bring consequences down on your children, their chances at jobs. How’s your son gonna compete with Genghis Khan?”

“Rhett, I get where you’re coming from, but my boy’s got a bright future,” Virgil said.

“Look, Virgil, we had a chance at life because of what our forebears did for us. But it was more than equity and assets. They already talking about reparations. Don’t think tying up assets in shonce is gonna protect your estate.”

“Okay, Rhett, but we need to put a positive spin on this, not just say, ‘Heritage does not hate.’ It’s too obvious. I mean, what if we put a statue of Charlie Pride next to Bedford?”

Rhett smirked, “You’re too much a fan of the Grand Ole Opry, Virge. But that won’t fly. I mean, Charlie was talented, but he didn’t lead a regiment.”

“But Rhett, we gotta include black folk somehow. We can’t alienate them, that’s the point.”

“What about Patrick Britt?” offered Virgil. “He was one of the 47 black confederates who served under General Forrest. Heck, Nathan said there was not a better Confederate than his boys.”

“But Rhett, they were still slaves.”

To which Rhett said, “Is any conscripted man really free?”

“I could see that, but we need to honor General Forrest’s courage and honor without elevating the slavery or white supremacy,” offered Virgil. “What if we have a sort of ‘burial ceremony of racism’ at the event?”

“You mean like a time capsule?” Rhett’s eyes widened in realization. “I love it, Virgil.”

“So let’s assume I try to help you on this. It’s going to cost a lot of money.”

“I’ve got project managers that do this at cost,” answered Rhett.

“It’s not that, Rhett. You see, you want to get the city involved, you want to pull permits, you are gonna have to put some city councilwomen’s children through college, if you catch my drift.”

“Well, Virgil, that’s why I called the youngest shonce agent to have a second office in the state of Tennessee. Heck, you know more about where everyone’s hiding their money around here than the IRS.”

III.

bedford

Virgil had the names and addresses of all the old wealth families in the greater Nashville area; heck, he sold many of them life insurance already, but after a month of calling, Rhett and Virgil had found the task to be an uphill battle. Many of the old timers were giving up the ghost and the widows were more likely to sponsor church missionary trips to Zimbabwe than ruffle feathers about the Confederacy.

They could shake the bushes of their collegiate networks, but they needed a seed to get the project moving. Virgil eyed his spec sheet with some trepidation. Russell Ross had sold B&N Publishing, the second largest publisher of Bibles and reference books, to Penguin ten years ago and had real estate holdings throughout Nashville all the way to Murfreesboro. Virgil had sold both his son’s premium policies, and with their permission, he and Rhett were granted an audience with the old tycoon.

The house overlooking the Belle Meade Country Club was daunting, even for Virgil. Fortunately, he was well acquainted with the old man. In the foyer were signed photos of the Happy Goodmans, the Blackwood Brothers, James Blackwood, the Osborne Brothers, and other bluegrass and gospel singers of the Grand Ole Opry heyday.

Virgil made his pitch short and sweet but impassioned. He laid out the logic; the East End Park needs to honor the memory of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, and by including Patrick Britt and the TVA contributions to Tennessee history, you could make a civic appeal to the community.

The wizened tycoon sat behind his wheelchair in his office and signed deeply. “You know, boys, I’ve always contributed to the reenactments and Daughters of the Confederacy. I support you, but I don’t have the desire to get some ornery bastards riled up and get my name in the papers. I’m gonna pass.”

Virgil put on a face of concern. “Well, Mr. Ross, I do understand your concerns, and although I think this current woke environment is an election year fad, I respect your wishes. Give my best to Lee and Gerald.”

Rhett was shocked. Virgil always closed at least four or five times. He seemed to be throwing in the towel way too early. Then, as they were making their pleasant exchanges for their exit, Virgil paused at the picture of a dapper bluegrass singer in a nudie suit and a cowboy hat.

“Jimmy Martin, you got his autograph?” Virgil asked with genuine enthusiasm.

“Yes sir, the one and only,” replied Mr. Ross.

“When did you meet him? Virgil asked.

“I was 19. He was at the Opry. I got box seats and got to shake his hand.”

“You know what my favorite song of his was? ‘Who Will Sing For Me.’ Remember how it goes?”

“It’s been a long time,” Mr. Ross replied.

“It was a Stanley Brothers song, but Jimmy did it the best, it went like:

“Oft I sing for my friends
When death’s cold hand I see
When I reach my journey’s end
Who will sing one song for me?”

Virgil looked like a hawk right at the tycoon. “The ornery and ugly will always be with us; you must know that. But you gotta ask yourself, “Who will sing for me?” There’s millions of people here in Tennessee that been here since before the Northern Aggression, and they will sing for you when you reach your journey’s end. Whattya say?”

It was a patented Columbo “One More Thing” close with a found moosehead. Then once you catch one big fish, the momentum starts to swing your way.

***

For all installments of “Bedford’s Last Stand,” click here.