When Russell Costner, an American Army soldier, took that bullet in the back and fell forward on German soil, the first person he thought about was Bea … her beautiful eyes that smiled when she smiled … the sound of her saying his name. She was the love of his life. The thought of her heart breaking was more than he could stand. There’s no doubt those thoughts are what kept him alive.
Russell wrote letters as often as he could from the battlefield and hospital. He mailed them to Bea in Bessemer City, North Carolina. He asked her to tell the family he said hello. “I cannot write to them all,” he explained in one of his letters. It was Bea he wanted to share his life with the most. And he did—for more than 60 years.
“Hello Beatrice, just a few lines to let you hear from me. I am okay and hope you and the babies are the same. Well honey, I am somewhere in Belgium. It is a nice place, but not as pretty as Paris, France…
…Well honey, I am praying for this war to end so we can all come home and I know you are all doing the same and with God’s help we will come home soon. Well, I must close, so goodbye and good luck.”
Forty-five years later, I met Russell Costner for the first time. It was the summer of 1989. He was standing at a band-saw, cutting a dasher that would go inside of a butter churn. I walked up to him and asked if he had any work I could do. I was 16 years old, homeless, and looking for work so I could earn a few dollars to buy some food.
“Hey sir, you got any work I can do?” I said.
Russell never even looked at me. “Ask the boss,” he said and nodded his head toward a white-haired lady standing in the back of the wood shop manhandling a radial-arm saw. She turned off the saw and walked toward me. She brushed the sawdust off her arms and slid the protective goggles back on top her head and looked me up and down. Despite the way I looked on the outside (because I was living outside), she said, “If you cut grass, come back this afternoon and cut our grass.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said.
Before I walked away, the old lady smiled at me and said, “He’s Russell and I’m Beatrice but I’d rather you just call me Bea.” I smiled and shook my head and headed back out the garage bay. But I didn’t go too far away.
Later that afternoon, I showed up on time and began cutting the elderly couple’s grass. Halfway through the job, I saw Bea walk out the front door of her home carrying a can of Coca-Cola and a doughnut. She motioned for me to come over to the fence. When I did she handed me the ice cold Coca-Cola and doughnut and we talked. Well, she talked; I just listened. She talked about the weather and the job I was doing.
I must have done a pretty good job, because that day I became their lawn boy for the remainder of that summer. Every week when I would cut their grass, Bea would bring me a Coca-Cola and a snack out to the fence. Toward the end of the summer, I started getting nervous because the grass wasn’t growing as much and I didn’t have a job lined up or a place to live. But this time when Bea brought that Coca-Cola out to the fence, she didn’t talk about the weather or the job I was doing. She had a very concerned look on her face. She handed me the Coca-Cola and asked, “Jimmy, where do you live?”
I did not want to tell this beautiful lady anything about me. I was afraid she would not want me to come back around her house if she knew where I’d come from. So as I popped the top on that can of Coca-Cola, I gave her some generic answer. “Ahh, up the road,” I said, and turned my head.
Bea smiled at me and said, “Well, Russell and I have been talking and we want to know if you’d be interested in moving into our home.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing but I knew my stay would not be long. Russell had already given me that look that let me know he was not about to tolerate any nonsense from me and I must have given him a look that said I was not going to let him put me in my place. I could feel the tension between us already. But I also knew it could be a few nights that I would not have to sleep outside. Maybe they would let me wash my clothes and take a shower and eat. So I took Bea up on her offer.
That afternoon I showed up at their glass storm door with my bag of clothes and a few more items and rang the doorbell. Bea opened the door, smiled, and said, “Come on in.”
I stepped into their home. It smelled good, like freshly baked pie. As I walked across the living room, I purposely did not look at Russell. I didn’t even say hello. He was stretched out on his recliner and never made a sound. But I could feel him staring at me.
For the next three or five days, I tried my best to stay out of Russell’s way. All he did was stare at me.
Pick up a six-pack of Coca-Cola and my New York Times bestseller Walk To Beautiful to discover the rest of the story and learn how Russell and Bea eventually changed every cell in my body.
On this Veterans Day and in honor of Mr. Russell Costner and all the other wonderful men and women who served our country, I’ll visit a local VA hospital and perform my music. Stay tuned for a video of this special performance coming soon!