Serendipity in the Heart of the World

Kentucky is neither southern, northern, eastern, nor western,
It is the core of America.
If these United States could be called a body,
Kentucky can be called its heart.

from Kentucky is My Land by Jesse Stuart

“No, Papa. I have yet to run into Frank Penn. Lexington is a big place and between work and school, I don’t get out and about much. You and Granny should come to Lexington to visit me and you could look up your old friend while you’re here.”

So went the conversation with my paternal grandfather each time I made my way home to rural Barren County after I moved to Lexington in 1985. That year I began pharmacy school and Papa Littrell turned 66 years old. “His mind must be going.” I’d say to myself when he once again inquired about Mr. Penn, his old World Word II buddy who hailed from Lexington. It’s funny how 66 seems so young now. It seemed ancient in 1985 when I was a spry 21 years of age. Now, at a less spry 55, 66 actually seems “young.”

Its only a 2 hour drive to Lexington from the small community of Railton where I grew up. Papa had lived in this west central region of Barren County for most of his life. But folks in our community didn’t travel much. So I knew Papa would probably never take me up on visiting Lexington. I did find his interest in his WWII buddy somewhat amusing. But I never gave serious consideration to looking Mr. Penn up. I had other fish to fry: like getting through pharmacy school and courting the young lady who I was soon to ask to marry me.

Of course the name Frank Penn was familiar enough. And not just to me. Each of Papa’s 9 children and any one of his 19 grandchildren could recite Papa’s oft told stories about Mr. Penn and WWII. After enlisting in the Army, Papa had been pleasantly surprised to find that he would be serving with someone else from Kentucky. And not just from anywhere in Kentucky; Frank Penn was from Lexington!

WWII Photo of Papa Littrell (1945)

“Now Robert, you know Lexington is the heart of the world, don’t you?”, Papa would ask with his big smile complemented by his trademark chuckle. Of course I knew the story but I also knew the joy it gave Papa to re-tell it.

“Now why is that?” I’d always respond, knowing all too well what would follow.

“I served in the war with a man from Lexington. His name was Frank Penn. Frank would always say that everybody knew the U.S. was the heart of the world. And if a person looked at a map he’d see that Kentucky was the heart of the US and there was no doubt that Lexington was the heart of Kentucky. So the way Frank Penn saw it, that made Lexington the heart of the world!”

I was never certain of what made the US the heart of the world. Nor could I quite see the anatomical correctness of geographically placing Kentucky and Lexington in the position of the heart. But I had no doubt that for Frank Penn in 1943, Lexington was the heart of the world. No place could have seemed more desirable than home while fighting in a war on the other side of the world.

I often wondered what Frank Penn made of my grandfather. It is hard to imagine a 22 year old Roger Littrell, never having been much more than out of Barren county, sailing across the Atlantic on a massive military vessel and then serving as an Army Military Policeman for 2 years in Italy and North Africa. I suppose Papa’s story was similar to the story of thousands of young men called on to serve their country during the second world war.

Four Generations of Littrell Men – 1992
Roger (Papa), Charles, Robert, Ben (left to right)

Now its 2019. Papa would have turned 100 today (November 5) were he still alive. Leslie and I are fortunate enough to still call the “Heart of the World” home. During the 33 years we’ve lived in Lexington, we never ran into Frank Penn. I thought of him often when I drove past the old Penn Brothers Tobacco Warehouses now long since torn down. Mr. Penn and his brother operated these busy downtown warehouses for years. Passing them always brought a smile to my face as I fondly recalled my venerable grandfather reminiscing about the war.

In October 2010, Leslie, Ben, Bailey and I moved from our home on Cherokee Park to a house only a few blocks away. We’ve always lived in older homes, and our new Jesselin Drive residence was right down our alley. The handsome stone house built in the 40’s immediately caught our attention when it went up for sale. The beautiful stone exterior accented by dark green shutters felt warm and inviting. I remember being drawn to the weather vane that sat atop the detached garage. The weather vane had obviously been there since the garage was built and the current owner had wisely chosen to re-install it when the roof was recently replaced.

The Littrell’s Jesselin Drive Home – 2019

By late November 2010 we were reasonably established in our new home with only a few unpacked boxes lying around. One crisp afternoon, a friend was driving through the neighborhood and dropped by to see how we were settling in. As she stepped through the back door, her face lit up with delighted nostalgia. It was obvious this was not the first time she had been here and it was a place of warm, joyous memories.

“I practically grew up in this house!” she exclaimed as she re-familiarized herself with the den and kitchen. “I always loved being here as a child.”

“Did you live in this house?” Leslie asked.

“Oh no. I lived a block away but as children we spent a lot of time here playing in the yard and house. So I didn’t really live here but the Penn’s house was one of my favorite places to be.”

I’m sure my mouth dropped open as I shook my head in disbelief. “Did you say the Penn house?”

“Yes. Mr and Mrs Penn were like a second set of parents to me.”

“You don’t mean Frank Penn, do you?”

“Why sure. He managed the family tobacco warehouses downtown for years. Their children were close to my age and were childhood friends.”

I could not believe it. What were the chances? Almost 70 years before, Mr. Penn had served with my grandfather in World War II. Upon returning home after the war, Mr. Penn had built the house in which we were now living. Wow! I couldn’t wait to tell Papa. But instead of phoning him, I decided I would wait to tell him face-to-face. We would be seeing him in 3 or 4 weeks when we went home for Christmas. What a Christmas present this would be for Papa…. and me!

Well fate did not allow me to deliver this grand news to Papa Littrell. On December 21, two days before we were to travel home for Christmas, I received the call that Papa had passed away quietly in his sleep at the ripe old age of 91. But my recent discovery of this connection with Papa’s old war buddy was a source of comfort and amusement to our family as we sat together at the funeral home reminiscing about Papa.

Papa’s health had deteriorated in the months before Christmas 2010 so his death was not altogether unexpected. His last days were spent in a nursing home where two of my aunts worked. They had taken good care of him. Only days before he died, one Aunt recounted to me how Papa had called her to his room. He asked, “Can you hear them singing?”

“Who’s singing, Daddy?” she asked.

Gesturing toward the window near his bed, Papa replied, “The angels. They’re just outside the window. They’ve been singing all night long.”

I have zero doubt that the singing Papa heard was in fact angels. And I suspect that as we were sitting in the funeral home mourning his death, Papa was up there singing along, all the while tapping his foot or patting his knee as I’d seen him do many times before as we sang hymns at Shiloh General Baptist Church near my childhood home. And perhaps he had now been re-united with his old war buddy, Mr. Penn. I hope the two of them experienced as much joy and amazement as I had when they learned that one of Papa’s grandson’s was now living in Mr. Penn’s former home – right smack dab in the “Heart of the World.”

Post Script

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Featured Lexington Horse Farm image by Navin Rajagopalan on Flickr via CC BY-SA 2.0; Angel photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash.

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