The collard greens Donald Singleton grows in his backyard garden are put to good use in a number of ways.
They feed family and friends and neighbors, just like the okra and kale and beans and whatever else it is he might decide to raise during a growing season that practically goes year round.
Oh, and they get eaten, too.
“I could eat them every day,” Singleton said.
But it’s the work and art of growing that really matters.
“This is what I got, man, this is it, this is my therapy,” Singleton said on a recent Monday afternoon on a sparkling December day. “I can have Vietnam on my mind, and all I got to do is come outside and get on a tractor or work in the garden and it helps me forget all that for a while.”
“All that,” is Singleton’s war story, which has been well documented in this newspaper and other media. A Richmond Hill native who went into the 101st Airborne and became a paratrooper, he was wounded in May 1967 in Quang Ngai province during an ambush while he and other paratroopers were trying to recover the body of a fellow soldier killed in an earlier firefight. The man who saved Singleton’s life and in the process lost his own, Spec. Dale Eugene Wayrynen, was awarded the Medal of Honor for throwing himself on a grenade thrown into his company. Three people died that night, but Singleton was flown out on a helicopter with the dead. “I was the only living thing on that chopper apart from the crew,” he said. That flight to safety lent itself to an ongoing nightmare for Singleton, one easily triggered.
“Back then the medics would attach a tag to soldiers killed in combat, they’d put the soldier’s name and where he was killed, stuff like that, on the tag and then use a wire to attach it to a buttonhole in his uniform,” Singleton recalled. “When I was being flown out, one of those tags came off one of the bodies and just flew out the window.”
That image comes back to Singleton with startling clarity.
“I can be riding down the highway and a piece of paper or something will come out of a car and, boom, it takes me right back to seeing that tag flying out of that chopper full of dead bodies,” he said. “And I don’t need to be reminded of that, but there it is. People don’t understand war never leaves you alone.”
And this is where the collards come in.
Singleton remembers his father, Roosevelt Singleton, trying to teach him to farm. He wanted no part of it as a teenager.
“I wish I had listened to him now,” Singleton said.
“But I was a teenager, and you know how it goes. I didn’t want nothing to do with farming.”
After the Army, Singleton wanted land where he was born and raised, however, somewhere to put down his own roots.
He bought five acres off Cartertown Road in 1980 and then went to work as an engineer for the railroad. He built a house and raised a family.
Over time, he started raising crops, and found it helped make life more tolerable. There was something about a garden that made him feel at least somewhat at peace, and it extended beyond vegetables.
Some people take in stray cats or dogs. Singleton takes in plants.
There are crepe myrtles here and there on Singleton’s property – good sized trees, now – that got their start in the median on Highway 17.
“A car ran into it and knocked three or four of them down,” SIngleton said. ““They had them behind that shack at J.F.
Gregory Park. I asked them what they were going to do with them and was told they were going to get thrown away, and I was like, ‘no don’t do that.
I’ll take them.’” And then, about three years ago his friend Bruce McCartney, a fellow Vietnam veteran with a place down in Liberty County, gave him a bunch of empty pots.
Singleton, a graduate of the University of Georgia’s master gardener program, began to experiment with growing crops in garden.
Using trial and error and no chemicals, he’s hit upon a mixture of dirt he buys special from a landscaping outfit in Chatham County, and grows food to eat and share year round.
But in December, it’s mostly collards and maybe some kale, and sometimes the bugs show up and eat some of the greens.
It’s almost by invitation, and they leave him plenty. They eat some, but they share. “I don’t kill the bugs,,” he said. “They have got to eat to live, too.” And maybe, Singleton reckons, he’s more tolerant of other creatures because of a war about 60 years ago when he was young, one in which he knows he took life, just doesn’t have a body count. “I don’t know what you know about a firefight, but when everybody is shooting at you and you’re shooting back, you don’t know who killed who, but you know the odds are pretty good you killed somebody,” he said.
“That’s why I don’t want to kill anything no more, not even bugs. I will kill a snake, but that’s it.” That, and the collards grow big and green in his pots. Three hundred of them this year, enough to feed his appetite and his spirit.