“Don’t tell me, goddammit, I was there…” -An old soldier’s battle cry
Wiley Edward Asberry was a quiet man who, at the end of his life about a year ago, made his final goodbye by speaking with his ears. Retired from the General Motors plant on Broening Highway, the longtime Yale Heights resident was 94. By the time his heart gave out on June 4, 2021, the World War II Army veteran was living in a nursing home near Gettysburg, Pa.
The day before, Joe Asberry sat at his father’s bedside, his Pop unresponsive. “He’s laying there and I’m talking but he’s not hearing me,” said the younger Asberry, a resident of Columbia and a 1976 graduate of Mt. St. Joseph High School in Irvington.
A farm boy who grew up near a creek outside of Marion, Virginia, Wiley was a good dancer and loved to swim. Most of all, he was a passionate about music. His tastes covered many genres, including Big Band, Irish tunes and music he heard in Japan while stationed in the East Asia as an Army Corps of Engineers mechanic between 1944 and 1946. “There was a photo of him playing guitar in Japan,” said Joe.
But the diminutive Southerner was especially fond of classic country: Hank Williams, Sr., Tex Ritter (he perfectly timed the yelps to Ritter’s “Rye Whiskey”), Patsy Cline, and, of course, the Man in Black.
“I played ‘I Walk the Line’ by Johnny Cash on my phone and said, ‘Dad, can you hear these songs? If you can hear them, wiggle your ears.’ And he did, he wiggled his ears like he used to do when we were kids. I cried for five minutes.”
His father passed away early the next morning, almost thirteen months ago even though, said Joe, “it feels like we were just with him yesterday.”
Of the many good things Wiley left his son – a deep love of music (rooted in Zeppelin, Aerosmith and The Who more than the Grand Ole Opry), respect for the military and responsibility for family – the trick of ear wiggling is one of the most cherished.
Joe’s 13-year-old granddaughter, Chyna Asberry Harrington, said “Old Pop-Pop” showed her how to do it and she picked it up in no time. Joe’s older sister — Mary Ellen Beebe – does not share the skill.
“Nope, can’t do it,” she said from her house in Hanover, Pa., not far from Littlestown where her parents moved in 1987 and the Brethren Home where her father died of congestive heart failure.
This Father’s Day weekend, the family hopes to bring Wiley’s ashes to New Cathedral Cemetery, the 125-acre graveyard on Old Frederick Road near St. Joseph’s Monastery parish, where the three Asberry children graduated 8th grade. Wiley’s wife of 49 years, the former Lois Ann Rogan, was buried there in 2002 after her death that October in a car crash.
“The first Christmas after Mom died, we were all in Littlestown and at some point, Dad came into the living room and gave each of us a check from the insurance money,” remembered Mary Ellen. “Then he went into the kitchen and started sobbing.”
A one-time employee of the old G.E.M. department store on Baltimore National Pike, “Ann” rests at New Cathedral next to her mother, Helen Rogan. Mary Ellen and Joe’s brother John died from melanoma in 2009. In a small, green spiral notebook – more a daily log than a diary – Wiley wrote on April 1, 2009: “Joey called this morning. He was leaving the hospital. Johnny has stopped eating. There’s no hope of [him] getting better.”
John Edward Asberry died four days later; his ashes sprinkled among the flowers at the base of the iconic tower at Mt. St. Joe, where he graduated in 1975 and the grounds of the St. Joseph Monastery across the street.
Wiley was the last of the five children of Edward and Bertha Asberry to pass away. He left school in the fifth grade to help on the family farm near Marion in far south Virginia along the Blue Ridge Mountains. “Dad took us there once. It was just a shack near a stream,” said Joe, who wasn’t sure what was raised on the farm, only that the family worked it themselves and they had a few cows.
After his Army discharge, Wiley settled in Baltimore where factory work was plentiful and took a room on Calvert Street downtown while attending night school for his high school equivalency.
For most of his life, he lived with his wife and children at 726 Yale Avenue, a few blocks behind the Mt. St. Joseph gymnasium. An end of row house – six inches wider than the ones in the middle of the block — Wiley bought the property in 1953 for $9,500. That was $500 more for three bedrooms instead of two in the others.
The house was always swaying with music unless Wiley was listening on headphones, sitting quietly at the dining room table.
“The man was always either singing or whistling. Especially when he was shaving,” said Joe. “He had record players, a reel-to-reel tape deck, 8-tracks and cassettes and set up LPs on a pipe around the ceiling in the basement. I can still see the cover of Eddy Arnold’s “Cuddle Buggin’ Baby,” as you came down the steps.”
Mary Ellen said her father and his brother William, who lived three hours north of the old family farm in Waynesboro, would record their favorite country tunes on reel-to-reel tapes and mail them back and forth to one another.
Wiley drove a forklift at GM and always owned Chevrolets, beginning with a two-tone ’55 or ’56 Bel Air when Mary Ellen was born. Before retiring in the late 1980s with a $2,100 a month United Auto Workers pension, he bought an Astra van made on Broening Highway. The 70-year-old plant shut down in 2005.
On the way home on payday, he might stop at the Half-Mile Track on Frederick Avenue for a few beers before coming home to dinner and music. Despite his pension, Social Security and some savings, the aging Asberry – having grown up dirt poor — could be somewhat cantankerous when it came to money. This tended to occur when his kids wanted him to spend a few more bucks on something than he deemed necessary.
“You guys are taking me to the poor house!” he’d bark. And then acquiesce to the purchase of something he actually needed, like a winter coat.
The most famous Wiley quote is so legendary that a family friend printed it on a shot glass. Joe also finds it useful. If anyone doubts the truth of his father’s last moments — when the dying man wiggled his ears upon hearing “because you’re mine, I walk the line…” — Joe has a few words for them.
“Don’t tell me, goddammit, I was there…”
Rafael Alvarez is the co-editor of a new anthology of Baltimore stories, “A Lovely Place, a Fighting Place: A Charmer,” newly released by Belt Publishing. A reception for the book will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 30 at the Highlandtown branch of the Pratt Library, Eastern Avenue and Conkling Street. Alvarez can be reached via email@example.com