Saturday night had just turned into Sunday morning, and Tim Abernathy, 47, walked off the dance floor at the Menlo Barn Dance near Summerville, Georgia. He sat down in a folding chair to rest with his wife, Tina Abernathy, next to him. Then something felt wrong. His throat got tight, then tighter. He grabbed Tina’s hand, then crashed to the floor.
“His eyes had rolled back,” said Tina. “His lips had turned blue and were getting darker.”
The band stopped playing. People started yelling, but nobody stepped forward to act. Someone finally did.
It was Johnny “Digger” Tucker. He swiped his fingers through Tim’s mouth, thinking he could be choking. He started beating on Tim’s chest. Then he began mouth-to-mouth. More pounding. More mouth-to-mouth. Then, finally, Tim drew a breath. The paramedics came, and Johnny quietly left.
“If Johnny hadn’t been there, I would be burying my husband,” said Tina.
Folks say Johnny Tucker is the type of man you’d call at 2 a.m. The type whose handshake is his word. Maybe it’s because he knows more than most how precious life is. Every day, he faces death.
Johnny is a gravedigger. Ever since he was a boy, he has been digging, just as his father did—not with a backhoe but by hand, with a shovel and a pick. He has dug the final resting places for about 20,000 people, each grave measuring three feet wide, eight feet long, four and a half feet deep, in hard, frozen ground or wet Georgia clay. He has his rules: no cussing, smoking, or radio playing during the grave digging. “I treat everybody as if it’s my family I’m burying,” he said. He is so respected around Chattanooga that funeral directors arrange their schedules around his availability.
So maybe it’s not surprising that Johnny often finds himself in a position to lend a hand. That night at the barn dance was actually his second death-defying feat. In the ’90s, a car driving in front of him veered off the highway, crashing into a flooded, freezing creek. Johnny jumped out and pulled the driver to safety. “I don’t want to see somebody leave this world,” Johnny says, “if I know I could have saved them.”
On top of that, Johnny has been fighting his own health battles for the past four years. “Non-small cell carcinoma,” Johnny says. Cancer. He has weathered two years of chemotherapy. “He’s as tough as they come,” says his wife, Mary Tucker.
That’s why the couple spends Saturday nights at the barn dance, living it up and, frequently, closing the place down. Johnny and Mary were actually on their way out the door that night when Tim Abernathy collapsed. But then the band started playing that old Vern Gosdin song “Chiseled in Stone,” the one that goes, “You don’t know about lonely ’til it’s chiseled in stone.”
“Our song,” said Johnny to Mary.
They turned around for one more slow dance. Minutes later, the gravedigger had saved another life.