A wooden eulogy for Max Cleland

The box Jim Galloway built from Max Cleland's old bed.

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The box Jim Galloway built from Max Cleland's old bed.

This is the story of a bed that became a box. How it was made is a dry tale of saws, hand planes, chisels, and glue. Why it was made is far more important.

Tomorrow, April 8, will be the 54th anniversary of the day that my friend Max Cleland was blown apart by a grenade in Vietnam. His ability and willingness to celebrate this sacrifice of three limbs as his “Alive Day” — a kind of rebirth — pretty much defined the rest of his life.

Max died last November, at age 79, just shy of Veterans Day. A funeral home visitation and graveside service were both quick and private. A larger, public service was planned for January, then cancelled as the omicron variant loomed. Another has been scheduled for May 25.

ExploreMax Cleland's obituary

This is not unusual anymore. The pandemic has prevented many of us from offering proper, collective goodbyes to those we’ve lost. But Max was a former U.S. senator and a former Georgia secretary of state. In a first, highly symbolic act of his presidency, Jimmy Carter in 1977 tapped Max, then 35, to head a federal Veterans Affairs Administration flooded with those maimed and battered by the recent land war in Asia.

For decades, until such things became passe, Max was a popular and personal symbol of perseverance in Georgia. So the hole left by his death was a large one.

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Max Cleland at his Atlanta campaign HQ Monday. Cleland is running U.S. Senate. (AJC Staff Photo/William Berry) 8/96

Credit: WILLIAM BERRY

Max Cleland at his Atlanta campaign HQ Monday. Cleland is running U.S. Senate. (AJC Staff Photo/William Berry) 8/96

Credit: WILLIAM BERRY

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Max Cleland at his Atlanta campaign HQ Monday. Cleland is running U.S. Senate. (AJC Staff Photo/William Berry) 8/96

Credit: WILLIAM BERRY

Credit: WILLIAM BERRY

For many of his pandemic-bound friends, thoughts and prayers have been the only option available. I was lucky. I found my eulogy for Max in an ugly, beat-up plank of wood.

Four years ago, Max’s then-girlfriend, my wife Judy and I staged a quasi-military operation to install a new bed in his Peachtree Battle apartment. Old mattress out, new one in. Old bed frame taken apart, new one put together — all in a window of hours.

Max hadn’t yet turned 75 and was in decent physical shape — still strong enough to haul himself into and out of the shotgun seat of his Cadillac with his left arm.

Emotionally, the lifelong Democrat had mostly recovered from his failed 2002 bid for re-election to the U.S. Senate — and the hard lesson that, for many Georgians in an increasingly partisan climate, his loss of two legs and a right arm wasn’t sufficient proof of his patriotism.

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Max Cleland takes a drink while serving in Vietnam. Cleland overcame the loss of three limbs to serve in multiple roles in state and federal government, including leading the Veterans Administration. Courtesty of Stetson University, DuPont-Ball Library.

Max Cleland takes a drink while serving in Vietnam. Cleland overcame the loss of three limbs to serve in multiple roles in state and federal government, including leading the Veterans Administration. Courtesty of Stetson University, DuPont-Ball Library.

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Max Cleland takes a drink while serving in Vietnam. Cleland overcame the loss of three limbs to serve in multiple roles in state and federal government, including leading the Veterans Administration. Courtesty of Stetson University, DuPont-Ball Library.

(I say “mostly recovered” because a bathroom in his apartment still featured a photo of actress Raquel Welch — her middle finger raised in protest of those 2002 results. Welch’s ex was a Cleland friend.)

But the 2016 presidential contest had brought another blow. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Max to head the American Battle Monuments Commission, which maintains the overseas cemeteries where U.S. military dead are buried.

Max had hoped to hang on through 2019, long enough to preside over ceremonies for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, high on the French cliffs of Normandy. That ambition, too, died when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.

Trump’s inauguration forced Max’s immediate resignation. We marked the end of his federal career that January with a somber dinner at a local restaurant, attended by my wife and I, our two grown daughters and Buddy Darden, a close friend and former congressman. It was all the company that Max would allow.

Energy and attention shifted to a comfortable retirement. And eventually, to that new bed.

The old one was in poor shape. The cherry four-poster had belonged to Max’s parents. The legs had been sawed short, with little or no finesse, to match the height of Max’s motorized chair. Holes had been drilled and punched into the frame, hither and yon, to keep it together.

Inch-thick hardwood doesn’t give up without a fight, but years of punishment had taken their toll.

Each night, Max would ram the wheelchair into the sideboard, to make sure he was close enough to vault into bed and, with his one arm, climb back out in the morning. This happened day after day after day. Over time, the wheelchair had cut a long, raw groove that ran the length of the wooden bedframe.

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Max Cleland's old bed was turned into this box by Jim Galloway.

Credit: Jim Galloway

Max Cleland's old bed was turned into this box by Jim Galloway.

Credit: Jim Galloway

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Max Cleland's old bed was turned into this box by Jim Galloway.

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

But even scratched and gouged cherry can be transformed into something better, and so I salvaged the wood from our operation. On a lathe, I turned a pair of vases from what remained of the bed’s uprights, one for Max and one for his sweetheart. On more pieces, planed and sanded, a favorite poem was engraved. All bore these initials: “MCSH.” It was a small, inside joke between two grown men.

Yet the ugliest piece of Max’s old bed remained untouched in my basement. I couldn’t decide what to do with it until last October. Max’s health had been failing. Hospitalizations to address a cancer had given way to deeper concerns over congestive heart failure.

Aides camped out in his living room, 24/7. The bed we had installed back in 2018 had disappeared, replaced by a high hospital bed from which Max rarely escaped — and never on his own. A TV screen had been hung on his bedroom wall. Usually, old TV westerns from the ‘50s and ‘60s were playing. Or MSNBC.

ExplorePhotos of Max Cleland through the years

I’m convinced that Joe Biden’s presidential run and his first months in office added an extra year to Max’s life. As a candidate and president, Biden would check in on his old friend now and again. Colin Powell, a fellow Vietnam vet who would precede Max in death by just weeks, called as well. A former aide to John Kerry, the former senator and U.S. secretary of state, moved in for weeks to watch over Max. And a host of Democrats from the old days — Sam Nunn, Roy Barnes, Calvin Smyre and others — dropped by to say hello. And goodbye.

As Max weakened, my weekly visits became ever shorter. Usually, I would fill Max in on doings in the political world he once rolled through. But on this October day, I broached a new topic.

I told Max about the box — a small chest, really — I would build from the last of his old bed. On my phone, I pulled up a photo of a similar one that I’d made a few years earlier. He liked it. I told him that the new box would bear the initials “MCSH.” He smiled at that, too.

I didn’t lie to my dying friend, but I held back two bits of information. I had built that first box to carry my father’s ashes. I couldn’t bring myself to tell Max that.

Nor could I tell Max that his box’s central feature, circling the body, would be the groove that he himself had carved day by day, month upon month, year after year, with his wheelchair.

There is the heroism that arrives in a single moment, riding a surge of instinct and adrenaline. It is the heroism that allows one to rush into a burning building, or pick up a live grenade that has been accidentally dropped — in an attempt to save one’s fellow soldiers.

Max was that kind of hero.

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Max Cleland had a sense of humor that came across with friends and the public. This photo of him was taken while he was Georgia's secretary of state.

Max Cleland had a sense of humor that came across with friends and the public. This photo of him was taken while he was Georgia's secretary of state.

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Max Cleland had a sense of humor that came across with friends and the public. This photo of him was taken while he was Georgia's secretary of state.

But there is also the heroism that rises up when the adrenaline drains away. It’s the kind that pushes a man to get out of his bed when every instinct tells him to stay put.

Max was that kind of hero, too.

I finished his box last week. It is roughly 16 by 6 inches and stands nine inches tall. The coopered top, also made from Max’s bed, has an oil finish. But except for the lasered engraving, done by my friend John Baxter, the battered sideboard remains untouched.

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MCSH is carved into the bottom of the box Jim Galloway built from Max Cleland's old bed. It means Max Cleland slept here.

Credit: Jim Galloway

MCSH is carved into the bottom of the box Jim Galloway built from Max Cleland's old bed. It means Max Cleland slept here.

Credit: Jim Galloway

caption arrowCaption
MCSH is carved into the bottom of the box Jim Galloway built from Max Cleland's old bed. It means Max Cleland slept here.

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

It is not a particularly pretty piece, and probably responds better to the fingertips than to the eye. But the grooves, gouges and scratches tell you more about Max than my words ever could.

And though they look like they were chewed by a squirrel with dull teeth, the initials “MCSH” are carved into the bottom: “Max Cleland Slept Here.”

Sleep well, my friend.


Jim Galloway retired in January 2021 as the newspaper’s political columnist after 41 years as a writer and editor at the AJC. In past decades, he covered religion, steered the newspaper’s 1992 presidential coverage, and ran the AJC foreign desk. He was on Tiananmen Square when the tanks came in ‘89. Galloway created the AJC’s Political Insider blog, which remains one of the South’s most influential political news sites.

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