Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Changing of the Guard

I traveled to Texas this week to see my uncle laid to rest. He was born in San Antonio Texas, and he died in San Antonio Texas. In between, he lived a youthful life of adventure. He was 22 years old when the United States entered the Second World War. He enlisted in the Marine Corps and was sent to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese. Though he was too human to talk about it for forty years afterward, he met General George Patton’s idea of a hero. Patton once said that a hero is someone who “makes the other SOB die for THEIR country.” Uncle Roy made many Japanese die for the Empire of Japan, and when he got back he lived in a way that made his own country better.

A big, raw-boned man of German heritage, he played football for Baylor back when players went both ways and face masks were for sissies. He was center and middle linebacker for the Baylor Bears. When the Korean War started up, he was called into service again. He had gotten enough of war and did not want to go, but he went anyway.

In the middle of all this he married my aunt Doris, and they had a son and a daughter. My family on both sides for generations seems to be averaging two children each. I know that was the standard for a couple of generations there, but we really marched in lockstep on the number of children factor. I often admire people who have large families and raise them right, but it has been as an observer, not a fellow member of the club. On this trip Aunt Doris expressed regret several times that there were so few of us.

Roy made a good living as a building inspector for the city. He had a stereotypical German attitude about quality and workmanship. I have no doubt that he was the bane of shoddy construction crews for decades. I actually remember him complaining, long before anyone cared about illegal immigration, about how the Mexican construction crews would just throw up anything.

During the time Roy and Doris raised their children, the culture changed. The country changed. San Antonio changed. Their daughter went to a Lutheran college. San Antonio was founded by the Spanish, but the next bunch in were German settlers. The city has large historical influences from both, and that is how the Lutheran church got so big around there. Roy and Doris were faithful members of a Lutheran church that had been around for almost one hundred years.

The daughter became a school councilor and a great one. She was voted the best one on the Gulf Coast two years ago. Sadly, her husband died before his time. They have one daughter. The son was a young man during Vietnam. He did not sign up, and may very well have evaded the draft if necessary to avoid Nam. Like I said, the culture changed. An old football injury (he played tight end for UTEP for a year or two) was just enough to keep him out. Always more gently inclined, he became a jeweler. He made the rings that my wife and I exchanged when we got married. They are really well done. He has three sons.

The city changed too. German settlers had long quit coming to San Antonio, but Mexican settlers, legal and otherwise, were still streaming in. Mexican families were not like most Anglo-German families. They were much more comfortable with having lots of children. The city changed at an accelerating rate. Doris and Roy had moved to a very nice bedroom community within San Antonio years before. Membership in their old Lutheran Church continued to dwindle.

To some extent, times changed back. Ronald Reagan got elected President. It was cool to be in the military again. After college, I joined the Navy. My aunt was so happy. So was Roy, even though he faked outrage, “You messed up. You were supposed to join the Marine Corps, not the Navy!” Years went by and the circle winds back around. I wonder what we are doing with troops in all of these other countries. In other ways, times did not change back. Doris and Roy’s old Lutheran church closed its doors two weeks before Roy died. There was only a grave side service for Roy. The pastor retired when the church closed, but he came out of retirement to do Roy’s funeral.

San Antonio is a great city. It has lots of culture, energy, historical monuments, and corporate headquarters. It’s vibrant. It also has a large military presence, including a gigantic veteran’s cemetery. That was where I headed when I went to Texas for Uncle Roy’s funeral. When traveling in Texas, I like to stop for hotels in towns with German names and (unless its steak) stop to eat in towns with Mexican names. Am I a racist?

When I get to Fort Sam Military Park I see rows and rows of headstones. A staggering number of them. I finally find the pavilion where Roy’s remains lay in that coffin. A respectable crowd is on hand. Some, like me, have traveled a long way to be there. The pastor gives a fine traditional service. Roy’s oldest grandson reads a moving tribute. His son leads the other two grandsons in singing Amazing Grace. All signs of a life well-lived.

There were signs of a military life well-lived too. Seven old veterans under the Texas, not the Federal, flag fire a 21 gun salute to Roy. They are all Anglos. The salute is delivered in three volleys. The Hispanic guy who runs the cemetery for the VA is very smooth and professional in how he explains to the congregants what is about to occur. The guns are so loud, and they are so unused to the sound of gun shots, that many in the crowd flinch anyway. Then a three-man detachment of Marines assume positions over the coffin containing the remains of their aged comrade in arms. The lowest ranking member of the detachment is a tall athletic looking blond guy. In fact he looked to me strikingly like the old photos of Uncle Roy himself when he was a young Marine. The other two members of the team are both Hispanic. One is a bit overweight. The detachment leader is short but very fit. Much changed during the course of Uncle Roy’s life, but not everything. The young Marines carefully perform a ceremony exactly as it was done before Roy E. Simpson was ever born.

Slowly and reverently they fold the flag that was draped over the coffin into a tight triangle. The other two hand the folded flag over to the detachment leader and salute slowly and mournfully. He returns their salute. Then he expertly wheels about and kneels before the widow as he cradles the flag in his arms. He gently places the flag into her pale hands, then rises and gives her the same slow salute. And with that, the Changing of the Guard was complete.


Blogger Gary said...

Felt like I was there...not just for the funeral, but for Uncle Roy's adult life. You sure can put a pen (text) to it, Brother.
We love you Uncle Roy. You are missed.

7:29 AM, March 28, 2010  

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