Children become soldiers; there are a thousand reasons why.
Some will die in combat, others will survive.
I won’t forget their sacrifices, their families who had to wait,
and their careers they put on hold. So, if it’s not too late,
I want to thank the veteran. What he had to do, he did.
Soldiers grow old too fast. It seems yesterday he was just a kid.
We can flower and flag the cemetery. We can shed a little tear.
We can offer our thanks to the living veterans who are still here.
Remember November 11 (Don Mathis)
Many people in San Antonio visit cemeteries on Dia de los Muertos. They decorate the graves of their loved ones in artistic and memorial ways. In this city (to paraphrase Bessie Smith’s comment about New Orleans), whatever Mexican-Americans do, the white folks do it too. Because so many of my friends and family are buried at Fort SamHouston National Cemetery, I combined my observation of Day of the Dead with Veterans Day. Flags, incense, poetry, flowers, and smiles were my tribute at various markers on my trail.
Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky;
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
Before he died in 2012, I sat at the bedside during the last days of Pierre Tisdale, the father of my friend Ellen. In his lucid moments, he regaled me with stories of his service during WWII, Korea, and the Vietnam War. At times, his voice was so soft; it was almost like talking to a ghost. Conversations with spirits are so otherworldly. Their memory works in different patterns as do the living. They seem not to hear when you speak. This time, it was me that did all the talking.
Fading light, dims the sight,
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright.
From afar, drawing nigh, falls the night.
Alton Thurmond was the father of my brother’s wife. He came of age during the Great Depression and found a rewarding career in the military.
His experiences influenced his outlook on life and the values he instilled in his descendants. His tales were of a time far away and his perspective was of another era. I miss the men of his generation.
Thanks and praise, for our days,
‘Neath the sun, ‘neath the stars, neath the sky;
As we go, this we know, God is nigh.
Harold H. Walker called himself ‘Hoss’ but he was always Uncle Hollis to me. As a kid, he would give me a kind word and a silver dollar every time he visited. He was older than most (born 1909) when he joined the military in WWII. He could tell you when the first car came through his little town in Arkansas and what the Beatles sang on Ed Sullivan. Hoss was a well-rounded individual – lovable and jovial. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
Sun has set, shadows come,
Time has fled, Scouts must go to their beds
Always true to the promise that they made.
Daniel Mathis is my dad. Like a million other men, he spent the Christmas after Pearl Harbor with his family before enlisting in January 1942. He left the Navy after WWII but the job market was so tight, he enlisted in the Army – and found himself in Korea during that war. The passing of the Greatest Generation is as tragic and monumental as the sinking of the Titanic. Dad, thanks for the seat on the lifeboat.
While the light fades from sight,
And the stars gleaming rays softly send,
To thy hands we our souls, Lord, commend.
David Bernhardt became my friend when I got out of the Army in 1973. We shared many experiences for a while and then he joined the Navy. His military occupational specialty was to put out fires whenever a jet crashed on his aircraft carrier. He used to joke, “I’ve been in the Navy 10 years, and I’ve never had to do my job.” Fortunately for him, no planes crashed on his watch. Unfortunately, he died in 1996. I walked away humming a tune that was popular during our friendship.
And he’s talkin’ with Davy, who’s still in the Navy
And probably will be for life – Piano Man (by Billy Joel)
After my brother died last year, I was able to secure a vacant plot right next to Mom and Dad. When Jeff Mathis and I were kids, we’d ride our bikes on nearby Winans Road to the swimming pool at Fort Sam. He was drafted in 1969, two years before I was, and Mom prayed her boys would not be sent to Vietnam. I guess her prayers were answered because we were both assigned duty in Germany. Auf wiederstein, Jeff.
I’ve always looked up to my big brother.
But now, I’m looking down at his grave.
Then again, I take a look at the sky
and feel his spirit floating by.
I’ve always looked up to my big brother.
Eulogy (Don Mathis)
Pete McKinnon was a proud father and a well-known poet around San Antonio. He served during the Persian Gulf War in the Air Force but spoke out for peace and justice at every opportunity.
Pete left this world two years ago doing one of the things he loved most, riding his motorcycle with the wind blowing in his face. I’ll let his poem speak for him.
When I Die (P.C. McKinnon)
I want it to be late fall
after Thanksgiving perhaps
yes, after one last big gathering
a feast of family and friends
I want the sky to be overcast
a blanket of oddly shaped, rippling clouds
like a down comforter sewn
with the white light of a backstage sun
I want to be outside
so I can watch the cool, dry air tease
the last few leaves from the branches
its lingerie slowly slipping off atop the brown grass
I want it to be 55 degrees
so I can wear sweats and
have to cover my bare feet with
a small blanket of lasting memories
I want it to be at the edge of noon
with a cup of coffee whispering
its last confession from the wooden table
I made years ago for a family of six
The birds call to me
chattering an armful of flashbacks
flitting around one-by-one
decades pass in the waning minutes
I listen as French, Italian and Portuguese
mix in a dance of the present past
I hear the ocean of summer vacations
and taste the saltiness of boardwalk kisses
I see the collage of New England’s foliage
smell the dampness of a mildew forest and
feel the sunrays beaming their spotlights
through the years’ fading canopy
Lost loves and soft touches
line up to bid a final farewell
kissing me from head to toe
reminding me of life’s long foreplay
Regrets show up one last time
like MIAs and POWs
ensuring they were not forgotten
like some needed junky-fix of despair
Dirty rice and gumbo went down like sexy thoughts
beer, nuts and bubblegum were my grandpa’s favorite too
red wine dinners were often my blankets
as I dreamt upon cognac and espresso pillows
I want to close my eyes with nature in my face
opening its arms of pure unconditional love
to embrace my life in its final episode
the good and bad of the past, quite simply, no longer matter
I want to leave Coq au vin
inside the home I shall never again enter
so that I know I have left the warm comfort
of a wine’s incense to capture my memory
when I die
the coffee will cease to whisper
and so too shall my lips
both will be peacefully chilled
like late fall
Don Mathis served as president of the Texoma Poetry Society in 2011 (a Sherman member of the Poetry Society of Texas). And in 2010, ‘Dionysus Don’ was crowned champion of the McKinney Poetry Slam. Don is very involved in the poetry community in Bexar County. He is a founding member of the San Antonio Poetry Fair and participates regularly with Sun Poets and La Taza writers’ group. His poetry has been published in anthologies, periodicals and has appeared on local TV and national radio. He currently works for St. Philip’s College.
Photo credit: Getty Images