The Funeral Detail

The Funeral Detail

In 1973 I was a young, newly made SP6 in the Army, stationed at Ft. Polk, LA. A 12 year veteran, I had served 5 years in Germany, and 1 in Viet Nam. The VN war was still hot and one of the duties which fell on soldiers from time to time was Funeral detail, consisting of seven soldiers for the firing squad, two flag folders, and a higher ranking soldier to command and present the flag to the dead soldier’s survivors.

On one such occasion, the funeral was for a Black soldier from a small town about 50 miles from Ft. Polk. The Army does not see soldiers in any color but green, so no effort was made to assign Black soldiers to the detail. Whoever was next on the First Sergeant’s duty roster was assigned. As usual, this detail was roughly half White, half Black. PVT Andrew Williams was a young, naive, white boy from rural Nebraska, whose first exposure to Black people was in Army basic training, where he was thoroughly intimidated by his Black Drill Sergeant.

After the graveside service, the family invited the soldiers to come to their home and take part in the wake. There would be deep South food in abundance, and perhaps some adult beverages.

The dead soldier’s mother was a middle aged, motherly woman of ample girth. Seeing PVT Williams’ discomfort, she called him over, took his hands in hers, and asked, “Son, are you worried about being here with all these black boys?” Though he didn’t answer, his expression made it obvious that he was.

“Tell me, son, do you have any money on you?”, she asked.

“Yes Ma’am, I have about $200.00.”,he answered.

“ Oh, my God, son you better let me hold that for you, some of these niggas might try to take it away from you.”

So, PVT Williams gave his money to the kindly woman, who discretely stored it in her bosom.

He then enjoyed the next couple of hours eating the delicious food and even making friends with one of the fallen soldier’s brothers. When it came time to return to Ft. Polk, PVT Williams went to the kindly mother of the deceased.

“Ma’am, I have to leave now. May I have my money back?”, he asked.

She looked him straight in the eye, and with a look of concern, said “What money are you talking about, son?”.

Robert Found Some Money

This is from my Panama Newsletter in 2008.

Robert is a neighborhood character. He makes a living of sorts doing odd jobs. He used to live in the US, but the story is that he killed a man there and fled home to Panama. Everyone in my neighborhood, regardless of economic circumstance, gets treated with respect, but Robert may command just a bit more than others. Whatever the truth about what happened up North, Robert is a good worker and keeps himself busy doing the hard, dirty jobs that others don’t want to do.

Last week Robert came to my house and wanted to talk about something he had found. There had been a burst water pipe just up the street from our house, and when IDAAN finally (after 6 weeks) got around to fixing it, they dug a very large hole, leaving a big mound of dirt and clay in the street. Each rain since washed away a bit of that dirt, until a plastic bag with some coins and the remains of a chicken were exposed. Robert found the bag and removed the coins, but was afraid to spend them so he had come to me for advice.

It is quite common in Panama to make a sacrifice before moving into a new home or remodeling. The sacrifice usually consists of a chicken and a few coins, and is believed to appease the evil spirits who can cause any number of bad things to come into your life. Such a sacrifice is what Robert had found. I suspect that if one dug up every yard in my neighborhood, a large number of coins and chicken bones would be found. Robert lives a hand-to-mouth existence, and any found money is welcome, so I knew what he wanted to hear, but also knew what he needed to hear, so I advised him to return the money to where he found it. Of course Robert already knew the answer, because while I respect the belief, he believes it. He said “I knew you were going to say that”. Then he went to get a second opinion, and was again told, this time by a Panamanian, the same thing I told him. So Robert very reluctantly compromised by giving the money (74 cents) to a friend who doesn’t believe in evil spirits. 74 cents may not seem like a big deal to you or me, but in Robert’s world it can mean a full meal today instead of not quite enough, or a couple of cold beers at the Chino’s.

Not unexpectedly, Robert dropped by the following day to “borrow” a quarter so he could get a cup of coffee. I told him I was fresh out of quarters and he would have to settle for a dollar, and remarked that God had probably arranged it that way to reward him for doing the right thing with the found money.

A Tribute to a Great Woman

This is from my newsletter written in August 2008.

Judy Dixon was a long-time close friend of mine and Nora’s best friend. When I first came to Panama she helped me enormously with getting my papers in order. Judy passed away 4 months ago.

Judy had been personal secretary to several powerful Panama government ministers, and finished her career in President Perez-Balladares office, as a trusted assistant. She was one of the movers and shakers in CONEN (Consejo Nacional de la Etnia Negra, Panama’s equivilant of the NAACP). Her funeral services were held in a school gymnasium, because no church which could accomodate the expected crowd was available.

May 30 was her birthday and CONEN held a celebration in her honor in a large hall of the ATLAPA Convention Center in Panama City. Hundreds of people, including the Mayor of Panama City, several cabinet members, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court were there, and of course, Nora and I, who were homored with reserved seats on the second row. The President of the Republic was scheduled to attend, but the crash of the 35 year old helicopter, which had been used by the late General Omar Torrijos, into a crowded store on Central Avenue had occupied all his attention.

I was scheduled to give a talk at another, unrelated function at 7:30 and told my friend Charley, (Judy’s husband) that I would have to leave at 7:00. At 6:45, the first speaker was introduced, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In a triumph of hope over experience, I naiively thought he would speak for no more than 15~20 minutes, so I could stay for his speech and still get to the next function on time, and even if he spoke longer, I could “answer” my cell phone and pretend to have an emergency, and everyone would understand my walking out on the Chief Justice’s talk. As he began to speak about the African Slave Trade and how Europe profited by it, I looked around at the sea of brown and black faces, and realized that there was no way on Earth that this blue-eyed white boy was going to walk out until he was finished.

By the way, he is an excellent speaker and held my interest for the full 45 minutes. At no point did he say anything that could be taken as an attack on white people; instead he focused on how people of color around the world, including Panama, had lifted themselves up by hard work and faith in God. I left feeling uplifted, myself.