Last week, on Veteran’s Day, I pulled out a navy blue box that holds a Purple Heart earned by Bud’s uncle, Gene Mathias. Gene grew up in Holmes County, Mississippi, and never really left the Delta, except to go to war.
I got to know Gene before he died in 1999, and grew to love him for his humor and generosity. He enjoyed a road trip and loved having a good time with his family in the den at their home, which had the biggest fireplace in it I have ever seen.
Gene was born Dec. 8, 1919 and was a lifelong resident of Cruger. He was a quiet man, devoted to his mother and family, and would be the least likely guy you could think of who would distinguish himself in combat. He was quiet, mild-mannered, and wasn’t particularly athletic. He was 6 foot 4 inches tall, had great patience with children though he never had any of his own, and loved flowers and gardening. He and his brothers farmed “High Cotton,” their plantation of over 1,000 acres of rich Delta cotton land.
As a member of the Fifth Armored Division in WW II, he was honored for bravery during a campaign in France and was awarded the French Medal of Honor, their highest military decoration — the Croix de Guerre. It was something he didn’t talk about much and he never thought he deserved it. He was a gunner in a tank. As his company was ordered to withdraw, he continued to fire on the enemy to support the withdrawal. We never learned why he was awarded the purple heart, though we think he was hit with shrapnel.
The man who carried a German name, Sergeant James E. Mathias, fought against the Germans for his country and earned high honors for bravery. For that, his family and his country are grateful.
Sunday during Church, Don Patterson stood before the congregation and read the following poem. Through tears, he honored his fellow Veterans for their service.
The Final Inspection
The soldier stood and faced his God
Which must always come to pass
He hoped his shoes were shining Just as brightly as his brass
“Step forward now you soldier,
How shall I deal with you?
Have you always turned the other cheek,
And to my church have you been true?”
The soldier squared his shoulders and said,
“No Lord, I guess I ain’t,
Because those of us who carry guns,
Can’t always be saints
“I’ve had to work most Sundays
And at times my talk was tough
And sometimes I’ve been violent
Because the streets were awfully rough”
But I never took a penny,
That wasn’t mine to keep
Though I worked a lot of overtime
When the bills just got too steep,
And I never passed a cry for help
Although, at times I shook with fear
And sometimes, God forgive
I’ve wept unmanly tears
I know I don’t deserve a place
Among the people here
That never wanted me around
Except to calm there fears
If you have a place for me here O’ Lord
It needn’t be so grand
I’ve never expected, or had so much
But if you don’t I’ll understand”
There was a silence all around the throne
Where the Saints had often trod
As this soldier waited quietly
For the judgment from his God
“Step forward now you soldier,
You’ve borne your
Walk peacefully on Heaven’s streets,
You’ve done your time in Hell.”