My author friend, Marine veteran Tom Morton, sent me an email. It informed me a Navy Corpsman from the Vietnam era had recently died. Years earlier the man’s wife also passed, leaving no other family members.
The corpsman had long been homeless; perhaps by circumstances or choice; I didn’t know. I did recognize he was simply one of those disheveled men walking the streets of Fresno – I didn’t even know his name.
Tom indicated Veteran’s Affairs asked available veterans if they might attend the 8:30 a.m. funeral. Their attendance would reflect warrior camaraderie and acknowledge service to our country by a fellow veterans.
Though I never served as a soldier or sailor, I wanted to respect his service. So, early the following morning, I drove through the heavy traffic to attend the funeral. But I kept thinking, I didn’t even know his name.
My friends, Anne Biggs and Tom, greeted me at the entry to the mortuary. We walked down a long hallway past many closed doors and entered a small, white room, perhaps accommodating 30 people. Four people sat quietly staring at the open coffin – and they didn’t know his name.
The funeral staff earlier placed the corpsman’s body into a muted gray metal casket. The man lay in peaceful repose wearing a light gray shirt with a red, white and blue tie. The mourners noticed he had a full, graying beard. His receding hairline reflected a man in his late 60s or early 70s. His tanned skin was rough from many years of exposure to the elements.
A few other people entered the room including two motorcycle bikers in vests. They represented some veterans group honor guard. Comprised of both able and disabled veterans, they render services beyond the traditional folding of the flag. Those ceremonial acts include a uniformed rifle team, taps from a bugle and a motorcycle escort for the hearse containing their fellow warrior.
They didn’t know the man’s name either, nor did they care. He was one of them.
A well-dressed African-American lady and a small group entered, and sat in the front row. They appeared emotionally moved upon seeing the corpsman’s body. Then several other people entered the room and we numbered about 15.
Tom had earlier excused himself, then re-entered the room carrying a piece of paper from the mortuary office. He stood in front of the group and said, “Records indicate the gentleman had been a Navy Corpsman. His last name was Gower. His records show he completed rigorous training and was assigned to Fleet Marine Forces when served in Vietnam.
“He had been wounded with shrapnel in the neck and knee. He was also a Purple Heart recipient but never filed for disability.”
Tom sat down and occupants returned to quiet contemplation.
Then a remarkable thing happened. The African-American lady stood and quietly stated, “The man before us is our friend, Charles.”
Tears welled up in her eyes. “Charles Newton Gower,” she said. “Yes, he has been living on the streets of Fresno, but that was his choice. Charles was adored by everyone with whom he came in contact. He gave freely of his time to numerous volunteer agencies and local organizations supporting our many homeless people.”
“After his wife died, Charles could have turned inward, shutting out the world, but instead, he reached out. When we offered him housing, he said, ‘No. Give it to someone else who is more deserving. I don’t need it as much as they.’
“Charles was selfless in his support to help-groups, strangers and even me. One time, when I became discouraged, he put his arm around my shoulder and cheered me up. Imagine that. With unyielding compassion, he was helping me with my problems.
“He consistently refused housing assistance for years – until his health began to deteriorate. Charles finally accepted the help he had shunned for such a long time. “Right up to the end, he was confident and caring; he helped us as his health allowed, until recently.”
She smiled. “He was an extraordinary, good-hearted man.”
The volunteer chaplain stepped forward and said a few words, read briefly from the Bible, and thanked the people in attendance. He said Charles would be interred at San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery, owned by the Department of Veterans Affairs near Santa Nella on July 23.
He will receive full honors during a particular service that is only performed four times annually. Those wishing to attend the service can inquire with the cemetery for the exact time.
We finally knew the corpsman’s full name, but more than that, learned what was important to him. Not quite what we expected. This man was no longer another soiled stranger from the streets of Fresno, but a sensitive human being.
Charles, it was an honor for me to recognize your service to our country, the community, and to know you helped so many people. Now I can say – I know you, Charles Newton Gower. Thank you for leaving everyone with a precious reminder: a legacy of goodness.
Larry Gamble is a founding member and former president and board member of the Business Organization of Old Town Clovis. He and his wife, Sylvia, moved to Clovis in 1963.