"A Soldier Is Laid To Rest"
Celerino "Blackie" Castillo, Jr.
" A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers."
President John F. Kennedy,
October 26, 1963
They say America is loosing over a thousand World War II veterans a day. My father's time came on August 31, 2005.
A friend, Javier Cerda, once advised me that we should attempt to honor our fathers when they are still alive. Sometimes it is easier said then done. For several years I attempted to write about my father's war experiences. But time and time again, he refused to give his approval. Finally a few years ago, after reading my war chronicles, he decided to author his.
They say that you are the reflection of one of your parents. Mine happened to be my father, as you will see, in more way then one.
In my eyes, he was the bravest man I have ever known, not because he was my father, but because how he made a living with what little he got, and better yet, how he made of life by what he gave. His whole life was founded on integrity, discipline, respect, and what it took to be a true patriot. He went above and beyond in embedding those ideals to his children. Between my scoutmaster, the late Lorenzo Garcia, and my dad, I say they did an excellent job.
During World War II, my dad had been a United State Army Infantry Scout in the Philippines campaigns. One Saturday morning, he was order to be point man for his company. After a few hundred yards, he tried to warn his sergeant of a bad gut feeling. The usual bird chirping and jungle chattering were absent.
Nevertheless, he was ordered to proceed without delay. Suddenly, they were ambushed and my dad took six direct hits from machine gun fire. For almost two hours, he engaged the enemy the best he good, and at the same time, he tried to attend to his shredded body. He was evacuated and spent a couple of years in an Army hospital. Eventually, he recovered from his visible wounds and like most veterans at that time; he came back and graduated from high school.
After the war, he was employed by our United States government, the Hidalgo County Courthouse, and even coached a little high school football for the Hidalgo School District. But most significant, back in the late 60s and early 70s, for approximately ten years, he was a proud member of the Pharr - San - Juan - Alamo School Board. Education was of extreme importance to him and assured that all his children obtain a college education. We proudly did for the exception of my little sister, San Juanita who is Down Syndrome.
Here is one of many reasons why my father was an extraordinary man. According to his doctors, for the past several years, he had been diagnosed with several life- threatening illnesses. He had instructed the doctors not to inform us in regards to his illnesses. When questioned about his health, he would reply, "don't worry about it." He was protecting his family, of all things, of being concern for his health. As we suspected, my father had leukemia, emphysema, and had developed major heart complications.
Approximately a couple of months before his passing, as his only son, I had become persona nongrada because of my own political views and especially my writings (letters to the editor). After spending 20 years in drug enforcement, I had decided to change my career to a more progressive cause, a civil and human rights activist. My father was a much conservative individual from the old school, and definably did not agree with my political views.
A week before his passing, I took his once in a while advised, as he put it, "suck it up", and went to visit him at home. He was not very receptive towards me, but thanked me anyway for my visit. It was a whole 30-seconds. As adults, him and I never acknowledged (verbally) the words, "I love you". A couple of days later, his condition had worsened and had to be admitted into ICU. I made it a point to be there at 7:00 each morning to feed him his breakfast. I would then read to him from the newspapers. My father was an avid reader, which had made him into a military historian. He would at times, subscribe to over twenty magazines at a time. I would revisit to serve him lunch while my sisters, accompanied by my mom, would follow up for dinner. As most of you are aware, your ICU visits are limited. In bring peace between us; I had made it a point that every time I left him, with a lot of orgullo (pride), I would tell him that I loved him. He would only stare at me with his crystal blue eyes. My father was a very proud mestizo with hazel blue eyes. As you might have guessed, he never acknowledged those three words. However, a week earlier, my daughter Crystal BiAnca was the only one in our whole family that squeezed out an "I love you too" from him. On his second day in ICU, right after breakfast, he requested to see my mom. I told him that she was on her way to the hospital. I sneaked out and immediately returned with her. My dad had refused his lunch and kept talking about going back to work. My dad had recently (3 months) retired after working 30 years with the same law firm. We departed at 1:30PM and once again we assured him that we loved him very much. I remember my mother leaning over, kissing him on the forehead, and telling him, "I love you viejito." He looked at her with sad eyes and softly said, "OK." As we were departing, my mother assured me that my father would not survive the day. I guess after being married for over 50 years, she was still able to sense his feelings.
At 2:39PM, his nurse called me and told me that my dad had passed away. He had been caught seating on his dying bed pulling all life support from his body, arguing that he had to return to work. His final actions had initiated a massive heart attack. I hurried to the hospital and ran into his room thinking irrational, that maybe I could do something to bring him back. I suddenly observed his lifeless body lying there. Immediately my emotions got the best of me, and I, somehow, found myself knelling down and praying for him. I was thankful that earlier that morning, I had sent a hospital priest to comfort him in his final hours. My oldest sister Diana and my mother arrived. We gathered around and said a prayer for him.
My dad was 79 years of age and ironically enough, he had passed away the same day his father had. Within twenty-four hours, we had his wake. To our surprise, the chapel was completely full with folks of all walks of lives who had come to pay their last respects to "Don" Celerino. After the wake, I was approach by a child-hood friend of his, Mr. Octaviano Gonzales. Mr. Gonzales had asked a very sincere question. He had asked as to why no one had spoken on how patriotic my father was. I explained to him that we were respecting my father's wishes that he be buried as soon as possible and without a eulogy.
My father was buried with full military honors (V.F.W. 8788) and a very good friend of the family; Judge Ruben Ramos played taps for him. As taps was being played, I remember of the many times that I had stood next to him honoring other fallen veterans. His ranks had grown thin, and he had become one of the last of his veteran group to pass away, for the exception of his best friend Ruben "Zeppie" Rosales.
I've always described my father as the "Great Santini" (a war movie back in the 70s) full of patriotism. Our patriotism has been traced back to our ancestors, especially to a Mexican revolutionist by the name of Emiliano Zapata. All my dad's brothers served in our military and one paid the ultimate price. He was Juanito G. Castillo, the first Mexican-American killed in World War II from Pharr, Texas.
As his only son, he instructed, that I too, should pay my dues to my country by serving into the Unites States Army. His request was granted and I proudly served as an infantry Sgt. in Viet Nam.
I will miss my dad dearly especially on Veteran's Day and Memorial Day. And as far as I can remember, he made his patriotic presence in those events every single year. And on several occasions, with "muncho orgullo", I stood next to him because we were proud to be true Americans. As Veteran's day approaches, I'll pay tribute to my fallen hero, my dad, my jefito and our veterans.
I gave him homage at the end of his days and perhaps, just a simple headline in a paper will say, Our Country is in mourning, for a soldier died, but will never ever be forgotten.
"My honor is dearer to me than my life"
Cervantes: Don Quixote
Celerino Castillo, Jr. Presente!
Celerino "Cele" Castillo, 3rd
2709 North 28 ½ Street
McAllen, TX 78501