The first time I realized that it’s really not a crime to smile, or even chuckle, at a solemn occasion was before my father’s funeral several decades ago. Visitation at the funeral home was somewhat hectic, with lots of people stopping to visit. My mother hadn’t seen some of them for years; I hadn’t seen some of them since childhood.
The death of a loved one or a cherished friend is never easy to accept, I think, but under the best circumstances, these difficult times become a celebration of the life that was lived and the time we had to share. When the ritual is approached from that standpoint, recollections of happy events and days are inevitable — and those remembrances can prompt smiles, if not laughter.
This realization for me came toward the end of that visitation, when our immediate family had an opportunity to catch our collective breath.
Mother asked my sister and me if either of us knew the man who had been sitting quietly on a chair near the door of the visitation room, as far from the casket as he could get. We didn’t know him. Politely, Mom approached the man, and asked him how he knew her husband.
He said he used to work with Dad on the railroad, and wanted to pay his respects. Sitting there during visitation was the way he felt he could do that.
The only problem was, my father never worked for the railroad. The man was in the wrong room. He quickly stepped out, and looked around anxiously for the room where his former coworker might be found. As Mother told us what had happened, she chuckled, and said that Dad would have found that really hilarious. As that began to sink in, we couldn’t help ourselves. Our laughter must have puzzled the handful of funeral home staff milling about.
I thought of that moment while reading Steve Nash’s article Wednesday about the Brownwood firefighters having “good moments, bad moments” as they alternately reflected on the times they shared with B.J. Carnes and then pondered the fact that memories are all they’ll have from now on.
The community turned out in a huge way Wednesday afternoon to pay tribute to this young — and from my perspective, 38 is very young — firefighter who passed away decades too soon. Even though he didn’t die in the line of duty, family and friends pooled their resources to provide an incredible tribute. The number of mourners grew to include several hundred who probably didn’t know the Carnes family and who otherwise might not have been there, but chose to attend out of respect for the job he did in the Brownwood Fire Department, and for his willingness to serve the community.
As Bill Crist wrote that same day, this emotional outpouring by the community was a tribute not only to B.J. Carnes, but also to every firefighter who stands prepared to charge into a burning building to save someone’s life and protect someone’s property.
Some may say “they’re only doing their jobs,” but they are heroes nevertheless, even on the days their jobs don’t require them to be one.
We have heroes in other walks of life, as well.
For example, at the same hour on the same day, at another Baptist church a few miles away from the Carnes service, a separate crowd assembled to say farewell to another man who is hero to many of us. Paul Palmer is the name that for years has immediately come to mind when Central Texans think about the Lions Club. He was a 50-year member of the Early Lions Club, but he was a strong supporter of Lions club events through this county and beyond. He was past president of the Texas Lions Camp and past district governor, and was the ultimate ambassador for Lions Club charities — especially since his retirement from the Post Office. I can’t count the number of people who share an appreciation of Paul’s kindness and caring nature.
The list of heroes goes on and on. Many of us may have been traveling over the Fourth of July — I certainly was — and missed the services here for Robbie Sepolen. She lived to be 105, but don’t we always hope for just another year to treasure someone like this. A member of the first class to graduate from the Brownwood Colored High School in 1918, later to become the Rufus F. Hardin High School, “Gran” worked as a teacher, librarian and an aide in Brownwood schools. In retirement, she taught arts and crafts to senior citizens centers in Washington and California, and was honored at numerous events held in Austin, Houston, Round Rock, Leander, Galveston and Brownwood — including a celebration last August at Emmanuel Chapel United Methodist Church here.
If our community is a family, and I like to think it is, our family has had a rough month so far. We’ve lost not only some respected family members, but we’ve also lost others who we were convinced had much more left to give. In our grief, though, we can reflect on some treasured good times… and perhaps hazard a smile at the memories they left behind.
Gene Deason is editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.