The Death of a Proud Soldier and a Humble Saint
by Derrick G. Jeter
My uncle Billy was a U.S. Marine’s Marine—he was a ramrod straight leatherneck and as tough as “Chesty” the bulldog. He even had a Marine Corps name: Billy Ray Spearman. From 1948 until 1969 he served in the United States Marine Corps, rising to the rank of Master Sergeant and seeing bloody combat in Korea and Vietnam. Like so many of his brothers-in-arms, he was reluctant to speak of what he saw and experienced during those tumultuous and dangerous years.
His mother and father were sharecroppers, growing cotton in Texas, when, according to family lore, at the age of 18 he said to Momma Pearl, “To hell with this, I’m joining the Marines.” He threw down his cotton sack and walked off the field and into a recruiting office.
Billy lived his life on his own terms. Whether it was riding his motorcycle to the Terlingua Chili Cookoff in the high desert of Bigbend in Texas or to the magnificent mountains of the Canadian Rockies, he came and went as he pleased. To me, Billy was, in many ways, the living character of Augustus “Gus” Mcrae in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Toward the end of the novel, Gus is lying in a doctor’s office with one leg amputated and the other one rotten with blood poisoning. Gus’s life-long friend and partner, Woodrow F. Call has come to see him and try to convince him to allow the doctor to remove the other leg. Gus will have none of it. “‘You don’t like to do nothing but sit on the porch and drink whiskey anyway. It don’t take legs to do that.’” “‘No, I also like to walk around to the springhouse once in a while, to see if my jug’s cooled proper,’ Augustus said. ‘Or I might want to kick a pig if one aggravates me. . . . I’ve walked the earth in my pride all these years. If that’s lost, then let the rest be lost with it.’”
Such pride was true of my uncle . . . at least, until the cancer struck. An extremely private man, he swallowed his pride one Sunday morning and called me with the news. He asked if I’d tell my mother, his only surviving sibling, because he didn’t think he could—it would be too painful for both of them. Mother was traveling in Israel at the time, and I didn’t want to tell her immediately after her arrival home, but she found out shortly thereafter and we began to talk of Billy’s spiritual condition. Neither of us knew if he had ever accepted Christ’s sacrifice for his sins, but we doubted it. Billy was only given three months to live, but we prayed that God would not take him until he had one more opportunity to hear of the love and grace of Christ, of Jesus’s ignoble death and victorious resurrection. We praise God because he not only heard the gospel once, he heard it three times—from a retired pastor hired by Billy to maintain his rental properties, from my father, and from my mother.
Billy died on April 15, 2009. He was sitting in his recliner at his lake house and his handyman was there, asking him if he’d had a chance to read the Scriptures. Billy hadn’t—reading tried him too much. So this gentleman read the Scriptures to him. Shutting his Bible, this retired pastor asked Billy if he believed in Christ’s death, as payment for his sins, and Christ’s resurrection, as proof for eternal life. And Billy, my leathernecked and proud uncle, said he had already done that—yes, he believed. Billy closed his eyes and immediately opened them in the presence of his Savior, with the Words of God echoing in his ears and his confession of Christ on his lips. Could there be any better way to shake off this mortal flesh and enter eternity than that?
The last time my mother saw Billy she showed him a bracelet I had given her for Christmas—it’s a service bracelet honoring his many years in the Marine Corps. When he saw her bracelet and heard the story of my curiosity about his rank and service years, and that I wear one exactly like hers, he said, in keeping with his character, “Well, I’ll be damned.”
No you won’t, Billy. You died a proud soldier and a humble saint.