Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Warren Sparrow's Tribute to a Fallen Soldier

s The Weakly Reader
Volume. V, No. 2
Forest City, North Carolina
27 May 2019
Memorial Day: Why I Cried
To my Charlotte Central High Classmates, family and friends within a mouse-click from this
message, I send you greetings and good wishes on this Memorial Day. For reasons not clear to me, this
day of remembrance is more poignant than previous ones. Perhaps the reason for my more serious
reflection is because I went to the service with Mary Sandra in my new town which calls itself Small town
friendly. Deep roots. Forest City, NC, is true to its slogan.
With a population of approximately 8,000, Forest City reminds me of The Saturday Evening Post
covers. From 11 a.m. until noon today this town brought me to tears. Main Street was blocked off for
the event. Rows of white folding chairs, some tucked under and equally white temporary tent, were
mostly empty when we arrived 30 minutes before the start of the service. The effect of those rows of
white empty chairs was sobering, a reminder of the white crosses overlooking the beaches of Normandy.
As the 11 o’clock hour grew closer, the white chairs began to fill. People clustered on the
adjacent sidewalks. Parents brought their young children, a gratifying site to be sure. There was no
parade, no ice cream, no Cokes, only a bunch of serious-looking veterans about to do a serious job.
Smartly at 11 the program began when a retired Marine sergeant, resplendent in his ribbon-
adorned dress blues, gave the crowd a history lesson about Memorial Day. His military bearing got my
attention. His delivery and command of the facts inspired me. All the while the town’s large American
flag stood guard, flapping slightly against a cloudless Carolina Blue sky.
Set Pieces
Events like this one have some set pieces, i.e. the presentation of the Colors. Today the Marine
sergeant introduced the color guard, four members of a local high school Marine Junior ROTC program.
They looked too young for the part but they, like the sergeant, looked smart in their dress-blue uniforms.
The woman who sang the Star Spangled Banner did an excellent rendition, an uplifting one perfect for the
somber occasion.
The program moved along with a series of speeches by veterans, each one a story of
extraordinary sacrifice known personally to the speaker. During those speeches I was reminded of what
happened long ago and far away. Today, on this bright Monday morning in the town with “deep roots,”
the town that is “Small town friendly,” I cried. Here is why….
In June 1954 at the Charlotte Armory, Principal John Otts awarded diplomas to the graduating
seniors of Central High School. Mary Sandra and I were two of 300 seniors who received our diplomas
that night. Both of us were headed to college, Mary Sandra to Women’s College (now UNCG) and I to
Cow College (now NC State University).
Slide Rules and Drawing Kits
A third senior in our class had agreed to be my college roommate. In September 1954 we moved
into Owen Dorm Room 207, bought required slide rules and drawing kits, fully confident that we would
do well. After all, we had taken college algebra, solid geometry and trigonometry at Central High School.
Indeed we did well, making A’s on the weekly freshman math tests which were given every Saturday
Meanwhile, others from our Central Class of 54 were not doing so well. One of them was failing.
He said he was going to take the Naval ROTC exam, hoping to get a scholarship. If he got the
scholarship he would transfer to another school because State did not have a Navy program, only Army
and Air Force ROTC. Because State was a land-grant school, every student was required to be in one or
the other for the first two years. Juniors could opt out.
My roommate and I pondered what our classmate said, thinking it was odd that someone who was
doing poorly in school would think he could qualify for an academic scholarship. Nevertheless, we
agreed there was something to be said for taking the Navy exam.
This nationwide test was given throughout the country on the same day: Saturday. “Why not
take the exam?” we wondered. It would give us an authorized excuse to miss a Saturday morning math
quiz. By taking the exam in Charlotte, we could leave Raleigh Friday after class and go to a Central
basketball game that night. Perfect.
We executed the plan to perfection. We passed the exam. So what? Neither of us had given
much thought to leaving State. We were doing good, spit-shinning our Army ROTC shoes and making
A’s in math. Even though we had passed the exam, we had not been awarded a scholarship. All we had
done was go to a high school basketball game.
In a few days the proverbial plot thickened. The Navy scheduled us for physical exams in
Raleigh. My roommate and I shrugged. We not only shrugged but we knowingly did not show up.
Neither did we call the Navy to say we were not interested.
A day or two passed after we turned our backs on the Navy. My roommate and I were in our
room when the dorm counselor came to the door and said there was a phone call for my roommate. (The
counselor had the only phone on the hall.) My roommate went to the phone and returned, saying “It’s the
Navy wanting me to reschedule the physical.” He continued, “I told them I was not interested and they
want to talk to you.” Upon hearing this, my brain popped. As I walked down the hall toward the
counselor’s room, I thought, “This is an opportunity to stop worrying about my college expenses.”
When offered the opportunity to reschedule, I immediately said, “Yes.” At the physical, the
Navy chief petty officer who weighed me looked at the scale, looked at the rule book and said with a grin,
“Slim, you passed.”
Prepared to Leave State
Assured of the scholarship, I prepared to leave State after one year for Duke’s Naval ROTC
program. My roommate chose to stay at State. For the next three years, he flourished. He made good
grades, was a campus leader and was commissioned as an Army 2d lieutenant upon his graduation in June
1958. Smart, soft-spoken and unselfish, he became an Army helicopter pilot. Now I come to the part of
this tale that makes Memorial Day so important to me.
My roommate, my high-school friend whose steady hand guided me through my time at State,
was killed 30 May 1961 in Laos while flying a helicopter for Air America, an arm of the CIA. The US
government at first said he had crashed in bad weather. Later it was disclosed that he had as many of us
suspected been shot down.
How my roommate went from an Army helicopter flight instructor to CIA combat pilot in Laos
has never been clear to me. What is clear to me is he “paid the ultimate price.” His name is Charles H.
Mateer. He was Charlotte’s first casualty in the war in Southeast Asia. So there you have it. I cried
today and now you know why.
The Weakly Reader
Warren Sparrow, Editor and Publisher
165 Fox Run Road
Forest City, NC 28043