John Wesley Macklin, US Veteran, Baseball Player
J.W. Died Today
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Sunset Memorial was quiet that Saturday afternoon. I stood in the long shadow of a sprawling magnolia, alone, surrounded by a silence that seemed to stretch forever. Despite the heat I shuddered, realizing as I did that the temporary silence of my world was no match for the perpetual silence surrounding those who were interred here.
Suddenly, the sound of a vehicle shattered my somber mood.
The approaching truck, loaded with a single object, grumbled, rattled, and wheezed until it pulled to a stop alongside me. Mercifully, the driver killed the engine. I answered the question filling his eyes.
“Yes,” I said. “This is the spot.”
It took but a few minutes to unload and set the headstone; then the truck departed, still grumbling, rattling, and wheezing until it faded from sight. Again, silence settled around me.
I stared at this small token of respect, a marble slab bearing the name John Wesley Macklin. It had been eight months since his burial, eight months since his body had been found in a packing crate beneath an overpass on Interstate 4. Now he rested here, in a corner of the cemetery set aside for the indigent.
I’d said one goodbye to J.W. on the day he was lowered into the ground. Now I offered another. My eyes swept the deeply-etched letters spelling out his name and dates of birth and death, but my words, a heartfelt, final goodbye, were for him. As I spoke I clutched the metal tag that until today had served to mark his grave. The marker, once shiny and bearing only his name, was now streaked with rust—rust with embedded hues of orange and red, the same hues J.W. had used when he described a Key West sunset.
“I’m going back,” he once said of Key West. “When I’ve made my fortune, I’m going back home.”
I was working high-rise construction when I first set eyes on J.W. It was quitting time and I was packing up my tools, eager to put Work in my rearview mirror. He stood on the sidewalk fronting the property, assessing the array of discarded cans, bottles, and half-eaten sandwiches that littered the site.
His clothing was dirty and tattered, long beyond repair, and he was hovering over a grocery cart draped with a trench coat, one like make-believe detectives wear in the movies. My impression was that he was one of the many homeless sprinkled throughout the county. In the days to come I learned J.W. was indeed homeless, but he was not just one of the many, he was unique.
When the other tradesmen had departed, I walked over to where he was standing. I explained that a cleanup crew would arrive in a few minutes, but in the meanwhile he was free to pick up any items of interest. He muttered thanks and pulled a large shopping bag from the folds of the coat. I headed for my truck; he headed for the abundant litter. It was then I noticed his hobbling gait, a half step with one leg and a swing with the other. I was curious about his disability, but I was also looking forward to a cold, tall draft with a few of the guys to help wash this day into the history book. I drove away.
I was never sure of the other spots J.W. hit during his daily pilgrimage, but in the coming weeks he never failed to be at our site each day at quitting time, watching, waiting. Some might have called it pity, but I called it caring when during those same weeks my crew and I made sure he’d find a sandwich or two, a bag of cookies, and unopened soft drinks among the litter when he arrived. On one hand I looked forward to seeing him each day; on the other hand I knew it was only by the grace of God that I was not the one on the sidewalk, watching, waiting.
J.W. was reserved, a man of few words, but with a little prying he told me he’d been a Boy Scout as a kid, making it all the way to rank of Eagle. He played Little League ball, and after his school years he earned a position with a semi-pro club before moving on to the St. Louis Cardinals, a position he still held in 1942 when the Cardinals won the World Series, beating the New York Yankees 4 games to 1. He never spoke about his bad leg, and while I was curious, I didn’t ask.
Then, one day J.W. wasn’t there. Weeks passed. What had happened to him? My answer came at quitting time four months later. As I headed for my truck, someone called my name. I turned to see an elderly woman shuffling my way. When she reached where I was standing, she removed her glasses and dabbed at her eyes with a wadded piece of tissue. With head still bowed, she introduced herself as, Charlotte, J.W.‘s sister. “He spoke of you,” she said. “Told me I’d find you here.” Then she raised her head and looked me in the eyes. “J.W. died today.”
Charlotte continued to dab at her eyes; I wiped at mine. When the tightness in my throat eased, I expressed my regrets and told her of the few things J.W. had shared about his life—Eagle Scout, Little League, and World Series champ.
“Yes,” she said, “J.W. was all those things, but in 1942 war was raging and he was red, white, and blue to the core. He didn’t wait to be drafted; he enlisted in the Army. Told me there’d be plenty of time for baseball after the war.” She blinked away more tears and added, “But . . . fate was of another mind. He was on Guam, August of ‘44. A bullet shattered his knee.”
She went on to tell me that during the next twenty-five years he endured seventeen operations to repair his knee. All efforts failed. The VA doctors then wanted to amputate his leg and fit him with an artificial one.
“J.W. would have nothing of this,” Charlotte said. “He told me, ‘I came into this world with two legs and I’m going out the same way.’”
It was then I asked where J.W. had been in the last few months.
“Jail,” Charlotte said. “He stole a sandwich from a 7-Eleven store.”
Two days later I met Charlotte at the cemetery. After the two-minute service, she departed; I lingered until the ground’s crew finished filling the grave and setting the cheap, tin tag that would mark his final resting place.
I’d been saving for a new outboard engine for my bass boat, but that could wait. J.W. was dead. I couldn’t return the gift of life, but I could see to it that he had a proper headstone.
In the minutes before dusk, I gazed at a dark band of clouds on the Western horizon. The setting sun was now hidden, but its lingering rays, riding the rim of the clouds like a halo, were rich with hues of orange and red, the hues of a Key West sunset. J.W. would have liked that. I saluted his final resting place and walked away, back to my world.
That evening the TV news carried a story about ABSCAM, the sting operation ran by the FBI. Caught on camera, taking a bribe of $25,000.00 was Congressman Richard Kelly.
Stealing a sandwich and taking a bribe were both unlawful, but on judgment day I hoped God would cut J.W. some slack. Kelly stole because he was greedy, J.W. because he was hungry.