Remembering Dad on Memorial Day
The Day MacMusic Died...
The news froze me. Right in the doorway of my college theater professor's home. We were holding play rehearsal at his house, a reading.
My uncle, the Rev. Tom Stone, served as director of admissions at my alma mater at the time. My Aunt Jean, one of mother's three sisters, joined Unc in locating me at the prof's house, and they rang the doorbell. The prof called me out of the group to the door.
"Mac," my uncle said, "is dead."
Car wreck. He was passenger in a car that hit a steer standing on a highway in Mexico.
How ironic. A career military warrant officer, my father served in the Philippines during the last part of WWII, in Saudi Arabia, and in Korea during the height of that war. Late in his career he transitioned into military diplomatic corps duty and served in Malaysia and Mexico. In between, Missouri and Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Upon his death, he was assigned to the military attache at the American Embassy in Mexico City. I last saw him at my wedding 10 weeks earlier.
We buried CWO Murray Willard McKenzie, known affectionately by all as Mac, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in November 1964. He was 2 months short of age 45, and had served nearly 20 years in military service.
Through his career, I was blessed with an opportunity to attend high school for three years in Kaiserslautern, Germany, and to attend an academic year at the University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.
During Memorial Day weekend I dug out of a storage box a boatload of photos he sent from Korea, and photos we shot in Malaysia. There was even one from Saudi Arabia. I think. It's so faded....
But the memories fade not. The memories remain vivid. I recall my father mostly in two uniforms -- one on duty, and one on the baseball or softball diamond. Or in a bowling team shirt.
Stemming from his various Army duties, one as the equivalent of an athletic director, we had wonderful experiences tied to athletics. We got to take trips to places like Chicago traveling with the Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., volleyball team. We went to places like Switzerland with the military bowling team.
The fort's baseball team when I was batboy was managed by major leaguer Whitey Herzog, who went on to become one of the great major league managers of all time. One game was against a team from Camp Carson managed by another guy who became famous in MLB later, Billy Martin.
Good story: one hot summer weekend the Ft. Wood team had games scheduled, but wanted to go to nearby St. Louis and see the Cardinals at Sportsman's Park. Commander wouldn't allow it. So, during the night before the weekend games, Whitey & his players snuck out, got hoses, and flooded the baseball field. The games had to be called off, and everybody enjoyed a Griesedieck Brothers beer at the Cardinals doubleheader.
Another good story: when we came back from Germany, Whitey Herzog was playing outfield for the Kansas City Athletics. He met us for pizza, and we went in his new Edsel. (Twenty years later, when he was manager of the KC Royals, he told me, "Wish I still had that car.") At dinner he told Dad and me that the A's had just traded for an outfielder from the Cleveland Indians who was good enough to become a legend, even though he was just 23 years old at the time. Great arm from right field, Whitey said, and great stroke at bat. "He's capable of hitting more home runs than Babe Ruth did." Three years later, after a trade to the New York Yankees, Roger Maris hit 61 home runs to top Ruth's record.
Attached to the American Embassy, we had countless amazing experiences in Kuala Lumpur during a time that a nation was forming around it. I got to play basketball and to shot put in athletics at the Asian University Games in Hong Kong. We taught softball in clinics for the cricket-playing schools of K-L, staged baseball exhibitions, played sports with residents of a leper colony through the International Red Cross, and scrimmaged basketball against the Malay national team during its practice for the Asian Games under legendary coach John McLendon. We learned to play cricket and bocce. Golfed with a lefty New Zealand champion named Bob Charles. And, once, traveled to Penang, an amazing island, to compete in rugby football with characters from England, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere.
Looking back, there's little question that these experiences set the table for pursuing a career in sports journalism. A tattered, yellowed letter from my Dad to my grandparents during our years in Germany said, "The kid can write. I think he's got a future in writing."
Dad didn't talk about war. Most veterans from those days didn't. Still don't, generally, what precious few remain.
I remember two distinct conversations with Dad about war. Both took place in quiet places, very briefly, in our house in Kuala Lumpur. I was a green college student, taking a year away, absorbing new and startlingly different cultures in a melting pot of Malay, Chinese, Indian, British; Catholic, protestant, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Shintu. Studying India and SE Asian history. Learning Sanskrit. Experiencing the Philippines, South Vietnam, Malaya, Singapore, Thailand, Japan. My best friends were named Foo Mun Hoy and Cherif Sedky and Lee and Kok and Singh.
Dad told me in separate conversations:
1. "You're going to read about U.S. military advisors in Vietnam. They're more than advisors. Don't let anybody tell you any different, we're involved in a war there." (3 years later the U.S. deployed combat troops)
2. "I fought in two wars so that you and Ralph (his son, my brother, by a second marriage) won't have to."
Otherwise, I have just photos of bridges and helicopters and tented military villages in Korea, and a few letters from Saudi Arabia. And a bushel basket of memories.
In those, MacMusic, like old soldiers, never dies. And contrary to the song, they don't fade all that much, either.