National holidays tend to bring out the most annoying personality traits of the mirror-imaged two sides — the liberals and the conservatives — that clutter the public discourse of this country. Sadly, I have a tendency to get caught up in that song and dance, too. But this misses the real opportunity that any holiday brings: a chance to recall stories, lives, and lessons, rooted in the person, not the ideological accoutrements.
HERE IS A SHORT STORY AND TRIBUTE about my Tio Meme, Manuel Ramirez, who fought in the Vietnam War for a few years and then taught for decades, as a welding instructor in the vocational education program of a small high school in South Texas, before retreating to live the good life, with his wife, my Tia, filled with the simple pleasures and pastimes of a well-earned retirement.
He is my father’s biological brother, which is why we do not share a last name. Ramirez, not Rocha. Both adopted. Truth be told, both of these names are placeholders for a missing (grand)father, which tells the early, and perhaps most difficult, part of the story.
My Tio is refreshingly sensible and honest — and above all direct and hilarious — about his motivations to join the military and his experiences there. Out of respect for him, and since I don’t have time to do an interview or any proper journalism, I will not rehearse the details. Suffice it to say that the realities of war are not as simple or easy as we like to think, which makes that part of the story all the more fascinating.
After the war, and because of his military service, my Tio was afforded the ability to teach vocational education classes at a local high school, in addition to his own private work as a welder. Over the years I’ve seen and heard the impact of his life’s work as an educator.
What is most striking to me is how teachers like my Tio Meme are all too rare today. He didn’t have any specialized teaching training or a college degree. His most powerful pedagogical tool was, and is, his love. Love for his craft and his students. He doesn’t fit the bland stereotype of a high school teacher either. Nonetheless, he gave dozens of young people, especially young men, the skills to become welders. He gave them more than technical skills, he gave them a vocation and an art.
He is decidedly apolitical, but not apathetic, and practical.
He began as a veteran of war, but ended his formal career as a veteran teacher — a soldier who became a teacher, an artist.
There are rich lessons rooted in his story: lessons about education, as opposed to mere schooling; lessons about a lost son who goes to war, faces death and danger, and returns to find a wife and a home — and a life of real, transformative work.
This is not a story of facile peace-making; nor is it a story about bellicose freedom fighting. There are wounds and complications. This is a real, human story that conceals as much as it reveals, and has not yet ended. My Tio is one of the greatest lovers of dance, music, and drink I have ever known.
I am proud of my Tio. Proud of his search and journey that found him behind a rifle and, later, behind a student wielding a welding bead.
Along with many other veterans I know, I want to thank my Tio for his service as a veteran, teacher.