Veterans Day 2018, marking the 100th anniversary of World War I’s conclusion, seemed a dismal occasion. The threat of wind, rain and chill was enough to cancel Monday’s Veterans Day Parade in downtown Waco out of concern for the health of not only the 4,000 or so parade participants — some of them advanced in age — but its many spectators. And an ocean away, President Trump canceled his Saturday plans to pay respects to U.S. war dead at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in Belleau, France, because of the inclement weather.
Given this drab state of affairs, local Vietnam veteran Bill Mahon, 67, got up Sunday and decided to mount a one-man parade down Austin Avenue that afternoon, complete with wheelchair, U.S. flag and genuine WWI combat helmet. He cruised from 11th Street to Heritage Square. And he put aside bail money in case he got pinched for parading without a permit or violating traffic ordinances.
“This is the 100th anniversary of World War I,” he told me. “With four and a half million Americans serving in World War I and over 100,000 killed, I absolutely refuse to let them and every veteran since then be forgotten on the day they’re supposed to be remembered. I mean, the weather tomorrow and all that, I understand the safety issue and the parade being canceled. But we have had this parade in ice storms, snow storms, we’ve had it in pouring rain and we’ve had it in 90 degrees. And, by golly, somebody’s going to remember.”
For the record, Bill’s grandfather served in WWI aboard a steamboat destroyer.
I might have skipped this footnote affair had it not involved Bill Mahon. I share the enormous respect many in Central Texas have for Bill. Besides serving in the Army from November 1968 through January 1989, he helped lead the fight against closure of what was then known as the Waco Veterans Affairs Medical Center more than a decade ago. He also served as our county veterans service officer.
He made clear to me that his one-man parade in no way questioned the McLennan County Veterans Association decision to cancel the regular parade: “Oh, no, I respect the leadership decision. I said this to them the other day, ‘We didn’t go and put ourselves in harm’s way to go home and put everyone else in harm’s way.’ And I’m certainly not mad about it. This is my decision.”
Nor did he suggest everyone who’s patriotic needs to parade down Austin Avenue on Nov. 11: “I’m doing this as an individual. I’m doing this as an American patriot. The message I want others to know is that they can do it as an individual. They don’t have to have a parade. They can go to the veterans park in Lacy Lakeview. They can go and put a flower at the gate of the VA hospital. They can make a little effort as an individual and that would suffice.”
As Sunday afternoons go in Waco, even in an era when downtown shops are open, serving tourists inspired to visit by TV’s “Fixer Upper,” Bill’s march down Austin was uneventful. Children marveled and pointed, an occasional motorist honked in salute (only one or two dared to drive around him) and, finally, a police cruiser quietly slipped behind his motorized wheelchair to cover his rear the final few city blocks.
Meanwhile, Bill talked of the dimensions of the massive U.S. flag topping the old ALICO building — and how much it weighs when wet, something with which he became familiar while working security there. He talked of Vietnam, where he served in the armored cavalry. And he dismissed the idea that our nation is as divided today as 50 years ago: “In the 1960s, while we had men on the battlefield, we had demonstrations nationwide on college campuses and at airports and on city streets. We had riots. And the riots then were real riots.”
And Bill voiced disappointment in today’s intense polarization, so much of it simply partisan: “I don’t think every Republican thinks every Democrat is lying, conniving, thieving and murdering and I don’t think every Democrat thinks every Republican is a fascist, though that’s the rhetoric on the Internet. And this word nationalism that gets thrown around — I should be able to walk down here and say I’m proud to be an American without having to argue about it. That’s my basic definition of nationalism, pride in country. If there’s more to it than that, I’m not aware of it.”
I asked what global situation he dreaded most for today’s volunteer Army: Continuing chaos and bloodshed in the Mideast, a nuclear North Korea or dissolution of NATO. And this is where the old Cold War combatant parted ways with his president, whom he has otherwise supported.
“I served nine years on that East-West German border, face to face, patrolling against the Russians, the Czechs and the East Germans. If NATO comes apart and the Soviet bloc were ever to get back together, we would have created such a mess for this country. It takes us a long time to do anything and it would take too many meetings to make a quick decision to reassemble [NATO or a similar defensive network]. But for the Soviet side, it would be easy for them to get back together if NATO was taken apart. They would have nothing to fear.”
The police cruiser went on its way as Bill pulled up into a parking lot near Heritage Square after a 15-minute parade. Sister Joan and her husband Mark, who live in Woodway, plus two others in tactical support, discussed getting something to eat. Bill could rest easy. Among so many other things, he had now ensured a Veterans Day Parade did occur in Waco in 2018, marking Armistice Day and a war far from easy comprehension, even as the crusty veteran worried of new dangers to come.