Nelson Turnbow, American Hero

He would never let you call him a hero in life. If you tried, he deflected credit to his “buddies” who did not return.

Born in Oklahoma, this American Hero grew up in the Dust Bowl of the Depression. Twice his family started to California to find a new life, twice they turned back, once in El Paso and once in New Mexico, to head for home. They lived in what we used to call a “shotgun shack,” ran a family diner. They nearly starved serving good, inexpensive food to others.

But, of course, he would say, he was no hero.

He played football and ran track in high school. All-State in football, holder of several Oklahoma state track and field records when he graduated, he paid the price to be the best he could be.

But, of course, he was no hero.

He volunteered for the United States Marines at the outbreak of WW II. He served as a forward artillery spotter, which meant he crawled through enemy lines after dark, dug a hole, crawled in and, at daybreak when the firing started, he visually adjusted artillery fire. He did this with the enemy all around him, on Guam and Iwo Jima. The closest he ever felt to death was while on light duty in the Solomon Islands. A fuel truck in a line of trucks erupted.  He ran down the line, warning the others, pulling men out of trucks, until he reached the end of the pier. He jumped into the ocean, dove deep and came up far enough in the harbor not to be burned to death.

But, of course, he was no hero.

He met his wife while on guard duty after he returned to the States. She worked on base, he was a Marine Guard. He told her one day he would not let her off base after work until she agreed to go out with him.

When he told me this story, I told him, “Nelson, I usually had to have a gun to get a date, too.”

And he laughed, that toothy, smiling, grin contorting in mirth. He was the kindest of men.

Nelson and Millie fell deeply in committed love, parting only at her death. He grieved for her every day after she died. He retold the story of her death day time and again, turning it over in his great heart, to see one more time if he might have done something more to will her into a longer life.

But, of course, he was no hero.

He returned to Oklahoma with his new wife. He played college football at a small college. Between the new GI Bill and his scholarship, he and Millie made it work.

He coached basketball in Llano, Texas. He took more than one team deep into the state playoffs. At the thirtieth, fortieth and fiftieth anniversaries of team accomplishments, surviving team members came to get him and forced him to attend the honors. Few weeks went by when one of his old players, now old men themselves did not call him. None ever passed through Brownwood without stopping to take him to coffee or a meal. Fifty years after they graduated, old men still called him  “sir.”

But, of course, he was no hero.

Nelson and Millie started their family. He had come to Brownwood to coach with Gordon Wood and became part of that legend. He coached basketball, again, and did well. He felt he was missing too much time with his family. He left coaching, stayed in teaching and drove charter buses around the nation, sacrificing his love of sports to provide time with his family.

But, of course, he was no hero.

Early in life, he turned his thoughts to the Christ, Jesus. In simple, but not simplistic faith, he made a commitment to Jesus that now stretches through life and time, into new life and eternity. He took the church as a loving place of service. The church looked at him and made him a deacon, a Sunday School teacher and an ecclesiastical leader.

But, of course, he was no hero.

He died on February 28, 2013, surrounded by family and friends who attended him to the last. Grown men cried at his passing.

And, you know, Heaven accepted him.

He is a hero there.

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