In my family, my generation was the first to make graduating from high school commonplace.
That is not to say that it is not a special event, even today. It is. But before us, graduation took on an almost mystical quality. And, marking the milestone was not about going out and trying to sneak some alcohol with friends. No, in our family, graduation was a celebration of…well, family. Relatives near and far would make a sincere effort to be there for the walk across the stage and the family gathering that followed.
Growing up, there was no one who had more faith in me and my potential than my Uncle Al. He would often say that he was going to be there when I graduated from high school. He pushed me and encouraged me more than anybody in my family. I remember wanting to make him proud so that he wouldn't think that faith was misplaced. Outside of my immediate family, he was the one person I wanted to be there at my graduation. Uncle Al was a truck driver. At the time, his job called for him to haul seed to Houston and haul fertilizer back.
"Never run empty," he would say. He was not exactly his own boss, so he was at the mercy of the truck's owner. Imagine my heartbreak when he told me that Thursday that he had to haul a load to Houston. My graduation was the next night. It probably broke his heart, too.
Uncle Al told me he would make it back, although we both new that chances of that happening were slim. I had gone with him to Houston a couple of times and the part of the trip that could slow down the drivers was the unloading. I don't remember exactly where it was, but the process involved getting in a long line of trucks that moved slowly. That is where many of the drivers would take cat naps. I was hoping against hope that the line would be short that day.
On graduation day, we all were excited. The Euresti and Chapa households were a flurry of activity. My brother Gary had graduated the year before, but it was still a big deal. Everybody got "dressed up" for the big night. Mom ironed my gold gown and I was looking pretty sharp. You could hardly tell that my tie was a clip-on. I had to be at the coliseum early, so someone went to drop me off. They would all be there later.
As "Pomp and Circumstance" began to play, we started filing in to the floor of the coliseum. Remember, this was before cell phones, digital photography or real-time video screens to give the audience a better look. We had decided on a general area where the family would sit, so I wouldn't have to scan the whole crowd looking for them. As I walked in, I looked up and saw them. It was a proud moment for all of us. But, something was missing, or rather someone. I really was not expecting Uncle Al to be there, but I had been hoping. I felt bad for him. I knew how much this night would have meant.
The speeches began. I am sure they were all heart-felt and inspiring. But, with all due respect to the speakers, I don't remember. The highlight of my night came when the last speaker was on. All of my family was sitting on the east side of the coliseum, but for some reason I was looking toward the west side. That is when I saw him. Uncle Al had driven straight to the coliseum area in his 18-wheeler and parked near a gas station about a half-mile away. He washed up as best he could and slipped into his white shirt and black pants. He probably ran that half-mile to try to make it in time. And, he did. Uncle Al saw me get my diploma from Lubbock High School.
Uncle Al was killed in a car wreck the next year. My mom's little brother took a big part of our hearts with him, especially mine. We all need people to believe in us to carry us through times when we doubt ourselves. Uncle Al was there for me, even after he died. I was I was in college when it happened. I didn't go through the college graduation ceremony. But if I had, I have no doubt; he would have been there.