The Last Almost of a Race
A Call to Honor Our Aging Elders
This past Sunday, I visited my 89-year-old uncle Melvin Holden in ICU at a San Antonio hospital. Though in critical condition, he recognized me through all the tubes and wires that criss-crossed around his ailing body. Rallying from his weakness, he said, “It’s good to see you, youngster,” and then asked with a smirk if I’d made the trip to see him “‘cause [I] heard there was going to be a foot race.”
Not spotting a racetrack nearby, I answered that I’d love to have a foot race with him, but I wasn’t sure if the doctors and nurses would let him break free from his bed to stage a race in the hospital hall.
He smiled in response, and after talking for a few more minutes, he asked me if any of our older relatives had come with me to see him. Though some older family members had visited with him before I arrived, I explained to him that none of them were with me then.
I saw a wistful sadness enter his eyes when I said this. He was clearly grateful for my visit, as his spirits were lifted when I came to his bedside, yet I could tell that he missed the company of the “old timers” as he liked to call them — most of whom have long since died.
Uncle Melvin then began to tire, yet mustering a little strength, he said with a smile, “Watch out for that weather out there,” at which point his eyes closed, and he drifted off to sleep.
Uncle Melvin died today after an extended bout with cancer, and his testimony of Christ gives hope that he’s now rejoicing with many of the “old timers” he shared adventures with as a boy and knew as a young man.
This sobering hospital visit, coupled with the death on Saturday of evangelical leader Chuck Colson at age 80, reminded me that we are fast losing the generation whose lives were forged in the Great Depression — men and women with unique experiences, insights, and memories, which to us seem removed and distant, but to those of this generation still living, remain fresh, real, and precious. They feel a special kinship with those of their time who went through “the depths of the Great Depression,” to use my grandfather Dewey Holden’s oft-invoked phrase. While Colson was on the tail end of this spectrum, he regularly testified that his parents’ challenges during the Depression defined his outlook and drove him to work hard as a young man.
Yet today there are only small numbers of this generation left among us.
Sam Houston: “I Stand the Last Almost of a Race”
Reflecting on this sea-change, I was reminded of the last years of Sam Houston’s life. Though his defeat of Santa Anna’s army at San Jacinto in 1836 had made him internationally famous, by the middle 1850s, Houston seemed almost lost, as nearly all those he had lived and fought great battles with during his younger years were gone from the stage of history.
As a young man, Sam had spent time with Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette, and he had been mentored by Andrew Jackson, who was twenty-six years his senior. Houston’s peers included statesmen such as John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster — all of whom passed away by the end of 1852; while the aging Houston witnessed much younger men, such as Alexander Stephens and Abraham Lincoln, rise on the scene as a new breed of national leaders. Sam came to know and to have dealings with these younger men, but they were not the comrades he’d waged campaigns with in the prime of his life — and they were a far cry from the white-haired Founding Fathers he had known and benefited from as a young man.
This reality led Houston to lament that he was “the last almost of a race.”
Houston’s sinking loneliness was a prick God used to lead him to the cross. He knew that Andrew Jackson had become a Christian before he died, and it pained Sam to consider never seeing “Old Hickory” again — a point that Houston’s devout and godly wife Margaret urged him to take to heart, appealing to Sam to flee to the Savior. And so did the victor of San Jacinto: In the twilight of his years, Sam Houston — the old warrior with many battle scars — submitted his life to Christ and was afterwards baptized in Rocky Creek outside Independence, Texas.
Sam’s final few years were bittersweet — sweet with the joys of a newly-birthed faith, but bitter with strife as he saw the country he loved rent by an uncivil war. Like Robert E. Lee, Sam Houston was offered a command by Lincoln to lead a large Union army; and similar to Lee, Houston refused, burning Lincoln’s secret letter in his fireplace, even as he resigned his post as Governor of Texas. Initially opposing the Confederacy due in part to personal qualms he had with Jefferson Davis, Houston later actively recruited young men to serve in the Confederate army, which prompted his son Sam, Jr. to enlist, with the younger Houston later sustaining serious wounds at the Battle of Shiloh.
Due to his initial opposition to the Confederacy, Houston was largely ignored during the War Between the States and died in relative obscurity at his home in Huntsville, Texas on July 26, 1863, as the conflict between North and South still waged with furor.
Honor and Remembrance: The Powerful Model of Andrew Jackson Houston
Sam Houston’s exploits, and the travails that his fellow comrades endured under Mexican oppression, were not forgotten, however, thanks in large part to the efforts of Sam’s younger son, Andrew Jackson Houston. Only nine years old when his father died, young A.J. loved his father’s stories and took great pains to preserve the memory of the generation of patriots who secured Texas’s independence from Mexico.
A.J. served as Superintendent of the San Jacinto Battleground State Park from 1924 until his death. And in 1938 — 102 years after his father defeated Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto — A.J. published Texas Independence, a 300-page book he wrote on the Texas Revolution which includes numerous original paintings and maps of events from the war which he personally created for this special memoir.
Andrew Jackson Houston passed away on June 26, 1941, less than six months prior to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. At his death, the 87-year-old son of Sam Houston left a powerful model to the world of how to honor the struggles of a generation of men, even as young men such as Melvin Holden and Chuck Colson were wrestling through their own challenges during the Great Depression.
A Mandate for Action: Honor the Hoary Head
God’s word commands us to “rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man” (Leviticus 19:22). The men and women of the Great Depression who yet remain with us are truly “the last almost of a race.” If we are to be faithful Christians, it is critical that we let the aged know that — though they may have lost most of their old comrades and their life-long sweethearts — we care greatly about their past and appreciate the battles they fought before we were born.
We must do more than abide their eccentricities and humor their story-telling. We must truly honor the white-haired elders among us by endeavoring to understand the unique challenges they endured. With loving regard, we must convey to them that the memories dear to their heart from decades ago are deeply precious to us. Though we did not drink of their experiences with them, we must let them know that we will mingle their memories and wise insights into our own cup of life.
And if their hearts fail for lack of hope, we must point them to Christ so that they can join the faithful “old timers” in glory — where all of the redeemed will, one day, sup together with God for eternity.