Carlos Tovar cheated death nearly 53 years ago as an infantryman in the U.S. Army. The young Sabinal High School graduate served his country on the ground in Vietnam, where weeks before a land mine killed his comrades – and nearly claimed his life, too – he leapt onto a Viet Cong armed with a grenade to contain the threat.
Just over one week ago, after a life of service – in the military, law enforcement, and to his family and friends – Carlos’ creator called him home, leaving his wife, Florinda, and daughters heartbroken by the loss of their fiercest protector.
On Tuesday morning, he was laid to rest at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio. There, his friends gathered around his family as his great-niece tearfully read her grandmother’s words about how Carlos, who became family when he married her sister, tended the needs of his family and friends throughout his life. His great-niece, through her grandmother’s eyes, described how he cared for his ailing father-in-law without complaint, and how he helped her own family while taking care of his wife and children.
Afterward, before his mourners were shooed on their way in advance of the next service, those who loved him shared their favorite Carlos stories. It was the same scene as the day before, when hundreds of people filled St. Patrick Catholic Church in Sabinal and afterward swapped memorable tales.
My favorite Carlos memory is an interview – one of two I was fortunate to conduct – my dad set up for me after Carlos’ Texas 2 Step quick-pick matched the five winning numbers for a drawing in 2009. I was losing a battle against a raging cold virus and didn’t want to leave my house, but I trudged across Sabinal to my dad’s, where the trio of Carlos, Tony Garcia, and David Bailey were insulating themselves against the November chill with even colder beer.
I forgot about feeling ill as the Carlos and Bailey show included a comical step-by-step retelling of the store run in which they acquired the lucky ticket and the day after, when Bailey was on a mission to learn who in Sabinal bought that ticket. He had already checked his numbers, and it wasn’t him.
Sentence by sentence, punctuated by a combination of knee slaps, laughs, big grins, and the stamping of a boot, they told the story without one ever talking over the other. They described calling my dad after realizing Carlos’ ticket was the ticket. “‘I’ll be over,’ is what he said,” said Bailey. “But he never showed up. I don’t think he believed us.”
With my dad’s love of music and Carlos’ penchant for singing and guitar-playing, the pair became fast friends after a chance encounter more than 16 years ago.
Months ago, during our second interview, for a story about how he earned a Purple Heart and medal of valor for his actions during the Vietnam War, Carlos told me bashfully about two memorable skirmishes. The first, which had him tossing an Air Force member out of an open first-floor window, earned him the punishment of a pass off base and into Nashville, Tennessee, in the days before his military discharge, and the second garnered him a badge as a sheriff’s deputy when the sheriff appreciated how Carlos – a licensed peace officer who was working as a ranch hand – handled a domestic squabble in a bar.
The stories add evidence to his reputation for not backing down from a fight. It’s the same way he protected his fellow man when faced with an armed aggressor in Vietnam.
His great-niece, relaying her grandmother’s eulogy, described Florinda’s devastation when she received the call erroneously notifying her of Carlos’ death as a result of that land mine that wiped out his platoon. They were high school sweethearts when he was drafted for war.
One of the first things Carlos told me when we started talking about a feature story relating his combat experiences was that a priest was administering last rites over his shrapnel-riddled body. “I was thrown in [with the deceased] and a priest was giving everyone last rites, but he said, ‘This man is still alive.’”
“Today, Carlos got his second last rites,” my dad relayed, subdued, on June 18, one day before Carlos died at age 74. “His first was in Vietnam in 1966.”
It was too much to hope that this time, like before, the prayers were premature.
Whether it was from the experience of nearly dying and winning back his life or just his God-given attitude, Carlos’ public persona was unfailingly upbeat. He surrounded himself with the people he loved most in the world and packed his days with memorable experiences. Even when discussing his war service, Carlos found the good: the delight of Vietnamese children with whom the Americans shared their candy; hot food served on the base; and great friends.