On the Tarmac

My heart skips a beat each time I see this picture. It is a personal memory. I was there. I knew the men saluting, I knew the photographer. Most importantly, I knew the man in the casket.

I witnessed the end of a fifty-one year American tragedy in Austin over two perfect spring days, April 6-7, 2017.

The remains of Air Force Capt. Robert Russell “Bear” Barnett came home for burial … fifty one years to the day … after his death. I adored Russell, so I did as his family asked. I spoke at the gravesite and, at their request, joined them on the tarmac. I hadn’t seen the family in fifty-one years, but I was instantly at home.

We were a small group: only five people who knew Russell assembled that morning: his former wife, Betty Sue, their two daughters, D’Lynn and Debra, his sister Janie and I were all that remained.

I may have been the flower girl in his wedding, but he was the best man in my childhood.

Click here for the backstory. It only takes a few minutes. Be prepared to cry.

We gathered at the funeral home, Weed-Corley-Fish in Austin. We depended on the support of our families, and soon our huddle grew. By the time all was said and done, I felt the pride of my country, and of my beloved Texas, had granted the family peace. I went to comfort. I left with a shiny red, white a blue bow tied around my once-tattered childhood. I see my world differently.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

On April 7, 1966, Russell and his co-pilot, Capt. Tom Walker, flew their two-man, B57b Canberra bomber out of Da Nang and along the steamy Ho Chi Minh trail. A gifted pilot, Russell was on his third tour in Vietnam. Due home in a couple of weeks, he and his former wife, Bettye Sue, planned to remarry on his arrival. His third tour fractured their marriage. Certain of their love for each other, they’d decided to move forward, together, with their daughters. D’Lynn was eleven, and Debra was nine. He’d repair the damage his service caused.

Except he didn’t come home.

Other pilots saw his plane take heavy fire and crash into a jungled mountainside in Laos.  There were no parachutes. He and his co-pilot, Capt. TomWalker, were listed as “Killed in Action. Body Not Recovered.”

KIA. BNR. How brutal to be reduced to a few letters.

His death devastated many. It killed any remnants of my childhood still left at nineteen. I learned the hard way that Memorial Day didn’t celebrate the end of the school year. I came of age with a tragedy, not a first love. To this day, I’m not wild about adulthood.

Russell still lives in my memory. For that I am grateful.

Down the years, life got messy. The trajectory of my life took me far from the Barnetts. In 1968, I married a man who put grad school on hold to work in a refinery. That job kept him out of the expanding maw of Vietnam. Our daughter grew up without reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every morning at school. Serving one’s country became massively un-cool.

But dammit, Russell “Bear” Barnett was a real, honest-to-God American hero. He grew up in a modest, God-fearing East Texas farm family. He played football at Baylor, married his college sweetheart,  fathered two girls, and died for his country.

If that isn’t a hero, I’d like to know what is.

I idolized him because he was, quite simply, heroic. During my childhood, he lifted me up; he encouraged me to dream, to do what I feared. Each time I told one of my little patients, “You’re a Texan, and Texans dream big dreams,” I honored him.

It’s quite lovely, actually, to have a childhood hero. It’s something else entirely to have the country, the State of Texas, and the City of Austin all validate my choice.  I am gobsmacked by that.

Our two days in Austin were sparkling, cool, and dry. That trifecta is rare in Texas, but Russell’s life was a rarity:  he lived, and died, in “the deep, thunderous blue” of flight.

I marveled at how little — and how much — the five of us had changed. His sister Janie has snowy hair; Betty Sue, his beautiful bride, needs a wheelchair. His older daughter, D’Lynn, was the first baby I ever held. She’ll be on Medicare shortly. The younger daughter, Debra, has grown children and a full life.

Debra missed out when it came to her daddy. She was just nine when he died, and he’d been away for three years. She honored him by planning the services with the aplomb and precision one associates with the British royal family.

I felt the flow of time. Once the flower girl in their wedding, I could remember myself as a child, a young adult and now? I’m a grandmother to nearly-grown boys. I had a lot to process.

The funeral home cars drove us to a staging area off the tarmac at Austin-Bergstrom airport. We met up with the honor guard, and an Austin motorcycle police escort. A Vietnam Veterans group on motorcycles also showed up to honor Russell’s return. We were held aloft by the strength of strangers.

It took decades of work … by hundreds to people … to bring Russell home. Each step was difficult. Getting permission from the government of the Lao People’s Republic was difficult. Then accessing the site on the side of a jungled mountain was hard. Excavating an area the size of a football field on that slope was hard.

Over the years, recovery teams identified the plane by serial numbers on metal fragments. Artifacts helped; they found a sole from a boot in Russell’s size and a lighter. The recovery of his co-pilot’s dog tags was poignant; I’m sure his family treasures them. Positive identification requires something biologic; a molar matched his dental records. DNA wasn’t necessary. After fifty-one years in the jungle, a positive identification approaches a miracle.

A gentle man, Ruben Garza, came from Dover Air Force Mortuary Services. He co-ordinated Russell’s return from Joint Base Hickam-Pearl Harbor with grace and dignity.  Imagine the wealth of our nation: we have people whose life’s work is to leave no one behind. He made sure the Swiss watch of “full military honors” ticked over appropriately.

In case you don’t know it, the military has a protocol for everything. It is comforting in times of loss. One rule is that no fallen soldier travels alone, so Col. Peter Gadd, USMC, a family friend, escorted the casket from Hawaii.

As we convoyed to the gate, I saw the American Airlines plane holding on the taxiway for gate 14. It seemed just beyond my touch; silver, solitary, and majestic in noontime sun. Then it glided under a water salute provided by Austin Fire Department tankers.  The plane gleamed; the sunlight danced in the mist. Water dripped off the fuselage like tears of pride. American Airlines even had red, white and blue stripes along the side of the plane. It could not have been more perfect in a movie.

We stood on the tarmac. People inside the airport watched. Protocol says Russell’s casket deplanes first, so passengers waited, many watching from the windows to witness a bit of history. The tarmac was quiet; ground crews stood at attention. No jets left the area; I heard no engines speeding others into the sky that Russell loved.

Col. Gadd, a friend of the Barnett family, appeared on the tarmac. How he got from the plane to the ground I never knew. He stood with us until the hatch opened underneath the word “American” and a flag-draped casket appeared.

He, and every other military person, saluted in the slow gesture one to honor the fallen. We civilians, put our right hands over our full-to-bursting hearts.  The honor guard appeared.

The rituals were old; only the setting was new.

The flag-draped casket came slowly down the ramp. Its awful beauty hurt my eyes. The pride of the men at attention framed my sorrow. There should be a word for grief plus pride. I mourned Russell’s lost life. I celebrated his return.

In a slow march, young airmen bore the casket precisely into the hearse. We got back into the cars for the ride to the funeral home. Ground crews saluted as we passed their gate. Air cargo handlers stood and saluted as we passed them, hundreds of yards away from the gate.

Austin traffic came to a stop as we made our way back to the funeral home. How many people worked to bring him home? How many people stopped their lives for a moment to honor him?  I have no idea, but I was buoyed by their presence. I hope his family was.

Once back at the funeral home, I knew there would be only a dress uniform in the open casket. I still wasn’t prepared. It telescoped me back to my childhood. The shade of blue was was achingly familiar to a kid from a military town. My bravest gesture was to touch the fabric of the uniform. The “Barnett” name tag all but undid me. As a child, I knew nothing of captain’s bars, so my mind didn’t register them. The Distinguished Flying Cross means nothing to a child. He deserved a big sparkly medal, The Childhood Hero medal.

I was done for the day. I had the worst, and best, kind of jet lag; I’d traveled back in decades. I’d gone from sleepy old San Antonio, to steamy jungles, and then to a perfect Austin day. Memory became history and I honored a family’s loss.

In the next blog, I’ll tell you about what happened the following day.

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