Texas Heaven

My previous post was about being “on the tarmac” for the arrival of the remains of Capt. Robert Russell “Bear” Barnett on April 6, 2017. Click here for the link. The following day, he was laid to rest among the heroes at the Texas State Cemetery.  That’s his casket under the flag. Across the stream and upon the hill, is the bugler who played “Taps” for him. The whole day hurt, but sometimes growth does that.

Russell’s remaining four family members and I met up that morning. I knew the funeral home cars would get us to the cemetery. I knew only that the Texas State Cemetery was the final resting place for men like Stephen F. Austin and William B. Travis, both Founding Fathers of Texas. It had fallen into disrepair, but was rehabbed in the 1990’s. It now cradles the remains of modern heroes like Chris, Kyle, the American Sniper, and coaches like Tom Landry and Darrell Royal.  It’s an elite club; acceptance must be earned. They welcomed Russell. I went thinking it was a Texas version of Westminster Abbey.

It’s better. It’s Texas Heaven. If you ever get a chance to visit, go see it.

If you cut me, I don’t bleed. Texas river water flows in my veins. I know what many suspect. Heaven is just Texas on a cool, dry day. There I sit beside a flowing stream; the sun and the live oaks, they comfort me. The green, green grass has no sticker burrs or fire ants. There at the Cemetery, I saw all the totems of my life in one place for the first time.

I was in tears before I got out of the car.

I needed something to distract me; Marines in full dress uniform will grab anyone’s eye. Cols. Peter Gadd and Trey Meadows both wore the navy blue tunic and spanking white pants. The uniforms dazzle with bits of red and shiny gold buttons. They had real, and sparkly, medals on their chests. The medals clanked when they walked. Imagine a uniform with sound effects. The Marines win the award for best military uniforms, hands down. It’s not even a fair fight.

Col. Meadows had traveled all night to fulfill a promise. He, like Col. Gadd, pledged to go anywhere, any time to honor Debra Barnett Coffey’s daddy, Russell Barnett, when he was laid to rest. I’d waited over fifty years to be there.

A kaleidoscope of people clustered around. Vietnam veterans, a choir from Huston-Tillotson University, and an honor guard all honored Russell.  Just across the stream, what looked to be a civilian mother and son stood the entire time; they held a large American flag between them. They were a silent Greek chorus in this American tragedy.

The ceremony began with a fly-by. T-38 jets streaked low, their roar trailing behind. The missing man formation is always poignant. The planes came from Laughlin Air Force base, a place Russell knew well. Flying in from near Del Rio, two hundred and fifty miles away, took only a a half-hour.  Remember that the next time you’re stuck in Austin’s world-class traffic.

That ephemeral respect for a fallen pilot was a lot of work.  From ground crews at Laughlin, who washed the silver planes, to air traffic controllers at Austin Bergstrom Airport, many labored. A fly-by is a nod to our nation’s military might; I hope never to hear the full-throated roar of jets at war. Their presence alone is reassurance in a dangerous world.

I was in tears before the ceremony began; how could I comfort his family and bring Russell to life for others? Words seemed so very wimpy to describe a man whose life was heroic. He went from earth to Heaven in a heartbeat … over Southeast Asia … fifty-one years ago.

I gave them what I could: my childhood memories. Russell held a mythic place in my life; he went from family friend to Inspirer, through Protector, and then straight on to Hero. I may have been the flower girl in his wedding, but he was the Best Man in my young life.

I knew few facts about him. He lived and died in an analog time; I was comforted to find him online. I thank everyone who brought him into the digital age.

On my laptop, I learned that Russell, the epitome of adulthood, was actually only fourteen years older than I was. He showed me his moon dream when he was only nineteen. At the time of his death, I “knew” he was middle-aged; after all, he left daughters who were eleven and nine. Plus, he was a captain in the Air Force on his third tour in Vietnam. I was shocked to see he’d done all that before his thirty-third birthday.

Russell and Betty Sue were healing the rift in their family. He thought his duty was a third tour in Vietnam. She thought, as any young mother would, that his duty was with their family. Two tours were enough. He died just weeks before he was to come home. It was a full-on tragedy. Each was right, but life still fell apart.

I think Russell believed he was safe in the air. He believed he’d come home. It was duty that orphaned his girls; he didn’t court danger. No thrill seeker bothers with a pesky little kid like me.

I got to see into life in the rear-view mirror. My memory turned into history that day. The full panoply of military honors, from the water salute to “Taps,” showed me that my country … and my beloved Texas … confirmed a little girl’s judgment. Russell Barnett really was a Grade A, All-American Hero. I liked being right.

I wanted these two days to wrap up the mourning for him. The words formed themselves in my mouth, “Russell will rest among the heroes, where he belongs. You’ve grieved for fifty-one years. Go and grieve no more.”

I was blubbering, but then again, I think most of us were.

I realized that mourning the fallen ennobles the survivors. Russell’s funeral grew me, but he was always a force for growth in my life.

Growth isn’t easy. We don’t just slap more bricks atop the tower we call “self.” We explode the damned thing, add more bricks, and build it anew. When we stop growing, we die.

Before the funeral, I worried I didn’t have much growth left in me. Life had ground down some of my bricks. Russell’s homecoming was the best kind of dynamite. The honors shown him were new bricks for me.

In that Texas-Heaven on Navasota Street, I recalled the words I’d seen fifty years ago, just up the street. I went to the University of Texas up on 24th Street. Every time I passed the Main Building, the Tower, I saw the same words. “Ye shall know the truth, and it shall set you free.”

Truth is a good enough basis for life. I found my footing, again, in truth and Texas dirt. I’m confident again. I know that if my GPS fails at night, I can navigate home by the full moon. If there’s no moon, I can use the North Star.

They haven’t moved.

Anyone can live a good life in truth. Be honest. Be kind. Sure, lock your doors, and wash your hands, but dream big dreams. In case you’ve forgotten, life is never easy.  Sometimes, there’s only a single, steep, rocky path to “Right.” There may be a hundred easy paths to “Wrong.” All of them are slippery slopes, so stay away.

Dream. Dare. Do.

And if you die tryin’ we’ll come and find you, even if it takes fifty-one years. We’ll lay you to rest in a corner of your Texas Heaven and we’ll call you, “Hero.”

How do I know all this? Russell taught it to me. I was just a little kid at the time.