I have a new hero

13 08 2005

This afternoon, George, Jacob and I attended the funeral of a man named James Lewis. In many ways it was unlike any funeral I’ve ever attended. For one thing, James died forty years ago. A colonel in the Air Force, he failed to return from a mission over Laos during the Vietnam War. He was listed as missing in action from April 7, 1965, until this June, when DNA tests on remains found at the crash site were positively identified.

Colonel Lewis was buried with full military honors. People lined the street approaching the cemetery, displaying flags and saluting or holding their hands over their hearts. A bagpiper led the processional to the gravesite. The flag-draped casket rode on a caisson pulled by two powerful brown horses, the sun reflecting off their long, rippling black manes. A gorgeous palomino followed, saddled but riderless–boots turned backward in the stirrups. The local police honor guard in full dress uniform marched in precise rows, leading the family. Then they stood at attention behind the tent. The American flag flew at half mast with a black MIA/POW flag below it.

With unhurried solemnity, the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard carried the casket to its place, and the successive reports of a twenty-one gun salute shattered the heavy silence. Then a dull roar in the distance drew everyone’s attention to the sky. It grew louder and closer until a huge, silver, B-52 bomber jet flew low over the tent, the noise of its engines seeming to shake the earth. This was perhaps the most moving moment of all for me. Flying had been Col. Lewis’ calling and delight.

We watched as the military pall bearers lifted the flag from his coffin, meticulously folded it, and presented it to his widow. Then U.S. Representative Louie Gohmert presented flags to Col. Lewis’ three grown children and expressed our nation’s appreciation for their father’s service.

George, Jacob and I were standing in the shade of a large pine tree just outside the tent, doing our best to escape the oppressive heat. I could hear only snatches of Congressman Gohmert’s words, so I shifted my gaze to the endless blue summer sky. Then I closed my eyes and welcomed a sympathetic breeze that requested permission to play with my hair. So many images to digest. The solemn honor. The respect. The sacrifice.

I have a new hero today, but it may not be who you think it is.

At the church service before the military graveside event, Col. Lewis’ wife stood to speak. I know Barbara as a quiet, smiling lady from our church–someone who always has a kind word for everyone. Meek. Unassuming. She stepped to a podium at her husband’s funeral, smiled, and said, “Most of you don’t know Jim. I want you to know him.” Then, her face aglow with the joy of memory, she told us stories–how Jim nudged his buddy the first time he saw her and said, “I’m going to marry that girl.” How he proposed on their first date. How she had her doubts about him, but “he turned out to be right.” The way he loved to position himself between the speakers of his stereo and play his favorite music “a little louder than he should have.” She spoke of his appreciation for beauty and how much he enjoyed photographing it. “I think we have pictures of every mountain top in America. And the valleys in between. The ground. Everything.”

He adored flying and cherished the quiet, clean world he saw from the sanctity of his cockpit. But “the sun rose and set on his children,” she said. Children who were young when their father disappeared. Children she raised alone, never knowing if her husband and their father was dead or alive, never giving up hope and “moving on” with life. For forty years she waited, becoming a figure in the national MIA/POW movement, helping launch the programs that eventually brought him home.

Home. But really, he went Home forty years ago. Is Barbara bitter that she didn’t know sooner? That she didn’t have a chance to start over? If you’d seen her smile today, you’d know the answer.

“He didn’t suffer. He wasn’t in a horrible prison. He was in heaven,” she says. And somehow you know, heaven was with her, too, the whole time.


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6 responses

13 08 2005
hershey_s

wow. that’s really beautiful. i swear you have such a way with words. almost got a little choked up just now.

13 08 2005
hershey_s

wow. that’s really beautiful. i swear you have such a way with words. almost got a little choked up just now.

13 08 2005
hershey_s

wow. that’s really beautiful. i swear you have such a way with words. almost got a little choked up just now.

14 08 2005
jeannedamoff

almost???

I’ll have to do better next time. 😉

Thanks, J. It made a deep impression on me. I’m glad my words revealed a little of the beauty.

14 08 2005
jeannedamoff

almost???

I’ll have to do better next time. 😉

Thanks, J. It made a deep impression on me. I’m glad my words revealed a little of the beauty.

14 08 2005
jeannedamoff

almost???

I’ll have to do better next time. 😉

Thanks, J. It made a deep impression on me. I’m glad my words revealed a little of the beauty.

Your comments are a gift. Please know I read each one with gratitude.

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