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The Stranger on the Plane

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

Our children were little and I was about to go out for a glass of wine with my friend, Debra when we got the call the Marine helicopter that Barry, my husband Jim’s first cousin, had been piloting off the coast of California had gone missing the night before. We had only lived in Wilmington NC a few years by then and Jim’s parents were upset that we had moved from the Boston area - the only one of their 4 children to move away - so didn’t visit for awhile. My parents in the DC area were busy with their lives and my 4 younger siblings, so the first family member to visit us in our new home in Wilmington was Barry when he was on leave from flight training in Pensacola, FL.

We met Barry at our wedding 10 years earlier when he, his younger brother, Patrick and parents, Aunt Mary and Uncle Barry, were the few of Jim’s many relatives from the Midwest to come to our wedding in Solomons Island, MD. All of them are in our wedding album in pictures from the reception, Mary greeting me in the receiving line in an elegant white suit, Barry and Patrick dancing up a storm. Barry was wonderful with our son, Colin, when he first came to visit us in Wilmington, and again when he, Aunt Mary and Uncle Barry added a visit to us when they came for a family wedding in Myrtle Beach, SC. Both still living in their mid-80s, we always felt close to Aunt Mary and Uncle Barry, who calls me Brighteyes and refers to himself as Hunckleberry.

There was nothing we could do but wait so I went for a drink with Debra anyway. More than 20 years later, I vividly remember actually feeling like I had been punched in the gut when we got the call that Barry was missing. I was visibly upset and Debra said she was not as close to her cousins so couldn’t imagine being that upset over the possible loss of a cousin. I felt sorry for her.

About a week went by with occasional updates on the search for Barry and his crew off the coast of California, switching from a possible rescue to a recovery mission. At one point we were told there would be an article in the press that the search had been called off but it won’t be true because the Marine motto is to never leave a man behind and they would search for as long as it took to find Barry and his crew. We never looked for that article. The bodies of the 3 crew were recovered but not Barry’s.

Plans were made for a memorial service for Barry in his hometown of Chicago and Jim was asked to do a reading at the service in a large Catholic Church there. We bought our plane tickets thru a travel agent as people did in those days, made arrangements for our children, Colin and Megan, then 7 and 4, to stay with new friends, Deb and Jeff Church, for the weekend. Like us, Deb and Jeff were both working parents with 2 small boys, one being Connor in daycare with Megan.

I remember lots of details from that weekend in Chicago, a packed Church, many people crying, especially me and my brother-in-law, Paul, crying uncontrollably throughout the service and at gatherings afterwards. I was crying so hard that someone I didn’t know came up to me and said that you look the way I feel. Another person told me that they had found a post-it note on Barry’s computer that said, call Mom, which he did everyday. Somehow it came to me to reply with reassurance that they would still have a relationship but it would just be different now. For the next year, one of Barry’s Marine buddies would call his mom every day. His parents ended up going to so many weddings of his Marine friends that years later, Aunt Mary told me that while they lost one son, they gained many others.

My 73 year old father-in-law, Mil was there whose colon cancer had metastasized to his liver a year earlier and had been given 6 months to live. We thought that we would have been attending his funeral. Mil had served as an infantryman in the Pacific during World War II before going to med school on the GI Bill, marrying Marge, one of 3 women in his med school class and having 4 children, including Jim. During the war, Mil was lost behind enemy lines for 10 days and he knew he had found his way back to a US camp when he heard the song, Sentimental Journey, playing on the radio as he came into camp. We only heard that story when Mil bought a boat late in life and named it, Sentimental Journey.

While he never shied away from a difficult conversation, sometimes deliberately provoking one, Mil wouldn’t talk about his war experience. The last conversation that I had with Mil in person was when he and Marge were driving Jim, Colin, Megan and me to Logan airport after visiting them for Thanksgiving. I asked Mil, did you ever save anyone’s life when you were in the war? He said, only my own. He crawled thru the jungle and hid in a river when he was lost during the war, and said he would never sleep on the ground again if he didn't have to, which is why he never went camping. I asked, what was war like? A man of many words, Mil gave only a one-word answer, unspeakable. Mil lived 2 more years after Barry’s funeral. They both had military funerals, flags, Taps, rifles shot in the air. Mil died right before his 75th birthday. Barry was 28. People don’t die in order.

Barry's older brother, Tom, picked us up at Chicago O'Hare airport around midnight the night before the memorial service and we went straight to Aunt Mary and Uncle Barry's house. We were standing in their kitchen and talking to Leo, the young Marine assigned to Barry's family - one is always assigned to the surviving family after a Marine dies during active duty - who told us that Barry’s body had been found the day before scattered on the ocean floor about a mile down. As an example of the danger of military flying, Leo explained when a new pilot tries landing on an aircraft carrier for the first time, he flies alone with no instructor because that way only one man could die, not two, since crashes are so common.

Barry's helicopter had gone down during night maneuvers and they think when he realized a crash was inevitable, Barry deliberately nosed the copter down, meaning sure death for himself, but a chance for his crew to eject and survive. At the memorial luncheon, one of the pilots and a friend of Barry who had flown one of the missions searching for the missing crew recounted a scary moment where he wasn’t sure which way was up and prayed to Barry to be on my wing. He recovered and returned to base safely, saying he knows that if he’s ever in trouble, he’ll always have Barry on his wing.

We were one of the last ones to leave on Sunday afternoon and were saying goodbye to Barry’s parents at their home in Chicago, who expressed gratitude that we had made the trip. We were sitting in their living room when Barry’s mother, Aunt Mary, told me about the Marine officer and chaplain, dressed in white, who came to the front door to notify them that Barry was missing. She said she knew immediately why they were there and collapsed sobbing in front of them. She said Barry was not an easy toddler. She said she wished she had not made him eat his vegetables.

We arrived at Chicago O’Hare airport on a crowded Sunday afternoon and discovered to our dismay that the travel agent had accidentally booked us for a return flight on Monday, not Sunday. We had to get back to our children, being watched by our friends, particularly since we all had to work the next day, Jim and Jeff with a full day of patients and Deb and I at the law firm. I frantically told the woman at the counter the situation and about our need to get home that day. I prayed to Barry that we need you on our wing. We were rebooked on the last 2 seats to Charlotte and 2 more on a connecting flight back to Wilmington, on a different airline.

Our seats were not together on either flight and on the second flight to Wilmington, I was near the front and Jim farther back. A man sat down next to me who seemed like an angry businessman who I started talking to and he told me that he had been in the band, Chicago. I said, how interesting, my husband would love to meet you. And I thought I’m going to teach this guy a lesson, regardless of what he’s angry about, he probably didn’t have as sad a weekend as we did so I also said, I just came from Chicago from the funeral of my husband’s 28-year cousin who was killed in a Marine helicopter crash. The man burst into tears. He told me that his brother had been killed in a car wreck, that he had nothing to live for and that he was going home to his mother’s house to walk into the ocean and kill himself. There are some things worst than death: despair. I was sad but not hopeless. I said to the man, did I mention that my husband is a psychiatrist?

The flight was short and as we were deplaning, I waited for Jim to catch up to me and said Jim, I’d like you to meet this guy and he’s pretty upset. Neither of us remember his name, it was not our focus. Jim asked him a few questions and told me later that he determined within a minute or two that the man was suicidal, but if he had been sitting next to him, he probably wouldn't have struck up a conversation with him. Jim suggested the man go to the hospital and offered for us to give him a ride there. We did, Jim took him in and the man was checked into the hospital. About 10 days later the man called Jim’s office and asked for our address saying he wanted to send a letter to Jim’s wife to thank her for saving his life. I wasn’t supposed to be on that plane, or maybe I was. I think that I was in that place, at that time, for a reason. I wrote to Barry’s parents, Aunt Mary and Uncle Barry, shortly afterwards and told them the story of how Barry saved a life that weekend.

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