There are so many stories from the last 23 years that I hardly know where to begin. Don joined the Army when he was 17. He lost a brother in Vietnam and ended up serving two tours there himself. He was in Signal Corps, Airborne, Special Forces, recruiting, and Hawk missile maintenance. He earned two Silver Stars, two Purple Hearts, and turned down a third Purple Heart because that would have sent him home. (Yes, he despised John Kerry.) He was a Master Parachute Rigger, was part of a jump demo team that went all over Europe (not the Golden Knights), and made a special parachute system for a Kermit the Frog doll. After he retired from the Army, he worked for a couple of contractors before being hired by NASA. A co-worker didn’t think he should be drawing Army retirement while working for NASA, and Don let him know right quick that he could go down to the recruiting office and get in on the action, with the comment that even as an E-7, his family qualified for food stamps and reduced price school lunches.
I met Don while I was working on the Long Duration Exposure Facility, but it wasn’t until the Tethered Satellite System that we really became friends. He was in charge of ordering equipment and supplies, and he had an uncanny knack for anticipating what we would need in the lab. He worked on many projects but probably made the most difference on the Solid Rocket Boosters. He earned numerous awards while at NASA, including a Silver Snoopy and a Manned Flight Awareness award where he was a special guest at a Shuttle launch. He retired from NASA a couple of years ago and enjoyed spoiling his youngest grandson with tractor rides.
He had stage IV throat cancer in 2007. He lost over 100 lbs. but he beat it. (Coming to work high on Lortab was both frightening and entertaining. The veneer of civilization was already thin to begin with.) He had colon cancer shortly after he retired and beat it. He had something going on with his bone marrow where it wasn’t producing blood cells properly and was trying his damnedest to beat that. His motto was, “Surrender is not an option.”
Two weeks ago, Phat commented about an aircraft situation where “I am physically incapable of s**tting you a rudder actuator and having it installed right now.” I laughed because there was an incident at work where one of the physicists ran into Don’s office and hysterically demanded, for some reason, a typewriter. Don stood up then squatted next to his desk.
Physicist: What are you doing?
Don: I’m trying to s**t you a typewriter, because that’s the only way you’re going to get one.
I called up Don and shared the story with him, and we laughed over old times. Then he asked, “When are you free for lunch?” I thought for a second or two and answered, “How about today?” We met for lunch at a German restaurant and laughed some more. That was the last time I saw him alive, and I’m really grateful for that time, because that’s how I want to remember him. (Also, don’t put off stuff like that, because you never know when time will run out. Thanks, Phat.)
I wish I could convey just what a sense of humor Don had. Stealing a co-worker’s shoes while she was in the clean room and mailing them back to her, one at a time. Sending Moon pies and Hooter girl pics to the troops in Kuwait and Iraq. Creating the group of Swamp Heathens.
Calling himself the “Hall Ho” because he got hugs from nearly all the women at work. Teaching his 3-year-old grandson to howl like a wolf at good-looking women. Some really funny Christmas gifts, back before the PC crowd cowed us. After Administrator Dan Goldin said something stupid about how we should emulate the Chinese space agency, he wore a coolie hat to work and asked the boss if he needed a bucket of LN2. Making up “green cards” for us, with pics of each of us wearing a sombrero, bandoliers of bullets, and a cheesy mustache. Slipping a box of Midol into a male co-worker’s grocery purchases while on TDY.
He was always proud of his service, and I’m glad to have known him. What an empty space he leaves behind. I’ll close with a poem he wrote, which I consider one of his best works. His brother is buried at
Arlington(corrected – he was eligible for burial at Arlington but was buried at Ft. Benning. It’s still a great poem.)
WHO AM I? CRIES THE WARRIOR
A lone sentry paces the walkway,
And many tourists come to see.
For “I am the Infantry, Queen of Battle,”
And you can, “FOLLOW ME!”
The OLD GUARD stands lonely vigil,
Twenty-four hours a day.
Through sweltering heat or freezing rain,
While in my marble Tomb I lay.
I am called the Unknown Soldier,
For no one knows just who I am.
I went ‘over there’ to fight ‘the great war’,
When called by my Uncle Sam.
Now in the gardens of stone, when all is quiet,
Shadows cast by light of the moon.
I search each headstone every night,
Of soldiers lost too soon.
For I was called to serve my country,
On a far and distant shore.
Now while others rest, my spirit roams,
And will forever more.
As my spirit walks the gardens,
Row after row after row.
Some of these names I recognize,
And others, I just don’t know.
Was I a farmer in Nebraska,
Or a lumberjack in Maine?
Did I die quickly, thru the mercy of GOD,
Or did I agonize in pain?
Did I lead soldiers into battle,
Or did I follow those who led?
To so many questions the answers I seek,
As I walk amongst the dead.
Who am I? Cries the warrior,
With faded medals upon his chest,
Who am I? Cries the warrior,
While those in the gardens rest.
‘Here rests in honored glory, An American soldier, Known but to GOD.’
These words in my Tomb cut so deep.
And as the lonely sentry walks his post,
The known of Arlington sleep.