Sunday, January 15, 2006

Lewis Henry, 56 Dies Kansas City, Mo

January 14th 2006

This is a sad post for me. My uncle, Lewis Henry, passed to his maker, January 14th, 2006 10:21 PM at the Kansas City, Missouri Veterans Hospital. He was 56 years old. A veteran of Vietnam, he leaves behind him his wife of 35 years, his son and two daughters along with many grieving family members that will miss him dearly, including me.

I am tired after two days at the hospital with only a catnap on the waiting room couch. I feel I cannot do the kind of fitting tribute here that he deserves as a man that was well loved and respected. In the movie "13th Warrior", the character Buliwyf, having left his father's inheritence on the shores of the Volga to return to Norse Land to fight the dreaded "fire worm", was dying slowly of blood poisoning. He said to Antonio Banderas' character, Ahmed, that a man with nothing might be thought a king if another man "drew the words of his story". My uncle died with little having given it all, in the end, for service to his country. So, I wanted to give him this last gift, that some might read his story and think him a king.

If you read here over any length of time, you may have read a series of posts called "Beverly Hillbilly Bikers" in which I recount the 2500 mile bike trip of my family from Kansas City to Gulf Port, Mississippi and back. He was a key figure in the story and, while I poked fun at all of our exploits and all of the family members on this trip, I never finished telling the story. Nor did I tell you how, at the end and even today, we thought that trip, with all its fun and terror, was the highlight of our lives. Even Friday night, while we waited for the first news, we stood around the MICU telling snippets from the trip and laughing at some of the more exciting moments. I won't do it here, but soon the completed saga will appear.

Of course, that is not the only story of this man. I want to tell you about him, even in my nearly catatonic sleepless state because I don't want the moment to be gone just yet. I suppose, in some ways, I don't want to let him go yet either. So, if I stumble or mis-spell a word, I hope that you will forgive me and hold it no less a sign of my true love and respect, or in anyway denigrate the honor I wish I could adequately provide for the man who taught me to ride my first motorcycle.

That was an event unto itself. He and my aunt had me riding a Vulcan 500cc around and around the front yard of their house, getting me used to balancing the bike and shifting into and out of 1st and second gear as a starter. The front yard was convenient because it was dirt and, therefore, softer to land on instead of the asphalt of a parking lot. At one point, he directed me to drive up his driveway with a gentle slope and come to a stop near the top so I could get the feel of stopping on a hill. As I came up the drive, I failed to give it enough throttle and the bike died. I, being unprepared, had not put my feet down to hold the bike up and it started tipping over. Finally, having my wits about me, I attempted to get my feet down, but the bike had already gone over to the right too far to stop. That didn't stop me from putting on an herculean effort with both arms and both legs locked on the drive to stop it. The bike having the momentum, won the struggle and yanked me to the right with the force of it's weight. I was still bound and determined to keep my feet, but physics and gravity are impossible to overcome and the weight of the bike sent me cart wheeling across the yard, arms windmilling, legs churning until I completed a final "commando roll", smashing into the plastic bird bath on the lawn which promptly spewed about a gallon of rancid "bird spit" infested water on me.

I lay there a few moments checking to make sure everything was functioning as the motorcylce engine whined it's highpitched scream in the back ground. I heard my uncle yelling to my aunt Jeanie, "Make sure she's alright" as he ran over to kill the engine. Jeanie came over and kept repeating, over and over, "Are you alright?" Solicitous as she tried to be, she couldn't hide the hysterical laughter very well and I, realizing all systems were go and te ridiculous position I was in, began laughing, too. In a moment we were all laughing loudly as both aunt Jeanie and Uncle Lewis took turns immitating parts of my embarrassing debacle, windmill arms and all.

Uncle Lewis, between gasps, asked, "What the hell was that "commando roll" thing??" I shrugged, squeezing my lips together to hold in the gaffaws, replied as seriously as possible, "I don't know. I saw the bird bath coming up and I thought "tuck and roll" seemed like a good thing to do at the time." At which, we all busted out laughing with my Aunt Jeanie pointing to my wet clothes and holding her nose, " stinky." More laughs.

That seems like the story of our family. Even tragedies turn to moments of laughter.

I also remember this man who, along with my father, built me, my brothers and cousins "toy machine guns" out of scrap wood, running with us through my grandparents' barns playing "army". Here you could hear the voices of grown men and young children together yelling out, "D-d-d-d-d-d-d-da! I got you! Why didn't you fall down and play dead?" To which came the infamous reply, "No you didn't, it was only a flesh wound!" Courtesy of the many hours of John Wayne and other western or army movies on the "Wednesday Night Western" and Saturday TV "matinees".

He was cruising the Lake in Lodi, CA with my dad in a dune buggy he made out of a Chevy when my dad met my mom.

Thirty years later, older and wiser and having returned from my so-journ to Philadelphia, I would go visit, talking with him and Jeanie about motorcycles and discussing whatever was on the history channel when I arrived. We both shared a passion for history, particularly Civil War, Indian Wars and World War II. Sometimes when I came over something about Vietnam would be on and, as we watched, he would mute the sound and talk about this or that incident that he was involved in or a similar situation. Like most vets, he wasn't overly chatty about the subject. Mainly I would get little anecdotes here and there that I eventually put together as an extremely small part of the story of his service. I think he felt comfortable talking to me about it because we were talking about "history" in an almost abstract, clinical way as if it was something that happened to somebod else.

My uncle volunteered to join the army and go to Vietnam for several reasons, one of which was because my dad, who was older, married and had a child (me), had a lower draft number than he did. Because one son was already in, my dad's classification was changed and he was never drafted. One cannot know the vagaries of fate. What lies ahead of any person in any situation is in God's hands, but I can say with full knowledge of the Vietnam Conlfict, the number of dead and wounded, the number of men who returned changed forever by what they saw and did, that this was the first of many times that he changed my life for the good. Who could know, had my dad been drafted, whether he would have returned to be my father or been unchanged physically and mentally? Whether I would have brothers or sweet memories of childhood when my dad played Santa Claus while my uncle served in unpronouncable places?

So you see, I owe him a lot.

He served as a Crew Chief/Door Gunner on a Huey flying with the 101st Airborn, 188th Assault Helicopter Company, "Black Widows".

I don't know everything about his service, but if you read the page I noted, you will see referrences to flying SOGs into Cambodia and Laos. He mentioned that briefly one day when I was asking him about the medals in his shadow box. The medals had been put away for many years. He used to say that they were "nothing", just pieces of worthless ribbon and metal. After awhile we never asked to see them. Something happened in 1995. I think that Desert Storm had blown away the "dishonored" army aura from Vietnam. People remembered and began to talk about our Vietnam Vets in different ways. He had also met one of his friends (Albert Sass)who had flown with him who asked him to go to a support group with him. As the years went by, he began to see the real value in his service. It was no longer just a time in his life where he "went somewhere and did somethings".

Twenty-six years after returning from Vietnam, he took his medals out the suitcase in the closet and put them in a shadow box along with a few other mementos. He had lost some of the medals and tried, with various degrees of success, to have them re-issued, but some of the documents he needed were "classified" due to the nature of the mission. That's how I knew he flew SOGs and LRPS to certain destinations in order to do certain things that we know nothing about.

In his shadow box he has two purple hearts, a bronze star with V device, and several more commendation medals including, of course, his Vietnam service ribbon. There was also a piece of bent metal on a chain he had worn as a necklace in Vietnam after his M-60 took a round meant for him. The piece had flown off and stuck in his chest (one of the purple hearts). If it hadn't been for the M-60, it would have been a 7.62 round in his chest instead.

I have no idea what incident led to the bronze star with V. He never specified, though I know that he was shot down twice. One event where both the pilot and co-pilot were severely injured. He and the other gunner, suffering from a broken wrist, set up a perimeter and waited for rescue. They had one functioning M-60, one broken M-60, two M16s with two magazines each, four pistols and a few grenades. They knew the enemy was out there, all around them, moving in. In order to make it seem like they had more functioning weapons and more viable people on the ground with them, my uncle and the door gunner moved (the only two able to move) from position to position, calling out to different made up people about their condition and ammunition, acting like they saw something and firing a burst of rounds one time from each position and weapon in order to appear better armed and better covered.

They kept the enemy at bay for two hours, using subterfuge and big brass balls, until another "slick" could come in and rescue them. He admitted that day was the scariest day of his entire service because it was the closest he came to being captured or killed, having a long time to think about the consequences. Unlike the times when he was flying into a hot LZ when the sheer adrenaline rush kept such thoughts at bay even as rounds were pinging off of everything around him. On the ground, waiting for rescue, he didn't have the luxury of distractions. He just had time. Time to think about dying or being taken prisoner. He wasn't going to be a prisoner.

When they lifted off they could see a whole company of VC moving in on the helicopter. The pilots of the rescue helicopter called in an air strike on the position, destroying the downed craft and many enemy.

I remember when he told me that story. He was sitting in his recliner, smoking a cigarette and drinking the inevitable can of coke with the giant screen TV playing some hokey western in the background on mute. He paused after the story for a few seconds looking at his coke can and then said, "Did you catch that battle field forensics show about Custer's "Last Stand"?" And we talked about something else.

He showed me a picture of he and some friends on leave. He had a giant snake around is neck. He said the old man just walked up to him and put it around his neck, saying, "picture, dollar" in pidgen English. He didn't want to seem like a "pussy" in front of all his friends even though what he wanted to do was throw the snake off and run. So, there he is in a picture with a yellow python around his neck and a frozen, gritted teeth smile. His friends were laughing and he was thinking, "Assholes". Of course, nobody else was volunteering to get their photo taken.

We were watching the history channel one day and they were showing a door gunner hanging out of door firing at something below. He hit the mute button and said the first time he knew he killed a man they were taking fire from his side; he saw a guy standing up in a rice paddy firing an AK47 and he let loose with about fifty rounds. Next thing, the guy was on the ground not moving. Then he hit the mute button again and we continued watching the program.

Later, the program was showing the helicopters flying into a forward firing base, taking fire from all positions. One helicopter was on the ground broken and smoking. He hit the mute button again and said they were flying men and supplies into a base one day. It was super hot and he watched the helicopter in front of them suddenly swing right and hit the ground hard, flipping over on its side. Pieces of rotor blade and what he later realized were men came flying at their helicopter. He credited the pilot with saving them all by doing a quick manouver and pulling them up out of the line of fire from the debris. Then he hit the mute button again.

That's how I learned about his service in Vietnam. One small snippet at a time.

Of course, he had plenty of adventures before he was sent over. He had basic training in Washington. While there he caught Pneumonia. He said that the DIs would ream your ass if you tried to make sick call and you weren't two seconds from dying so he never went. He was about 5 weeks into basic and they were finally allowed to call home. When he talked to his mom (my grandmother) he told her he was really sick. She kept asking him why he didn't go to the doctor and he tried to explain that you just didn't do that without a good reason (of course, he didn't know he actually *had* pneumonia, he thought it was just a bad case of the flu). My grandmother, you would have to have known (she died in March 2004 at 75). She was very fiesty. When she hung up the phone, she called the base commander and demanded to know why her son was not being taken care of. She informed the commander that she was a tax payer, paid his salary and that she expected that her son would be taken care of. They certainly were not going to turn him into a useful soldier if they killed him.

Of course, the base commander thanked her for her concern and said he would look into it. The next day, during formation, my uncle was called forward in front of everybody and God. The DI said that his "mommy had called" and said he was sick. "Are you sick, Private Henry?!" Well, he said he felt like he was dying, but there was no way in hell he was going to answer "yes" to that and let every guy there think he was a "momma's boy". "No, Sergeant!" he yelled back as best as he could. "Are you sure, Private Henry?!" "Yes, Sergeant!" He was allowed to go back into formation. He said that he wasn't sure what would kill him first, the pneumonia or the embarrasment.

Later that night he called his mom and told her that she had embarrassed him beyond belief. My grandmother was not sorry. He might think he was a man, but he was still her son and she would worry about him if she wanted. She then demanded whether he had went to the hospital or not. He told her "no" he hadn't and he was not planning to. He had the flue and he'd be fine. He told her not to call the base commander any more.

Well, people in my family aren't very good at following orders so the next day my grandmother told my grandfather that she was driving to Washington (ed...I said "Georgia", but that's where he was stationed when he came back) and he could come if he wanted. If he didn't, just get out of her way. They borrowed my dad's Mustang and drove down to Washington where he was doing basic training. When she got to the gate, the guards wouldn't let her in. She raised such a ruckus that the MP's came to escort her. She demanded to see the commander and told them that she had just talked to him the day before about her son. Well, the commander had not forgotten my grandmother so he had her escorted to his office where she proceeded to ring a peel over his head about not only "not" taking care of her son, since he obviously had pneumonia after two weeks of being sick, but for also using it to embarrass him in front of his "friends". The commander had my uncle brought to his office to see his mother and assure her that he was not dying. When he arrived, the commander realized that Mrs. Henry was right, the white faced, white lipped, red eyed, profusely sweating in the middle of February soldier was indeed very sick.

He told my uncle to report to sick call, called up the captain in charge of his unit and proceeded to ring him a peel for not taking care of his soldiers and forcing some soldier's mom to drive for over 12 hours to come down and take care of it herself (unspoken, of course, was that the captain had caused the commander severe embarrassment and, as the say, shit rolls down hill). My uncle spent three weeks in the infirmary recovering from pneumonia. However, his story was, by now, legend. He said that he had to repeat basic training. By the end of basic training he couldn't wait to get his orders to go to Vietnam.

When he came back, my grandmother said he was a changed man. Of course, he was a man and not the boy she remembered. But he was also quieter, didn't laugh as much and had a much shorter fuse that got him in trouble several times. This contributed to his being busted down to an E4 right before he was discharged (honorably) from the army.

He told me that when he came back from Vietnam, there were two foods he couldn't eat. In fact, if he even smelled them he would throw up. The first was rice. When I asked him why, he said, "You know how they fertilize the rice paddies?" Okay, point taken. The second was Peanut Butter and Jelly. Mainly the peanut butter. I found out because I offered him a peanut butter girl scout cookie one day. He said that when they were flying around they didn't have time to mess with the rations or go to the chow halls at the different bases so they would buy peanut butter and jelly from the PX, very non-perishable, so that they could make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to eat on the fly. He said he remembered eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while flying body bags from a forward position to I Corps. He said it didn't bother him because they were just bodies, but sometimes I wondered if he didn't tell that to see if he could shock me, to see if I would get disgusted and not ask him again.

When he returned from Vietnam, he met my Aunt Jeanie who was divorced and had a two year old son. He told me my grandmother was extremely upset that he wanted to marry a divorced woman. You know, one of "those" because even in the early 70's divorced women were still thought of as floozies. But they married anyway, presenting my grandmother with a fait accompli and a new grandson (the first grandson, Jeanie's son, who joined our family when I was two and has been my cousin - not step cousin, my cousin - ever since).

He raised her son as his own. When my cousin was a teenager he tried to run away to see his real father, thinking that his mom and my uncle had kept him away from him on purpose. The truth was, his father had abandoned him a long time ago after his mom left him because he was abusive and broke her jaw. Hoping that he had changed and would help my cousin keep from getting in more trouble, his mom tracked down his dad and asked him if he would take him for the summer. He spent the summer in Alaska with his father. My cousin came back and never asked to see his father again. His father hadn't changed and had, in fact, hit him many times and humiliated him, according to my cousin, forcing him one time to eat his dinner out of a dog bowl on the floor because the man said he had the table manners of a dog. When he came back and told my uncle, my uncle called up that man and told him that if he ever saw him, he would kill him. In fact, my grandma, grandpa and dad had to corner him in the house and keep him there because he had packed a bag and was getting ready to fly to Alaska to make good on his threat.

My uncle told my cousin that he was his son and he would take care of him. Any man could be a father, but it took a real man to be a dad. The other man would not sign papers to allow my uncle to adopt my cousin so, on the day my cousin turned 18, he went to court and had his legal name changed from David W**** to Lewis Henry, Junior. Ever since the day they had talked about the difference between a father and a dad, my cousin refused to call my uncle "father"; he was always "dad".

My uncle held many different jobs. First he went to college and got a degree in Criminal Justice. Then he became a police officer for several years. Unfortunately, he was too quick to anger. Since he nearly shot a man resisting arrest, he decided that being an officer was not for him. He then went on to take training to be a paramedic, but soon discovered that blood and dying people reminded him too much of Vietnam so he went on to be a restaurant manager and bartender for many years. He and his wife would often work at the same place, she as a waitress, he running the bar or restaurant.

At one point, my uncle, dad and aunt's husband went into trucking, hoping to start a small business, but it was right in the middle of the recession so that only lasted a few years.

They started moving around and went to Beaumont, TX where they managed a truck stop slash restaurant together. Later they went to Las Vegas where they opened a very successful lock smith business. When my grandpa became ill in 1986, they returned to Kansas City and opened their business here until in 1990, when my uncle suffered a massive heart attack. He'd been feeling unwell for sometime, but had no idea that he had advanced diabetes. The heart attack was brought on by the diabetes. He went to the VA and they noted that he was having some sort of skin problem. Patches of skin would flake and peel off. At first, they thought it was brought on by the untreated diabetes, but some doctors at the VA thought it might be related to Agent Orange. The idea that Agent Orange was responsible for many illnesses suffered by Vietnam vets was just getting some acceptance by the medical field and the government, though it was difficult to prove. The doctors also found that he had an enlarged heart and thought that, along with the diabetes caused his heart attack and was the result of Agent Orange.

My uncle couldn't remember being directly exposed to it and many of his records were "classified" due to the nature of the missions. In order to prove he was exposed, even though the symptoms were similar to those seen by others, he had to fight for his records to be declassified for many years. The VA certified him as 50% disabled because they couldn't immediately prove the cause of his condition. He had another heart attack in 1995 which again kept him out of circulation for a year and caused him to be unable to run his lock smith business which he eventually gave up. Because he was not yet certified 100% disabled, he and my aunt lived off the small disability checks and the money that she made as a waitress or sometimes manager of a restaurant until she suffered a heart attack herself (my aunt had a congenital heart defect that had been treated by open heart surgery when she was just 31). After that they lived simply on his disability. They bought an RV and travelled around the US on a shoe string. At one point going to Arizona to live by my middle brother where my uncle would ride motorcycles with him and enjoy talks about history and the military (my brother also being a history buff and serving in the Air Force).

Even with his condition, my uncle tried to stay active. He enjoyed riding motorcycles (obviously) and we would all take short day trips to local destinations. On one such trip we were near Atchison, Kansas and had stopped to get a soda. While we were standing in the parking lot, a bee flew down my shirt and stung me twice on a delicate part of the anatomy (of course, the second time was because when it stung me the first time, I reacted automatically, slamming my hand against my chest). My uncle, told my aunt to give me a cigarette and directed me to go in the bathroom, wet the tobacco and put in on the stings to draw out the stinger. He said his mom had always used that when they were growing up. By the way, it really works. However, I did have to suffer through some rather unsympathetic pokes about lost bees and what happens when you try to smash them against your own body.

In 1999, my uncle Lewis and I put our bikes on a trailer and drove down to Arizona to visit my brother. We drove for two days, laughing and talking about history, music and all the things we saw along the way. He was shocked to learn I had a collection of CDs with music from the fifties, sixties and seventies. He supplemented it with his own and we would play "name that tune and singer". Occassionally, one would remind him of something when he was growing up or later as an adult and he would talk about things like my grandma and grandpa making "bathtub gin", or the parties they held with all the family there (my grandpa died in 1987). One time, during a party, they were playing a polka. He was dancing with his aunt Wig (real name Lavivian, but everybody called her "Wig" because sometimes she would just "wig" out; she was 4'11" and 89 lbs). He was swinging her around when his and her hand slipped. They were going to fast that the momentum flung her out the screen door (the old fashion kind with just a spring, not the hydraulic variety of today). After everybody realized she was okay, they all stood around laughing hysterically.

On the way down to Tucson, he pointed out things like mule eared deer, road runner birds and old line shacks on the vast ranches. He knew a lot of things. We stopped in Santa Rosa, New Mexico as a sort of "half way" point. The next morning we woke up to six inches of snow. He bought us a big breakfast at the local diner frequented by truck drivers (he knew where to go since he had driven that way many times in the past) making chit chat with the other drivers who told us the best route to go if we wanted to get out of the weather.

There was still a lot of snow on the roads and we were pulling a trailer with motorcycles. I had to drive because my uncle's nueropathy had made it hard for him to hold the clutch down in the truck and shift gears. It was quite an experience. I think I might have scared the hell out of him a few times, though he never said so. I know I was scared every time the trailer wheels would catch a ridge of snow in the tracks and jerk the back end of the truck sideways. We had a CB and the truckers were talking back and forth about "watch out for that crazy little blue truck pulling the motorcyles". We both laughed our asses off.

In Tucson, we rode up to the top of Mount Lemon with my brother. That was a trip. It was 85 at the bottom and 52 at the top. Halfway up we had to stop and put on our leathers and guantlets. On the way up we stopped and took pictures of the fantastic scenery below. Seguaro cactus like soldiers marching down the mountainside as far as the eye could see. Tucson was a speck in the distance. Before we started up, my uncle knew I hadn't ridden in the mountains before so he told me how to handle driving up and taking the sharp turns by accelerating through. When we reached the top we stopped at the ski lodge and got cups of hot coffee. The waitress came back to fill up our cups and noticed that we were slow to drink them. She asked if there was something wrong with it and we all laughed. "No," we all answered,"it's just our hands are so cold we were using it to warm up."

We had a really great time. We rode our bikes down to Tombstone and took a tour. On the way back we stopped at Boothill to look at the headstones with their nifty epitaphs like "Here lies Tom Moore, Shot in the head with a .44". I was taking photos of the funniest headstones when I backed into a cactus, getting stuck in the ass. He and my brother were laughing so hard they almost couldn't walk. Later, we were leaving. We jumped on our bikes and started pushing them out of the gravel parking space with our feet. As soon as they cleared the cars, my bro and uncle took off towards the exit. I did the same thing only to discover that the cactus needle was still in my butt and sitting down on the seat to take off had jammed in even further. I yelped really loud and nearly dropped the bike as I tried to come to a stop and stand up so I could feel for the cactus needle. They both realized I wasn't with them and turned back yelling, "What's wrong!?"

I yelled back, "I gotta cactus needle in my butt!"

"What?" they asked while I was feeling around for the needle.

I yelled again, "I gotta cactus needle in my butt!"

"What?!" they yelled louder, trying to hear over the bikes.

Frustrated with the needle and the questions, I yelled even louder, "I gotta G-d D*mned cactus needle in my ass!"

Just then a little old man was walking by with his walker and said, "Is that anyway for a lady to talk?"

I said, "Pardon me, sir, but it is when you gotta cactus needle in your butt."

He just shook his head and walked on. When I got up to my brother and uncle, I told them what the old man had said and that shot them off into hysterical laughter again so hard they almost couldn't ride their bikes either.

On the way back from Tucson to Kansas City, we were driving along chatting about the rock formations just past the Arizona/New Mexico border. Later we discussed the incident and realized we had both seen what was coming, but didn't say anything to the other because we thought maybe we were hallucinating and didn't want to get ribbed. This was in the middle of nowhere. No cars on the side of the road. The last habital place we saw was a Stucky's about three miles back. As we got closer and closer we were both squinting and finally, as we got about 100 ft away, my uncle and I were like, "Holy shit! Do you see that?" jabbering over the top of each other.

Zoom! We passed it by, "DAmn!" "Shit" we were both gawking in the mirrors. It was a man, stark naked, walking down the side of the highway without even a pair of shoes or a hair on his head.

I always told people that on my bike trip with uncle Lewis, I saw all sorts of interesting things: a mule eared dear, a howling coyote silohuetted against the moon, a real live road runner and a naked man on highway 10.

We had our big 2500 mile bike trip in 2000. If you read the series you'll know that he had heat stroke (and possibly a cerebral stroke) during the trip. After that trip, his condition got worse and worse. The neuropathy was so painful that he was taking morphine every day just to stop it along with about 15 other pills. He kept riding his bike until 2004. In 2002, the VA finally had all his records and discovered that, yes, he had been exposed to Agent Orange. New tests and case studies indicated that his condition was similar to other cases and they certified him as 100% with retro pay back to 1995. He took some of the money and bought a new fifth wheel trailer so they could travel (though they never really did except a quick jaunt down to see my brother). Then he bought a brand new Harley Road King which he had always wanted to own. He could only ride it for six months before the neuropathy pain in his feet made it too hard to stand or push the bike and the pain pills made him too drowsy to drive. Of course, he found this out the hard way when he nearly wiped out our pack on a short day ride around the area.

He said he didn't mind if he died on his motorcycle, but he didn't want to be responsible for killing anyone else so he sold it and bought a trike. But he was never going to ride again. He had another small stroke and his feet were so bad the toes were turning black. Even his special boots he had made just for riding wouldn't give him any relief. He lived on pain medication and sheer pervisity for the last year and a half. That and he said that he didn't want to leave my Aunt Jeanie because he knew that she would be lost without him. Of course, she had been taking care of him for several years since his condition had become worse and worse, making sure that he took his meds, cleaning up when he made a mess. On their 30th anniversary, they both got little tattos on their ring fingers with each others' names. Then they put their wedding bands over them. That's how much they loved each other.

We all realized at Christmas time that, despite his insistence he was going to get his right leg amputated, get a prosthetic and ride his trike so we could all go on a motorcycle trip again, that he was not going to ever to that again. He could barely stay awake or stand or eat. My cousins had to carry him out to their truck.

Two weeks ago he was trying to walk over to my dad's house. He had moved down there about two years ago to be close to my grandma who passed away in 2004 and stayed to be near my dad who was also living on disability in the lake area. He went to step out of the fifth wheel trailer, stumbled and fell against the trike that was parked outside. The doctors think the fall knocked a blood clot loose and caused him to have the stroke.

For ten days he was in a coma on a ventilator. Finally, he came out of it and had the vent taken off. The doctors said they didn't know his prognosis because he had contracted bacterial pneumonia, his lungs were weak and he had another blood clot that they couldn't operate on until his condition improved. We was only able to be without the vent for one day. When the doctors told him that they could only save him if they re-intubated him, he looked at my Aunt Jeanie and told her he loved her, to tell the kids he loved them, too and then told the doctor that he revoked my Aunt's power of attorney and demanded a DNR (do not resucitate). He'd been in pain so long and realized that the next thing to come, if he survived, would be paralysis or worse like PVS. He'd already been living in depends and sleeping for most of the day before the stroke.

As his condition worsened, my cousin called us and asked us to come over to the hospital Friday night. Many of my uncle's cousins (my second and third cousins) came to the hospital too and we stood around talking about the old days, telling stories about different experiences, laughing about the funny things he did or said. We had the chaplain come in and say a prayer, fifteen people squeezed into his ICU room (the folks there were very understanding and allowed us to go in and out as we wished and have as many visitors as we wished), holding hands, he said a few words about the flesh not being the end and gave a final benediction. Everyone was crying quietly, trying to squeeze their lips together and muffle their sobs.

Then I looked around at them and said, immitating his voice, "You know, if he could set up and talk right now he'd say, 'What the hell are you crying for? I told you when I died I wanted a G*d D*mn party! Now, d*mn it, party!" Everybody started laughing because that is what he would have said. Then my other cousin chimed in and said, "Yeah, don't make me give you something to cry for!" Just like he would have said it and there was more laughter.

About 11pm, everybody started filtering out. We hugged and made sure everyone had numbers to call, yes, we'd call if there was a change. Thank you, we'll keep in mind your offers to help with anything. And then we were alone, just us few immediate family. We took turns through out the night, sitting in his room, two or three of us at a time so others like my aunt could go get a soda, go to the bathroom, smoke a cigarette or just walk around. Nobody slept much, just a 30 minute nap here or there.

A king could not die with out somebody in attendance to record his last moments.

Saturday morning a few of us went to Denny's for breakfast and brought back food for the others. Later going to get lunch and watching as the numbers on his machine slowly, slowly went down. Until Saturday, his two daughters were in denial about his pending death. Several times I heard each of them say, "Com'on, daddy, wake up. You can make it." It was so sad because everybody knew that he wasn't. The doctor had put him on a morphine drip and gave him oxygen as a palative measure. As his breathing became more and more labored they increased the dosage and the oxygen until they could give him no more.

Around 9:55 pm my aunt and I went to smoke a cigarette. My cousin Lewis and his wife went to take a nap on the hard couches in the waiting room and one of his daughters and her husband took the watch. My brother and his wife went to get some food. We walked back to the room about 10:10, my aunt not wanting to be away from him for long. All day long, as his condition worsened, he had been aspirating liquid from his lungs and during our turns we would have to suction out his mouth and throat. The first time I did it, I thought I was going to lose what little was in my stomach. It's not a pleasant thing to do. But, I got hold of myself because you can do things for people you love you never thought you could do before.

At 10:12 pm his blood pressure suddenly started dropping. I rang my brother on the cell phone and told him to hurry back, but he never made it. At 10:21pm, he passed with his wife, children and eldest grand child in attendance, and me, of course. My brother came a few minutes later and realized he'd missed being there. I thought he was going to lose his mind. He finally got control and went into see him one last time.

There was much sadness, love, tears and hugging.

The king was dead, long live his story.

The wake will be next Thursday and the funeral on Friday. When he died, they were very much in debt. His kids are having a hard time trying to figure out how to pay for his funeral. Because he died from respiratory failure associated with the pneumonia he contracted, the VA is not certifying his death as "service connected" so his wife is getting very little in terms of assistance from the VA or Medicare. I am not asking for money, but I would like to know if anyone knows of any veterans associations that might help his family pay for his funeral or offer other services. I know he did not belong to the VFW, but I don't know of other associations. We know that he could be buried at Leavenworth with no money paid for the plot or headstone, but his family is trying to honor his wish to be buried in the same cemetary as my grandparents so the cost is slightly higher. Still, the highest part is the other necessary activities regarding preparation of the body, the casket, etc.

If you know of any groups that could help, please email me at kehenry1 at hotmail dot com.

Thank you.

[ uncle's last helicopter in Vietnam was selected by the Smithsonian to represent pilots and crew of the era, having been shot down once and recovered, then shot many times, but repaired and still flying, it was one of the longest serving Huey's in the Army. Another helicopter from the era came to Kansas City with an assault helicopter crew association. My uncle took us to see the helicopter and, as a special favor, we were allowed to climb into the helicopter and sit in the pilot and gunner seats. Just another one of our biker day trips.

There are so many more stories I could tell, but I just wanted to tell you about a special man whom I loved very much. Thank you for reading. Kat]

1 comment:

Charles J Klepac Jr said...

I grew up with the Henry Family on South Tremont Street in Kansas City, Kansas. 1940 & 1950. Large Family, all childrens names began with "L". I'm 78 Born 1939. I believe a Larry? was my age, Lavivian was my older sisters age (born 1934). Mom was Blind due to Diabetes. Leroy and others were older. They dugout a basement for their house by hand.
Charles J Klepac Jr.