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A sentimental journey to see a fallen friend

This was Bill Ruth’s America.

The trees were ablaze in glorious colors as we drove along Route 183 through hilly Northeast Ohio last October.

Forests of vivid reds, yellows and oranges enchanted us.

So did the villages.

Like Mineral City, Magnolia and Malvern, with old homes and porches, mom-and-pop stores and sunlit church steeples. And Minerva, festooned in scarlet and gray for the high school homecoming game.

Bill must’ve made that trip countless times, zipping down Route 183, his dad’s Plymouth packed with crewcut pals from Alliance, his hometown eight miles away.

That was our destination on this beautiful fall day.

A melancholy journey.

Fairmount Memorial Park is a 40-acre cemetery with 6,300 grave sites.

Bill’s is one of them.

I wasn’t sure how I’d react when I found his grave site. I’ve lost loved ones like my parents and made my peace with their passing.

Yet Bill’s death still hurts me.

I still can’t believe he’s gone.

Finding his grave marker was overpowering.

WILLIAM R RUTH, it read.

After a few moments, I knelt to say a prayer, put down some flowers, then ran my fingers over his name and read the inscription:

CW4 US ARMY

VIETNAM

PURPLE HEART

I’d forgotten his birthday, Nov. 29, 1943, but I will never forget the date he died.

Sept. 11, 2001.

Bill Ruth perished at the Pentagon that dark day when terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into it, killing 184 innocent people.

He was 57, an Army chief warrant officer at the Pentagon, Gulf War veteran and former Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam.

He was a father, a retired teacher.

He was the big brother I never had.

Ours was a bond forged when we met at Bowling Green State University in northwest Ohio’s flat farmland, so unlike this rolling countryside.

It was 1969.

Forty years.

So many memories like the leaves falling silently around me.

Watching some bad football teams at BG with Bill and feeling no pain.

Putting me up at his condo in Rockville, Md., when I was out of work.

Refereeing kids sports with Bill for Montgomery County Recreation.

Hanging out at the Beowulf in downtown Washington, listening to the DJ spin tunes by a new artist named Springsteen.

Attending Bill’s wedding in Alliance, my only other trip there.

Holding his first son as godfather.

Flying up in June 1991 for his homecoming after the Gulf War.

It was a mighty party, but it was the welcoming Bill received that Monday morning at his school I will cherish always.

The gym was packed and decorated in red, white and blue at Baker Middle School in Damascus, Md.

A hush fell over the audience as the girls glee club serenaded Bill.

As they sang, each girl presented him with a yellow rose.

“Nothing like that ever happened to me when I came back from ’Nam,” he said afterward as we hugged and I left to catch my flight.

It was the last time I saw Bill alive.

We had planned to get together again.

I never dreamed it would be for his memorial service in Mount Airy, Md.

One Pentagon survivor who spoke said she’d heard Bill’s voice after the impact, but he’d stayed behind to help others escape the inferno.

Bill had died a hero.

He’d always been mine.

Now he’s buried near his parents and surrounded by Ohio hinterland in all its autumn allure.

Bill Ruth’s America.

I put my hand over his name once more and then covered my heart.

Then I reached into my coat pocket.

I pulled out a can of beer, opened it and set it down by his grave marker.

’Til we meet again, brother, I said.

’Til we meet again.

Mannix About Manatee, by columnist Vin Mannix, is about people and issues in Manatee Count. Please call Vin Mannix at 745-7055, write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, FL 34206 or e-mail him at vmannix@bradenton.com.

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