28 March, 2012

Carroll Lex LeFon: The Goodbye (and it was good)

Yesterday, Captain Carroll "Lex" LeFon was sent to his reward with all the honor due him and the warm and happy memories of those who knew him. Even the weather seemed to cooperate, as it was a crystal clear but crisp day, and you could see for miles from the top of the hill in Rosecrans where the service was held (picture taken prior to the ceremony).

I'm terrible at estimating crowds, but there were nearly three times as many people as seats to sit in. Most of those in uniform waited for others to sit and when the available seats were filled, stood in neat rows in the back, as if the chairs delineating those rows were simply invisible. It created a beautiful column of people with their Navy and USMC covers sparkling in the sunlight.

Every person involved honored Lex without any misstep I could see. The bagpiper who played for at least 10 minutes before the service was absolute perfection to my musical ear. The Chaplain obviously knew of whom he spoke, borrowing paragraphs from URR's post at the USNI blog and other tributes, and receiving murmurs and exclamations of agreement when he invited the assembled to affirm that Lex was indeed a gifted writer.

The wind was quite intense, and the flag unfurled and furled in honor of Lex whipped and snapped violently in the breeze, but the two sailors completed their task with precision and perfection as they battled the gusts. The female of the pair turned precisely and knelt in from of Lex's wife, obviously offering her more words than the standard, "Please accept this flag on behalf of a grateful nation and the United States Navy," though the wind prevented her quiet words from carrying.

In an amazing "coincidence," moments before the honorary rifle shots and the playing of Taps began, a single Hornet took off from nearby Naval Air Station North Island. It appeared over the treetops in front and to our right just as the first notes sounded. It could not have been more perfect--the always-haunting Taps floating through the wind-whipped air as the plane most-associated with Lex's career faded into the cloudless sky.

There was then a very brief delay as we waited for the fly-by, and the Rosecrans attendant who had guided people through protocol for the military honors invited us to sit "in quiet contemplation." But as soon as Lex's wife heard the roar of the jets, she leapt to her feet, still clutching the folded flag in one arm as she stood on tiptoe in the center aisle, a tiny pixie of a woman reaching to the sky and waving in huge, wide arcs as a two-ship passed directly overhead. It was an F-18 Hornet with a Kfir tucked up very close on its wing, the bookends of Lex's flying career.

As the service closed, attendees were encouraged not to dally, but many took the time to pay their respects to the family. And others had a very long walk, as vehicles were parked down both sides of the road for quite a distance, such was the crush of people.

Following the service, we apparently had ATAC, Lex's employer, to thank for a great reception on Point Loma right next to the water and overlooking the San Diego skyline. Walking in the door, one instantly encountered the following display:

Sharp eyes will know what is in the upper left corner of the table, and as for myself, I was so gratified to see two of the pictures brought to the Shakespeare's March 9th get-together by SoCalPir8 and me front and center. Lex's wife had asked us for permission to take them with her, which we had gladly granted, so it was very touching to see them make a re-appearance.

The reception itself was near-perfection, with only one flaw that was soon rectified. As SoCalPir8 and an unnamed former naval officer stood at the bar, they both discovered there was not a drop of Guinness (for strength!) or Jameson (for courage!) in the facility. They instantly teamed up to solve the problem, cleaning out the Naval Exchange of all but one six-pack of Guinness and procuring two large bottles of Jameson Irish Whiskey as well. The bartender was a bit perturbed when they returned with Guinness and Jameson in hand, but graciously allowed the drinks to be placed on a corner of the bar for all to share. A number of Naval Officers and Marines alike were later spotted joining the formal toasts with a Guinness in one hand and a Jameson in the other.

The most poignant moment of the reception relates to what is in the lower right hand corner of the above picture. It was an informal moment, and I felt tremendously blessed to happen to have been close enough to see it develop. A distinguished naval officer in uniform was struggling with a tri-folded flag that was threatening to unravel its neat triangle when several of our troop of blog readers jumped to assist him. In the course of helping, it was discovered that he was the current CO of TOPGUN and he was bearing a very special gift, which he then instantly turned and presented to Lex's son and wife (click to enlarge, and note the date).

Yes, it was the flag flying over TOPGUN when Lex's plane went down.

I wish I could've somehow recorded every single detail and conversation of the reception, for it was truly the balm our souls needed--to be among those who knew and loved Lex as the great man he was. As the toasts began, I could hear Lex's voice in every story, see mannerisms and expressions described by family, friends and fellow pilots. And it was a joy to see the happiness and affection with which he was remembered.

It would not surprise most to hear that Lex was supremely competitive, and one pilot spoke of how over the years they'd end up in a wrestling match each time they encountered one other, including when they met up again as employees of ATAC. A female voice piped up from the back, "He's not kidding. Right there in the hallway, giving HR a heart attack. The liability!" The original speaker added that since he always had about 30-50 pounds on Lex, he could win in the first 15 minutes, but that "he'd beat you 45 minutes later." He never, ever gave up.

Lex's nephew was only two years younger than him due to Lex's sister being significantly older, and reported the same kind of story. He also put a poignant spin on another event, one I had never considered in that light. As Lex had written on his blog, he rolled his old Jaguar convertible his senior year at the Naval Academy (giving him the nickname "Car-Roll"). But the nephew added some information, pointing out that Lex had landed upside down in a ditch with the car suspended by the sides of the ditch, a configuration that surely saved his life. "I look at every year after that as a gift from God," the nephew said, "And Carroll made the most of that gift." He added that we shouldn't so much be sad that we lost Lex relatively young, but be joyful that we had him for far more years than we had every right to expect. I was reminded again of Patton's admonition that we not mourn, but rather celebrate that such men lived.

Others told great stories about Lex's wit, including one involving a sister squadron smuggling a live rooster aboard ship that insisted on crowing at inopportune times because it was kept in the dark 24/7 until they were far enough out that it chouldn't be sent back on the COD plane. Unfortunately, that hiding place was next to Lex's stateroom. One day Lex spotted a leader of that sister squadron and went storming down the ship's passageway, reporting, "Your damn J.O.'s brought a barnyard alarm clock aboard and the damn thing's broke. It keeps going off at 3 o'clock every damn morning!"

One particularly delicious story involved someone who had spent time with Lex in staff work, involving the cutting wit Lex fortunately kept sheathed most of the time. I suspect those who watched Lex engage trolls on his blog know exactly of what his fellow officer spoke...

Thanks to Lex's son (SNO), we also got the full story of Lex's reaction to SNO's decision to go into helicopters instead of jets. SNO said that the thing he'll always remember his father saying was "nothing." After SNO made his aviation choice, he had called his father. "What did you get?" Lex asked. "Helicopters," SNO replied. There was dead silence on the phone. As the silence extended, SNO became concerned. "Are you still there, Dad?" he asked. "Yes," came the calm reply. "I just thought you said 'helicopters.'" SNO affirmed the accuracy of his father's hearing and received the response, "Did you not get jet grades, or something?" He had, but had chosen helicopters and soon explained why. SNO reported to the assembled crowd at the reception that once Lex recovered from the shock, his father made it clear how proud he was of SNO going his own way, something that Lex had always celebrated and for which SNO expressed his deep appreciation and gratitude in his toast.

The most hilarious moment was supplied by Lex's two beautiful and equally-poised daughters. They referenced the PX90 video workouts Lex favored when he needed to return to fighting shape for the ATAC job, describing them as great for "using to work out, or watch for tips, or just to listen to as your father pants in the next room." It absolutely brought down the house.

Kat, his youngest, said that for 17 years it had been her life mission to tease, harass and generally humble her proud, competitive and driven father, a role she obviously relished. She reported that one day recently she had heard two thumps coming from the 2nd story of her home and called out, "Dad, are you okay?" He reported from his upstairs room that everything was fine but she knew better, running to check on him. "I arrived to see a yoga video still running," she said, "and my father laying on the floor just like a tipped cow. I said, 'Did you fall over doing yoga?'" She giggled, and then perfectly imitated his resigned tone. "Yes. I think I broke my hip." She looked down with amusement as she must have that day. "Would you like me to help you get up?" she asked with laughter in her voice. Again with the resigned and monosyllabic reply, "Yes."

It was delightful to see those two girls in action, full of such love and affection, and so very obviously their father's daughters, marked with not only his features but his wit and playfulness. And of particular delight to me was to discover that they spoke just as quickly as their father did. Comment was later made by the CEO of ATAC that some people in his employ had trouble understanding a word Lex said because at times he spoke so fast. As a fast speaker myself, I loved it!

Lex's family made him proud yesterday with the strength, courage, poise and warmth they exhibited through what was surely a wrenching day for them. And those who have been concerned that the family continue to have the support they need will be gratified to know that Lex's son was sustained by a number of squadron mates in attendance, as well as several Marines from his ROTC days. The girls were well-accompanied by a table full of their young friends, and the room was awash in love and support. During the toasts, Lex's wife was hailed as a mother to the military base neighborhoods they inhabited, and honored for her mentoring of the younger military wives. His children were honored for their military service in SNO's case, and the strength and resiliency the daughters displayed in theirs.

The family has a long road ahead, as anyone who has lost a loved one knows, but they will be accompanied on that road with a large and dedicated team of brothers in arms, coworkers and friends who will never allow Lex (or those he loved) to be forgotten.

He lives on in so many...

Update: ATAC has really gone above and beyond what could be expected, for both Lex and the family now left behind. Just one in the multitude ways that above-and-beyond was expressed was in ATAC's creation of a 100 memorial challenge coins, a couple of which--gifted from Lex's wife herself--graced the hands of a few military bloggers and readers by the time the reception was over. One side of the coin displays the ATAC name and logo. The other appears below.

Lex's very civilian neighbor of 10 years was in awe of it, telling us that his coin would now be used a placemarker on golf outings, as whenever he and Lex went golfing the day would end with drinks. "I would turn around and there would always suddenly be two drinks in front of me," he recalled with tears welling in his eyes. "A Guinness and a shot of Jameson. That's what Lex always said, 'Guinness for strength, Jameson for courage.'"

To Lex!

[cross-posted at The Castle & The Lexicans.]