When a 94-year-old World War II vet needs it most, neighbors bring tidings of comfort and joy
By DAVID TARRANT | The Dallas Morning News | Published: December 24, 2019
DALLAS (Tribune News Service) — Friendships come in many forms these days.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram friends you rarely, if ever, see in real life.
Childhood friends who send cards once per year. That fellow dog-walker you see around the neighborhood. Work friends. Church friends. Parents of your kids’ friends.
The hope is that among them are one or two special friends you call first when you’re having a get-together. The one you turn to after getting bad medical news, or when you’ve been dumped by your employer or partner.
Or when it’s Christmastime, and there’s no family around.
The cynical among us insist those deep, caring friendships are more aspirational than real. Who has the time? We’re too busy, too rootless. We’re buried under to-do lists, the 24-hour news cycle, social media, traffic jams, work.
But such friends are out there. Just ask Barney Baker. He’s got a neighborhood full of them.
An Arlington resident, Barney, 94, had been married to his wife, Jacqueline, for 62 years when she died in 2014. She had been the love of his life, his business partner, mother of his daughter and his late son. His best friend.
Adventurous, they grew a business together. They traveled the world. They both had private pilots’ licenses. They built a beautiful retirement home on Lake Arlington and loved entertaining their neighbors.
It’s hard to go on after losing someone who’s been that close to you — especially if you’re entering your 10th decade. What would Barney do?
He already had lived a long, amazing life. A World War II veteran, he’d manned a .50-caliber machine gun with the 773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion as it fought through Nazi Germany during the final year of the war. The battalion was attached to the famous 90th Infantry Division, nicknamed the “Tough Ombres” and part of Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army.
After the war, he went to Texas Wesleyan, where, in Spanish class, he met Jacqueline. Barney worked a variety of jobs before finally creating his own company to do property appraisals for rapidly growing school districts and towns throughout the U.S. His last job was reappraising the entire state of Wyoming.
Barney worked with the public. Jacqueline handled the books. To hear Barney describe it, they were a perfect match.
David Green lives three doors down from Barney. They share a slice of Lake Arlington. On sunny days, the water sparkles, drawing egrets, blue herons and the occasional seagull to its banks. On stormy days, the rain explodes across the lake like a startled flock of geese.
Like Barney, David served in the Army. He enlisted during the Vietnam War. He never made it to combat but experienced the mistreatment of soldiers by a public soured on the war.
He recalls being at an airport with another soldier who’d broken his leg in a motorcycle accident. His friend, wearing his dress green uniform, was walking on crutches when a woman yelled at him, “You should’ve died over there!”
She looked to be in her 50s and could have been one of his mother’s neighbors or friends, David said, still feeling the remark decades later like a gut punch.
Even World War II veterans didn’t give their Vietnam-era brethren a warm welcome back. Unlike World War II, Vietnam did not end in a victory, and the culture wars of the 1960s and ’70s created a rift between the generations.
But there was no awkwardness between Barney, the World War II veteran, and David, the Vietnam-era veteran when they met. “When veterans get together, they share funny stories about their service,” David said. “And that’s how it usually was with Barney.”
David’s dad was an aircraft mechanic for the Army Air Forces in World War II. David soaked up Barney’s stories about the fighting in Germany, including the one about how he was wounded.
Barney’s unit had stopped to rest and he was making a hot drink over a fire using snow and instant coffee. Suddenly, the Germans attacked with mortars and Barney injured his leg badly while diving to take cover, tearing tendons and ligaments.
A thin 6-foot-2, Barney still walks with a limp and has had surgery on the leg several times. Every now and then, his leg will give out, he said, like someone’s tackled him from behind, and he’ll fall down.
He retains the big, wide smile you see in his Army photos. His dog, a fluffy, white Maltese named SheShe, is now his constant companion, always nearby, on his lap or ready to pounce onto a tennis ball tossed her way.
David worked in Army intelligence for four years. He left the service in 1970 and spent his career with the railroad. Like Barney, he raised two children, and he’s been married almost fifty years.
He and Barney have been friends since he moved to the neighborhood about 25 years ago. But in the past few years since David’s retirement, they’ve had more time for each other. David visits two or three times per week, more often if Barney needs him for something, like setting the thermostat. His eyesight is not good, so he can’t see the words and numbers very well.
Mostly, they just get together to hang out, David said. “I’ll walk down just to visit with him, drink a beer and talk about current events.”
David is the first to say he’s only one of Barney’s many friends in the neighborhood.
One of them is a computer whiz whom Barney calls when he can’t get his desktop to work.
Another neighbor checks every night to see if Barney left his garage open or his lights on. That’s usually a sign he fell asleep watching television. That neighbor then will call David, who will saunter down to Barney’s and help his friend into bed.
Someone threw a Christmas party recently and most of the neighborhood showed up, including Barney. It wouldn’t be the same without him, David said.
Barney felt well enough to go to France for the 75th anniversary of D-Day in June — the first time he’d done so. He was asked to lay a wreath at the entrance of the American cemetery in Normandy.
He walked among the rows of headstones with white, marble crosses and Stars of David. He was struck by how many remain unidentified.
Their headstones say, “Known but to God,” he said, his voice cracking.
As David and Barney sat in the living room trading stories, David mentioned that the last time Barney went to see his doctor, they talked about the dwindling number of World War II veterans still alive.
“He told his doctor on his last visit,” David said, “that he wants her to be able to claim that she treated the last living World War II veteran.”
“Yeah,” Barney said, laughing, his eyebrows jumping. David chuckled, too.
After all, neither is counting birthdays or marking time. Today, they’re just spending an easy afternoon together, enjoying each other’s company, a couple of old buddies.