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Above and Beyond

Mark Hemingway meets the Missing Man

Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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  I recently had occasion to attend a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. It was the day after Veterans Day, and I woke up that November morning to find it cold and raining. Whenever you see military funerals in movies, it’s raining—beads of water stream off the faces of soldiers implacably going through their drills, a heavy-handed metaphor for the stoicism and sacrifice of military service.

Alan Poindexter’s Arlington gravesite, foreground

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Alan Poindexter was my father’s godson. He died this summer at age 50 in a freak accident while taking his developmentally disabled son for a ride on a jet ski. (His son survived the accident just fine.) Alan was several years older than I am and lived 3,000 miles away, so time and distance conspired to keep us from ever meeting when I was growing up. He was the son of one of my father’s closest friends, his roommate at the United States Naval Academy, class of 1958. You may have heard of Alan’s father, Admiral John Poindexter, whose commendable service to his country will long be noted.

Though his death was much too early, there was never any doubt Alan Poindexter would leave his own mark on the world. In fact, Alan had already departed from this world twice before—as the pilot of two space shuttle missions. The closest I came to meeting him was when I went down to Cape Canaveral in January 2008 to watch a space shuttle launch. But once I got there, I found out they quarantine astronauts prior to shuttle launches to keep them from getting sick. Not only did I not get to meet Alan, but technical problems postponed the shuttle launch a month, and I had to leave before I could witness Alan safely steering the Atlantis into the great blue yonder. For him, becoming an astronaut was the culmination of an already impressive career. By all accounts, he was a brilliant aerospace engineer and pilot: Even before orbiting earth 441 times, he flew 30 different aircraft and made 450 carrier landings flying F-14s in the Navy. Last, but certainly not least, he was a loving husband and father.

As my father’s only son, I’ve been keenly aware of the fact that his godson was a seriously impressive individual. It’s rarely a good idea to invite any comparisons to an actual, are-you-kidding-me rocket scientist and fighter pilot. These days, given my profession’s reputation, you can imagine that retired Marine colonels aren’t leaping at the chance to tell their friends their son forswore a military career to become a journalist. It’s a credit to my dad that he’s always been proud and supportive. Maybe I’m not an astronaut, but he’s grateful I didn’t go to law school.

In any event, Alan’s funeral was the reason I found myself strolling through the grass at Arlington National Cemetery with my family, including my father, who had traveled all the way from Oregon to be there. We followed the horse-drawn caisson carrying the flag-draped coffin and eventually arrived at the gravesite. Fortunately, we were spared any mournful meteorological clichés. By then it had stopped raining, and the afternoon sun shone so low and bright over the gentle hills of Arlington that the warmth spread across the faces and pierced right through the dark overcoats of the assembled crowd. Thoughtful remarks and prayers were offered. The band played beautifully, and a group of sailors performed their exacting drills, culminating in the firing of three volleys off in the distance, each shot sending a jolt through the crowd. Finally, flags were presented to Poindexter’s two sons and widow. As somber rituals go, Alan’s funeral was uniquely affirming.

And when an astronaut dies, they go the extra mile. They suspended traffic out of nearby Reagan National Airport—no small gesture—so the Navy could honor Alan with a flyover. The jets came in low over the horizon, flying slowly in a classic delta formation. Then, right as they passed above us, one of the jets peeled off and shot straight up in the sky until it became a nearly imperceptible speck, then disappeared. They call this moving maneuver the Missing Man. 

My two young daughters were transfixed by the spectacle. On the car ride over my wife had explained a little bit about Alan Poindexter and his life to our children. Our wide-eyed three-year-old immediately announced she wanted to be an astronaut. Even in death, Alan Poindexter’s achievements and dedication to others remain an example we hope our children will live up to.

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