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OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Rue remembered

by Mike Masterson | June 12, 2022 at 1:40 a.m.

My father, retired Lt. Col Rue B. Masterson, has been gone 42 years.

Yet 1980, when he unexpectedly stopped by my office at the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record bearing a grim and ashen face, doesn't seem that long ago.

He sat across from the desk and said nothing for a minute. Then he shook his head and said, "Well, son, I just got some bad news I sure didn't expect."

He told me he'd just been diagnosed at age 64 with late-stage colon cancer and given less than a year to live.

Isn't that how unpredictable and fragile life too often goes for each of us? When we finally think all appears well in life, the many things we don't see coming rise up and deal us a crushing blow.

My father's survival was shorter than the doctor predicted, and it was by no means an easy passing. His first chemo treatment resulted in severe pain in his left leg. Being of strong resolve, he chose to wait it out, expecting the discomfort to pass. Not a wise decision, but expected for a headstrong veteran.

By the next morning, the pain had become unbearable. So he headed for the hospital where they admitted him. Turned out the excruciating agony had been caused by a blood clot formed soon after the chemo treatment.

They also informed him gangrene had set in during the night as well. The only chance for him at that point was to remove his leg, which they did.

I can only imagine receiving that news on top of the terminal colon cancer diagnosis. In his hospital room that night, he tearfully stared into my eyes and reminded me that, as the oldest sibling, I was going to have to help look after Mom and sister Gaye, who was 10 years younger.

I assured him I would do everything possible. Then I walked out with tears in my eyes over what had so suddenly happened in his life, even as demanding as he could be with his children and his wife of 34 years.

Dad asked to be transferred to the Fort Roots VA hospital in North Little Rock. I'm certain his feelings in those moments as he fathomed his mortality alone in the hospital bed revolved around an impressive military background that had lifted him out of poverty and hopelessness to achieve the pinnacle of life as an U.S. Army officer.

One afternoon we were able to roll him outside and around the manicured landscape for an hour. Looking down as I pushed to stare at the top of his baldish graying head, it struck me hard that his time was drawing to a close.

When we departed that afternoon, I looked back into his room. He sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the floor, obviously in a moment of deep reflection. Many in that condition must feel likewise. After all, it's one thing to face life's risks and challenges, but quite another to face one's mortality.

The colonel was accepted, in a last-ditch effort to fight back, to the famed Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., which was the country's hallmark institution for veterans' medical care. He'd placed his final hopes in what doctors there might do to repair his body and restore meaning to his existence.

He announced he was going there to fight his personal war surrounded by soldiers like those he'd commanded and mentored for more than 20 years.

One morning the family carried Dad to the Little Rock airport with his wheelchair. None of us really knew what to say, or even how to share our honest thoughts in a way that bolstered sincere hope or expectation. "Good luck" seemed to ring hollow. Instead, we all told him we loved him and would continue praying for him.

A flight attendant took over and slowly rolled him from our lives. I watched until they entered the plane and turned right. The family tried to smile and muster a positive attitude. But we each knew how it would end. We'd never see him again.

A month later, my Aunt Virginia Hammerschmidt and her son John Arthur, who then lived in D.C, visited Dad. They reported he had appeared so shrunken in his bed as to be unrecognizable from the man they'd long known.

Two weeks later, a physician called to say he likely wouldn't make it through the night and asked me if they should keep him on life support. It took only seconds to respond that if he died naturally to let him go to the fate that awaits us all. Why prolong the inevitable?

He passed during the predawn into his eternal state.

Today, my father is buried alongside Mom, my grandparents, aunts and uncles in the Hammerschmidt plot at Hillcrest Cemetery. I occasionally stop by to pay my respects to each of them and place a small American flag on Dad's bronze military plaque honoring his service in World War II and Korea.

I do that more for myself since he's been gone for decades. I also remain aware of his successes and shortcomings in life and fatherhood, all the while realizing that Rue Masterson was half of my reason for being here 75 years now, and just how temporary and fragile our physical existence is.

My father is not forgotten.


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.


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