Raymond J. Butters
Major, United States Marine Corps
J. Butters, 68, a veteran of two wars, died Monday at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
He lived in Springfield, Virginia.
Born in Boston, he flew transport planes in the South Pacific during World War II and the Korean War. In 1947, he was navigator for an Antarctic expedition with Admiral Richard E. Byrd. Mount Butters in Antarctica was named for him. Major Butters retired while serving at the Quantico Marine Base in 1963.
He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Frances;
a daughter, Mary Eileen Butters of Annandale; and three sons, Timothy and
Patrick Butters of Alexandria and Michael Kevin Butters of New Bern, Noth
Carolina. Services will be at 8:45 am tomorrow at the old Post Chapel at
Fort Myer, with burial in Arlington National Cemetery. The family suggests
that expressions of sympathy be in the form of contributions to the American
Lung or American Heart associations.
There's nothing more nauseating than a newspaper writer baring his soul about a dead relative. Sounds like something my dad would say. What follows seems like sentimental claptrap, but perhaps the timing is right. R.J. Butters died on Jun 19, 1989, the Monday after Father's Day, at Bethesda Naval Hispital. He was 68. (Driving by there is annoying - not so much because of what happened but because I always have to look in that direction.)
So the five-year anniversary arrives tomorrow, on Father's Day. It's more than that irony that compels me to write, though. I found a picture of him and for a moment didn't recognize the bespectacled, baldheaded guy with the spaghetti-eating grin. It kind of bugged me that my memory was so cloudy. A friend lost her dad recently, and at the funeral I wondered whether she fears she might forget him. I was afraid of that when my dad died. Not that pop was forgettable. (Granted, later in life, he was a small, quiet enigma, prompting an acquaintance to call him "smaller than life."
What do you expect from a guy who hung around a lively wife and four loudmouthed kids?) Not many people have their name on the landscape of the South Pole, but there's a mountain in Antarctica named after my father - no kidding, Mount Butters. He helped navigate a Navy expedition to the South Pole, "Operation High Jump," with Admiral Richard E. Byrd in 1947. So, like his namesake mountain, pop loomed in the background at gatherings - this witty sweetheart, kind and exceedingly polite.
So I'm thinking about what keeps Dad fresh in the memory. It's comforting to know that just because someone goes, over the years they don't really go. The first thing the family did to keep him alive was throw a great funeral. Well, the U.S. Goverment helped. Pop got a full-honors burial at Arlington National Cemetery, the least that he deserved, with the horse-drawn caisson, the military bands and the obnoxiously loud guns. He was a Marine for 20 years, so the simple white tablet among the thousands at Arlington is kind of neat. It symbolizes that he was one of many, the perfect symbol of comradeship that brings out the best in the military. (It cracks me up, though, that commercial airliners from National Airport scream overhead whenever I visit his grave. I imagine he's grumbling and shaking his fist since he hated to ride on any plane he wasn't flying.)
The day he died, we kept a sense of humor, because the old man had a sense of humor. My brothers Mike and Tim and I laughed a bit at the funeral home, mulling over the range of casket colors we could choose from, and how pop would roll his eyes at reclining in a hot-pink boat in the back of a hearse. Everybody gave a little talk at the Fort Myer Chapel before the burial. My sister Mary talked to him and was nice and emotional. Tim was as anecdotal as a toastmaster. Mike traced the Marine years. I, of course, was Leo Buscaglia. ("Why didn't I hug you more?") Mercifully for the mourners, by the time I spoke, my brothers had hogged most of the time and another funeral was behind us.
After the funeral, though, sometimes you have to look to keep the memory alive. I tend to talk about him a lot to my relatives. And while some people find the holidays a time to wail with their noses through lots of Kleenex and bemoan the dead, I like to think about what Dad liked. Like the sentimental, overshown "It's A Wonderful Life." He identified with that old goat Potter in the movie. (Dad was such a dork sometimes - but he wasn't that grumpy.) Or "A Miracle on 34th Street." He liked the scene at the film's end when the judge has this mountain of Santa Claus mail dumped on his desk. (Rent the movie if you can't follow this.)
Dad was a little weird about this flick - he would laugh in anticipation of that scene. Whenever I travel, I still think of getting my first job as a sports reporter in Natchez, Mississipi. Dad the navigator pulled out all the maps and calibrated the shortest distance from here to the southwest Mississippi River town. Then he went into my car and plastered the dashboard with yellow Post-its that delineated the exact routes I'd take. Then he wrote a list of the states I'd drive through, in case I wound up confused in Montana. Some people are hilarious when they don't know it.
But people should be appreciated for what they introduce to you. Every time I hear music from Caruso to Jolson I'm grateful to him, for he had an eclectic ear and turned me on to lots of different stuff, such as Shakespeare and the Marx Brothers. One time when I was dancing the two-step at some bar, doing so gracefully well, I imagined I was him. (He was a natural, graceful athlete.) It was a strange but comforting feeling. Sorry. Didn't mean to turn this into a eulogy. And maybe I'm being a bit melodramatic; memories of him are still strong. And maybe this is painfully unoriginal, but perhaps people are the greatest legacy of those who go.
Dad's integrity, humility and sense of humor are still rampant in the family, and they spilled on to others. That's something five years can't erase. He still pops up in other places. In the recently published book "The Roosevelts: An American Saga,"
Peter Collier quotes what Theodore Roosevelt said when asked about his father: "He was the best man I ever knew." There he is again.
Editor's note: The author is editor of The
Washington Weekend and the Saturday section of The Washington Times.