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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

A Beloved Man named E.B… Lieutenant General William Earl Brown, USAF

Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One is a short satiric novel about the Southern California (L.A.) funeral scene for pets and people. On this first day of 2022, I will watch the film version tonight with family & friends and next week write about it. Today I wish to honor a man whose funeral we were to attend on January 6th at Arlington National Cemetery.


I had learned about Earl Brown's death the day I came home on June 5th, 2020, from having a knee replaced. Right before the surgery I knew about Earl's broken hip and his hospitalization, which disallowed Gloria (because of the pandemic) from visiting her husband in the hospital. And that June afternoon, the phone in my hand, I realized why Gloria had called, and I could not talk to her and handed the phone to Mike. Anything not to hear words that E.B, a true prince of a man, had died.


Many who knew Earl called him E.B. With me this involved a private joke. I first met Earl and Gloria in 1980 when the children were small. Then, I often read books to Michelle and Bonnie by E.B. White. And Earl, like the famous writer, was the quintessential storyteller. For this reason, I thought of him as E.B., substituting in my mind, brown for white. What does daughter Michelle remember to this day about William Earl Brown? That when he was the two-star, major general, living at the Sembach Air Base in West Germany, he showed her his new Rubik cube one day, and they tried to solve the puzzle together. I had gone to their quarters to leave something for Gloria, and the next thing I knew, Earl was showing Michelle his new toy! Then, a decade later when we were back in the D.C. area, after Mike's tour in Malaysia, Bonnie faced a problem in eighth grade. Students in her junior high had to accompany a parent to work one 'school' day. I was not teaching that year, and Mike at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) could not take Bonnie there with him. Who stepped in to help? Earl, who gave Bonnie a special tour of the Air and Space Museum and took her to lunch in the employee cafeteria. I won't forget that day either, which Bonnie remembers fondly.



June 2020 brought another painful element to the pandemic. Earl's funeral at Arlington National Cemetery would be delayed. But one day it would include a fly over to honor a pilot who flew 225 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam. In my mind and heart, the delay of the funeral kept me from accepting William Earl Brown's death. For the past few months, Mike and I, and our daughters, have waited for January 6th, for the four of us to attend the funeral of this remarkable man, who retired as a three-star general in 1984. But the other evening, Gloria called to let me know that because of the Covid variant, and so much illness everywhere, that only immediate family would be able to attend Earl's service this coming week.


And now, when I most want words to come to me, sadness silences them.


That is why, earlier this New Year’s Day, I located a book in my library, Burning the Days by James Salter. I had remembered that in 1997, Earl went to Politics and Prose in D.C. to hear Salter talk about his "recollection," as he called his memoir. Earl and Salter (though the writer's name was different then) had flown the F 86 Sabre at the same time in the Korean war. Salter went on to fame as a writer. Yet Earl too, like Salter, was one of the finest storytellers I've met in life. And today, I thought how Earl would agree with Salter, that "all is foolish except honor, love, and what little is known of the heart." Earl would have seconded his fellow pilot in this way, too. Salter wrote that the ancients believed the greatest things to be seen are sun, stars, water, and clouds, though Earl would have added snow to this. In his retirement, he taught skiing at Liberty near D.C. Next to flying, he loved skiing, and his beloved Gloria and their three children. E.B. also served for many years as a docent at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, featured there in an exhibit on black aviators, though he was not a man to mention this, as a Washington Post journalist told me, who had taken Earl's tour one day. One of his Smithsonian lectures was made into a small book, "The Story of a Fighter Pilot."


William Earl Brown had the gliding grace and verbal elegance that characterized President Obama. And my regret is that I failed to gather the anecdotes I heard E.B. tell from 1980 until the last time I saw him in 2019. Always calm, this exceptional man, as if observing life from a higher, wiser, and more virtuous place than we mortals, left his contrails in me and so many others. And there is solace in knowing that soon we will be able to visit his grave in Arlington National Cemetery. And on January 6th…Mike, Michelle, Bonnie, and I will be there in spirit with Gloria and her family to honor the finest of men.



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