|A Soldier. A Mavs Fan. A Last Wish Before Dying.|
|by Mike Fisher||Sun, May 30, 2010, 09:05 PM|
Berry Webb’s cozy home is full of neatly organized evidence of a life of expressiveness, passion and love. He is devoted to his God, to his America, to his wife Sherry and family and friends … and to his Dallas Mavericks. But on our recent visit, Marine Corps Sgt. Webb, 61, is fighting for that life of expressiveness, passion and love. Berry is a victim of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, the ALS coming on two years ago as a result of being exposed to Agent Orange during his tour in Vietnam, where he served as a gunner, participated in six major battles and earned six medals for his sacrifice.
Now, the expressiveness is limited. From a hospital bed stationed permanently in the living room of his house in Terrell, Texas, his ability to communicate is essentially limited to what he can do with his left hand … and with a single teardrop.
“I am not a hero,’’ Webb says to me – but he “says’’ this in silence.
His method of communication is a series of quick-but-patient tapping the fingers of his left hand onto an alphabet board held near his lap by Sherry (and throughout the day by other members of our party, which includes Gina Miller, Mark Followill and videographer Bill Ellis, who shot a companion piece for the story for CBS11).
At 17 and a student at North Texas’ Spruce High School, Berry volunteered for the Marines. His military service from March 1966 to March 1969 was impressive; among his awards while serving as an M60 machine gunner in K-Co 38N 7th Marine Division: Combat Action Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation, Meritorious Unit Commendation, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with four bronze campaign stars, Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Commendation and Rifle Marksman Badge. He returned to the States and wasted no time beginning his civilian life: In no time, he got hired at Oncor Electric Delivery Company. And in no time, he got hitched to Sherry.
“We’re about to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary, and Berry was in that business for 40 years, too,’’ says the effervescent Sherry. “He was the company cut-up. Always causing trouble! Once, the guys called the house and asked for ‘Spider.’ I told them they had the wrong number – until I realized that ‘Spider Webb’ must be his nickname at work. … You can’t get the full effect of it anymore, but one of his greatest gifts is the way he makes people laugh.’’
Berry and Sherry have a million memories now. They flood back to them with the daily visits from his loved ones, including his two daughters, three grandchildren and so many friends from town, from work, from the church. They come back because of all the moments they now share. Sherry rarely leaves the house because better than anyone else, she knows exactly how to translate the meaning of every gesture, every cough, every blink, and she fears someone else might get it slightly wrong. A nurse visits every day at noon to help bathe Larry, but otherwise, Sherry handles virtually everything, and does so lovingly.
Every night since September of 2009, when he was attached to the ventilator, she’s slept on the sofa next to Berry’s bed. … fitfully, yes … but at least she doesn’t miss a gesture, a blink, a moment.
“He keeps me going!’’ Sherry giggles. “His mind is always going. I keep him busy and he keeps me busy.’’
Many of the memories – and the passions and the loves -- are represented by photos and artwork that surround his living-room bed. His old uniform jacket is in a frame. So are photos of him with pals, photos that show Berry to have once been literally twice the size he is now.
On the wall to the right of his bed is the machine with the tubes that connects to his neck and other parts of his body. Above the machine are a series of Biblical framings. Most prominent, a plaque that reads, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.’’
To the left of Berry, where his hand can reach, is a bicycle horn (one more form of communication), a CD player (he listens to the Bible on tape), a box of Kleenex and a Dirk Nowitzki talking doll.
And in front of Berry Webb? His television set. Where he focuses a great deal of attention on his Dallas Mavericks.
“They’re going to win it all!’’ Larry says, but for this statement, he doesn’t use his left hand. He manages to raise his voice to less than a whisper and I read his lips. “I am a big believer.’’
Larry is a fan of owner Mark Cuban (“If Mark needs any money,’’ he jokes, “tell him to call me’’), of Dirk Nowitzki (“The greatest’’) and of Caron Butler (“Turn him loose.’’) But he is also devoted to and inspired by the work of Mavericks TV broadcasters Bob Ortegel and Mark Followill. And that connection is part of the reason we are here today.
Sgt. Berry Webb relies on his Mavericks as a diversion from the suffering. But because he cannot escape it nor the inevitability of his plight, he’s decided to – as he phrased it to Sherry a couple of months ago – “go out in style.’’
And not surprisingly, that involves the Mavs, too.
So many times during Mavs telecasts, Berry has absorbed the fact that Ortegel and Followill are wearing wardrobe supplied by long-time Mavs sponsor Lombardo’s Custom Apparel. That’s why the Webbs recently called Jay Lombardo and staff: to ask them to help design the clothing Larry will be buried in.
“Mr. Webb actually designed it,’’ Lombardo says. “It’s beautiful and unique piece for a beautiful and unique man …’’
And, adds Sherry, “it is a dream come true for Berry. It’s got a band collar; he’s always liked that. It’s got a western cut to it. It’s got his initials on it. The scarf is purple for LSU. He’ll wear it with blue jeans. It fits his personality perfectly. He’s always been a very special person.’’
The jacket tells a story. The living room tells a story. The Mavericks? Berry has a lot of opinions on the subject of the Mavericks. But there is one area he’s remained quiet about for the better part of all these 40 years.
The tales of horror and bravery and sacrifice of war? He’s never told those tales. Forty years, and he hasn’t allowed himself to detail to his wife and to his friends and certainly not to his children and grandchildren, all the things he saw, all the things he did. This expressive, passionate loving man – the man who can make everybody laugh – didn’t want to burden anyone else with his Vietnam experiences.
“I-J-U-S-T-W-A-N-T-E-D-T-O-G-E-T-O-N-W-I-T-H-M-Y-L-I-F-E,’’ he taps on the alphabet board.
The stories were destined to be lost (not unlike the records that retrieved his medals, forgotten until Congressman Jeb Hensarling intervened and contacted the U.S. Department of Defense) until Berry changed his mind. He is now telling his children … so they can tell their children … it’s an important family legacy and it’s an important American story. …
“I have not told them a thing,’’ Berry taps. “I will now.’’
And as he says this, Berry’s face says something that not even 40 years of practiced stoicism can repress. A teardrop forms in his left eye and slowly trickles down his cheek.
I am writing this on Memorial Day Weekend. It seems fitting, right? I am hurrying because I want Berry to read my article at DallasBasketball.com and to see the work of Gina and crew, in humble hope that maybe it might give him even the tiniest comfort.
But Gina has just contacted me. I am writing this on Memorial Day Weekend and Berry has just passed away. It is Memorial Day Weekend and the funeral is on Monday. The doctors took him off the ventilator and he loved the Mavs and he’ll be wearing his custom-made jacket and that’s about all I know right now. I’m offering up my day with him and I hope it’s good enough and I hope Berry had time to communicate some thoughts to the kids and I hope Sherry is alright.
Marine Corps Sgt. Berry Webb said he just wanted to go out in style and insisted he’s not a hero.
Truth is, he spent a lifetime in style … and he spent a lifetime as a hero.
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