Reservist killed in gulf leaves behind memories of short, disappointing life

April 02, 1991|By Stephen Braun | Stephen Braun,Los Angeles Times

PARAGOULD, Ark. -- On a day that Steven Mason would have recognized as perfect for a deer hunt, six strangers carried him to rest.

Bucking a stiff March wind, the six men, Army pallbearers, hauled his flag-draped coffin toward a hole in the cold, pliant loam. The mourners waited under a billowing canopy in the small country cemetery, hemmed in by the dense wilds that arch over farmland for miles in all directions, blurring the state boundary between Arkansas and Missouri.

Steven Mason knew these woods intimately. They were his refuge, an enveloping and silent place where private disappointments faded away, where, with a rifle and a sack and his backwoodsman's stealth, he was a match for most any man.

At home, in school, on the assembly line, there was no escape from the tedium of his hard, ordinary life. But inside any tree line, his mother remembered later, it seemed as if nothing could harm him -- a thought that seemed fitting later on, after he died.

Steven Mason's death came thousands of miles away from his woods, in a land without forests. Private Mason, 23, an Army Reserve truck driver, was one of 28 American soldiers killed Feb. 25 in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, when a Scud missile plunged out of the night sky and fell into a barracks where they were preparing for sleep.

He died in a manner that parallels the accelerated, computer-driven pace of the gulf conflict, killed -- like most of America's 124 war dead -- not in direct action with the enemy but in an impersonal, long-distance form of combat that saw soldiers succumb to rocket attacks, land mines and cluster bombs.

Yet unlike so many others who were eulogized and exalted as heroes in the aftermath, there is no neatness, no tidy sentimentality about Private Mason's death -- or the unassuming life that preceded it.

One week, he was a machinist on an ear-splitting assembly line. The next, he was a scared, out-of-shape reservist on the cusp of battle. The next, he was dead. If the gulf conflict fails to produce an unknown soldier, Private Mason might well suffice.

He is this war's Everyman, a cog in the military machine who perished before he had the chance to contribute to the war effort. A reluctant patriot, he feared the conflict's hellish technology, yet could not fathom taking his mother's advice to flee to Mexico.

He left behind no grieving widow, no unseen child, no prospects for a bright, shining life. Even his final communications home were paltry and vague. In the end, there were only a few cartons of personal effects and a collection of guns and fishing rods to hand down to his numbed family and friends.

In Paragould, a town of 18,000 farmers and factory workers west of the Mississippi River, the few yellow ribbons left on display have begun to fray. Strangers who never knew Private Mason are already talking about him as local history, as if he belongs to the town, a faded 19th century milling center that now survives on soybean farms and auto accessory plants.

"I think we all want to touch greatness," said Elinor Campfield, a retired elementary schoolteacher. "Everyone wants to say they knew him. As long as people here remember the war, they'll remember him."

But all that those who knew Private Mason can make out is the modest trajectory of a common man.

"The person they're talking about is someone else," Kerry Spencer, 23, the fallen soldier's best friend, said. "This was an average guy. I mean, the person they talk about is somebody great and strong. If that's what a hero is, I'm sure Steve'd want to be one. He was just a good friend. Now he's gone."

Condolence cards, dinner hams and donations have been left at the Mason home, a brick ranch house. There were notes from congressmen, the governor and the president. Veterans called with talk of a memorial and maybe a plaque at Private Mason's high school.

Peggye Hambrick accepted this good will quietly. She spurned a gun salute but had no quarrel when her surviving son, Jerald, 18, chose a military funeral. So Private Mason was given a silver casket carried by Army pallbearers. He was dressed in a parade-ground green uniform and, head still shaved, buried to a military bugler's lonesome rendition of taps.

The whole time, Mrs. Hambrick thought: "That isn't him. His mustache is gone. His hair is wrong. It looked fine, but that's not how I'll remember him."

Amid the funeral's solemn ceremony, she found herself drawn back to a moment in 1987. Private Mason had wangled a pass from Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., where he was training. As their car left the base, he pleaded with her to stop at the first gas station. He ran into a restroom, tore off his uniform and came out, grinning, in jeans and T-shirt.

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