by Charles Faint and Mike Warnock
This story begins where few stories do: on a school bus, in 8th Grade, in Fayetteville, North Carolina back in the early 1980s. That’s how I met the person that I came to know as Nathaniel Doddridge Barnes. We all called him Nate.
Many people were friendly with me in high school, but I only had three close friends: Ray Mikol, with whom I, unfortunately, lost all contact decades ago, Mike Warnock, who has been my best friend since 8th grade and who I get to talk to several times a week, and Nate Barnes. Nate died last month after a long battle with a series of severe medical conditions related to his service as an engineer in the Air Force. 50 years old, and gone far too soon.
What follows are my memories of my friend, Nate Barnes. This story goes back more than 30 years, and I’m sure that I will get some things wrong about Nate, despite consulting my Westover Senior High yearbook and asking our mutual best friend, Mike Warnock, for some fact-checking assistance. But this is the story.
It was very early in the school year, 1985 or so, and on the way to Westover Junior High School one morning a tall, gangly 13-year-old boy that I didn’t know trudged up the steps of the bus and plopped down on the seat beside me. “Are you in the Boy Scouts?” he asked me, with no prelude.
Yes, friends, in junior high school I was so obviously a geek and a goody-goody that people automatically assumed that I was literally a Boy Scout just by looking at me.
As it turned out that assumption was correct and I was, indeed, literally a Boy Scout. Nathan soon joined my troop, and we bonded over the love of the outdoors, our shared academic interests, and the usual things that teenage boys are interested in. A short time later we added a third to our group: Mike Warnock. All of our parents were in the military and worked at Fort Bragg, the sprawling North Carolina military base adjacent to Fayetteville. Nate’s father was a helicopter pilot, while Mike’s dad and mine both did intel work in the Joint Special Operations Command. Ultimately all three of us were in the same Boy Scout troop and spent a lot of time together in junior high and high school. We were together so much that my father started referring to us as “The Fellas,” as in, “what are you and The Fellas going to do today?” It was a name that stuck. Nate awarded himself the title of Fella #1, and Mike decided he was Fella #3. That left me as Fella #2. Nate’s younger brother Jason was an honorary member, and often tagged along on our adventures.
We did a lot of the typical things that young teenage boys do. We threw lit firecrackers at each other, or shot them at each other from a spent Army rocket launcher. We mooned the cops—and got chased by them—during a Boy Scout camping trip. We found, and collected, a lot of loose rifle and machine gun ammunition, flares, and other material that soldiers had dumped in the lakes and streams on Fort Bragg. One time we even found a complete 40mm grenade round and argued about whether or not we should throw it into the campfire at a Boy Scout Camporee (we did not). We went four-wheeling over Sicily drop zone in Nate’s old van… which was definitely not a four-wheel-drive vehicle. From time to time we even convinced / bribed some of the Fort Bragg GIs to buy us beer.
The three of us played a lot of basketball together and spent a lot of time wandering around in the woods near our houses. I distinctly recall us finding and exploring a lengthy hand-dug cave in the woods across the street from Nate’s house. In retrospect, it was extremely dumb for us to go crawling around in a sketchy dirt cave dug out by God-knows-who for the purpose of God-knows-what, but nothing bad ever happened. At least not there.
One of the most exciting/dangerous things we did was to have BB gun wars in the woods. Mike and I both had the standard one-pump Red Rider/”You’ll shoot your eye out!” style guns, but Nate had a higher-end multi-pump model, one that packed much more of punch. The Great BB Gun Wars of the Devonwood Neighborhood came to an end when Nate somehow ended up on the other team one day and accidentally shot Mike in the face, shattering a tooth. We all ended up getting grounded and having our BB guns taken away from us, and to this day Mike has a fake tooth. Given the spectrum of “dumb things that teenage boys can do to each other,” and in light of everything we did do that didn’t end in an emergency room visit, I imagine that we were lucky to get off with a literal face shot.
Nate, Mike and I—The Fellas—had a lot of the same friends and took a lot of the same classes at Westover. Ultimately, all three of us went on to the military. Nathan ended up graduating from the Air Force Academy and became an engineer in the Air Force before leaving the service and becoming a doctor. Mike also joined the Air Force as a nurse before switching over to the Army, and I joined the Army after college as well. Nate always wanted to be a pilot like his father, but it didn’t quite work out. He was smart enough and fit enough, but he had a minor medical condition that kept him out of the cockpit. We had a little bit of foreshadowing about the reason why, because another of the things we spent a lot of time doing as a group in high school was playing a military tabletop strategy game called Axis and Allies. The game’s dark-green US troops looked a lot like the dark-brown Russian troops, and Nate had a hard time differentiating between them. When Mike and I teased him that he had color blindness, he rather unexpectedly flew into a rage. That, of course, made us tease him about it more. But it was no surprise to me to later learn that Nate got disqualified from serving as an Air Force pilot because of… color blindness.
Nate was very smart and did well in school, despite the yearbook photo of him sleeping in Calculus class. He was in the band and played trumpet. And he was very physically fit; between our junior and senior years he started taking fitness very seriously, and by the end of high school he was pretty ripped. Unlike Mike and me, Nate earned his Eagle Award in Boy Scouts. Also unlike Mike and me, Nate was much more smooth and self-confident and had a series of girlfriends during our school years.
Despite our close relationship, I have very few photos of Nate and me together. In fact, the only one I could easily find was a staged yearbook picture of the two of us standing in front of the red Jeep that his parents bought him during our senior year. In the photo, the hood to Nate’s Jeep is up and I’m pointing at something. I know it was staged because I had a Camaro in high school and didn’t get into Jeeps until I was in my mid-30s. So just about the only thing I could say in that circumstance is “yep, that’s an engine!” Even when I reconnected with him many years later, at his home in Florida, I still didn’t think to take any photos of Nate and me together, and I don’t recall if anyone else did either.
Despite mutual yearbook promises to the contrary (see below), Nate and I drifted apart after college. His parents moved to Florida, and mine to Pennsylvania. He joined the Air Force, and I joined the Army. We wrote a few letters back and forth and ran into each other a few times after that, but in the pre-Internet days, it was a lot harder to stay in touch. Mike and I remained close, our relationship enabled in part by the fact that his parents remained in Fayetteville, where I had to return often for my work in the military.
Thanks to the marvels of modern social media, like many people of my generation I was able to reconnect with a lot of high school friends through Facebook, including Nate, who I linked up with a few years ago after many, many years of us being out of touch. But one of the first things I noticed about the photos on his Facebook page was that he looked terribly sick, which, as it turns out, he was. Although we were almost exactly the same age (he’s a month younger), to me he looked 30 years older. He made a few posts on Facebook about his various medical conditions; never to complain, only to inform. Things seemed serious.
Mike and I talk on the phone often, and during one call around the time Nate and I reconnected on Facebook we reminisced about high school, and of course, Nate’s name came up. We were both Facebook friends with Nate at this point, and both of us agreed that Nate was looking pretty bad. I missed the opportunity to say goodbye to Mike’s dad when Mike Sr. was terminally ill, and I didn’t want the same thing to happen with Nate. So Mike and I agreed that we should go to Florida to see him. It was disconcerting to me that Nate was literally in the hospital for a lung infection when I reached out to coordinate our visit. Mike and I flew down to Florida and spent a day and a night with Nate a short time later. By that time Nate was mobile again; we walked down to the beach and onto the pier by his house; The Fellas reunited. We all talked for a long time, but despite his positive outlook and demeanor, it was clear that things were not well physically. I got to see him one other time before he passed, and this time got to meet his wife Jackie, and one of their grown daughters. Lovely people, all around.
I learned of Nate’s death the same way that I got back in touch with him over all of those years: via Facebook. As witnessed by the comments on the post announcing that he had passed, Nate was a great guy. He was a solid friend all through high school. He was able to fulfill his goal of getting into the Air Force Academy, even if he didn’t get to fly. He had a family, which was always important to him. And he had friends who loved him, even the ones who didn’t get to see him for 20+ years.
Inasmuch as a high school yearbook is a summary of one’s high school experience, I’ll sum up my relationship with Nate with his words, from my high school yearbook. For those of you who remember Nate, you may smile at this reflection of his personality. For those of you who didn’t have the blessing of knowing him, this may give you a small glimpse into why we love him. You will also see that even before he was a doctor, he had a doctor’s handwriting. So I will translate for you, and provide a little color commentary in the <<<parentheses>>>.
CF, See, I can write your name same as you. You know I can’t write down anything that can compare to the times we had since the eighth grade. The fellas have made our high school years great. I’ll never forget them or you guys. Life goes on, we’ll see each other throughout the years, I’ll come to see you marry your fat wife <<<When we were in high school, Nate constantly teased me that my future wife would be grotesquely obese—for the record, she was not 😊 >>>
I’ll never forget the good times we had with good ‘ole Troop 704! <<<that was our Boy Scout troop number>>>. Remember your beatdowns from Eddy and me <<<I don’t remember anyone named Eddy, I guess maybe he was another kid in our Boy Scout troop? And Nate, give **me** a beatdown? Ha!!>>>
Don’t forget all the good times you had with the local babes also <<<this was another inside joke: what I lacked for in social skills in high school, I made up for with dandruff and acne and being broke; the “good times with local babes” were… I’ll just say they were “limited”>>> One day we’ll meet some girls who won’t screw us over <<<I don’t recall the backstory on this; there was only one girl who was kind enough to go out with me in high school, and she definitely didn’t screw me over. In fact, we’re still friends on Facebook>>>. Be cool at GMC <<<Georgia Military College, where I went after high school>>> and don’t get into any trouble <<<advice which I definitely did not follow>>>. You better write me back fool or I’ll get you when I come back. See you at Christmas!
Friends forever, Nathan Barnes, Fella #1
“Life goes on,” Nate wrote. Yes, it does brother, but now it goes on without you. And we are all lessened because of it.
What can I say that Charlie hasn’t? We were all the best of friends. Nate’s temper could flare at times, which always made us laugh because he would just as easily cool. He was a great guy and I genuinely looked up to him. Like Charlie, I too went many years without seeing Nate. But the time that had passed really didn’t matter when the three of us got together again.
Nate had a brilliant mind but was way too cool to ever be tagged a nerd or geek. He worked hard and was focused but nevertheless seemed to waltz through high school.
Mike, It would be impossible to try to put down anything that could begin to match the times we had together. Most of the people I knew in high school will be forgotten but you I will never forget. From the campouts, we had in junior high with the troop to the times we had this summer. I always remember the fun the fellas had together. You, Charlie, and Abel are my best friends and I will never forget you. We can honestly call our high school years golden because of the times we had together. Although we were at each other’s throats some times, we always worked stuff out and became better friends than before. Time goes on, I’m positive that we’ll see each other again, don’t worry! Take care in App and work hard. Learn from the stuff we did but don’t try to make things like they were here. These years can never be repeated, only remembered. Take care and good luck, and just roll with it!
Friends Forever, Nathan Barnes (proud fella member)
Take care in App.<<< I went to Appalachian State University (ASU) right after high school. In my freshman year at ASU, Charlie and Nate came to see me at my dorm as a surprise. Before they arrived, a bunch of us had made tie-dye t-shirts (something I had never worn before–or since). When Nate saw me, he pointed at me, turned to Charlie, and said, “Hey look… Mike’s turned into a hippie!” That made me laugh because, despite appearances, it really couldn’t have been further from the truth. But it was great to hang out and the fact that they drove up to Boone, North Carolina to see me meant a lot. It’s a day I’ll never forget.
As I read what Nate wrote me some 33 years later, I’m reminded of how much I was going to miss the fellas when we all graduated–and there was Nate with pearls of wisdom. He would provide more pearls when Charlie and I last visited him and he never knew it. That’s something to write about separately.
Nate wrote: “These years can never be repeated, only remembered.” All I can say is: Those of us blessed to have known you, will always remember.
Love you, Nate.
–Charlie and Mike: The Fellas
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