Friday, February 20, 2009

A scalpel of thunderous sound

Newspaper clippings come to light as I sift and sort and shred, including today a lovely tribute to a distant cousin of mine published in The Des Moines Sunday Register during the summer of 1979. The writer was Robert Hullihan, a legendary Register reporter and columnist who could make his typewritten words sing four-part harmony. Few can do that these days.

Hullihan's subject, Burns M. Byram II, was a Lucas County boy, raised on his parents' farm about eight miles north of Chariton in English Township. When he was killed in June of 1978, his family brought him home to the farm --- to Spring Hill Cemetery down a narrow lane south of a pond just west of the barnyard, in sight at chore time. His folks are there now, too. A P-51 is engraved on Doc's tombstone, but I've never seen flowers on any of the Byram graves.

Robert Hullihan met a sad end himself just a few years later, if I remember correctly, but I've forgotten some of the details and had better not go there. Perhaps that clipping will turn up, too.

I wonder how many in Marengo remember Doc Byram 30 years later. How about Robert Hullihan?

But here they are again in words, so look --- a column that has it all: Flawless lead, a web of words that seems effortlessly spun as it captures and conveys something of the character of this small-town physician-adventurer and evokes summer on a small-town Iowa square as evening settles in.

By Robert Hullihan, The Des Moines Register

MARENGO, IA --- The sky above the trees in the square hasn't been ripped apart for more than a year now and it is healed perfectly.

There is no scar to show where Burns Byram so often drew his scalpel of thunderous sound through it, making the incision with his "Tangerine," the blade-like airplane from an old war.

"We'd all look up and shout, 'There's Doc! There's Doc!' " said Larry Kruse, an auctioneer in a black cowboy hat. "He just seemed to part these trees."

They'd come running out from Shaull's Variety, the Old Style Tavern, Peterson Drug Store, Blinkinsop Shoes and the other old buildings around the square to watch Doc come home from his other life far beyond this small Iowa County town.


Burns Byram, physician, surgeon and knightly presence here for 25 years, always came home in a style that led hardware merchant Dick Brown to fondly remember him as ... "well, kind of swashbuckling."

Byram came home flying his P-51 Mustang, the hot, unforgiving fighter plane that looks more like an act of war than any other aerial weapon built by the United States during World War II.

He would come diving down on the town square, boom across the treetops at 300 miles an hour and roll up and away, the plane's 2,000-horsepower engine announcing that "The Doctor is in."

Then he might be in his downtown office until 10 o'clock at night, or at the hospital even later or he might suddently turn up at a patient's door, making an unexpected house call.

He might be wearing "a shirt with ducks all over it and Wellington boots and not look like a doctor at all," said Dave Fry, the dentist. "But he was a good one, even a great one."

"He saved my wife's life," said George Peterson in the drugstore, looking as though he might come close to ears when he talked about Doc Byram.

"He had an inner obligation toward humanity that drove him along," said Brown. "A sacrificing man. I guess that's what killed him."


Byram was killed a year ago Monday while flying a P-51 --- not his own --- out of Guatemala for a friend. The plane crashed in Mexico. He was 54.

The feeling around the square is that Doc stayed too long with the plane because he wanted to save it for his friend and because he couldn't bear to lose a craft that was virtually a symbol of life to him.

"He was a great pilot. He had more hours in a P-51 than any man in the world," said Duane Potts, the Buick dealer, for whom nothing is the same since Byram was killed.

Byram was a bombadier-navigator during World War II. He flew on 25 missions over Europe but never as a pilot.

"And he told me he got sick every time he went up in those bombers," said his son, "Butch" Byram, helping around the square where a rebuilt fountain was dedicated to his father's memory Friday afternoon.

It might be that Byram always got sick in the bombers because he was, as Potts described him, "a super-softie who never wanted to hurt anyone."

Byram probably hated dropping bombs on people. Perhaps the keen, dangerous silhouettes of those escorting P-51s caught his mind with the promise of single-handed risk.

"He was his own man," said Brown. "He knew how to live. But he'd risk his life. He'd risk it."


Byram bought a P-51 after his medical practice was established in Marengo. The range and speed of the plane gave him a life beyond the small town that some people envied and made other uneasy.

Marengo got a glimpse of that world when several remarkably glamorous strangers from many parts of the world appeared at his funeral.

Byram was divorced. He had two children, a daughter and his son Butch, who sat in the square watching workmen trying to make the rebuilt fountain squirt a respectable jet of water in time for the dedication ceremony.

"I miss him," said Butch. "Every time I hear an airplane come over here I look up and think maybe he's coming home."

The fountain was built in 1898, eventually stopped working, then was filled in with dirt and planted in flowers.

Now it has been rebuilt, mostly with funds left over when the local Optimist Club "went defunct," as Brad Hobbs described the passing of the organization.

Bob Gerard was down in a hole beside the fountain, working among pipes and connections. Max Herrmann was laying in the wiring for the colored lights that were to shine up through the water.

The bronze name plate that once was on the door of Doc Byram's office already had been screwed down to the rim of the fountain.

Gerard and Herrmann had been working for 10 hours.


"Well, I remember years ago when my little sister got hit with a baseball bat and had to be sewed up," said Gerard. "When Doc got finished with her he said, 'I think you need a puppy.' He went out and bought her a little black puppy. We had it for years. We always called it Doc."

Gerard threw a switch and the fountain barely bubbled up. People had to stand on the rim of the fountain to see the water spraying up out of a bowl on top.

So Wes Heller brought his compressed air tank over from the gas station and blew out the pipe. Then it worked. Gerard went home to change his shirt and the people began to gather in the square.

The American Legion brought the colors forward. There was a blessing. A few people said a very few words. There wasn't much that needed to be said. Everyone in the square knew about Doc.

"He couldn't stand much ceremony," said Beth Brown. "This is about as long as he would have wanted it."

Butch Byram came forward to throw the switch that turned on the fountain. The colored lights came on in the basin and the water rose about four feet in a gently spray.

The people turned away to a bake sale and an auction being held in the square after the ceremony.

Bob Gerard stood watching the fountain. The soft spray of water seemed curiously formal as a memorial to a man whose spirit made the town something more than it is now.

"You know," said Gerard. "Every time I hear an airplane I still look up to see if it's Doc."

And he did look up, up through the trees that once seemed to part when Doc came roaring home, opening the sky behind him.

But there was no mark up there, no sign that Doc had ever come or gone. That is the work now of the small fountain.


Cherie said...

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Anonymous said...

HI. I've never seen your blog before but stumbled on it while keyword-searching something else, and read the whole post. It was beautiful. Thanks for posting.

chAange my name please said...

I never met Burns Byram but when I lived in Iowa City I often saw Tangerine parked at the airport.

Cleo Tuttle said...

Yes, I knew Dr. Byram. He was one of the finest doctors ever. He delivered all three of our sons and took care of them until his death.

Doris K. Hawkins ( Van Blaricom ) said...

We had Doc. as our family doctor..I remember alot of things as we grew up that he did for us..A man well know all over and loved what he did..flying was part of his life and he died doing what he loved..He has been greatly missed and I even today remember some of the good ole' days ..God bless him always.

Unknown said...

Doc Byram was a great doctor and a great friend to my dad, Dave Fry. RIP, Doc!

Greg said...

Yes I knew Doc. He was our family Doctor. Helped me get a job at Iowa City where I learned to fly. Spent many a night after work, cleaning parts, handing him tools when he worked on Tangerine. Got to see parts of a P-51 you would not imagine. I will never forget my ride in it. I still miss him.

Unknown said...

I was delivered by Doc Bryam! He pierced my ears in his office because then it was seen as "surgery!" He lived across the street from me the entire time I was growing up. What a wonderful man!

Joyce said...

I have one memory of Doc Byram. I had shut my finger in a car door. I was 7 years old. My folks were on the way to the go kart races at Blairstown. The track was near Hannen Lake. It was bleeding some and painful, but asprin helped. The next day mom took me to see Doctor Byram. He gave me ether and removed the finger nail. I was a bit of a baby and cried so much I swallowed the ether. Shortly thereafter, I threw up. To this day, I can smell a product and know if there is an 'ether' in it. The fingernail grew back with a bit of a wave. I know Doc was a good doctor and my mom liked going there, but as a kid I was a bit creeped out. I guess I was just too young to appreciate his skills.

D. Moline said...

I was raised in Marengo and was in Jr. High when he died. Loved the buzzes in town as a kid. Remember his old mustang buddies buzzing the town after his death. Great guy,... everybody had a Doc Byrum story.

Joan said...

It was August, 1976 and Doc Byram would soon deliver a baby boy, Because of Doc we we're able to start our family with the adoption of this baby. Bless you Doc! Think of you often over these 40+ years.

Thank you,
Joan Hannen Wodstrchill

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing. Robert Hullihan, "Bob" was my Godfather and neighbor. He was the kindest man I've known. It was nice to read one of his articles this Christmas day.