On Feb. 11, Christopher Barton’s memorial Facebook page was flooded with pictures of strawberry cupcakes with chocolate icing. A communal birthday present, if you will.
They were always his favorite, simple and sweet. It’s a small way for his closest friends to remember the Harrisburg native, who died in Afghanistan on May 24, 2010. And in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, driver Reed Sorenson will remember Barton a different way: with the local soldier’s name in the windshield of his No. 15 car.
Sorenson still remembers stories of his grandfather fighting in World War II. And on weekends like these, he doesn’t want to take stories like Barton’s for granted.
“(It) reminds us again of the sacrifices that some of us don’t have to take,” Sorenson said, “and others are willing to take.”
Barton’s life was cut short after 22 years, but his story is alive and well. In 2013, the band Alabama honored him in their “Back to the Bowery Tour” in Myrtle Beach. The Carolina Panthers honored the Bronze Star medalist, who doubled as a diehard football fan, by putting his initials on their helmets in 2015. There’s even a local whiskey displaying Barton’s name on its label.
See, Barton isn’t an easy man to forget. He could hardly hide his unfettered joy behind his “joker smile,” and his sacrificial spirit was on display until his final moments. Even seven years later, his widow Heather thinks of him every day.
But some days carry more weight than others. And this time of the year – with Memorial Day and the anniversary of his death just days apart – is one of the heaviest.
I never told him, ‘Don’t go.’ I wanted to so bad, but I just told him, ‘You’re gonna do great, I love you, I’ll see you soon.’
“People move on with their lives,” she said. “And it’s just overwhelming to see people take time in their day to remember him.”
Heather grew up idolizing Chris – to her, he was Christopher – who lived just one street over. He was a workout junkie and aspiring personal trainer, and it showed. Before she could even drive, Heather would have her mom drive her down the street so she could fawn at the brawny heartthrob playing basketball in front of his house.
“He was three and a half years older than me,” Heather said. “So I just thought, ‘There’s no way.’”
On December 26, 2008, Chris came to Heather’s house to watch “A Christmas Story” and surprised her with a kiss. Four days later, he enlisted in the Army.
When he tested for the military, his aptitude scores opened doors beyond just the infantry unit. It didn’t matter; his calling was on the front lines.
I got married at 18 and I was a 19-year-old widow.
“We asked him why,” Heather said, “and he said, ‘Somebody has to do it.’”
The two were engaged on July 4, 2009, and they married at the end of October. By January, his time came to deploy to Afghanistan.
“It was hard to sleep that night,” Heather said. “I tried to stay awake just so I could at least hold his hand the whole night.”
The next day, Chris walked to the car with his wife, who was fending off the floodgates. She had hours ahead of her for tears, for frantic calls to turn around when her husband’s deployment was delayed by a few hours, and for the resignation that there just wasn’t enough time. There was never enough time. But in this moment, she had to stay strong.
Goodbyes were in order, but they never said goodbye. That would make it all too real.
“I never told him, ‘Don’t go,’” Heather said. “I wanted to so bad, but I just told him, ‘You’re gonna do great, I love you, I’ll see you soon.’”
Four months later, she remembers driving her younger sister home from the tanning salon. She didn’t see the cars with the government plates, but when Heather walked through the doors, she saw the two military men standing inside. They must have the wrong person – the chaplain even said “Burton” instead of “Barton” – but they weren’t mistaken. She fell to her knees, her parents holding their daughter on the floor.
Two weeks before he was scheduled to return home for two weeks, Chris’ unit was ambushed at the end of a mission. It was six days before the seven-month mark of his and Heather’s marriage.
“I got married at 18,” she said, “and I was a 19-year-old widow.”
Christopher Barton will be one of 40 soldiers who will be honored in Sunday’s race – including James McClamrock of Concord, who died three months after Barton and whose name will appear in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s windshield.
Chris’ funeral was scheduled for June 5 in nearby Mint Hill, because the family needed a bigger church than Harrisburg had to offer. But two days before, he was flown into Concord Airport and then-mayor Tim Hagler shut down the streets of Harrisburg for Chris’ final return home. Hundreds of town residents, police officers and fire fighters showed up to honor the fallen soldier. School children lined the sidewalks of Stallings Road and the flag in front of Charlotte Motor Speedway was at half-mast.
Heather’s casualty assistance officer said he had never seen anything like it.
“This is something that they would do for a president,” he told her.
Seven years later, his memory is still alive. Chris will be one of 40 soldiers who will be honored through NASCAR’s “600 Miles of Remembrance” in Sunday’s race – including James McClamrock of Concord, who died three months after Chris and whose name will appear in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s windshield.
But Sunday isn’t the end. Every year, Chris’ family and friends will still make strawberry cupcakes with chocolate frosting. His name will still adorn the label of Zero Dark 130 – a whiskey too strong for his wife – and bands will still bring Heather on stage to remember her fallen husband.
For years, his story will live on.
“It warms my heart to know that people are helping him not be forgotten,” she said. “That’s my biggest fear is people will just forget who he is. And I’m just so grateful people are going out of their way to keep his name alive.”
C Jackson Cowart: 503-964-1999, firstname.lastname@example.org, @CJacksonCowart