I remember my first day at South Iredell High School. It's the day I met Mark McDowell.
It was 1997. Troutman and Brawley middle schools still merged at South. I'd gone to Troutman Middle and Mark to Brawley Middle.
The first afternoon in Mrs. Von Cannon's geometry class our seats were assigned in alphabetical order. I was last in the center row behind Mark.
I was feeling a twig of pride about taking geometry my freshman year.
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That feeling quickly vanished when fellow freshman Mark McDowell turned to ask me if my gum was good.
"Sure." It was after lunch, maybe he wants a piece.
"It certainly sounds good," he said and turned back around.
I came to know there wasn't a mean bone in Mark's body so I know he was just joking around with me.
But when a cute guy you've never met before tells you that you're smacking your gum in his ear, you swallow your gum.
I never will forget my first meeting with Mark.
It's been 10 years since we graduated.
Mark was a special guy.
He died almost two years ago, serving our country.
Mark went straight from high school into the Air Force Academy. Serving his country in the military was his goal during high school.
Mark was a captain in the U.S. Air Force. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2005 and was an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot.
He was based out of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro.
He was serving in Afghanistan when his plane crashed, and Mark was killed on July 18, 2009.
He lost his life, his parents lost a son, his wife lost her soul mate, and South Iredell Class of 2001 lost one of the truly good guys.
Everyone liked Mark. He was friends and nice to males and females, popular and not-so-popular.
He'd come over to hang out at my house and have more stops on his way home to visit with other friends.
Mark was a smart kid who played on the soccer team and was an all-around great guy. Our class voted him the "Best All Around."
There was one other guy like Mark in our class: Mark's best friend, Walt Hitchcock.
Walt, along with Mark's family, and other friends and family members from our high school class, keep Mark's memory alive through the Capt. Mark McDowell Memorial Foundation.
Mark will be remembered over Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Blue Star Mothers of N.C. Southern Piedmont Chapter 4 is coordinating The Cost of Freedom Tribute starting May 25 and running through Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord.
Lynn Cauthen, whose son Daniel grew up with Mark and graduated with us in 2001, is vice president of Blue Star Mothers Chapter 4.
At 1 p.m. May 26, there will be a Wreath Laying Ceremony, which will include Gold Star Mothers, moms who have lost children serving in the military; Blue Star Mothers, moms who have children currently serving in the military or are honorably discharged or retired; the Patriot Guard and several other groups.
Among those participating in the ceremony is Mark's mom, Barbara Thomas, who lives near Salem, S.C. She will place the Air Force Wreath.
John Hyland, a wounded veteran, will sing the National Anthem and other songs at the end of the ceremony, Cauthen added. Hyland, retired U.S. Army sergeant, is a Charlotte native who lives in San Antonio, Texas
The Cost of Freedom Tribute includes eight memorials and exhibits including a 370-foot end-to-end replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall and a separate tribute to those who've lost their lives in conflict since the Vietnam era, Cauthen said.
The Patriot Guard is escorting the Wall Replica to Charlotte Motor Speedway May 25 through Troutman and Mooresville.
"This will be real special," said Cauthen said, who lives in Birkdale Village in Huntersville.
"We will have vets from World War II and Vietnam. It will be a good ceremony, and we hope to get a lot of people out there."