Waiting for Johnny Cash

The phone rang. It was my sister-in-law from Kansas.

“Paul’s on TV. Look at CNN.”

Paul? My baby brother? The one who flies an A-10 for the Air Force?

Mama stood nearby as I listened on my kitchen phone. She was home from West Africa for a visit. She spent Christmas with all of her kids and grandkids at my house so we could our good-bys to Paul. We left him at the Nashville Airport where he caught a flight that would send him on his way to his squadron somewhere in the Middle East. It was the beginning of Desert Storm.

Mama heard my side of the conversation, and we both just stared at each other after I hung up. It’s not possible. Ruthann must have been mistaken. Why would Paul be on TV?

He left Christmas day, and we had not heard anything from him. But it was only January 21, 1991. We didn’t expect to hear from him anytime soon. Security was tight those days, and he had no idea when he would be near a phone or if he would be allowed to call.

We quickly turn on the TV and tune in to CNN, a new network that broadcasts news 24 hours a day. At 5:00 we see the story; there he is, standing in his flight uniform, grinning from ear to ear. He had just returned from a mission that located and rescued the first pilot who had crashed into the Iraqi desert. As Paul said, he was at the right place at the right time to make the news. And did he ever!

His story is on all three major TV networks and six local TV stations. Somehow (probably thanks to one of my other brothers) reporters for various news media begin calling my house and asking for interviews. They want to talk to me as well as the mother of the pilot.

Thus began “15 minutes” of fame for anyone directly related to Paul. By Tuesday night we three siblings were swapping stories on the phone about who had called who. The governor of Tennessee called Mama, David was called by the White House, and the Pentagon called Steve to confirm that Paul would be receiving a medal. When Paul finally called his wife, he was surprised to learn about all the publicity. He had no idea. Little did he know his  adventures with the military and fame were just beginning.

But that is not my story to tell. Someday maybe he will write his story.

As a result of his courage and the events that occurred after rescuing a pilot, Paul’s immediate family received unmerited favor. That’s experiencing grace in a rather superficial way, but I as I was interviewed live on Channel 5 and then on Channel 2, I kept thinking that all this attention was because of what he did, not me.

RibbonPatriotism was flying high all over the country. We wore red, white, and blue ribbons and wrapped yellow ribbons around trees. The Nashville community held a huge celebration at Centennial Park in February (Desert Star) for all the families of soldiers serving in Desert Storm. I received a call inviting Jennifer and me to represent the families by beginning the candle lighting ceremony.  (Larry was out of the country shooting a video.)

On Saturday afternoon Jennifer and I found a spot to park and walked toward the Parthenon.  I soon realized this was a big deal! We received our blue stars and had our picture made with Eddie Rabbit. DesertStarA huge stage jutted out from the top step of the Parthenon. TV cameras were everywhere, broadcasting the event live. A wide variety of entertainers took to the stage. Only in Nashville would you find a gospel choir, country artists, the governor, and local TV personalities on the same stage.

Jennifer and I were escorted to the stage to wait for our part in the program. When the choir’s recorded music did not work properly, we could hear voices saying, “Just start singing. This is live!”


Please do not laugh at these huge glasses and the haircut!

Charlie Chase came over to me and said he planned to introduce me and then I would describe Paul’s heroic actions. No one told me I would be speaking! My brain starts running through all the facts, trying to organize them. The governor was quite helpful. I commented I had no idea what I would say. Gov. McWherter said he never knew what he was going to say either!

This stage was constantly changing as performers came to the microphone. Then I heard someone ask in a stage whisper, “Where’s Johnny?”  Another voice answered, “He’s on his way.” Clearly the television crew was anxious about the late arrival.

Then I heard, “He’s here. He’s getting off the bus.” Word quickly spread around the stage. Then another voice, “One minute.”

Suddenly the air stirred; crew and performers moved apart, clearing a path. Still we waited. Then a voice, “He’s here!”

I saw movement from the rear. Walking past the waiting crowd as a king would walk through crowded streets came the Man in Black. I stretched to see him. Too many heads were in the way. Then, I saw the top of a black hat. His black cape swirled about him as the crowd parted so he could reach the microphone.

Johnny Cash was introduced, and the crowd was on their feet.

What am I doing here? Paul should be here for this. I did nothing; I’m just his big sister. Somehow Jennifer and I are standing almost directly behind Johnny Cash as he reaches the microphone.

My first thought about Johnny Cash after the first dose of awe? He wasn’t as tall as I expected. Then he spoke. He wasn’t singing today; his first words:

I walked through a county courthouse square.

On a park bench an old man was sitting there.

He quoted the poem he wrote called “That Ragged Old Flag”. The story follows our flag through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, Flanders Field, Korea, and Vietnam. The words were inspiring, but especially because of Johnny’s unique delivery and voice. He added a verse about Desert Storm, and ended he with these words,

On second thought, I DO LIKE TO BRAG,


As he quoted the last verse, his black hat came off in a flourish, the cape floated to the floor as he stood before us in desert camoflauge with an army hat to match. The crowd roared again. What a thrilling moment!

In a moment he left with his “people” and Charlie was introducing me to the crowd. I found the words to retell the story of Paul finally hearing the signal from a Navy pilot who was hiding in the desert of Iraq. (Follow this link to read the full story of the rescue.)

The crowd cheered again when I described how Paul and his wingman shot an oncoming Iraqi truck before it was able to reach the pilot’s hiding place. (This must be the way politicians feel when their words are applauded!)

The governor said a few words, turned and lit my candle. I walked down the steps with Jennifer beside me and began the lighting of candles throughout the audience. First the families in front, and then the rest of the crowd were holding burning candles. It was a beautiful moment in the darkening sky in Centennial Park, a long way from our soldiers in Kuwait.

After the war Paul came home and rode in a ticker tape parade in New York City. Just one of the ways our country honored its soldiers.

Counting the blessings of 

  • safety and freedom in our country
  • military families who sacrifice so much 
  • so thankful that our mother was able to witness these events
  • safe-keeping of Paul through thousands of hours of flying the A-10



2 thoughts on “Waiting for Johnny Cash

  1. Belinda

    Wow, Martell, I don’t remember hearing this story about you. You were a celebrity on
    behalf of Paul! Ha!!

    1. JoyMartell Post author

      This happened not long after we moved to Madison, so it was one of those things that we didn’t catch up on. We had such a good time when the whole family (except Paul n’ em) gathered to share our experiences.


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