Imagine with me that you’re flying in a Learjet on your way to your next job. You’ve had a hectic morning preparing for your trip and rushing off to the airport, so once you get settled on the aircraft and the plane is in the air, you close your eyes for a quick nap. This scenario (or something like it … remember, we’re imagining) took place fifteen years ago this day.
The tragic death of golfer Payne Stewart and five of his associates occurred when they lost consciousness in a depressurized cabin and fell asleep, ninety minutes before the aircraft crashed when its fuel ran out. Because Stewart hailed from Missouri (my home state) and because he clearly loved golf and life, I considered him a breath of fresh air in the early years when I was learning the sport. Some people called him a showboat … his throwback (but colorful) clothing set him apart. Was it flamboyant (as some commentators described it)? Maybe, but I would have preferred the word memorable. In an era of ordinary polo shirts and khakis as the standard golfing garb, Stewart dressed splendidly so people would not confuse him with his contemporaries Davis Love III or Nick Price or Hal Sutton.
It was not my privilege to know Stewart, but I remember grieving when his plane went down. I remember watching the televised funeral as if I was part of the family. I remember the deep love so many of his competitors expressed for him. Most of all, I remember what happened before his dear friend, Paul Azinger, spoke the eulogy: Azinger donned a herringbone cap and rolled up the pant legs of his suit, tucking them into colorful argyle socks that could have been borrowed from Stewart’s sock drawer. It was a poignant moment where one friend saluted his deceased brother in exactly the way Stewart would’ve loved.
I got to thinking about this anniversary some weeks back when one of the sports channels did a retrospective of Stewart’s career. Even after all these years, there was the lingering sadness of a life cut short. Certainly, there was also sadness for the family (wife and two children) he left behind. Every time I drive to visit my mom, I traverse a stretch of interstate (44) dubbed the Payne Stewart Memorial Highway which goes through Springfield MO. Every time I hear the bagpipes play, I can’t help but think of the classic knickers Stewart wore on the golf course.
Let’s go back to the Learjet for a moment though. Keep imagining you’re on that plane with me. We’ve thrown back the cushy passenger seats and settled in for naps without thinking twice whether or not we’ll wake up. There’s a piece of music written by Christian musician Don Wyrtzen that says it so well. The middle verse says:
… Just think of stepping on shore and finding it heaven!
Of touching a hand and finding it God’s!
Of breathing new air and finding it celestial!
Of waking up in glory and finding it home!
When I think of the last flight of that Learjet, I imagine Stewart and his associates expecting to waken as usual just before their plane landed in Dallas. Instead, they step onto shore and realize, this isn’t Dallas! They’ve moved in a completely seamless way out of this world and into Heaven.
Can you imagine it?