On Friday night, Vietnam veteran and Calverton resident Barton Burlison slept in his own bed for the first time in nearly six months.
It was well deserved.
It’s been a rough few months for the 68-year-old second-class boilerman who served three tours aboard the U.S.S. Arnold J. Isbell.
Forty six years after returning home from Vietnam, he now has stage III-B non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a result of his exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical used to kill Vietnamese crops during the war. Diana Sanzano, his girlfriend of 34 years — so long, in fact, that he called her his wife — died in February from cancer, just months after his mother Theresa died in October. The two were pronounced dead in the same room at Peconic Bay Medical Center.
Since a pair of minor heart attacks in December, Mr. Burlison has been unable to get up the stairs to his bedroom. When Diane was alive, the two would sleep in their living room together — she on the couch, him in a chair next to her. He’s been sleeping on the couch alone for the past three-and-a-half months, getting his clothes from upstairs and cleaned in the basement with the help of a hired hand.
He and Diane started renting their home on Route 25 in Calverton about five years ago, eventually buying it. Photos in the living room show a huskier man than the one who meets me, a bearded man. Two small memorials with mass cards from Diane and Theresa’s funerals adorn separate tables in the living room.
He apologizes for the mess on his dining room table when I first come to meet him, offers me something to drink, and later on, offers a beverage to the guys working around his yard. He says he doesn’t like dirt, and wears a cap on top of his head, now bald from four rounds of chemotherapy. He has a big hand and a firm handshake.
Though Mr. Burlison has had a request through the Department of Veterans Affairs for a chair lift, “That can take years,” he said. It sure hasn’t been fast enough. It wasn’t until a private company contacted the Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency that the ball began to roll for him. Ageless Home Living is a new, Holbrook-based company run by Four Seasons Sunrooms. In commemoration of Four Seasons’ 40th year in business, and the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam war, the company said it wanted to donate a chair lift — which would typically cost about $5,500 — to a Vietnam veteran, but they didn’t know who to give it to.
For employees at the county veterans affairs office, Mr. Burlison came to mind.
“This will change my whole life,” he said on Thursday morning.
Two days later, he had already begun to feel the difference.
“The couch is nice, but it’s a couch,” he said on Saturday morning. “I was finally able to sleep through the night.”
Mr. Burlison was born in Rome, N.Y. His family moved to Bay Shore when he was 8 years old, and two years later his father died, leaving Theresa to raise him and his sister on her own. Mr. Burlison signed up for the Navy before he had graduated high school, opting to earn his GED at a later date.
Thinking back to when he signed up for the Navy, he recalled, “I felt that this is my part. To keep our freedom and to keep everybody here free, this is what we have to do. It’s been done for war after war after war. And I just felt it was my commitment as a male to go out and do my duty and serve.”
Mr. Burlison served as an “oil king,” overseeing the transfer of fuels, recording how much of it there was on the aircraft carrier and when and where to transfer it. He badly burned himself on more than one occasion, and returned home in 1969.
These days, he says he likes to be with his friends. He plants elephant ear bulbs on his property — or at least pays someone to — and sells them in front of his home. Though his cancer has been in remission, he feels it’s coming back. His back has been very, very itchy lately, a possible sign of its return.
Despite the cancer he’s dealing with now as a result of the Agent Orange — and even knowing “that’s what’s gonna take me out” — he’d sign back up for the Navy again today if he could, he says.
He won’t be buried at Calverton. Since Diane, not technically being his wife, couldn’t be buried there, he’ll probably be cremated and have his ashes spread alongside his mother and longtime partner.
He’s happy to have the chair lift in his home, and gladly sits in it for a brief video. The chair rail has to be moved up about four inches though, he notes. It gets in the way of his knees as he rides up the stairs. But what’s most important, he says, isn’t really that he has the chair lift, but what it represents: a private company, without being asked or solicited, offered something to him in a time of need.
After he’s gone, he says, it should to go to someone else who needs it as much as he does.
Joseph Pinciaro is the managing editor of the Riverhead-News Review. He can be reached at [email protected] or 298-3200, ext. 238.