The doctors gave Don Byerly Jr. a few months to live back in March. He has stage-four pancreatic cancer, but 10 months later he’s still alive.
On Tuesday, his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, drove him from his home in North Carolina to Washington for a clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health.
On their way out of town, they were full of good will. The NIH had paid for everything, even meal vouchers. They were trying something more than pain control.
Both Byerly, 62, and his daughter, 38, would have liked to be there in person to see Trump take the oath, but crowds and lines were impossible. So the day before inauguration, they decided to drive around the city and take it in as best they could.
On F Street near the White House, they bought a big Trump flag for $25. Byerly gripped it with a thin gloved hand, balancing the end of the pole inside his sleeve. The flag streamed out the window, hung limp when they were stopped due to traffic
People can change
Over the last eight years, Byerly said, he had become dismayed about the “direction of the country.” It was “unraveling.” He saw a trend toward open borders; it seemed the administration lacked a coherent foreign policy and was downgrading its military. That rankled Byerly, who wore an 18th Airborne Corps cap, the Sky Dragons, which he served with in the ‘70s.
He didn’t come to Trump early. He didn’t agree with everything Trump said. Concerning VA privatization, for example, he thought that a little more choice in care would be good, but he had only positive opinions about his VA hospital in North Carolina.
Candidate Trump used language Byerly “didn’t think was becoming.” Trump might have been ill-informed about issues at times, but Byerly figured he was operating off what the rest of us were: news reports.
Trump’s language about treatment of women, caught on tape in a moment that seemed to shock the presidential race in October?
“Who hasn’t said stuff like that? Lord have mercy. Do I agree with it now? No.” But, he maintained, people can change.
Trump was a “streetfighter,” Byerly said with a grin, someone who “comes from the streets of New York, pretty much.” Expanding a real estate empire, going from Queens to Manhattan, must have been the journey from “a goldfish tank to a shark pit.”
Now, that streetfighter was about to take the oath of office, and Byerly was beaming in the passenger seat, as close as he would get to the ceremony. His right hand kept supporting the flag out the window, which continued drawing attention.
Two laughing young women turned their backs on Byerly, taking a selfie. “Make America Great Again, girls,” Byerly said. “Raise your children to love your country.”
He waved at a pair of bikers in Trump gear who’d just parked their motorcycles. Seeing Byerly’s hat, one biker thanked him for his service.
“I love it. I’m having a blast,” Byerly said.
He and his daughter seemed energized after each reaction to the flag. They drove slowly, peering out the window at statues and museums.
They complimented the architecture. Byerly said it was his first time in D.C., and wished he’d been before. Like many things, “It was always—‘we’ll do that one day,’” he said.
Traffic ahead, Elizabeth turned left on 7th. A passerby who noticed the sign did not take kindly.
With simple, straightforward vulgarities, the passerby cursed Trump. He used words that many around the country will likely deploy in disbelief today as Trump’s brazen path to the presidency culminates. Then, as virulently, the passerby turned his attention from Trump to Trump-supporter, cursing Byerly.
“Everything changes tomorrow,” Byerly yelled back.
Another passerby, who along with the other anti-Trumper and a number of other people on the street were black, joined in.
“You better keep going,” Byerly told his daughter. Then he pulled the flag in from the window as they stopped at a light. “I don’t want to start trouble.” He closed the window. “Let’s secure up.”
The father and daughter drove for a while with the windows closed, discussing the problems with Obamacare, the benefits of competition in the insurance marketplace, though the goal, they agreed, should of course be that everyone gets coverage. They talked about the brutal election, wanting America to feel whole again.
He said he had faith that God was in control, a faith that would have sustained him even if Trump had lost. But Trump had won, and big things were afoot, changes coming.
“We’re living through history,” he said. “It’s a great time to be alive.”