War veteran finds solace in painting

Story by Preston Gossett

Photos by Joshua Martin

Clarence “Buzz” Barrows, a man who spent 23 years of his life in the military, is no stranger to new beginnings. 

“The first beginning I’m thinking of is when he literally walked out of school and decided to join the military,” Bonnie Barrows, his daughter and full-time caregiver, said. “That’s how bad he wanted it.”

For Buzz, being a soldier in the military meant a lot more to him than just serving his country proudly. It’s where he struggled to make ends meet. It’s where he watched his friends die. 

“I lost several good friends over there,” he said. “And I probably can’t even remember their names now.” 

It’s because of his service that he was awarded 11 medals, including two bronze stars, gallantry and chivalry, service in Korea and Vietnam (for two separate tours), and more. But being a soldier is also how he met the love of his life, Barbara. 

“I stopped dancing after about an hour or so and asked her to marry me. Barbara smiled and said that I hadn’t ever told her I loved her, though,” Buzz said. “So I looked at her and said, ‘I love you.’ And she said she’d marry me.”

Buzz and Barbara were kindred from the start. After just two weeks of knowing her, he asked her to be his wife. He said he is blessed to have shared 44 glorious years with her. 

“And the only reason they waited two months to get married was because he had to wait for another paycheck to buy her a ring,” Bonnie said.

About two years after the wedding, Buzz was sent to Korea, where he was actively stationed for a couple of days before both parties signed the armistice to end the conflict. He was then sent to Saigon, Japan, before finally being stationed in Vietnam. 

“If God wanted me to die, what difference does it make what I want? I’m going to die,” Buzz said. “If God doesn’t want me to die, I could stand in the middle of a field with rockets going both ways, and I’m not going to get hurt.”

His daughter praises her father’s selflessness.

“Buzz is an empathetic man, and he constantly put himself, rather than his own men, in the line of fire,” Bonnie said. “His adaptability made him a resourceful addition to the team, and a man to look up to for support.”

Buzz reflected on a tragedy he witnessed first-hand.

“I vividly remember a conversation I had with this young man, 18 or 19 or so, and he was scared because we had started taking heavy fire. So I said to him, ‘Keep your head and your ass down, and pray to God that it’ll be over soon.’”

Not even seconds after Buzz had instructed the young man to duck into the nearest bunker for shelter, a rocket flew straight through the entrance and ignited the entire bunker.

“I’ll never forget it,” Buzz said through tears. “Worst part is — I don’t know whether he died or survived, but I’ll never see him again.”

During that same tour in Vietnam, Buzz’s unit came under fire and he remembers jumping out of his bed because they were all sleeping. When the sounds of fighting came to a halt, he returned to his bunk to find a piece of shrapnel dead center in the head imprint of his pillow.

“If I’d have stayed in my bed any longer, that piece of shrapnel would’ve surely killed me,” Buzz said.

He started doodling and drawing shortly after. For him, art was a way to destress. 

“Take the pain and spread it across the canvas,” he said. “The more I got into painting, the more I enjoyed it.”

After Buzz retired from the military, he lost some of his passion for art. Barbara encouraged him to start watching Bob Ross videos and helped him start painting again.

“It literally was like watching Bob Ross paint when Dad painted. I mean some of the paintings he’s done are just incredible,” Bonnie said. “It was really cool to see him take it from there and like, next thing you know, he’s not watching Bob Ross. Oceans and mountains and trees; he’s just whipping this stuff out. Mom made him promise before she passed that he would keep it up.”

Buzz didn’t touch art for almost 15 years following his wife’s death. 

“No art, no music, no nothing. There wasn’t a whole lot of joy,” Bonnie said. “But that was a big part of why he reached out to me in December 2018 and said he didn’t want to live alone anymore.”

One of the first things Buzz and Bonnie talked about was that he wanted to have someplace to start painting again. 

“For me, it was a first priority project and it was to make sure that he had someplace that he could do that again,” Bonnie said. “I know what art does for him, and I know in the 15 years that he wasn’t painting, it had a lot to do with mom and struggling through her loss. So I’m trying to get him past that any way I can.”

Bonnie’s solution: build an art studio out of a shed in the backyard. The project is nearly finished, with custom ramps and lots of natural light and space for his paint supplies. 

“The shed is a new beginning,” Buzz said. “And art is a matter of taking several different things, putting them together, and making something beautiful out of that. That’s where I’m planning on going with the shed.”

Buzz paints to be able to turn a blank canvas into something magnificent and share it with people. He also said that if he can create something beautiful and bring someone joy, why wouldn’t he?

“Being able to give him a chance to reunite with that part of him means the world to me,” Bonnie said. “I just want him to have a space that’s his own. If he wants to create, he can. If he wants to go sit out there and listen to music, he can.”

The shed is a new beginning for Bonnie too.

“It’s an opportunity for me to give my father a chance at a new life,” Bonnie said.

Buzz has self-published two books, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and his paintings are hanging in numerous places. So he’s optimistic about the future. 

“Now when I can’t do something, Bonnie steps in and helps me make it perfect,” Buzz said. “I’m becoming more like her. We’re part of each other’s happiness.”

In the studio, above Buzz’s workspace, hangs a board of pictures. The pictures are places he and Barbara traveled together, but that he’s never painted. So he keeps them up there for inspiration.

“I have a new beginning,” Buzz said. “And it’s right here in Waco.”