When the final F-16 left Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport on Tuesday morning, it left a void.

When the final F-16 left Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport on Tuesday morning, it left a void.


It was more than the end of something historically Springfield. The economic impact on the city has been well detailed. The psychological effect also is important, because with every loss — minor league baseball, state jobs, fighter jets, commercial airline service, historic sites — Springfield is a bit less than it was.


But there is a central Illinois mother for whom the departure of the last F-16 hit much closer to home. A piece of her heart left with that last bit of metal and machinery.


“I see the day has come, though I hoped it wouldn’t,” Julie Potts of Chandlerville wrote to me after reading Monday that the last plane would leave in a matter of hours.


Julie and I have been sitting down over coffee at Verna’s Home Cookin’ in Chandlerville for quite a few years. I listen to tales of the town, its people and of the children on the school bus that she drives. She listens to stories about my teenagers and the challenge of finding enough column ideas to keep me employed in an increasingly uncertain business.


After graduating from A-C Central High School, Julie’s son, Nathan “Nate” Potts, joined the 183rd Tactical Fighter Wing. He was a mechanic who “kept ’em flying.” The Guard was going to be a temporary stop for Nate. He thought he would join up for a while, then go to college full time. But he loved his work at the Guard and being around the planes and their pilots.


The day the World Trade Center was felled, Julie walked to church and talked to her pastor. She knew that this day was going to draw Nate into whatever was coming next. She was right. Nate went with the Air Guard to Kuwait. He was there when the Canadian soldiers were mistakenly killed by a 183rd pilot in Afghanistan.


One morning on the school bus, Julie heard a little girl saying goodbye to her grandmother. The grandmother said to her granddaughter, “May God please you and protect you ’til you come home to me.” While Nate was in the Middle East, Julie wrote that on all of her e-mails to him.


Nate didn’t die in the Middle East. He came back to Chandlerville in 2002, safe and healthy, and stayed in the Guard as a crew chief. But four years ago, he was killed in a freak auto accident on Illinois 78, not far from Chandlerville.


After Nate’s death, Julie and Mike Potts came to Springfield to clear out Nate’s locker. They were met that day by the somber faces of pilots and mechanics of the 183rd who knew Nate.


“They showed us around Nate’s work area and even the engine piece that he has spent so much time ‘cleaning.’ The Chief said they always gave Nate the pieces that needed the patience that he always showed,” Julie wrote. “They asked us if we wanted to crawl into the F-16 that the pieces went into.”


Mike, a truck mechanic when he was in the Marines, took them up on the offer.


Before they left the airport, Mike and Julie were shown a commemorative panel that was going to be installed in one of the planes. It said, “In Memory of Pottsy.” It was to remain in the jet in Nate’s honor.


Those jets often went on training runs over the Illinois River bottoms, where Chandlerville sits. When she was outside and heard them, Julie looked up to watch those planes. She always wondered whether the plane she was seeing was the one with the panel inside in memory of Nate.


“Now, as the last plane from the 183rd gets ready to fly out,” she wrote, “I wonder if it is ‘Nate’s plane.’ I know I will miss hearing the jets fly over our home. It is just another memory of Nathan Michael Potts that will fade to some people, but not to me.”


They were just hunks of metal — electronics and jet engines to some. They were jobs or symbols of freedom to others. But to one mother, those F-16s were a comforting memory of her son.


Dave Bakke can be reached at (217) 788-1541 or dave.bakke@sj-r.com.