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The Dust He Had Worn Home Killed His Wife

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Residence:

Chesapeake, Virginia

Ages:

Charles, 70; Rebecca, 68 when she died

Exposure to asbestos:

Charles - Machinist's mate in Navy, 1951-72 planner, estimator at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, 1973-85.

Rebecca - Inhaled fibers her husband brought home from work on his clothes.

Trade:

Electrician, safety engineer. Wrote shipyard manual on asbestos safety.

Diseases:

Charles - Asbestos-related lung cancer, diagnosed in 1985;

Rebecca - Mesothelioma, diagnosed August 2000, died Sept. 29, 2000.

Charles Bennett Martin first inhaled asbestos fibers as a 20-year-old seaman apprentice aboard the battleship Iowa as it steamed off Korea in 1951.

When the Iowa fired its mighty 16-inch guns, the concussion burst lightbulbs below decks and released a fine haze of asbestos insulation from the overhead pipes, he recalls.

Martin encountered the dusty fibers many other times during his 21-year Navy career. He served aboard a succession of ships that put into port at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, where he helped remove old insulation so repairs could be made to boilers and engines.

Martin gave little thought to the haze. He wanted to hurry home from work to his wife, Rebecca, and their growing brood of children. So he would leave without changing clothes or showering. No one told him the dust could hurt him, he says.

After retiring from the Navy in 1972, Martin took a job as an air-conditioning and refrigeration mechanic at the shipyard. He later worked as a planner-estimator for the superintendent of shipbuilding.

Several times a week, he traveled from Portsmouth to Newport News to write specifications on ship-repair jobs and check the prices civilian contractors were charging.

Each day he bought a pocketful of Atomic Fireballs, the familiar red cinnamon candies. He sucked on them as he worked.

One day in 1985, several days after he had stopped eating fireballs, something disturbed him.

"When I spit, it was still red. I was used to it being red from the fireballs.

"But after I stopped eating them, why would it still be red?''

Something was wrong.

The next day, he saw a doctor.

Worries and anger

In July 1985, Rebecca Martin phoned her children with the news. Their father had cancer. Doctors had removed the upper lobe of his right lung. But Charles Martin, at 54, had come through the surgery well.

Back in his home on Marciano Drive in Portsmouth, Charles Martin worried that the doctors hadn't gotten all of the cancer and that it would return. And he wondered about its source.

During his Navy career, he and his shipmates had spent many hours removing or installing shipboard insulation woven with asbestos fibers. The men had occasionally napped on sheets of asbestos and tied rolls of insulation to vents to divert cool air in their direction.

He worried that asbestos disease also would strike his wife and three children, who had been exposed for years to the dust he brought home on his clothes.

And he was angry. Angry at the manufacturers of the asbestos products who had not placed warning labels on those products until more than 20 years after he started working with them, even though they knew of the dangers. Angry with the government for letting it happen.

He wanted to make someone pay for his anguish. Because of immunity doctrines, he could not sue the government. But he could sue the asbestos manufacturers.

So in the months after his surgery, Charles Martin, a soft-spoken man with a wispy mustache, visited the Norfolk office of asbestos attorney Richard Glasser, seeking justice.

Searching for a remedy

When Glasser took Charles Martin's case, the stakes were rising fast in the asbestos wars.

Because of a 1985 revision in Virginia law, asbestos victims could file suit within two years of the discovery of the disease. Under the old law, victims had to file within two years of the last exposure to the toxic substance. The diseases caused by asbestos often don't appear until years, sometimes decades, after the last exposure.

So business was booming for Glasser in his office in the Plaza One Building in Norfolk. He filed asbestos suits by the hundreds. Across the country, lawyers filed them by the tens of thousands. Most shipyards and other American workplaces had banned asbestos products.

Charles Martin began receiving settlement payments in early 1987. Because settlement agreements are confidential, there is no public record of how much money he received, and the parties are barred from discussing settlement amounts.

But in cases similar to Martin's, asbestos cancer victims can receive $100,000, possibly double that amount.

Glasser knew that Martin had been fretting about what the future held for his wife and children, worrying that his own cancer could recur. Lawyer and client held each other in warm regard.

"Take some of the money and see the country,'' Glasser told Martin. "When you do, send me a postcard.''

A sentimental journey

Charles Martin could not shake the sense of foreboding and mortality that gripped him. He wanted to make sure life would be good for Rebecca when he was gone.

First, they added a huge family room to their modest ranch home on Marciano Drive. It had blond paneling and plush carpet and ornate meringue-swirled ceiling plaster. There was room for a big- screen TV and lots of wall space for photos of their three children, and the grandchildren to come.

Then Charles Martin took his lawyer's advice.

He and Rebecca decided to see the country -- just the two of them in their gray 1982 BMW.

Charles Bennett Martin's Farewell Tour of America.

They planned to visit all 48 contiguous states.

In May 1987, they struck out on their Far West tour, one of three trips that would take them to 47 states. They preserved the trip on video.

In one scene, Rebecca Martin studies exhibits at the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum in Victorville, Calif.: a rare albino raccoon behind glass; a Winchester rifle purchased by Rogers from Clark Gable.

In another scene, Charles and Rebecca motor through the Great American Southwest and its treeless vista of big sky and red striated mountains.

Later, Charles chats amiably with a group of strangers as they survey the Grand Canyon. Rebecca tries on Indian jewelry at an open-air souvenir stand.

And Rebecca stands at the point where four states -- New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado -- meet. There, Charles Martin snapped a photo of his wife that he later mailed to Glasser, his lawyer and friend, back home in Virginia.

The journey's soundtrack includes intermittent narration by Rebecca and an occasional song on the car radio. As they cruise lazily along Route 66, cumulous clouds roll across the mountains and, on the radio, Ivory Joe Hunter croons in a country twang:

Since I met you baby My whole world has changed ...

Charles and Rebecca Martin tried to cram a lifetime of happy memories into a few months on the road. All of it was recorded so that once Charles was gone, Rebecca could relive those giddy days, watching on the big-screen TV they would buy for their new family room.

But fate would deal them a cruel hand. This would not be Charles Martin's farewell tour. It would be Rebecca's.

Saying goodbye

In early August 2000, Charles and Rebecca had much to celebrate. They had begun to plan for their 50th wedding anniversary eight months away. Fifteen years had passed since his surgery, and the cancer had not returned.

One day in August, Rebecca was having trouble breathing. She visited one doctor, then another. The second doctor removed one and a half liters of fluid from her lung.

The X-rays did not look good. In September, doctors opened her chest. She was suffering from advanced, inoperable mesothelioma.

Charles Martin's worst fear had materialized: The dust he had brought home from work so many years ago was now killing his wife.

She died on Sept. 29, 2000, less than a month after the diagnosis. She was 68. She was buried Oct. 4 in a yellow dress her daughter Nora picked out.

Several weeks later, Charles Martin sat in a cream-colored recliner at home. The matching recliner next to him was empty. Rebecca had bought the chairs so the couple could watch TV together on lazy afternoons.

Charles had difficulty remembering his children's birthdays and the date of their "farewell to America'' tour. He realized what was wrong: Rebecca was no longer there to finish his thoughts for him.

"You don't miss the things you think you will,'' he says. "You miss the little things you never thought you'd miss.''

This was not the ending Charles and Rebecca Martin had envisioned at all.

He put in a videotape and watched as the farewell tour played on the 42-inch Mitsubishi screen. There was an impish Rebecca at the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum. Rebecca standing at the point where four states come together.

As that long-ago May afternoon passed leisurely on the television screen, Charles Martin sank deep into his recliner, eyeglasses in hand, and drifted into a silent reverie.

*** POSTED MAY 11, 2001 ***