A couple of weeks ago I called my old friend Frenchy and asked if he’d come for Thanksgiving. It wasn’t a small request, since he lives across the country, so we were all thrilled when he said he’d catch a train and be out to stay with us for a few days.
I wanted to do something fun and memorable while he’s here, so yesterday we went to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. The Museum, though it’s a long drive, has become one of those places I consistently take guests, as the Hemingway House in Key West was when we lived in Miami. Frenchy is a Southern man from way back but loved the museum and even tried to get the drop on John Wilkes Booth as he skulked outside the White House.
I’ve known Frenchman nearly 25 years and have written about him elsewhere. I suspect I’ll write more. Like Hemingway, he’s one of those guys who stories attach themselves to without his even trying. He was my boss for a while in the Army and taught me to how to work as a deep-sea diver. When we met, I was 21 years old. He’d already served two tours in Vietnam and had lived and worked in Germany, Korea, Guam, and elsewhere. He and his peers seemed like wise old men to us. They were younger then than I am now.
He chose me to be on the first diving team in the Republic of Panama, and after we did that and I left there to go back to school, he retired (in Alaska) as a Sergeant Major, took a job in Hawaii supervising the dry-docking of luxury boats, and bought himself a 60-foot sailboat to live on.
Now he’s bought land in West Virginia—he likes to ski—and built a log home there, while maintaining a third property in Virginia. I don’t want to sour the deal, so I won’t name names, but a famous novelist has asked him to consult with her on the private lives of military divers for her next book. (“Should I tell her about that time at the Ancon Inn in Panama City?” he roared. “That would give her a good idea of what divers are like in their off-time.”)
But he’s gentle and kind with our sons, and Starbuck couldn’t be any happier that he’s here. This morning he was snuggled in next to Frenchy on the couch, and Mrs. Churm said to me, “I don’t know how to even say anything to Frenchy because I’m afraid I’d choke up, but I am so touched and grateful….”
Starbuck, we discovered, had asked his Montessori teacher if he could bring Frenchy for show-and-tell. “Have you ever had a human being for show-and-tell?” I asked her.
“We’ve had puppies,” she said. “And one time a baby.”
The school didn’t need us right away, so Frenchy and I ate breakfast down the road. I noticed something was wrong when he absentmindedly lifted the entire carafe of ice water to his lips and took a gulp. “For Christ’s sake!” he said. “I have never done that in my life.”
As we rolled up again in front of Starbuck’s school, Frenchy said, “I have taught in aviation, and I have taught in diving, and I have never been as nervous in a classroom as I am right now.” He stopped in the bathroom as soon as we got through the door.
But show-and-tell went fine. He sat in the undersized chair at the front while Starbuck proudly passed a diving plaque and the Barred Owl’s wing that Frenchy brought with him. The kids, ages three to five, listened, enraptured, to Frenchy talk about living around the world, and how divers maintain oil tanker mooring systems on underwater petroleum pipelines off the South Korean coast.
It’s cold and rainy, perfect Thanksgiving weather, but as Frenchy and I left the Montessori, he wiped sweat from his head. I thanked him and said Starbuck would remember this day his whole life.
“So will I,” he said. “What time is it? Was I in there five minutes or a couple of hours?”
Now we get down to the serious work of cooking and cleaning for the holiday meal, when we’ll be joined by more family. I wish you as much happiness.
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