Save the Last Dance for Frankie

Frankie is disappearing right before my eyes. Day by day, week by week, month by month, he is fading away.

The time is coming when there won’t be anything left of him. This may be in a year or two, or it may take longer. No one can tell. When that time comes, there may be a body with respiration and a heartbeat, but my friend Frankie will be gone.

Right now he is still Frankie — but just barely. He is no longer sure what an egg is, or an apple. Mention a lifelong friend that he hasn’t seen for awhile and he’ll draw a blank. Or he might   say, “That name kind of rings a bell.”

Frankie is suffering from what his doctors call “a progressive Alzheimer’s-like disease.” Apparently you have to be dead before they can tell if you really had Alzheimer’s.

The terminology might matter to the doctors, but it doesn’t to Frankie or his family and friends. The only thing that matters is that at age 60, Frankie is rapidly losing contact with the world.

I grew up with Frankie. We sat beside each other in ninth-grade algebra, belonged to the same Boy Scout troop, went on dates together.

Frankie doesn’t remember any of this.

A week or so ago I showed Frankie a picture of himself. It was taken in my living room last summer.

“Who is that, Frankie,” I asked him.

He held the picture and stared at it. “I don’t know. It looks somewhat familiar.”

It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Frankie had it all. Tall, bright, funny, he was a championship-level golfer and a super salesman. He had a house at the beach, a pretty wife and a small chain of clothing stores. He had it made.

Then one day Frankie was sitting in a restaurant with a friend. He picked up a salt shaker and looked at it with a frown.

“I know what this doggone thing is,” he said. “but I just can’t remember the name of it.”

That was the beginning and it has been all downhill since. He lost his wife and he lost his business. Then the disease — whatever it is — began its hideous march in earnest. He no longer bathes unless he is told to. His mother has to trick him into changing his clothes. He has had several brushes with the law. The cops think he is drunk or on drugs.

As the world began to close in on him, Frankie’s car, an old blue Cadillac, became his life. He drove to see old friends as far away as Virginia and Florida. Even though he sometimes couldn’t recall his friends’ names, he could remember how to get to their houses.

Then last year some people who love Frankie took his car keys away from him. It was a step they did not take lightly, but they were worried that he might hurt himself, or someone else. Later, after a medical examination, a doctor declared him unfit to drive, and his license was officially revoked.

Frankie still doesn’t understand why he cannot drive, and says over and over again, “I need to get out. I need to travel.”

What is heartbreaking is that Frankie is trying so very hard to keep his grip on life. He still does “business” with a few old friends who humor him. He still tries to play golf. He writes page after page of horribly misspelled notes to remind him of things he thinks he needs to do. He draws detailed — and surprisingly accurate — maps of places he has been.

There is one wonderful thing Frankie hasn’t forgotten, though. It is as if God had left him this one last pleasure. Frankie can still dance. He does the shag, that funky, sexy beach dance invented on the South Carolina coast more than 50 years ago.

He is the old Frankie again when he is out on that dance floor. His eyes come alive and his face lights up. He spins and shuffles, whirls and loops. Frankie may be losing his memory, but his feet haven’t lost theirs.

This is a sad story with no moral, no happy ending. Time is erasing my friend Frankie and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

The clock is ticking. Dance, Frankie, dance.

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Brig chasing at Lejeune

“Hey corporal, what if I just took off and ran,” Loudmouth said. “Would you really shoot me?”

“Try me and find out,” I replied in what I hoped was a calm, confident voice.

I was holding a sawed-off 12 gauge shotgun and he was holding a sling blade. He and a dozen other prisoners were clearing a field. I was their guard — a “brig chaser” in Marine Corps parlance.

It was the job I hated most in my four-year stint in the Corps. I had been a gunner in a mortar platoon, a jeep driver and an office worker. Now, with only a few months to go before my enlistment was up, I was attached to a motor pool at Montford Point, a facility that was part of the Camp Lejeune complex but separated from the main base by a few miles.

I didn’t really have a specified job at the motor pool, so I ended up in the office, answering the phone, issuing trip tickets and typing up reports. It was light duty and I enjoyed it. The only trouble with not having a definite job was that if anything came up where a spare man was needed — tag, you’re It.

Once they needed someone to drive an oil tanker over to the main base to be filled up. I had never driven anything larger than a two-and-a-half ton truck, but with fear and trembling, I made the trip and back without mishap. That tanker had about a million gears.

Another thing that was needed about once a week was a man to guard prisoners on work details at Montford Point. I was that man. I pulled this duty perhaps six times.

The first time you picked up prisoners — “brig rats” — you had to attend a five-minute orientation class. We were told that if a prisoner ran, you were to shout “Halt!” twice, fire in the air once, then at the prisoner. “Aim for the legs if possible.”

We were also told that these were our prisoners and no one else’s. You didn’t salute officers, you didn’t answer to anyone else. “I don’t care if a damn general orders you to do something,” the instructing sergeant bellowed, “you just ignore that sucker.”

The first time out, I was extremely nervous. For one thing, I knew I wasn’t going to shoot anyone for running away from a work detail, and if I lost a prisoner that way, I would be in deep trouble.

These were not desperate criminals. They were guys who were locked up for going AWOL or perhaps punching their sergeant in the nose. Shoot them with a sawed off shotgun? Not me. Besides, they would be recaptured long before they ever got off base.

Everything went smoothly for the first couple of trips. It was about the third go-round that I drew Loudmouth. He never let up the whole day.

“Hey corporal, I’m thirsty.” “Hey corporal, my back hurts.” “Hey corporal when do we eat?” “Hey corporal, do you really know how to use that shotgun? Bet you don’t. Bet I could make it over to those trees before you got the safety off.”

I would tell him to clam up and get back to work, but it had little effect. He just kept up the banter.

Since it was mid-July and burning hot, I gave my prisoners plenty of water breaks and about every half hour I would let them rest for a few minutes in the shade of a large oak tree that was in the middle of the field they were clearing.

It was during one such break that an officer came out of a nearby building and approached us.

“I’ve been watching you, corporal. These men are not here to take naps, they’re here to work. Get them back out there right now!”

“Sir,” I replied, “these are my prisoners.”

“I just gave you a direct order, corporal. Now do it!”

“Sir, these are my prisoners.”

This went on for awhile. No matter what he said, I responded with the same words every time, hoping that the brig sergeant’s instructions were right.

Finally the major stormed off with threats that I would soon be joining my charges behind bars.

I waited until he got back in the building before I spoke. “OK,” I said. “Let’s get back to work.”

The men got up and grabbed their tools. They were all grinning widely. Even old Loudmouth.

“Way to go, corporal,” he said. “You’re a good man.”

When I got back to the motor pool later, my captain called me into his office. “What the hell did you say to the major?” he asked. “He’s about to blow a gasket over there.”

When I explained, the captain leaned back in his chair and roared with laughter. “That old windbag! Don’t worry about it. I can handle him.”

Moments of triumph are few and far between for low-ranking enlisted Marines. This was one such moment I will never forget.

Update on Billy the Dog

What am I going to do with this mutt? Billy the Dog is driving me crazy.

I went over to Florence and bought him a nice, plush bed. Top of the line. Cost me almost $50. What was I thinking? Within a day, Billy had managed to tear a hole in it. Now, every time I go out onto the porch, it is littered with the innards of his bed.

I pick up a handful of the stuff, look at Billy sternly, and say “No!” As far as I can determine, “No!” means “Let’s play!” to Billy.

I wrote about Billy the Dog in an earlier piece. In case you didn’t see it, here is a brief backstory. Billy showed up in my front yard a couple of weeks ago. I tried ignoring him at first, but one thing led to another and soon I was feeding him.

Now he has joined the family, much to the dismay of my 16-year-old Jack Russell named (what else?) Jack. Billy wants to be friends with Jack. Jack is having none of it. Big, slobbery mongrel. No pedigree whatsoever. I’m just going to ignore him.

Jack doesn’t eat much more than a cup of dog food a day. Billy wolfs down about a gallon of the stuff and clearly wants more. On top of that, he has managed to eat most of the sunflower seeds I put out for my birds.

I think he would eat old bedsprings and discarded batteries if I put them in his bowl.

On the coldest night of the year, my pipes froze. I figured Billy would freeze, too, so I tried to bring him inside. He adamantly refused. After fifteen minutes, I finally lured him to the door with a treat, then grabbed him and shoved him inside.

Billy began to tremble violently. Then he started running in tight little circles, making pitiful whining noises. Finally he stopped, peed on the floor and collapsed, still shaking.

When I opened the door to bring his bed in, he was out like a shot. Ran off and disappeared. So much for that bright idea. Billy clearly had never been inside a house before and wanted no part of it.

My pipes froze and I nearly froze myself trying to thaw them out. Billy the Dog was just fine, thank you.

I don’t know what to do. I need Billy’s godfather, Billy O’Dell, to come down from his alpine retreat in North Carolina and help me out. Billy the Human needs to give his canine namesake a stern talking to.

Otherwise, Billy the Dog and I are going to the animal hospital. I am going to tell the vet, “One of us needs to be put to sleep, doc. Take your pick.”

Just kidding, of course. I love this mutt and have bonded with him. He’s a good-looking fellow with a winning personality.

But, man, he’s a mess.

Monday morning overload

Good morning. The ol’ Insomniac is taking a couple of days off to recharge his batteries. The pressure of watching two NFL playoff games and the latest episode of Downton Abbey all in one day was too much for me. I don’t multitask well. On top of all that, my AOL home page informs me this morning that “Zac Efron Talks Sex On First Date” and “Woman Steals Puppy Meant For Sick Girl On Christmas.” How can anyone concentrate when the world has so many pressing problems? Think of me as still being idle, but just not musing. Later, boys and girls.

Going to the beach in ’57

One afternoon in the summer of 1957, I was eating a hamburger at the old Southernaire on Pearl Street when a beat-up Ford station wagon pulled up.

The driver, Karl Dargan, came in and said, “Your mama said you’d probably be here.  You want to go to the beach with us?”

“OK,” I said.  “Follow me home.”

I  wolfed down my hamburger, drove home, left my father’s car there, told my mother where I was going and we were off.

It was that simple.

In fact, it might have been even simpler.  At least we had a car.  Often we hitchhiked to the beach.

There were four of us  — me, Karl and his brother Freddie, and a Clemson football player named “Rabbit” Chatlin.  Freddie and I were still in high school.  Karl was at Clemson.  He and Rabbit were friends there.

None of us had a change of clothes and I doubt we had $10 between us.  It wasn’t a problem.  We knew we could find someone to feed us once we got to the beach.  There were always two or three Darlington house parties somewhere along the Grand Strand.

It was just that easy back in the 50’s.The first place we went was Ocean Drive (now North Myrtle Beach).  That was the place to be.  “The Pad” was the most popular hangout for shaggers, beer-guzzlers and beach bums.  It was so crowded you couldn’t even get inside.

The loud music could be heard for two blocks around.  The big beach song that year was “Sister Sooky” by a group called the Turbans, and the strange lyrics echoed down the street: I believe Sister Sooky’s done lost her mind, she bought a pair of shoes of the strangest kind, with the heels in the front and the heels behind, you couldn’t tell whether she was comin’ or gwine…

We hung around Ocean Drive for an hour or so, then headed south to check out the action at the Myrtle Beach pavilion.  It was getting dark by then.  In the parking lot of the pavilion, several guys came staggering by and made some wisecracks.  Freddie was out of the car like a flash, and Karl right behind him.

I’ve never known anyone who liked to trouble as much as the Dargan boys.  They were tough as nails and both of them were amateur boxing champs.  The purely loved to fight.

Rabbit and I stayed in the car.  I was not much of a fighter and Rabbit was a peaceful sort of fellow.  If it came to blows, we were hoping it wouldn’t involve us.

I don’t know what Freddie said to those boys, but whatever it was, it was enough.  The last we saw of them they were running away at full speed.

You didn’t want to mouth off to the Dargan boys.  It wasn’t healthy.

Several hours and a few 15-cent draft beers later, we were ready to call it a day.  Karl said he thought the Kilgos were at their beach house in Cherry Grove, so we crawled back into the station wagon and headed north again.

Jimmy Kilgo was one of our best friends, so we knew we would be welcomed at their house.  When we got there, the house was dark and locked up tight.  We looked for a way to break in without causing any damage, but couldn’t find any.

Since it was too late to find anywhere else, we made ourselves as comfortable as we could and slept in the station wagon.

The next morning we had just enough money between us for the 99-cent breakfast at Mammy’s Kitchen.  Then we headed to Garden City, where we thought there were some Darlington people.  After cruising up and down for awhile, we spotted a lady we knew.  She was chaperoning a house party of Darlington girls and invited us to follow her back to the house.

We stayed there all day, eating free snacks, hanging out on the beach and flirting with the girls.  That night we were fed a great meal, and when it was time to turn in, the four of us slept on the floor of the wide porch, lulled to sleep by the booming surf of the Atlantic Ocean.

We headed home the next morning after breakfast. We were dead broke by then, and the old station wagon had just a little more than a quarter tank of fuel.

An hour and a half later, we coasted into Darlington on fumes.

Now 57 years have passed since that beach trip.  I look back in wonderment at how simple and joyful my life was then, and how sad it is that I didn’t fully realize it or appreciate it at the time.

And I wonder at this, too: What happened to the world?  Did it just happen to me, or did it happen to everyone?

How the heck did things get so complicated?

True confessions

I was in the fresh produce section when I saw him. He was back in the bakery area. He hadn’t spotted me yet, so I hastily pushed my cart around the corner and hid among the greeting cards.

Whew! That was a close call. Now if I am vigilant, there’s an even chance I can get my shopping done without encountering him.

I have a confession to make. I am a grocery store avoider. No, I don’t avoid grocery stores. I avoid people in grocery stores. Not all people. Just a few.

This man I was hiding from yesterday is a very nice man. Salt of the Earth. But he’s a Talker. If he gets ahold of you in a grocery store, you can count of standing there for 15 minutes listening while he gives you a blow-by-blow account of his recent activities.

There’s nothing worse than being trapped in a grocery store by a Talker. You just want to get your stuff, pay for it and head home. A Talker views his shopping trip as an opportunity to share his extremely interesting life story with you.

I’ve always felt guilty about being a grocery store avoider. It is an act of cowardice. A real man would be able to say, “Yes, I’d love to hear about your son-in-law’s recent promotion to assistant manager at the bank, but I’m in a bit of a rush today, so maybe you can tell me some other time.”

Let’s face it. I’m a wimp.

You know, it really feels good to get that off my chest. When you are guilty of doing something wrong or stupid or just plain silly, it is always better to fess up. Even the Bible recommends this.

So while I’m at it, I might as well come clean about a number of things I’ve felt a little guilty about over the years.

Here goes:

–That persimmon pudding that Aunt Grace sent me every year for Christmas because I once told her I loved it — it went straight into the garbage can as soon as it arrived. It was awful stuff.

–In 1952, Harry “Rat Bait” Stokes and I snuck into the Liberty Theatre through the fire exit door and watched a Gene Autry movie for free. I was so scared we’d be discovered that I didn’t enjoy a second of it.

–There was no author named Bryan C. Martin and he never wrote a book called “The Wildcat’s Revenge.” I invented both Bryan C. Martin and the book. But my entirely fictitious book report got an A+ in Miss Stem’s English composition class.

–I go outside every year on Christmas Eve and look up at the night sky to see if I can spot Santa and his sleigh. I’ve been doing this since I was a small boy, and I’m 73 now. You know what? Sometimes I think I can see that jolly old man and his reindeer.

–When I told the bountiful Belinda Hungerpiller I loved her, it wasn’t true. I didn’t even like her very much, but I thought it would help me make some time with her. It didn’t. (You think maybe she had heard that line before?)

–In conversation, I often nod in agreement with the person I’m talking to. The truth is, I’m almost deaf and haven’t heard a single word they said.

–Every time I buy a lottery ticket I have that “special feeling” about my numbers. This one is it. I know I’m going to win. No amount of logic can dissuade me. It’s a classic case of the triumph of hope over experience.

–When someone cuts me off in traffic, I use foul language I didn’t even know I knew. Then I think, did I really just say that?

–I once stole a cap pistol from McClellan’s dime store and…. oh, you already heard about that?

Thanks for listening. I feel better already.

In praise of grown men

For some reason I’ve been thinking about my father lately. When I look in the mirror, I seem to look more and more like him as I grow older. And I catch myself exhibiting many of the little mannerisms that he had.

I’m really not much like him, though. He was a self-contained man. You could not tell from his words or his demeanor what he was thinking.

I don’t want to imply that he was too serious. He could be funny — or at least what he thought of as funny. At least once a month when we sat down to supper, he would say, “Eat every bean and pea in your plate.” (Get it?)

And in the mornings, he would pour the coffee from his cup into his saucer, then proceed to slurp loudly. He did this purely to annoy my mother, who would roll her eyes and sigh loudly.

He was a whiz with numbers. No matter what math class I was in, he could work out the problems in a flash. He wasn’t a great reader, though, except for his newspaper which he read cover to cover every day.

I don’t understand math. Long division was the last mathematical concept I grasped. I am a reader. Always have been. I doubt if my father read 10 books after he left college.

The difference between men born in the opening years of the 20th century and those of us who came along several decades later is profound.

The men of Daddy’s generation came through some tough times. After weathering two global wars and a worldwide Depression, they had an air of seriousness and purpose about them that we have lost. They were what I think of as “grown men.”

Whatever happened to grown men? If you’re old enough, you remember them. They wore hats and neckties and carried pocketknifes and watches on gold chains. They invariably smelled of tobacco and aftershave.

My father was not my pal. I never doubted for a second that he loved me, but we seldom hugged each other, and when we did, I think we both felt a little uncomfortable. He did not tell me his innermost secrets, nor did I tell him mine. In fact, we never had what you would call a personal conversation in all the years that I knew him. I regret that.

Things were like that in the time and place where I grew up. Fathers were grown men. They went off to work every weekday, and they took their jobs seriously. On Sundays, they went to church, came home, ate dinner and fell asleep in a chair with an open newspaper spread across their laps.

For better or for worse, we are all products of our times.

To men of my father’s generation, life was not an exercise in self-fulfillment. There was a living to make, a house to pay for, a family to feed and clothe, children to bring up and educate.

And for those who came through the Great Depression, there was always the thought in the backs of their minds that they could lose everything in the bat of an eye. They had seen it happen before.

It never occurred to these men that anyone owed them anything. When I got out of the Marine Corps, I could have used the GI Bill to go back to college. My father was adamant. “I’d rather pay for it myself as long as I’m able to,” he said. This was not an economic or political theory he had. It was just how he felt about it himself.

What a foolish, almost laughable notion that would seem today.

Daddy was in law school when my grandfather lost his business in the 1920s. He left college and came back home. He went to work and he never stopped working until his health forced him to retire almost a half-century later.

I never heard my father complain. I never heard him use profanity or tell a dirty joke. I never heard him utter a racial slur. I never heard him say a really mean thing about anyone. I never saw him behave impolitely to anyone.

It has been almost 40 years since my father died, but so much has changed in that relatively short time. I think we have become a nation of people who got older, but never quite grew up.

I wonder what my father would make of today’s world. Things have relaxed considerately since his day. Most of us have taken off our ties and discarded our fedoras. It is no longer vitally important to shine our shoes and shave ourselves closely every morning.

There were standards to be observed. It didn’t matter that you could look at each individual standard and say, for example, “What does it matter if a man’s shoes are shined or not?” And of course it didn’t matter. What mattered was that there were standards at all.

The world has changed and we have changed with it. Many of the changes are good ones. We are freer and more relaxed. We hug. We talk to each other. I admit that I wouldn’t want to go back. And yet….

I have a theory. It’s pretty vague, but for what it’s worth, here it is: For every positive change that’s made, you run the risk of losing something of value. Something you didn’t realize was connected to what was discarded.

Half-baked? Probably.

I miss grown men, and I think we could use a few of them now.