Frank died at 87 1/2 years old. Picture this: When he was a tow-headed little boy, just a toddler, his parents dressed him in short pants and a striped shirt and posed him on the hood of the family Model T, grinning. Feisty. He was named after a prominent ancestor, Benjamin Franklin, and they shared more than a name: both were brilliant, larger-than-life, charismatic. Actually, he came from a long line of characters: a grandfather who died, in his 90s, as the result of a bar fight, a father who was an early aviator. That family bred their men big, bold, and memorable. Frank, my Frank, my friend, came of age during the Great Depression. He had an older brother, equally brilliant; when it came time for Frank to attend college in ’37 or ’38, there was no money left. None. His brother had the degree that Frank would never get. He didn’t sweat it, moved on with life. Somewhere along the way he met a beautiful lady and they got married. Everything changed on 7 December 1941.
I worked with Frank for 9 years, at a pays-all-the-bills day job when I was really young. Before I could do this all day, every day. He was nearly 77 when we met, but the glint in his eyes was that of a curious young man. He started his work day earlier than everyone but the owner. When I arrived at work on 7 December, 5 1/2 months after we met, he immediately came up to me and asked if I knew what day it was. It was a test, and I was the only one who passed. “Of course, Frank,” I said, “It’s the 7th of December. Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. It’s been, what, 55 years?” His smile was huge and sun-bright. He unbuttoned his shirt and opened it, revealing his special surprise. I was new, so I’d never seen it before. (Minds out of the gutter, people. Minds out of the gutter. Actually, minds back in the gutter, people. Minds back in the gutter. Frank would like that.) Under the rumpled, short-sleeved, vaguely patterned button-down that he wore at least twice a week, every week, for a decade, was a white, hand-decorated T-shirt. On the front, thick black letters proclaimed: Peal Harbor, December 7, 1941. The back, as I discovered later, said simply and profoundly: NEVER FORGET. Frank never did, because that day forever changed his life and his country’s.
World War II made Frank a real pilot, like his dad. He flew for the United States Marine Corps Aviation, enlisting soon after that tragic December day. He was stationed in the Pacific. He killed people, saved lives, retreated, carried a wounded buddy to safety as the enemy sent gunfire over his head. Picture this: In between action, he posed, shirtless and tan, wearing a pair of white pants rolled up above the ankles, his pet monkey sitting on his shoulder, grinning. He was in his mid-twenties. His beautiful wife and young daughters were at home, thousands of miles away. He missed them, he always missed them, every day, every moment, but he did it all over again in Korea.
Frank refused to join his local VFW post, believing that the quickest way to grow old was to spend time with other senior citizens. Instead, he worked. He loved being around younger people. He kept up with the pop culture landscape, and could talk about current events better than the rest of us combined. Like those old veterans he refused to associate with, he loved talking about the wars that shaped his character and expanded his world-view. I heard the same stories a hundred times, and I enjoyed every second of every retelling. Unable to become a scientist, he read physics books for fun. He discussed philosophy over the morning coffee and classic strategies of war over lunch. He was the best part of my work day.
Back from two wars, he settled permanently into private life, at last, with his red-haired wife and four redheaded daughters. A charmer and a talker, he became a successful salesman. When he retired in the early 1970s, a year or two before I was born, he didn’t do so quietly: he immediately went out and found a part-time job at the gallery that was to bring us together two decades later. He stayed there more than 30 years, as rooted to the place as the uneven wooden floorboards and the crinkly original business license that was dated 5 February 1953.
If my knowledge of Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day sealed our friendship, my long red tresses started it: The day we met, he whipped out his wallet and showed me photographs of all five of his beauties. It was Frank who gave me a nickname that has stuck for eleven years. After seeing the movie Shrek, he told me that I looked just like the before, non-ogre version of Princess Fiona. To this day, if you call out the name Fiona, I will turn and look. Thanks, Frank. Every morning, like a Grandpa with the gait of a 30-year-old, he came into my workroom and handed me one Werther’s Original and gave me a peck on the cheek. He was still handsome, dynamic, sly, a bit naughty. Picture this: Tall if turned a bit paunchy, white-haired, beautiful-eyed, he was the easiest person to have hour-long conversations with about history, classic movies, war, politics, and anything else that crossed your mind. The man who, more than half a century earlier, had power enough and some to spare to charm a lovely young woman into matrimony and a monkey out of a tree on a forgotten island in the Pacific Ocean.
Frank died 5 1/2 years ago. He would have been 93 later this month. I loved him, and I miss him like he was family. During the hours that I listened to his war stories, his childhood memories, his humorous lessons, his unique Frank-philosophy-hours that must have, by the end, amounted to weeks or months of my life-I often thought that he was the ideal subject for a book. In the back of my writer’s mind, I knew that I should ask him to sit down and talk, recording device on the table. Before it was too late. He would have obliged, been honored. I never did it, and I’ve no idea why. It wasn’t due to shyness or propriety or doubt. As a writer, I could have given his story to the world, shared a few slivers of his brilliant mind with the masses. With you. So that you would know a little of the Frank that I knew, worked with, and loved for a decade. Frank as he wanted to be remembered, and certainly was: patriotic, charming, sharp, funny as fuck, brave, adventurous, handsome, loyal, family oriented, philosophical, and smarter than any of us. He was my friend, from first to last, and this open letter is all I have to give you, in honor of him. Today is Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. NEVER FORGET.