Here’s a sweet story.
My parents retired south from New England where they’d grown up, married, raised their family and had a huge network of friends. They moved primarily because my Dad developed a particular loathing for snow. This isn’t really the point, I just thought many of you would empathize since it’s February. Anyway, they moved to North Carolina. No snow, and they could be near a military base, Dad’s second criteria. Not only did Dad loathe snow, he really really liked being able to drive up to the guards and have everyone he outranked jerk to attention and snap off a salute (he was a colonel, after all, and he’d earned it, having started as a private shortly before Pearl Harbor). He’d slowly proceed to the PX where he’d read every word on the labels until my mother thought her head would explode. Finally, she quit going with him. This suited Dad just fine; he could buy more weird things like pickled pig knuckles that Mom wouldn’t stand for. Besides, she would go along with what he really preferred anyway: a second base trip to the Officer’s Club for the Sunday Brunch. (Another opportunity to be saluted!) Back in the eighties and early nineties, they used to fall all over Dad at the Officer’s Club. I imagine they did any World War II vet, but Dad was a very friendly, outgoing guy who loved to joke and got to know people wherever he went. The Officer’s Club was right up his alley. He’d let them know he and Mom were coming to the Brunch, and there was always a white matchbook embossed with gold script that read “Welcome Col and Mrs Hugo,” at their linen-covered table. Along with flowers. Dad was a well-loved guy. I still have one of those matchbooks.
His jocularity aside though, there was another side of Dad: his kindness. He never forgot what it had been like either to grow up poor, the oldest of eight, during the Depression, or to start at the bottom. Much as he’d come to enjoy the finer things, he never wanted to pay a cent more than he absolutely had to for anything, and he was always drawn back to the men who were what he’d once been: young, broke, far from home. So on those trips to the base for groceries, he’d go to the big base barbershop and pay five dollars for a military haircut. Toward the end of his life, we teased him about it. His barber—there was one in particular he really liked and would wait for–might as well have just brushed off the top of his head with a towel and called it done, Dad had about that much hair. Still, he always went, and when he was finished his chat with his barber-friend, he’d take out his wallet and he’d ask how many privates were in the shop right then. It seems he’d once been a private first class himself, right before Pearl Harbor, and a colonel had paid for his haircut. So the barber would find out how many privates were in the shop and Dad would pay for all their haircuts. How could you not love a man like that?
Before he died, my Dad told my sister and me that there were a few people he wanted us to “remember him to.” (Did this mean with a monetary gift? He wasn’t in a condition to discuss it, and maybe we thought his written instructions would be clear.) After he died, we found the scrap of paper on which he’d jotted the names that included “my barber at the base.” At the time, Jan and I realized: we couldn’t get on the base without Dad with us. We didn’t know the barber’s name or how to contact him. It was one of few requests of his we were unable to fulfill. Another was to “remember him” to our mother’s hairdresser. She’d gone out of business, and we didn’t know her last name or have any idea how to reach her.
Dad died six years ago. Last week, my sister—who bought Mom and Dad’s beautiful home on the inland waterway in North Carolina and has the same landline they had for thirty years—answered her phone. Here’s the amazement. It was Heuston, Dad’s barber, whose name we had never gotten. It wasn’t clear to Jan when Hueston learned of Dad’s death. He sure remembered that Dad would have turned 100 in October and said he knew Dad hadn’t been in “for a long time” and that he missed him. He doesn’t use computers, but apparently someone looked Dad up for him, found his obituary and located Jan’s name. Somehow he got her number. And Heuston called that number just to say he missed Dad.
When Jan told him we’d wanted to meet him when Dad died, Heuston said he could sponsor Jan to get on the base (no salutes for her car, however). Well, it turned out that security is so tight he wasn’t allowed to do that, but he drove off the base just to be able to meet that good Colonel’s daughter, who also took him what she knew would be a surprise: a gift she told him was from The Colonel (as he loved to be called) who had wanted to “be remembered” to his friend, and a picture of him, which Hueston said will hang in the shop. She also gave Hueston enough to pay for the haircuts for every private that day. Exactly what Dad would want done in his name.