Charmer ’til the End

A flier is grounded no longer

Not long after I moved to Tallahassee, I injured myself playing softball at Tom Brown Park such that I could not walk without the use of a cane or without excruciating pain for a period of several weeks.

Despite visits to several doctors and an outlay of co-pays that I thought enough to at least get me a diagnosis, I never got one. An orthopedist advised, “It may go away on its own. Give it six weeks. If, after that time, it’s no better, I’ll see you again. Otherwise, just send me a postcard from wherever you are when the pain goes away.”

Within that six-week window, the pain did subside, but not before I made a trip to Panama City Beach and, among other activities, met up with a good friend and his father, Chick, at a breakfast place on Thomas Drive.

I hobbled on my cane toward a table where Chick, my friend, John, and others were seated. Chick took note of my ambulation aid.

“Don’t feel bad about the cane,” he said, seeking to make me feel better. “I use one, too, from time to time.”

Chick was 95 at the time and I was 62, but in his view, we were contemporaries. He didn’t see me as someone in his 90s. Rather, he regarded himself as a lot younger than he was.

I learned a few hours ago that Frank G. “Chick” Russo had died at the home of his daughter, Kathy, at age 97. Try as he did, he couldn’t fight off the Big Sleep any longer and peaceably moved on. He had, at some point, decided that 97 would be his finish line; there would be no 98. He had a hard time dealing with an inability to be useful.

Like my father, Chick was a World War II veteran. Dad was a Marine who got out after the war wound down. Chick was a pilot who made the Air Force his career. Both men served in the Pacific Theater during the war and neither went gentle into that good night.

Chick was an enlisted kid who wanted to fly. He petitioned his superiors for that opportunity, and when he was rebuffed, he threatened to join the Canadian Air Force. His bluster worked. To flight school he went.

In a way that would chill you, Chick could describe the emotions that gripped him when he had an enemy aircraft in his sites. But his favorite wartime tales of the South Pacific involved monkeys, moxie and mischievousness. Chick was a jocular charmer and a musician — he played the squeezebox — with a wink that made ladies melt.

After the war, Chick was assigned to the Pentagon, where his duties involved flying brass about the country to activities that were sometimes official, sometimes extracurricular. Terrific untold stories died with him, no doubt.

Over decades, much happened to disrupt Chick’s sense of order and roles. If ever he had taken to the streets with a placard, it would have read, “Leave Well Enough Alone.” Protests mostly backfired, he thought. But he was technologically current, compared to most 97-year-olds. He had an iPhone, and he liked to speak to people via FaceTime. (At times, however, he would raise the phone to his head to better hear, leaving folks to study his inner ear.)

Two days before he died, Chick, confined to a bed, placed a call to VFW Post No. 8205 in Parker, Florida, where he knew his friend, Ethel, was celebrating her 90th birthday.

He wished her well and told her how much he valued her friendship.

“I will always love you,” he said, still the charmer, still saying the right things and making people feel good.

“Mako and Poppa are together now,” John said when he called me with news of his father’s passing. Two days before Poppa died, my spaniel, Mako, was put to rest. Cancer had overtaken his lungs.

John was a Mako fan — viewed him as “imperial.” An artist, he once thought about drawing me on a throne with Mako at my feet. But, had he gotten into it, he would have reversed his plan and placed me on the floor. (I know how John’s mind works.)

And so it is all fitting, I have concluded in somber reflection: the king and the colonel together, somewhere above us all.


Carpe diem,

Steve Bornhoft

Categories: Director’s Column