“I’m going to push your wheelchair through the museum for you, Mr. B.” I announced.
“No, no, no, honey.” He protested. “You don’t need to do that.”
“I’m happy to!” I exclaimed.
“No really. I’ll just be fine here.” He settled himself for the wait.
My friend’s response was typical. He was independent and would be the last person in the world to put someone out.
We were both a part of a large group of WWII veterans and guardians who had traveled from Fort Worth, Texas to New Orleans, Louisiana to visit the National WWII Museum. It was most of the vets' first time, and after a swell evening the night before being serenaded by the trio at BB's Stage Door Canteen, everyone was excited to tour the museum for the day.
Unfortunately, stepping off an elevator the day before, Mr. B. had collided with one of the other vets and didn’t quite feel up to a strenuous day of walking. True to form, he would rather have spoiled his trip than have to depend upon someone else.
But I was prepared for this.
I walked around to the front of his wheelchair, “Mr. Bordeaux, do you seriously think you came all the way from Texas to New Orleans just to sit in a chair in the front of the museum all day?? I think not!!”
He attempted one last pathetic protest and then realized it was pointless. “Oh, okay.” He smiled. He was won over.
Everyone you meet has a different impact on you. And what you take away from one friendship may be completely different from the next person.
I didn’t know Mr. Bordeaux as long as some folks, but I like to think that over the several years of our friendship, I was able to see a different side of Mr. B. than the one he regularly presented.
For those who didn’t know him so well, one might have put Richard Bordeaux down as a possibly cute old man, always good for a laugh, with a somewhat impossible amount of orneriness left over from years of being on his own.
In a way, that is true. Each extended trip to the hospital proved he was too tough to be overcome. And it’s true, his self deprecating jokes could be really cute ...
“How are you doing, Mr. B.?”
“Fine… They said I need a lobotomy, but I doubt they’ll be able to find anything there.”
… But I also saw a side to him that (along with his adorable crustiness) was interesting and even brilliant. I would like to share that with you here - the Mr. Bordeaux I knew.
Until he got too sick, we would talk regularly on the phone. Oh the miles of conversation we would cover. Sometimes we’d compare notes on our Civil War relatives. His insight into a war, so far in our past, but still so hotly disputed, was clear headed, honest, and intelligent. Over the election year, his political commentary, though far from PC (Mr. Bordeaux and "politically correct" were just two things that never went together), was again very insightful and oftentimes hilarious.
His retention of information and knowledge on many, many subjects continually impressed me.
One day, I was talking on the phone with him.
“Mr. Bordeaux!” I exclaimed. “I finally got to see the Grand Canyon!”
“Just a minute honey,” he said in his raspy Texas drawl. “Let me turn the TV down.”
I smiled and waited on the other end of the phone. He refused to wear hearing aids, despite having lost most of his hearing as a Navy Gunner during the war.
“Now what was that?” He said picking up the phone again.
“I finally got to see the Grand Canyon!”
“Oh now, that’s fine. That’s just wonderful, honey,” he replied, “Did you get to see…” And he listed off a couple of places. We kept chatting about it, and he told me about the history and geology of the canyon. His descriptions were breathtaking.
“I should be taking notes for next time,” I laughed. "When was the last time you went??”
“I’ve never been,” he said. “I’ve just read about it.”
“Well, if you ever decide you need a job,” I told him, “you should apply as a tour guide of the Canyon!”
He chuckled a bit.
A few years ago, I had told him about my brother hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Had he heard of that before? Most certainly!! And he proceeded to tell me about this famous 2600 mile hiking trail. “How did you know about it?” I had to ask, amazed (I’d never heard of it before my brother announced to the family his intentions of making the hike). “Oh, reading somewhere,” was his reply.
The following year, I told him my brother was commercial fishing in Alaska.
“Alaska!” He said, getting excited. “That’s one place I have wanted to visit my entire life.”
“Really?” I said. “Tell me about it. Why?”
And he did. For the next ten or fifteen minutes, he went on to tell me about the gloriousness of “The Last Frontier.”
Again I asked in amazement, “Where did you learn all this? No! Don’t tell me…” I knew where this was going.
“I’ve read about it, watched a lot of documentaries… you know. Not much.”
“Goodness, Mr. Bordeaux!” I chuckled on the other end of the phone. Would there ever be a subject he didn’t know anything about?
Pushing my crusty sailor around the National WWII Museum that day, I saw yet another side to this interesting individual.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked.
“I don’t care. Wherever you want.”
“Let’s go through the Normandy exhibit then. I know you were in the Pacific, so it might be interesting for you to see the other side.”
I wheeled him through the many exhibits, chatting a bit, reading some of the displays, asking questions about the Navy crafts, and watching him in those moments where he was thoughtfully silent.
We finally arrived at the Invasion of D-Day when he suddenly blurted out, “I lost my two best friends on D-Day.” I stopped. He had never talked about this before.
Coming to the side of his chair, I knelt down, “Oh, I’m so sorry, Mr. Bordeaux. You were close with them?”
“One of them lived next door to me. The other one was a few miles away, but we were always together. When he died, his mother moved to the house next door. Her younger son had been killed by a street trolley, and it was just too much for her to lose another son. She never got over it.”
As he reflected on these things, his eyes became moist, his raspy voice grew a little more raw. “I haven’t thought about them in over 30 years.” His voice trailed.
“Thank you for telling me.” I said taking his hand, trying not to tear up myself. This was one of those moments I knew I’d never forget.
- - - -
But if I thought that was the last emotional moment of the day, I was wrong.
During our tour of the Warbirds exhibit, we ran into an old friend of mine, Lt. Colonel Art Arceneaux, a Marine Air Corps Ace during the war.
The meeting of my two friends was another moment I will never forget.
After the usual, “Where were you?” they realized they had both been in the same general area during the Battle of Okinawa. Except Col. Arceneaux was fighting the Kamikazes from the air, and Mr. Bordeaux was fighting them from the guns of his ship.
"Remember how the Kamikazes swarmed at us like flies to honey?" said Mr. B. ”I admired you guys in the planes. I wouldn't have traded places.”
“I felt sorry for you guys on the ships," responded the Colonel in his soft Cajun accent. ”I didn't want to be in your position."
I stood there in awe listening to them swap battle stories. I knew Mr. Bordeaux had served in the Pacific and had experienced things he’d rather forget. But he didn’t talk about it much, even when I pushed him. Okinawa was his one big battle. Compared to other WW2 guys, his combat experience was limited. But who’s counting the battles? I’ve seen sometimes that the vets who were only in the rough for a short time didn’t have the chance to become battle hardened, and they are left raw with lasting memories that cannot be shaken for anything.
A few hours earlier our group had watched the Museum’s 4D short documentary, “Beyond All Boundaries.” Despite being in good spirits before the show, when the kamikaze attacks came on the screen, Mr. B. couldn’t handle it. “Make it stop, make it stop.” He cried out. “Do you need me to take you out?” I asked. “No… No. I’m fine.” He said. But soon the sounds, the vibrations, and the visual imagery intensified. My hand was on the elbow of his chair. He grabbed it and held on. Tight. My eyes became a bit dewey.
After the film, Mr. B. told me how he had watched a nearby ship go down in flames. The crew members jumped into the ocean on fire. There was nothing he could do but watch. 89-years old at that time, and that image haunted him still.
Pulled back to the moment, I looked at Mr. Bordeaux and Mr. Arceneaux chatting away. These men had never crossed paths during the war, but yet they had fought side by side. 70+ years later, here they were swapping war stories. I was a merely a fly on the wall.
Saying our goodbyes, both vets thanked the other for their protection during the battle. They would never meet again, but they would forever be friends.
I was grateful for this meeting with Colonel Arceneaux, for Mr. Bordeaux’s sake. There is something intangible to the looker-on, and so meaningful to the veteran that comes out of a conversation with someone “who was there.”
Over lunch in the American Sector Restaurant, we talked about the day and the museum. So much to take in and process. We talked about his family, goofy stories from the Navy, growing up, events that had hurt him as a child and ended up shaping his life.
In many ways, his story was similar to another friend of mine. Both of them had grown up in the school of extra hard knocks. Both their fathers had left home at an early age, and they were forced to raise themselves without that important figure in their life. “A boy needs his dad,” Mr. B. told me. “But I didn’t have mine.”
The difference in my two friends came when one took the path of indifference to hardships and a perspective that life would not be allowed to run him down. Mr. B. did not choose that path. There were many things in his life he wanted to be or could have done… He knew that. But sometimes life just hit him too hard to get around it.
Having the two examples of my friends, such similar lives with such opposite outcomes, I was struck by the fact that here I had an opportunity to see into the future. Life throws an awful lotta curveballs at us, and how we respond to them may change the course of the rest of our life. Through the example of my other friend, I saw the blessings of what it would look like at 90+, having taken the high road of positivity at age 20. And for Mr. B., sadly, I saw the outcome of having taken the road of frustration and discouragement. It’s a hard lesson.
But for all the somber moments of the day, Mr. Bordeaux still had his wonderful sense of humor. After we pushed the serious life matters out of the way, he was back to his old jokes and humor, including cracking a comment that made me hide my face behind the menu and caused the next table to look up in surprise. Yup, Mr. B. always had something tucked up his sleeve ready to pull out when you least expected.
“Here, have my fries,” he said.
- - - -
When we landed back in Fort Worth, I looked to say goodbye to Mr. B. But he’d already gone. Calling him up the next day, I pretended to be mad, “Mr. Bordeaux, what did you mean by running off yesterday without a goodbye? After all I did pushing you around the WWII Museum!”
“Oh honey,” he said, “I’m sorry. I just hate goodbyes.”
I get that.
The story of our visit to the WWII Museum is just an excerpt from all the stories I have to tell from dear Mr. Bordeaux. An excerpt though it is, it nevertheless remains one of my favorite experiences with a WW2 veteran since starting Operation Meatball.
Yet, WW2 veteran though he was, my family’s friendship with him grew to be more than that. He became a regular fixture in our visits to Fort Worth and a treasured friend. Over the years, we accumulated many hilarious anecdotes from our time with him.
The first time Mother met Mr. Bordeaux, he asked her bluntly, “Why are you wearing BLUE toe polish?”
Sometimes I’d call him up and say, “I’m in town. Can I come over for a chat?” Forever worried that he would put us out, or embarrassed that his little flat wasn’t clean, he’d make some excuse. That is when I had to learn to say, “I’m in town. I’m coming over in 30 minutes.” Of course, he was happy about it, and we would talk for hours… “Come back soon.” He’d say.
One afternoon, when he didn’t show up to a luncheon where he was a regular, I called him. “Where are you??”
“I’ve been waiting for the mechanic. My car has issues, and they were supposed to be here at 10am.”
“But it’s 2 o’clock!?” I said.
“Can Faith and I come by and give you a quick hug?”
“Well now, honey, you don’t have to… But you can if you want.”
He was out by his car when Faith and I got there. Our “quick hi and hug” turned into a lengthy discussion on how to solve world problems (sailor style) and the best way to sleep during a Typhoon in the Pacific (educating!). Periodically, one of the folks living in his apartment complex would walk by with a trash bag for the dumpster, staring (not-so-politely) at the little party gathered around his old truck, chatting and laughing in the (Texas style) freezing weather.
Another time, it was his turn to remonstrate when I was out of town for a while and hadn’t called.
“I’ve been looking for you!” He said in his North Texas manner. “But I didn’t find you in any of the local pool halls or bars.”
I died laughing. “Goodness. Mr. Bordeaux. You must have been looking in the wrong pool halls then.” What else could I say?
Surer than the sun setting, I could always count on Mr. B. to end his phone calls with, “Now you be safe, honey. And stay off the streets.”
This last part always baffled me. “Why would I be on the streets??”
"Now, now, you just never know. Be safe now.” He would always answer.
“Well, all right then. I’ll try.” I would tell him.
Another time, we were out for ice cream and ended up discussing Frank Lloyd Wright and Architecture (a passion of his) until the ice cream ran out. That was after someone had come up to thank him for his service, only to not be heard (remember, he was too independent to wear hearing aids). The fellow was a little awkward not knowing what to do… “It’s okay.” We told him, “He can’t hear you, try again.” We tugged Mr. Bordeaux’s sleeve, “Someone’s trying to talk to you.” I still don’t know if he ever heard what the guy was saying…
On birthdays, I’d always call him a day or two after. Why? Because of this conversation:
“Hey, Mr. Bordeaux! Your birthday is coming up soon!”
“I don’t believe in birthdays. Anyways, life goes downhill after 21.”
“But I’ll be 21 in a couple of years!”
“Well, then… you know.”
“I’m going to send you a card on your birthday.”
“Now, now, now… don’t go doing that.”
“And I’m going to call you.”
“Now, now… Listen here, young lady, I told you I don’t believe in birthdays or holidays. They aren’t for me.”
Two days after his birthday: “Mr. Bordeaux! Happy birthday. You said not to call you on your birthday… and I’m not!”
- - - -
I wasn’t able to say “goodbye” to Mr. B. before he passed. I wondered if I would. But I never got the chance. However, thinking back to that conversation on the phone when he told me, “Oh honey, I’m sorry. I just hate goodbyes,” it’s probably okay. He hated goodbyes… and really, I do too. Anyway, he’ll always be my sailor who was a special sort of crusty.