It was 8 a.m. on an early St. Petersburg, Florida, morning. I always liked to get an early start on Saturdays. I grabbed my deck of Bicycle playing cards and a Beatles 8-track tape, “Sgt. Pepper’s,” stopping only long enough to finish my coffee before heading downstairs.
“Pinochle with your buddies at Swan’s?” Mom called from the kitchen.
“Pinochle,” I answered grabbing the spare set of keys from the hallway key hook for the white and tan ’59 Rambler that had more than a passing resemblance to a New York taxi cab. “I’ll be back around 4 p.m... Do you need anything while I’m out?”
“Yeah, don’t forget to pick up your brother, Bob, from the Y.M.C.A.,” Mom answered.
I was soon pulling out of the driveway and the Buick was in third gear before I had made it to the end of the street; always on the lookout for the dreaded old eagle-eye, Mrs. Jones, the Neighborhood Watch double-agent. She’d always smile and wave as the young kids drove by, only to call parents complaining about excessive speeding the moment you passed. She’s okay, I guess; but Bob and I still had a good laugh when we heard she got pulled over last year and was given a ticket for going too slow. “Impeding the flow of traffic.” she bitterly complained to my mom and anyone else who would happen to listen.
I stopped at the Krispy Kreme and grabbed a box of jelly donuts. Tomas and the guys had gotten used to the donuts and coffee over the last six months, and though I only made $20.00 a-week working at the Varsity Drive-In, I hated to disappoint the guys. I remember what led me to Swan’s Nursing Home. As a fifteen-year-old son of a German mother and an American father who had recently moved from Manchester, Ohio, to St. Petersburg, Florida, I was always kind of shy and never had the courage to meet and make friends with kids my own age. My mother, who had served as a nurse in the German Army during the Second World War, always tried to instill in her children the noble characteristics of honesty, bravery, and a desire to serve their community and assist those less fortunate, even if that assistance just meant someone to listen patiently or just offer a kind word of encouragement when needed. Well, four out of five isn’t so bad; it’s just that bravery has never been one of my strong points. Most, well almost, all of my friends were the older friends of my dad and mom’s from the German-American Club. I never learned to speak German very well, but I did learn to dance the Schuhplattler (“slap dance”), German folk dance, much to the delight of my parents and our friends. One day after school, I was heading to the Varsity when I noticed an older man dressed in a plaid shirt, plaid pants, a plaid sweater (I didn’t realize they made such eyesores), and a pair of black Chinos hazardously negotiating traffic on the corner of 4th Street. He looked to be about 80 years-old and his plaid ensemble appeared to be at least that or a little older. I pulled to the shoulder of the road and quickly made my way over to where he stood like Moses before the Red Sea, dodging cars as I went.
“Hey, sir?” I called as I reached him, “Are you lost?”
“My name is Tomas, without an ‘H,’ and no, I’m not lost. I’m just trying to make it back across to the donut stand. I got my donuts but forgot my de-caf. And besides, I think he shorted me fifty-cents.”
After we had safely retrieved the coffee and the dubious fifty-cents, I offered Tomas a ride.
“I don’t ride with strangers and besides, I may look sixty-five, but I’m perfectly capable of finding my way back to the Center,” Tomas remarked, eyeing me suspiciously.
“Oh, sorry about that Tomas without an ‘H’. I’m Fritz with a ‘Z’. I was just trying to make some new friends like my mom is always urging me to do,” I responded, putting on my most affable smile.
Tomas hesitated a second before walking over to the Buick with his cherished selection, sloshing de-caf as he strode my way.
Tomas grinned and replied, “Okay, then, Fritz with a ‘Z’. I don’t wish to be accused of not being sociable. Let’s go!”
With that he climbed into the front seat, ejected the Beatles, and tuned into some Frank Sinatra.
“You don’t mind if I smoke do you?” he said while pulling out a cigar with a charred end.
Before I had a chance to respond, he had already lit up and was happily puffing away.
I soon learned that Tomas lived at the Swan’s Community Retirement Center off of Central Avenue. Tomas had been a Marine during the First World War and had fought in France with the Allied Forces. Tomas’ company had been surrounded by Germans and outnumbered by more than three-to-one, and yet they bravely continued to fight on for three days until reinforcements arrived.
“Wow!” I remarked as Tomas took a breath to grab sip of his steaming de-caf, sneak another bite of the raspberry-filled jelly donut, and shove what was left of the cigar stub into his yellow and purple plaid pocket.
“I wish I had your courage, Tomas. I’m even afraid to make friends at Boga Ciega High School.”
“Oh, we were plenty scared; it’s only a fool or a liar who says he wasn’t afraid when we were in the trenches with bayonets fixed, short of ammo, and waiting for the sergeant to call the next charge. From what I learned later from some captured German prisoners, they felt pretty much as we did. We were all just glad the fighting was over so we could return to our families. Fritz, anyone can make acquaintances, that’s the easy part. What takes real courage and strength is to be a true friend when others just want to be a disposable acquaintance and walk away when things get tough. True friendship is like a garden that you invest a little time and effort into if you wish not only to maintain it but watch it flourish. Fritz,” he said as I stared at him intently, “We took a risk when we defended that hill and a field full of rotten tomatoes and turnips. That decision cost us eighty-five American lives and quite a few more German lives. We weren’t fighting for the turnips and tomatoes, Fritz, we were fighting for one another.”
“Yeah, but Tomas, you’ve got to admit, it’s a lot easier to be brave with a rifle in your hands, right?” I quipped because it began to dawn on me what Tomas was really driving at.
“Real valor doesn’t happen when you find a rifle in your hands. Any coward can point a gun and pull a trigger. True courage begins when you decide what’s really worth fighting for and take a stand. Where do you stand on friendship, Fritz?” Tomas said gathering up his package of donuts and cane after we came to a stop in front of Swan’s.
I thought a moment, reflecting on what Tomas had shared back then. I still smile, remembering our first meeting six months ago. What did I do?
“Okay,” I said writing my name and phone number on the donut receipt, “I guess I’ve got to start making friends somewhere, right, Tomas without an ‘H’?” I then extended the receipt for Tomas to accept, but he refused.
“I’m not looking for another acquaintance, Fritz,” and then he turned to walk back into the front entrance.
“Wait, Tomas,” I called exiting the Buick and quickly catching up with him and bringing the de-caf that he had conveniently left in the drink holder.
“Neither am I,” I said once again offering him the receipt. This time Tomas smiled as he gratefully accepted it.
Tomas paused for a few seconds and then turned back to face me once again. “Oh, I, and a few of the boys, play a hand or two of Pinochle on Saturdays. Would you like to come in?”
That was six months ago. I’m still not the world’s best pinochle player, but I’ve got five new friends who can’t be blamed for not trying to turn me into one. Now that takes courage; oh, and a few dozen donuts, five regular coffees, and one de-caf.