Ace & Uncle Frank

These are two end-of-life tales.  I've written them down here because as I've grown older I've come to appreciate the courage of those who don't just bend the rules of propriety, but shatter them.

The stories involve two members of my dad's family:  my dad's dad, whom we called "Ace",  and my dad's brother, my Uncle Frank.  Ace was the typical nineteenth century Irish immigrant who worked with his hands his entire life, and Frank was a high school dropout who loved to work on hotrods.

My dad was the first in his family to obtain a college education, which wasn't easy to do during the Great Depression, but his mother would not be denied. She was an Irish Catholic who believed that a mother's surest path to heaven was for a son to become a priest. Since that wasn't ever going to be Frank, she was determined it would be my dad.

Obviously that didn't work out, but Dad stuck with it long enough to be well on his way to getting a degree. It was long understood at least in our household that, as the educated professional and executive, Dad was the smartest of all of them.

Now my dad was smart, no doubt about it.  But as I came to understand over time and as you'll soon see, he wasn't the only one.

✯    Ace   ✯

During his adult years in New York City, Richard Emerson "Ace" Willis worked as a carpenter, a steamfitter, an electrician's assistant and, when I first knew him when I was a kid and he was quasi-retired, he earned his living by trudging from his apartment at 4:30 each winter morning to stoke a coal-fired boiler in a school building in the Bronx. He was always, as they say, a manual laborer.

In the late 1950s my grandparents decided to sell the rights to their apartment in the City and live year-round in their summer bungalow in Rocky Point, toward the eastern end of Long Island.  Before they planned to make the move, Ace built an addition on that small house and winterized the whole structure.

I remember him making aggregate from separate piles of sand and gravel, and then adding bags of cement to mix concrete by hand for the foundation and for the walkways around the house.   I was 12 at the time and helped him lay some of the flooring in the addition, and I watched as he installed the plumbing and wired the electrical lines.

I learned a lot just by hanging out with him and holding his tools.  At around that same time, my dad had an addition built on our family house in Westbury, and again Ace did a lot of the finishing work, including installing the hardwood floors.

After my grandma died in 1960, Ace lived in that bungalow alone for his remaining fifteen years. I remember once being part of a conversation where someone asked him about his social life and he responded that, regrettably, whenever he had a good woman "all lined up", she'd up and die on him.

Ace finally passed in 1975 at the age of 81.  After the funeral my dad stayed in the Rocky Point house to close out the modest estate.  Following is his account of what he found, word-for-word as best I can remember his telling of it...

The funeral was well attended. I recognized many of the folks from the old days, but there were many more I'd never met.  Almost everyone there was 75 or older and living alone.  Most of them said that they knew Ace well and would miss him terribly, which was a surprise to me; I never knew he socialized that much.

Afterwards I stayed in the house to clean it in preparation for sale. The place was a mess and it was going to take me a few days to make it presentable.

I began in the front room. There was a small desk in the corner, and it looked like it just collected junk. I started to pull out drawers and just toss the contents, when I found a bookkeeper's journal in a bottom drawer. I flipped through it and saw page after page of figures in my dad's hand.

My first impulse was to throw it out, but clearly Ace had put a lot of time and effort into this, and I was curious as to what he had been trying to keep tabs on. I'd never known him to be thorough about anything on paper, but it was obvious he was being careful about something here and it involved a lot of cash flow. I felt challenged to find out.

I've always thought of myself as a manager, a controller, a businessman. I've spent my entire career going over financial plans and accounts and budgets—I know how books are supposed to be kept.  Ace's system, if it could be called that, was making no sense to me.

I took a break and sat down with the journal and went through it page by page. Two frustrating hours into it I felt I wasn't getting anywhere.

Then suddenly it hit me what he'd been up to, and I broke out in a sweat. I thought, my God I've got to burn this thing.

This is what I pieced together from the journal and from a close friend of Ace's who was in on everything.

As you well know, Rocky Point is a beach resort community. Come Labor Day, almost everyone packs up and heads back to the City or to school. The only people left in town during the winter are retirees living on pensions and Social Security, many of them with no family left and few options. During winter months local businesses, such as grocery stores and department stores, would raise their prices to meet the increased utility expenses. It was getting to the point where the old folks couldn't afford to live there on their fixed incomes.

So shortly after your grandmother died, Ace called a meeting of all the pensioners in the Rocky Point area. He told them that he had opened a business checking account in a local bank, and he wanted everyone to have all their pension checks sent to that account. He would manage the account and pay anyone who had joined whatever amount they needed to meet their needs. That's what the journal was for.

And he must have done a remarkable job of selling his idea because the number of people who were in the pool was surprisingly large. I had never thought of Ace as a salesman but here was proof that a lot of people trusted him completely with their life savings.

At first everyone was drawing out only what they had put in. The genius of the scheme, though, was that as people started to die off, no one informed their pension funds. The checks just kept coming in to the business account. After a few years, those who had survived were drawing considerably more out of the account than they were putting in, and everybody was happy.

I couldn't believe it son. My own father had cooked up a huge and complex scam that went undiscovered for over a decade. I had no idea he was that sharp. Or that devious.

But now I had to make a decision. Do I tell someone about this? Ace is gone, but dozens of old people are still profiting illegally from this fraud.  Would they all go to jail if I turned them in?  I wasn't sure what I should do.

In the end I did nothing. I tore up the book and told Ace's close friend, the one who let me in on the secret, that the game was up.

And then I left town.

So far, no authorities have called me... but I have a feeling that the bomb may still be ticking.

It's been forty years since Dad told me this story, and both Ace and he are long gone, so I guess it's safe to put all this down in writing.

Of course I never knew anything about my grandfather's finances, but I can't help but believe he risked it all simply and solely for everyone else. I'm willing to bet he didn't make a dime off that scam of his.

And I bet he enjoyed every thrilling minute of the game.

✯    Frank   ✯

You may find this one hard to believe but I swear it's all true.

Francis Xavier Willis was my dad's only sibling and fourteen months his junior. Dad was a typical firstborn—responsible, straight-arrow, principled, authoritative. Frank was born in his brother's shadow and took a different path entirely—he was rebellious, shrewd, cunning, ingenious. Where Dad was comfortable in the orderly conduct of intellectual pursuit, Frank was street-smart and always looking for an angle.

At the age of 19 Frank joined the US Navy and was trained as a ship's mechanic. He was stationed out of Bremerton, Washington, and spent the war years in the Pacific. After the war he returned to New York married to a woman named Marie.  They had two children, a boy and a girl, and Frank went to work for Grumman Aircraft as a mechanic.

From all appearances things didn't work out for Frank and his family in New York, because sometime in the early 50s they moved back to the Pacific Northwest.

Upon his return to the Seattle area, Frank went to work for Boeing. One advantage of working in the aircraft industry back then was free flight passes, and on occasion over the years Frank would show up for a family event such as a wedding or a funeral, stay a few hours, and then head back home. On one visit we learned that he and Marie had divorced, and on another we learned that he married someone named Kate; I don't know how long that marriage lasted.

Sometime in the 60s Frank moved from Seattle to Los Angeles and began work at McDonnell Douglas's Long Beach facility, working on the DC-10 and the early development of the MD-80.

That's pretty much all I knew about Frank's history before I received a call from my dad in February of 1977. "Son, your Uncle Frank has died. Your mom and I are down here in Los Angeles, and we'd like for you to join us for the funeral if you can." He gave me the address of the funeral home where Frank's body would be shown, and he said he had arranged for the funeral to be held two days hence and said he was "fairly certain it'll take place on time".

In the moment I didn't ask what he meant by that. I was preoccupied with what I needed to do to free up my calendar and catch a flight to Los Angeles. I purchased an emergency ticket the next afternoon, arrived in LAX around five o'clock, and caught a ride straight to the funeral home in Santa Monica.

When I walked into the chapel, my folks were the only ones there. When I said to them I was glad I'd made it in time for the funeral, Dad laughed heartily.  "Son, you have no idea what Frank's been through over the last three days.  I'm glad he arrived in time for the funeral." He told me the following, as best I can recall his words...

I received a call a week ago from a woman who introduced herself as Marie, Frank's fiancée.  She told me Frank was seriously ill and was drifting in and out of a coma. She said Frank had put me down as his next of kin and his executor on the hospital's admitting form. So I flew down here last Wednesday without knowing anything more about the situation.

It's been a strange week, right from my arrival, if you can imagine this:  there I was in a rental car, still in the winter coat I was wearing when I boarded the plane in Toronto, driving from LAX, sitting at a red light in Venice Beach, in February, when a kid walks through the crosswalk carrying a surfboard, BUCK NAKED!  I said to myself, I'm in California now, no doubt about it.

Things have gotten more strange here by the day, but it looks like we'll be able to have the funeral on time tomorrow.  It's quite the long story, but it appears we've got some time now as long as we're here by ourselves.

So, to begin with, we've met Marie and we like her very, very much. We think she's who Frank should have married in the first place. She's been very solicitous of Frank, and she's been a wonderful hostess for the two of us.

Frank and Marie were to be married on January 2nd, and sometime in December Frank came down with what he thought was a mild case of the flu--low energy, loss of appetite, that sort of thing. He didn't want to go on his honeymoon in less than the best shape, so he made an appointment with his physician to get checked out. When blood workups proved inconclusive, the doctor had Frank admitted to UCLA Medical for further testing.

Turns out it was bone cancer, a rare and very aggressive variety, and things turned very serious very quickly. There's a surgeon on staff there at UCLA who specializes in rare bone cancers. We've met him and he's a wonderful physician, quietly brilliant. He's a Seikh, and wears pastel leisure suits with matching turbans. On the day he took over the case he went to see Frank for the first time.

The doctor had chosen to wear white that day—suit and turban. Frank's room was dimly lit and when the doctor woke him, Frank stared at this glowing white figure with halo and beard, and he asked, "Are you Jesus? Am I in heaven?"

To which the doctor replied, "Mmmm... no, not quite... and ... not yet."

Frank died Thursday night. The surgeon, Marie, and I were all with him at the time. Before the doctor left, he took me aside and told me this is a rare opportunity for him to be able to study this particular form of cancer in depth and up close. He said usually he has to travel thousands of miles, weeks after the death of someone suffering such a rare disease. Never has it happened in his own hospital.

He asked my permission to allow him to do a full bone autopsy.  That meant dissecting, at the very least, every major bone and taking marrow samples.  It was necessary to cut so severely in order to find out where the cancer had started and how far and where it had spread. I gave my approval on the condition that I receive a copy of the results. He agreed and said conducting the autopsy would take him about a day and a half and he'd start Saturday morning.

And he told me that when done he'd sew up the body as best he could, but I needed to understand the extreme extent to which such an autopsy would turn Frank's body into a bag of bones. Literally.

So we were expecting Frank's body to show up here in the funeral parlor no later than Monday morning. But Monday came and went, and yesterday came and went, and still no Frank. We called UCLA Medical several times and they kept saying Frank was shipped out Sunday and they had no idea where he ended up. He wasn't here and he wasn't there.

Finally this afternoon we got a call from them. Turns out there were two 50-something white males in the hospital morgue at the same time, and because both autopsies were extensive, the toe tags ended up being switched. As a result Frank ended up being sent to Riverside, and he was prepared for viewing in a funeral home there.

When the Riverside family went to view the body, they were seriously upset. This wasn't their loved one. Who was this? And where was their body?

Meanwhile the other body had been sent here, but the funeral director refused to accept it because it didn't match Frank's photograph.  He called UCLA and they were able to make the connections.  It seems the other body has been in the back of a hearse somewhere wandering around greater Los Angeles.

It took several hours to locate it, drive the body across the city to Riverside, and bring Frank back here. He just arrived about an hour ago.

I'm sure wherever Frank's soul has ended up, he's enjoying the chaos he's created this one last time.

Having just heard all that, I walked over to Frank's casket and noted that he looked great.  I could see no signs of the gory details. He looked as if he were just resting, and in fact had a hint of the impish smirk that was so much a part of his persona.

Shortly, the funeral director entered the chapel and said if we were ready, he'd open the doors to allow visitors in to pay their respects.

We stood toward the back of the room as a well-dressed gentleman entered and stood before Frank's casket. Then he walked back to us and introduced himself as Frank's boss at McDonnell Douglas.

"I have to tell you, Frank was the very best of the seventy engineers I have on my staff," he said. "We've been through several layoffs here at MD, and I've had to lay off many good engineers, but I'd never lay Frank off. He'd be the very last one I'd let go. He did more good work than any three other engineers in my department."

We three looked at each other, amazed. Wow, Frank was a full-fledged engineer? And a good one at that? Who knew? We thanked the man for his comforting words and he departed.

Now I must say that in my observation, my mom was never warm toward Frank. I think one thing that irked her was Frank's early divorce, followed by his taking up with a woman photographed in leotards, brief tank top, stiletto heels and big bleach-blonde hair. But in the moment Mom was clearly impressed with this executive's account of Frank's accomplishment.

Shortly after the first gentleman left, another entered, paid his respects and came back to us.  He introduced himself as the owner of seven businesses in the greater Los Angeles area.

"I tell you, Frank was a brilliant tax accountant.  For twenty years my businesses were in constant trouble with the IRS and no one could keep my books straight or tell me what was wrong.  Not accountants, not consultants, not even the IRS itself. Then a friend told me about Frank.  I have to tell you Frank made all the difference. He straightened out all my books and showed me how I could save a ton of money.  Bottom line, I've never had any grief from the IRS for over seven years now, and all my businesses are going great. I'm really gonna miss that guy."

Hmmm.  Frank was an engineer and an accountant? Really? How could a high school dropout learn all the finer points of tax law? And aerospace engineering. I noticed out of the corner of my eye my mom's body stiffening. But she thanked the man and shook his hand, as did we all, and he left.

A bit later a couple entered, paid their respects and came back to us. "Frank was just wonderful, such a rare man of peace and inner harmony. We had searched for years to find a guru who could take our marriage to the next level. To be honest, we weren't very happy with each other, nor with anyone we sought for advice.  Until we met Frank.  Frank actually saved our marriage, and we've never been happier.  Frank was a saint." Mom's face was an unhealthy crimson.

Then the woman asked, "So what caused Frank to leave the priesthood?"

At that Mom lost it. In a barely controlled shriek through clenched teeth she responded, "Frank... was...   NEVER!!!    a PRIEST!!!!!!"

They left in a hurry.

Part of me was hoping, for Mom's sake, that this was the end of the evening. But the rest of me was seeing this as a great movie script, kind of like the chapel scene in "Charade", where shady characters enter one by one, walk up to the body, and by various means ensure the corpse was dead. Only these characters were bringing the corpse to life right in front of us. I was greatly enjoying the evening in a morbid sort of way.

And sure enough, right on cue, another couple walks in, pays their respects and comes back. "Frank was amazing. Unbelievable. Wonderful. He performed a miracle," the woman said.  "No one else I went to could find a cure, but Frank did. I've never been healthier in my entire life. I told all my friends about him. We will all miss him dearly."

A sound came from Mom... guttural and feral.  Both Dad and I looked at her with alarm. She was not looking at all well. And then she managed to ask, again through clenched teeth, "And what was Frank to you?"

"Why, he was my gynecologist, of course."

Mom's response was barely audible and forcibly constrained. "Get...    OUT!"

After they left we sat somewhat exhausted and contemplative in the first row of chairs in front of the casket, just staring at Frank.  I was smiling, Dad had a puzzled look on his face, and Mom was livid.  We waited in silence, all wondering what next?

And next in came a short, muscular, abrupt man. He ignored us, marched up to the casket, and stood there silently for several minutes with just his head moving side to side. Then his shoulders started to shake and we could hear him sobbing quietly. 

Suddenly, and loudly, he declared, "Well. That's it!" And he took the open palm of his right hand and slammed it down hard on Frank's chest, producing a loud 'thunk' as if from a large over-ripe melon. We three closed our eyes and held our breaths.

By the grace of God Frank stayed intact.

The man turned to us and said, "My name's Buzz. I was Frank's best friend and his only confidant. If you want to know his story, I'll be available after the funeral." And with that he handed Dad a business card and was gone.

Only two things stand out in my memory of Frank's funeral.  One is that on the next plot over from his in that LA cemetery, there stood an eight-foot pedestal atop which sat a full-size stone carving of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

The other is that this was a military ceremony, and Frank's casket was draped by a flag. Seated in three chairs facing the casket were Marie, Frank's first wife; Marie his fiancée; and between the two Maries sat Kate, Frank's second wife, all decked out in her funereal pink leotards and matching heels and crop top.

When the military detail had folded the flag in a tight triangle, the officer turned to hand it to the grieving widow. There was a comic pause as he hesitated, looking at all three women for some clue, when Kate reached up with her long-nailed claws and snatched the flag from his hands.

Afterward, as we were walking from the grave back to our car, Buzz caught up with us. "I must apologize for my behavior last night," he said to my dad. "I'm a very emotional person, and Frank's death has affected me deeply.  I want you to know what a uniquely talented guy your brother was.  I'd be honored if you would follow me to my house for brunch."

We did, and when we got there the first thing I noticed was a cumquat tree in his front yard, full of cumquats ripe for the picking. I was way south of Oregon.

Buzz escorted us to the lanai at the back of his house, where a cook had prepared a delicious brunch for us. Buzz asked us about our flight plans, and Mom and I told him we were both flying out that evening. "Well then, I'll get right to Frank's story," he said. "I've got a lot of ground to cover."

He told us he was a test pilot for McDonnell Douglas, and he first got to know Frank when the two of them had to work out the bugs in a control console of a test airplane. He said he noticed early on that Frank had a unique approach to problem solving that bordered on genius.

The two of them would go up on a test flight, and while Buzz was at the controls, Frank would be under the console or in the belly of the plane making modifications in real time. "Frank had an encyclopedic knowledge of the design details of that airplane. It was as if he had a complete set of blueprints inside his skull."

Gradually, as the two spent time together, Buzz learned a bit of Frank's history. One of Frank's hobbies was real estate. When he was living in Seattle in the 1950s, Frank started buying up plots of land with any spare change he had. His obsession was a strain on his family—meals were sparse, the kids had little clothing and were mocked at school, and eventually it lead to his divorce. Whatever else he gave up in the settlement though, he kept the land.

By the time he moved to southern California the property values in Seattle had doubled and tripled, and Frank cashed in.  But he put all his money back into Los Angeles real estate when he got there.  Instead of unimproved land, though, he began to buy commercial buildings.  And again, property values boomed and he continued to cash in on smaller properties to buy bigger ones.  He was a very shrewd bargainer.

He also bought land in Nevada and Arizona, and his favorite place was a piece of desert outside of Yuma. There was nothing on his land there but an old shack that he stocked with bottled water and C-rations. On occasion he'd go out there for a couple of weeks or a month and engage in what he called 'meditation'.

His meditation was occasioned by a restlessness he felt about his work and his life. There was something missing, something that compelled him to fill the void in his soul with a new and different experience. But it couldn't be trivial; it had to be a project of such scale and intensity that it challenged all his abilities, all his talents.

At first he chose a scheme that was within his horizon. He bought several books on accounting and tax law, and went out to the desert and spent a month in study. When he returned he cleared out one floor of an office building he owned, hired a secretary, hung some diplomas on the wall, and opened business as "F. X. Willis, Tax Accountant". He took calls at his desk at MD, made appointments, and on his lunch hour went to his office and met with clients.

That lasted a couple of years, and he learned a lot about the balance he had to maintain between MD and the game.  But once he established himself as a recognized tax expert he quickly became bored and went looking for something more edgy.

The subject he chose next was based on his own failures at marriage.  This was a challenge that forced him to look inward with every case he took on.  He read up on the various schools of psychology, studied the secrets of successful practitioners, and opened up another office in his building; now he was "F. X. Willis, Marriage Counselor".  The bit about being a defrocked priest was an homage to his mother.

He kept the tax accounting business going on the side; by now it could practically run itself.

After a few years, he again went on a search for meaning.  This time he was looking for something that would be a challenge to both his left brain (as accounting had been) and his right brain (as counseling had been). He chose gynecology because the medical science would require a lot of specific knowledge (the "ology" part), and his attraction to women would be satisfied by the "gyn" part.  In addition, the stakes this time were enormous; if he were ever caught it would be prison time for sure.  The challenge would be to stay focused on every detail of every medical condition, while avoiding even the slightest inappropriate gesture.

He spent many months in the desert over a period of three years before he finally launched the third game. It demanded a considerable amount of his time, and as a result everything else in his life suffered. "I can't help but think the strain had something to do with his early death," Buzz said. "Next month he'd have turned 56. That's way too young to die. God only knows what he could have done if he'd lived another twenty years. Think of all the good he could have done. And I'd have been there with him every step of the way."

I agreed with Buzz. It would have been awesome to witness Frank's story play out, given what I'd learned that day.

Ever the pragmatist, and now the custodian of Frank's estate, Dad wasn't impressed by his brother's story; he was impatient to get on with the business at hand.  Frank hadn't left a will or any letter of instruction.  Dad wanted to cash out as much of Frank's holdings as he could and somehow get the funds to Frank's children—he'd heard that the son, Skip, was in Canada playing in a rock band, and there were rumors that the daughter was living in the Pacific Northwest.

Crucial to his mission was the need to uncover as many of Frank's secrets as he could. Marie said Frank had talked about safe deposit boxes and property deeds, but she had no idea where they might be, and she hadn't found any keys in Frank's belongings. Buzz said he'd do what he could to help Dad but in the ten days that Dad was there in LA, he wasn't able to accomplish much.

I don't think Mom ever got over the evening in the funeral parlor. After the brunch with Buzz, Dad dropped us both off at LAX. I sat with Mom as she waited for her flight, and at one point I said to her, "That was such an amazing story. I'd love to live the sort of life where I could leave a legacy like that."

To which my mother replied with just the hint of a smile, "I won't allow it. If I get even a hint that you've tried a stunt like this, I will come back from the grave and take you with me!"