Exactly a month ago today, on Christmas Eve, my friend Frank Pierce passed away. I briefly eulogized Frank after I learned of his death. As I noted at the time, that entry hardly qualified as a proper tribute to him. Even though I knew Frank for sixteen years, no eulogy I could write would begin to do him justice. For Frank Pierce was a complex mosaic of a person. I could put together only a few of his puzzle pieces. It would probably take a couple dozen of us sitting around a bar for the better part of a day slowly sipping from some dark German beers to properly give broad perspective to this remarkable man.
Most people are content to live ordinary and comfortable lives. On the surface, Frank’s life was quite ordinary. He raised a small family and lived in modestly in the Maryland suburbs. His work for the Navy spanned many decades and involved activities that I never fully grasped. Apparently, part of it involved writing manuals so Navy pilots could land properly and using the correct protocol on foreign vessels. He was actively involved in the Washington area’s local German American society. Through it, he developed a network of friends outside of work.
Frank was the type to grasp at any opportunity offered him, no matter how small. His nature was to be incessantly curious. He was also a ruthlessly pragmatic person. He would allow no mysticism to cloud his clinical observations of the world. He knew humanity’s place in the universe, and in his view it was much lower than we thought. He saw us as lucky to be where we are and believed we would not be there for long. Humanity, he often told me, was not a naturally peaceful species. We are a warrior species and aggression is in our nature. We had to fight it by carefully teaching each new generation and by learning lessons from history. He could survey the world around him, see its terrible wars, genocides, and rampant cruelty, and realize that Americans live fortunate and almost gilded lives. Our liberty, he frequently observed, was purchased at the cost of millions of lives. Consequently, he had a deep respect for the military (perhaps in part because he spent so much time working for the Navy), its necessity, as well as the necessity at giving the Commander in Chief the benefit of the doubt. In our many discussions on the War on Terror, and the War in Iraq in particular, he was very deferential to the President. Remember, he frequently told us, he has access to intelligence you and I do not. It was with some reluctance that late last year he came to the same conclusion that I did on Iraq even before the war had started: that we were engaged in folly. The Iraq War may be the sole instance wherein I was more cognizant of reality than Frank Pierce was.
Frank was a deeply grounded man, with his eyes wide open, who was always trying to discern cause and effect. The tools that gave him such wisdom included a natural brilliance, acute curiosity, direct exposure to the real world in ways that most of us would avoid, but also consummate self-education. It could take the form of slogging through history books, newspapers and magazines or watching C-SPAN for hours on end. However, it also came from simply making connections and talking to people. Most of us are lucky to know the name of our Congressman or Senator. Frank was likely on a first named basis with many of them. He could send a thoughtful inquiry to his Congressman and he would receive a personal and thoughtful reply. He would often get a phone call from them too. Not only did he know his representatives by name, they knew him by name too. No doubt, his incisive letters to them stood out in the crowd. As a writer, he could communicate with great effectiveness and did so in a way that almost compelled the recipient to start a dialog.
In short, Frank was not just a neat older guy friend (he died at age 75), a mentor and a role model, but also an inspiration. All these wonderful aspects of Frank though pale in comparison to the ruthlessness with which he seized control of his life. He found nothing boring. Every day and every hour had potential. It seemed to me that he saw his mission was living intensely. In truth, I think he simply found life too engaging to be philosophical about how he chose to live it. His incessant itch was not just to enjoy life, but to draw in all the world’s energy, let it flow through him and use it to energize him some more. If he were a light bulb, he would have radiated 1000 watts.
I was not surprised then to find myself in Princess Anne, Maryland last Friday for his memorial service. The service occurred so belatedly because both he and his wife suffered terribly from the same terrible infection. Apparently, it contributed to his death. It took weeks for his wife Nancy to recover to the point where she could participate in a memorial service.
Frank grew up in Princess Anne and apparently was enchanted with the small town. He wrote a book about life there as a boy during the World War Two years. I have not yet read the book (although I do own another book of his, which I purchased from him), but I hope to read it some day. At the memorial service, I spoke with a number of people who mentioned the book on Princess Anne and said it was Frank’s best work.
Speaking with his daughter after the service, I learned that Frank was the last of his family to grow up in Princess Anne. About fifty people attended his memorial service. At first, I was disappointed. I expected the church to be overflowing. Then I realized that almost everyone had to come from out of town. (It was about a three-hour drive each way for me.) Princess Anne is not convenient to anything. It is about fifteen miles south of Salisbury, Maryland on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. (This area is now chicken country. It is where chicken magnate Frank Perdue made his millions.)
The service was held in Princess Anne on a cold, clear and blustery day at the Manokin Presbyterian Church, a church so old its brick walls go back to the 1700s. Even his son remarked on the oddity of his father being memorialized in a church. Frank believed in God, but he was not a Christian. Nonetheless, there was a time as a youth when he attended services regularly with his family at this historic church. The minister, who had never met Frank, did his best to eulogize him. Even so, it was hard to get many of the congregants to join him in The Lord’s Prayer. His son, Frank H. Pierce IV, eulogized him at the man we all knew, loved and admired: the ruthlessly skeptical and secular man with a boundless passionate nature for life.
I attended the service with my friend Angela. After we paid our respects to his family, we found ourselves in the cemetery behind the church. There we found the graves of the Pierce family, from the first Frank Pierce, through the Junior, then to the Senior then to our friend, Frank H. Pierce III. Frank cremains will be placed next to those of his family.
His grandson stood alone by the family graves after the service. Angela and I spoke with him. We spoke of the cynical, sectarian man we knew. “I last saw him on Thanksgiving,” he said, “and I had a feeling it might be the last time I would see him.” Angela and I expressed our utter shock at his death. We had no idea he was even sick. It was not something Frank chose to share with us. Frank kept up his regular conversations on my electronic forum, The Potomac Tavern, with his usual eloquence until the day before he died. He sent me a brief German translation I needed on that day too.
Whether grandson or friend, on one thing we could agree. As I noted in my first entry on Frank, Frank claimed he was not concerned about death. He was concerned about leaving a legacy. From his wonderful family (some of whom I met for the first time) to his many, many friends, all of us were deeply touched by Frank. We were simply blown over by his infectious spirit of life. As I spoke with his grandson, we agreed. If Frank’s mission was to leave a legacy, then he accomplished his mission in a singularly fantastic style.
I already know that when I pass out of this life that my life will be little more than a footnote to those other than my family. Frank’s seemingly ordinary life though will not be. He made quite a splash. Frank was simply unforgettable, which is why I am sure thirty years from now, if I am still alive, I will continue to treasure my time with Frank. I will think wistfully about our many conversations. Frank succeeded in getting every minute and every molecule of enjoyment out of life. I have never met anyone else who did this. I am certain he belongs to a small coterie of people who have ever lived who managed to do so.
Now that’s a legacy.