Mike Wilson: The story of me and Mr. French

Published 2:10 pm Wednesday, August 16, 2023

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I still remember meeting Mr. French for the first time very clearly, even though it has now been almost 60 years ago. How could I forget my first encounter with that warm-hearted, boisterous, happy, back-slapping, good-through-and-through man? He brought his scout troop — which meant his whole family also — over to the Cherry Road Baptist Church around 1966, and things were never the same again.

I will certainly never know anyone again so devoted to Scouting. He lived and breathed it. I think seeing one of his sons earn the Eagle award rivaled any other possible pleasure or pride in his life. I find myself now unsure of his exact role in BSA Troop 272 (my dad was Scoutmaster), but his job description included setting us up for woodworking and fund-raising projects with lathes, band saws, and drill presses; bartering his many talents for food for our camping trips; towing skiers at summer camp; and serving in general as Chief Jokester of the organization. (He certainly saved me and my wife Sonia from starvation when I went off to grad school in Massachusetts with a case of Kraft macaroni & cheese he gave us; turned out I didn’t get my first paycheck on time because of a test I didn’t know about…).

In the days before modern digital and miniaturization advances, he always wore a hearing aid the size of a transistor radio in his shirt pocket. I can never forget the time the troop went for a cave exploration that involved crawling our way in the pitch dark on what seemed a bed of gravel with maybe 15 inches of overhead clearance for some thirty yards to reach the next passageway. Mr. French went first, but forgot to turn off his hearing aid and take it out of his pocket. He later reported that the amplified sound of that gravel scratching on his hearing aid, which he was unable to reach with a hand once committed to the crossing, nearly drove him crazy! (Furthermore, thanks to his ample girth, the passage was very easy for the rest of us after he had wallowed out the bed…)

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“You miserable creep!” was his stock reply to so many situations and transgressions that he came to be known to my family as The Miserable Creep, which in turn was shortened over the years to Creep, or sometimes Miserable. It was not uncommon for my mom to tell me, “Creep called today.” The fact is he called my mother just about every week of the last twenty-odd years after my father’s death, sometimes more than once, to check on her welfare and give her the news of his family. This he continued until his own end despite the difficulty of communicating with his deafness. To me, he was the very definition of a true and devoted friend.

My dad laughed until the end of his days over an incident with Mr. French at summer camp. He and I had made a peach cobbler in a Dutch oven, and when it was ready we set it on a table and announced loudly that no one should touch it since it was so hot. Maybe Mr. French had turned off his hearing aid.

Our bandit smelled that cobbler and sneaked up on it with a tablespoon. When he touched the lid of that pot, he dropped it instantly and yelped in pain. I think we heard his fingertips sizzling! My dad said, “Hot, isn’t it?” and the Creep replied with no hesitation, “No, it just doesn’t take me long to look at a cobbler!”

Mr. French was good at many crafts including all kinds of construction skills — plumbing, wiring, carpentry — so my dad also had a very hearty laugh and went on rib him periodically when Mr. French confessed to him that a plumbing mistake in his house on Barron had resulted in his flushing his commode with hot water for many years. I know he lost sleep over those utility bills!

It pains me deeply now to say good-bye to this kind soul who meant so much to me in my childhood, but I am content to think that he had the consolation of a life well lived and a family well cared for. He was of a very rare breed.

MIKE WILSON is a former Hampden-Sydney Spanish professor and 13-year resident of Prince Edward County, who now calls North Carolina home. He can be reached at jmwilson@catawba.edu.