August 13, 2006
This is a story about Harry Cross, who I worked with at a civilian agency when I was in the Air Force.
Harry went to the dentist every six months, had perfect teeth. He would flash a toothy smile when returning from his check-up and say, “Perfect.” But he also prided himself on never, ever seeing a doctor. On a visit to his mother, he developed a cough, then pneumonia. At the hospital, the doctors found lung cancer. Harry never came back to work, dying within a week or two. “Harry never made a move without a cigarette,” a co-worker observed.
People talked a lot about Harry, and one of the stories was about how he never took a vacation. I asked “Why no vacations?” and the co-worker said, “You haven’t heard about Harry’s Three Vacations?” No, I hadn’t.
On his first vacation, he took leave from the Army to marry his hometown sweetheart. The night before the wedding, she died in a car accident. At the wheel was Harry’s best friend, who was to be his Best Man the next day. He also died. Harry never dated again.
On his second vacation, Harry took leave to visit his grandmother in San Francisco. While he was there, her apartment building burnt to the ground and she died in the fire.
After that, Harry just let his leave accumulate, even when working for the government as a civilian. But then he took a couple of days off to visit his mother. At that point in the story, my co-worker shrugged and said, “And you know how that worked out.”
I felt sad about Harry. Every day at lunchtime he and an Army warrant officer did the New York Times crossword together. Once, early in my time at the agency, I strolled by and said, “Need any help?” They both snorted, amused at my presumption. Harry said, “A Japanese aborigine… 4 letters.”
“Ainu,” I replied, “A-I-N-U. Let me know if anything else stumps you.” I moved on quickly, before they discovered it was only because of a Donald Meinig lecture in Cultural Geography that I knew about the Ainu, and that I probably hadn’t a clue about the next word.
Harry forgave me for being a hotdog. He was a good man. He should have had many more crosswords.