When we first moved into this community and attended church that first weekend, by random chance, we sat right behind Ab. He was a kindly gentleman who always greeted us warmly and shook our hands after church while saying, "That's all folks!" I suppose that was why we just continued to sit in that seat right behind him every Sunday all these years.
A few years ago, I attended a presentation by a Vietnamese prisoner of war who spent six years as such along with John McCain. Ab happened to sit right next to me and I got to talking to him. He told me that he used to run a fire equipment supply business here in town. Being familiar with businesses, I asked if it was A B S (saying the letters individually) and he said, yes but it was acutally called Ab's. When he retired and sold the business, the new owners took out the apostrophe. A light bulb clicked in my head. I asked him what Ab was short for since I had never heard someone named Ab. He told me when he was a kid, people called him Lil' Abner and the name just stuck. Later I would learn his Christian name was James.
I learned his real name when our local paper published an article about him a couple years ago. He had served during World War II and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He went on to serve a couple decades in the military before retiring. That was the sum of his experiences listed in the article. Last night I learned that as his boat made its way to France, it had been sunk and while many of his compatriots had drowned, he bobbed alone in the English Channel all night until he was picked up the next day with other survivors. According to relatives, he always claimed he wore out half his body low crawling clear across France, Belgium and half of Germany. Somewhere in France he and his partner became separated and had to spend a night in a fox hole away from the rest of their comrades one evening. They took turns watching and Ab said he was awakened to the sound of his partner firing his gun into the night. When his partner stopped, Ab asked him what happened and his partner told Ab that he had heard some rustling in some nearby trees and when he asked who Mickey Mantle was and then asked who Babe Ruth was, nobody answered so he shot. The next morning Ab and his partner were looking in the trees for the sound and found a shot up wild pig. Ab made the remark that was that and they should get back to the troops. His partner grabbed his knife and said not before I grab something for breakfast!
Ab was like that. He was always full of stories and jokes. Sometimes you never knew which one he happened to be telling. I can't remember a single memory where he isn't smiling.
After my grandparents moved to town into a retired community for the aging, I learned that Ab lived in an assisted care unit across the parking lot. His wife who had died a few months before we moved to town and sat behind Ab for the first time in church, had died slowly from lung cancer and after her death, Ab had stayed behind in their unit. Since he could walk fairly well with the aid of a walker, I'm not sure how he swung it but he did. I often thought about stopping over and chatting with him awhile after seeing my grandparents but I either had my kids along, had an errand to run or was otherwise busy. The one time I stopped over, Ab was out and about. Other than church and the one time I saw him outside of church, I was never able to connect up with Ab.
Ab died at age 92 earlier this week and I am part of the honor guard that will see him off today, the hottest day of the year. (Forecast is for 101 degrees with a heat index up around 118 degrees.) I'm doing a lot of hydrating as I type this before I suit up and head out. I'll miss Ab's presence every Sunday and ponder who will be the regular person to take his pew. In my eyes, it will be a big pew to fill. And when his graveside service is over, I plan to say the same words that Ab always said to me every Sunday (among others) as we were talking and filing towards the exits.
"That's all folks."