Frankie and Springtime Heroics

THE only time I felt heroic using force was in the Swiss Alps when I picked up a man twice my weight and threw him down on the spring cushion of snow. His skis snapped off and one slid into deep snow in the woods and he had to go after it. He had been cutting in line, ``hot-dogging,'' all morning, but this time he cut in front of a kid from a nearby home for children with special needs. I knew the kid, Frankie, and I always stopped the lift for him. The man's rooster-tail of snow had made him fall down, and Frankie was too polite to object.

I got reprimanded by Swiss authorities for my rash act as the man was a local customer. But they let it go and told me to phone from the lift shack if I had further trouble. I only had days to go as a lift-operator for it was spring and the corn snow in the Alps was almost mush.

The man avoided my lift after that and the kid Frankie came back to thank me with his nurse-matron from the home. ``You come - please ... to ... tea at my house, some day - OK?''

``Sure,'' I said, thinking what a nice kid. But my head was really swimming with dreams of spring now, my seasonal job almost over. My buddies on the mountain were all talking about Greece. We had worked hard each day - riding chairlifts in cold red dawns of winter to our stations - and partied at nights. Now they were going to move the feast somewhere else.

I wasn't so sure. I had had a good time, found a bed and a job in a foreign country, but my conscience was calling me back - not home yet - but I was hungry for more substance than a beach on Mikonos Island.

``Check American Express in Athens, Bwana,'' they said to me, the morning my friends deserted our chalet with two nights on the rent left. I was sure I'd follow them to the sun. I was waiting for mail from the States and opted to close things down at the house.

To be young and alone for a few days in spring with the world at your feet, you only had to think of where it was you could be the happiest. The chalet was strange in sudden silence, the living room with the table where we'd had boisterous spaghetti dinners, the upstairs hall and the clanking and squeaking of boots - all silent now, new spring sun streaming in the windows. I got lonely immediately. I thought of going over to see the kid Frankie at the children's home, to say goodbye before I left Switze rland - a token gesture - but never got around to it. I bathed and read and went to the patisserie and the lady said, ``So Bob is gone. And Jeff ... and your other friends...?''

SURELY it was time to leave, leave this town to their daily lives, and catch up with the party. But I was hungry for more than ``Hey, man,'' ``Let's do it,'' and ``Check it out, dude.'' So I found a book of T.S. Eliot's poetry left behind from some other expatriate occupant of the chalet. I opened the book to ``April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire... In the mountains, there you feel free....''

Lilacs. I packed a knapsack and took the cog-train down to Aigle, the valley, where, I once had read, young Ernest and Mrs. Hemingway had stopped at the ``Cafe des Lilacs.'' I knew he had read the paper there on the porch and fished the Rhone. The porch and the lilacs were there, in full bloom, as if Hemingway's supreme style had immortalized them. Sure enough, Marcel the proprietor had never heard of the writer, but was grateful for my interest and French and lent me his fishing rod. I sat with my back to a hill and castle, fishing, under the peaks of Les Dents du Midi, beginning to feel Shantihshantih shantih (the peace which passeth understanding) at the end of Eliot's poem. I caught, as Ernest would say, ``two good trout.'' Marcel cooked them with almonds for me, and I sat on the porch and read the papers. I was glad to be alone, for I felt an imposter - pretending to be part of the 1920s ``lost generation''... thinking long thoughts of the world....

Across from the porch of ``Les Lilacs'' was the train station. The buses stopped there, beautiful sleek Mercedes coaches. I watched two great electric trains come and go, the buses going up and down the mountain, coming in to meet them. From one train, I watched a woman and a girl, a pretty wisp in white blouse and pinafore, and I could see clearly she had difficulties as the mother helped her onto the bus. I supposed the woman was her mother and something about the girl reminded me of the kid Frankie, who I had watched master his limbs all winter, under the pines, trailing ski poles on pastures of snow. She's pretty, I thought, a friend for Frankie, perhaps going to the home.

I ate my fish, got a haircut, bought a ticket to the Italian seaport of Brindisi, to Greece, and was beginning to feel the legendariness of my youth again. How could a man feel better? And only a spring day.

I went up the mountain in the evening, prepared to leave the next day. But on impulse decided to get off the bus at the stop where I knew the big safe children's home in the pines was. I could walk the mile up the road home from there in the dark.

Inside, the children were having prayers and supper. It was a well-lit, wood-beamed room, with flowers in the windows and boys and girls eating or being fed at tables. The woman I'd seen with Frankie on the slopes came to meet me at the door, with a soft, kind smile.

``It's good of you to come,'' she said. ``Frankie has been asking about you for days. He'll be thrilled.''

Frankie jumped up as if he had surprised himself, walked slowly over to meet me, with no other thought but to introduce me to all his friends. He shook my hand, hard.

``This is him - my friend,'' he managed.

It was after supper, and I was about to leave when the matron asked me to stay for the singing. The children sang boisterously and banged glasses for drums, even tapping each other's wheelchair backs. They sang ``Der Wanderer.''

``What are you doing this spring?'' asked the matron. ``We've been looking for a maintenance man - oh, just to help with the garden and the older children.''

I felt a sudden pang for my plans to go off and be ``legendary'' alone, to Greece. But then it was over. Happiness in spring didn't depend on where to go, but in who could depend on me.

``I think we can depend on you,'' said the matron to my protests, smiling. I remember her face - and the kid Frankie's - as I walked up the road in the dark. All I said was, ``Let's do it.''

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