When Fran Met Bill

A story about Fran and Bill Ford of Key West.

 

 

NOTE: I wrote this in 2006 for the Valentine's Day issue of Solares Hill. The one thing they said I got wrong was that Bill was not, in fact, all that tall. Both Bill and Fran have now passed on.

- Mark

Ann Francis Barker was 22 when she met Bill Ford. He was 28. 

She had red hair and a green dress and was attending a Junior League function at the Officerʼs Club Biltmore Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island. 

Bill was a seaplane pilot stationed at Quonset Point. This was in 1944. 

When he asked her on a date she said you have to ask my mother. Her mother said yes and they went to a place called the Middle Street Café. 

Bill ordered steak. Fran ordered lobster. When it came, she ate it with all the unrestrained enthusiasm a New England girl could muster, dipping it in melted butter and sucking the meat out of the claws and legs. To this day she believes that he, a Southern gentleman, was scandalized, though he, a Southern gentleman, to this day declines comment, saying only that lobster has never been his favorite food. 

For a while Bill drove to see Fran whenever he could. Then someone ran into his car and he had to ride the bus, which he did not like. He decided it was easier to ask her to marry him. 

Bill traveled, something Fran wanted to do. He was also funny, tall and good-looking in his uniform, which didnʼt hurt. 

But she didnʼt say yes right away, she said you have to ask my father. So Bill wrote to Franʼs father in the South Pacific who sent a letter back that said sure, as long as you treat her in the manner to which she is accustomed. 

Bill lists his possessions at the time of the July wedding as a car, a radio, and a sizeable-for-the-time poker debt. Fran says she was thrilled because she didnʼt have a radio. 

The first place they lived outside of Rhode Island was Puerto Rico. They had a new baby (David), a huge house, and a maid for seven dollars a week. Life was good. 

They moved back to Rhode Island, where they had another baby (Tom) and where life was more expensive, then down to Key West, where life got good again and where they first lived on Truman Annex, in what is now a chi-chi condo, and later in a big rented house on Von Phister owned by Mrs. Peacon of Peacon Lane fame. 

They went to more parties than they could count. Jack Thompson brought Fran strange and mysterious shells dragged up by the new-in-town shrimp boat fleet. Bill went to helicopter school at Trumbo Point. Their daughter Dale, their only Conch child, was born. 

Dick was born in Corpus Christi, where Fran chased the kids around the beach and went to see the Whooping Cranes. Bill remembers trying to deliver an underpowered helicopter cross-country, being confronted by
a mountain range he couldnʼt get the altitude to clear, then backing up and searching for the updrafts, finally crossing over the way the hawks did. 

Next was the Aleutians, where they lived halfway between Anchorage and Attu, far from everything. Fran would order clothes and they would come three months later, already too small for the kids. Bill, having climbed in rank to the point of being executive officer of the base, found amongst his collateral duties that of being supervisor of the schools, a position he did not relish. 

Mostly the weather was foggy, cloudy, and rainy. It never got colder than ten degrees or warmer than 70. Fran would bundle the kids up and push them out the door. (They went missing once, but it turned out they were reading comic books at the exchange.) They spent a lot of time hiking in the hills. Bill would fly over abandoned Alleut villages, then go back with Fran and the kids to dig up artifacts such as stone points, scrapers, and tools made of bones. It may be their favorite place they ever lived. 

After Alaska came Washington, D.C., where they had a house on a sloping hill with a peach tree, an apple tree, and a creek. But Bill hated the politics that went with the job and the town, so after twenty years he retired from the Navy. 

In Rhode Island Bill worked for a private company, flying seaplanes and other aircraft. He was the first person to fly a supercavitating hydrofoil airplane — a modified Grumman seaplane with an experimental array of struts and supports on the bottom. (“I got it in the air, then had a hell of a time getting back down.”) But flying began to lose its charm. 

In 1964 Bill moved the family back to Key West, then realized a Navy pension wasnʼt enough to raise four kids on, even though it was dirt cheap to live here at the time. He took a job managing the turtle canary and the curio shop at Key West Bight. Under his watch the tower next to Turtle Kraals was built with scrap metal from the last of the tall radio towers on the Navy Base. Then it became illegal to harvest sea turtles and the cannery faded into history. 

Bill dug for old bottles on the road that used to be where 1800 Atlantic is and learned to spin the most beautiful bowls youʼve ever seen out of the naturally-felled native hardwoods he pulled out of the hammocks himself. He opened the Sea Store on Green Street that sold such whatnot, but mostly, I think, he opened it as a hangout. 

Fran, meanwhile, became the Fran Ford that anyone who knows anything about Key West knows — the Fran of the Audubon Society, the Garden Club, the Episcopal Church, the cocktail circuit, the Lord knows what else. Try to keep up with he and she will run you ragged. Drive with her through the cemetery and she will jump out of the car before it stops and start replacing the sun worn flags on dead soldiersʼ graves. (She will also make you admire the plot she bought for her and Bill.) 

People debate whether she is a force of will or a force of nature. Her most uttered phrase is “Isnʼt it wonderful?” and most often she is right. 

Occasional I look at Fran and wonder what she was like at 22 years old with red hair and a green dress at the Officerʼs Club at the Providence Biltmore. 

Billʼs the only one who knows for sure and Bill answers the questions of people who want to write newspaper stories about such things reluctantly. Heʼs seen his name next to things he doesnʼt remember saying more times than he cares to count. And itʼs not the kind of question heʼs inclined to answer anyway. 

But heʼs still generous with the Scotch. 

 

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