We’d climbed Gray’s Peak, then Torrey’s Peak near Georgetown together that morning, a day off for Fred from his wife Ann Hyde’s Institute of Design where he did whatever was needed to keep her fashion school in the Rockies humming. As all-purpose logistical support, he did everything for her, the staff and students. He became friends first with my wife Ellie, a teacher there, then with me when I started visiting her for weeks every summer. This made perfect sense to me; they’re two of the best people I’ve ever known.
Fred looked country, a solidly made man whose slouch hat shaded twinkly blue eyes over a bent nose and strong jaw, mostly working in a smile. A retired oil executive, he’d taken Ann with him on exploration projects across Arabia, then went with her to Paris where she studied fashion. Of his former profession, he said simply, “Everybody needs oil, every day,” but he also said his in-laws had originally opposed Ann’s marriage to “oil trash.” While Ann’s elegance somehow seemed carefully cultivated, constructed in a patrician childhood, Fred’s was innate, but also blended with an old-school gentleman’s kindness. Plainspoken but cosmopolitan, he ordered Budweiser by its full name over lunch or dinner, but also knew his way around the wine lists of the top restaurants in Europe and America and the most complex music of the classical canon.
In his easy-going courtliness and interest in everything, Fred reminded me of my father in law, Alfred von Wellsheim. He was unflappably, dependably calm and kind where Ann was electric, charismatic and volatile. He radiated such affection for colleagues and neighbors there in Winter Park that you instinctively adopted them all as friends right away.
Most of all, Fred loved to roam the Rockies. This was great for me, to have a high-information guide with stamina to match; less great for Ellie who envied our hikes and rambles while she was stuck in daily after-class staff meetings led by the exacting, meticulous Ann.
We’d park Fred’s sun-faded gray Datsun station wagon at a trailhead and go up, and up. At the beginning of every visit, before I became acclimated to the short oxygen supply at altitude, I’d make him do all the talking so I could catch my breath, and learn of his life. Both Gray’s and Torrey’s topped 14,000 feet, an “adult portion” as Levon Helm says of New York City in “The Last Waltz.” But I’d been in the mountains for a few weeks by the time we walked up one, then across a knife-edge ridge to the other. No technical climbing or safety gear, just a very steep walk on firm rock where friction and footing were no problem. We popped above tree-line before nine o’clock, peered down at a ramshackle cabin falling apart on a shelving ridge far below us and crunched through some snowy crusts on the trail, up high.
Then the goat came and I suddenly could barely breathe at all.
I froze; Fred did, too. Pure white, short but exerting a presence beyond its size, its winter wool still peeling away on that August morning, it looked at us for a minute, maybe three. I raised my Nikon, loaded with Kodachrome, and shot a frame, hoping the shutter click wouldn’t spook it. No reaction, good; then the goat came toward me; then right up to me, and gently pushed my knee with its head – another click – then turned and walked off the summit; but gave me time to change lenses for a close-up first.
Half the fun of an experience like that is sharing the awe, and Fred was always perfect for that.
He knew the name of every flower that flourished up high, and liked hiking along on Ellie’s color-awareness field-trips to meadows where paintbrush or penstemon popped out of the ground in red or purple pointillist exclamations in the wind-waved grass.
When Ann closed her fashion school in Winter Park as Alzheimer’s began to change her life, Fred gave Ellie his Datsun wagon, the institute’s everyday utility vehicle. She drove it across the country with our son Zak and daughter Pisie, who’d come to see Fred as an auxiliary, bonus grandfather. They had the bad luck to follow flooding, and said later that was the stinkiest road trip any of them had endured. And, the air conditioning had stopped working. But that rugged car saved Zak’s life when a car ran a stop sign and T-boned it.
Ellie flew out to Colorado for a farewell to Ann and a last ramble there with Fred and other friends before his move back to Houston. They revisited many of the sights around Winter Park and other parts of Colorado, toasting Ann and her Institute in wines whose price tag made Ellie gasp.
On that trip, Fred sometimes surprised himself and Ellie by addressing her as Edith, a woman he’d met years after Ann’s passing and who’d enchanted him. He and Ellie laughed at this name substitution since he was so clearly smitten. Fred and Ellie also talked about a trip he hoped to take one day, a guided excursion through places crucial to the ascent of civilization, including Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and archeological sites and ruins across Europe. As Fred and Edith grew closer, Ellie was the first person they told of their engagement and impending wedding. Fred was then near 80, but a teenager when he spoke of Edith.
They married, made Fred’s civilization-exploring epic trip as their honeymoon, and settled in Houston. Dstance grew between updates from them.
As time passed, and Ellie calculated Fred’s age, she’d wonder and worry about him.
So, when “Fred Birdsall” popped up on the caller ID of our landline phone on Saturday, my heart leapt. But a woman’s voice spoke to me, asking if she’d reached Ellie’s phone and if Ellie were available. When I explained that Ellie was in her sewing studio, a different building, the woman identified herself as Edith, announced in a calm voice that Fred had died and suggested she’d phone back another time. “No,” I begged her, “let me take the phone out to her,” as I searched around for snow-worthy footwear and headed for the door.
I knew the news would hit hard, so I stayed with Ellie as she and Edith spoke long and lovingly of Fred. They cried and laughed. Me, too; across the room.
They agreed that Ellie should miss the memorial this Tuesday in Houston, though Ellie promised to be there in spirit. A great spirit, like Fred, she can do that. She and Edith both seemed happy that Fred hadn’t died of COVID but of general wearing down and wearing out, the sum of a well-lived and long life. He’d have turned 94 this March, but always seemed younger, on a summit in the Rockies or over dinner. Edith said every day with Fred brought happiness.
And in those years he was here with us, he was a calm sweet source of delight for us all – even for that mountain goat.