I learned that my uncle, Frederick M. Long, died yesterday. To me he was Uncle Fritz, and, really, he has been gone for a long time. He was the husband of my mother’s sister. If I have my years right, the last time I truly spoke with him was in 2008. Normally, I saw him at least every two years when that part of the family got together in Hilton Head, per the tradition started by my Grandpa in the mid-70s. But, Uncle Fritz was diagnosed with Alzheimers sometime between the 2008 and 2010. His body was alive until yesterday, but it’s hard to say that the man I knew was still in there. Alzheimers is a hell of a thing; robbing the body of its person, a death by inches. In a way, his passing is a relief; now, I believe, it will be much easier to focus not on what he had become but on what a remarkable person he was.
As I understand it, and I might not understand it very well – I knew him best when I was younger – he was from a working class family in Allentown, Pennsylvania who went off to the Coast Guard Academy. From there, he was able to go to the Harvard Business School, getting his MBA, and then, have a long career at Baltimore Aircoil Company which included a stint in Belgium that must have been at or very near the beginning of the company’s European operations. The Belgium assignment (before my time) figures prominently in family lore; having family living in Europe was exotic!
To me, he was something of a father figure for the period between when my Dad left and when my step-Dad came on the scene. Maybe it’s just distorted kid-memory, but it seems like we went to visit them in Maryland much more during that period. In any event, I have memories of various levels of clarity: him picking us up from the D.C. airport in the snow; the first car I remember seeing with lights on the passenger’s sunvisor mirror; a house with air conditioning before that was common; his sailboat – including taking the boat under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the taste of warm cokes kept on the boat, laughing and hanging on with my brother Pete as the boat leaned hard to port; learning that I loved rare steaks; his studied consideration of the wine list at dinner; the Coast Guard and nautical paraphernalia at his home.
But there are two memories that stand out and bring him to mind with a fair amount of frequency. First, he loved radishes. It was fairly routine for that part of the family to have a relish tray with cocktails in the early evening. Uncle Fritz would hit the radishes. This was remarkable to me because I’m not sure I’d seen anyone else popping radishes. So, anyway, the vegetable is now very strongly linked in my mind with Uncle Fritz. The second thing is tying a tie. He is the one who taught me that the tip of the tie should cover your belt buckle. I wear a tie most days. So, at least once a week, as I’m making sure it’s the proper length, I think of Uncle Fritz.
He always took an interest in my studies and my career. He didn’t have a lot of use for lawyers; telling me there were too many of them. But he was tickled when I opined (as a teenager) that there was always room for a good one. His politics were well to the right of mine; but, on vacation, it was not uncommon for him to bring me some editorial or opinion piece he found interesting and ask my opinion of it. And, unlike most adults, he would consider my response and take me seriously – that makes a huge impact on a kid.
Anyway, I’ll miss him; and, in fact, have missed him for quite some time. Rest in peace, Uncle Fritz.