“Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.” – Henry Scott Holland
Jerry France had just turned 80 when he left the planet rather suddenly. He had made an amazing comeback after what was eventually diagnosed as latent Lyme disease. While he was still wheelchair-bound, Jerry was finally able to drive his big truck and all his tractors and ATVs, all of which gave him great pleasure. Last I heard, everything was going good.
In 1970 or thereabouts, Jerry built his little house in West Virginia after my mom sold him half of her place. He lived there alone, smoking cigars, reading Tom Clancy and anything else of that ilk, sipping Jim Beam “toddies” but never after dinner, feeding the birds, squirrels, raccoons, and bears on his deck, and enjoying a quiet life in one of the most beautiful places on earth. After he retired, he rode a recumbent bike, clocking thousands of miles along the C&O Canal bike path, and also traveled around the east coast and south, visiting friends and exploring historical sites. He liked military stuff, also ghost towns.
We met Jerry in 1967 when he was a park manager at Coolfont Recreation, a camping and lodging resort in West Virginia. We struck up a friendship that lasted. Jerry was 15 years older than I and was very protective of the wild teenager whom my mom trusted him with. We used to party with friends, but he always got me home in one piece. I probably owe him more than my life when I think back on those days.
In later years, Jerry convinced me to join him on a trip to Mexico. My friend joined us and we had a blast. Jerry did, too, because people around us assumed Denise and I were his “girls.” After that brief trip, I traveled across the U.S. with Jerry, always in a different rig (he tried every style there was) four times over the years. We took a different route each trip, one of my favorites being Route 50. We also discovered the Valley of Fire in Nevada, and it was our favorite camping and exploring spot of all.
Here are some pages from one of the road diaries that I kept. I tried to pick excerpts that would be fun for others to read:
The “sprinkler incident” became one of Jerry’s favorite stories. I was sitting outside where we were camping and he’d gone to bed. I was enjoying the cool (we always traveled during the hottest time of the year) when suddenly, the campground sprinkler system came on and I got soaked. Jerry found that wildly funny and reminded me of it every time I saw him from that day on. He liked to tease, that’s for sure.
Anyway, we’d spend about 12 days on the road and finally land at the Funny Farm, where we’d have a camping spot cleared for Jerry and he’d stay a couple of weeks, always smiling when it was time for dinner since as a hermit, he didn’t have anyone cooking for him unless he went to his favorite restaurant – the Peking.
After my mom died, I didn’t have much reason to travel back to West Virginia anymore, so our cross-country trips ended. The last was bringing my mom’s dog Mollie to the Funny Farm. It was too hot to fly her home, so Jerry generously offered to “give us a ride” all the way from West Virginia to Oregon. As you can see in the video, he was a great pal to Mollie. Jerry stayed with us for a couple of weeks and came back to visit several times until his last trip in 2014. His health had been declining and he didn’t feel comfortable making the trip alone.
This short video (click here for the link) shows images from Jerry’s early adventures, his house, a few of our trip highlights, and finally his time here with us in Oregon. My favorite photos show he and Marvin comparing knots. Jerry was an Eagle Scout and spent time in the Navy, so he knew knots! The music I picked is for Jerry. He loved the old folk music from the 1950s, and the tune I found seemed to be something he’d approve of. At least, he would not complain too much.
Farewell old friend. I’ll miss your phone messages that always said the same thing, “Jerry France here. No need to call back! Everything is going good. No complaints. Okay, we’ll talk to you later!”