Thursday, June 5, 2008

Big Frank's Funeral - My Hampton (Institute) Homie

Tues., 2/5/08: I get an email at work that "Big Frank" Giles, our adopted "homeboy" by way of D.C. while at Hampton Institute (nee University) died the day before of a massive heart attack. This was the year he (and a bunch of my contemporaries) was to turn 50 - April 7 in fact. Wow. Death seems to keep swirling around me. Moving closer and closer. My time was limited - I was preparing for surgery that was going to keep me out of work for at least a month and traveling to D.C. for Frank's funeral was not on the agenda. I prayed for his soul and his family and emailed Carol back to see if she was going to try and make it - after all, she had more of a connection to his family than I did and after all, she was the one he (along with a few other football players) had carried over their heads, passed out, back to her dorm room freshman year. A couple of days later I got a text from Carol that simply said, "Road trip".

Sun., 2/10/08: Carol pulled off the Merritt Pkwy from Mass. long enough to eat the Sunday dinner I'd pieced together before going to church that morning, scooped me up in her BMW SUV and we were on the Jersey Tpke. before the sun had completely set. In D.C. by 9pm, we found the hotel her niece worked at, checked into the charming suite she'd procured for us and after a bit of catching up and watching the Grammy's we called it a night. It had been a long day and tomorrow promised more of the same.

Mon., 2/11/08: I'm usually up at dawn's early light and today's no exception. The funeral isn't scheduled until noon and God knows I want to sleep in but old habits die hard. I shoot a text to my childhood friend from Trenton who lives in Md. and works at the Washington Post to see if I can catch up with her, give myself a facial, watch the local and national news and generally try to keep quiet while Carol continues to sleep. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around Frank's death, being in a city I never liked and preparing myself to see people I hadn't seen in at least 30 years. Damn, I'm old...After breakfast Carol and I pack up our gear, get directions to the church and bid her sweet niece goodbye.

11:45-ish: We enter the church's parking lot only to be directed back out to the street - cars are parked all over the place and there's more ahead of and behind us. We find a spot on the street - a block or so from the church: Allen Chapel AME, a beautiful, modern structure smack dab in southeast D.C. on Alabama. It's a bright, sunny, bitterly cold day and my dumb ass is without a hat. We enter the vestibule and there's a line snaking around to the bathroom to sign the guest book. I get at the end and start searching the many faces for signs of familiarity. Nothing. Carol had disappeared (it's what she does) so I couldn't even consult with her. As soon as she reappeared I saw a Hampton face - Tyra Dent. She looked exactly the same - just chubbier. I stopped her, we exchanged greetings and the first person we asked her about was the third person in our "Tri-state" trinity - Danita Smith. Tyra assured us she had Danita's contact info and would get it to us before leaving. Excellent! We hadn't seen Danita since she was pregnant with her first child back in the '80s...Hey, there's Lynn Harris, and, and, what's his name, and...

Noon: We've signed in, spotted/greeted folks and now need to find seats in the packed sanctuary. We settle in just in time for the memorial service to begin. There is no viewing, there is no body and there is no Frank's widow. There is a photo collage at the altar but we came in far too late to check that out. Better we keep our fannies' in these coveted seats and watch the overhead video projection when the time comes. We've been given a beautiful 7-8 page program, complete with color photos of Frank with friends/family and at work. He'd been a cameraman for CBS for over 20 years and there is a large contingency of his co-workers present. A chick (Carolyn Brown) I don't remember from Hampton sings a couple of songs. Her voice is adequate. It's now time for the tributes - and there were more than a dozen people listed in the program to proffer them. That's love. This should be good. One of the tributors was our other D.C. homeboy, Melvin Witten. Gee, the last time I'd run into him was at a party for Dave Winfield in Manhattan back when he was swingin' a big bat for the Yankees. We'd reconnected for a hot minute, he was staying with someone on Riverside Dr., he came up to Connecticut once for dinner and a concert and POOF! just like that, he was in the wind again. He looked the same, just older. Still had all of his hair. Still at his "fighting" weight. Melvin. He and his dad had renewed my faith in D.C. men since I always swore they (unlike Jersey guys) had no clue how to treat women. Cretins... Melvin's tribute was bittersweet - born of a lifetime friendship that was obviously closer to a kinship and was quietly directed to his parents. Sweet Tony Cheatham, representing the Hampton Alums read a proclamation. Another of Frank's friends made it known that HE was Frank's "best friend" and reminded us all that Frank was a true Funkateer, ending his tribute with the sage words of one of Funk's progenitors, "We love you Dr. Funkenstein, your Funk is the best!" Pinkie and index fingers fly up all over the sanctuary - To love Frank you had to love Parliament/Funkadelic. It was as much a part of him as his size.

More tributes, more love, all genuine. One of his co-workers spoke of how much Frank had impacted lives at CBS. How his big, booming voice would herald his presence, how he'd seen him at the hospital - looking just like he did at work when he was asleep. Other's spoke of the annual picnic Frank had started years ago at a local park - why didn't I ever know about this throw down? I certainly would have pressed my way down to D.C. for that. C'mon, there's food involved! The vow was made to continue the tradition - in memoriam to Frank's selflessness and untiring organizational skills. Someone said the inevitable - that Frank would be with the "love of his life" - Vickie - his first wife - now. Oooooookay. I guess it's a good thing wife #2 ain't here.

Rev. Carolyn Scales ended the service by acknowledging the different groups of people in attendance from family and friends to Hamptonians and co-workers. A good 300-400 in attendance by my estimation. That's love.

Frank Joseph Giles was a big man with a big personality and heart that all fit together. My memories of our times at Hampton are a bit blurry now: he had wheels and an apartment off campus. My man. Sophomore year I was his sweetheart when he pledged some social club. The "accidental" breaking of Vickie's arm one weekend she came to visit...I'm getting old. There's a picture of him in our class of '80 football jersey in my old photo album. We might've been indulging in the "stickiest of the icky", who can remember? It was the 70's, we were young and on our own for the first time in our lives. It was what we did and we survived it. Apparently it's the "now" portion of our lives that's killing us. "Take my body and give me the mind to funk with the rest"...

Postscript - On the last Saturday of June, 2008 some of Frank's friends and family got together to have one more picnic in Rock Creek Park in memory of Frank. A huge photo collage was posted by the d.j.'s set-up as the day wore on people streamed in and out of that dell and ate, laughed, reminisced, danced, drank until who knows when. Carol and I made the trip back down since we never knew about them throughout the years and this would be the last one. We met friends and classmates of Frank's, neighbors and relatives. There was food GALORE, line dancing, laughter and a general feeling of peace. Then wife # 2, Venna showed up. With the urn containing his ashes. Carol took pictures.

No comments: