“Hey, Freddie, did I ever show you my policeman’s I.D.?”
“No, Uncle Mike, I don’t believe you have,” I said, not wanting to deprive him of the joy of delivering the punchline to one of his favorite anecdotes.
“Here, look at the number,” he said, with a gleam in his eye, pointing to the corner of the identification card: “007.”
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“Wow!,” I said, both of us grinning, broadly. “You were the original James Bond!”
And in a way, he was, having been issued the number as a rookie cop well before author Ian Fleming introduced his legendary spy character to the world a half-century ago.
There were some similarities between the two. In their prime, both were exceptionally handsome, strapping, young men dedicated to protecting the public from harm. Yet they went about their business in very different ways.
As a British Secret Agent famously afforded a “license to kill,” Bond routinely carried out the most impossible of missions with a flair unmatched by his fictional peers. My uncle, on the other hand, patrolled the streets of his working class hometown, excelling at his job through a combination of street savvy and an uncanny ability to put even the most hardened criminals at ease. In two decades on the force, he never drew his gun.
Like most superheroes, Bond never seemed to lose a step, even as he aged. Real life, of course, doesn’t play out that way. Even if you’re the original 007.
I remember the first time my Uncle Mike called me “Freddie,”a moniker he attributed to both strangers and to those whose name or face he couldn’t recall. Two summers ago, when I walked into his place of employment -a spirits shoppe not far from the condominium he shared with his loving wife of more than 60 years- he greeted me with the same warm smile and nickname he’d bestowed upon the previous customer. After cheerfully reminding him that I was his nephew, he smiled again and said that he still didn’t know who I was. Following a few minutes of good-natured small talk, he then welcomed the next patron in line, while I tried to come to grips with the fact that the man who’d held me in his arms days after I was born no longer recognized me.
A year or so later, his short-term memory fading, my Uncle retired from his job at the store. And while many in our extended family held our collective breath -wondering how a man who almost never took a day off would adjust to a life of leisure- my Uncle didn’t miss a beat, finding comfort in the familiar surroundings and routine of home.
In the months that followed, the number of friends and family members that my Uncle no longer recognized grew steadily. However, after discovering he could regularly recall moments from his early life experiences, most of us continued to hold mutually satisfying conversations with him about the glories of yesteryear.
This past holiday season, he and I were sitting in his living room enjoying such banter when he proudly showed me his 007 I.D. card. That afternoon, we also reminisced about his escapades as a child, his lifelong love of pasta with crushed red pepper, and his stint in the Navy. As I was about to leave, he took me aside to tell me a joke -the same one he’d told to me just an hour before.
“Everyone keeps telling me that good times are just around the corner,” he said, struggling to keep a straight face. He then continued, smiling as only he can. “Will you help me find that corner?”
I wish I could, Uncle Mike. I really wish I could.