I met Eugene “Fitzy” Fitzenry during a tour of the Soldiers’ Home a few weeks ago. John Paradis, the public affairs person was showing me around during our talk of plans for setting up my exhibit on-site.
Fitzy was working in the craft area on the third floor, nearing completion on a leather wallet, stitching the outer edges together. All around him were wooden bird houses, clocks, a few plastic models of ships and a motorcycle. All his handiwork. “I’d like to buy that when you’re done,” I said. nodding at the wallet in his hands. “You can have it for free,” Fitzy said. “Doesn’t cost me anything to do. We get these kits. I just do it to keep busy.” Fitzy later added that he doesn’t like to make close friendships at the Home. “I’ve seen too many of them die”, nodding around the room at the many veterans, most in wheelchairs. “I stay busy making things instead.”
One of the ideas John Paradis and I had was the offer to paint someone’s portrait from their time in the service. He would organize a lottery drawing for all those who wished to be entered. On 9-11, a ceremony was held at the Soldiers’ Home at the end of which was the drawing for the winner of the portrait. “Fitzy” Fitzenry’s name was called out. I turned around and saw a sly smile on his face. Serendipity. “So Fitz,” I said congratulating him. “Do you have any good photos of yourself during the war?” “I don’t have anything, I have no pictures of me in uniform.” he said with a shrug. “We’ll figure something out, Fitz,” John said, offering me encouragement. All I thought was: ‘how did this happen?”
Later that week Fitzy came to my painting area, a cozy spot in the far corner of the lobby with a portable wall displaying some of my paintings, a couch and wingback chair tucked in that alcove. “I’ll ask the wife when I see her this weekend” Fitzy said. “Maybe she’s got some pictures I don’t know about.”
On Monday morning, he was waiting for me, a manila envelope in his hand. Out came several small black and white photographs some of him actually from the war. But he was wearing heavy clothes and the faces of him and his coworker were so dark and small, it was impossible to tell which guy was Fitzy after all. And yet, like so many veterans, when the photos from their service come out, so do the stories.
“I was stationed for awhile in the Arctic Circle. We had to work outside because we had no hangers. One plane, we discovered, was loaded with surplus army blankets so we wire-stitched them together and laid them over the top and sides of the airplane, creating a wall around our work area. When it snowed, it was like an igloo: warm inside thanks to our Herman Nelson heaters.” I’m always amazed at the detailed recollections these people have.
“One time we went to the Hudson Bay Trading Post. The only way to go,” he said. “Was by dog sleds. “Whatever you do,” he was warned.”Do NOT get out of the sled. Trust your mushers.” That was at first hard for Fitzy when he saw they were only twelve year old boys. “But you know,” Fitzy added. “When we returned, we went through whiteout blizzard conditions. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. And you know what?” he said. “Those boys brought us right back to our station. How ’bout that?”
Finally, one small photo emerged in his hands: his high school graduation picture. He was sixteen years old, a farm boy from Iowa. “When I went into the navy, I was only 5′ 3”. I was told I would grow into my uniform. By the time he left service he’d grown five inches, but the uniform was so worn out, he never got a shot in it fitting properly. With a little consulting and agreement, I said I’d marry a photo of another sailor with his graduation photograph.
In two days, the portrait was complete. Fitzy came down a few times during the painting and chuckled to himself, seeing a boy from sixty-five years ago emerging on canvas and in color. “You even got my ears,” he laughed. “All those winters of pulling down my hat to keep my ears warm,” he said, pulling at his outrigger appendages. “And you know what?” Fitzy tossed out. ” ‘The wife’ has never seen me in my Navy uniform.
On Friday, ‘the wife’ and both grown children joined Fitzy for a viewing. Fitzy’s wife kissed him. The former sailor chuckled and beamed. I don’t think a portrait meant so much as it did to that family.