It is Saturday, early, and I’m sitting in our gray-painted library in our gray-painted house on 9th Street. The room comes with books, mostly read and retained because I treasured the reading experience and believe I will someday re-read these dusty books.
The room also comes with portraits as well as an array of smaller, framed photographs that provide transit to old friends and long-ago celebrations.
There is one particular photograph that captures an image of 11 men, all wearing tuxedos, standing on a Beaufort porch in the early evening twilight.
Three of these men stare into the camera with the confidence and affectation of Marine Corps fighter pilots. Two of these men would later share (with me) a hellishly hot room (in Africa) where we were interrogated as spies.
One of these men would become Beaufort’s mayor. Another would bring water to Beaufort and Hilton Head. An older man wears a large medallion around his neck that, we would later discover, was given to his grandfather by the King of Norway.
The male-only event was a “Dining-In” styled on a formal military dinner that has its roots in the pre-Christ Roman Army. It was a ceremony that usually followed a battle, a victory, where the heroes were recognized, their stories told, their heroism rewarded. The modern version comes with a rigid set of rules that we were given when we received our engraved invitations.
Our Dining-In began with a series of toasts starting with one for the President of the United States; then the Marine Corps Commandant; then General Norman Schwarzkopf who had captured Bagdad earlier that same year.
Further, lesser toasts were proposed by my companions; accepted or rejected by the “President,” and if accepted, we all stood while a toast was spoken and the wine gulped down in one long swallow.
I can’t remember much about these subsequent toasts except that I made one to Marcus Garvey — or perhaps it was Walter Reuther who had served as President of the Teamsters.
After these toasts there was a “Parading of the Beef” wherein our entree was carried into the room and paraded around the long polished table — then “accepted” by the President after inspection and tasting.
But that evening the “Honored Guest” was Roger Steele.
It happened to be Roger’s birthday and he had asked his wife, Cheryl, to organize this event and let everyone know that in addition to an appropriate present, one was expected to make an elegant, eloquent toast celebrating some aspect of his life — the most memorable given by Noel Seeburg who compared Roger, favorably, with a Parisian “Boulevardier.”
Before you assume Seeburg’s comments were snide, one should understand that Roger was predictable, impeccable in what he wore. Whether it was cocktails on Friday afternoon, or seeking antiques in Asheville, he presented himself in a fitted shirt likely to be Egyptian cotton; a silk tie likely to be Liberty of London; a wool sport coat likely to be Brooks Brothers.
Roger would take his mint juleps in a vintage, sterling silver Jefferson cup. Every other beverage was poured into some kind of crystal, Swedish or otherwise. He, of course, abhorred plastic containers of any vintage.
Roger, who bore a striking resemblance to Theodore Roosevelt, grew a mustache and wore antique, wire-rimmed glasses which reinforced the connection.
Many thought Roger was, through some cosmic mistake, born in the wrong century — he seemed symbolic of a man of some consequence born in 17th Century Paris. But what made Roger different was a chronic love of life; and a consistent spontaneity.
One evening about nine o’clock I called Roger, telling him that I had wrangled a ride on a Navy P-3 that would leave Jacksonville Naval Air Station at 6 the next morning. Would he come with me and photograph the trip? Could he be ready to leave in the next 30 minutes?
“I am packing my bags night now.”
Roger was a print maker, his works collected and shown in galleries and museums around the United States. Every year he would print a “valentine” and deliver them to his female friends who would immediately frame and hang his gift. There is, I can attest, more than one aging woman who wakes on Valentine’s Day still hoping for Roger’s valentine.
Roger Steele died August 4, 2012.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at email@example.com.