I REMEMBER FRANK DAVIS
by Robert Andrews
Street cars in Washington became outmoded. Frank, a street car conductor, mature in this transportation service and retired with its abandonment, was by no means finished as a man. Somewhere along the way he had learned self-confidence and self-respect, had acquired insight into human relationships and had acknowledged for himself the importance of purpose. And purpose, for Frank became synonymous with Sycamore Island and the nurturing of it.
It was not the Island only as place, as environment, as recreation, as escape, or even as withdrawal; it was also the Island people. The Island, as place, became Frank's home; its people, as humankind, became Frank's family. A symbiosis formed. Without Frank, the Island and its people were incomplete; without the Island and its people Frank was incomplete.
That the Island was home gave Frank a sense of belonging and a sense of possession. As home is commonly our most valued possession, we tend to maintain it and to be proud of it. So it was with Frank and the Island. I do not remember the Island as ever unkempt or that Frank ever looked upon the nurturing of it as an imposed burden.
He was not a captive on the Island. There was a daughter in town -- caring and understanding -- and Frank would be with her on off-days. It was good he had her for later he needed her. She recognized the need, and she responded.
There came a time when Frank began to see himself as unneeded, as a discard. The more he thought about it the more wine (I never did learn where it came from) he drank; the more wine he drank the more depressed he became; and the more wine he needed, or so he thought, to lift himself. It was not an easy time on the Island, and the care of Frank was not in my job description as club president. I loved the Island; Frank was the Island; ergo, I loved Frank. Many hours were spent with him -- listening, cajoling, trying to understand, and most of all trying to make him feel wanted. But more than that it was the daughter's love and attentions -- time spent with him, food brought to him, and her haven off the island -- that restored Frank. It was a passing thing. We cope, if we cope at all, in different ways and few of us accept magnanimously the end of being needed.
Frank, restored, was again Frank the Island. It was a good time. There was a good spirit to the Island; the collaboration with the Canoe Cruisers was commencing; shacks still stood and were used, two on the ground, one in the treetops, and one sometimes floating in the flood waters on drums; the Park Service had been dissuaded from buying the Island; and there was a spirit of adventure. Frank became reconciled to being what he was -- which is the important lesson for all -- and he knew that he belonged.
Frank would like, I believe, his memorial. It, like Frank, is self-effacing -- almost hidden in the woods -- but not a nonentity. One simply has to look to find it; there is a kind of anonymity to it. And it was that way with Frank. He did not deliberately attract attention to himself. Nor was he patronizing in attitude, knowing -- and knowing that he knew -- more about the Island than you. He understood. And if you were willing to look, Frank allowed you to understand him.
KNOW YOUR ISLANDERS
- FRANK DAVIS
by John Thomson
[This was published in the Islander just after
Frank Davis' death in June of 1973]
When you pull the ferry rope to ring the Swiss cow-bell the man who comes down the board walk, unchains the Sycamore Clipper and pulls across to pick you up-is indeed a man of many callings. He has been a farmer, a miner, a soldier, a construction camp foreman, a railroader and a street car man. His last job, before he retired was as a maintenance mechanic for the Pullman Company. He is also the patriarch of a large family. Married in 1919, he has three daughters, five grandchildren and two great grandchildren. He retired from the railway in 1956 -- and found that "retirement drove me crazy." When the job of Sycamore Caretaker fell open in 1957 he jumped to it, and for more than fifteen years he served as King of Sycamore.
Frank Davis was born on April 21, 1893 on a farm near Quantico, Virginia. He lived there with his family, going to school through the eighth grade ("I stopped too soon. They put me to work just when I was beginning to learn something.") and then started to help support the family. In addition to working on the farm, Frank was a carter and drove teams of horses. His first job away from home, at 21, was as a miner in Northern Virginia.
In World War I he was drafted into the army and shipped off to France as a Private with a Gunner's rating. "I saw the best of it and the worst of it." he says. "There were times when they ordered you to put on your gas mask so you wouldn't see the dead piled up by the side of the road like cord wood."
The best of it, according to Frank, was the French farmers -- warm, welcoming and generous. Frank learned French then, though he says he's forgotten it all by now, and one of the families, asking how life was in the barracks for him, insisted that he stay with them, "in one of those comfortable beds with a deep thick tick to sleep on and another to pull up and tuck in around your ears." He added that, after he'd stayed with them for weeks, they wouldn't take a penny for the lodgings.
The army tour in France lasted from 1917 to 1919 and included ten-day visits to Nice and Paris -- "the only time I've ever traveled," Frank notes. He doesn't seem to count in those heavy summer Sundays on the Sycamore Clipper when he makes as many as fifty crossings to the Maryland mainland or his recent summer vacation travels when he heads west to Illinois to visit his great granddaughter.
Life back here at home after the war did keep him quite tied to the Washington area. He left mining originally when, on his way home one night, a man stopped him and asked if he wouldn't like an outside job that would pay more. He took it -- supervising the maintenance work in a construction camp. His work with the railroads which came after that was broken by a stint with the street car line. ("In those days they called it the Washington Electric Car Company." He went back to the railroad, working in the maintenance shop as a mechanic and finally retired, at 63, as a foreman for mechanical maintenance on the Pullman cars.
The Sycamore Island Frank Davis came to was rather different from the
place we have today. The membership was smaller, the canoe shed just about half
its present size, and the quarters for the caretaker consisted of only one
room downstairs. (Frank made one condition when he took the job -- he needed
two rooms to live in. The Club agreed.) But life was simple and good. Perhaps too good. Perhaps it was too simple because regularly, from fall workfest to the spring reopening of the Island, the caretaker's apartment was entirely without running water. Somehow this lack never crossed the minds of either Frank Davis or the Islanders until he'd been on the Island for almost ten years. Then it was only because Frank came down with the flu and, instead of being able to stay warm in the house, had to go out through the December cold to the pump for water and to the men's locker room. This, too, has changed and he soon had a neat trim three-room home with year-around hot and cold running water in the bathroom.
Frank Davis' routine is regular. He rises at 5:00am and gets the work done in the early part of the day. During the summer it is mowing and in, the fall it is raking leaves. He sweeps the path, and feeds Peter, the Goose. He answers the phone and tends the ferry -- the bell is a fascination to passers-by and young boys are constantly giving the rope a good tug and then rushing off down the towpath. He keeps his eye on the canoes and when, as I did some years ago, strangers land on the Island without invitation, he firmly but politely lets them know that it is a private club.
These winter days, before skaters come to the river, are beautiful quiet days on the Island. Mr. Davis is there keeping things in shape. Call the Island, drop over, it will be a chance to know this interesting gentleman better.