As 11-year-olds, Georges and his cousin Armand were about as tight as two mischief-making boys could be. They climbed cherry trees on the Belgian farm, drove their uncle’s WWII-remnant Willys Jeep into the pond, built forbidden pyramids of un-baled hay in the barn to slide down.
Then one day, Armand disappeared.
Georges learned later that Armand’s biological mother had reclaimed him (Armand had been adopted as a small boy by the childless sister of Georges’ grandmother) and whisked him off to Canada. The two saw each other once briefly a few years later, but then completely lost touch with one another for more than two decades.
Tragically, Armand’s adoptive mother – G’s great-aunt – was so grief-stricken by the loss of the son she loved that she committed suicide.
The years sped by. G went to the Congo, then opened restaurants in Belgium. He thought of Armand from time to time, wondering where he was, what he was doing.
After emigrating to the U.S. in 1985, G would ask his brother, still in Belgium, for any news about their cousin. But there was never any word.
Then one spring evening in 1990, the phone rang at Le Bistro, G’s award-winning restaurant in Tucson. A former waiter now tending bar at a Bennigan’s in Dallas (!) told G there was somebody who wanted to speak with him.
Armand’s voice came on the line. Hey, how’re you doing, Cousin?
For a minute, time stood still. G’s heart pounded in his ears; he couldn’t breathe. The reconnection was instantaneous – and intense.
On the phone that night, they briefly caught each other up on their lives, planned to get together in person as soon as possible and pledged to stay in touch forever more.
Here’s a picture of them together this month from our visit to Armand and Lynda’s home in Baltimore as part of our yearlong perimeter trip around the country.
And here’s my all-time favorite picture of the two of them as 11-year-olds. They are standing outside the gendarmerie where G’s father worked in Louveigne, Belgium. The creased and torn photo is dated May 12, 1959.
(Shades of Dennis the Menace, eh? Note the high-water pants. Brownie points if you can tell which boy is which.)
As remarkable as their reconnection is the manner in which it came about.
Armand, who is Canadian but has long divided his time between Montreal and Baltimore, was working in 1990 as an engineering superintendent for Texas Mechanical Construction in Dallas. After one particularly hard day of work, he found himself chatting it up with the barman at a Bennigan’s (since closed) near NorthPark Center.
You have an accent, said the barman. Where are you from?
I’m Canadian, Armand said. I speak French; my accent is Belgian. That’s where I’m from.
I used to work for a guy in Tucson who sounds just like you, the barman said. He was from Belgium, too.
Uh-huh, said Armand.
His name is Georges Badoux, said the barman.
Armand recalls nearly falling off his stool. Impossible, he thought. But how many Georges Badouxs from Belgium can there be?
Is his father a policeman? Does his mother have two gold teeth?
Yes, yes, said the barman. I worked for him at Le Bistro. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll get you his phone number and you can call him.
Armand went back to Bennigan’s the next night. He called G from that barstool. And two years later, on his way to California from Baltimore for another engineering project, Armand stopped in Tucson to visit his boyhood chum. The two have remained in touch ever since.
There’s been a lot to catch up on. Children, marriages, jobs, deaths in the family. Heartache and joy.
Armand has saved all these years later the letter authorizing him to travel from Brussels to Montreal as a child almost 60 years ago.
In recent years, whenever G and I have had occasion to be in the Washington area for business, we’ve made a point to tack on an extra day or two to scoot up to Baltimore to visit Armand and Lynda. We’ve managed to get together nearly every spring for the last 12-15 years – and we always have fun.
Armand and Lynda live in a narrow, three-story house in Fells Point, near the Inner Harbor. Their home (see red door below) used to be a bank. They are flanked by a hair salon and a Mexican food restaurant in one of the most ethically diverse neighborhoods I’ve been in.
Here’s a picture of the two good buddies together at an Inner Harbor restaurant four years ago this week.
G and Lynda enjoyed cooking together last week.
We enjoyed several dinners together, including this one.
Armand gets his hair cut by the Greek around the corner and buys his meats and cheese at the Polish food market two blocks over. The best fish market is run by Sal from El Salvador and there are two Italian markets just a few paces away.
The post office is a four-block walk and Joe’s Bike Shop – handy for fixing the wheel on your bike that was damaged when you accidentally hit a deer one night on a road in Virginia – is just down the next street. (The deer seemed OK; it got up and ran off. Thank goodness.)
From Armand’s house down the half-dozen blocks to the waterfront there are scads of bars and restaurants. Most of the owners know good-natured Armand by sight.
Remember the Cheers television show from the 1980s? Armand has way more on the ball than Norm Peterson – and his accent is more French than Boston – but the neighborhood’s warmth and its characters remind me of the Cheers family.
Today, the thing Armand remembers most about that visit to G’s restaurant in Tucson after all those years apart is that G was wearing the same huge Casio wristwatch that Armand was wearing at the time.
And they were wearing the same tan cowboy boots.
They both swear this is true. Armand even produced for me the ancient Casio watch that he’s kept all these years.
It’s enough to make Lynda wonder, only half-jokingly, if the two weren’t really brothers separated at birth.