SPRING HILL — "Naughty Nightie Night" at Tijuana Cowboys is just revving up, and as bartenders in hot pink Spandex begin to flirt with the evening regulars, the daytime crowd filters out.
An older man in a black visor and a Tijuana Cowboys polo shirt reaches out to drain his tall glass of Michelob Ultra.
Time to head home before it gets much later. He doesn't like driving after dark.
But that's understandable: He's 96 years old, after all — and he's had six beers in the last three hours.
His name is Horace A. L'Heureux, but no one's called him that in years. Instead, he's simply "Frenchy."
He's been a fixture at Tijuana Cowboys since the bar opened in December on Kass Circle.
Any day between 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., he's here: sitting on the bar stool closest to the windows, drinking his "skinny beer" out of the special glass bartender Jen O'Connor keeps behind the bar.
The employees and regulars of Tijuana Cowboys see Frenchy's energy, sense of humor and feisty personality as an inspiration. He's their demi-god and a breath of fresh air.
"Here, Frenchy gets whatever he needs for free," said owner Dale Hoaglan. "When you're 96 and still that lively, you deserve as much free beer as you want."
Born to French-Canadian parents in 1913 — get the name now?— he spent his working life in Branford, Conn., running a factory that manufactured parts for the federal government.
Frenchy retired to Spring Hill in 1970, when he was 56. Forty years later, he's just as busy as he was then. He volunteers with the Brooksville Elks Lodge, the American Legion and the Hallcrest Eagles.
A morning exercise regimen of jogging, sit-ups and squats keeps him spry.
A local motorcycle club still embraces him and his Honda every Monday morning.
And he still takes two daughters, now in their 70s, out for "wining, dining and dancing" on Wednesdays. His wife, Betty, died five years ago.
It's the only night of the week he's not at Tijuana Cowboys.
"Frenchy is almost magic: he's so full of life that he captures your heart immediately," said Ray DeForest, a regular who owns Hernando Antenna Service. "I've only known him six months but it feels like all my life."
At the bar, Frenchy is the center of attention. The regulars gather around him as he talks. He punctuates his stories with vigorous jabs from gnarled fingers.
"I love you!" he says, seizing hands and arms with a grip that's surprisingly strong. "You're part of my family now."
Every day, he wears a black visor with a fake crown of spiky, silvery hair that covers his own, balder head. He saw it on someone else's head, bought it on the spot for $15 and hasn't taken it off since.
Frenchy first found Tijuana Cowboys because the Hallcrest Eagles were based next door.
"He wandered in one day, then started to split his time between the two," bartender O'Connor said, laughing and leaning her head on Frenchy's shoulder. "Now he just comes here."
O'Connor and Frenchy look out for each other. He gives her change for the bar from the wad of $5 bills he always carries in his wallet.
In return, she leaves meals in Styrofoam containers for him on the bar and keeps track of his self-designated "beer ratio."
"If I'm on my bike? Four beers, two wheels," Frenchy says, holding up four fingers. "In my car? Six beers, four wheels."
Owner Hoaglan says Frenchy's quirks, like his visor, beer ratio or his catchphrases — "Gadzooks!" when he's surprised, or "top shelf" for something really great — make him unforgettable.
"Frenchy is the dad I always wanted," Hoaglan said. "And I'm the son he never had."
Frenchy said his secret to longevity is simple. He exercises, eats right and stays busy.
A day's never gone by when Frenchy wasn't there, the regulars say, and they don't really want to think about it.
"I never would have guessed he is as old as he is," DeForest said. "I feel like he'll live to be 1,000."
The Saturday theme at Tijuana Cowboys, "Drink or Drown," kicks off at 9 p.m. And just like always, Frenchy will polish off his skinny beer as the first of the late-night crowd starts rolling in.
After all, he is 96. And he likes to get home before dark.
Laura Nelson can be reached at email@example.com or at (352) 848-1432.