SUN CITY CENTER — Charles "Chuck" Midlam almost lost his life 69 years ago on a battlefield near the French Alps during World War II.
But in the end, he gained a lifelong friend.
Hit in the leg and the head by shrapnel from German M88s, he was saved by a young French boy who was part of the French Underground.
The young man, whose name was Ferdinand Gaydon, moved him to an underground hospital while the Germans attacked and the American lines disintegrated.
There, doctors operated on Midlam and helped him recuperate while he formed a lifetime bond with his friend, who he fondly calls "Ferdie."
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Over the years and well over a half century after World War II, Midlam, 95, and his personable wife, Sandy, 70, continue to correspond with Gaydon and his wife, Nanette, exchanging cards, letters, photos and gifts despite an ocean and language barrier.
Midlam sent Gaydon sheets of his coin collection, and in the 1980s, treated him and his wife to an all expenses paid trip to Florida, traveling with them to the Keys and Orlando and having a blast.
Gaydon repaid the generous trip with a gift of six red Venetian glass goblets, delicately hand painted and topped with a gold trim.
Now, well into his 80s, Gaydon, who lives in Cannes, decided to do something special for his American friends to welcome in the New Year. Midlam heard a knock on his door one day in January and was handed a special delivery: a bright yellow box containing what appeared to be a beautiful Fabergé egg. As tradition has it, the egg is a symbol of life, fertility and renewal.
So, it seems fitting that with the coming of Easter, Midlam's gift from Gaydon strengthen their friendship.
The famed eggs were made by the House of Fabergé around the turn of the 20th century for the tsars of Russia, who gave them to their wives as gifts to celebrate Easter.
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As they relaxed in their Kings Point home on a sunny afternoon, Charles and Sandy gazed at the egg and reflected on the unique friendship.
"I felt obligated at the time he saved my life," Midlam said. "We were even planning on living together in France after the war was over and I was going to learn how to ski the Alps. Instead, I returned home and he shot a letter off to me and this thing just went from there."
The emerald green, jeweled egg stands about 6 inches high and weighs over a pound. It appears to be a replica of the Alexander Palace egg made especially for Tsar Alexander III. The egg features three little portraits of the tsar's children with the initial 'A' above each portrait and a tiny crown. A small scepter sits between each portrait and tiny gold garlands with small red flowers adorn the egg.
The lid of the egg opens to reveal a miniature replica of the palace, and there's a "1908" date inscribed on the egg, signifying the year the tsar gave the egg to his wife.
"Chuck thought it was the real thing and I was mystified because Ferdie hadn't sent a note in the box," Sandy explained. "So, I wrote to him and asked about its origin and I used a program on my computer to translate my English into French.
"(It's a replica) but it's the thought that counts really. I'm not surprised under the circumstances since this great connection was made in the middle of a war. I think it's wonderful."
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Sandy helps serves as her husband's eyes and ears since his eyesight is going and he uses a special device that magnifies his hearing.
But his brain, his memory and the attention to the details of his interesting life are as sharp as ever.
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Midlam volunteered and enlisted in the U.S. Army at the age of 23. He began his service as a radio operator commanding communications for chemical mortar battalions positioned in Central Europe.
His journey started in Africa, slowly moving to Algeria, and then north to Italy.
In the southern French Alps, near a small town called Briancon, Midlam was one of the few remaining U.S. soldiers alive on the battlefield as the Germans, in full attack, disintegrated his line before his very eyes and shells whizzed above his head.
Midlam felt blood running down his neck and noticed a hole in both sides of his leggings.
Shrapnel had gone through his lower leg near his ankle and some shrapnel had passed between his ear and his head. A piece of that shrapnel is still enlodged in his brain today.
It was at this moment, lying on a jeep and bleeding profusely that Gaydon commandeered the vehicle and drove it to a French underground hospital.
Midlam spent eight days recuperating and getting to know his soon-to-be lifetime buddy.
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For all his heroism and valor on the battlefield, Midlam was awarded the Purple Heart and several other medals.
On the return home, as his ship sailed into New York Harbor, it pulled passed the Statue of Liberty, with a sea of teary-eyed soldiers on deck.
"There we were at the railing with medals on our uniforms proclaiming the hell we had gone through and crying like babies," Midlam recalls.