Earl Joseph Mayo had a knack for timing. Married for 56 years, his wife, Fran, said the hands of a clock could fall off and Earl would still rise each morning at 6:30 on the dot. • The morning of Nov. 16 began in the usual way, with Earl and his wife sharing a quiet breakfast in their scenic senior mobile home community tucked away in Zephyrhills. She had strong coffee; he had his usual cereal mixture of half Honey Nut Cheerios and half Special K with sliced fruit on top.
Earl, 86, had been waiting for this day to arrive ever since Fran surprised him and his good friend Dick Albrecht with tickets for their birthdays (just a few weeks apart) to visit the SS American Victory, a World War II memorial museum ship based in Tampa.
As a former Merchant Marine, the WWII veteran had lived on similar hulking great ships like the American Victory, delivering supplies to the military in war times.
He longed to take one more voyage, and he refused to let his ongoing battle with cancer interfere with the destination.
His family and friends are glad he didn't waver, for Nov. 16 would prove to be a fateful day for Earl.
• • •
The drummed-up excitement he felt in the weeks leading up to the American Victory visit was noticeable to everyone. Family said everywhere Earl went, he bubbled over, telling friends, neighbors and the nurses in his new oncologist's office about the trip to the vessel.
He seemed energized. Knowing how meaningful this event would be for him, his oncologist postponed Earl's second series of chemotherapy treatments so he could enjoy himself that day.
Dressed in a tan baseball cap and a gray T-shirt with the words emblazoned across it "If you're proud to be an American, thank a vet," Earl said goodbye to his wife, who planned to have lunch in Dade City that afternoon with a girlfriend.
He took his cane and a small plastic, disposable camera and opened the door. He smiled and in a boisterous voice began to sing:
Heave Ho! My Lads! Heave Ho!
It's a long, long way to go.
It's a long, long pull with our hatches full …
"When he left the house, he was singing the Merchant Marines song all the way out the front door," Fran said. "He was always singing that song."
He walked out into the rain to the car where his friend was waiting for him. It was 9:30 a.m.
Dick said Earl sang the song the entire car ride to the ship.
• • •
Born to a World War I veteran father and an Irish mother, Earl grew up on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. At 17, he wanted to join the Merchant Marines but he was 2 pounds underweight.
His daughter, Donna Costa, remembers her father telling the story of how a friend told him to eat nothing but bananas and water in the days leading up to his weigh-in to gain weight, and it worked.
Earl was even 2 pounds overweight.
Earl went on to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard and was later drafted into the U.S. Army. A few years after leaving the Army, he met Fran. She had made her mind up she was going to marry him.
She adored his "Irish wit." They had a simple morning wedding in a Catholic church. Their family soon grew with the birth of two daughters, Marcia and Donna, and Earl found work as a plumber before owning his own plumbing and heating business.
In 1988, he and Fran retired and moved to Florida.
• • •
The rain finally subsided and it was sunny skies once they arrived at the Port of Tampa. Dick remembered it was windy and he reminded Earl to take care of his hat.
"Let's go meet people," Earl said.
The two boarded at 11 a.m. and the waters were calm as the ship got under way.
It was packed with a menagerie of people: military families, World War II veterans, grandchildren and crew members.
Musicians performed songs from the 1940s, big-band notes danced nostalgically through the salty air, as actors dressed up in military uniforms flanked the deck. Dick could see the excitement spilling over in the broad grin across Earl's face as they made their way to the plank.
"I'd really like to see the wheelhouse," Earl said, and as they climbed up to the deck above, he began to sing again.
• • •
Earl's enthusiasm was contagious and other passengers noticed. As they merged with the crowd, one by one, people joined Earl in singing the Merchant Marines song.
Bill Kuzmick, the executive director of the SS American Victory, said of all the 641 passengers, Earl stood out the most.
"He was grinning ear to ear," Kuzmick said.
After several rounds of the Merchant Marines song, Kuzmick asked Earl if he would like to come on stage and formally lead the swelling crowd of about 400 again with the song.
Earl said yes, and he and Dick were led to an area just behind the stage, where they waited for a performer to finish her song. Earl handed his cane to his friend.
As Earl's name was announced he started to walk out on stage and reach for the microphone when he collapsed. Dick thought Earl was having a heart attack.
Earl called out to his friend: "I can't see."
Within minutes, paramedics, EMT crew members, ship nurses and a doctor surrounded Earl. They worked feverishly on him, but Dick said it didn't look good.
He noticed Earl's face looked blue as they placed him on a stretcher and lowered him by crane down to the chase boat that would transport him to Tampa General Hospital.
• • •
Fran was contacted by mutual friends of Dick's, who gave her the news. She raced to the hospital. When she arrived, she met with the doctor, who said Earl had been revived five times. The doctor said his heart was still beating but his brain was swelling from a hemorrhage.
She didn't want to see her husband this way, but she knew if she didn't go in there she would regret it. Fran took a deep breath and walked into the quiet hospital room where Earl was. She leaned over and tenderly kissed his forehead.
"I love you, Earl," she whispered.
Earl's heart stopped, but the clock on the wall kept ticking.