Harold, a retired electrician, was a slight, likeable, white-haired gentleman right out of the Greatest Generation. Harold always wore a smile, regardless of life’s pratfalls. A widower, he was a regular who was popular with the ladies at the Wednesday afternoon dances at the North Portland Eagles lodge when the house band ‘Ruthie and the Boys’ performed.

I was introduced to Harold at a lodge lunch in 2003. We discovered a common tendency after the meal. I watched Harold covertly gather unused, embossed Eagles napkins from the table, ones that I had considered snagging myself. “Those engraved Fraternal Order of Eagles napkins are going to be collector’s items someday,” I observed. “In the meanwhile, they make for a great conversation piece.”

Harold turned to me and from behind his cuff whispered, “Even if nobody uses the napkins, they get discarded. So I’m saving them.” He looked all around to make sure no one was listening, grinned, nodded, and added, “But Safeway has the best napkins.”

I agreed. “Yes, they do have the best napkins and the Fred Meyer in-store napkins are the worst.”

To this Harold pointed out, “Denny’s has great napkins, but they come with the restaurant’s name printed on them. The napkins aren’t neutral. People will know where you’ve been.”

To which I remarked, “That’s because a lot of people grab napkins at Denny’s and Denny’s is using these people to advertise their establishment. So, the napkins come with a price and they're yellow to boot. The Denny’s napkins are big, good for cleaning or working on the car, but not for the dinner table.”

“How do you feel about wedding napkins?” Harold queried with a quizzical look as if my shared interest in napkins really piqued his curiosity.

“Well,” I admitted, “I don’t collect wedding napkins unless they’re from a relative’s wedding. Then I only take a couple for the scrap book. Besides, wedding napkins tend to be dainty and effeminate, only suitable for a slice of cake.”

To this Harold smiled a big smile. Folding the napkins neatly into his coat pocket he said, “Say, you seem to know an awful lot about napkins. You have a philosophy about them. Do you collect ‘em?”

“Well,” I replied, “Let’s just say I have a whole drawer full of napkins at home from various places I’ve been.”

To this Harold shook his head and laughed. “I have quite an assortment of napkins, myself. Don’t need anymore. But I have this desire to save them. I sometimes wonder if I still do it just for the adrenaline rush.”

We agreed that we were probably both napkin thieves. I threw my fine Catholic parents on the grenade by using the excuse that they grew up in the Depression and thus had raised me on Depression-era customs, which was partially true. Harold lived through the Depression, so he bought my excuse line, hook and sinker. He wondered aloud if there were any support groups for those with our affliction, like a local chapter of Napkins Anonymous. I told him I was unaware of any groups in Oregon but teased and said the French probably have something along the lines of Groupe de Support de Serviette for napkin thieves, considering that napkins are much smaller and less available there.

Despite our age difference, our friendship got off to a great start. We learned we also had an urge to write in common and shared our works with each other. It was through Harold that I began composing vignettes like this one. Harold saw vignettes as photos, snap shots of the day-to-day genre of ordinary life, standing entirely on their own.

The two of us would meet at the Village Inn restaurant for Saturday lunch where, like Denny’s, many seniors dined. There we exchanged ideas and stories, and yes, the Village Inn had decent napkins.

Harold told me about Dorothy, the petite woman he was dating, whom he met during a dance at the senior center in his neighborhood. After many months, they were talking about moving in together. Dorothy was pushing for it. In fact, she wanted the two of them to get married. Harold wasn’t so sure. He had been married once, and he and his wife raised their family together, and now she was gone. Harold was very fond of Dorothy, but at 84, he didn’t feel he was up for another marriage.

One morning Harold called early. He said he was feeling tired that morning, that he felt like going back to bed.

In due time, Harold felt poor more often. The last time I saw him, I noticed his hands shook as he held his pencil. There was a sad and painful look in his tired eyes, but he maintained his composure and sense of humor.

One morning, I received a package in the mail from Harold. He had sent five vignettes with a note he scribbled on the back of a note someone else had already sent him, as he never wasted paper. He mentioned the glory of his napkin collection and told me I could keep the stories.

Of the five vignettes Harold mailed me, “Flap Jacks” was my favorite. Harold wrote about a morning when he was stateside, tired, cold, broke and hungry for breakfast, after bootcamp in the Navy in the World War II era and the B.N. (Before Napkins) era. A woman in the diner saw he was low on cash and kept filling his plate with pancakes, saying they were test flapjacks used to make sure the griddle was the right temperature. She gave him 18 or 19 of the so-called test cakes until he was full. He paid her the 30 cents he had and she acted as if he’d done her a big favor.

Eventually, Harold just did not show up anymore. I called his home and there was no answer.

But I could see in my mind’s eye a smiling young sailor in another time, content, his stomach full, hitchhiking his way back home through eternity, one cold morning in another time, sixty-some years later down the road, in no time, white haired, still content, still smiling. As with the flapjacks that cold winter’s morning long ago and the embossed napkins gathered from a table more than half a century removed, Harold was content helping people by taking those things they did not want or need in the day-to-day genre of daily life.

And near the end of those days, the days that he folded neatly into his pocket and made his own, sitting down to his Underwood typewriter, pounding out the letters to the words to the snap shots, the frozen two-dimensional photos of the meaningful minutes, the hours of a lifetime lived, Harold continued his way home.

Van der Hout, a Southeast Portland resident, attends St. Pius X Parish and Mount Angel Abbey.