Time has dulled Mickey Kent's memories of Fred Gauger, her stepfather, but two recollections from 30 years ago are still vivid: the way he flexed his arm to make a tattoo of a Hawaiian girl dance, and the night he held a switchblade knife to her mother's throat.
The Bowie woman knew Gauger in his early years, before the man Georgetowners called Freddie the Bum became a derelict who roamed Washington's wealthiest quarter in cast-off clothes and a long gray beard. A friend to merchants and street people alike, Gauger was a neighborhood fixture, a spinner of tall tales who used different names and kept his past a mystery.
The news of his freezing to death last month in the District was the first word Mickey Kent had had of her stepfather in nearly 14 years.
"I loved Fred in a way, but I guess my outlook now is pretty negative," Kent, 40, said last week. "Sometimes it seems I only remember the bad times. Maybe it's best to leave things as they were."
Gauger entered Kent's life in about 1947, when she was 5 years old and living in Washington with her mother, Catherine. Even then, Gauger, a native of Philadelphia, was drinking heavily; fights between the couple erupted shortly after they were married, Kent said.
"He had a temper and so did she," said Kent. "She was a very independent, strong woman." One night during a fight in the family kitchen, "Fred pulled a switchblade and held it to my mother's throat," said Kent.
"He looked down at me and asked me whether he should cut her. I said 'No.' And he didn't."
Catherine Gauger once told her daughter that Fred drank heavily to muster the courage for his job painting buildings around Washington. "It was all done from tall scaffoldings, and Fred was terrified of heights," Kent said.
The Gaugers' marriage dissolved within two years. Gauger vanished, and Catherine married twice more; Kent spent her childhood with relatives in Anne Arundel County.
In 1961, Kent married and settled in Kentland, in Prince George's County; her mother died of cancer a year later. Seven years after that, Gauger reentered her life. "Somehow, Fred had heard about Mom dying, and found out that I was living in Maryland," Kent said. When he visited her he was cleanshaven, dressed in a suit, topcoat and shiny shoes. His wallet was full of money he said he had earned in the merchant marine.
"He told us that he had been around the world," said Kent, "but with Fred, you never knew what to believe."
Gauger visited Kent, her husband and their two sons several times that year, taking a cab to their home because he had no driver's license. Invariably, he would bring a bottle of whiskey, whiling away the hours drinking and entertaining the two boys. He also pumped Kent for information about her mother's last years and the men she had married.
"Fred would come in with just the top of a bottle sticking out of his coat pocket," Kent said. "He'd sneak drinks in the bathroom." As his drinking worsened that year, Kent told Gauger he would have to stay sober when he was around her children. Eventually, the visits stopped.
"He had found me and lost me--all in the same year," Kent said.
She learned of her stepfather's death when an aunt telephoned to say that Fred had been found on Jan. 18 frozen to death in a telephone booth near Key Bridge.
Police listed Gauger, who was in his late sixties, as John Doe until friends identified him. Some knew him as Freddie Gieger, others as Freddie Gruber. Kent said he always called himself "Fred."
"I can't wipe the memories of Fred away," said Kent, who works at the Geico insurance company in Chevy Chase. "You just try to make your adult life--and your kids' life--different from what it was when you were growing up."
Money for Fred Gauger's funeral was raised from the small circle of friends he had cultivated in his 25 years in Georgetown. They decided to bury him at the Washington National Cemetery in Northeast, not knowing that Mickey Kent buried her mother there 20 years ago.