By Kymberly Taylor
“If you have cancer, eat what you want to eat! The thing you want to keep running right is this thing up here, your head …”
Super Saber, Dagger, Starfighter, Thunder Chief, Voodoo—these are the names of fighting jets familiar to Michael E. “Mike” Ashford, a nuclear war plane Air Force veteran, former commercial airline pilot, long-time Annapolitan and owner of the renowned McGarvey’s Saloon & Oyster Bar in Annapolis.
Ashford knows Annapolis and its boat-minded crowd well. He once owned The Annapolitan magazine with friend, Walter Cronkite—he and the late legendary anchorman were a familiar sight sailing the Chesapeake Bay (and sometimes misbehaving gallantly on the deck of the Annapolis Yacht Club, according to sources close to AYC).
Ashford was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2008, a verdict rare for men. According to the American Cancer Society, the lifetime risk for breast cancer in men is about one in 1,000. In contrast, about one in eight women (12 percent) in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetime.
Ashford, now that cancer is behind him, reflects on his experiences in his signature candid style: “Is your magazine’s aim to encourage us all to eat healthy and stuff like that? Do you think enough people want to do this?” he asked Looking Good incredulously. “Well, I speak on this sometimes to cancer survivors’ groups. … I tell them, ‘If you have cancer, eat whatever you want to eat!’ The thing you want to keep running right is this thing up here, this head, this computer … you don’t want to give up Fourth of July hotdogs for God’s sake, and BLTs, and burgers!”
You must work on your mind to stave off depression, counsels Ashford. The grim nomenclature surrounding cancer does not help. Seven years in remission and enjoying life, he dislikes the phrase “cancer survivor.” “I prefer the term ‘warrior,’” he reflects. This word exudes strength. “Survivor makes you sound like you came out of Auschwitz or something.”
Ashford suggests keeping one’s mind occupied with good things, to try to offset the horror of seeing one’s body invaded by rogue cells bent on murder.
With this in mind, he founded in the fall of 2010 the Annapolis Chapter of the Dragon Boat Club. This nonprofit international organization encourages breast cancer and other cancer warriors, whether in recovery or still on the “battlefield,” to paddle and sometimes race dragon boats, an ancient sport with origins in China. Rowing with 20 crew members in an exuberant 48-foot-long pink or red craft upon Spa Creek “nurtures spirits and bodies” and exercises muscles around the breast, speeding healing.
Today, surrounded by books and his cat, Snookers Johnson, Ashford reclines at home in a comfortable chair with a breathtaking view of Annapolis. He awaits the delivery of a restored tiny two-seater plane that he looks forward to flying, perhaps to the Eastern Shore’s Tangier Island. “It’s hard to get there, but there’s a very nice runway. So you land, walk in, find a little restaurant called something like Miss Smith’s, sit in her living room, have lunch and come back!”
What will he name his new plane? As of this writing, Ashford is thinking “Buttercup,” the polar opposite of Voodoo or Thunder Chief. “I was a fighter pilot. Now I have a plane named Buttercup and a cat named Snookers Johnson, I might be slipping,” worries Ashford.
Don’t believe this. But do believe that he’s most likely in a slip upon a handsome boat named Old Sport. “This is a Gatsbyesque vessel,” says Ashford, and points out New York Yacht Club and Annapolis Yacht Club insignia on its polished hull.
Afloat on Spa Creek, he has time to think. For a tough ex-fighter pilot, Ashford is a surprisingly contemplative guy. Contemplating, that is, where to cruise to next and find a great hamburger. In fact, he founded McGarvey’s in 1980 to ensure an unending supply. “I wanted good meat. I put profits aside. I said, get the very best stuff out there and make hamburgers!”
It is a generous philosophy. Annapolis is lucky to have a man such as Ashford who embodies his own words—living life at full throttle and worrying about the profits later. This may be true happiness.