Barge Right On Ahead!

It was our second date, and Jeff suggested we take his boat out for a ride on the Mississippi River. I’ve always loved taking to the water, but I admit I was nervous about Old Man River. I grew up with lakes surrounding me, and I learned to fear the currents of swift rivers. I’m no speed freak. I’m more comfortable in a row boat or canoe than behind the wheel of a boat skimming and bouncing through waves. So when we hooked up to his runabout, I wasn’t sure what to expect—from the river or the old man.

Just who was this guy, and how would he deal with the inevitable trials that I’d learned are part of boating? It seems no matter how prepared a boater is, a floating vessel with a motor that runs only occasionally is prime for challenges. Would Jeff be the kind of guy who would cuss, throw and kick things? I figured it wouldn’t be long before I knew. We’d not more than backed the trailer down the ramp when Jeff leaned over to unhook the rope from the bow. The contents of his shirt pocket spilled into the shallow water.

“There goes my wallet!” he shouted. So I jumped in and started pulling credit cards and receipts out of the water and gravel. First thing learned? Jeff has no wallet. He carries a bundle of cards, license, bills and receipts in his shirt pocket instead. No leather, no money clip, not even a rubber band around it. Second thing? So far, not a swear word was uttered. He just chuckled as he let me pick up the cards while he guided the boat off the trailer and around the dock to get out of the way of waiting boaters at the ramp. Who IS this guy?

Once we had the truck and trailer parked and supplies for the day stowed aboard, my date attempted to start the motor. I stood on the dock and watched (“OK, now we’ll see the real temper,” I thought.) A few adjustments, a sheepish smile, an “I just got this boat,” and a spray or two of starting fluid, and we were off. We chugged down the slough to the main channel while making small talk.

This was my first boat trip on the Mississippi. As we left the closed-in mud and tree-lined slough, I saw the horizon open up onto a wide expanse of churning water dotted with boats, wave runners and passing barges. Jeff, half standing and half sitting on the back of the driver’s seat, pointed the bow north and grabbed the throttle to speed up. As he pushed the lever forward, the box that attached it to the side wall came off in his hand. He looked down. He glanced at me. “Oh shit!” He tried to put it back on the wall with one hand. That didn’t work. He looked at me. He looked back at the throttle. I grabbed the wheel of the boat so he was free to handle the handle. After slowing the boat to a troll speed, he found a couple wire ties and reattached the box to the wall. “That’ll do for now,” he said as he showered down on it again, and we took off upstream once more.

I said something, and he turned to me to answer when the wind caught his cap and sailed it out over the water. “My hat!” he yelled and made a quick 180-degree turn. I hung on as the boat tilted into the turn and yelled back, “It needed washing anyway!” It was a well-worn baseball cap that he wore every day onto worksites, and it showed. He inched the boat close, and I reached out and pulled it from the water.

We cruised upriver to a shore side restaurant where we enjoyed a late lunch before heading back out onto the river. Jeff kept up the conversation as he maneuvered the boat through the traffic. It dawned on me that he’s the guy who turns to talk to you as he drives. I listened and nodded while I kept an eye on the river ahead. This water highway gave me a case of the nerves, so I was determined to watch for danger even if he had no worries. (Now that I think back, that could very well be the theme of our entire life together!)

Jeff was now enjoying the ride, and he was trying to impress me with conversation. He was facing me now more than he was ahead. For the life of me, I had no idea what he was saying, as I realized we were gaining on a long barge in the middle of the channel ahead of us. The tow boat at the back of the monstrous floating train was throwing up a wake that looked to be about ten feet high, and we were heading straight at the wall of water from the side.

I didn’t want him to jerk the boat, so I calmly nodded again and said, “Barge.” To which he nodded and kept talking. So I sat up straighter, and I said loudly, “Barge!” He nodded again. I guess he thought I was agreeing with whatever he was saying (good little date?). What was he saying anyway? I had no idea, but I now started to feel the panic rising. I stood up in the boat (Yes, Dad, I’m sorry, you always told me to never stand up in a moving boat, but I did.) I pointed emphatically at the now looming wall of water and yelled, “BARGE!!!!” He finally followed my gesture and turned his head around. “Oh, THAT barge!” He swung us around in another 180 degree turn, tipping us inward and away from the wake just in time as I clung to the edge of the seat fighting the g-forces, trying to sit back down before I was tossed into the water and swallowed whole by the Old Man.

The boat leveled out, and he turned back the other way again. (I may not have known this guy well, but he sure liked half-circle turns.) Once I regained my composure, we both laughed as we followed the river back to the slough where we put in just a few hours before. I was relieved when we slowed below wake speed. But the boat didn’t just slow down, it sputtered and stopped. Now what?

I asked, “Did we run out of gas?” Jeff replied, “No way, the gauge says we have a quarter tank yet.” He checked a couple things and tried to start it again. It wouldn’t start. He went to the back and opened the gas tank and said, “Yep, we’re out of gas.” I could see his face turning red as the steam inside rose. Yet he didn’t completely blow. A woman in another boat came to our rescue just then and towed us the last length back to the boat ramp. He could have let his pride get in the way, but he didn’t. He thanked her very sweetly and offered her money for gas.

Now I guess you’re wondering, “When did he lose it?” Oh, he has….many times since that date, but I knew then that if he really needed to watch his manners he would. Even a redneck can hold his temper when trying to impress a new woman in his life. I matter enough to him that he’d care about how he appeared in my eyes. While he may lose his temper–and yes, he does throw things and cuss–on the truly important matters, he comes through with flying redneck colors.

What IS a Redneck Anyway?

While our friends will tell you there was never a closet where Jeff hid his redneck self, I realize the term “redneck” means different things to different people. It depends on where you live, your personal politics AND the characters with whom you surround yourself. Historically it’s been used in a variety of ways, but one thing is constant–these aren’t “ruling class” folks.

The term “redneck” has been around much longer than Jeff Foxworthy’s comedy (although we all know he made the redneck popular). Most tend to believe it’s an American stereotype that once referred to the red necks earned by poor, Southern farmers who worked in the sun. But not so! The Scots seem to have the earliest claim as they called the rebels rising against Cromwell rednecks in the 1640s. Supposedly those immigrants brought the moniker with them to America.

Redneck has also described Roman Catholics in Northern England, coal miners in the early 20th century, and even factions of Southern Democrats around the turn of that century too. (I know, you thought they were Republicans.)

Urban progressives might say a redneck is a bigot against modern ways and liberal political views. Yet, Ed Abbey, an environmental activist from the 1970s, used the term to mobilize rural folks in an essay, “In Defense of the Redneck,” and coined the bumper sticker, “Rednecks for Wilderness.” You mean there are people who aren’t surrounded by cement who care about trees?

As a transplant to Missouri from the North, I once saw a redneck as a backwoods lout who refused to see the light of modern civilization and its benefits. (Insert choir music) Some may think I’ve regressed, but I think I’ve grown. Today my view is different, I suppose due to the fact that I married Jeff and exposed myself to a whole new culture. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy Classical music, finer hotels and good wine, and my politics are still more left than right.

So how do I describe a redneck today? Many Southern rednecks are fond of the term and proudly proclaim themselves as such. It’s a guy who rebels against authority, he embraces the simpler things in life and places his priorities on working hard and playing harder. He (or she!) may not have a lot of money, a well-appointed home or a manicured lawn, but he can make-do with whatever he’s given. He lives in what we affectionately refer to as a “project-rich environment.” That may be a garage (and sometimes a back yard) full of guys, trucks and parts, muddy boots by the door and a fridge full of Milwaukee’s Best Light to facilitate the creative process.

My type of redneck (aka Jefferson Lee Dempsey) likes having guns, hunts for food as much as for sport, and he loves being able to say that he “outfoxed” the “Man” by making his place more self-sufficient. He cuts and splits wood to help defray the cost of fuel or electricity, and he may even devise homemade alternative energy sources. (You know…solar panels made from beer cans!) He should own stock in a duct tape manufacturer as well as tools, with which he can fix almost anything given a few months or years.

He grew up on Rock music but loves Bluegrass as well as Country, both old and new. (His favorite of all time is David Allan Coe’s You Never Even Called Me By My Name, yet he’ll quote Alice’s Restaurant too.) His man cave is his shop. His main source of recreation is taking to the trails with wheels not a backpack, to play with his buddies.

He sees “politically correct” as a diversionary tactic by those who refuse to acknowledge our differences as well as our responsibilities. “The trouble with our society today…” he starts to say, and I may cringe, but I’ll listen. We’ve agreed that we aren’t going to change each other’s minds on politics much, but we’ve learned to open ourselves to more points of view.

Most important though, is that he can laugh at himself. Guess that’s why I love him the way I do. And I guarantee you that many of the stories I’ll share here will start with Jeff telling me, “Hey, did you tell them about the time…?”

I Married a Closet Redneck: An Introduction

Some would say–my family members in particular–that I should’ve seen the signs. I should’ve known better. I should’ve picked myself up and ran the opposite direction—back toward civilized sanity, back toward intellectual pursuits, toward a good bottle of wine and jazz music. I should’ve kept my city neighborhood door locked and shut to the knocking. That tall entrepreneur who opened the door and walked into my single life was about to bring me over to the dark side, along the off-the-beaten path and into the backwoods of a wild and crazy red neck adventure I would’ve never entertained in my past life.

Jefferson Lee is a fitting name for him, I now realize. While he was born of an upper middle class family in a Middle America suburb, his heart must’ve skipped a generation or two and come straight from south of the Mason-Dixon line. Mr. Dempsey is not the product of his rearing, but rather a man of his own invention in spite my mother-in-law’s good intentions. She wished he would wear creased trousers and spit-shined loafers, but he was more the worn jeans and athletic shoe type. She hoped he’d play piano, but he learned how to tune an engine instead. She preferred feeding him steak and refined fare that said her family had arrived–far from her southern farmer’s family tree; yet he relished fried catfish, cornbread and other simpler foods that brought him back to those same roots.

Jeff, my darling husband of now 15 years, seemed normal at first. He told me he was a contractor during our first date. I was impressed that he had employees and a good work ethic. He lived on his cell phone, even before most people became attached to theirs, and he even had a secretary. We enjoyed a variety of movies, classic rock and even some jazz music. We shared bottles of wine while watching the sun set. He enjoyed our shared restaurant dinners and conversations. He even read books and liked to discuss what he learned. Of course, he liked the outdoors, but so did I.

I had always said I’d be equally at home in a ritzy hotel or a tent in the woods, so how could I judge someone else who said he enjoyed the country? I had spent many a family vacation in the Northwoods, and I proudly claimed hands-on knowledge of a few freshly caught pan fish. I enjoyed canoeing and boating as much as I enjoyed reading a good book. But perhaps I should’ve checked the differences between my Yankee, somewhat liberal, views and his professed worship of the Reagan years. Maybe I should’ve exited when I saw the velvet painting of a raccoon on the paneled walls of his living room, or the work-out bench that sat in the middle of the path between the front door and the kitchen. And yes, I really should have thought twice about saying yes to the man who drank a beer brand named for a famous brewery city just to be acknowledged as a brew.
But I had fallen in love with his endless energy. I had already lost my heart to his ideas and the way he laughed at himself. I learned to appreciate his McGyver-like ability to solve everyday problems using the resources available to him. And above all, I have been endlessly entertained by his antics and I continue to find amusement in his mixed metaphors and his goofiness. This man, Jefferson Lee Dempsey, is my muse, and I hope you enjoy the stories I share here. Many are true, some are embellished, and some are retold from others who have come into my life only because he holds a charisma that draws them to him like moths to honey….err, a flame.

Susan

Henry, A Eulogy

This was a eulogy delivered today in honor of my father-in-law:

Oh Henry!….Vinn….Dad….PawPaw….Mr. Dempsey…each of us here knows you from a different viewpoint. As one with the least amount of history with you, I can only touch upon a few moments of your life that represent 89—almost 90—years of a life fully lived. May I honor you as much as we are honored having known you.

He was the twin brother of Hugh, and brother to Jack, Geraldine (Booby) and Mary Rose. Henry was born May 2nd, 1925, in Potts Camp, Mississippi and reared by his country doctor father, Davis Terrell, and Mama Lois Dempsey in Kennett, Missouri.

He enlisted in the Navy in 1943. He and Mary Alice, high school sweethearts, eloped as teenagers in 1944; stealing away to Peragould, Arkansas to tie the knot, accompanied by his brother Hugh and his sister-in-law.

Henry left Mary Alice with the Dempseys to serve in the Navy and found his bunk on a merchant ship during World War II, assigned to protect her carried supplies and precious cargo. He was a member of our Greatest Generation—he was one among those courageous men and women who served our country; unfailingly devout and steadfast in their duty, yet closed-mouthed about the danger or the terror.

When he returned, he attended Southeast Missouri State to study chemistry and biology before transferring to Arkansas State in Jonesboro. He would share more war stories about sneaking off to hunt or fish with his mentor, Doctor Demery, and how he’d barely stay awake in his classes the next day, than he ever would’ve considered telling from his overseas experience.

He was a high school Chemistry teacher in Mathews, Missouri, at a time when to teach also meant to encourage, to discipline, to share morals and values, and to drive the bus.

Two years later, he moved his young family to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where Falstaff Breweries had a bottling plant, to work in Quality Control. He told me once that he travelled a territory checking the brew quality at the point of purchase—local pubs, taverns and restaurants. (It was a rough job, but someone had to do it!)

In 1961, Henry was promoted and the family moved to Camellia Drive in Webster Groves, MO. He worked at Falstaff’s headquarters until the late 70’s when the company was sold. He finished his career as Quality Control Manager at Western Lithoplate in Kirkwood. He retired in 1995.

He and Mary Alice were blessed with three children, whose deliveries were spread over 17 years. Marilyn Ann was born in 1946, Henry Vinn Jr. in 1955 and Jefferson Lee in 1963. He was a patient mentor to his daughter and sons, and he enjoyed his family foremost. He was known to take his grandsons fishing at Suson Park regularly, and he watched them grow to fine young men. He would also beam with pride over the accomplishments of one of his granddaughters or great-granddaughter.

Henry was a kidder, and he was known to pull a practical joke occasionally. He loved to tell stories about himself and his friends. He fondly remembered his friend Beefy, for instance. Jeff has told me a few stories with those two characters at the center, involving levees, the Mississippi, gigging and a few cold ones. (At least they did have a half-sized designated driver, well before their time.) He and his identical twin brother Hugh were known to pull a fast one on each other or on others as well.

He was a staunch member of Webster Hills, and he served here as an usher for 45 years. He was also an adult leader in the church-sponsored Boy Scout troop, of which his sons took part.

While I met him later in life, I can tell you he was a quiet, unassuming man who was a home body—probably just enjoying being off the road after many years of travel with work. He loved to putter around the house or hand water the beautiful azaleas and impatiens he and Mary Alice planted. But he truly just enjoyed being there. He could fix just about anything, and I believe he passed that skill on to his two boys.

Anytime he was away from home, you could tell his heart was in his own backyard, and he’d soon after arriving say, “Well I best be getting back home, she’ll be waiting.”

Whenever we had pie for dessert after a family meal, he’d ask me, “You like that? I baked it myself!” …even if I had brought it with me that day. He laughed with his eyes, a true Irishman in spirit.

The Henry we all remember started to leave us a few years ago, when Alzheimer’s struck both him and Mary Alice. They say that this unfair disease is known as the “Long Goodbye.” I’ve seen it take our parents’ best memories from them, but it won’t take our memories OF them. My own father is suffering from the ravages of this beast too.

But the confusion and sense of loss for Henry are now gone.

Henry, the Long Goodbye is now over. It’s time to go on home. Mary Alice and Marilyn and all the others are waiting.

Hi World!

I’m about to embark on a journey via this virtual path through the woods. Friends and family have been hounding me to start blogging. They understand that I enjoy writing almost as much as I like to talk. And they promised they’d read it. (I swear they did.) So I’m here. I do love crafting with words. I try to see the lighter side of life, and I admit to a long-held dream of becoming the world’s next Erma Bombeck. But I’ve also been known to write memorials, to share my sentimental side or to wave the flag and cry out for more apple pie. Now if I can figure out how to set this up with a few categories that will make my mind appear more organized than it really is, I’ll start. Follow me, and I’ll try to entertain you, to inspire you and to share some of my misadventures as well as successful ventures with you.  You may laugh, you may cry or you may just realize you’re not alone.  I’m failing and flailing, laughing and crying, and I’m learning my way through life just as we all are.