Happy Fourth? A Redneck Adventure on the River

The Fourth of July conjures many happy memories of years past, but one year—during Jeff’s “boat phase” we embarked on an adventure that is unforgettable—as much as I try.

My favorite redneck went through a time where he seemed to collect boats, starting with the 27-foot cuddy cabin Cobalt he purchased two days before our wedding. Had I known about that purchase, it may have given me fair warning, I suppose. But that set the stage for a growing collection of floating vessels of different shapes and sizes that reached its peak when he owned said cruiser above, plus a 16-foot runabout, two wave runners, an aluminum canoe, a gutted 43-foot houseboat and a 26-foot Chiquita Banana—all at one time. (Seven total, all except one of which is now gone. We kept the $75 canoe.)

The last of these was an ugly yellow, circa-early ‘70s cabin cruiser that was actually named “The Chiquita.” It was my least favorite of the collection and the one to which Jeff seemed most drawn. He picked it up as a salvage deal when doing some hauling for a local marina. (When someone says “free boat,” Jeff listens.) The exterior upholstery was in decent shape, even if the interior was old, musty-smelling harvest gold plaid and shag carpet, with dark plastic “wood” cabinets and even a head. Captain Jeff worked on the single engine and had assured me that the inboard motor was fully functioning. The others have stories of their own, but this one boat was the catalyst of the most infamous Dempsey Fourth of July ever.

You may know (from a previous story at least) that the Mississippi both awes and scares me. Jeff had been trying to convince me that a cruise up the river to St. Louis to watch the fireworks from our boat would be the epitome of a patriotic and fun adventure. We could bring friends, we could pack some great food and enjoy the entire day on the boat, and cruise back afterward—at night. The return night cruise was my greatest fear, but I needn’t have worried about that. No, that was one worry I needn’t have wasted.

I tell you this tale now, as I believe all statute of limitations have been exceeded. I’d say the names were changed to protect the innocent, but the characters already know who they are, and at least one has been urging me to write this story since my first blog. So there we were; planning a day on the river to celebrate Independence Day, inviting friends to join us, preparing plenty of food, scrubbing the poop deck (what is that anyway?), icing the beer and fueling up the trucks and boats.

Our friends, Lesley and Tommy, plus their kids, joined us. Tommy invited another couple on their boat as well. They pulled their jet-powered bass boat, and we pulled The Chiquita to a nearby marina on the Meramec River, within cruising minutes from the mouth where it empties into the Mississippi. From there we planned to have our mini-regatta cruise upriver to an anchoring spot in front of the Gateway Arch grounds, the site of the annual VP Fair, a three-day extravaganza of air shows, music, crowds and fireworks.
Backing down the boat ramp and launching the boats was easy and quick. Jeff gave me the keys and had me pull his truck and the trailer back up onto the lot while he held the boat. I could do that, as it didn’t require me backing up with the trailer attached. Lesley and the kids planned to ride on the Chiquita with us, while Tommy commandeered his own boat with the other couple aboard. This plan worked best for Lesley and Tommy. This way Les could enjoy her day a little more relaxed, and Tommy could pretend he was in control of his day.

We took off from the dock, cruised down river, and soon found ourselves in the main channel of the Mississippi. It was a bright, beautiful, blue-sky day full of promise. As we cruised northward, we realized there weren’t any barges on the river that day. “Hmmm, must be the holiday,” I thought. The water was swift, but calm. But 20 minutes later, barges appeared from nowhere and seemed to be surrounding us on both sides, going in both directions. The water was churning like a washing machine, and we had one tow boat honking at us to get out of the way. We learned later that river traffic had been stopped for one of the air shows above, so the impatient river captains were swarming their loaded cargo away from the banks to get on their way in a hurry. The cruise upstream was slower than we thought, but we had all day. No worries.

Jeff had his hands full, but he needed a beer. So Lesley and I, in our usual fashion, broke out the snacks and drinks. While this boat was ugly, it did have a table, cup holders and benches on the back deck behind the captain to enjoy the sunshine while having a bite to eat. We watched the traffic around us and occasionally tried to talk to Tommy on the other boat. He was on his way to enjoying his Fourth like any good redneck, with beer in hand. While we couldn’t hear anything he said, he was animatedly working to impress the other couple, a co-worker and his girlfriend. Tommy wasn’t alone with his drink, but he was definitely already having fun.

We were just a couple miles upstream, and we’d just finished settling in with the veggies and dip, crackers and cheese, when we heard a sudden higher pitch coming from the motor. Jeff whipped his head around to look at the rear, then went through the gears of the boat. “We’ve lost a gear on the out drive,” he shouted over the engine and the barge traffic noise. “I think we can keep going,” he continued. “Nope, I’ve got nothin’ but reverse!” I felt the bile rising in my throat. “Now what do we do?” I asked as I looked around at the surrounding vessels in the middle of the channel. I imagined us drifting into an oncoming barge, meeting a wet and violent demise.

He yelled over to Tommy, who pulled alongside to discuss our options—our two captains in conference to strategize. They discussed the option of having Tommy’s smaller boat tow ours the rest of the way upstream to our destination. Luckily, they decided that wasn’t wise, and we turned around to go back. We tied a tow rope between the boats, and Tommy led the way back downstream. “At least we’ll be going with the current,” I said optimistically, as I gobbled a chip and some dip, washed down with a swig of my beer. The bass boat rode low on the water, and The Chiquita floated higher, but it seemed to be working. We slowly rode southward. At least the barges seemed to recognize the situation and now gave us a wide berth.

We could see the mouth of the Meramec coming close when the bass boat sputtered and died. Tommy jumped up, swayed a little as he got to his engine and tried to restart it. “Damn it, we’re out of fuel!” he yelled. All I could think was, we were going to drift past the mouth of the Meramec and we’ll never be able to regain it upstream. We’re dead in the water and we may end up in Cape Girardeau, 100 miles downstream! “Quick! Jeff, throw out our anchor,” I yelled. I figured that’d keep us in place until we could figure out what to do next. Wrong! The anchor did seem to hold us in place, but as the swift Mississippi current flowed past us, it was pulling Tommy’s bass boat downward. “HEY! You’re gonna’ swamp me! Shit!”

“Jeff, cut the anchor rope!”

“Who cares about the damn anchor! Cut it or he’s going under!”

“Hand me a knife!” Jeff hollered as he scrambled over the bow of the boat and reached down to the anchor rope. He managed to cut it away, Tommy’s boat bounced up out of the water and righted itself, and we were adrift again.

“Hey look, there’s someone coming this way from the Meramec!” We all stood up and waved all arms frantically at the oncoming boat. Luck, and the code of the water helped. They saw us in distress and pulled up to give us a hand. The runabout, filled with a family on their way out for the day, returned to the Meramec and towed both our boats upstream to the Meramec marina. Once we arrived at the dock, we all thanked them profusely and offered them money for fuel, which they refused as they smiled, shook their heads and cruised back down the river.

We needed to get the boats on the trailers and out of the water. Jeff managed, after backing down deeper into the water than normal, to get ours onto the trailer by floating it, although a little crooked, up to the crank stop. We sat on the boats for a little while, as we had plenty of snacks and drinks, and the kids wanted to enjoy the water a little. Tommy stewed in his juice, while the other couple disappeared quickly. After much discussion between them, Lesley backed her truck and trailer down the ramp, although a little curb action was involved. (She, unlike me, has no fear.) Jeff and wobbly Tommy hooked up the bass boat onto his trailer. Lesley and Tommy left for home before us.

Jeff and I started down the road toward home. We took a right turn at a traffic light. Then Jeff said, “Uh, oh!” I looked in the side mirror to see the boat and trailer drifting to the right, away from the back of the truck. It had come off the hitch. He pulled off the road and got out quickly to re-hook the trailer and check all the safety chains.

“Good thing for those chains,” he said as he climbed back into the truck cab.

We did make it home that night, but we didn’t make it to the fireworks at the Arch. Instead, we collapsed on the couch in front of the television, watching them on the local station.

“Let’s not do that again,” I said, laughing. “Awe, come on. I can have it fixed in no time,” Jeff replied, smiling. He knew, without more thought, The Chiquita was destined for someone else, not us. Since that time, I have had other episodes on boats with Jeff, and they rarely were successful. In fact, we’ve decided that I bring a curse on any boat he owns, if I set foot aboard. The reason why we still have the canoe is that it hasn’t failed us—even though he and I can’t seem to paddle in the same direction together. But that’s another story.


Years have gone by, so now I can see the humor in this story. But our friend, Tommy, is gone. He and Lesley broke up a couple years later, and he and Jeff became closer friends. Tommy gave us many reasons to laugh along the way, and finally, a reason to grieve. I like to think he can read this from the great beyond and shake his head, and laugh along with us. Happy Fourth to you Tom!


The Junk Man Cometh

I believe we are all frugal in our own way. The color of satisfaction lines the second-hand coat you find for next to nothing. It’s the reason why women shop the clearance racks, why I and my friends get excited for estate sales, why Pinterest has its followers and why Jeff wants to be a junk man.
If you look into the heart of a Redneck, you’ll see the stuff of a hoarder who recycles. My man stashes away car parts like a chipmunk hides his nuts–err, sorry Mom–like a dog buries his bones. He may not always remember exactly where it is, but there will come a project that requires that one piece of metal he already owns. That Redneck’s soul thrives on taking items beyond repair and re-designing them in ways that make other Rednecks envious.
Our cold winters—Jeff’s off season—fed his obsession by allowing him time to think of ways to benefit from picking up the junk of others. A few years ago, it hit its peak when he decided he’d try to barter with a few people who needed their junk hauled. He’d remove a trailer full if he could keep “the good stuff.” And he soon had more “good stuff” than we had room to store. He even borrowed a semi trailer from a friend to store what he thought we might sell at yard sales in the spring. Little did I know that I’d be enlisted as the yard sale queen, nor did I believe the number of smelly chairs and couches that could fit in a semi. (Jeff, you see, has very little sense of smell after years of breathing paint and other fumes in his garage.)
We didn’t get rich from selling junk. No, we didn’t even pay for the gas to cover hauling his loaded trailer back to the house. But we did collect a few items to use around the house. A lamp here, a patio set there, a desk without the keyboard tray, or a few old photos of someone else’s family. And it kept Jeff busy and happy. I’d come home from work and hear, “Hey Honey, come down and check out what I brought home today!” I’d grin and bear it, because I have one of those re-use-it genes too.
So today, when we were enjoying lunch with a friend, I smiled as Jeff told us his dumpster diving story. It had been raining all week, and since business is slow with this weather, he took one of his trucks to our neighbor’s shop for its required inspections. Jeff enjoys being able to circumvent the system and walk through the shop entrance like one of the guys instead of going to the service desk. While he sat in the shop office waiting—no sterile waiting room with old magazines and a TV tuned to CNN for this guy—he looked around a bit.
In a nearby trash can, he spotted the top of an umbrella that appeared in serviceable condition. “It only had one spot at the top with a slight bend in it,” he explained. So he started rearranging the other trash in the vessel to maneuver his prize out without dumping yesterday’s lunch or the morning’s stale donuts in the process. As he pondered his find, he noted the two construction workers standing outside watching him, chuckling between themselves and shaking their heads. He looked up and grinned, holding up his hands as if to say, “So?”
He pulled the umbrella from the can like Mary Poppins would from her valise and proceeded to open it. (Yes, inside.) His satisfied smile didn’t last long though, as just after he had it opened fully, the handle broke in two, and the top fell off onto the ground. The two workers outside roared with laughter, when he just shrugged, tossed the pieces back into the can and walked out into the rain.
I guess some junk is just that.

Can you Eat A Chili Dog While Driving?

One thing about rednecks is they think they’re invincible. (The old, “Hold my beer, watch this,” comes to mind, but that’s not what I mean today—that’s a whole other story.) I’m talking about the constant urge to multitask while driving. Well, okay, so that’s probably a 21st Century human thing, but Jeff takes it to a new art form. From our first date, I could’ve told you he likes to talk on the phone and drive. He took more than three calls in a five-mile drive.

Whenever we leave the state, I try to drive at least the first 100 miles to ensure he gets all his calls out of his system and then falls asleep. (Crap, now he’ll know!) That way, I know I won’t be hitting the imaginary passenger-side brake or flicking my head to the side to urge him to change lanes or turn when he’s in mid-conversation. If I’m driving, I know he won’t be looking up phone numbers, writing notes, taking drinks of his soda, hitting the radio or gesturing if he doesn’t like the caller, all while driving on the interstate. And he won’t be eating at the wheel either.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll eat a sandwich or a few fries at the wheel. I’m sure we all do when the need arises. But I at least try to keep the meal simple and driver-friendly. No tacos, two-handed sloppy burgers or anything requiring a utensil. And no salads.

Yes, Jeff will try to eat healthy by eating a salad occasionally. Unfortunately, he’ll try to devour it while steering with his knee and navigating to his next appointment. “Honey, it’s not so healthy when you have an accident because you’re eating a salad.” Eating greens may keep you around longer, unless you have a fender bender while trying to fork a tomato. Yes, it has happened.

He is talented. I’ll give him that. Remember when you first learned to ride a bike? “Look Ma, no hands!” That’s what I think drives Jeff—and others, myself included–to drive and multitask like this. He’s determined to prove he can do it. That, and it’s the old, “but I can make good time” argument. You wouldn’t think that’d make sense here. The standard view of a redneck would be someone who moves at a slower pace through life. Jeff has never moved slowly. Perhaps that’s why I thought he was in a closet so long? He moves too fast. Add that to eating at the wheel, and it doesn’t bode well.

The day we decided to take a road trip to Hannibal comes to mind. It was a cool fall morning, and I’d taken the day off work so we could spend some quality time together. I downed a bowl of cereal and grabbed a bag of snacks and jackets while Jeff sent his crews off to work that morning. Hannibal is a two-hour drive from our home. We planned to take a leisurely drive, visit relatives and check out a tourist site or two before returning home that day. But, as usual, we left the house later than we planned.

Now, I’ve learned over 17 years that Jeff always has at least three stops to make on our way out of town. He’ll go by the gas station, the bank, or whatever before we ever leave St. Louis. And he invariably stops for something to eat. That morning, he was more grumpy than usual and short with me. He was hungry. I should’ve known and prepared—I now would bring him breakfast. I get a little testy when my stomach growls too, but Jeff? Well, you know. I know you know.

We pulled into the McDonald’s drive-thru at 10:40am, hoping he could get a breakfast sandwich. “Sorry sir, we stop serving that at 10:30,” said the box.

“Grrr…,” I heard from the left side of the truck. “Where else can I get breakfast? I need breakfast!”

“It’s a little late, so I’m not sure. You don’t want anything else?”

“No! I need breakfast.”

We drove another mile and saw a Sonic sign and decided to try that. Jeff pulled the truck into the drive-thru lane and asked again about breakfast. “We’re sorry sir….blah, blah,” we heard. I asked him, “You just need something. Is there anything else you’d like?”

He leaned over and said, “Ok, give me a chili dog and a large soda, and a cup of coffee” and he pulled around to the car-hop delivery spot. The wait seemed longer, only because he wasn’t happy. At this point, I was thinking, “How is he going to eat that and drive?” A girl brought out a soda, my coffee and a bag and took his money. He drove away, digging in the bag as he turned out onto the road. He handed me the coffee and the tray with the chili dog.

“Damn, there’s no fork in here!” He did a 180 (yes he can do them on land handily as well) and went back around the Sonic lot, past the order box and back to the delivery door. “Hey!” he yelled out the window and waved. Someone saw him and came out with a quizzical look. “Can I get a fork or something please?!”

With a spork (you know, the spoon thing with short tines) in hand, we finally set off for our road trip. “Are you going to pull over and eat that?” I asked hopefully. (OK, it was sarcastically, but I’m the one writing the story here.) Jeff grumbled as he pulled into another lane and stopped at a light. He took the chili dog tray from me and tore the paper from it.

He held the steering wheel with his knee and stabbed the thing with the spork as if it were a fish ready to flop back into the water from the bank. He thought he was about to take a big spork-ful into his mouth. You could see the gleam in his eye, but the dog wasn’t cooperating. Remember readers, the chili dogs at Sonic that early in the day aren’t usually hot and quite ready to eat. In fact this one was a little tough yet. Instead of cutting apart at the spot where it was stabbed, it stayed intact. When Jeff pulled back on the utensil, it instead flung pieces of chili and chili-soaked bun all over the steering wheel, the dash, the windshield and his lap. What could I do? I spit out my mouthful of coffee, laughing.

He sat there while the light turned green, with this half-naked hot dog hanging from half a bun, covered with chili and bobbing up and down obscenely. I pointed and laughed some more, only harder. He cursed under his breath, rolled down the window and chucked the whole thing outside into the ditch. “Hey! That’s littering,” I scolded. “Who cares, the damn birds will eat it,” Jeff growled. (Really, he growled.) He took the one napkin they gave him and tried to wipe the chili off the wheel. I was near tears at this point. I couldn’t stop laughing.

Jeff turned the radio up to try to drown out my laughing. I was snorting and crying, I was laughing so hard. He glowered at me and stared ahead. When I’d been laughing five more minutes without stopping, I could see the sides of his mouth starting to crack. He was trying not to smile as he drove down the highway. I giggled. I wiped my eyes. I laughed and chuckled.

Finally, he cracked, but he didn’t want me to think that he thought it was funny too. As he started to fully grin, he looked sideways at me and said quietly as he chuckled himself, “bitch.”

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.