I've been trying to figure out how to write this article for a few days. Call
it a cooling off period or whatever. It may hit home with a few of you, it
may offend a few of you, it may awaken a few of you, and it may alienate a few
of you to me. I've decided to write it in hopes that it will hit home or
awaken you. If it offends you, I'm sorry, in advance, but on the other hand,
I'm also sorry the incident took place which gave me the opportunity to write
about it. With that little disclaimer and warning, I'll move on.
Last week a guy I'll call 'Bob' drowned while fishing from his boat. I'd known
Bob since we bought our place ten years ago. Most of us referred to him as
"Beer Bob" to differentiate him from the other two Bob's who live in the area.
The moniker, "Beer Bob" was dubbed because of his fondness of beer. It was a
well known fact that he like his brew, from 6 A.M. until midnight, nearly
every day, he had one in his hand (and usually one or two in his back pockets
or coat pockets. I wouldn't really classify him as a "binge drinker" or a
"social drinker", he just drank beer instead of other liquids. His best
excuse was that his well had gone bad and he sure as heck wasn't going to
spend his retirement money buying bottled water or soda pop when he could buy
beer for the same price!
Bob had retired early a few years ago from his factory job so he could "enjoy
life, fish when I want to, relax, and drink beer." I'd gone to his 60th
birthday party last summer, a "double kegger," of course. Lots of people,
lots of food, lots of drinks. It started on Friday night and ended Sunday
afternoon. My wife and I only stayed an hour or so. His ex-wife, children and
grand children were all there along with his bar friends, and a lot of
neighbors. He was a well liked guy, a friendly drunk, never belligerent or
really offensive. He'd quit school after the 8th grade and joined the service
for a short while before being discharged for being "unfit for military duty."
Seems the Army liked their men sober when using fire arms even in those days.
He'd worked at a local factory for nearly 30 years, operating a machine all
day, every day. He'd never really done anything to improve his lot or his
education. He'd never traveled more than a 50 mile radius of home until last
winter when he got an invitation to come down to Texas and visit a few of the
local snow birds down there. It was also his first time on a airplane of
which his only real comment or complaint was that the beer they served you was
too darn expensive to get "properly relaxed" on.
When I first heard about the accident from a neighbor the details were still
pretty sketchy. The flat-bottomed boat had been found floating upside down
downstream from one of his favorite catfish holes. A little later someone
found his Lazy Boy caught up in a small snag. (Yes, he had put an old Lazy Boy
in his boat so he could catch a little shut eye between reeling in his
favorite fish - catfish.) He'd even mounted two rod racks and a twelve-pack
cooler on the sides of the chair so he wouldn't have to get up to reel the
fish in or get another beer out (which ever need came first). The rescue
divers found his body within 60 minutes, again caught up in the snag of downed
trees. They were hampered a bit by the fast current of the high waters of the
still rain swollen river. His body was taken to the county medical
examiner/coroner for an autopsy, required under the circumstances. Not surprisingly,
the report came back that he had been legally intoxicated when he drowned.
His alcohol blood level was nearly 2 1/2 times the legal limit. It was ruled
an accident. Somehow his boat had turned over or he'd fallen in the river and
drowned. No life preservers had been found (we all knew he didn't even own
any, much less carry one in the boat or wear one) so all of the circumstances
were basically assumed.
I hadn't planned on attending the funeral, as is my customary practice. I
prefer to remember a person, as they were when they were alive, not lying dead
in a casket. Again, this is my thing, not right or wrong, just a personal
quirk. One of my neighbors asked me to go with him and a couple of other
people to show that we cared. I should have declined but instead agreed to
go. The funeral was held at the funeral home since Bob had never been a
member of any church. The family had found a non-denominational minister to
speak on Bob's behalf to make it somewhat formal Christian burial. The
minister read from some notes the normal things about Bob following his
parents and other relatives past. His beloved family survivors and how he had
been "taken from them by the river" and the old "God works in mysterious ways"
line. At that point I excused myself from our group and went outside. After
the service everyone filed out of the funeral home, got into their cars and
headed for the cemetery. I told our group that I would rather stay by the car
than attend the graveside service. They could see I was upset over something
and left me alone. After the service a little "get together" or wake or
whatever you want to call it was being held at, where else, Bob's favorite
bar. I said I'd rather not attend but was out voted since it was "on the way
home" and "we'd just stay a little bit for appearance sake". After an hour of
listening to a lot of stories recalling Bob's exploits, most of which involved
drinking and fishing, we headed for home. On the way one of the guys asked if
I was feeling all right.
I said "No, I'm pretty upset about a lot of things right now, but I'm really not
ready to talk about it."
One of the others looked at me quizzically and said, "I didn't think you cared
that much for the guy, I guess I misjudged you."
I just looked at him and said, "No, you didn't misjudge me." It was quiet the rest
of the way home.
A few days later one of the guys came over to the house and asked if he could
talk to me about Bob and the funeral and the whole matter. I said sure, come
on in. He asked why I'd been so upset at the funeral and even more upset at
the wake afterwards. A whole lot of emotions, most of them negative, came
rumbling up from my gut and out of my mouth before I could even stop them.
Obviously, it was past time to get it all off my chest.
I looked at the big, six foot four, 250lb plus man and asked if he could
handle what I was about to say. He said, "Sure friend, that's why I came. We
all knew you needed someone and I volunteered."
So I dumped, I told him I was upset at the minister for blaming the river for
"taking Bob from his family and friends" because it didn't. He gave himself
to the river by being so drunk that he couldn't even swim, call for help or
help himself. He didn't have even the simplest of safety equipment on the
boat. His rocker made the boat so top heavy that it wasn't safe under normal
conditions, much less out there in the high water and heavy current. Yet,
people said it was the river that "took him". His family had all left him years
ago because of his drinking problem. He'd been forced to take early retirement
in lieu of termination because of his drinking problem. He'd been driving without a
license for the last three years because his drinking problem. All of us had
recognized the problem and had tried to persuade him to get help, but he
refused. Of course none of us had ever turned him into the authorities for
any of these infractions either. After all, you don't do that to a friend or
neighbor. Maybe if someone had the message would have gotten through to him,
maybe not. Regardless, at this point, we'll never know.
My neighbor was looking a little stunned and finally said, "It looks like to
me that you're feeling a little guilty."
I looked back at him, right in the eyes, and said, "Yes, I am, don't you?
Even a little bit?"
He said, "Well, we all tried to get Bob to change, to slow down the beer,
to get himself together, but he wouldn't listen. It was his decision, his life."
I just shook my head and quietly said, "No, it was his death."
So the question remains in my mind: Could I, or someone else, have prevented
his death by being an SOB and turning him in and forcing him to get some help?
I know there's a huge push for designated driving programs, but on the water
there are very few laws and even fewer people to enforce the laws. I know I
haven't seen an enforcement officer along our part of the river in 6 years. When I did
complain about the lack of enforcement the answer was the same as always, no
money allocated to hire additional staff and too few staff to cover the area
assigned. So maybe we could blame the state for Bob's death, after all, if an
officer would have seen him lounging in his "Lazy Boy Boat" with a twelve-pack
at his side I'm sure they would have towed him in and thrown him in jail! Of
course it would be easy to also blame his family for not having the guts to
have him committed to a rehabilitation program. But then a person has to want
to be rehabilitated in order for the program to work.
There is no one, real, answer here folks. No one person or system to blame
for the "accident." We're just left with a lot of questions, 'what ifs' and
another unnecessary death.
~ Randy Fratzke