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Part One Hundred-seven

Randy Fratzke

Panfish Chat- Host Wind Knot (substituting for Fritz Fratz)- Monday. 6-8 p.m. PST (9-11 EST)

In Memory Of . . .

By Randy Fratzke

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

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