Sunday, April 12, 2015

The World Is Emptier Today

The world is emptier today.  The night before last, our friend, Brian, died. 

Apologies for the bluntness, but the usual euphemisms - moved on, passed away, went to the Great Fishing Grounds in the sky - all lessen the impact his sudden passing has had on everyone who knew him, including two of your other Drunk Rednecks, Mark and Keith.

Did I say "other Drunk Rednecks?"

Yes.  Although Brian would probably deny he had much of anything to do with anything on this site, he contributed more than he realized - especially on all of our articles on the watermen.  You see, Brian was born and raised as a waterman and lived his entire life as a waterman.  He would have been forty-five next month, but in his short life, he knew more about the Bay and what made it tick than any text book, college educated marine scientist, or bureaucrat in Annapolis could pretend to know.

Keith and I met Brian almost nine years ago when we bought a house and moved to this watermen country.  We were nervous about invading the last frontier of the Eastern Shore.  Eastern Shore's rural communities are close knit and notoriously mistrustful of outsiders.   I only hoped that as a native Eastern Shoreman myself (having grown up two counties away), our transition to our new home would be a little more smooth than if we were just two city dudes from the other side of the Bay.

Shortly after settling in, Keith and I began going to the only local bar in the area every Saturday night.  We didn't want to be the local hermits afraid to meet our new neighbors and we figured the bar would be a good place to start meeting them.  Brian was the first one to introduce himself.

Brian listening to good music and
celebrating with good friends
The second weekend we went to the bar, Brian walked over to our table and extended his hand in friendship.  Us feeling intimidated is an understatement.  Here was a stranger at least six feet tall with shoulders almost as wide as a standard door frame extending a hand that was as big or bigger than either one of our faces.
"Welcome to the neighborhood.  I'm Brian," he said with a genuine look in his eyes.

We shook his hand and introduced ourselves.  With the formalities over, he casually sat down as if we all had been friends since childhood. 

And that is how we became friends with Brian for the last nine years.

Brian walked a fine line between two vastly different generations.  A hard working, honest, simple man, he held those with more education and life experience in high regard, yet politely challenged them when their ideas didn't reflect his own life experience.  His clear expressions of duality between respecting the generation he grew up with and his generation that was becoming more and more flippant towards the older generations and towards those with more education and life experience was clearly drawn when he talked about something he knew better than he probably knew about himself - the Chesapeake Bay.

"What do I know?" he'd preface the start of a conversation.  "But I fished the Bay since I was ten-years-old.  I might be a dumb redneck, but I do know what I see out there on the water."

"What do you mean?" I'd ask, knowing he had something more to say than one could find in a text book or a study.

"The Bay works in cycles.  For a couple of years, you might have a boon in, say, blue fish.  Then all of a sudden they might disappear or become scarce for a couple of years - even five or ten years.  You might think they are gone, but they always come back when the conditions and their food supply are perfect, again."

"Maybe, Brian, but you can't deny the oysters are gone and the Bay is dying," I would prod more.

"Yeah, but everyone thinks it's our [watermen's] fault.  So they [Maryland state government] put all these regulations in place, but once you start saying 'You can't fish these,' you create an imbalance.  Our low crab harvests this year isn't because we caught too many last year.  It's because five or six years ago, they limited the rock fish harvests and now there's too many rock fish in the Bay eating up all the young crabs that should've matured for this year's harvest."

"That makes sense."

"Yeah, but the text books don't teach that.  We need text books that teaches the bureaucrats that the more they try to regulate nature, the more imbalances and problems they will create."

"So we should do away with fishing limits?"

"No, I'm not saying that.  You know, I don't have all the book knowledge to explain myself.  All I'm saying is the limits put in place this year need to be changed next year to try to maintain the natural balance.  These college educated kids, who never spent a day out on the water, don't understand how the water works and none of them will listen to us, who have spent all of our lives on the water every day of the year."

"What would you do to fix the Bay?"

"Get the Western Shore to clean up their act.  All the pollution killing the Bay grasses is coming from over there - not from our fields over here.  All the rich people with waterfront homes and nicely manicured lawns need to abide by the same fertilizer, pesticide, and building restraints we are expected to abide by.  Do you know how many Critical Bay Habitat violations I see along the water by rich people who can afford to pay off all those government people so they can get what they want?"

"Now you're sounding like a radical."

"But it's the truth.  When the government wants to protect the Bay, they come after us because we don't have a lot of money.  They really want to put us out of business through all these restrictions that won't allow us to make a decent living, and they restrict us because they don't want to give us...what?...severance pay or something?  Once they put us watermen out of business, they'll lease the Bay to big fish farming corporations.  They've already started the leasing process that none of us watermen can afford."

When I had that conversation with Brian, all I could think was here is a high school educated man who fished the Bay all his life, didn't own a computer to know the complexities of policies going on around him, and yet he saw the "big picture" of Bay politics as clearly as he understood the life cycles of the Bay.

But, as Brian would tell you, he was the dumb redneck no one paid attention to so he didn't have the conversation as recanted above often unless you took the time to get him talking.  I am grateful for the few times he opened up to me and spoke about what was important to him.

Usually, though, Brian simply enjoyed life.  Especially after our one and only bar closed down, Keith and I would go to his house on a Saturday night, drink beer, listen to music and play 500-rummy.  While the rest of us fought to get to 500, Brian was content getting to 500 in the opposite direction.  Of course, everyone at the table would tease him about getting all the negative points.

"Anyone can get to 500.  How many people do you know got to minus 500?" he once asked.

And he loved his music while playing.  Lynyrd Skyrnyrd was his favorite band in that anything Skynyrd sang was awesome.  But his musical tastes varied about as much as the life cycles of the Bay varied.  Anything from Beach Boys to AC DC sounded good to him.

He did, however, have a special fondness for the Kiss song, Beth.  We all met up at his house for a night of beer and 500-rummy.  He was already singing Beth when we showed up.  As we played cards, he'd sing the song as someone else changed the CD in the player. 

After a couple of renditions, I asked, "So who was this woman in your life named Beth who hurt you so much?"

Brian's girlfriend, Shana, echoed, "Yeah, Brian.  Who was Beth?"

"Nah, there was no Beth.  I just like the song."

As the night progressed and Brian fought his way to attain negative 500 points in the game while the rest of us fought for 500, he would sing the song during every lull in the music while a CD was being changed, but his audience was Keith.

"Ok, Brian.  If Beth isn't a woman you knew, why are you always singing the song to Keith?"

"Man, it's nothing like that," he responded very seriously.  "Keith likes the song and he's the only one who will listen to me without thinking I'm some kind of drunk or something."

That night, he came from way behind and ended up winning the game of 500-rummy, the only time I remember him winning the game.

Two months ago, I made a DVD of various songs and have been trying to coordinate a Saturday night to watch it with Brian.  As much as he loved Angus Young's guitar playing in an AC DC video he bought, I knew he would appreciate the live version of Led Zepplin's Dazed and Confused I included on my DVD.  If he thought Angus Young tired him out, I knew Jimmie Paige's tearing up a bow string on his guitar would leave Brian speechless.   As a back up, I also had AC DC's 1979 concert video featuring the original singer of AC DC.  If Brian thought Angus Young tired him out in the Thunderstruck concert, he would be exhausted watching Young performing when he was eleven years or more younger.

Last Saturday, Brian wasn't physically up to drinking beer and watching videos.  I understood.  It's that time of year where we experience all four seasons in one day and the ups and downs of the weather wreck havoc on one's health.  We made a go for the following Saturday.

So tonight, instead of sharing a beer and watching some awesome music videos, Keith and I are reminiscing about a good man and a good friend who left us two nights ago.   Well, Brian, we got some news for you.  You get a pass from Heaven next Saturday because Keith and I are watching that 1979 AC DC concert and following it with the DVD I made.  When we're switching DVDs, feel free to sing Beth to Keith.

For your listening pleasure, Brian

Posted by Five Drunk Rednecks


  1. I accidentally found this page. I know nothing about you or your great friend Brian. Your words are very special and your understanding of how he thought about the Bay is impressive. I hate that so many feel degrees are everything when they are not. Life experience is way more valuable and mentoring those who don't have the experience is so important to pass what is really relevant in our lives, for the short time we are here...

  2. Thank you for your kind words. Brian was a good man and understood the Bay more than any text book could explain. All he wanted to do was fish it and live a simple life off his modest earnings. He got to do that, only I don't think he got to do that as long as he would've wanted. But I'm sure he's smiling knowing my words touched a stranger enough to elicit a reply. He never would admit my words were his words. I know what he would say. "Yeah, I probably said something like that, but Mark is the wordsmith to make it sound better than it was. But thank you. Hey, you want another beer?"