Sittin by the dock of the bay

Watchin the tide roll away

The dock isn’t there anymore.

The one that extended out into the Broward River in the Berry’s backyard. Or was it the front yard? Some said old houses were designed such that they faced the river, which is certainly the way Patrick’s house always seemed to be.

Patrick and I – the same age – grew up from baby-hood together, and his sister Valerie and my brother Randy were both three years older than us. The four of us had many a river excursion that left from that dock. By canoe, sailboat, motorboat, whatever we had at the time. We’d try to catch crabs in little metal traps and then we’d poke holes in cat food cans and toss them in the river off the side of the dock by the marsh grass and wait 30 minutes or so. Then we’d cast the shrimp net out over that spot and haul in a netfull of fresh shrimp. I loved shrimp – boiled or fried or any other way– still do.

Last Thursday, May 16, I lost my older brother Randy. 59 years young.

So here I sit, on the bulkhead by the old dock of the bay that isn’t there anymore, just a few remaining slowly rotting dock posts.

But the marsh grass is still there, and I imagine the shrimp and the crabs are there too. I can see the mullet jump and the crab boat out on the river pulling up their traps in the morning high tide. And in my mind’s eye the boxcar red dock that extends out beyond the marshgrass, with the unsteady floating dock on the end is right there in front of me.

And my brother is there too, shrimping, crabbing, or piling into our old wooden canoe – Chief Leak-a-lot. We’re going out on the river and hope we get back before to the tide goes out too far turning this back bay of the Broward River into an expansive mudflat that we have to slog the canoe across.

My older brother Randy was the daring one, living life on edge. He took the chances so I could learn how ridiculous they were. And learn I did. I remember laying down on the quiet road in front of our house, right beside the jump ramp he set up so he could jump his bicycle over me, Evil Knievel-style.  “Be sure and lay still and don’t you try to move at the last minute!” Our version of a trust fall.

One old photo captures it: On an old rickety bicycle, high in the air over our Uncle Tom’s pool in his backyard north of Pittsburgh, arms extended upward (nowhere near the handlebars), having just tore down the hill beside the pool gaining maximum steam, up the cheap plywood jump ramp they set up beside the pool and off into the air high above the pool. Eyes wide, ridiculous smile. Why does a brother ride an old bicycle off a jump ramp into a pool? Because it’s there, of course.

He and my Dad were the classic fix-it guys (I got none of those genes). He was always fixing our bicycles when we were young, then came the motorcycles, then came the arm in the cast after whacking an unforgiving live oak on his Yamaha 350.

Then came the cars; first was the Gremlin. Then came the Gremlin wrapped around an unforgiving live oak at 1 am on old road not from here. The car was totaled, so he walked back home. Such have been the fortunes of my brother.

Then came the Sea Ray ski boat. On our first trip to meet my family, he tried to teach my wife Carol to ski. She’s a pretty good snow skier, so we thought she had a shot. She ended up with two deeply black bruised thighs from the ski rope handle that persisted for weeks. Then came the two sons and the family years and the monster camper and trips out to Hanna Park to body surf the Atlantic Ocean waves, the way our Dad taught us. He’d teach his sons the way.

Then came the diagnosis: at age 43, after 20-plus years of hard factory work and cigarettes, the doctor said he’d had at least seven heart attacks and two chambers of his heart were dead. By all appearances, the doctor said, there was no reason he should even be alive. Such have been the fortunes of my brother. At that point most of us assumed he didn’t have long. He was to teach us the way.

He left his job, quit smoking, and went on permanent disability. Despite having half a heart, he bought a bigger camper with a big chunk of his pension, travelled, started taking cruises to the Bahamas and Mexico, while touring the amusement parks of the Southeast riding every roller coaster he could find. He loved history so he and his boys got involved in Civil War re-enactments (a big thing down South). He was in demand because he’d play a Yankee since he was born in Pennsylvania. He’d dress in wool and die over and again in hot summer Civil War battlefields.

He never did slow down, despite having only half a heart, severe breathing trouble, weekly daylong visits to the hospital for treatments, adult onset diabetes, and severe kidney problems and several seemingly serious brushes with death, not counting the ones on Civil War battlefields.

He continued to paint cars and fix cars, working tirelessly with his two sons. Most recently, up to last week, he was cutting, sawing, screwing, hammering and drywalling, helping Randy Jr. fix up and restore the double-wide he recently purchased. He got to see his four beautiful young grandchildren start their lives and he was always there for them.

He never lost his smile, his patience, his lust-for-life demeanor. His fascination with history, his hunger for an amazing variety of experiences. He and his wife Tammy were planning their Cross-Canada Railway trip-of-a-lifetime that he’d always wanted to do, not knowing how he’d come up with the 5 grand for the ticket. He loved trains and mountains and that’s what he wanted to do and that’s all that mattered.

I could always call and he’d always pick up, right there where we left off, talking cars, music, sharing laughs and memories. His memory has always been top notch; mine, not so much.

I’m sitting by the dock of the bay as the tide rolls away. But the old dock is gone now, nothing but rotting dock posts extending out over the marsh grass. Patrick’s mom is gone as is my Dad, and Valerie passed a few years back too. And last Thursday: Randy.

Like that dock, sometimes it seems like the past is rapidly disappearing in front of me. But I have my grandson now and Randy has his sons and grandchildren. He lives on through them. The river is still right there filled with shrimp and crabs. My daughter Abbey and I paddled the river this afternoon where the four of us once explored.

In the end, over the past 17 years that he – and we – have been blessed with, Randy got more – and gave more – from his half a heart than many people do with all their heart.

I sit by the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away and I think, RIP Randy, as unlikely as that seems.

Randolph David Hays. B. 9/25/1959, d. 5/16/2019

Appeared as Rivers and Roads, Mahomet Citizen, by Scott Hays, May 23, 2019


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