We had moved to a rural area in South Florida. There were only a few homes in our neighborhood, surrounded by acres of farm land, mostly growing tomatoes, a potato-like vegetable called Yucca, as well as a host of tropical fruits. It was definitely quiet at night, a peaceful place to spend my teenage years.
My dad had made a deal with the owner of the land next to our home. He would allow us to consume as many of the vegetables on his property as we wanted, as long as we watched for anybody trying to steal his crops. It was a good deal, and it saved us quite a bit of money, even if we did get tired of eating Yucca after a while. My dad would send my brothers and I over to grab some Yuca whenever they were ready to pick.
One of our other neighbors was a family that had lived in the same home for a very long time. Jesse had been a World War II tail gunner, who now worked at a local vocational school teaching air conditioning repair. If you asked him where he came from, he would tell you he was half Cherokee Indian, half Redneck. They didn’t make them like Jesse anymore. His life is the stuff of legends, shooting down Nazi’s in the war, then becoming a race car driver, before settling down in South Florida. I would love to listen to Jesse tell stories of his past with my dad, and he was always ready with a one-liner to sum up his philosophy on any subject.
“Don’t do as I do, do as I say do!”
That one was one of my favorites. He told me that one when he was “teaching” me how to play Golf. He would show me how to set up, how to address the ball, how to swing. Then he would demonstrate, and the ball would go a few feet forward, without ever getting off the ground. I suppose this was his way of showing me how truly difficult the game of Golf was. It was always hard to hold in my laughter, wanting to have respect for someone I considered truly worthy of it.
So one night, my dad and uncle were watching TV, when the dogs started barking. We had four of them, and they were excellent watch dogs. My dad goes to the window, and suspects someone is in the fields next door, since the dogs are simply going nuts, barking and jumping on the fence next to the fields. He remembers his deal with our neighbor, and calls out to my uncle.
“Let’s go check it out.”
They go outside and release the dogs. The dogs immediately dart off into the fields in search of their prey. Shotgun in hand, my dad goes in after them, my uncle quickly following. After some minutes in the fields, my dad hears some rustling up ahead. The dogs are there, but they are quiet now, having found what they were looking for. My uncle turns on his flashlight, and shines it up ahead, eager to see what has been causing such a raucous.
There is Jesse, standing in the fields, shotgun in hand, naked as the day he was born.
“Yeah it’s me. Must of been kids. They’re gone now.”
It was common for some of the neighborhood kids to hang out in the fields. Sometimes they were having innocent fun, but sometimes it was just a good place to go get high. The unfortunate side of living in the country is that there really wasn’t a great deal of entertainment, and kids sometimes escaped their reality with the help of Marijuana. What was not common, however, was to find a grown man standing in a field naked, holding a shotgun.
“Jesse? Why are you naked?”
“Well…” answered Jesse.
“Didn’t want to read in the paper tomorrow that a man got shot putting on his pants!”
That was Jesse. He was never at a loss for words.
“Wanna come in for coffee?” Jesse asked.
My dad and uncle looked at each other, each with the same thought in their heads.
“No thanks.” they answered, almost in unison.
“It’s late, goodnight Jesse.”
Jesse passed away some time ago. He was one of those people I look back on and thank God I had the pleasure of meeting. He was a simple man. You always knew where he stood. There were no surprises with Jesse. He was also someone who would stand by you through thick and thin if he considered you a friend.
Jesse had one catch phrase that summed him up perfectly. Jesse’s house faced the back of our home. Jesse refused to walk around to the front of our home. Shortly after we moved in, Jesse mowed a path to a spot in our back fence. Then he cut open our fence, and built a door, so he could walk directly from his house to our house. His reasoning?
“Friends don’t walk in through the front door.”
Words to live by.
After writing this post, I found a website that shows Jesse’s racing history in the Bahamas. Click here to see it.