Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Guy Next Door

The other day would have been the 70th birthday of a man who lived next door to my family when I was a child.

I grew up outside the city limits, on a lakefront lot in what was then a sparsely developed area in central Arkansas. Many of the people who lived out there at that time had no one living directly next door — their closest neighbors might be half a mile away — but my family actually did have a neighbor.

Well, there was a house next door that we could see from our house. The identities of the neighbors changed from time to time.

For a few years, this fellow was the occupant — along with his wife and their children. He was a dentist, and he gave my parents good prices on dental work. As a result, most of my memories of him are of fluoride treatments, whirring drills, spitting and large, hairy hands reaching into my mouth.

(Well, there is another memory. He always had very voluptuous assistants in his dental office. I don't remember any of their names — but I do recall that they were far too shapely for a young boy entering adolescence.

(There is one occasion in particular that I remember vividly. I guess I was 12 at the time. A particularly well endowed assistant was poking around in my mouth, and her ample cleavage was — literally — inches from my eyes.

("My, you have active saliva glands," she remarked.)

As I say, we lived on lakefront lots. The lake was a manmade lake, and it attracted all sorts of activity in the warm months (of which there were many) — fishing, swimming, water skiing.

People from town often came out to the lake on weekends and during the summer. They would have picnics and wade into the water at the public beach. Some folks also brought their boats and went out fishing or water skiing — or whatever.

But the people who lived on the lake had no need for that. If you had a lakefront lot, you already had a private place to keep your boat, and you could go out in it whenever you wished.

My family kept a small fishing boat on the property; our neighbor owned a party barge that he used to entertain friends.

He may have owned a fishing boat, too. Whether he did or not, though, I know he enjoyed fishing. I don't remember how I became aware of that. Maybe I saw some fishing gear in his home. Maybe I observed him fishing from the shore.

I don't remember how long he and his family lived next door, either. A few years, maybe. But I know they moved away and someone else moved in to the house next door. And then someone else moved in. And then, a few years later, we finally moved out of the house in which I had lived since I was about 4 years old.

Well, to make a long story short, I don't recall hearing anything more about that ex–neighbor until about five years ago when I was looking at my hometown newspaper's website.

And there it was — a report that, following the conclusion of a church mission trip to South America, he and a colleague from Conway had joined eight other people in a fishing trip on a lake that is 100 miles long and 45 miles wide.

Apparently, he was semi–retired and had become very involved in mission work through his church. The fishing trip itself wouldn't have been especially noteworthy — except for the fact that the boat capsized. A pastor and his wife died, and their bodies were found fairly early. The six others survived.

But the two from Conway did not survive. For awhile, they clung to some kind of cooler with two of the pastor's sons, but at some point it became clear the cooler would not keep all four men afloat, and the dentist and his colleague pushed off from the cooler, one by one, and disappeared beneath the water.

"You need to live," they reportedly told their companions. "We're older and you need to live."

The story of how they died was greeted in my hometown with admiration for their heroism and sacrifice. The pastor of the church said the mission work probably would continue — although I don't know if it has.

And an annual golf tournament in my ex–neighbor's memory has been held for the last three years. It raises money for an interfaith clinic that provides medical and dental care for uninsured county residents.

Shortly after he died, the Arkansas State Dental Association established a humanitarian award in my ex–neighbor's name. The intention was to honor dentists who volunteered to serve abroad.

From what I can see, he has been honored and praised repeatedly in the last five years — and I suppose he, his widow and his sons are entitled.

And the last thing I would ever want to do is speak ill of the deceased.

But I can't help wondering something. Was his death really necessary?

As a child, whenever I went out in our fishing boat — or in someone else's boat — I always had to put on a life preserver. My memory is that everyone wore life preservers — I always thought it was some kind of law — and the accessibility of land was not a factor. The shoreline of the lake was always visible, no matter where you were, no matter what you were doing.

My ex–neighbor must have worn a life preserver when he lived next door and he took his party barge or a fishing boat out on the water.

Why wasn't he wearing a life preserver during an excursion on a lake that was 100 miles long and 45 miles wide?

No comments: