By Bill Stork, DVM
Tom excused himself to deliver a Natural Light to the gentleman curiously sporting a navy blue blazer and wingtips, playing machines in the corner. Eight notes from an acoustic guitar reverberated through the crowd scattered in small groups around high tops, pool tables, and bar stools in the repurposed pharmacy where I met my cousin for our annual Thanksgiving reconnect.
By the time, “The preacher man says it’s the end of time, and the Mississippi River is a goin’ dry,” every head and shoulders in the Bourbon Barrel rocked, barely perceptibly, on the plodding bass line. Like so many redneck ventriloquists, lips didn’t move, but by the time “we say grace, and we say ma'am,” the cavernous cinderblock room hummed in the harmony of solidarity.
I sat inexplicably slack-jawed and numb. Careful not to look down, or else have to explain the tear that rested in my left eyelid.
It was the last act of a day that began dressed in Helly Hansen rain gear, belly down, shoulder-deep in wheat straw, wedged between a concrete wall and the prolapsed uterus of a Holstein. 21 hours, 270 miles, a gallon of coffee and two pale ales ago. It was little surprise, then, that at 8:00AM Thanksgiving morning, as I struggled to focus on the Decatur Herald, “they came from the West Virginia coal mines and the Rocky Mountains…” echoed through my head. In short order and a half cup of Folger’s from a Lakeview High School mug, Hank Jr. would fade to silent.
What I could not shake, having nothing to do with turkey and pie, was a ten-pound tug at the root of my mesentery.
We stopped at the cemetery to say an Our Father and Hail Mary at the foot of my mother’s grave, and headed north. As the sun set over Lake Decatur, we crossed Lost Bridge, and Bocephus was back: “I had a friend from New York City, he never called me by my name, just hillbilly.”
In a flash it was 1983 all over again. Six-pound monofilament line on an ultra-light Zebco, I was sitting second stump to the President and Founder of the Decatur Carp Club, Doug Quintenz.
Last night’s tear was back; I made no attempt to hold it in.
Doug Quintenz, "Q", was well over six feet tall, with long blond hair and some variation of a goatee. Trade his Nikes for sandals, flannel for a white robe and his Red Man fishin’ hat for a crown of thorns, and he’d be a dead ringer for Jesus Christ himself. That said, in the traditional sense, a saint Doug was not. To this day, I have no clue what inspired my parents to allow me to hang out with Doug.
Q was the “Master Baiter”, to whose skill I aspired when we met at Dave’s Tackle Box, on the corner of Nelson Park, across from the first Dairy Queen in the world to dump old candy into a cup of ice cream and blend it. He was an all-state linebacker at St. Theresa High School, farm boy strong, fearless and fleet of foot. One afternoon a young boy short on allowance money and bluegill decided to help himself to a new rod and reel. To be sporting, Q gave him a head start the width of the parking lot and took a sip of his RC cola, before launching. In minutes, he returned with the 6th grader kicking, crying and apologizing, begging us not to call the cops or tell his mom.
The Decatur Carp Club was a sporting and conservation-minded organization with an emphasis on education. Specifically, we fished, and picked up after ourselves and others. In times between bites and battle with the fish, we would expound on the world as it was said to be, particularly if it pertained to pick-up trucks and girls. We met regularly on the shores of Lake Decatur and around farm ponds on summer evenings, after the Tackle Box closed. We had a Mission Statement, firmly enforced, and an elected set of officers. What the meetings of DCC were lacking in Parliamentary Procedure, we more than made up in chewing tobacco and Budweiser.
After graduating high school, Q’s attempt at higher education turned out to be brief. Regardless of his ability to crunch running backs and sack quarterbacks, administrators in the eighties had minimal tolerance for student athletes driving their cars through women’s dorms. Shortly after the second such incident, he was unceremoniously asked to leave.
Back home, he floundered like a carp on land. A brighter man has never been born. Regrettably, common sense doesn’t impress an officer asking you to walk a straight line and touch your nose.
If it is true that “no man stands so tall, as when he stoops to help a child,” then Q was 10 feet 2. He had fists that would lay a man stone cold for disrespecting a woman he had never met, and hands that would cradle a baby, kitten or pup. It was of little surprise to those who loved him that a revelation came, the day he learned he was to be a father.
Saturday night bar stools became Sunday morning church pews. He put down the beer cans and picked up hammer, pliers and #16 wire to build fence for his wife’s horse and daughter’s pony. Each morning his family joined hands to give thanks for the eggs harvested from the coop out back.
When I last visited, we laughed as he and his son counted trips to the emergency room. Cuts and bruises were the inevitable consequences of being related to his father. I spoke with his wife as Q read bedtime stories, without mention of the past. As I left, he hugged me, blessed me, and told me that he loved me.
It had been a decade between visits with Doug. His wife left him, and before his son would graduate high school, too many years of smoking and sedentary living ended his life before he was 50. I will never forget his wisdom, “Willy, everything I own is for sale, just name a price,” or “I’m in no shape to start exercising now.”
I am obligated to teach my kids to never judge a man with a cigarette on his lips. To live in the hearts of those we leave behind, is not to die. I knew “Q”, and a country boy can survive.