Giving Thanks for Final Wishes

Memories from a Canoe Trip Down the James River

    icon Oct 29, 2021
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When my father turned 80 years old back in 2003, my sister and I pulled off a surprise for the ages, throwing a “This Is Your Life” birthday party in his honor at the Bay City Coffee Company.

We invited people from his three-plus-decade career at Dow Corning (a handful of colleagues we knew he would actually want to see) as well as neighbors, sailing buddies, and friends from Terry & Jerry’s O Sole Mio, where he would moonlight as a singer and maître d’ during and after his Dow Corning years.

Also included on the guest list were some of our friends, upon whom he had made an indelible impression with his unconventional interests, cajoling banter, and all-around atypical manner. Our dad was cut from a different cloth than most dads. We took that fact for granted, sometimes feeling compelled to apologize for it. But once in a while, a friend would remark on the shiitake mushroom log growing in the living room, or the pot of oxtail soup (not chicken noodle) on the stove, or coconut macaroons (not chocolate chip cookies) in the baking tin, and the true idiomatic nature of the father we had inherited would snap into focus.

Dad’s quirks didn’t mellow with age; they became more modern and diversified.

He celebrated his 70th year by getting his left ear pierced with a jade earring and learning to rollerblade.  He was a welcome presence at the various piano bars around town, where he would croon Bennett and Sinatra while rubbing shoulders with the likes of Lefty Sutter, Bob Woody, Tony Rongo, and Bryant Brewer.

I spent the month before the party feverishly putting the finishing touches on “I Kid You Not: The Bob Dean Story,” a loving operetta opus that celebrated, in song, the unique flavor of Bob’s character: the Royal manual typewriter from his college days that he brought out of retirement to compose letters he would send with regularity; Chico the beloved Siamese cat; Brother Jack, his pool shark Michigan State trooper sibling -- even the aforementioned mushroom log received a musical tribute. I produced a companion slide show, with classic images such as Retired Bob posing austerely in his fighter pilot cap and bikini briefs in the driveway, casually leaning against the 1952 MG replica car (in British racing green) that he had built from a VW chassis.

Robert Gregory Dean passed away September 18, 2011, at the age of 87. A broken hip after a fall in his backyard a month earlier led to a rapid decline, but my sister and I were thankful to be by his side in the Nautical Room at Brian’s House when he took his final breath. We had just put on a recording of one of his favorite musicals, the under-appreciated Celebration by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, the playwright team responsible for The Fantasticks.

“Some people say that today is the day

When the wind will rise and blow the world away;

And it may be so, I just don’t know;

All I know is up until we have to go,

I want to celebrate!

I want to make a celebration!

I want to celebrate!

Savor each sensation!”

At the beginning of the second verse, our world paused as we realized Dad had crossed the threshold into eternal peace.

Gephart Funeral Home provided cremation services, and the remains went back to my sister’s home in Tennessee until we could arrange a trip to fulfill our father’s final wishes: for his ashes to be scattered into the James River near his birthplace of Bedford, Virginia. Bob spent the first 8 years of his life in Bedford, until his father’s untimely death set the family in motion for Michigan, where some relatives were already residing.

Bob worked on the Great Lakes ore carriers before entering the military; as fate would have it, the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, signaling U.S. entrance into WWII, less than 2 weeks after his 18th birthday. He would serve with the 20th Air Force and was stationed in the South Pacific, though he was luckily spared involvement in any direct hostilities. Many enlistees from his hometown were not so lucky.

The Bedford Boys,” a book by Alex Kershaw published in 2001, highlights the great sacrifice of those who participated in the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, a pivotal operation that would eventually turn the tide of the war to the advantage of the Allies. Nineteen young men from Bedford – population 3,200 – lost their lives on that day as part of the first wave of American soldiers to hit the beaches in Normandy, France. It was the greatest loss of human life, per capita, experienced by any American city or town during WWII.

Had Bob not left Bedford for Bay City all those years ago, it’s possible that he could have been in the 29th Infantry Division from Bedford that suffered that devastating loss of life.

The sacrifice of these 19 soldiers is memorialized at the National D-Day Memorial, a sprawling national monument at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains that covers more than 50 acres. Dedicated by President George W. Bush on June 6, 2001, at the Memorial’s center stands a 54-foot-tall arch emblazoned with “Overlord,” the name given to the crucial operation. At the base of the arch is a reflecting pool that surrounds a chaotic scene depicting the arduous trek of soldiers spilling out from boats onto the blood-stained beaches, punctuated with jets of water simulating explosions.

Over the years, the Memorial has expanded with different installations, dedicated on subsequent anniversaries such as June 6, December 7, Memorial Day, and Veteran’s Day. Though we had not put this visit on our itinerary, we stopped out of curiosity and ended up staying well over an hour, taking in the powerful sculptures and soaking up historic details.

We made our Virginia trip just after the 10-year anniversary of Bob’s death. We didn’t plan to wait that long, but life intervened until schedules finally aligned. We stayed at the Hotel Roanoke, a stately spread where Bob’s parents used to stay when they would come to town for special events. Built in 1882, the hotel has retained its yesteryear charm while keeping up with the times. 

My sister brought along Bob’s journal, which included a few initial entries from the early 1950s and a long gap before picking up again in the 1990s. It was fascinating to read the entries from his early 30s when he was making life decisions that would shape his future. The later entries were intended for posterity; memories that would inevitably fade away if not committed to paper. Those were recollections of his youth.

Though we weren’t able to locate the site of the family home (a modest wood structure once located on RFD #3), we did drive past the Peaks of Otter, which Bob remembered being able to see from his bedroom window.

About 30 miles north of Bedford is the Natural Bridge, a 215-foot-tall geological formation that was once surveyed by George Washington, as evidenced by a carving of his initials in the limestone (still visible, if you know where to look).

The James River is the longest river in Virginia. It begins in the Appalachian Mountains and winds its way 348 miles to Chesapeake Bay. It does not, however, pass through the town of Bedford. Thus, we needed to find a suitable stretch of river for (re)introducing Bob into the wild, while obeying applicable laws (i.e., don’t attract attention).

Between the Natural Bridge and Bedford, we stopped in Buchanan – a small town through which the James River did flow – and we decided to have a look around. A suspension bridge just off the main drag, originally built in the 1850s, caught our attention. According to a nearby sign, the bridge had been burned by Confederate soldiers to stall the advance of the Union during the Civil War, but had been repaired and maintained over the years, enhancing its rustic sturdiness.

There happened to be a canoe livery by the suspension bridge, and suddenly our purpose was clear. We would rent a canoe the next afternoon and float down the James River, releasing scoops of Bob into the depths along the way.

Our itinerary set for the next day, we chose a picnic table by the river and decided to have a bite to eat. In addition to our luncheon spread, we set up a makeshift ceremonial tableau, with Bob’s journal, a couple of his elementary school reading books, his wallet, two shot glasses, some appropriate music, and a fifth of Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select whiskey for ceremonial sipping shots. It was a beautiful afternoon spent reading entries from the journal, quaffing premium whiskey, and waiting for foot traffic on the suspension bridge to subside long enough for us to walk to the middle and release a couple preliminary scoops of our father into the James River below.

Dad would have been proud of our stealth.

The following day, we returned for our canoe trip, which we envisioned as a leisurely float over the placid waters of a lazy river. We showed up for our orientation along with five other thrill seekers in bathing suits, all of whom were opting for the solo kayak experience. As the lone canoers, we paid close attention as instructions were given on how to navigate through the three areas of rapids.

Then we were given a small waterproof container for cell phones, wallets, and valuables as well as a larger vinyl-plastic bag for oversized items. Evidently, the forecast included a chance of getting soaked. Since we were bringing a few additional items, the large bag came in handy. However -- we were not planning on whitewater rafting, and I found myself battling visions of waterlogged ashes and Jack Daniels overboard.

Fortunately, once on the river, our canoe “legs” kicked in. We traversed each set of modest rapids, encountered during the 20 minutes of our journey. The remainder of our excursion was a peaceful float through the afternoon: counting the turtles sunning on logs, taking turns releasing scoops into the water, and seeing who was more proficient at the “silent paddle.”

The silent paddle was Bob’s preferred technique for moving through the water in a vessel. When we went camping (usually to the Upper Peninsula, enroute to see brother Jack in Marquette), we would bring the canoe. If we found a remote lake or pond to explore, our goal was to see who could be “as silent as an [American] Indian” when paddling. That meant not banging the side of the boat with the oar when bringing it forward or when finishing a stroke. It also meant smooth, gliding strokes, to avoid the discernable gurgling swirls of water that resulted from strokes that were overly strenuous. Finally, to properly execute the silent paddle, one must minimize the droplets of water falling from the oar into the water below when bringing the paddle out of the water. It was a precise method, yet not difficult to master with a little concentration. Naturally, normal talking was discouraged when silent paddling. Lower-register whispers were preferred.

For a man who appreciated the art of blending in with nature, Bob’s return to the environment was apropos. It was the trip of a lifetime, and I was happy, and honored, to go along for the ride.


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