Tribute to Uncle Jeff: Biker, Woodsman, Friend

A few months ago, I think I wrote about an upcoming trip I was taking with my crew of vintage Harley aficionados. An old school ride on Panheads and flatheads up to New York’s great Hudson Valley. My annual ritual ride home. One of our stops was to visit an old biker friend, Jeff, who has been in ill health and recently unable to pilot his Harley, for lack of strength. Uncle Jeff, as I sometimes called him, was a 60’s hippie, who lived a woodsman’s life on the banks of the grand Hudson River. His home, an Adirondack style ‘camp,’overlooks a natural inlet called Embought Bay, off the Hudson, formed a million years ago. With Lake Champlain 200 miles to the North and the Atlantic Ocean 100 miles to the South, a tidal basin forms 2 miles wide out Jeff’s kitchen window. A more beautiful spot on earth I cannot imagine. I have been there with him on frosty Fall mornings when Canadian geese populate the bay by the tens of thousands, waiting for first light to honk and flutter to the cornfields west. Excepting an unlucky few, they gorge there on corn and travel south for winter. A few 12 gauge blasts by Uncle Jeff provided a sumptuous game dinner on an open fire. Jeff’s favorite trick was to shoot from the comfort of his easy chair perched on the riverside deck and land the birds at his feet with a thump and tumble, much to the delight of all present. All the while, his Bird dog ‘Tina’ lazily watching Jeff save her the trip to the frozen waters below to fetch the game. Think Grizzly Adams with a Harley!!

This year, Jeff requested that me and my crew send personal mementos so he could make us “medicine bags” from deer hide he harvested last winter. The bags would give us “good medicine” as he said and were to be attached to our bikes to keep evil spirits away and get us down the road in the safety of whichever God you pick. Jeff was part Native American and firmly lived and believed in their sacred ways. We mailed the requested items – locks of kids’ hair, lucky coins, prayer scrolls, etc … months ago and were eagerly anticipating his bestowing them upon us, by the fireside, with cold beer in hand, on a moonlit night, bikes parked out back. With that Native American blood in his veins, Jeff lived the life we all wish we could. He was not concerned with wealth of monetary value. His wealth was family, friends and mother earth. His ‘camp’ was abundant with deer for meat, bees for honey, a few goats for milk, guinea hens for eggs, wild foul galore and of course, fish brought north by the Hudson. Heated by wood and cooled by wind, Jeff’s ‘camp’ did not have a television, nor Internet nor telephone. Free from the tangles of modern life, we convince ourselves we need. He woke with the sun and slept with the moon, no clock or calendar commanding his day. He rode when he wanted and in his younger years, was a skilled Master Craftsman. I worked for him 6 summers in a row, building Dutch style post and beam structures mostly for rich New York City clients. I often doubted if they really appreciated the art he created for them, building their ‘summer retreats’. His tattoos were black ink only, themed in nature and Native American motifs. Rolling Rock was the sole beverage permitted at camp, except for the thick black coffee he ‘percolated’ just before sunrise. Women rarely visited ‘the camp,’ though his two daughters routinely appeared to visit, dote, and clean house. It was a man’s place, just as sure to give you fond, rustic memories as a tick in your boot! The last time I was there, the road was impassable, with 7 feet of snow in the month of February. I dog sledded in beer, cigarettes, coffee and pretzels, the dog being myself. Impassable access 5 months of the year made it a retreat not for the faint of heart.

With childish anticipation, my crew and I talked of the coming trip and receiving our “medicine bags” from Jeff. One day to go, fresh oil and plugs, clean clothes lashed to bikes, then came the call. The day before our departure from Atlanta his friend Chris rang my cell. “He’s gone” was all he could say. “What? Who?” was my ignorant reply, in disbelief. Again, “he’s gone” was all Chris could muster under a broken tone, still at camp with Jeff’s body. 40 years of Lucky Strikes makes a young man old and an old man dead sooner than later. Not yet 60, my friend Jeff departed this earth on June 3rd, 2011, the day before our trip to see him. He left a note found by his kids, that requested a Viking style funeral. I arrived just in time to help load the raft with hard wood, black powder, flowers and Jeff himself. Despite the almost impassably muddy road, hundreds of mourners came down the docks at camp to place mementos in the raft one by one. Janis Joplin albums, Harley models, hiking sticks, pictures, personal notes, duck decoys and a cadre of brick-a-brack, heaped high with love and affection.

It all seems impossible in today’s modern age, but when you fly under the radar for so long and your only son grows up to be the Mayor, a Viking funeral is still possible. So with great sorrow, the pol bearers, myself included, floated the old duck hunting boat loaded with flammables off the shore of the bay in the chest deep water of the cool spring Hudson. We anchored it down to cheat the ebbing tide. Good bye’s were muttered, Levon Helm songs played, and many a tear was shed from tough old bikers and friends, myself included. All had great stories of Jeff’s life. Fond memories shared by the hundreds in attendance while a roaring fire crackled and hissed on the great river’s banks warming us. Guests arrived with turkeys and hams, salads and corn, liquor and beer, and the oddly intoxicating brownies arriving with unnamed hippie friends. 50 men brought shotguns giving a deafening salute across the bay at sundown. Weeping like children, we paid respect with buckshot over the bow of Jeff’s funeral pyre. Someone took a picture of me up to my neck in water in the waning daylight. The anchored raft draped with flowers, the Jolly Roger gracing her bow, mementos stained with tears, I could smell the gunpowder! Jeff lays below the flammables ready to ascend to the heavens. The ashes of his loving wife, Angela, predeceasing him by only 2 months, carefully sprinkled about by their only son, Vinny.

At a designated time soon after dark, his son waded to the raft, igniting the pyre which flickered at first then burst into a dazzling explosion hundreds of feet into the air, a roar erupting from the crowd. A cool bay wind fed the flames and the pyre roared, in a blazing metaphor for the life of the man himself. I have another picture from the bank showing a faint trail of fireworks tracing a line to the heavens. No great detail is visible, yet the picture offers a thousand stories. Jeff, ablaze in death as in life, lighting the night sky with his spirit. Who amongst us will expire in such beautiful grandeur? Fancy caskets, catered cold cuts, choking neck ties are the fate waiting us all. I have known many people in my years on this earth. None like him. I have been to many funerals, none like that.

The flames raged for 6 hours on the raft. By 5 a.m. they were a simple flicker low in the hull. At sunup the bay was flooded with light from the East and as if orchestrated, the waters of the great Hudson licked over the edge of the raft and consumed the flames, compelling the craft asunder, for all eternity. The party continued for two days and then most went about their lives as usual, yet with a void. Mine was filled with “good medicine,” tucked in a deer hide pouch. It hangs from my handlebars propelling me forward with love, hope, and memories. In my own consciousness of human existence, the events of those days are remembered by me as the finest hours of tribute I’ve ever witnessed. Rest in peace my friend, rest in peace.

Well, signing off for now. Ride strong, ride safe and in the end, make sure you ride home.

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