Raley’s obituary deal finally comes to completion
I wrote this obituary for Bob Raley on New Year’s Eve of 2001 as my end of a business agreement. Raley agreed to lower the interest rate, by a quarter of a percent, on the sale of two lots at Nassau Commons for the Cape Gazette if I wrote his obituary before the end of 2001.
I’ve been living by deadlines for 40 years now, so of course I waited until the last day of 2001 to write this for Bob. There was nothing macabre or morbid about Bob’s request. He has always been a visionary and was simply looking ahead.
I was also honored to be with Bob, members of his family and a few other friends one summer day many years ago when Bob marched us up a hill on Mills Island in Chincoteague Bay to the highest point in Worcester County, Md. He carried a shovel and in a grove of cedars not far from a U.S. Geological Survey marker noting the 30-some feet altitude, Raley put a boot to the shovel and started digging a hole. “Take pictures Forney. I want people to know this is where I expect to be buried when I die.” I fired away and the picture is on a wall of the hunting lodge at Mills.
Raley approved this obituary, obviously incomplete at the time, and then lived another 12 years. Parts of this are conjecture based on what I knew of Bob’s intent. However, Bob’s family will be taking him out to Mills Island next week to honor his wishes. This was written as if the internment were already complete.
Bob was a good friend who helped me in many ways and taught me a lot. I sure will miss him. Here’s what I wrote as 2001 came to a close:
Bob Raley died this week. The sun dimmed slightly and the rpms of the world spinning on its axis slowed briefly. What a humble sign of respect for a man who spent most of his waking hours cultivating the sophisticated art of living.
After the undertaker worked painstakingly to remove the devilish smirk from the mouth of the dearly departed, family and friends traveled south from his home in Lewes to the boathouse at the public landing near Girdletree, Md. There, Raley, with the regularity of a decorated nightwatchman, for years made twice-weekly pilgrimages to his beloved Mills Island.
They boarded the tough and shallow-drafted Chincoteague-style scows that Raley always kept at the ready for trips by him and his entourage across Johnson Bay. There was an awkward moment in the old wooden structure that housed Raley’s personal launch before the boarding. His family and friends stared at the vessel as if they were looking at the trusted and seasoned warhorse of a veteran general. None knew quite what to do. There was no call for silence. It came naturally and purposefully, as the sun slipping quickly below the horizon in the west cues the stars to take up their positions in the night sky.
The noon sun of a warm spring day drew salt into the wind that blew off the ocean, beyond Chincoteague Bay and the green-fringed dunes to the east. All sniffed the air and one suggested draping a pair of hip boots backwards, over the gunnels of the vessel, and then towing the captainless vessel across the open waters to Mills. There was muffled chuckling and quiet shuffling of feet.
“Raley wouldn’t like that,” said another.
“What would Raley like?” said his wife, Sue. And the silence was broken.
“I’m sure he’s happy now,” she said. “Soon he’ll be buried up in those scraggly cedars on that God-forsaken island so damn far from everything. Cold as hell in the winter. Steamin’ hot in the summer and more mosquitoes than Carter’s has liver pills. One island next door named Tizzards and another island named Assacorkin. Helluva mess. That’s all I can say. But he loved it, and we promised him and that’s what we’re doing.”
Still they stood there looking at his boat. The problem was, Raley wasn’t there. What line should be pulled off first? How should it be tied onto the boat once it was brought in? Who should climb in first? There are lots of ways of doing everything, but in Raley’s world, it was best to do things Raley’s way.
The earth seemed to spin on balance when things were done Raley’s way. Oh, it might wobble now and then, but eventually the wobble would disappear and smooth efficient function would return. People argued occasionally but they also came to understand that argument was useless and, more importantly, if they simply went with Raley’s flow, things worked well.
Eventually Sue had enough of awkwardness and silence.
“John Hall - you run the boat and tell these people what to do. They’re standing around with their hands in their pockets like a bunch of people whose brains have turned to turnips. We’ve got to get that grave ready and I’m getting hungry. Let’s go.”
Then three boats headed for Mills for the long walk up the hill from the harbor to the house, and then up to the highest point in all of Worcester County, where Bob Raley’s remains would soon be laid to rest.
(The undertaker didn’t often open the eyes of the deceased when he prepared them for burial. In Raley’s case, he made an exception. “It’s amazing,” he thought. “Sue said he had lively blue eyes along with his blonde hair and he still has both.” He closed the lids and grabbed a comb to bring the dead man’s hair down just over his forehead. “They like to see them as they were in life and I try,” the undertaker muttered. “But there’s only so much I can do. I’m not God.”
He took one last look at his handiwork before he turned off the light and shut the door on the room where Raley lay serenely. “I’m not so sure about those worn-out blue jeans but the plaid shirt and the red suspenders look good. More people ought to be that natural. He’ll be comfortable in his next life.”)
Raley’s spirit hovered high over Mills as he watched the three scows motoring slowly eastward.
“What the hell’s wrong with them? They need to pour it on and get those boats up on plane. Get that good wind in their faces and make some time. To the island, to the island. Tie up the boats and get their feet on the island.”
From his vantage point, Raley could see far to the west, through the smog that hung over the industrialized western shore beyond Chesapeake Bay. Washington D.C., where he grew up in an urban environment, lay gray and teeming with people and traffic. He could feel the distance between the millions in the cities there and the land they inhabited. It was a distance that made no sense to him.
He turned his eyes back to the boats nearing Mills and asked the sun to turn up a few degrees so the occupants would feel the wonderful sensation of cool wind and warm light that he had so often enjoyed.
Raley worked so carefully with nature for so many decades that the wind and the sun were more than happy to honor the request.
He saw the people in the boats turn their faces to the sun and smile, and he joined them in their pleasure.
Raley loved his island, but he loved sharing it with others even more.
He loved people and interacting with them, sharing stories with them and teasing and helping. He honored those older than he and gave generously of his wisdom and resources to those younger. He loved sharing meals with people and working side by side to enjoy the sense of accomplishment.
As a businessman, Raley always put stock in his own abilities and never put a nickle into the companies traded on Wall Street.
“I can do better myself,” he would say. And he was fond of telling people the key to success: “Get up early, work hard and marry a rich woman.”
He went to school at the University of Maryland and majored in animal husbandry. That field of study endowed him with a lifelong love for animals and birds. But he also loved the inanimate and the beauty of nature as manifested in its trees, flowers, grasses, fruits and especially sunrises and sunsets.
Bob Raley went after life with his fingers on both triggers, always ready, always up.
For him life was an activity to be controlled, directed and enjoyed, right up to his burial.