Jason and Eric are weird…
This is how some of us Barret cousins described our mysterious relatives with the same last name that we would see mainly around Christmas time. We would stare in wonderment at their nice matching clothes, and polite mannerisms. Maybe we branded them “wimps” when they refused to join us “country cousins” in our horseback racing games, or see how high we could jump out of the barn. Jason and Eric are “townies”, we would sometimes say. You see, as youngsters, we Ray cousins were a perilous lot. Coming back into the house with scrapes, concussions (in Jennifer’s case), the wind knocked out of us from falling off a horse, or a massive tangle of cockleburs in our hair begging a favorite aunt to cut them out for us, or have just been run over by grandpa, Jason and Eric always seemed to look on these escapades from a distance with an air of cautiousness.
Then I would hear stories from Jason and Eric’s cousin Jesse about the fun things they would do. I never quite understood how they identified with their mother’s more “low key” side of the family than ours. I mean we could offer inhaling snowmobile gas fumes while careening around the lake behind on downhill skis, or we could offer horseback races through dense woods while ducking branches at every turn, or perhaps we could offer sledding down a steep hill on a “polish snowmobile” ( which was a 45 lbs metal chair with sharp edges, attached to a pair of downhill skis) and for gods sakes, we had guns! What more could adolescent boy ask for?
Well, jump ahead to 1998. I had met the love of my life, Judy Follingstad, and had made my way from the edge of the earth, Fargo-Moorhead, to Minneapolis. Shortly after, I gained a new cousin: Jason Ray. You see, I am an only child, and my cousins were my siblings. I drew especially close to my cousins, as I yearned for the strength of relationships that I saw in my cousins relationships with their siblings. I was especially close to the Alvstads, Nate and Matt, and Jason and Eric’s cousin, Jesse.
When Jason and I began our young adult relationship, I felt I gained a new cousin. We first bonded over our mutual love.. of disc golf. All who knew Jason saw what this sport did to him. Not only did the fever I brought back from living in Missoula during our relationships interim, afflict Jason, but our entire family as well. As my dad said while throwing his first game at Blue Mountain in Montana “Hey! This is what all us old Hippies are meant to do!”, the game spread across Grant county Rays like small pox. Chipper soon had a course, my dads farm went through a series of courses, and suddenly cousins who weren’t all state basketball players, state champion wrestlers, or straight A students were suddenly coming off the disc course as champions among men. New bonds were forming..
Jon and Nathan and Matthew and I were back in the woods that we had scouted as boys, looking for Nazis or in some cases, Southern Rebs. Now, we get an adult version of Jason, we would have never expected. Jason- the athlete... Who was this kid, and where did that arm come from???? Jason??? The paperboy??? It was baffling. At first, I myself, Keith Peterson, Jon, or on rare occasions, our dads, came out on top of the rounds. Suddenly, Jason shows up and pretty much took the game over. It was then that it became a contest for second place.
At this new time in our lives, that I began wondering who this kid really was. It was then that our relationship really took a turn.. As we became closer, and Jason and his new girlfriend Colleen and my new girlfriend Judy, we noticed a lot of our time being spent with each other..
After the first couple of years down in Minneapolis, I grew to depend on Jason’s technical wizardry in my daily life.. He could always find out on line where to go or what to do, and when we were together, I just left the driving of our plans to him. He knew of all the courses, or whatever.
In recent years, Jason loved to get all of the cousins together. At concerts of my band, the Kung Fu Hippies, I would look out and see Jason with a string of cousins from both sides of his family. It wouldn’t be strange to see Nate and Tanya, Jason’s cousin Nick and Jenny, Janelle and Neal, and a gaggle of Colleen’s friends at our shows. He was a person that really enjoyed seeing people be together and laugh. He was so amazingly loyal.
One of our last concerts took place in Buffalo, MN. We thought nothing of doing any advertising, but the day before the show, Jason tells me he made homemade flyers and put them up all over Buffalo. I tried to imagine Jason in his Twins Jersey running from car to car and putting flyers on the windshield, someone yelling “Hey What are you doing??!!” and his explanation: “Well… ya see… its my cousins band… they’re like… I dunno… Rock… but not like 93X… kinda loud. I dunno. They’re pretty good… if ya like that sorta thing… Lotsa chicks n’ stuff will be there… Hey, wanna check out some roller blades?”
The bottom line was loyalty. And I took it for granted. Looking back now, I wish I would have appreciated it more. Wish I could have recognized how much he loved me and Judy. My daughter Gena said he was the favorite of all of my cousins. She was always very friendly and at ease with him, and he would always joke around with her and make her laugh. Sometimes, I wish I would have played the role of big brother instead of the younger brother.
In the last few years up until the winter on 2003, for a couple of those years, I became more reckless. It was then that Jason and my relationship became the strongest. He recognized the danger I was putting myself in, and it seemed as if he drew himself closer to me, and kept a better eye on me. I felt the urge to push him away at times as I knew he did not approve of my behavior. But still, I kept him around as I thought of what my mother said once. “I know that if Bradford is with Jason, he is safe,” and I knew he loved me and wanted to protect me from myself.
As we entered out thirties, we both would reflect on where our lives were going. Last summer, after I made some major life changes, I became very interested, or obsessed, with a new sport: kayaking. I had purchased two kayaks, and suddenly, Jason and my weekends went from driving from course to course in his fast food wrapper and bobble head filled minivan, to cruising from river to river in the same fast food wrapper and roller blade filled minivan.
Picture from Jay’s camera-phone of Brad Kayaking
Kayaking became our dual obsession. We loved the chances to be together doing sober and athletic things, and this new sport really gave us time to get deeply reacquainted and have long hours with nothing to do but talk. We would talk about Judy and Colleen, about the future, about the past, and about… Bobble head Dolls and Ebay… Target and the Dome… Espozito and Foreman… folf and french fries… you name it.
One thing we especially loved about this sport was that our dads were serious canoe paddlers, and if we acquired enough kayaks, what a fabulous day it would be to have a whole family kayak trip. “Well we have enough of them, don’t we?” he would chuckle. As of Saturday, between the tow of us we had eight.” Jason purchased five kayaks over the winter, and an RV to haul of them them, (and all of us) in!
Last summer, our first summer of many more planned seasons, we paddled the Mississippi from Monticello to Anoka. We paddled the Minnesota, the Minnehaha, the Rum river, Lake Calhoun, Elk Lake, Turtle Lake, Round Lake, Barrett Lake, and then we paddled Cannon River. The Cannon River from Cannon Falls to Red Wing. It was there that a major event took place: that was where we met Jassikay Cohen-Bruggeman, age two; A little girl who had drowned.
Picture from Jay’s camera-phone of paramedics trying to save Jassikay
She was with her parents on a canoe trip. They overturned in rapids and she was pinned under a tree and drowned. She was wearing a life jacket. When Jay and I got there (mile 18 of our 20 mile paddle). It was too late. The mother did not know CPR, but I did, as I am certified. Jason called 911, and directed the helicopter to the scene, but when they got there. It was too late.
The rest of the events, Jason and I went over and over all winter. We had both agreed that this was a life changing event. That we would never forget it. That safety was to be a priority, that life is fragile and precious, that we would always wear life jackets, that we would always carry cell phones, that we. . . the list goes on and on.
Then, this Spring, during the winter, which was heavily laden with movie and dinner engagements with Jason and Colleen, and incessant talk of what rivers we were going to do, it was decided on that this would be our whitewater summer.
Last Saturday was the day Jason and I were looking for. We had planned this trip for weeks. Now we were ready. Class II-III rapids, what we’ve been thinking about all winter. Now, we would experience real adrenaline, Jason’s favorite, and only used drugs. Jason was totally drug and alcohol free—never used once in his whole life, as (according to Eric) he stole a sip of his dads beer as a little boy and broke out in hives.
That Saturday, I saw that famous grin on Jason all day long as he swooped in and out of the swells, sailing around the exposed boulders, and pirouetting in the fast moving current and spinning in the eddies. His low muffled guffaw and downcast smirk “heh heh heh. That was pretty awesome, huh?”
It was so awesome, that we said, “Let’s go tomorrow.” I said, “Lets go tomorrow.” But it was so fun that we needed more. Needed more people; more loved ones to experience this fun. We decided it was danger free; If you fell out of your boat, you would be washed downstream to safety.
Jenny had never kayaked before, and Judy had never done rapids. This would be a perfect opportunity to get more whitewater under our belts. And to test the first of large group experience.
As I look back on that Sunday, I remember Jason’s wide grin. The prospect of his beloved cousin Jenny’s first trip. The prospect of Judy and Jenny screaming in glee as they went through the rapids. The fun we were going to have.
I don’t know if anything will be fun anymore. Jason, when I was with you, I felt you had become the ragtag Ray cousin in the woods. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, looking on with confused wariness at the recklessness of your hillbilly blood kin, you had embraced your roots. You felt invincible. You could swing from the rooftop of the barn. Now you could ride Queenie. Now you can crawl down into the duck blind with grandpa’s 1919 12 gage single shot. Now you could Jump 15 feet from the hayloft, or you were worthy to take a shot from a bb gun. You were no longer “breakable.”
Picture from Jay’s camera-phone
But you were breakable Jason. And now we are left broken, shattered, and drowned. My inside is filled with tears and we all feel dead inside.
Jason, wherever you are, I know that you’re smiling down on us, and happy to see that your favorite thing is happening. The people you love are all together. Your desire to bring family closer has been fulfilled. If you were here with us in Mind, Body, and Soul, and this was a wedding, or birth, or family disc golf contest, that your anecdotes, Ebay purchases, DiscStock plans, and funny stories would keep us all doubled over in laughter. But we’re now reeling in tears.
Jason, you are the keystone of our family. The connection of that gravel road we walked along so many times as kids from Gordon and Betty’s to Karen and Leslie’s was manifested in you and Eric.
Whenever I go home, and am walking in those woods, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for your bright yellow disc, sailing over the top of our heads, and going at least 30 yards further than any one of ours.
Jason, you’ll always come in first place with me, and you’ll always be our ace…