Sunday, December 27, 2015

Who Was Jim Ledbetter?

Jim loved little kids, although he never had any of his own. Photo taken in 2010.

   James Louis "Jim" Ledbetter was born on June 25th, 1943. His first wife, Jackie, would jokingly refer to him as "the Antichrist" since he was born exactly six months after Christmas.
   My mother and father were married in California in 1967, and they lived in an apartment complex in Oakland for several years. This is where my parents met 24-year-old Jim. "He was an attractive man. He had beautiful eyes," said my mother. "But he was kind of like a tangled mess." She said he had a good heart, but he wasn't much of a housekeeper. When Jim neglected to pay his utility bill and his electricity was subsequently shut off, he and my father ran an electrical cord from my parent's apartment to his so he could still cook dinner. When my father had to fly back to Alabama to temporarily help out his parents, my mother was left to fend for herself for a while. She said Jim would always check on her to see if she needed anything. 
   My parents moved to Alabama in 1976, and Jim and his new wife Jackie would come visit on their motorcycle. 

That's me with Jim at my parents' house in Alabama in 1979. 

   Jim and Jackie moved to Arkansas during the 90s, and my family and I stopped by to see them on our way to a family reunion. Jim was originally from Arkansas, and they had bought a very beautiful rock house with five bedrooms. They were living in Russellville, a charming little town on Lake Dardanelle. 
Jackie and Jim Ledbetter (and Mica the dog) in 1982.

   Jim told me that Russellville had a college and he invited me to come live with them for a summer. At the time I couldn't think of any reason to do that, but that is exactly what I did a few years later. I ran into personal tragedy in the late 90s, and I wanted to start over somewhere new. Jim and Jackie embraced me as their own child while I finished my bachelor's degree at the local university. When I graduated, they bought an airplane ticket for me so I could travel to Hawaii with Jim on one of his Merchant Marine cargo ship expeditions. "That's what you're supposed to do after you graduate from college," Jackie told me. "Go see the world."

   Jim and Jackie also hit rough times in the next few years, and they divorced. Jackie told me Jim should've seen it coming, although I don't think he did. He was hurt deeply by the divorce and referred to Jackie as "Blackheart" thereafter. 
   Jim and Jackie both married other people soon after their divorce. I don't think they ever spoke to each other again. This was difficult for me to understand, considering how important they both were to me. I think they had been married to each other for more than 30 years. 

   I went to graduate school in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Jim (along with my roommate Leslie) came to my graduation ceremony in May, 2005. He took us both out to lunch afterwards. That meant a great deal to me, since no other friends or family came to my ceremony.
   When I had to move back to Tennessee to stay with my parents, Jim hitched a trailer to his SUV and hauled most of my personal belongings back east across the Mississippi. He never even asked me for gas money, although I had none to give him. 
   Jim told me once that I was the closest thing he had to a kid. "And don't you forget it," he said to me. He said that twice. 

   Jim loved motorcycles and the biker culture. He said if you knew a biker, you would always have a place to stay. 
   He collected the type of antique fans with wide cages that could be very dangerous to stray fingers.

Jim said these fans were the best. 
   He loved the Prairie Home Companion radio program, his cigarettes, and he always, ALWAYS had a cup of coffee in his hand. He loved sourdough bread, red wine, Italian wedding cookies, and motorcycle magazines featuring scantily-clad women. In his free time, he rode his motorcycles and worked on his Greyhound bus.

   I asked Jim if I could temporarily store some of my belongings in his quonset hut garage. When he asked his second wife, she said, "No." I had met his second wife several times before. One of those times was the day of her wedding to Jim. I helped her put on her make-up, I drove them both to and from their ceremony, I was their ring-bearer and their photographer. Some people say that the day of the wedding is usually a woman's happiest day of marriage, but I have reason to believe that was also true for Jim Ledbetter's second marriage. I never saw them get along afterwards, and his second wife became increasingly jealous of me. She had me banned from the hospital when Jim fell ill, and YEARS later, in the months he was bed-ridden in his own house, I was not allowed to visit or speak to him. Jim passed away in his house in Dardanelle on December 20, 2015. 
   I let one of my closest friends read the two-sentence, online obituary posted for Jim. After reading it, she said, "it sounds like he didn't have any family." 
   Jim Ledbetter did have family. My father loved him like a brother. When he would talk about Jim, he would say, "Jim would give you the shirt off his back." When Jim would talk about my father, he would say, "Larry has an ego problem." My father knew I had concerns about Jim's second wife, and we spoke about this just a few days before my father passed away. "Ledbetter would call me if he needed my help," said my father. He said this twice, while wearing his hospital gown and with a nasal cannula strapped to his face. He was in no position to help anyone, but I couldn't say that to him. 
   Before Thanksgiving, while Jim was still here and alert, I sent him a card with a written thank-you for all of the major things he had done for me. I suspect Jim was never allowed to read that card. 
   I considered knocking on his front door, or knocking on his bedroom window. Maybe I could do something just to let him know I was trying to see him before it was too late to say good-bye and thank you. I did call his second wife to see if I could come over. She wouldn't talk to me long enough to even ask that question. 
   There is something to be learned from all of this: Be VERY careful who you marry. Your spouse will have total control over you and who is allowed to see you in the event you become disabled. 

   But who was Jim Ledbetter?

   Jim Ledbetter was a very kind man and a lifelong friend to my entire family. My sister imagines that Jim and our father are together drinking coffee somewhere, which is exactly how I would like to remember him. 

That's me with my Uncle Jim. This was our last picture together. 


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