He came into our lives at the start of our high school adventure. Fairly tall, very fair haired and skinned, reasonably athletic, highly intelligent and quiet. His mother, newly a single mom, and sister had moved into our town. She was a Woods - an extremely large and close family based out of Kalvesta - the small farming community just to the north of our farm. So, I was on very close terms with a lot of his cousins. He came highly recommended.
As a new kid, he was shy at first, but as we all discovered, he did like to have fun and to participate in his area of interests. Band, basketball and track figured into his extracurricular school activities. Family was always important - even at such a young age, he was the man of the house for his mother and sister. His family background included the Nazarene Church, and he was also very active in their youth groups.
We became fast friends, he and I, plus he had many others as well. Jeff never did belong to just one clique, identifying that narrowly was not his style. He was a geek, a jock, a popular guy, and a Christian without letting any of those descriptors overwhelm his personality. Laid back, he never seemed to get too excited about issues that had the rest of us chasing our tails. "Don't sweat the small stuff." While he was blessed with common sense, he was just as likely to end up in some sort of shady hijinks as the rest of us. Nothing serious, because he didn't want to shame his Mother. He was really stung if he crossed that threshold, and avoided that at all costs. After all, she expected better of him.
He also started going out with Margaret. She was a member of a large Catholic family - many aunts, uncles and cousins. Her immediate family only included her parents and sisters. By definition, I became friends with "Maggie," though I've always called her Margaret. She was a very good match - equally laid back and dedicated to her family and friends, she ended up grounding Jeff for many years. She always felt she wasn't as intelligent as her husband to be, but he blew that off. That was the sort of thinking that upset Jeff - because destroying one's self wasn't something one did. Her unerring abilities to keep goals, morals, common sense, family ties, and intelligence (she IS smart) and yet to enjoy life as well fit Jeff quite well.
With this relationship in mind, Jeff decided to start college at St. Mary of the Plains in Dodge City. He would start college there while Margaret was a senior back at the high school, then she'd go to Dodge City Community College. They would then transfer to Kansas State. Jeff was studying to be a mechanical engineer. I was in pre-med, and had a scholarship there, so we decided to be roommates in the men's dorm.
|High School Graduation 1977 - check out all that hair!|
And we had fun. There were two bars within shouting distance that had "drown nights." Wednesday night - The Armor Room, two dollar cover. Friday - The Opera House, three dollar cover with a live band. One economically fueled night after one of those particular bars closed, we found ourselves bored and not ready to go "home." As gearheads, we were always interested in looking at the offerings that the local car dealers had on their lots. Hey, after midnight, we could look without having some pesky salesman bother us. We weren't going to be buying, we were just looking.
We ended up at the local Ford dealer. Skaggs Motors. Owned by Milton J. Skaggs, but J. Milton Skaggs the son was pretty much running things by then. This was important later.
One of our fellow Cavalier classmates worked there part time as a detailer and all around lot boy. His room sported one of their promo tags that went on every front car bumper. As we were concluding perusing the Skaggs collection, it occurred to us that we could quite easily blow his little wall art clean away by helping ourselves to several of the selection before us.
Quarters in hand, we loosened the tag screws and between us collected six tags. That would be enough, we thought. As we were walking back to Jeff's car***, we both noticed one of Dodge City's finest walking in the car lot about a hundred yards off talking into his portable radio. This was not a good sign.
Jeff headed east to a N/S street and hung a left. We could see several police cars to our right coming off Wyatt Earp Boulevard and they fell in behind us. We met another police car. As we went further north to the next cross street, we could see the intersection ahead had cars waiting for us to pass. I had my window open, ready to dump the tags. Jeff was watching his mirrors. There were and still are cross drains on that street, and Jeff hit one a tad faster than he should have. His fan shroud loosened and the fan started rubbing, which only added to the ambience of the moment. Get ready - now! No! Not now, just a minute! Okay, Now! NO! NO!
It was too late. The night exploded into red lights. We pulled over, and when instructed, did as we were told. I handed over our illicit gains from our crime spree to the first officer, and even dug into my pocket for some screws. Of course they searched the car. Did we steal the quilt in the back seat? How about the timing chain in the trunk? The lack of logic involved in those accusations really got under Jeff's skin. Yeah, right, homemade quilts are standard with new cars these days, and yeah, we really had the time to disassemble the front end of a car, remove the fan, water pump and front cover to steal a used timing chain.
We were not arrested, but told to go back to our dorm. The officer in charge told us it would be a very good idea if we presented ourselves to one of the Skaggs family to beg them not to press charges. Of course we did - bright, early, tired and a tad hungover, we were there. We got there before J. Milt did, and he had meetings. He ushered us into his office, and started talking. If we wanted promo tags, all we had to do was ask. Next time we closed out a bar, go home to stay out of trouble. Probably a good thing we didn't have to talk to his father, he'd have thrown the book at us. He really didn't appreciate being awakened at two or three am for crap like that. We were appropriately sorry, and went back to the dorm and slept the rest of the day.
We had made a mistake, paid for our mistake, and it was time to move on. Jeff lived that principle. As I mentioned, the illogic of some of what happened offended him - this would remain a hallmark of his to his last day. A natural conservative, wastes of time and money, hypocrisy and social injustices upset his sense of right and wrong, and figured greatly in his thinking the rest of his life.
Jeff and three other classmates from St. Marys took off for Kansas State to live off campus, and Margaret continued her studies there as well. Not long after they graduated, I was called upon to be their best man.
|Jeff's Dad Don, Margaret, Jeff, Mom Vivian, and little sis Shelly|
Their home was truly open to all and sundry - various friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, fellow church members and sometimes a little of each stripe would be there at any given time. In all the years of visiting their home, I'm not sure if I was ever the lone guest. Someone was always there. Margaret told me that they thought that was what a home was for. Hard to argue, that.
Their open and fair attitude to all was really brought home to me in their first home in Oklahoma City. It was a brand spankin' new condo in a development that a ton of fellow newly hired Exxon engineers seemed to end up. I got there, and one of Jeff's coworker and neighbor was there, with his wife and parents. They also happened to be African American, and they were obviously comfortable in the Bridgwater household. Racism was simply not part of Jeff and Margaret's makeup. This was not a case of overcompensating or putting on a show - that was simply the correct course. Nothing more, nothing less. Considering our shared background in an essentially color free community, that was a revelation.
|Lindsey, Mackenzie, Paul, Jeff, Margaret 2001|
I found that a couple of happy little girls, screaming with delight when tickled and teased, was something to be highly enjoyed. Just never did it often enough.
I'm not sure if I was completely responsible, but on one visit, I took the 'rents and Paul to the local shooting range in OKC. It was Paul's birthday, and I let him air out some of my pistols. In the past few years, both of them have started picking up a collection that has to be exercised at that same range, and they were amassing the components necessary to reload ammunition. Margaret - not interested - but if that is what the men in her life want, so be it.
And as I discovered, one tends to become more politically active when one delves into the gun culture. If you want to preserve it, you have to. So, in the ever present Facebook political battles, I could count on Jeff to wade in with some valid point I had missed. He had my back, and I his.
|Jeff, Margaret, Margaret's sister Paula and her hubby Steve, Paul and the twins at a KSU football game|
Just by living life the way he and Margaret did drew a lot of respect over the years. Countless coworkers, friends, children's friends, church members - all have come to rely on my friend for advice and leadership. Like I said before, Don't sweat the small stuff was one of his favorite sayings. He would explain that whatever it was that was bothering you and upsetting your apple cart was really not that important, and that if you did what you were supposed to do, control what you could and things still went haywire, well, it was NOT your fault. Maybe if one was a tad more forgiving, or forgetful, or whatever - one might find one's self finding life a bit easier. God does not give you more than you can handle - but you have to step up to the task. Responsibility for one's actions was important. While having money is good, friends and family are more important.
He had the innate ability to come at a problem with a different slant. Usually his solutions were brute simple, yet no one had considered them up to that point. Relax, don't get too excited, do the right thing, get over it and move on, you know the correct path if you just listen, don't waste your time letting that eat at you - well, I think we all know people who can do this and make it look easy. Jeff had that and his assurances and demeanor were of a healing nature.
His mother died last summer, and Sis and I went to the funeral. I was soooo pleased that I did that, because it meant the world to him that I made the trip to honor his mother. Of course it was the right thing to do - I had to do it, but that really didn't enter into his calculations. He let me know numerous times how much it meant to him that I, his friend, was there for him.
|The Jeffs at Vivian's funeral|
Like I said, people came to Jeff for advice. Even his preacher.
Last Monday I posted this picture on Jeff's Facebook timeline. As long as we get to laugh out loud about it!! was his response. Alas, it will have to wait, because as y'all have figured out, Jeff passed away. He fell asleep in his chair Saturday night, and the family thinks he had a heart problem of some sort at around 10:45pm that night. Attempts at CPR failed.
I was at the auto races in Dodge City with my cousin Tom that night. Shelly tried to call and text me, but it was too noisy to hear my phone. I didn't even look at my phone until the wee hours of Sunday morning, when I read the text.
Jeff passed away tonight! Margaret called me about 30 minutes ago.
Well, someone's gotten Shelly's phone and is sending out malicious texts. That was my first thought. Then the lack of logic of that thought hit home. Nope, it had to be true, I had lost my friend.
I tell you, the reader, of these things not because of my pain, although that is pretty evident. What I want y'all to know is the huge hole Jeff's passing has left in so many lives in so many places. He left a mark on this old world, and in a very rare and good way. He, like the Disciple Peter, was a rock. Jeff was a rock that many people's foundation was stiffened and fortified. As I can tell you from experience, being around Jeff was good for one's soul.
And there is no doubt in my mind that Jeff has gone to greater Glory. There are many people who are pretty decent, but when they die, one has to wonder if they did make it to Heaven or not. With Jeff, there can be no doubt. There is far too much evidence to the contrary that he is. He was just one of those who everyone knows would make it. Every one loved Jeff, because he loved everyone in the first place.
I have, in my fifty four years, managed to amass quite a collection of friends. Very good friends I have come to count upon, to lean upon, to enjoy life, to share experiences, to counsel in turn and just to live, period. I hesitate to call Jeff my very best friend ever, because it would short change so many other people to consider them beneath him. At any rate, Jeff wouldn't want to be put on a pedestal. Not his style. Were I to say such a thing, he would no doubt admonish me about how that would not be fair to the other people who figure large in my life. I actually have different friends that fill different niches in my life, and consider myself so very, very fortunate to have the riches that I do in that department.
I do have to say that this has ripped a huge gash from my heart and soul, even knowing Jeff is in a better place. It pains me greatly that others are hurting worse than I. I will miss my friend, and it has not and will not be easy.
But, we will all move on. That is what he would want, and he was correct. I will be a pallbearer for him on Thursday October 3, at Lake View Park Church of the Nazarene, and I will be at the viewing at Mercer-Adams Funeral Home from 6 to 8pm. Helping to bury him and be there for his family is the very least I can do, so I will quite willingly be there.
RIP Jeffrey Dean Bridgwater, my old buddy.
*Quote from one of my Facebook pals.
** I have it on good authority that Jesus Is Just Alright will be in the musical selection at the funeral.
***A '68 (or '69, memory not remembering right) Pontiac Grand Prix 400 big block, auto, deep blue white vinyl roof. What a wonderful car it was.
****Every Man A Wildcat