THE ADMIRAL'S STORY
an excerpt from the Rimming Out diaries
Friday, September 13, 1996
We are in Pere Marquette State Park, Ill. A great night's sleep, cool and dry. Played some evening guitar music in the tent, the acoustics great. Cathy hummed along.
Yesterday we crossed the Mississippi River at Hannibal, Missouri into Illinois. About ten miles before Hull we stopped to read a historical marker about Illinois and George Rogers Clark's bloodless taking of this territory into the State of Virginia in the 1780s. Just before getting to the marker, I noticed a car following us on the two-lane road for a couple miles, staying back 100 yards or more. I told Cathy, "There's a car back there, but it's not gaining on us. Maybe they're having car trouble." Little did I know that we were being tailed by the remarkable Rienebach Brothers, Lewis and Lester, "The Admiral". (Lewis was quick to confide to us that "he (Lester) just gave himself that name, same as he put that feather in his cap.") When they eased into the pullout for the historical marker, both their heads poked out the windows. The Admiral, who was driving at the time, was saying, "We're so intrigued by what you're doing." They were out in a jiffy. The Admiral, proud of his cunning, crowed, "I was just following, I knew you'd have to stop for a rest sometime." He grinned at himself.
The admiral wore a ball cap with a long turkey feather stuck up in the back. They are both in their 80s and don't see or hear too well, which causes them to get right on you to see and hear. Lewis, wearing thick glasses tied around his head with a nylon cord, greyed with use, his beard stubbly with a half inch square spot of hair an inch long projecting under his chin, confided to Cathy, "I can't see so well, so when I drive, I turn the lights on so they can see me coming." Well, they swarmed all over us, touching and shaking our panniers, studying BOB the trailer. By their reactions they approved. They'd be bent down looking, then with their hands on their knees, lift their heads back and say "Oh yes, wonderful, wonderful!"
I knew we were being visited by angels themselves. Their faded gray Nova had a two-foot long air horn mounted on the front hood back toward the windshield. On the front grill were tied horizontally two husked ears of field corn, one on each side. The back side windows on each side had newspaper clippings taped on the inside so you could read them from outside. There was a picture of their mom and dad on their wedding day, a handsome couple (though the Admiral just said, "This is my Dad, in 1910, on his wedding."). Another clipping showed his dad in his two-horse buggy. "That's the way it was, there weren't no cars out here then," the Admiral happily said, gesturing with his hands another masterpiece of an encounter.
He equated and liked to think of his car as some kind of carriage, though it frosted him to have to put gas in it. In fact, that's why the Rienebach Brothers were out on this beautiful morning. They'd driven down to get gas. "Ten dollars," the Admiral says with disgust. He got immense joy from the fact we didn't have to stop at a gas station. His hands went up in a hallelujah fashion when he realized this. Somehow we were getting one over on the gas stations.
The Admiral had on timeless white pants and a white shirt with a button, "Old Thresher's Reunion, 1996 Mt. Pleasant, Iowa." I commented on the button. "Yes, yes, the Thresher's Reunion, fantastic," they exclaimed.
They are retired, farmed all their lives. They grew corn, beans, pigs, and cows in that order. They spoke in that wonderful way where each sentence would be a personal revelation to the joy of the world, their hands always moving in flowing gestures. These men are in touch, I thought. They made me grin.
I got their address. Lester, "the Admiral", wrote it into the back of my journal, leaving his brother Lewis out the same way he left out his mother earlier. I took a picture of the Admiral by his car, he in an exuberant pose. "Let's get your brother in," I said. "Naw, just me," he said, waving off his brother Lewis who was over leaning close to Cathy, talking in his red nylon windbreaker.
As we got ready to go, I said that this land used to be part of Virginia, where we are going. The Admiral said "Wonderful." and walked over to read the marker. He began reading aloud to himself, his hands tracing the embossed words. We stood into our first stroke of forward movement, always a delicate moment on loose gravel. The Admiral got to the part about Virginia, "The Great Commonwealth of Virginia!" he yelled out, praising the sign and life itself. We rode off saying good-byes sincerely.
About a mile down the road, here came the Reinebach Brothers, this time gaining on us, the air horn honking. They pulled along side us, nearly running us off the road. Another car, impatient at this reverie, blew his horn and passed in angry acceleration. The Admiral, driving (fortunately, I think) was reaching over across Lewis' lap, trying to hand me something. I slowed to a stop with them. "Here Jim, this is for you," and I took the "Old Thresher's Reunion" button he offered. They drove on, the back window sporting "Plant Trees" and "Old Beekeepers Don't Die, They Just Buzz Off" stickers. We last saw them turning off to the left down a gravel road, disappearing into fields of feed corn hailing their passing with raspy fall waves.