“Hey, Scootie! Are you scooting around again?”
He remembers how his uncles — especially Uncle Ernest — used to tease him all the time, calling him Scootie. He didn’t like it one bit.
If he had his way, he’d like to be known as a good cook, a good fisherman, and for the love he has for his Lord and his mama — not Scootie. But, somehow, Scootie stuck.
Ray Swafford, alias Scootie and the current Bradley County register of deeds, adjusted a little in his seat on the boat he was fishing from. His large, roly poly frame — looking and sounding ever so much like a Southern-gentleman Santa Claus — gently caused the boat to rock back and forth as he moved around.
“I love to fish,” he said out loud to himself.
Ray had been dreaming about retiring at his cabin near Red Clay State Park on the Hiwasse River for much of his life — just a mile or two from where he was born 68 years ago. His thoughts drifted back to when he was around five and his beloved mama gave him a straight pin, some thread and a switch. He’d find him some red worms. His grandpa would take him out to the pond. He’d have to catch and sling any fish he caught because the straight pin wouldn’t hook’em. He usually was able to only catch about one in 10 that way — until he was old enough to get a barb hook on his pole. But his fishing trips have taken him across America and has cemented lifelong friendships with his fishing buddies.
He had drifted off and daydreamed a little, Ray reckoned — easy to do in the warm afternoon Tennessee sun. The slight breeze felt good on his achy bones and joints because some of his parts aren’t original any longer. He can get around fine now. His heart also felt strong and joyful despite some past problems with it. But his heart was filled with love and gratitude toward God and that’s all that was important.
“The Lord is who I’m trying to please,” he said with reverence and sincerity.
Yes, God had been good to him, he acknowledged, as he pierced his lips, nodded his head up and down, and thanked the Lord for all the blessings in his life.
“God has blessed me,” Ray said, looking skyward. “God has been good to me.”
Ray realized just then that he hadn’t felt even the tiniest nibble for at least 20 minutes. Maybe the fish had succumbed to the lazy pace of a retired man’s dream and also had drifted off, just like Ray had.
“I’d rather be fishing, no matter if they’re biting or not. I fish for just about anything,” he said. “All I need is peace-of-mind and quiet.”
He smiled a wiry smile as he realized what the song was that was playing ever so quietly on the radio — just loud enough to be heard but not loud enough to scare away any meandering fish.
“I’m gonna miss her,” he hummed and sang quietly along. “But I love the fish. I spend all day out on this lake. And h*** is all I catch ... Now there's a chance, if I hurry, I could beg her to stay. That water's right. And the weather's perfect. No tellin' what I might catch today,” he smiled knowingly to himself at the line coming up. “Ya, I'm gonna miss her. Oh, lookie there, I've got a bite.”
“I can relate to that,” he said. “I wouldn’t leave if I got a bite either. I’d rather be fishin’.”
But, there were no bites. Not on this fishin’ trip.
Ray was thankful how tolerant his family has been about his love of fishing.
They would probably tell you it was because “Everybody loves Raymond.”
Anyone who meets him instantly knows it’s true.
“Everybody really does love Raymond,” said Dina Swafford, Ray’s niece and the next register of deeds. Ray remembers back when he had to be convinced to use that slogan in one of his two election bids for the register of deeds seat — and was flattered that it might be true even the tiniest bit. “He’s a sweetheart,” Dina said. “You can’t say much more than that.”
He’s as sweet as the tiny little dollop of homemade ice cream he managed to get as a kid. A dollop was all he got so everyone in his large family could have a taste.
“I just loved that homemade ice cream, but there was never enough. I wanted more. A lot more. So, I made sure, when I grew up, that I learned to make ice cream myself so I could have as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted,” Ray said.
He licked his lips as the taste of that ice cream on top of a warm cobbler — be it peach or blueberry or blackberries — just ever so slightly out of reach. But the memory still lingers fondly in Ray’s thoughts.
And that thought brought a grin to his face that stretched from ear to ear. Despite some of the tough times, the twists and turns his life took when he was a youngster, he is now a giant of a man, not just in stature but in character — beloved by everyone he meets.
“All things work toward the good of God,” he said.
He’s also a big hugger, but never without asking.
“Is it OK to hug you? Come here,” he says to some who come within his sphere. He reaches his arms out wide — wide like the reach of a big Grizzly — and envelopes the person he is hugging on until they almost disappear. His love, affection and caring radiate to all around him. His smile is infectious.
But he remembers — longingly — receiving the greatest love and affection from his own mama, Mildred Lo Etta Massengill.
“She was a whole lotta lady,” Ray said, with a tear and a wistful look in his eyes. She died three years ago at the age of 96. “We were poor, but mama always scraped up something for us kids to eat. A Godly lady. I respected her.”
His mind wandered to his mom’s dad, grandpa Massengill, who taught him how to fish.
“He was my buddy,” Ray said as he sighed and looked down on the ground. He fondly remembered how grandpa would bring him an egg and a biscuit and they would eat dinner together. “These were some of the happiest times of my life.”
Oops! Oh, no.
Ray almost fell off his office chair. He had been daydreaming about his past. Now, reality had awaken him and he was back in the present. For the past eight years, his colorful Hawaiian shirts, a staple of his wardrobe, were a familiar sight in the county’s deed office.
(“A suit is not him,” Dina said.)
He had been leaning back in his chair at work, hands cupped together behind his head, dreaming of Sept. 1, the first day of his official retirement. He was still in the office at the County Courthouse.
Now, he had to start looking toward to a new future.
Only about a week away and his retirement would be official. He’s going to miss everyone — his co-workers, his clients, his office, and yes, even those gigantic and humongous deed books lining the outer walls of the office floor. And, as he closed his eyes again, he could see as clearly as if it was yesterday all the changes he has gone through. He still remembers all the pressure and stress he felt during election time. And, he particularly recalls the one highlight of his 24-year career with the county that stands out to him to this day — how he streamlined an antiquated recording system and brought Bradley County into the 21st century. He was responsible for choosing the modern computer system available today and making sure it worked.
“But I particularly love and will miss all the people I work with,” he said with a sudden sadness coming over him.
Yes, he would miss it all. All the ups and downs and fears and anxieties. Yes, he would miss them all.
But, giving praise and thanks to God, he won’t be afraid to move onto this next step in his life. After all, he knows the Lord — and he knows that whatever happens next, he is in God’s hands.
“This life is just a vapor anyway,” Ray said.
It reminds Ray that no truer words have been spoken than those from the following song by Carrie Underwood:
“This is my temporary home, it’s not where I belong, Windows and rooms that I’m passin’ through, This is just a stop, on the way to where I’m going, I’m not afraid because I know this is my temporary home.”