Dateline: Rural Knoxville, Tennessee
Past the gilded domes.
Beyond Wall Street.
Out of sight of the Washington beltway.
Comes real America.
America in the bleachers, not the luxury boxes.
Red plastic cups, not crystal, two-by-four wood picnic tables; linen table cloths packed away for the grandbabies.
Out here, what’s right is pretty easy to figure out.
It’s hard work.
To the right of me, The Great Smoky Mountains are trying to hide behind the Tennessee early evening haze.
On my left, a man on a tractor is mowing a field. On a knoll above him, cattle are looking for shade.
And through the lens of my camera, in front of me, stands a family of five: Elite Angler Ott DeFoe and his wife, Jennie, their 3 children: older sister, Abbie and the young 3-year-old twins, Parker and Elizabeth.
As I zoom in on Ott, I see a former truck driver.
As I zoom in on Jennie, I see a former waitress.
As I pull back some with the lens, I see two high school sweethearts who married almost right out of high school.
And they are smiling.
And the children are smiling.
And behind the big lens, I smile, too, because these are friends of mine and I know their story,
and from their story I know that past the gilded domes, past Wall Street and the political beltway,
that out here in real America,
dreams can come true,
even on three mailbox roads.
My Hometown: Ott & Jennie DeFoe
It all started right here…in a 1997 Mercury Grand Marquis…
“My father let me borrow the car, I was 16 and…” Jennie looks at Ott, then turns to me, “It was our second first date…”
Ott is laughing as Jennie is talking, “…it was really our first date; it was the one that stuck…”
“…yeah, db, it’s where we had our first kiss…”
Jennie pokes Ott in the ribs, “…don’t say that, it’s embarrassing…”
Ott looks at me and smiles, “…First kiss. Right here, db.”
Jennie hugs Ott and laughs.
Both Ott and Jennie are around 28-years-old, been married 10 years now, spent many a Friday nights…
“In these stands, db. Other than fishing, I wasn’t much into sports, wasn’t an athlete…”
“…but Ott did have a truck back then that would fit me and my girlfriends so we used to get him to drive us to the away football games. My girlfriends always tried to get us together, even my mom: The first time Ott came to my house, he took off his shoes before coming in, said 'yes, ma’am' and 'no, sir' to my parents. My mother pulled me aside and said, ‘Jennie, you hold on to this one. That is the kind of young man you should marry.”
And not very long after that, marry they did, right up there in that church on the hill…
Ott is standing on the hill looking up at the church, “That’s the Asbury United Methodist Church. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places, built in 1855; it was the church I went to as a child.”
“We had about 110 people in there for our wedding,” Jennie is telling me as she leans on the hood of our car.
"It was August 7, 2004; John Thompson, my youth pastor, married us. So we were married in Ott’s church by my pastor; it was pretty nice.”
Almost 10 years to the date of their wedding, this is what I see through the lens of my camera…
The DeFoes live in Knoxville, Tenn., but way out on the edge of it on a three-mailbox road. On one side of their house lives Ott’s older brother, Sunny. Open their front door and run across their front yard…
..and the kids are at Grandma Defoe’s house. You see that 2nd floor room with the curtains drawn?
“That’s my room, db. I was born just a couple months after my parents finished building the house. I grew up in that room.”
But check out the fencing: That’s metal guide rails, painted brown, that came from here…
…Tennessee Guardrail Inc., which was owned by this guy…
…obviously one of Ott’s biggest boosters…his dad, Bud.
“When my brother, Sunny, and I were young, we used to go down to dad’s company and hang around but run down the road to….
…this spot, the upper end of the Fort Loudon Lake.
“It was when I was 7 years old and Sunny was12 years old; we would come down right to this spot and spend all day fishing, skipping rocks, just hanging around…”
And right after I took this shot, Ott just turned around and stood there for several minutes,
watching, I’m sure, in his mind,
a 7 and 12-year-old,
and dreaming of catching
Fast forward about 11 years and Ott has, “My first real paying job. I was a truck driver…”
Ott began working on the docks then moved up to “P and D ... local pickup and delivery…”
That guy standing with him, Will Tate, now a supervisor with the company, worked back in the day with Ott, and they are still good friends.
“I still have my Class B CDL, db…”
But as he says that, behind me, Jennie starts laughing, so I put the camera down and just look at her.
“db, one day Ott is on the job making a delivery in Knoxville and talking on the phone to me and suddenly I hear this huge noise and Ott says, ‘Uh-oh, got to call you later.’ What he did was he took a 10-foot truck under a 9-foot tree, peeled the whole top of the truck right off.”
Ott just looks at me and shakes his head; Will just smiles. “I got laid off a month after that, but it didn’t have anything to do with the tree incident.”
Will is still smiling.
“You hungry?" Ott asks as he pulls into here:
Cardin's Drive-In, located in Four-Way, Tenn., just a short distance from their home. It’s been around “basically forever,” and is the kind of joint where a waitress comes out to your car, takes your order and then brings your food back to you on a metal tray that hooks onto your car door.
I ordered two hot dogs and a root beer float. The dogs cost $1.60 each.
Ott and Jennie got burgers and an Oreo milkshake each.
But this stop wasn’t just about the food.
Ott did most of the talking.
“When I got laid off from the trucking company, we had nothing, I didn’t have another job. Fishing was it; we had to make fishing work.”
Jennie just looks at me; she doesn’t have to say anything. Both my wife, Barb, and I have been in the same situation…me out of work.
I know the feeling.
“I’m a very religious man, db. We both are very religious. I believe in Heaven, I believe in Hell, believe in the Bible, but also believe that things happen when they are supposed to happen, that God has a plan.”
I just shook my head, yes. Don’t know what the answer is but I do know that we are all on a bus that we aren’t driving. Me, personally, I’m just a passenger looking out the window wondering what’s going on.
"Ott, Jennie, I don’t think miracles have to be walking on water. I think love is a miracle, and to find someone to love, who loves you back just as much, I’ll take that as a miracle.
I think those moments when the whole universe seems to line up and that everything just goes right, take that as a miracle as well, as like the guy driving the bus showing you how wonderful life could be.
I think miracles happen everyday; we just need to learn to see them.”
Both smiled, because both showed me one of those everyday miracles I was talking about…
Meet the DeFoe's dream…11 acres of Tennessee…that flat top hill behind them, that’s where their new house will be built. “We own everything back to that tree line. There's a little creek by those trees that runs out to a lake; we own it all right down to the lake.”
Laid off with the only option, fishing, “It’s not like we are rich but since being laid off I have won over a million dollars fishing, 650-thousand with B.A.S.S. It doesn’t mean we are millionaires or anything; you look at your bank account and wonder where it all goes with three little kids, but we went from basically no future to this…”
And when he said, “to this…” he wasn’t talking about the land, the new house to be built. I know because I followed his eyes to…
…Jennie…and his three children.
Ott, my good friend, the miracle isn’t the fish you catch or the land you stand on. The miracle is the cheek pressed up against yours, the tiny hands that holds yours.
For the man up there driving…family…is the first miracle bus stop.
As I drove away, I drove into this…
…dusk in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Trust me, when you grow up with a city backyard the size of a putting green, this sight is damn-near a miracle itself.
As I drove down the road, I reached over and put a Bruce Springsteen Live Concert CD in the rental car radio…hit the button on the steering wheel several times stopping on track 12.
And off those mountains blasted the song, “From Small Things, Big Things One Day Come.”
To you under those gilded domes.
To you on Wall Street.
To you inside the beltway.
And stay out of the way.
Me, I’m taking America in the bleacher seats.
America of dreams,
America of miracles,
three mailbox roads.