Friday, March 26, 2010

At Home on the River


EVANSVILLE COURIER & PRESS

LIVING ON THE RIVER

Date: Sunday, July 15, 2007 Section: Metro Page: A1 Edition:
Photo by DENNY SIMMONS, Courier & Press photographer

Video: http://www.courierpress.com/videos/detail/peg-leg-pete---home-ohio/

Five years ago, David Habib, whose friends call him "Peg Leg Pete" because he lost a leg in a motorcycle accident, was out of work, in a failing relationship and short on money to pay his bills.
His solution: He chucked it all and moved into a small boat on Pigeon Creek.

He has since moved to the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, where he can still see life in Downtown Evansville, but doesn't have to be a part of it.

It was a dramatic solution to everyday problems, and Habib almost let his rage doom him to a life alone.

But nobody is totally self-reliant - even at his darkest point, he still needed food and fuel.
A series of chance friendships softened him, at least a little, enough to bring him to shore.
INSIDE: To read Jacob's Bennett story about Habib, see the cover of the Spectrum section on Page D1. (story continues below)

This article is © 2007 EVANSVILLE COURIER & PRESS

AT HOME ON THE RIVER

The last straw for David Habib came in the mail. There never seemed to be enough money to go around in his drafty old rental house, and now he was staring at an electric bill for $750.

Though friends say he's a good mechanic, he had a hard time finding work, partly on account of his missing right leg. He was in a relationship that wasn't working out. And now he owed more to the electric company than he made in a month from disability benefits.

"'Oh my god, I don't have enough money to eat today,'" he remembers thinking. "'What am I going to do?'"

Lots of people get fed up with the challenges of life's obligations and the obstacles government sometimes seems to put in the way. Many threaten to chuck their earthly possessions for the simple life.

Most of us get past the urge in a few minutes.
Five years ago, Habib actually did it.

"I just felt kind of abused and beat up by the world," he said. "I decided to grab a boat and jump in the water."

That was the plan, to spend the rest of his miserable life in a little aluminum boat on Pigeon Creek or the Ohio River. He wouldn't talk to people, they wouldn't talk to him, and that would be just fine. Police told him it was legal to live on water so long as he behaved himself and didn't bother anything on nearby land. His life, he said, would be in God's hands.

But if there's anything more remarkable about Habib than his decision to leave, it might be what brought him back. Friendship built a bridge to the shore, and Habib crosses it almost every weekday.
* * *

Habib, now 44, lives in a boat tied to trees on the banks of the Henderson, Ky., side of the Ohio River, across from Evansville's LST 325 World War II ship. From his cove, Habib is close enough to see his hometown, but he's almost unreachable by land. A visitor would need a jeep or an all-terrain vehicle to get across the six miles of land that separates him from the nearest road. He has one neighbor, an 88-year-old man who has lived on the river most of his life. The isolation was one reason Habib picked this spot - when he used to park his boat in Pigeon Creek, people kept looting it, which only fed his anger.

Habib - he is of Lebanese descent, but his name is pronounced "HAY-bib" - built a canopy for shelter from the rain and the cold. He sleeps on an old futon he got from his friend Jack Draper at Crazy Larry's.

He has saved enough from his monthly disability checks to afford a generator, a 13-inch TV and a microwave.

One day he found a washed-up pier that he floats on top of some empty chemical barrels, which he ties to his boat and uses as a deck.

He gets around in a 10-foot johnboat - a hollowed-out aluminum apple wedge with dice hanging from the throttle and a sun-bleached picture of Jesus taped to the inside. When the river is up, and whole trees are swirling by, it can take 30 minutes to cross to Indiana (and a few minutes less when the water is lazy).

In winter, Habib wore camouflage pants, a mechanic's shirt and a ball cap, plus a salty beard. Now that summer beats down on his boat, he wears shorts, sunglasses and little else. The beard is gone, revealing a face leathered by the sun.

His fingers have cuts from fish hooks, his arms are solidified by a lifetime of manual labor and 25 years of propelling himself through the world on crutches. In 1982, he lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident on Kentucky Avenue that nearly killed him - a pickup truck turned in front of him, and his leg was twisted up by his head.

He receives a disability check because of the crippling pain in his back, caused by the effort it takes the rest of his body to compensate for the loss. Doctors told him his body would burn itself out quickly. They also told him he died the night of the accident, and it felt good, he said, a million times better than morphine. So death doesn't scare him anymore. Neither does life.

But he has been mad at God and the government ever since.

The anger that sent Habib away had been building for years. He was in and out of trouble at school. He's been mugged, he's been robbed. He's been busted on drugs and gun charges - victimless crimes, unless you count him. There was the time he and a friend were playing with gunpowder and his friend blew off his hand. There were the 9/11 terrorist attacks, confirming his suspicion that the world had gone mad.

He got fed up with government bureaucracy - he needed a doctor's note to get a disability check, but how was he supposed to pay for the doctor's note? If his tax money goes to the police, and the police are paid to protect him, where were they when that man was making an illegal turn in front of his motorcycle?

After his accident, Habib moved in with his parents while he recovered. He was coming off the morphine when they started asking him to visit the people and churches who held fundraisers for him. He just couldn't deal with that then, and he said he didn't appreciate them pushing him.
So he left, and for a while he lived on the street. But that didn't last long - on the streets, landowners or police always chase you off.
* * *

In his boat, Habib has a picture of the woman he was living with in late 2001, just before he moved onto the waters, but he won't reveal her name.

Things weren't working out, and he was mad about that, and money was a constant worry on his $600 a month disability payment.

Then came that electric bill.

So he couldn't afford to live there anymore, and it wouldn't be right to throw out his girlfriend, and he didn't get along well enough with his family to stay with them, and he didn't want to live the homeless life on land.

He headed over to a boat store and said, "Give me the cheapest little boat you have."

He left with a $200 fixer-upper, and he asked his friend Wes McKinney to help him get it to the Pigeon Creek boat ramp off Diamond Avenue.

The request didn't really surprise McKinney, who knew how on-the-edge Habib could be - after all, they'd met when Habib, with one leg, was racing dirt bikes.

McKinney wished Habib could have been as happy as he was back then; being around people had seemed to make his friend happy.

The two hauled the boat to the Pigeon Creek boat ramp off Diamond Avenue, past the sign that reads "Road ends in water." It was a 30-degree day in January, and the creek was only a couple of inches deep.

McKinney hugged Habib and told him to be careful. He cried as he watched his friend use his oars to push off the rocks in the shallow creek bed.

"I was worried to death about him," McKinney said. "I was sad that there wasn't anything better for him."

All Habib brought with him was a sleeping bag, a two-way radio and a gasoline burner. He didn't even have a fishing pole. Every 30 minutes, he had to stop to bail out his boat.

He got tired, and the day grew dark. He parked his boat at the bottom of the hill behind the baseball field at Lamasco Park, in a channel 200 yards from the creek, where the city dumps sewage into the water. Few people went down there, and the hill and the trees would shield him from storms.

When he woke up the next day, water had filled his inclined boat up to his chest. One of his oars had washed away. And things would get worse.

His boat kept getting swept away because he didn't tie it up properly. People kept coming down the hill and stealing his possessions from the boat.

He was so mad that he wouldn't talk to anyone, not even the woman at the nearby gas station who sold him fuel for the burner that kept him alive at night.

When other boaters approached him, he would row away. Once he moved to the river, he would throw rocks at people on Jet Skis who got too close.

"You're either going to lie to me, steal from me, (or) treat me like ..," he said "I just don't want to talk to you."

But his perception of humanity would be changed by a city bus driver and a used-car salesman, among others.
* * *

Habib walked everywhere he went for the first six months, until a Metropolitan Evansville Transit System bus driver spied him hobbling down the embankment by the Franklin Street bridge, hauling a couple of gallon jugs and a car battery.

"Where are you going, man?" Mike Scott asked him.

"I live down there," came the reply.

The next time Scott saw Habib, he invited him to hop on. Habib wasn't talking, but Scott could sense that he was hurting. Scott, now a proud grandfather living in Darmstadt, Ind., had battled his own blues after Vietnam.

"I always just tried to cheer him up, buy him a Coke on a hot summer day," Scott said. "A little bit of kindness goes a long way. There's always hope."

After a couple of months, they broke the ice with talk of fishing, cars and motorcycles. They got to talking about Jesus, how Scott gave up drinking for preaching.

Before long, as soon as the front seat was empty, Habib would claim the spot.
* * *

Scott Hutcheson cast a line in the Ohio River to prepare for a fishing tournament, then did a double take at the boat anchored 50 yards away.

"That's a nekkid one-legged guy over there on that boat," he said.

The guy must have realized he was being watched, because he put on some shorts. Soon, Hutcheson had reeled in a 10-pound catfish, and the one-legged guy applauded. Hutcheson asked him if he could join him in the cove.

Habib had had a rough few first months on the water - he had lost a couple of boats and been robbed a few times. His dad had helped him fix up a houseboat with a motor, and he'd moved to the spot where Pigeon Creek spills into the Ohio. Normally he wouldn't have wanted to get too close to this stranger, but he appreciated that Hutcheson was kind enough to ask.

But as they got to talking, Habib didn't feel any better about his decision. They had something of a professional rivalry that made each not trust the other: Habib was a mechanic and Hutcheson was a used-car salesman. But they quickly got beyond that.

"It was impressive to me whenever we'd catch a fish, he'd say, 'Thank you, Jesus,' and show me he could appreciate even the small things," said Hutcheson, who lived in Yankeetown, Ind., at the time but now lives in a house at the French Island Marina near Rockport, Ind.

"I could tell it, he was out there because he didn't want to visit with people. His faith in people wasn't very strong. I can't blame him. I could tell that he was angered. Then as we got to talking, I asked why he was out there. He was doing what he wanted to do. As rough as it was, I kind of envied him, really."

They got to know each other better over the next couple of days during the fishing tournament. An experienced fisherman, Hutcheson noticed mistakes Habib was making that slowed him down: He wasn't tying knots correctly, and he didn't know that an anchor needed 3 feet of rope for every foot of depth.

Hutcheson didn't have much luck in the tournament. Habib wasn't even competing, but he caught several catfish and threw them to people on shore.

A couple of weeks later, Habib took up an offer to visit Hutcheson on his houseboat at French Island.

Habib had just bought a $50 boat that he wanted to convert into a houseboat. He ended up staying most of the winter, his boat first tied to Hutcheson's houseboat and then parked in Hutcheson's driveway.

Hutcheson trusted him enough to offer to let him stay with his family in a spare bedroom, but Habib slept in his boat and made his own meals as if he were still on the river.
* * *

Two years ago, Habib had a chance to come back to land for good. His parents were retiring to China, where his father had done business over the years, and they wanted him to move home to help take care of the farm.

It would be the last time he talked to anyone in his family.

Habib's sister, Judy Rodriguez, was glad to see Habib move back to help her on the Baseline Road farm. The two of them had never gotten along, but she had worried about him out on the river, especially that he would get sick and not be able to get medication.

He built himself a shack on the farm. He tried to help out by cleaning out the garage, but he tossed far more stuff than his sister would have trashed.

Their relationship flamed out a few weeks later when he tried to smoke in the house, which she has never permitted. Rodriguez told him to stop, and he refused.

"I can't take that," he said. "Wherever I'm at, I'm going to smoke."
So he towed his boat back to the river in his family's dump truck. His sister was frustrated, but knew something it has taken Habib years to learn.

"You can't change other people," she said. "People can only change themselves."
* * *

Twice since Habib moved out to the river, police officers in helicopters have spotted him and assumed he was stranded. He got mad that they hovered so close to his boat - he was afraid the propellers' downdraft would blow him into the water.

One such incident made the news in January, when the Kentucky State Police came across a naked, one-legged man they thought was stranded on the Ohio River.

It was Habib, who waved to the officers that he was OK, according to the police. Furious that the incident had happened in the first place and also that the news account wasn't accurate (Habib insists he was actually giving the police officers an obscene gesture), Habib faxed a letter to the editor from Crazy Larry's.

"I'm going to leave out all the expletives, but I'm thinking them," Habib wrote. "Please explain (that trying) to save someone shouldn't be so painful."

When his letter was printed, people across town - people who love Habib - clipped and saved it.
"What happened there was basically Pete's whole gist," said McKinney, the friend who helped Habib make his initial move to life on the water. "He believes what's published, what's seen, what goes on, is a twist on the truth. I bet his blood was just boiling. I bet he could not wait to write that letter. That's 'Pete' right there."
* * *

Habib still doesn't want to be immersed in society, but he said he did learn something from the actions of his new friends on land - the people who have given him a bus ride on hot days, tutored him in the craft of keeping a boat afloat and even taught him poker. Habib said he didn't like cards, but now he plays almost every Tuesday and Wednesday at Fast Eddy's, just a short climb up the Evansville river bank.

Their acts have shown him that when it comes to life's frustrations, the best remedies can often come from the kindness of others.

"There are other people just like me running into the same walls I do," Habib said. "They were still getting up and going and carrying on. I guess I have to, too."

Habib's friend Jack Draper, the owner of Crazy Larry's, is letting Habib use his lot to work on a new houseboat. He'll have it ready in a few weeks, and he'll anchor it to his floating deck.

His project shows the two sides of the man they call "Peg Leg Pete." Habib is grateful for his friend's help, while still guarding himself against the intrusions of others.

Because amid all the building materials and Habib's meager possessions sits a pile of rocks - in case someone on a jet ski gets too close.

1 comment:

Matthew J. McBride said...

Great story. I know Pete and he's a pretty cool dude to hang out with. I met him thru my Uncle Jack, who owns Crazy Larry's.