Looking Up to the Man in the Wheelchair

I was never privy to the details of how it happened. Someone once told me it was a motorcycle accident. I guess I could have asked him, but, out of fear or politeness or something else altogether, I never did. Knowing Fred, he would have told me as much, or as little, as I wanted to know about how he ended up in the wheelchair. Whatever his personal history, whatever tragedy and loss and pain and anger and frustration and sheer hell he went through, I guess I’ll never know. But when I knew him, if you hadn’t spotted the wheelchair, you’d have supposed Fred Frieling’s life had been a walk in the park. For how else could a man be so happy, so giving, so full of life, except one who’s never suffered?

Tucked away in the back corner of the old campus of Concordia College, Austin, TX, were the maintenance buildings. Inside one of these was the wood shop, where every table saw, every drill press, every hammer and tape measure and box of nails, seemed to have been strategically placed there by a midget. Nothing was convenient for my 6’ 2” frame. But for the man who worked alongside me, the man who taught me what I know of woodwork, it was picture perfect. Though this was where Fred worked, in truth, it was a man-cave for the man on wheels. For two summers we spent our days bathed in sawdust. We repaired and built furniture for the campus. He helped me completely reconstruct a desk for my wife (which, though we’re no longer together, she still uses); put together some book shelves for my rapidly growing library (which I still have); and plan and built a small, stand-alone pantry for my mom (which still sits in her kitchen). Twenty years have passed, but when I pick my kids up, or grab a book off the shelf, or visit my parents, there is Fred’s handiwork, stable, practical, enduring.

But woodworking was only the surface of what Fred taught me. The rest I learned, however, never by a word from him, only by watching him and soaking in what kind of man he was. His legs were of no use to him, but he wasn’t half a man; he was a man to the full, and then some. He drove himself to campus in a van outfitted especially for him. He’d wheel into work, an infectious smile glowing on his face. He could out-laugh and out-joke the best of them. I never heard him utter an excuse about not being able to do something because of his “disability”. In fact, I never thought of him as disabled. He worked my young, scrawny ass into the ground day after day. Those same colossal arms that could hold any piece of wood or work any tool, would also cradle a guitar and make music of the highest caliber. His claim to fame is that one of the albums recorded by George Strait, the king of country music, has a song on it, “Love Comes from the Other Side of Town,” that Fred (aka Jess DeMaine, his stage name) wrote.

I’ve walked through a few dark valleys in my life. And I’m not completely out of their shadow yet. Maybe I never will be. But when I’m tempted to wallow in self-pity, I often think of Fred. I don’t think to myself, “Yes, but look how much worse it could be.” Seeing who’s out-suffered, or currently out-suffering, someone else doesn’t make much sense to me. Rather, I think of how Fred handled his own struggles. Instead of spending the rest of his life mourning over the loss of what he would never get back, he spent every day using to the full what he still had. He worked, he laughed, he played, he sang, and he taught this young kid in college lessons that I wouldn’t truly need for another two decades, but which I will strive to remember, and live, until the day I run with Fred on streets of gold.


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10 thoughts on “Looking Up to the Man in the Wheelchair

  1. Loved your story on Jess DeMaine, or Fred. I used to go dancing at The Silver Dollar in Austin in 1976 -1978 and I loved his music!
    I am just wondering if he has passed away? By the way the story was worded … it kind of sounded like he was gone.

    • Thank you, Debbie! No, Fred, is still alive and well.

      • Well I am glad! You were talking about the streets of gold and I guess I just read it wrong… Thank goodness!!!
        Do you know if there is a way to get any of his music from those days?
        He wrote a song about an older couple that were always the first couple on the dancefloor and the last ones off, almost. 🙂 The song was called “The Boulliuon Walltz”. Not sure if that is spelled correctly. It was their last name. I would so love to listen to those songs again. It has been about 35 years since I heard him sing.
        If you know how I can find out about his music, I would so appreciate your help! Thanks, Debbie

      • I wish I could help you, Debbie, but I don’t have any idea where to begin! I don’t have any way to contact Fred personally, but he is listed on the website of Christ Lutheran Church, Austin, TX. You might be able to get in touch with him through that church. Wish I could do more! Thanks for your interest.

      • Thank you. Looks like he is a member of a country-gospel group at that church.
        The band is called H.I.S. ( Hearts in Spirit ). And I will contact them for more info.

  2. Fred & Edna Bullion,,,,,,, And yes, they were always the first on the floor for dancing. They were beautiful together!!

    • debbie on said:

      Yes they were a beautiful couple to watch. Were you part of the band or just a person who danced at The Silver Dollar like us?
      Do you know if it is possible to get a recording of that song?

  3. Wanda johnson, "kennedy" on said:

    From out of the past, I finally have found Jess Demaine, country music review, so thrilled you are still with us, I just listened to your recording of “Whatcha,Doing in Dallas” wonderful song, But oh how I would love to hear you sing Myra again. I was so afraid you would never sing again after your motorcycle accident when leaving Mel Tillis home, and hit the bus head on. I still have the sleeve of “Country Music Review ” but the record has disappeared, oh how I loved that group, do you ever hear from the rest of the guys, is Benny McArthur still around? I know he was playing fiddle for George Strait but I don’t think he does anymore. At any rate it was a thrill to hear you sing the song and your diaphragm seems to be working strongly, your friend from 40 yrs ago in Lubbock, Tx .,
    Wanda Johnson Kennedy.

    Blessings from above to a very special someone

  4. charles mccarthy on said:

    back in the 70’s I used to play golf with Fred, Benny, and Fred’s Dad just about every day that he weekday weather would let us. we played at Jimmy Clay G.C. because we loved the course, the personnel and the surroundings. teeing off in the early mornings we would play 18 have lunch and a couple of cold ones and then go out and play 18 more. if they were playing somewhere that night we would clean up, get on the bus and go. always a good time had by all.
    Fred was injured in a motorcycle accident while he was working for Mel Tillis. after mending some fence he had got back on his motorcycle and started off down the road. a short time later he said that he saw something moving between his legs and was dumbfounded to see a snake coming out from under the gas tank. this is when he ran off of the road into the ditch and was injured. he was able to get around for a few more years until the injury put him in the chair. I have nothing but fond memories of my times with Jess and his extended family and would like to say hello to him one more time in my life…

  5. Janet on said:

    I first met Fred (known then as Jess DeMaine with his band the Country Music Revue) in a club in Austin in 1975 where they played most every Sunday night. My older brothers and parents were big fans and we would follow the band as they travelled around and outside the Austin area. Including places such as the VFW Hall in Cuero, TX. I was 15 at that time. I also had the privilege of being in the audience at the Silver Dollar the night he made his first public appearance on stage to perform after the accident. On two crutches, aided on both sides by men, he stood at the microphone and performed a song. I cried as I watched him perform so thankful that God had spared such a wonderful and talented human being. I am so glad that he remained active as a performer using his God given talents.

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