While cruising down the Suwannee River on a late summer weekend, the last sight Ron Fielding expected to see was his old boat.
What he didn’t know and soon came to realize: It was all planned from the start.
Fielding’s best friend of over 30 years is a man named Mike Oler, who had sold his own boat years ago and regretted it.
“When it was going down the waterway, I was like ‘Oh man, what have I done,’” Oler said.
The Tennessee man’s regret for selling it was more apparent when he was diagnosed in 2012 with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which attacks the nerves cells that control muscles in the body.
That’s when Fielding found, bought and fixed up Oler’s boat so he could drive it with just one finger.
Even as his ALS advances, and makes actions like moving, speaking and eating more difficult, Oler can still take the boat onto the water whenever he wants.
Fielding lives in St. Petersburg and even adjusts and improves Oler’s modified boat whenever he comes down from Tennessee to Florida.
“He can drive his boat now,” Fielding said. “So that makes him happy, that makes me happy.”
By coincidence, Fielding had also sold his previous boat and had likewise regretted it ever since.
He built the red boat from bare bones around 20 years ago, and it was actually Oler who convinced him to sell it.
While Fielding was online, he found his beloved boat for sale and told Oler about it.
Oler just knew he had to buy it back for his friend.
The red boat’s current owner was Rocky Readdick, who lives just over the Florida-Georgia border in Kingsland. When Oler called to tell Readdick his plan, he agreed to tell Fielding that he sold the boat to a neighbor.
Meanwhile, Readdick sold the boat to Oler and drove it up to Tennessee so Oler could fix it up and surprise his best friend.
As they planned for two months, Fielding was none the wiser, and when everyone descended upon the Suwannee River on Oler’s birthday weekend in late September, he was giving a gift instead of receiving one.
“The feeling I’m getting from giving is more than a birthday gift that I could ever ask for,” Oler said.
Friends and family gathered around on a riverbank with their phones out, ready to record the surprise. Fielding still had no clue what was in store.
When they told Fielding that the restored red boat was actually his to take home, he was speechless and weak in the knees.
“I can’t believe he would do something like this,” Fielding said. “This is why we love each other so much. We’re brothers from another mother.”
With misty eyes, the friends hugged each other. Fielding then took the boat out for a spin, which had the original seat, stereo, steering wheel, and console from before he sold it.
“It’s exactly the same!” Fielding said.
When he first saw the boat on the river, his friends and family insisted he drive it one more time, but Fielding refused, saying he would never drive someone else’s boat.
Now it’s his. Fielding doesn’t plan on letting it go anytime soon.
“I’m gonna take it back to St. Pete and make it mine again,” he said.
Oler, who said he’s not sure how much time he has left to live, was more than happy to do this for his friend.
“Money comes and goes,” Oler said. “Good friends, you can’t put a price on it.”
Below: Hear a version of this story that aired on 89.1 WUFT-FM’s Morning Edition.