“I knew a man Bojangles and he'd dance for you
In worn out shoes
He looked to me to be the eyes of age
as he spoke right out
He talked of life, talked of life,
he laughed, clicked his heels and stepped
Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles
Mr. Bojangles, dance”
-Jerry Jeff Walker
I am realizing, more each year, what a pivotal role the summer of 1969 played in my spiritual chronology. That was the year my parents decided to move our family 2,000 miles across the United States so that we could be nearer the grandmothers, aunts, uncles and cousins we had rarely seen while living in “the wild west”.
After the going away parties, the last…well, everything…day at the pool, the walk to the 7-Eleven, the bike ride to the local movie theatre, and finally the last sleepover at Becky’s, we were on our way. Mom, dad and six of their eventually eight children packed tightly into dad’s pride and joy…our “new Sequoia green 1969 Chevrolet Brockwood 9-passenger station wagon” (can’t you just hear the Price is Right’s Jon Pardo).
With a U-haul in tow and the roof rack loaded with camping gear and bikes, we took to the highway like a band of gypsies. We set up the tent in roadside campgrounds along the old Route 66 and ate endless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches--or on special occasions velveeta cheese and Miracle Whip--on Wonder bread at weathered picnic tables while we saw “the USA in our Chevrolet.”
By the time we reached rural New Jersey I was tired of “the way back”… you know, that horrible backward facing seat that must have been designed by a sadist. I had read every Nancy Drew mystery I owned…more than twice…and I couldn’t wait to find some statistics on sibling torture. I was sure I had a lawsuit against my parents for the cruel and unusual punishment I had endured.
But within 24 hours of arriving at my cousin’s house in bucolic Basking Ridge, New Jersey, I was grateful for every horrifying mile of cornfields and road signs from West to East. I loved my cousins, I loved my aunts and uncles, I loved playing tennis at the nearby courts, I loved the yellow and white striped wallpaper in my cousins bedroom that she didn’t have to share…with anyone…I loved picking blackberries to make pie…
And…I loved the Beyers.
The Beyers were a family I had grown up hearing about from my mother. She would refer to Fred Beyer with the same brotherly affection that she had for her own brothers Griff and Rich. I had long since assumed that the children of Fred and Phyllis were like cousins. But that summer the last thing in the world I wanted to believe was that the two oldest boys, Scott and Eric, were anything near “real” cousins.
Eric was shy that summer and I was sure that if he were to "like" (or as my daughters would say, "you know mom, not like, but like like") my cousin. So that left Scott. And I didn’t care if Scott liked me. I adored him….and he deserved it. He was kind, gentle, altruistic and tolerant of an almost high school sophomore with stars in her eyes and her heart on her sleeve. Scott was a senior. He was smart, funny, and he looked like Glenn Campbell in the True Grit days…or at least he did to me. I really was smitten. I communicated my tireless devotion by obsessively baking pies that my cousin and I used for luring “the boys” (and their attendant parents and siblings) over each summer evening that we could do so…without appearing desperate and silly….which of course we were… desperate and silly that is (or at least I was).
Scott, with his Beach Boys sun-drenched surfer-boy good looks was everything a teenage boy should have been in those days. Respectful of his elders, a safe driver, and funny. But it was the “something more,” the something that you couldn’t see at first glance that made him what I now realize was one of the greatest influences on my life. And it wasn’t just because he was young and cute and hip. I think it was because he was the first young person I had ever known who really cared more about making a difference in the life of others than he cared about “getting” the girl. Scott and Eric, like a number of their friends, had spent the early part of that summer at a camp devoted to helping children and teens not only approach problem-solving and relationship building from a spiritual perspective, but encouraged selflessness and service to others. This practical application of spiritual principles seemed to permeate everything they did.
(actual friends of Scott and Eric's from Camp Owatonna - photo by G. Johnson)
I remember one night in early September later that year. My family had moved into an old house in a wonderful small town almost an hour from my cousins and the Beyers. My contact with Scott had waned and I felt pretty isolated from the wonderful Sunday School classes that I had enjoyed with him, his brother, my cousins and other teens from their area. Our new Sunday School was another twenty minutes further away from their church and I was in class with my younger sister and a boy who thought we should just read out loud from the Bible for the entire hour. I had pretty much given up on the me who had engaged in rigorous spiritual discourse during the summer. I was certain that my spiritual life was over and I was destined to be just another cheerleader who spent her weekends doing household chores, babysitting her siblings, going to football games and enduring Sunday School. But that September night, hope came crashing headlong through the phone lines with all the altruistic abandon of Scott Beyer’s will to make a difference.
Scott was missing our discussions as much as the rest of us were and he had decided to take the matter into his own hands. We were going to meet on Sunday evenings in his church’s Reading Room and we were going to talk about real things. He even thought he could get some cool adults (mostly from the Adventure Unlimited chapter we all belonged to) to join us, and let us ask them questions. He wanted to know if I would be interested.
But then it hit me like a tons of bricks. I lived an hour away, my family had one car and my parents had five other children to get ready for the upcoming school week on Sunday nights. My heart hit the floor with a thud. I really wanted those discussions…heck, I needed them…and I had no way to get there.
I thanked Scott for the invitation, but begged off with some lame excuse about homework. All week long I thought about the discussion that would be happening that next Sunday night in the Berkeley Heights Reading Room, and I felt sick.
Sunday School came with a whimper and went out with a whine. I was in the kitchen late that afternoon making a peach cobbler for our Sunday night dessert when in walked Scott with my mom trailing…barely. He explained that the meeting wouldn’t be the same without me and he was going to either make arrangements for me to get to the discussions on Sunday night with another friend or he would come and pick me up himself.
“Let’s go” he said.
I looked at my mom. I knew that my parents were VERY strict about my being in a car with other teens driving. I wasn’t sure that they would even allow me to go. But there was my mother tipping her head in the direction of the front door with a big smile on her face. Scott promised to get me home as soon after the meeting as possible and there was my own mother nodding and saying that he should drive safely and do the best he could, but not to rush. Sometimes mothers are saints.
That Sunday I felt like the whole world had opened up in front of me. Suddenly I was not the oldest of eight, I wasn’t a cute cheerleader, I wasn’t a sophomore, a bookworm, short, or perky. I was a valued member of a spiritual community of thinkers and we had questions to ask each other…and anyone else who wanted to join us.
Through that Fall, Winter and Spring we could often be found dissecting the lyrics to popular songs by writers like Cat Stevens and Stephen Stills and Donovan and Dylan, reading the poetry of Rod McKuen, or questioning the wisdom of Kahlil Gibran's “The Prophet”. Over the course of Scott’s senior year of high school we met with some wonderful adults who were on the cutting edge of questioning their own spiritual practices and the validity of long established cultural paradigms and rituals. One Sunday, Richard Bach, author of what was one of my generation’s modern quintessential spiritual allegories, Jonathon Livingston Seagull, was the centerpiece for our feast of Soul-filled questioning.
We took up causes, to pray about and, to volunteer our time in support of. We talked on the phone and made efforts to help one another think through choices and decisions we were all making throughout that year.
After one of our last Sunday Evening meetings, Scott and I drove to the Watchung Reservation tower on our way back to my parents house. With black permanent magic markers we wrote the words to Mary Baker Eddy’s poem “Love” (verse below) in very small letters along the railing of the stairway, just above someone else’s writing of the lyrics to Mr. Bojangles. We needed to say something to the universe...and we wanted to leave a record of what our hearts' had discovered about love...and life.
Today, when I look at graffiti and the tagging done by urban artists on public spaces, I am horrified by my own once thoughtless marring of public property. But I also understand the desire to say something when you feel voiceless in the world.
Beyond sharing one very sweet and innocent kiss that first summer, Scott and I were never more than friends. I loved him for his mind, and for his heart.
I didn’t see him again for almost twenty years although our parents kept us informed of one another’s adventures and travails. When I did see him next I was facing one of the most difficult times of my life. At the time "Uncle Fred" and I had worked for the same organization and I would often see him in passing. After sharing a hug he would bring me up to date on what Scott, Eric, Drew and Geoff were up to. This time he noted I was not myself. I had lost an enormous amount of weight during a life-threatening illness. I was deeply depressed and felt more unwanted and unloved than I thought was humanly possible...and still be walking upright.
Fred didn’t say anything directly at the time, but a few days later my office phone rang. It was Fred and he wondered if he could bring something up to me. I was free so I said Yes. Within a few moments I heard the hallway elevator doors open and before I knew it I had been swept into the arms of the most handsome man I had ever seen.
With one graceful movement he lifted me out of my chair, hugged me tightly and planted one very warm, kind, gentle…and dizzying… kiss on my lips.
It was Scott.
It was as if not a moment had passed between us in twenty years. His eyes were as bright, his smile as warm and easy, and his “hi, I love you…how the hell are you?” as genuine. The three of us shared another few minutes before I had to go to a meeting. They were pivotal in reminding me that I was a valued spiritual being. They also proved the value of seizing the moment.
Not many weeks after, Scott’s dad called my office to tell me that Scott had been killed in a hang-gliding accident. I remember being so strangely unmoved by such tragic news. As I sat there at my desk observing my own almost unsettling spiritual peace, I realized that during the ensuing twenty years when I had never once seen him, he had nonetheless lived with such vitality and substance in my heart. Absent from my view he continued to imprint my life and my sense of purpose with his example. His desires to make a difference, to be good, to want to bring healing and peace to the world had become my own.
Nothing had changed. No report of his passing could alter the way his example of altruism and selflessness had impacted my life and the kind of person I wanted to be.
Now, almost another 20 years have gone by and I see him today as he is, and always has been, in my heart… water-skiing, laughing, living in a VW bus, hang-gliding, eating lots of pie, and questioning EVERYTHING wherever he is…and I am grateful for his example.
Thanks Scott…you made a difference.
Brood o'er us with Thy shelt'ring wing,
'Neath which our spirits blend
Like brother birds, that soar and sing,
And on the same branch bend.
The arrow that doth wound the dove
Darts not from those who watch and love.
If thou the bending reed wouldst break
By thought or word unkind,
Pray that his spirit you partake,
Who loved and healed mankind:
Seek holy thoughts and heavenly strain,
That make men one in love remain.
Learn, too, that wisdom's rod is given
For faith to kiss, and know;
That greetings glorious from high heaven,
Whence joys supernal flow,
Come from that Love, divinely near,
Which chastens pride and earth-born fear,
Through God, who gave that word of might
Which swelled creation's lay:
"Let there be light, and there was light."
What chased the clouds away?
'Twas Love whose finger traced aloud
A bow of promise on the cloud.
Thou to whose power our hope we give,
Free us from human strife.
Fed by Thy love divine we live,
For Love alone is Life;
And life most sweet, as heart to heart
Speaks kindly when we meet and part.
- Mary Baker Eddy