What would you do if your doctor told you that you only had four months left to live? Would you wallow in self-pity? Sink into despair? Or would you try to find meaning in what little of your life you had left? If you were John Beal, you’d have chosen the latter.
John was a Vietnam veteran and an unabashed hero. He also happened to be a heavy smoker, like most folks in those days. Oddly enough, it was the supposedly lethal combination of those two things that spelled disaster for this Washington resident…
Making a Life
John Beal’s early life was one filled with love. The Spokane native met his wife Lana when they were mere junior high schoolers. When her family moved to Seattle while she was in high school, he would take the drive over the Cascades to spend weekends with her. It was true love and over their subsequent 38 years together, Lana and John had four children.
Before the Beals could have their happy ending, however, they would face some trials and tribulations. One of which happened to be the Vietnam War. John himself was called up around the time of the Tet offensive in early 1968. He was wounded in battle on three separate occasions and was eventually sent home in September of 1968.
Home at last, John felt more lost that he would have cared to admit. After all, the Vietnam war being what it was, it wasn’t as if he or anyone else was going to get any sort of “Heroes Welcome.” Still, he tried to settle with his family in Seattle and start his life anew. He even opened a TV repair shop and got a job working on electronic security systems.
In the Hospital
The years went on and John went through the motions. He suffered from PTSD and ended up in the VA Hospital on more than one occasion, mostly for his heart. Then, one year, he suffered three separate heart attacks. Three wounds in war, three attacks at home. It seemed for John that bad things came in threes. But the worse news was yet to come.
After the third heart attack, he went to see his own personal doctor. His physician was uncannily candid with him. “Yeah,” the glib doctor told him. “You’ve got about four months to live, and it’s going to be a very painful death. I recommend you get a hobby.” It wasn’t exactly like he sugar coated it for him.
Staring and Thinking
After that news, John headed down to Hamm Creek, a local waterway that runs through his neighborhood of South Park. He stood there, contemplating the creek and the scant few months that lay ahead of him. He needed to figure out what he was going to do with the end of his life…
What John noticed most of all, besides the unavoidable serenity of the whole scene, was how hopelessly polluted the creek seemed. Perhaps he’d never looked that closely before, but it was clear now that the river, which was near a sewage site, was far more polluted than anyone could have guessed. Part of that was owed to the debris, but the problem reached deeper than that.
Years of Debris
John’s daughter, Liana, recalled the day they moved into the neighborhood. The other children had warned her and her siblings not to go in the river or else they might come out with a rash. When the tide was out, they could see cars, refrigerators, washing machines, and gobs of dead fish washing onto the shore. John saw it too just then.
John decided then and there that if he was going to be on the earth for only a scant few more months, he was going to make something of it. His goal was to use what remained of his life to clean up Hamm Creek and by extension the highly polluted, and yellow-stained waters of the Duwamish River.
Cleaning It Up
John came home and told the family that as far as he was concerned, he’d done a lot of damage in Vietnam, so why not clean up where he was before his time came. He had no idea that the task he was undertaking was far greater than he could ever have conceived of. It was going to take a bit more than four months.
Changing the River’s Course
That split-second, potentially deathbed decision changed the course of John’s life and ultimately, in some ways, the course of the river he was about to save. John’s efforts would transform Hamm Creek and he started by removing trash from the small portion of the creek. It was after this exhaustive cleanup that he hit a bit of a snag.
John’s problem was that he couldn’t possibly clean up the rest of the creek because of the underground pipes it had been flowing from. The metal in those pipes was too hot for the salmon to swim through and the lack of healthy, flowing water had all-but destroyed all animal life in the area. It seemed Hamm Creek was as much on the brink of death as John Beal himself.
What started out as a four-month ordeal had grown to be much more. Each time he cleaned a piece of the river, another section would appear that needed cleaning. John would remove trash, then more would flow out of the underground pipes. John’s next task was to remove the underground pipes.
This process of pipe removal is called ‘daylighting’ and it would ensure that the wildlife would eventually return. Even so, the creek was still too polluted to support any sort of animal life. John had far more work to do and no time to do it in. As it happened though, he had more time than he previously realized.
Way of Life
“It started out as a hobby, it became a habit, and it’s now a way of life,” John had said of the undertaking. The doctor was right, the hobby did help save his life. It calmed down his PTSD, he stopped smoking, and he soon was feeling better than he’d felt in years. John’s monumental new task gave him something to live for.
Though it sounded like his task was impossible at first, John found a way to push through. He wasn’t going to die with a job half-done, so he started telling himself a mantra to keep moving forward. The mantra was simple and effective. “Just stop where you’re at, start at your feet, and go from there.” And go he did.
The River Today
For nearly three decades, John Beal worked tirelessly for the river, becoming one of Seattle’s most aggressive and outright effective environmentalists. Today, many groups have been inspired by John’s good works. Groups like the Duwamish Alive Coalition and the People for Puget Sound work to continue John’s efforts.
Despite many people telling him that the task was impossible, John persisted. He was told that he couldn’t change anything, that he would never bring the river back to where it was and yet, in the end, he did. The river is restored and all of John’s naysayers have been silenced by the babbling sound of it freely flowing.
Sadly, John Beal passed away in 2006. Despite his grim prognosis, he lived 27 years longer than he was expected to. The love of the river and his dedication to it undoubtedly extended his life. Indeed even with him gone, it’s hard to argue that his work doesn’t live on in his stead. Hamm Creek is back to its former glory.
Continue the Work
His daughter Liana is glad that people have continued his work even though he’s gone. “He was hoping people would continue it when he left, which is part of why he asked me to help him when he passed. He didn’t want the cleanup of the stream and the river to die with him,” she explains.