Phantom of the Pits - 12. When We Lose One of Our Own (by Harold B. Simpson)
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It has taken me awhile to get my thoughts together after what has become one of the most eventful trips of my life. We arrived home in time for Allan to make a 7:00 PM class on Monday evening. He had to mentally shift gears from vacationer to student in a matter of moments. We dropped him off for his class in Danville and we waited for him to get out before we came home.
Our trip out to Lake Powell went smoothly. It's always a great joy to drive through the Rocky Mountains. Through the World Family of John Denver I met some wonderful people named Virginia and Sam Allen. Sam is a writer and has written a number of excellent woodworking books. Virginia is a self-described "archseeker." Knowing that we were going to be passing through their town of Moab, Utah, they invited us to tour Arches National Park with them and share a few John Denver notes as well. We met in the welcome center parking lot and with Virginia and her son in our van and Mom in their 4 by 4 with Sam and their other son, and Cathy driving the station wagon, we formed a caravan of three vehicles. Virginia and Sam turned out to be extraordinarily knowledgeable about the park.
I didn't know it at the time, but found out later that Virginia and Sam had written the guide book that is handed out when your enter the park! Virginia has spent much of her time exploring the far reaches of the vast park and has discovered some of its arches. When you find and catalog a new arch, you get to name it. One of her sons just recently found one and had the honor of naming it. He called it HIDEOUT ARCH because he said it was very difficult to locate, it was high up in a very inconspicuous place. They took us to the cave used in the Indiana Jones Last Crusade movie. They also pointed out Arches Parks most famous Arch of all . . . Delicate Arch.
As we traveled along from one place to another, Virginia and I had some wonderful conversations about our mutual enjoyment of John Denver's talents. I happened to have a new 4 CD set of John's music called John Denver . . . The Country Road Collection, that Virginia didn't have. She put a disc in the vans CD player and we listened to his music as we traveled through the beautiful park.
Our time went much to quickly and we said our good byes around 3:30 or so. We were heading to Lake Powell via a different route (to us,) this meant a long drive through some of the most desolate and awe inspiring scenery in the United States. With me leading in the van and Cathy following in the wagon, we made our way winding back and forth, up and down some spectacular red sandstone formations that were seemingly not of this Earth. At one point, a little more than an hour and a half from leaving Moab, I went over the crest of a mountain that gave me a startling, fearful feeling unlike I'd ever felt before. The sun was low on the horizon and we had been traveling on the shade side of the ridges for quite some time. Just as I reached the sun side, the glare was so intense that for a few moments, I could no longer see a thing...I was completely blinded! Not knowing what lay before me, it seemed an eternity before I could catch a glimpse of the road again. Those few moments were some of the most frightful moments I've ever experienced. I quickly called back to Cathy on the CB to slow down because you'll be blinded by the sun at the top of the hill. We have all experienced the similar effect of the sun momentarily blinding us as we drive into it. Cathy and I both agreed, this went far beyond that sensation. Along with this blindness came a fear the likes of which I don't recall having experienced before. We made it on to Halls Crossing at Lake Powell, our destination, at sunset. We had an evening to relax before boarding our houseboat the next morning.
Rising early and feeling about as happy as ever with the way things were going up to that point, I headed off to an early morning shower. I could hear that someone had turned on the TV and I was happy that they had. Perhaps we could catch the weather forecast for the coming adventure. Then, with a heartfelt cry that I knew meant something horrible had happened, I heard Cathy exclaim that John Denver was gone!
The next moments were filled with immediate denial. It took me into a world of hearing the words, but somehow not registering in my mind the reality of it all. At least not fully comprehending the reality. I went through anger, I argued with mom when she wanted me to get going and pull me away from the news bulletins. I wanted to stay glued to the TV to get every last detail that was known at that time before we just had to leave for the boat. I've always known that it doesn't matter how experienced the pilot, how safe the airplane, aviation is at the same time the most unforgiving and yet the most rewarding activity one can ever participate in. I know John was aware of that, but life is not worth living if we live in fear.
When I met John Denver a few years ago at the EAA convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, I asked him if he would sign my pilot license. He looked at me and asked me if I was sure I wanted him to do that. I said, "absolutely!" I was embarrassed by the fact that I couldn't find a pen and a lady standing close by offered us hers. The way he said "are you sure?" makes me think I might have been the only one who ever asked him to do that. A year or two after that he starred in a made for TV movie called HIGHER GROUND, about a bush plane pilot in Alaska. That was enough to inspire me to go for my seaplane rating. It was some of the most enjoyable (FUN) flying I've ever done. I learned to fly a Maule Rocket 235 floatplane in the waters of Lake Monroe near Sanford, Florida. In the process of obtaining my new rating, I had to surrender my old license for the new updated one. Good bye JD's autograph. Somehow, I thought that was his gift to me in exchange for his autograph. I later was able to obtain another of his autographs at a book signing in Chicago of his autobiography, TAKE ME HOME. By the way, thanks to my brother Art for letting me know about the event and enabling me to see him again. John Denver has meant a great deal to me for many years and there will be an empty space for him for the rest of my life.
We had been told that we might be asked to upgrade to the highest class houseboat, should the need arise. As I began the checkout procedure, I was told we had lucked-out and had drawn the best houseboat on the lake. The Admiral was a luxury houseboat at its finest. You should have seen the smiles on my crews faces when they realized what they were in for. The ship can only be described as awesome!! We were loaded and away in a couple of hours.
Each day on the Lake was warmer than the last. It just kept raising our spirits higher as we floated along this most unique jewel among the Earth's treasures. There just isn't any place that I have found that gives me the feeling that is Lake Powell. Simply put, I love the place! The days were all sunshine and the night was filled with the full moon and bright stars and planets. We located an ever elusive Anasazi Indian dwelling in Cottonwood Canyon. They were experts at hiding these things from their enemies. We hiked for two hours trying to find it, only to find it was where we had looked the moment we arrived in the canyon, yet we couldn't discern it from its surroundings! Great fun!! The swimming off the back of the houseboat was refreshing to say the least. I never did get the courage to go down the slide. Seems kind of strange such a thing should give me pause, when jumping out of an airplane in my younger years didn't bother me in the same way.
Disembarking from the houseboat following this greatest of adventures wasn't going to be something we wanted to do, but off load we did. Our watery travels were not over though, as the path back to civilization included a ferry boat ride across the Bullfrog Basin to a quicker path back home than we had come. As we headed towards Colorado, it occurred to me that it might be possible to attend John Denver's services, that would likely be in his hometown of Aspen, Colorado. A phone call to my brother, Art, confirmed that he would indeed have some type of service on Saturday, in Aspen.
The timing could not have been more precise for us. We would be in Glennwood Springs, Colorado by the evening and that would be an easy thirty five minute drive to Aspen the next morning. The service was to be at 2:00 PM and it was to be held at the music tent in Aspen.
We arrived around 10:30 AM. I stopped at the Pitkin County Airport where in 1976 John Denver learned to fly a Cessna 172 with his dad as instructor. From beneath the tower, looking to the East, one can see the mountain on which John Denver lived in Starwood. There were many more jets sitting on the ramp than I thought would be usual. I suspected this was due to the number of important people who were no doubt here for the services. One particular small craft caught my attention. I was parked right behind it. It was a Burt Rutan designed aircraft called a Long Easy. The very same type of craft that John Denver had lost his life in. How ironic, to be standing by this aircraft, at this airport, looking at that mountain, on this day. Was I somehow meant to be here? Was this moment just coincidentally mine for my imagination to make of it as it will or was I supposed be a part of all this? I was awestruck... no one else was aware of what I was feeling. Something magical was sparking my thinking.
The day before, a formal service was held at the Faith Presbyterian Church in Aurora, Colorado, where his mother and brother Ron Lives. Today, Oct. 18th, 1997, was to be a final farewell from his family and friends in the setting that John would have been most comfortable with. His hometown, Aspen. Cathy and I were about the ninth or tenth people in line. It was a joy talking to those around us in line. We all told each other of our connections with John and his music. The couple ahead of us in line, had flown from Minneapolis that morning. They had left on 45 minutes notice, just barely making the only connections that would have allowed them to make the trip. They were both married, but not to each other. They both new of each others love for John Denver and were friends through that. Their spouses, knowing how important it was for them to be there, were understanding enough to let them travel together. Another lady flew from Nashville, Tenn. She had been waiting since early morning and was asked to leave so that sound systems could be set and wires safely strung, etc. She left and came back a short while after Cathy and I got there. By the time she had come back, the line had grown considerably. She came to me and told me about the fact she had been the first one there. After I explained what she had told me to everyone around us, by now all friends, I brought it to a vote to allow her and her friend to join us at the head of the line. It was unanimous, we let her in. She turned out to be a lawyer . . . a good lawyer, she said, and there is a difference!
We passed around addresses to each other, promising to get in touch again. The music tent holds 1700 people. The lower section was reserved for relatives and close friends. We had the best seats available for the "public." The stage was set up as though a concert was about to begin. John's guitar was there, his microphone was there, his band members, from the past and the present were there as part of the audience. The whole thing took on the look of a concert, but we all knew this was no concert. This was the last time that we would gather together in such a way to Celebrate The Life Of John Denver. The music tent was overflowing by the time the ceremonies began.
At about ten minutes till two, a group of small planes flew over in trail, spaced about 15 seconds apart. Each containing a pilot expressing in his own way, a tribute to a downed flyer. One was a Christen Eagle Biplane, like the one John had owned and what he had flown solo to Oshkosh the day I met him there. Another flew over so as to allow his planes shadow to pass over the assembled mourners. High overhead, a beautiful white sailplane, possibly John's, was released to soar in the blue heavens above. I know that John's ashes were to be released over the mountains of Aspen on this day. Was I watching this final act of releasing his remains back to the Earth without knowing for sure it was happening. I somehow didn't want to know, but had to smile at the thought of how beautiful a way to return our physical body back to the Earth. The most dramatic of ways to end the most dramatic of lives. In one of his songs he sang: I can see you in singing skies and dancing waters, laughing children, growing old, and in the heart and in the spirit, and in the truth, when it is told. All those things were present at that moment.
With the help of Tom Crum, one of John's best of friends, Zak, Anna Kate, and Jesse Belle Denver put together a tribute to their Dad that was at times almost unbearably sad, and at others some of the best laughs I've had. They were all there, all of John's family. His mother Erma, his brother Ron, and his first wife Annie. His second wife Cassandra, all of his aunts and uncles, cousins and friends he had amassed over the many years. His long time producer Milt Okun, who vowed to use his remaining years to somehow make John's works accepted on the higher level that it deserves. The stories were told in a way that made us feel very much closer to the John Denver that they had come to know by their close association with him over many years of friendship. I learned many things about him that were intimate insights, precious tidbits of the life of someone whom I really new little, but on this day was very much privileged to be allowed to be a part of.
The day was as perfect a day that only God and John Denver could have made. The aspen trees around us glittered with the light warm wind, the sun was gently shrouding us all with a perfect warm glow, and the sky, the sky, I've never seen the sky more beautiful. A shade of blue that perhaps can only be seen from the eight thousand feet of altitude at which Aspen lies. The day was one in which not a single person there wanted to leave behind. What was to be a two hour long celebration of music intermixed with the sharing of eulogies turned into a much more relaxed atmosphere of the sharing of stories and feelings that lasted more than three hours.
My new friend, Virginia Allen, and another friend of hers named Patty, who had flown in from Michigan, made it to the celebration. I was able to greet them as they arrived. Some of the people around us were people that I had at one time met many years ago through various fan clubs. It seemed that the people to which it mattered the most, somehow had made their way to this gathering. I don't know exactly how it all works, but somehow we all felt that John had a hand in all that. Maybe so. It may seem strange to call this gathering a celebration, but that is exactly what it became. That is what he wanted it to be thought of. He celebrated life and lived it to the fullest.
At the end of the day, we were asked to bow our heads and close our eyes and to think of John Denver as being there with us at that moment. To think of him as being in wind, in the mountains around us, and in the sky above. It wasn't hard to imagine that for me. They played the last song that John recorded called, "Yellowstone (Coming Home)", as we watched hundreds of white helium filled balloons drift upwards into the blue sky.
We may never know for sure about the exact timing, but that flash of light that rendered both Cathy and I temporarily blinded from bright sunlight and which brought with it a feeling of complete fearful helplessness, occurred at approximately the same time that John Denver crashed into the Pacific near Monterey, California, on Oct. 12th. At most, there could only have been a few minutes difference. My mind can make what it wants to of that. We'll never really know.
" During the Aspen service for John, one of his secretaries told a story about a moment that she had with John. I think it was Stephanie Ryan who said that John asked her if she believed in Astrology. She replied that she believed in just about everything (with a laugh.) John then said that he had just been told that his works would become more prominent in 1997 than at any other time. She asked him if it would be even more than what happened in the 70's? He responded that it was to far surpass that. Thinking back to what he had said, she wondered if this had been what he'd meant. " - HBS
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