Answering our prayers
It’s easy to poke fun at guy with a silly Dutch-boy haircut, goofy glasses, and whose favorite expression was “far out.” It’s easy to dismiss what he believed since it’s so impossibly idealistic. You could label him a hypocrite for being the first Aspenite environmentalist to travel in a Lear Jet. You can have a heyday making jokes about his court battle to beat a DUI charge of which he was undoubtedly guilty. But you wouldn’t do any of this if you were ever the recipient of one of his gifts.I didn’t fully realize what great gifts he gave until this week.In working a story for the Aspen Times Weekly, my lighthearted piece hit a some solid bumps in the road. A couple of interviews threw me so far off balance that I nearly lost my bearings.I talked to a musician named Ron Rich who does a show called The Rocky Mountain Memories: A John Denver Tribute. After gathering some background information, I casually mentioned, “So, it sounds like everything is going great.” “Well, not entirely,” he replied. He told me the reason he hadn’t called back earlier was that his father just died. He fell from his roof in Florida while repairing some hurricane damage.My heart skipped as the memories of my father’s sudden death came rushing back. “Are you still doing the show?” I asked sympathetically.”Oh yes,” he replied. “John’s positive message is what will help me through this. It has helped so many people.” I also spoke with John Sommers, who plays in a band called Heart of the Rockies. Sommers told me that he was passing through Aspen back in 1969, fresh out of the Navy on his way to Kansas City to become an airline pilot. He fell in love with Aspen and decided to extend his stay. John Denver gave him a reason to make it his home.One night, Sommers was playing with a band called Liberty down at the old Blue Moose. After the show, John Denver came up and introduced himself. JD ended up flying the group out to New York, and together they recorded one of Sommer’s songs called River of Love. After that, Liberty opened a few shows for John Denver and then Sommers became a member of his band.Sommers told me that John Denver was the biggest positive influence in his life.Neither of these interviews fit into the piece I was working on. In fact, they took me about as far away from it as I dared to go. I thought about my friends Andy and Mark who knew the man personally. I knew their story. Almost everybody who lived here in the 1970s does. But I never had the courage, or the heart, to talk to them about the events that led them to know John Denver.After putting off the call for a couple of days, I picked up the phone and dialed.”Hi, Andy,” I said, trying vainly to mask my trepidation. “I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about John Denver.”It was a difficult subject. Andy and his brother met John while living through the worst nightmare a couple of young boys could endure. Thirty years ago, a small plane crashed into the deep winter snowpack on the side of Sunlight Mountain with most of a Houston family inside. Mark and Andy were the sole survivors. In that crash, they lost their mother, father an older brother and a sister.Mark and Andy spent several dark days and cold nights, huddled amidst the surreal evidence of the airplane wreckage, struggling to keep each other warm. It was a miracle that anyone lived.At the hospital the losses mounted. Frostbite claimed one of Mark’s legs and a portion of Andy’s foot. None of us should ever have to imagine what life was like for those children two weeks after that horrific accident.Then one day, unannounced and unexpected, a man shows up alone, accompanied only by his guitar. He humbly asks the nurses if he can see the boys. That man was John Denver.He introduced himself to the boys who were well aware of who had just walked into their lives. He spent a good part of that day playing his guitar and singing with them. Andy has a tape from that day. He’s still taken by his deep Texas accent and high voice, both long since disappeared, as he sang “Rocky Mountain High.”A few days later, John came back to the hospital to show the boys a video of a recent concert. This was back when videos were new and the hospital’s equipment wouldn’t play the tape. John excused himself, drove to his house, and brought back “this giant television contraption” so that they could enjoy it.And, John kept coming back. He kept coming back long after the boys’ health returned. He invited them on the set of his Christmas television special. He stopped by to offer rides on his new motorcycle. He checked in with them at the hockey rink as he watched his own adopted son, Zachary, learn the sport.As the boys and their baby sister settled in with their new family, they managed together to turn tragedy into an inspiration for love, hope and, yes, happiness. John Denver was a part of that.He stayed in touch with them all the way up until the time of his death, ironically in an airplane crash.”Yeah,” Andy told me in an unsteady voice. “That brought it all back. I relived it all over.”I still remember that awful event in March 1974. I was the same age as Mark and worried about my family. A small mountain town and a Texas city mourned together. But, while we were hugging our loved ones, crying, and praying in the security of our homes, John Denver went to them. He held their hands and gave comfort. He sang. It was his gift to them.And maybe he was the answer to our prayers, too. He did all the things we wanted to do and said all of the comforting things we wanted to say but couldn’t find a way. That was his gift to us. There is no surprise like getting a gift from someone you never knew. Roger Marolt can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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