Memories of a friend of mine who died several years ago, come to me. Today they came because a while ago someone wrote me a letter and asked, “Did you know Greg Bechle, the poet?” And in thinking about him, I wrote this:
For several years I was a close friend of Greg’s. That’s a sad sentence. How can someone be close in past tense? He’s dead, died in 2009. I saved his life once by convincing him to get drunk. I also left him down by Ennis — we had driven together to an Earth First! Rendezvous where we were supposed to have worked on a story together, him writing, me taking photos, for a national magazine where we had gotten a paid assignment, but he had recently become so strange and then got very drunk on top of it, that I left him there and drove back to Missoula alone. I didn’t understand what was going on with him.
I liked how Greg wrote. I was living in the ten by ten foot shack behind my friend Raz’s on Alder street in Missoula. Greg would come by my shack late at night and we would take turns reading each other poetry from my notebooks or from his notebooks. I had a woodstove. If either of us didn’t like what was being read, we would rip the pages out of the notebooks and throw them in the stove. And sometimes I would play my saxophone as he read, loud enough that several times the police came to tell us to be quiet. But I was about to move out with my girl. She was pregnant. I was about to start a very different life, one without room for craziness.
Then I saved his life. When almost everyone else had stopped talking to Greg, before he had started getting treatment for his schizophrenia, he was down at the corner in front of the court house next to the World War One memorial. Greg said he was going to stay there until all the troops came home from Kuwait. This was the first gulf war. 1990. It was also right before my son was born, and I was freaking about how-in-the-world would I be able to support all of us. I was trying hard to stop doing what I have always done: giving away all my money, agreeing and have my writing thrown into fires, befriend people with sparks who seem to be waiting for a friend…
Greg was camped there by the statue of that soldier who is running through barbwire and throwing a grenade. A statue with names of dead boys on its side. I went and tried to talk to Greg when he was first there, and he said something like, “Whenever Bush talks I see black bombs come out of his mouth.” He wasn’t being metaphorical. He was psychotic . He was also dressed in his worn out thin cotton clothing and near-worthless, thin shoes.
Greg had been at that statue for at least two weeks. Other people came down there to protest the war, but they would stay on the opposite side of the statue from Greg. It was social for them, standing close to the street, holding signs, being yelled at by rednecks, and yelling back. For Greg it was personal crazy and bad lost and alone. Then it got suddenly cold. Sub zero with a bit of snow and wind.
I had a big bed with piles of blankets. A kitchen with a coffee grinder and a cutting board where my girl and I would put our fresh baked loaves of bread . I looked out side and saw the blizzard and the darkness and said I had to go somewhere and would be back soon.
I drove down to Wordens market. I bought a pint of half and half and a packet of hot coco. I mixed it in a big cup and heated it in the microwave. Then I drove over to the statue. It was 11pm. I thought Greg was dead. He was laying under a blanket, and he and the blanket were covered with 2 inches of snow. His feet, in the worthless shoes, were sticking out of the blanket and were covered with snow. I grabbed one of his feet and shook it until he was awake. He wasn’t dead. He sat up. He said, “Steve.” I gave him the cup of hot cream. He drank it. “It’s too cold out here,” I said. I took out all the money I had. It was less than $50. I gave it to him. I said — and I lied — “All the troops are home and they are here in Missoula down the street in Charlie’s, and there is a big, hot stove there. ” I said, “I’ll give you a ride there.”
But I didn’t come in with him. Later he said I saved his life. I’m fairly sure I had. It got down to about negative 15 that night. No one would have woken him.
He also told me a story about walking 24 hours and forty miles to the newspaper publisher down in Hamilton and how when he arrived they were closed up for the night, and how he then threw a rock through the window. He was angry at the paper for its publishing of pro-war editorials. He stood around on the side walk for several hours, yelling at passing cars, until finally he was arrested. Then he was taken to and locked up in Warm Springs — the mental health hospital — for a few months. When this had happened, the article I read about Greg in the paper, the Missoulian, only described him as if he was simply nuts. The stories he told me though were much more than that. He said, “I lost my mind but I’m better now,” and then took a notebook from his back pocket, looked at me, and read.
We lean on words because they make us human. . .
I wish I had made more room for him in my life, the life “without craziness,” because, really, he was a good one, a rare one. I wish I had those pages we burnt. I wish he could show up here somehow, this big house, and knock on the door and say to me, “You want to hear some new words?”
I would turn off all the screens and pull up some chairs and open the saxaphone case…
I miss Greg.