What would you do if you only had a few months to live?
John Beal faced this daunting question we’ve all asked ourselves after suffering several heart attacks at age 29, and being told by his doctors that he had just four months to live. An incredible new story from KUOW’s RadioActive Youth Media program details how the Marine Corps veteran who fought in Vietnam suffered from the physical and psychological effects of war, including PTSD. His heart attacks came just a year after a difficult return from Vietnam, where he’d served as a dogged and determined soldier known by his military brethren as “Johnny the Terror.”
How he chose to spend what he thought were his final days made him a terror in civilian life as well—at least to apathetic polluters and greedy corporations content to sacrifice the environment for profits.
Beal decided to fill his final four months with a simple, positive action—cleaning up a small creek near his home.
When Beal received his dire prognosis, he went to a wooded area near Hamm Creek, a small waterway near his home in Seattle. A tributary of the Duwamish River, Hamm Creek had been so neglected and polluted it was barely recognizable.
Beal’s daughter Liana said people had warned them as kids to not go into the river or they would get rashes. Cars, household appliances, and dead fish littered the river at low tide. Gazing at the polluted stream, Beal made a decision.
“He thought, well, I did a lot of damage in Vietnam,” Liana told KUOW, “so why not clean up where I am now before I pass?”
So Beal set out to restore the creek, figuring he would use the short remainder of his life leaving a positive mark on the planet.
Turns out, the doctors were wrong. Beal lived another 27 years and became a tireless champion of clean waterways.
As Beal soon found, cleaning up a heavily polluted creek takes much longer than a few months. Trash removal was simply the first step. Pipes had to be removed, and ongoing maintenance was needed.
“He was just like a one-man show, and everybody thought he was crazy, and he didn’t care because he loved the stream, and he wanted to see it healthy,” Liana told the Seattle P-I. “He wanted to see the salmon come back.”
Thankfully, Beal far outlived his prognosis and personally ensured that Hamm Creek fully restored. And sure enough, the salmon that had not been able to access the stream due to pollution returned in the 1980s.
But Beal’s work didn’t end there. He took on businesses that were damaging rivers and streams with bullish persistence. He became an outspoken advocate for the Duwamish watershed and founded a non-profit to protect marine life. By the time he died in 2006 at age 56, he had won more than 40 awards for his environmental stewardship.
Whether we have days or decades left, we can all take a page out of Beal’s life story and improve our world while we’re still here.