Goodbye, old friend

A good friend passed away a couple of months ago and I’ve been thinking about the way he lived as well as how he died. I’ve been hearing his voice in my head, his enthusiastic optimism never buried. People pass through our lives and it’s often not until we look back in sadness that we recognize them as brothers and sisters, giants once among us leaving a huge void to fill.

Al Nejmeh lived up here 20 years ago or so and once you’d met him you’d not forget him. He was a good skiing buddy, and we also hiked and rafted together. We were both Jets fans and all too often commiserated on the sorry state of our favorite football team. Al was one of the first summit stewards on Marcy and Algonquin mountains, and it was a pleasure to see his smiling face after a half-day hike and climb in altitude. An experienced sailor, he had spent a lot of time on the water before coming to the mountains. Al participated in and helped organize a joint Soviet/American research sail in 1989, bringing together a group of environmentalists from both nations at a crucial time, delivering a message that saving the environment should take precedent over amassing weapons to destroy the world. It didn’t take long to realize everything Al did was geared toward making the world a better place. He traveled around the United States and other countries to learn more about the people and their culture. His outlook was always positive and he enjoyed each moment of every day.

He had a song in his heart, that’s for sure, and working together one day I heard Al singing softly. The quieter the voice, the harder you listen, and Al was singing, “Don’t run in the hall, if you do you might trip and fall …” He caught me eavesdropping, smiled and told me he was going to be playing guitar and singing at an elementary school in a few days and was practicing the songs he planned on performing.

From 1987-89, Al was the captain of the Clearwater Sloop, a beautiful boat and organization whose mission has been to preserve and protect the Hudson River and increase awareness about the state of our environment. The ship was launched in 1969. Although the state of the river has improved, we’re slow learners.

Al was a brave person who didn’t hesitate to voice his rage and frustration over gross injustices and insane political decisions. When George Bush the Senior led the first U.S. invasion of Iraq, a blood-for-oil exchange that accomplished little, ended or ruined many lives and ultimately made some of the president’s best friends very rich, Al sought a way to speak out. As a member of a local chapter of the Green Party, Al conceived and helped organize the creation of a giant peace sign made of sand spread on frozen St. Regis Lake to vent frustration with the war and show solidarity with other peace-loving people. His intent was one of pure patriotism as opposed to blindly accepting what politicians preach. A photographer took a photo from a local pilot’s plane, and the massive peace sign image appeared in the New York Times and papers around the world.

He was a Woody Guthrie radical, not just talking and singing about injustice and the need to make the world a better place, but working toward achieving those goals. Al believed strongly in the power of the group to affect change, and eventually he left this area and moved out west, for a while captaining an environmental educationship, the Adventuress. In Tacoma, Wash., he fulfilled a dream and became a firefighter. He continued to travel and explore other places, biking in Cuba, rafting down the Colorado River and riding his Harley to work or cruising around on his days off. He continued singing and songwriting, including a heart-felt tribute to his fire chief, commemorating the chief’s record 40-plus years of service. Al had been with the fire department for 12 years when he was on duty and answered a call about someone at a senior housing facility experiencing respiratory difficulties. Upon arriving at the scene of the emergency, Al apparently suffered a massive heart attack and died. Even with the aid of his paramedic emergency co-workers and friends, his big, wonderful heart could not be revived. The person he had gone to help died also.

Al died while trying to save another’s life, surrounded by some of the people he loved the most.

He’s gone, never forgotten, and here’s a story my friend Rich told me about when Al was ready to embark on the Soviet/American sail. Something about oversleeping, his car not starting or some other problem, but Al was running late, trying to hitch a ride in New York City so the boat wouldn’t leave without him. Finally a car stopped, Al got in and noticed immediately that the man driving the car was completely naked. Not wanting to pass up the ride, Al said nothing for a few uncomfortable minutes before finally asking, “So, you doing your laundry today?” The man responded, No, he just liked being naked. Never one to pass judgment, Al just shrugged and nodded. He got to the boat on time and the rest is history.