When you start by looking like this AND having a trust fund. . . where do you go from there?
Peter Pan, Lord Byron, Tarzan, Casanova, Saint-Exupéry’s Petit Prince, Ernest Hemingway: All have been invoked to describe Beard. But there is no template for an original like Beard, who possessed an insatiable appetite for drugs and danger. His art was sometimes overshadowed by his attention-getting exploits, antics that should be considered “dust in the lion’s paw,” according to the writer and Beard friend Paul Theroux. The precincts that entranced him, and formed his lifelong work, were Africa and women.
When I was in college, I saw a copy of "End of the Game" in a bookstore. I was paralyzed by it. I'd never seen anything like it before. I bought it for my father's Christmas present. I don't know how much the book fascinated him, though. I don't remember him ever commenting on it. Years later, when he died, it was one of his possessions I kept.
I bought several other Beard books as well, and over the years, I would read articles about him and his lifestyle. He seemed to have everything.
I'm not sure which came first, but I think his book led me to read "Out of Africa" and other books by Dinesen. And then, of course, I became interested in the entire thing. I read "The Blue Nile" and "The White Nile" and became fascinated by Sir Richard Burton. I read "West with the Night" by Beryl Markham when it was first re-release by North Point Press, and later books by and about Dinesen's husband, Bror Blixen, and her lover Denys Finch-Hatton, also the lover of Beryl Markham.
And more. I read it all, fiction and non-fiction, from Hemingway to John Huston to Bartle Bull, to accounts of the Happy Valley set. But it always led back to Beard, the only extant character left of the East Africa expatriates.
Explorers, colonizers, hedonists. . . imperialists.
I had picked up the adventurer's bug from my father. When I was a young boy, he twice quit jobs, loaded up a silly one wheeled trailer with army surplus camping gear, Coleman stoves and and lanterns, and drove us across the pre-interstate highway America just to see. As sons will, I became determined to outdo my father.
Before I graduated high school, I began scuba diving with my buddy, Tommy. We made mistakes, of course, getting disoriented by nitrogen narcosis on a night dive, nearly surfacing too early on a decompression dive on another (which would have ended with paralysis or death), and lastly getting lost in the chimneys of a 180 foot underwater cavern. After that, we decided to swim with the sharks and eels and barracudas on ocean reefs without rock roofs over our heads.
After college, I did my own national tour in the manner of Kerouac, hitching for months with a tent, a backpack and a pair of boots.
When my father died, he left me a small amount of money, some of which I used to buy a sailboat on which I spent many solitary nights cruising the west coast of my own home state. Later this would lead me to crew on a racing sailboat that won the Lipton Cup, a series of racing competitions.
When I met Brando, my travels became international. I slept in a hammock in the jungles of the Amazon with tribal gold miners, hiked the Andes, and later climbed some of South America's highest peaks. I took up rock climbing with my good friend M. and traversed some of the classic big wall climbs of North America.
I had outdone my father.
One day, in the early '90s, walking through SoHo, late in the afternoon on what was then the last interesting street--Broome Street--which seemed to mark the boundary with a "you are now leaving SoHo" vibe, I stumbled upon a gallery with an interesting name--The Time Is Always Now. It appeared to be another store similar to Evolution on Spring Street where I had bought an antelope horn and some deep sea fossils. I walked in.
It wasn't a shop, though. It was the gallery dedicated to all things Beard, It was huge, full of African artifacts, entire giant journals full of feathers and blood and bones, and ceiling to floor collages of Peter Beard's work. The book I had bought for my father so long ago had suddenly come to life.
Later, I read that Carnets Africains was opening in Paris. I told Brando we should just hop on a plane and go. . .and that was our plan. But something came up and Brando said he couldn't go, and that was that. I have always regretted it.
At that time, just prior to turning sixty, Beard had been busted up in Africa by an angry elephant and nearly died. He was left with broken ribs, a spleen that had to be removed, and a ton of metal in his hips and femur. Later, his prostate was removed and he had a series of strokes. And yet. . . he continued revel and to make his art.
Now that he is dead, the boo birds have descended. Beard's reputation is not so sterling.
Yesterday, tired of being stuck in place, I decided to grab some cameras with rolls of film that needed finishing I set off early in the morning determined to walk through the pain of my crippled knee. It wasn't hot, but I struggled, covered in sweat head to toe, each step becoming more painful than the last. I was slow and becoming stupid with it, so I limped back to my car and went home. Later, after I started cooking the beans and pork for dinner that night, I decided that I would try again.
Same result. I was sick with it. I thought of Beard partying through his injuries after the elephant attack, after the operations and the strokes.
Indeed. . . where do you go from there?
Dinner was really something. Per my mother's request, I used a fifteen bean mixture that included spices. I put four thick pork chops on top with salt and pepper and red pepper and what was left in a couple of bottles of pretty good wine. I added some beer, then left it to pressure cook for an hour and a half. After that, the InstaPot kept it warm until dinner. Good God. . . it was delicious.
I have to get my knee fixed. I have things to do, places to go, people to meet. Getting run over was bad enough, but I've worked my way through that as best I can. I never in my life believed there would come a time when I couldn't walk. There is still Africa that my dead ex-friend Brando cheated me out of. I want to go to Japan. I want to make things. I want to satiate some desires.
It hasn't been a half-assed life, but damn, it could have been better with an expense account.