Creek Of Redemption

1979: Ten years after John Beal got back home to Seattle, Washington, he still carried Vietnam around with him. The screech of artillery fire still echoed in his ears; the once lush jungle, scorched dead by Agent Orange, still haunted his conscience.

War memories clawed their way to his heart, gripped and squeezed. Within seven months, John Beal suffered three heart attacks.

V.A. Hospital doctors diagnosed the then-29-year-old much decorated veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and heart disease. He had two options, they said: undergo open heart surgery the next morning or be dead within a year. Certain they were wrong, Beal stomped out, his hospital smock flapping in the breeze behind him, and walked the mile-and-a-half back home.

He got a second opinion, which was even more grim. Each heart attack had done successive damage, the doctor said. His post-traumatic stress would almost certainly precipitate another coronary — and that would be the end of him. “You’ve got only about four months to live,” explained this physician.. “Get a hobby.”

About a week later, still dazed and dejected, Beal wandered down to Hamm Creek, a tributary of the Duwamish River that flowed into an abandoned sewage treatment plant. The county had sprayed its shores with weedkiller, shriveling almost everything green that once had grown here. A 1957 Ford peeked its nose out from the muddy bottom. Worn tires, rusted machinery, and castoff appliances littered its banks. The stench of chemical wastes wafted up from its currents.

Yet Beal was inexplicably drawn to this forlorn place: This is how we left Vietnam., he thought to himself. And suddenly, he knew what he had to do with the time left to him. He would clean up Hamm Creek.

Trekking into the muck, he began hauling out garbage bags, rusted paint cans, and discarded furniture. Piling the trash at the end of the road, Beal returned for more. Back and forth, creek to trash heap, he chipped away at the mountain of sodden debris, barely noticing that a larger weight had begun lifting from his heart.

1980: “You’ve gotta come down and get your garbage,” Beal explained to the stranger on the other end of the phone line. “Who the hell are you?” the man hollered back. Beal explained that he had found the man’s name in a bag of trash that had been dumped illegally in Hamm Creek. His message was simple: take it back, or I’ll turn you in. “And you’ll have to pay a fine and do it anyway.”

Some of the people he called cursed or complained; others offered embarrassed apologies. One not only picked up his own trash, he helped Beal haul out a derelict tractor.

The creek still reeked of oil and solvents but most of the debris was gone — several tons worth. Now Beal started dreaming of bringing Hamm Creek back to life. Then, one steamy day, as he struggled to extricate an old refrigerator, he felt a pain in his chest. Resigned to his fate, he kept working. If it’s going to happen, it might as well happen here.

But he didn’t die.

Without really thinking, he blurted out a deal: “Lord, if you’ll let me live long enough to clean this up and bring fish back to it, I guarantee I’ll get it done.”

1995: Against all odds, both Beal and Hamm Creek had not only recovered, but thrived. He had started with no training, with no funds but his V.A. pension. But by ingenuity, trial and error, he learned.

He seeded the banks with buttercups, then planted bushes and saplings. He brought crawdads from another stream. When Hamm proved too toxic to support them, he devised a system to skim pollutants from the water with tree branches and later, with fiber baffles. His next batch of crawdads survived.

A fisherman brought Beal two live salmon, a male and a female. They died without spawning. Disappointed but determined, Beal opened the dead female, placed her eggs in a hand-dug bed, then opened the male further upstream to release his sperm. Beal didn’t know if what he’d done made sense. But 45 days later, the creek glistened with about 2,000 baby salmon.

He nursed injured hawks, foxes, raccoons and other wildlife, setting them free in their new habitat — an entire ecosystem recreated from scratch.

Then he formed a non-profit foundation , I’m A Pal, to protect not just Hamm Creek but the shores along the Duwamish River. Instead of sifting through bags of garbage for the owners of trash, Beal now patrolled in a boat, tracking down factories that dumped chemicals. His efforts attracted volunteers who worked with him to protect and restore the fragile area.

But for all his friends and admirers, he made at least as many enemies — like the factory owners Beal had videotaped in the act of polluting the waters. A couple of years earlier, he had turned in an electroplating factory for poisoning the creek with discarded cyanide, a byproduct of its chrome plating operations. The factory had gone bankrupt as a result.

Beal drove out in his old blue Bronco to check on the now-abandoned factory. The door was held closed with nothing but an old paint can. Inside, a sickening odor emanated from huge deteriorating vats.

Beal quickly alerted the EPA, which discovered 100,000 pounds of cyanide — the same chemical used in gas chamber executions — stored next to 40,000 gallons of flammable and shock-sensitive liquids. Left in their decaying state, the containers could have ruptured, intermixing the chemicals and creating a cyanide plume that would have blanketed the neighboring community.

Declared a government Superfund site, a hazardous waste emergency team in spacesuit-like protective gear began the $2.5 million clean-up.

When Beal and the factory owner next crossed paths, the man threatened his life. Beal’s reply: “Take your best shot.”

John Beal can’t take the time to worry about the enemies he’s made. The great-great-great grandchildren of his first two salmon have come back to spawn. Birds nest in the trees he planted. But factories still operate along the river and the creek. So Beal still patrols the banks, still tends the plants and the wildlife, still skims pollution from the waters, all on a shoestring budget. He’s not going to stop. He promised back in 1980, if he lived, he would make it right.

And a deal’s a deal.


A different version of this story was published in the Reader’s Digest.