‘That he not busy being born, is busy dying’ – Dylan
Jeffrey Bergeron, aka Biff America, is avoiding Summit County during mud season. He’ll be back some time when there’s snow on the ground. So, while we wait, we’ll run some of Biff’s Greatest Hits.This column was started 20 months ago and completed last night.
I stood in the crowd and watched him play his guitar. I was (doing what I call dancing) and was surrounded by friends. Most in the room knew John was very sick. Most of us knew that it was only a matter of time before cancer would finally accomplish what blindness, disease and hardship could not; wipe the smile off John’s face. I think most of us had the feeling that this was a night we would remember. I left that bar two hours ago, it is now 2 a.m.; I’m typing drunk. While I watched him tonight I felt both great grief and respect. Grief knowing it would be a miracle if John lived another two years. Respect because, despite intense pain, the man on stage was managing to entertain us. I know, first hand, how hard it is to entertain when suffering from as little as a bad mood, head cold or a sore back. I can only imagine the courage it takes to stand on stage playing music and telling bad jokes when your doctors have given you a ‘sooner than later’ death prognosis. Once during the chorus of a John Prine song, I saw his face convulse in what could only be a tremor of pain. I fought back the tears and looked for a waitress. It was hard to see him like that, but I wasn’t sure if I’d get another chance to hear him play. So I did what emotional, Irish cripples have been doing for generations – I drank a fair amount of whiskey.Today is June 21, 1999. I’m not sure if I’ll ever publish this column. For years, as my livelihood, I’ve taken real life experiences, often involving friends and family, and have shared them in my columns and TV and radio shows. Sometimes I feel that I make my living just by living. I’ll sit on this column in hopes that John’s recovery will turn it into fiction.
When I met him 20 years ago, John was one of the best blind athletes on the planet. He competed, and won, Nordic races all over the world against highly subsidized athletes. I too was a cross country ski racer, often winning the “convicted felon, talk show host with a speech impediment,” category at regional races. It was at that time that I began to guide John through some of his competitions and workouts. I would ski in front, next to or behind him describing the terrain and suggesting technique. We skied together in a few ‘open’ races, with John beating many of the sighted skiers with me struggling to keep up. What I remember most was John’s joy, enthusiasm and courage. Often he would be careening down narrow, tree-lined-trails, on the brink of control, with me screaming directions, and John simply screaming. When ski-guiding the blind, a guide’s last resort is to yell “SIT.” That tells the skier that he is in danger and must immediately sit or fall to stop himself before he hits something or someone. There would be times when I’d be very uncomfortable with the speed John was managing while weaving through the trees on an icy trail. Not wanting to be responsible for ending his competitive career – or life – I’d yell “SIT,” sometimes John would refuse. At the bottom of the hill, and out of danger, John would be howling with delight, while I simply howled. “Damn it, John.” I’d say, “You’ve got to SIT when I make the call. John would look at me with a face deformed, beautiful and innocent and say, ‘Oh, were you talking to me?'”John has already fought two rounds with cancer and won. By all accounts this last bout should have killed him. I know he is sick, scared and hurting, but I’ve never heard him complain. He was on stage singing “Bobby McGee.” When he sang the lines, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” I was glad for the Crown Royal. The room was filled with those of us who knew less about pain and less about freedom than the man on stage did. As the packed room swayed to John’s music, I noticed that most displayed what I like to call a “contradiction of expressions”- many had tears in their eyes and a smile on their face. Anyone who can make you laugh and cry at the same time is a remarkable person.
It is Feb. 27, 2001. I recently learned that John hasn’t long to live. Though this has been said before and he managed to beat the odds, this time it looks serious. Up until a few days ago, he was still able to ignore the pain, play some music and tell bad jokes. He is still able to do that, only much less often and for shorter periods of time. Truth in journalism requires I point out that the cancer didn’t damage John’s comedic delivery, it never was very good. It is possible that John will do what few have managed to do and beat his condition. It is possible that he’ll read this column and chide me for my usual habit of overreacting. Or maybe in this incidence, unlike times past, when God tells my friend to “SIT” John will finally obey.Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of “Biff America” can be seen on RSN television, heard on KOA radio and read in several mountain publications. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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