I grew up not far from Beacon, New York, the home of Pete Seeger. My dad would point out a certain road leading up the mountainside whenever we passed it. “That’s where Pete Seeger lives,” he’d say. I knew who Pete Seeger was. Somehow, I’d always known. I knew he was an activist and a pacifist, but most of all a musician.
When I got my first job at 16, working as a chambermaid, as they called it back then, at the newly constructed Holiday Inn in Fishkill, Pete Seeger was often a topic of conversation among the maids there, most of whom were from Beacon. He seemed to stir ire, and there were many times when I could not grasp how one person could stir such anger in others, nor how people could hate so vehemently someone they had never met. “But he’s a good person, he just wants fairness for all,” I’d say, in my attempts to convince the opposing side. It was my first exposure to virulent hatred for someone who was different, who saw the world in a different way and was not afraid to speak out about it. He thought for himself and acted on it and that, I knew, was good.
Beacon was also where the dentist was, Alp’s Sweet Shop, and Schoonmaker’s Department Store. There was a ferry that took you over to Newburgh on the other side of the Hudson River, which I believe has once again resumed service. We’d ride that ferry pretty often, summer and winter. My dad would take us across, just for an outing. In the winter, we’d huddle outside against the bitter wind watching the hull break through the ice, heading to the Western bank of the river to shop at a big department store I can’t remember the name of; we’d get our shoes there.
Beacon was the home of Matteawan. At the time I was growing up it was a prison for the criminally insane. We could hear the honking siren from our house 15 or so miles away, screaming out a warning of escape. It was a time to lock your doors and windows until you heard the siren again, letting you know they’d found the escapee. Beacon had been a bustling, prosperous city of hat factories, but by the 1950s it was pretty run down, a place known for its rough side, the kids at the high school notoriously unruly. Beacon was where the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., founded by Pete and Toshi Seeger, had its home and the boat would often dock there. It’s where you caught the train to go into New York City and beyond. The station is right alongside the river, overlooking a small park and the murky Hudson River.
I was standing on the crowded train platform one day, in my early twenties, heading back into the city. It was a hot summer day. A damp and smelly tunnel led under the tracks. A young woman came and stood next to me. She waved back to a small group of people standing across the parking lot, next to where the Clearwater was docked. A car drove up and a man got out. He quickly walked over to the tunnel that led to the train platform. Suddenly he was standing next to me too, a tall and lanky man with thinning hair, a big glowing smile on his face. He’d gotten there just in time to say goodbye to, I assumed, his daughter. It was Pete Seeger.
I couldn’t help but listen to their conversation. He was so loving, a concerned parent. Did she have everything, enough money, food? “Call us when you get there,” he said, the words kind of jumping out of him. The conversation was of mundane topics but the energy that the two of them exuded was anything but mundane. They vibrated! They looked directly into each other’s eyes and I felt how much they loved each other, how intensely they knew and understood each other at the deepest level, how close a family they were.
The energy between the two of them vibrated so palpably that it flowed right out and filled the air around them. Standing so close I could not but feel it too. I suddenly understood what being alive meant, what loving another being felt like, what being focused and committed meant. I understood how Pete Seeger could captivate an audience and lead a march. His energy leapt out of him much like his words did and it was almost overwhelming.
I perceived Pete and his daughter as joyous people, so happy and full of life. I felt how unafraid they were to be themselves. It was invigorating and inspiring just standing in their presence, feeling their vibrancy, and yet at the same time I felt my own fears, how they controlled and ruled me. I felt how I wanted to be like them, full of so much life that I vibrated in the same fearless manner.
The train pulled into the station and we got on. Pete stood on the platform waving to his daughter as the train pulled out. I felt like he was waving to me too, like he was really waving to all of us, and so I lifted my hand and waved back. He stood there smiling big, his face aglow with the vibrancy of a spirit that had so much to give. A humble man in worn jeans and an old short-sleeved plaid shirt, no one special, just Pete Seeger.
This memory came to me as I thought about Pete Seeger when I heard of his death the other day, and in honor of his passing, I pass it along. That day on the train platform something stirred deeply within, something that would take me years to fully release. And yet, here I am feeling quite alive and glowing myself, having dared myself to think differently and act differently, to confront those fears that at one time kept me so frightened and closed, so quiet and unable to speak or act on my own behalf. It was my personal journey of healing that awakened my own energetic vibrancy, vibrancy that we all have within us.
Thank you, Pete Seeger, for 94 years of sharing your energy! It was nice to brush up against your vibrancy,