Bits and pieces of the story of Al Nejmeh’s life of adventure are embedded in an 18-foot-long, guitar-shaped Peace On Earthbench his friends built over the weekend in Chimacum.
Look closely and you’ll see a mosaic of the schooner Adventuress. A few feet from that is a big heart of broken red glass. Beyond that, there’s statue of a mermaid. Under her is a tiny rock mountain with a rope down it. Behind that, tucked on the other side, is a tiny statute of a kneeling firefighter.
Friends have a hard time summing up the Marrowstone Island man who captained the Adventuress, climbed Mt. Rainier annually, built a home off the grid, played banjo and guitar, sang with Pete Seeger, and became a firefighter in his 40s when others were retiring. He died May 14, 2013 giving CPR while on the job in Tacoma. He was 59.
“Al had hundreds and hundreds of friends,” said Wayne Chimenti, a co-captain of the Adventuress with Nejmeh for six years who lives also on Marrowstone. “This is sort of a form of catharsis. I told everyone to come this weekend and put something in the bench that reminds them of Al.”
And they did.
About 50 people brought physical mementos to add to the bench and intangible memories to share about what they knew of a man who, they said, had a big heart that stopped way too soon.
“He had my heart. He had all of our hearts. That’s what he did,” said long-time friend Marcia Herrmann, who owns the property where the bench was built.
The special project is located in a garden behind Farm’s Reach Café, 8972 Beaver Valley Road in Chimacum.
TRASH TO TREASURE
“Al was all about community and bringing people together,” said Chimenti as he worked July 19 to prepare the bench for others to decorate. “It was a major theme of his life.”
“The notion of this was for us to be working with our hands and be doing something artistic and all coming together to have fun. That’s what Al would love. That’s why I’m doing it.”
No tears. No whining. Just joy, art, and a little sweat.
Chimenti, who runs the Community Boat Project behind the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding in Port Hadlock, has stories of his own to tell.
Last fall, he happened upon the Peace On Earthbench Movement (POEM) and loved it. The idea of the movement is to turn trash into treasures with communities collecting garbage, stuffing plastic bottles with inorganic junk and then using the bottles like bricks to build something of value.
Chimenti started collecting bottles last fall with an idea of doing a summer camp this year with kids making an earthbench somewhere in Jefferson County.
Then his friend Al Nejmeh died.
And then Chimenti connected with Herrmann. She met Nejmeh when she was working at the Chimacum Café. They became good friends. So good, Nejmeh was the one she called upon to “give away” her daughter, April, when April married Jesse Ryan.
“Al was really special to our family,” April Ryan said Saturday while in the café whipping up a batch of brown-sugar cookies. “He was a very inspirational man and he was full of positive. He never concentrated on the negative.”
It was Nejmeh who had first suggested the Ryans start the café.
Friends say that was what he did – encourage people to do things, tell them they could, make them imagine beyond what they thought they could do.
April Ryan said the earthbench was a fitting tribute to Nejmeh.
Peace On Earthbench founder Brennan Blazer Bird, whose friend Dan “Dan Dan” Schoen worked on the Adventuress with Chimenti, was on hand Saturday and Sunday, July 20-21, to help with Nejmeh’s bench.
Bird was awarded a grant from State Farm to do a service-learning project throughout the North America, and has devoted the last year to the Peace On EarchBench Movement.
“This is the first memorial Peace On Earthbench,” Bird said of Al Nejmeh’s guitar bench that had taken shape and was being decorated behind him.
It also happens to be the first Peace On Earthbench in Washington state.
There are earthbenches in California, Georgia, Utah, Oregon, Kenya, Guatemala, Bolivia, Ghana, the Philippines and now, Jefferson County.
One of the plastic bottle bricks from Nejmeh’s bench was saved and will be kept for what Bird hopes will be one final, special earthbench sited somewhere in the Middle East.
“We have this vision of building hopefully 1,000 bottle-brick benches for peace,” he said. “I’ll be taking a bottle from this project to save for that final project.”
“We like to say every bench is built in solidarity with each other. It’s so cool Washington’s first bench is a memorial for Al. It’s all about bringing the community together to transform waste into a community place.”
WALKING THE TALK
“Al was an environmentalist,” remembered Chimenti, who hopes more earthbenches can be built in Jefferson County. He knows he’ll build one in Port Hadlock.
Chimenti is not sure exactly how many bottles went into Al Nejmeh’s memorial bench, but there were at least five cases of plastic bottles, four cases of wine bottles and three cases of beer bottles.
It’s also fitting that Paul Anthoni of France, a friend of Chimenti’s, just happened to be on hand to help with the project. Anthoni was working on a mosaic of the schooner Adventuress.
Nejmeh was also a world traveler. He saw beyond the boundaries of borders.
Before Nejmeh died, he was working on writing about his adventure in the 1980s when he chartered a schooner that carried Russian and American sailors across the Atlantic. It was a story about environmentalism and peace between nations, said Chimenti.
Closer to home, Teresa Soucia of Seattle remembered a trip she took with Nejmeh down the Grand Canyon only last year.
“This is what Albert would want. This is his life. We’re recreating his life,” Soucia said as she stood and admired the endeavor.
Soucia had created the small rock mountain under the mermaid statue as her memory of him. She recalled her first encounter with Nejmeh. She was in charge of a mountaineers climbing program that had prerequisites. Nejmeh wanted to bypass those prerequisites and be part of the program. He succeeded.
A memorial written about Nejmeh said he was “a staunch environmentalist, a principled conservationist, a philanthropist, a community volunteer, a gifted singer/songwriter, a poet and author, a sailor, a cyclist, a teacher, a builder, a lifelong New York Jets fan, a mountain climber, a world traveler, and a consummate adventurer.”
“He walked his talk. Everything he did, he did with energy,” Soucia said.
And if you stop and sit awhile on the 18-foot-long guitar-shaped bench created by his friends on four hot days in July, you’ll find a little piece of something that made someone think of Nejmeh.