Memorial Day on Cattle Point Road

A week from my departure to Montana, I had hoped to be writing about that. But something else is on my heart right now.

It’s Memorial Day out on Cattle Point Road
We honor the heroes who’ve fallen at war
Here another young life lost but for nothing at all
What a shame now

Yesterday I learned that the young man who died in this weekend’s car accident was the homeless banjo player who had played with me at the Doctor’s Office. Last night I nicknamed him John Banjo and stayed up late recording his song. I played it until my fingers hurt, with Canyon sleeping next to me the whole time. I have posted draft lyrics at the bottom and appreciate your feedback and suggestions.

Yet another waltz, yet another eulogy. This one for John Parish,  aka Sabien, an artist my age whose life was lost to alcohol, the consequence of yet another young person’s bad choice. Here on San Juan Island, there seems to be a disproportionately high incidence of drunk driving accidents. The results are tragic. At 6:30pm on Memorial Day the community is lucky that the minivan didn’t collide with a family on their way back from the beach.

At first I thought it would be best to keep this song to myself, that I could best honor the families involved by staying out of it. But this is life or death. I won’t sit back while young people in my generation make choices to throw their lives away. I don’t have an answer except to try to speak my heart in song. It’s what I do. I know John Banjo would have appreciated being eulogized in song, and would have wanted his life to stand for something. I would hope some day that one of my songs could help a young person make the right choice.

Screenshot from John Parish's myspace

John Parish's myspace page, which he last logged into on days before his death, contained pleas for peace and unity. His photos tell the story of an artistic and warm, if nomadic, young man.

John Banjo's scribbles in my notebook

John Banjo's scribbles in my notebook - if you click on it enlarge be warned of the foul language

A few weeks ago an intoxicated young man came to one of my shows at the Doctor’s Office Cafe in Friday Harbor. He sat near the window and listened intently, seemed to be enjoying himself. I was delighted when he began writing on the notepad that was my email sign up sheet. But after he’d been writing on it for a few minutes, I noticed he wasn’t really writing. He was scribbling. Eventually, he started stabbing the paper and finally staggered out. Later I deciphered the words within the scribbles, “$#%@ you, do you want to fight?!” That couldn’t possibly have been meant for me while I was singing sweet folk songs and my friends would keep me safe so I wasn’t worried. It was only the disturbed ramblings of a substance-altered mind. But I was glad I didn’t have to walk alone to my car after the show.

Two weeks later I encountered a young man with a banjo in town on the way to another show. I invited him to come jam to a song or two with me. And he did. I’m not very good with faces, so I was surprised when I later learned that the nice banjo player was the same individual who had been stabbing my notebook. Then I began seeing him everywhere around town with that banjo on his back.

Some might have said John Parish, being homeless and often intoxicated, had put himself at risk. People like him tend to get ostracized for often legitimate reasons. After learning that John Banjo was the man who had stabbed my notebook and written that threat, I had decided I would avoid him, especially at night. But I never wished him dead. And I could tell from the light that had shown out of him when he was sober that one day that there was no monster inside him. He had just chosen an alternative lifestyle.

I don’t know Dana Kempton (the driver), but I suspect he is not a bad person on the inside, though he made a devastating choice. My heart goes out to him too as it will take him untold years to rebuild his own life. This will always hurt him, and this small town may never forget what happened on Memorial Day in 2010 on Cattle Point Road. He may get turned down for apartments, jobs, or even friends. His life was lost too, though in a different and much more reparable way.

And the story of Dana and John Banjo is sadly played out every day all over the world.

Rest in peace, John Banjo. Thank you for the songs.

Memorial Day On Cattle Point Road
words and music by Britt K. Arnesen
first draft June 3, 2010

Young Dana’s got a brown bag from the Little Store
The devil told the young man that he could drink some more
John Banjo hops in through the passenger door
He don’t sense the danger

The devil trailed the minivan to Cattle Point Road
Where they were headed that evening we’ll never quite know
‘Cause when the devil tapped his shoulder Dana lost control
Of the minivan

It’s Memorial Day out on Cattle Point Road
We’re remembering the heroes who’ve battled at war
Here another young life lost but for nothing at all
What a shame now
Such a shame now

Young Dana came back from that hospital
John Banjo is dead; makes him a criminal
John Banjo had a family had a name he knows
Haunts his days now
He’s going away now

It’s Memorial Day out on Cattle Point Road
We’re remembering the heroes who died in the wars
Here another young life is lost but for nothing at all
What a shame now
A banjo that no one plays now

In every small town there is a Dana
There’s a banjo, there’s a brown bag, the devil’s waiting
It’s the choices that we make to break or save us
Every day now

Each Memorial Day out on Cattle Point Road
We’ll honor the fallen who died in the war
Two more young lives lost but for nothing at all
What a shame now
Such a shame now

About 907Britt

"907Britt is pure folk." -SunStar "...finely crafted lyrics." -Americana Music Times "...a new light on the folk scene." -Lively Times "Arnesen effortlessly mixes elements of folk, country and bluegrass..." -Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
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2 Responses to Memorial Day on Cattle Point Road

  1. Goober says:

    Indeed an avoidable death is a sad waste no matter how little the person involved actually contributed to the community that enabled him to live here & survive in relative comfort all things considered.. Les’s son Dana will hopefully have to answer for his decision making but, I think everybody here in every aspect needs to be accountable for their actions & the results of the lifestyle choices that seem to be accepted readily here if not even embraced, rewarded & supported that elsewhere in the real world would not be allowed to perpetuate to no end and, in this case this end.
    I’m again saddened by our Islands mentality that ultimately help lead to this young mans needless, tragic death by not holding all parties concerned accountable or not for their daily mod us operand um.
    I knew him and, also the opportunities that were never pursued or, pooh poohed that perhaps could have led to better choice making through a stronger sense of overall responsibility in all aspects of ones lifestyle choices.
    Britt, as always you are awesome in what you wrote & why & thanks for stepping up and, doing something…sure wish the rest of us could way beforehand…as we should of…called it like it really was on a daily, monthly basis..
    thanks for what you did….wish I woulda done more when it woulda mattered..
    miss ya.— On F

  2. Josh Hanna says:

    I was a friend of Dana’s growing up, though I haven’t talked to him in a long time. I met John briefly, and knew of him as Sabien. I sympathize greatly with every one affected by this tragedy (including Dana Kempton). Sabien was a really nice guy. I only met him several times but you could tell he was very kind and meant well. Dana is the same way.

    Unfortunately, from growing up in Friday Harbor (in the same class as Dana), I understand the reasons behind this tragedy more than most people . The drug and alcohol problem is out of control on san juan island. Until now, I’ve never been mature enough to say that myself.

    On San Juan Island drinking and driving was extremely prevalent (and socially normal) among EVERYONE I knew growing up. I lost a good friend my junior year in high school to an alcohol related accident. He was hit by another friend of mine who was driving under the influence. This is absolutely ridiculous. I’ll be the first to admit that binge drinking is an epidemic for my generation and the generations following. I’ve almost lost several other friends because of alcohol abuse, and I’ve been in situations that could have easily compromised my own life as well.

    I believe the only solution is education. These tragedies could easily be diverted. Dana’s drug and alcohol education was a COMPLETE JOKE, and so was mine. On an island where the youth is bored and restless, solutions are desperately needed in the community. The youth needs more outlets or you can guarantee these tragedies will occur over and over again. It sickens me and people need to take charge. Not by just making arrests. Dana was an adult, but his behaviors were developed and accepted while he was a Friday Harbor teenager. Almost everyone in my class behaved the same way. Our culture seems to embrace rebellion and stupidity rather than intelligence and discipline.

    I saw Dana a couple years ago, and I could tell he had been abusing substances just by the way he looked. I know a lot of people who have turned out the same way. I’m really sad for Dana because I know this could have happened to many people, especially on San Juan Island. He should not be charged for vehicular homicide. I know this is an emotional matter for everyone, and this incident is rightfully being taken seriously. But, John was a friend of Dana’s, and homicide implies willful killing of another human being. When it comes down to it, it was an accident of stupidity, but an accident none the less.

    Our entire community is to blame, not just Dana Kempton. He will live with this weight forever which is a punishment worse than death.

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