Oliver twist by Charles dickens was always my favorite book because I lived it, as a child no one understood me and I acted out, I was being abused and couldn’t tell anyone so I acted out, my mother was a terrible mother my family sucked so I acted out, from an early age I knew I was a girl in a boy’s body living in a family who would drown me if they knew so I acted out so to the world I was uncontrollable.
In primary, what the Americans call elementary, I held the record for the most expulsions by a student in a single year it still stands. By good luck and the intervention of some loving sports coaches I survived, just barely. Then my mom was told I had one last chance or I would finish my education in juvenile detention.
I had an appointment at the local education department field office with a teacher Michael Belnap, he it seems ran a class called the alternative mode a rag tag bunch of students just like me who all acted out in their own way. We met,he in his hawaiin shirt and camo shorts and sneakers with tom sellecks moustache,he chatted and he asked me why I did what I did? He looked at me with eyes that could see the soul, two weeks later I was in “the huts” He it seems was a cognitive Fagan, and we were his band of emotional pickpockets.
I was a young Oliver and through his compassion along with his sidekick Trevor brown together they took flotsam and jetsam from the education department and put together vessels worthy of the Cunard line.
Each one of us today has survived in their own way, many of us have travelled the world and many of us have floated on the sea of emotions but our north star was always one Michael belnap”belly” “jelly belly” We gathered with our Fagan in a Nissan hut not a loft of Victorian London,where we picked classes not pockets(well most of the time) and through belly’s compassion and guidance and no bullshit approach to life we made it.
That was 1979 Adelaide, fast forward to 2009 sunshine coast Queensland Australia, some tough life savers decided that my sorry ass in my wheelchair deserved to be in the water enjoying my blessed sunburnt country if only for one day. The view from a wheelchair is different you see so much that others miss and nothing was different this wondrous day. As they tipped me back to push me easier the life savers tower came into view and there was my Fagan, belly older, a little rounder the moustache still so good tom selleck would be jealous and I asked the life guard “is that mike Belnap?’ they replied “you mean belly?” I laughed and asked them to yell “do kids still call you jelly belly”? They did and he laughed and said “there’s only a small bunch of brats who call me that which one are you”?
In the next hour on that beachline in Queensland the years rolled back, the memories returned I came out to belly he said he didn’t care he only ever wanted us to be happy and we have remained in contact ever since.
A week ago belly posted he was solo sailing up the Aussie coast in his latest yacht and he has regaled us with pics and brownie his side kick from our school days even joined him, I shouldn’t call him a sidekick he worked for us just as hard as belly did but for the purpose of this story it works.
On one of today’s pics someone posted “you lead us in work and you lead us in retirement” and I thought about this, how does compassion retire? How does a man who has saved so many turn off the caring? he’s had his own struggles. His beautiful boy TY was born with down syndrome but in typical Belnap fashion has grown to be an outstanding human and in 2010 his beloved Nancy took her last wave and didn’t surf back to shore.
I answered that post “he’s not retired just redirected” but I’m sure even now there’s someone who thanks the heavens above every day Belnap is in their life, because I know I do and someone of that caliber doesn’t know how to be any different. The saddest day I can imagine is when he takes his last set but I know the many in my life who he saved pray every day that is not for many years to come.
As I write this I am six months into recovery for shoulder reconstruction and a 97% torn rotator cuff and it only seems to be getting worse, I have been permanently disabled with wheels under my ass for almost a decade but Belnap’s influence has me tell myself every day my broken body is in a chair my brain just hitches a ride.
So just like the verse in banjo Patterson’s Clancy of the overflow where he sits in his office imagining clancy “up on the Lachlan where drovers go”, I imagine belly spinnakers set full billowing canvas and the thought of the pacific and the wind and his laugh gets me through the pain and the boredom and who knows I may get to sit in his boson’s chair again and run my toes across the surface, this time were all a little older a little grayer and if were a little wiser it’s because of the captain at the wheel.