Abraham Wylie Bettinger
1986 - 2015
This is a story about a truly unique young man who cut a wide swath during his short life.
Wylie's illness made it impossible for him to sit quietly for any period of time, making school difficult. Many of his teachers lacked even a molecule of empathy making matters even worse, but he didn't take it passively. It could truthfully be said that, in teacher-speak, he 'acted out' often. In 5th grade he organized a strike against a teacher that would not allow him to run for class office. In junior high art class he was assigned a project to draw a cartoon. He drew an Al Hirschfeld-like (New Yorker fame) caricature that was impressively sophisticated. But in tiny, almost imperceptibly small, letters he wrote 'eat shit' in the eyes. His teacher first displayed the remarkable piece in a place of prominence. An alert classmate pointed out the epithet causing riotous guffaws amongst the adolescents and anger from the teacher. She destroyed his work of art and banished Wylie to the furnace room to spend the rest of the day with the janitor. This turned out well for both Wylie and the janitor, as they became fast friends. John Cougar Mellencamp sang it, but Wylie lived it, "I fought authority, authority always won."
Wylie's business may have been on the cusp of greatness. Shortly before his death he signed a three-year lease for expanded space, bought a new labeling machine, upgraded the printing for his labels, added three new flavors, and engaged a distributor expanding his reach to stores from Portland to Northern California, including New Seasons Markets, the regional equivalent to Whole Foods. Bottles of Wylie's Turmeric, Ginger Ale, and Root Beer had some how found their way into a Whole Foods in NYC. His next major project was the installation of an automated bottling line. Unusual for a near mystic, he was a skilled brewer and an astute marketer of his healing jun soft drinks. It was clear from recent business decisions that his plans didn't include dying. Wylie's Honey Brews was poised to take off like a rocket.
Michael is a Native American man in his 40's, ruggedly handsome with a wispy beard and moustache and was one of Wylie's closest friends. They shared many common interests as members of the Red Earth Descendants, and they sang and drummed in the same longhouse group, an eclectic group of native and non-native Americans who once performed before the Dalai Lama. He told how they met shortly after Wylie arrived in Ashland. "A group of Native Americans were playing stick ball, a form of lacrosse, in the park. It's a pretty rough game, and this little red haired boy was sitting nearby watching. I would later learn he had recently recovered from a bicycle accident where he suffered a spiral compound fracture in his leg. He asked if he could play, we said 'sure', and he's been part of the Red Earth Descendants every since."
Michael, continued, "I've known several tough Native American men who were terribly racist. They hate whites passionately, but they loved Wylie. They learned so much from him, and he learned from them. He had the ability to relate to a wide range of people. I've never met anyone who better bridged the gap between native and non-native peoples. He would approach a homeless man the same way he would a rich man. He would be respectful and listen with sincere empathy."
"Wylie is a minor celebrity in Ashland. People in Eugene also know of him. He has an almost mystic quality that enables him to connect to people from all walks of life. He greeted every new person in his life as a friend. Perhaps because he didn't have a wife or children, it made him approachable to everyone, almost like a shaman."
Ashland is a town of about 20,000 located in the Rogue River Valley about 10 miles north of the California border. It is home to Oregon Southern University, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and a large, but transient, community of people once known as hippies. Wylie loved Ashland, and Ashland loved Wylie. Over 300 souls packed the Ashland community center adjacent to Lithia Park to celebrate his life. For one who trod the earth so lightly, he left large footprints.
Michael served as the informal master of ceremonies. Wylie had been warmly welcomed into the Native American community, and his celebration was conducted accordingly. Six singers sat around a large drum and opened with several Indian burial songs. Their leader spoke of how the next journey can take up to a year as the spirit winds its way to a new home by way of the Milky Way. He explained that they wouldn't mention the departed by name, so as to not confuse the spirit world.
Two elders, both significant personages, spoke of their love for Wylie, Roy, the great grandson of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe and Eddie, the great grandson of Sitting Bull of the Lakota tribe. Family members were pleased but puzzled when Roy privately referred to Wylie's as an elder. He explained that Wylie was wise beyond his years, and his departing spirit was now worthy of that tribute. Roy loved Wylie deeply, and Wylie often spoke of 'Uncle' with reverence. Michael explained that had Roy been in charge of the ceremony, there would have been 3-4 hours of songs not 3-4 songs. Michael told me, "After you meet Roy, go online and look at a picture of Chief Joseph. The resemblance is startling." He was spot on.
The room was built for 100 and there were chairs for 100, but the overflow crowd filled every inch of space. All listened intently and politely as friends of Wylie came forward to share stories. The Native singers / drummers finished with a few more songs, followed by a potluck dinner and sampling of Wylie Honey Brew beverages. Eighteen cases, three of each of his six flavors, were devoured.
It was instructive to mix, listen and learn how people knew Wylie:
Stella was one of the people who came forward during the celebration and spoke lovingly of Wylie. She also spoke passionately of corn and how Wylie helped her plant and harvest the various ornamental varieties that are important to Native Americans. She urged young people to take up the task as she is 70, and her knowledge must be passed on.
One doesn't really chat with Stella; one gets cornered. She holds some pretty radical views, but as long as the listener nods appreciatively, no one gets hurt. I asked her how she met Wylie.
"I live in a yellow school bus that I park near the Wellsprings Center. I farm a few rented acres nearby. It was a Christmas morning, and I heard a knock on my door, and it was Wylie and his sister Cory. I'd never seen him before in my life. He said, 'I don't know if you celebrate Christmas or not, but could we come in and share some of our tea?' We spent the rest of the afternoon together, and I've loved him ever since."
While waiting for the celebration to begin, I sat next to a tall, thin young man with crutches. When he stood up, I noticed he was missing a leg, and I would later learn that resulted from a motorcycle accident ten years earlier. His face, neck, and all visible parts of his body were covered in tattoos. We talked for some time giving me the chance to carefully look at him, but I could find no perceptible design or pattern for the markings. He had matching rings stuck in his lower lip, and his hair was cropped on the sides with a Mohawk-like band of long hair running across the top of his head. His manner of speaking reminded me of the Beau Bridges character, Dude, in the movie The Big Lebowski. Oddly, I looked more out of place at the gathering than did Infinity. He had just returned from the 'give away' table proudly displaying Wylie's former backpack, explaining how much he needed such an item. We introduced ourselves and chatted.
"Wylie and I were kindred spirits. I'd see him around town, and we'd visit and maybe share some of our possessions. He would always be interested in what and how I was doing. We were brothers."
I asked him how he came to be known as Infinity, and he explained, "My name used to be Rex, but about a year ago I used that word in response to a question, and it didn't feel right. I believed that was a sign from God, or whatever label you choose for your spiritual father, and He told me to change my name. I looked at the tattoo of the infinity symbol on my left wrist, and I had just started a drug rehab service I dubbed Infinity, so I decided to call myself Infinity. My full name is now Infinity Ra El."
"Is that on your driver's license?"
"I don't have a driver's license."
"I visited Wylie when he first went into the hospital in Ashland. He took his briefcase and some work with him. In typical Wylie fashion he insisted that we not tell anyone he was in the hospital. He called the day before he died to tell me that he loved me. The night after he passed I dreamt of Wylie dressed in a bright blue shirt with polka dots accompanied by an unrecognizable friend. He was skipping and happy. It was totally out of character for cynical Wylie. He was a friend to everyone, but he only let a few people get close to him."
"I owned and operated a perma-culture organic farm in the Pangaia Region on the island of Hawaii, when I met Wylie. He was only about 15 or 16 at the time. He came as part of a Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) group, and we became acquainted. I introduced him to the healing benefits of turmeric and ginger, my two primary crops. These ingredients would later form the basis of his two best selling sodas. Wylie was a sponge for information. He was willing to do whatever was necessary to learn more about everything."
"I moved to the Ashland area in 2004 continuing to farm turmeric and ginger. Serendipitously, Wylie came to the area, started Wylie Honey Brews and became one of my best customers."
An older man was sitting in the back of the hall holding a Deering Good Time banjo in his lap. He was wearing a Tyrolean style hat, a loose fitting, nearly ragged, wool sports coat, and dirty khaki shorts. A meaningful portion of his teeth were missing, and his fingernails were nearly one inch long, unusual for a banjo player. After the formal celebration people were gathered on a nearby patio eating their potluck delights and drinking Wylie's beverages. Banjo guy was playing and singing accompanied by a pretty young girl with a percussion instrument. He had a raspy, but pleasing, voice. In between songs we chatted, and he explained the long fingernails and only played chords fretted with the flat of his finger. Then he asked if I'd like to hear his version of Wylie's Honey Brews done to the tune of Bascom Lamar Lunford's Good Old Mountain Dew? It was pretty darn clever, and he kept the critical phrase, 'Them that refuses are few.' It would have been the perfect theme for Wylie's ads.
Older woman with Bernie Sanders button
"Did Wylie dye his hair?"
After laughing, I replied, "No. Why do you ask?"
"I don't really know Wylie. I would see him around town, and he would greet me with a warm smile. I would see him leaving Tai Chi when I was going in, and he just seemed like a wonderful young man. When I read about his death in the paper, I thought I would just come and learn more about this wonderful spirit."
"But his bright red hair seemed to be a slightly different shade each time I'd see him."
I explained about his illness and how it affected his skin color and perhaps his hair coloring as well.
From a business associate
"I was walking in Lithia Park when a commotion caught my eye. There was a grouping of deer surrounding something that I couldn't see. I was intrigued so I moved closer and saw Wylie in their midst performing some form of meditative Tai Chi exercises. The deer were mesmerized."
From a pretty young woman
"I met Wylie ten years ago. I was having a bad day, so I walked down to Lithia Park. I saw Wylie sitting alone on a park bench. I didn't know him, but I felt comfortable joining him. I sat down, and we chatted, I felt better instantly, and we've been friends every since."
Another pretty young woman
"A group of us were living communally in a large house on Ohio Street. One day, Wylie showed up in his blue truck filled with 1,000 lbs of pears and a fruit press. He needed help juicing the load before he had to return the borrowed tool, and we all pitched in. It was hard work, but we've laughed about it forever and that's how we met Wylie."
And another pretty young woman
"He wanted his sodas to be perfect. I remember helping him in the early stages of fermenting and brewing his sodas. He'd bring them to my house to test taste, but they would mostly blow up when you'd twist off the cap. Everything was a huge mess, but he kept working at it until he perfected the product. Later, Wylie would contribute sodas to every event we organized. I'd offer to pay, but he'd always decline."
"I remember Wylie's fig phase where he started dozens of fig trees and planted them up and down the highway."
A young man
"I didn't really know Wylie, but I knew of him. I figured there'd be a lot of hot chicks here."
On Sunday morning family and friends again gathered at Wylie's house to help clean up and dispose of his remaining possessions. A 10-point buck stood in the midst of beehives in the apple orchard in Wylie's front yard. His back yard is shaded by large Douglas firs and Lodgepole pines and is bordered by Lithia Creek, a tributary of the Rogue River. Two bucks, a half dozen does, and an abundance of squirrels appear to have made the place their home. As we were about to leave, a large gray owl watched over us from a perch high in one of the Douglas firs. The owl waited until everyone came out from the house for a suitable viewing, and then it flew off. Wylie's rented property was a veritable Snow White scene, lacking only bluebirds holding a cape and singing.
Wylie loved bees. He once observed a swarm of bees balled together at the top of a Douglas fir in his yard. He climbed to it, swatted it down to the ground and managed to get the swarm safely in a hive. He later found a queen and introduced it to his hive, repeated the process, and started producing his own honey, the principal ingredient for his honey brews. It was a sad moment when a knowledgeable beekeeper came to take Wylie's beloved hives.
Wylie's illness caused constant itching making rest difficult, and he rarely slept for more than a few hours at a time. He made the best of this bad situation by never allowing his mind to be idle. Wylie's possessions spoke volumes of his interests. He did not own a television or electronic games. He did own several guitars, mandolins, ukeleles, fifes, ceremonial drums, and thumb pianos. He played them all well, and he had a beautiful singing voice. His books were about oaks, acorns, plants, bees, herbs, spices, Native American culture, and philosophy. He had boxes of exotic spices and herbs with which he experimented to discover new flavors and ingredients for Wylie Honey Brews. He left a collection of his beautiful fabric art creations and clever promotional items he designed to market his brews. His music assemblage consisted of artists unknown to his totally un-hip 70-year-old uncle. Most pronounced was the presence of baskets of acorns in varying states of processing to become flour. His outbuilding contained unique tools designed specifically for acorn processing.
A common theme was sincerely expressed, "He was always there for us. He was kind and gentle. We loved him so. He was an inspiration." But those were his acquaintances. There was also a very small group who really knew him and knew of his suffering. They knew he couldn't sleep and was in near constant pain. They knew he had forestalled death on several occasions, yet he still kept fighting. He used his limited energies to build a remarkable business, pursued his artistic and musical inclinations, was supremely curious, and stayed active in causes about which he was passionate. His inner circle saw him and knew him at his low points, when the steroids made him crazy, when the healthcare system attempted to rob him of his dignity, when the pain made him want to withdraw and quit, and when he felt all alone. And like his family, they loved him deeply.