By Jacob Knutson
When I arrive at lunch and sit amongst my peers, and I enjoy gazing into the immense sea of possibilities. I see a future writer pawing their way through another book, a future mathematician squeezing in another problem before the bell rings, a comedian cracking another joke. As I look out, above my lunch, at numerous vials of potential, I begin to realize how intermediate life truly is. How a sapling may grow into a tree, which, in turn, bears fruit, and it is that fruit that we eat so we too may grow. I begin to perceive how much power change has over our lives.
We can all agree that life is never verily stagnant. That in our life people will come and people will go, places will change never to be the same, and memories will drift from our minds never to be brought up again. We can agree that nothing of this Earth, nor even this Earth, is definite. And while many who arrive at this conclusion leave with sadness or despair, they are not wrong in these notions. It’s truly sad we do not get to experience the beauty this Earth provides for eternity, or how one day we may not have our mother’s or father’s hands to hold. But while these impressions may be sorrowful, they do not have to be. Often when I am struck with these thoughts I recall a man whose smiling statue is situated in Memorial Park: Scotty Backens.
“I remember we would play wiffleball together after school when we were kids, probably in elementary or middle school. Scotty was always pretty clumsy, and couldn’t run the bases very well, but he always had a smile on his face,” My dad recently explained to me, teary eyed and lost in thought. Scotty was born in Rapid in 1956. He attended Stevens High School, where he began his freshman year with a cane, proceeded to a walker, and graduated in a wheelchair. At age 19 he was diagnosed with a degenerative muscle and nerve disease called spinal meningitis, and for rest of his life spent his days attending sporting events, speaking to church youth groups, habitually showing up at the YMCA for workouts, and rolling around Rapid. He made the most with what he had, which was evident by his robust, defined upper body, but frail legs. He passed away April 21, 2006, and a congregation of over 400 people attended his funeral to bid farewell to a prominent face of Rapid City. Snapping back to reality and wiping his eyes, my dad said, “He would never let his disease or really anything get him down, It just wasn’t his nature.” This is the exact reason he now has a statue devoted to him.
That is how I, too, remember Scotty. I recall, every Sunday after my mom would drop me off at my father’s work where I would stay until he finished his shift, Scotty, accompanied with his traditional neon bicycle safety flag, black bandana, french grey mustache, and smile, wheeling down 3rd Street towards the old Dan’s Supermarket, now Tuscany Market. He would spot my father and me leaving the store and take a quick turn towards us. He would greet us with the squeal of brakes, a handshake for my father, and a hair ruffle for me. The rubber padding of his profusely used weight training gloves always made my hair stand on end from static, but I didn’t mind. He and my father would catch up and tell stories from the past, and I would study Scotty.
He fascinated me, as he was one of only two people I actually knew who were in a wheelchair. He would lean back in his chair and bob forwards and backwards while talking to my father, somehow keeping his balance. I was mesmerized with his chair. The patterns on the treads of the tires, the glimmer of the chrome spokes and black paint in the sun all sparked my curiosity. I even naively asked him once if I could have a turn in it. At that my father quickly flashed me a stern look and issued an apology, but Scotty only laughed. He sat me in his lap and did a quick lap around the almost empty parking lot.
It never occurred to me when I was that young, around six or seven, what happened to Scotty. More importantly, until now, as images of my peers’ futures flash in my mind, I never realized how much strength Scotty possessed. How he lost what many take for granted and could not only smile, but laugh, cry, love and . . . live. He did not let change dictate his life.
In reality, as we students go out into this world and begin the rest of our lives, we will confront many changes. As Robert C. Gallagher said, “ Change is inevitable — except from a vending machine.” But while we cannot alter this reality of change, we can adjust the eyes which perceive this change; we can mirror the nature of Scotty. We can smile when the whole world expects us to frown, laugh when the world expects us to weep, and live when the world expects up to give up.
As lunch winds down to an end and the mass of bodies shuffle out into their respective classes, I like to look back at my fellow classmates and smile. For I know that we all have the option to choose happiness. We have the choice of letting change break us or make us. And we all have the opportunity to bring beauty and purpose into our world.