Old Man of the Well Jack Beckman volunteers 30 years as storyteller
Montezuma Well draws visitors from miles around.
So does Jack Beckman, volunteer at the well.
Beckman is 90 years old and has dedicated his time and passion as a storyteller to guests of Montezuma Well for the past 30 years. Sitting beneath the shade of a sycamore tree near the spring that bubbles beneath the limestone reef that encircles the monumental site, he draws tourists of all ages to his side for a story or two.
Many return just for these stories. And with so much time under his belt, Beckman has just about seen it all when it comes to why people make their trek out to the magical waters.
“I once talked to White Bear’s aunt . . . White Bear was a Hopi artist. She was at the picnic grounds and I asked her if she had been up to the Well yet. She said yes, and she was very disturbed. I asked why. She said she was from the Butterfly Clan that once lived there. They had a religious gathering — which I imagine happened in the big room — and one of the elders went into a trance and turned into a serpent. There was a niece of this man and she became pregnant. When the Butterfly Clan left here they didn’t want the pregnant woman to travel with them so she stayed behind and delivered her baby with the help of the serpent. In our religion there was a snake who could talk — so in comparing our culture with theirs, we can see how the people left the Garden of Eden, the Hopi left Montezuma Well. Religious migration — it happens for all sorts of reasons.”
Interspersed with the legends of bygone tribes of the Montezuma Well, Beckman shares stories of his wife, Delores. The two were married for over 50 years. Five years ago she died of cancer. For Beckman she is always by his side. Reaching into his tote bag, he pulls a photo of himself with his wife.
He speaks in present tense: “My wife is a writer, a writer of children’s stories,” and then he passes out her business card. Fumbling through his bag once again he searches for a geological map representing the bottom of Montezuma Well. He wants to visually indicate its mysterious depths.
“I have everything in this bag,” he said. “As my wife used to say about her purse, I have everything but money and men in here.”
As a crowd begins to gather, Beckman asks if he can sing a song. He sings for the choir at the Church of the Red Rocks, sings at weddings and he sings at funerals. “I’ll be seeing you in all the familiar places” flows poetically from his mouth, much like the waters that flow from the spring.
“People come down here for the water,” he said. “A Navajo woman from Kayenta came here and I asked her what the water she was taking was going to be used for. She said the elders asked her to stop and get some for ceremonial use. A Pima woman who is a medicine woman comes and fills five-gallon jugs full of this water.”
He points to the geological map. “The water comes from a 150-foot long cave. The well itself is 140 feet deep in certain places. The spring feeds the well. When the geologists were here in February of 1992, I asked them if they could answer four questions for me: Why is there so much CO2 in the water, how old is the well, where does the water come from, and what is at the bottom. Five years later they still didn’t say anything about these four things I asked.”
Beckman accepts the mysteries of the well as something divine and possibly unanswerable.
“Jim Hood, a Yavapai-Apache who was a medicine man, came up here 25 years ago. He said that 8,000 years ago there was a pueblo down there — before Noah’s time. It’s enough for me. I believe it. On Exodus Day they come here to pray. Many come here to pray. I had some southern Koreans come here to pray. I haven’t asked them why they come here to pray.”
One man who wears a turban and is from India comes to gather water to drink for his health. A cup a day. Beckman can’t argue with that. He drinks the water every summer and is in excellent shape for being 90 years old.
He says he is planning a trip with one of his angels, a woman friend, to Mexico to look at petroglyphs. He said he has five angels, women he has met who stay in close contact with him through writing or traveling.
“It’s no secret ... I miss Delores. It’s a very simple thing. He shouldn’t have taken her. If I didn’t work here and keep busy I am afraid I would ... I don’t care who knows. But I have angels who I keep in contact with.”
One angel, Debra Carlton, a writer and artist, gave Beckman the red walking stick he uses each day as he makes the long stint from the parking lot to the shade tree by the spring.
Carlton coined Beckman “Keeper of the Flame of Montezuma Well” and gave him his fire stick to keep by his side as a reminder.
“Kokopelli of the Well,” Ranger Diana Rushford calls him. With his stick and bag, he passes through the timeless corridors of the ruin, passing out blessings of story and treasure, much like the Kokopelli did in his time.
“I carry prayer feathers with me. Parrot feathers from Mexico. Some Apache women were here one day and I asked if they wanted one. They said they would take it to their next dance.”
Another story starts, “Did I tell you the story about the Apache Tears?” He begins to speak of the Apache Indians who ran from soldiers that were gathering them for the reservation. The Apaches threw themselves from the cliffs near Sedona knowing death would be more tolerable than reservation life. Their families came to mourn them and picked up their crumbled bodies to be buried. The tears that fell from their eyes turned to stone. With an understanding of such places of hopelessness, his voice quivers and tears fill his eyes as he speaks. He reaches into his pocket and hands out Apache Tears.
The stories and memories run as deep as the waters for Beckman. His love of his surroundings keep many wanting to come back. And many do return, for such a monument is worth seeing again and again.