Hangin' Zen

Contemplate the sound of one hand clapping in a Capitol Hill zen garden.

"That corner was the sorriest-looking mess you've ever seen," Michael Beckley says, referring to a small curbside plot of earth along 11th Avenue between Downing and Corona.

So two months ago he cleaned it up, spending roughly thirty bucks and three hours -- including a trip to Home Depot -- and created a public zen garden. "I started raking it up and got two big trash bags full of stuff," Beckley says. "The tree looked shot. So I started sawing off the dead limbs, and this fairly attractive tree started to emerge. It looked like a bonsai tree, which I've always been attracted to.

"I thought I should do one of those little sand gardens that I've seen in books," he continues. "So I went out and bought basic lumber, built a little bench and painted it black." After adding bark as a ground covering, a black porcelain water pot, a hanging lantern, some plants and a short hand rake for maintenance, Beckley thought the sandbox still looked naked. "I stumbled around the 'hood, found a pretty good rock, put it dead center. To me, it represents an island of tranquility. Then I thought 'What if it was experiential?' So I printed a little sign on my computer that read: 'Welcome. Relax. Sit. Enjoy. Form the sand.'"

Zen master: Michael Beckley and his Capitol Hill 
garden.
Tony Gallagher
Zen master: Michael Beckley and his Capitol Hill garden.

Before long, people were stopping by to do just that.

"I wanted to run out and ask them why they were there," Beckley recalls. "Then I thought, 'No. That'll blow the whole deal.' I got up the next morning, and somebody had raked up a very nice pattern. I discovered that nobody else would touch it, because they didn't want to destroy somebody else's work. I photograph it every morning and clean it off."

Beckley discovers new designs and anonymous gifts in the garden almost daily: crystals, polished stones, flowers and the occasional fortune-cookie message. He keeps most of them in a receptacle for interactive use.

"There was a guy who looked like he'd seen tough days," Beckley says. "All his teeth were gone. And he kind of staggered across the street and said, 'Did you build this? I love it. I'm gonna bring you something.' And the next day I came back and there was a gold chain -- like pearls, but plastic -- and it said 'Viva Las Vegas' on it. I thought it was so sweet. I saw him a couple days later and he said, 'I haven't taken my wife out in ten years. I'm gonna bring her here tonight, and we'll have a sit.'"

This modest-sized sanctuary isn't a gift from some new-age entrepreneur. The 57-year-old is more of a modern-day Renaissance man. He has homes in London and Los Angeles, excels at painting and photography, and has kept an art journal (a page a day) for the last thirty years. He's currently renovating a 26-room castle in Scotland, helping Native Americans in Ruidoso, New Mexico, upgrade an old ski area into a multi-million-dollar casino and hotel, and turning 300 acres of lush countryside near Barcelona into a self-sustaining community powered by hydro, wind and solar. Beckley eats red meat and drinks hard liquor. He has a handshake like a vise grip. He drives a plum-colored British MG with Honorably Discharged Veteran plates.

In fact, military blood runs thick in Beckley's family. His grandfather, Gerald Linford Crouch, was a bomb-disposal expert who used the same pair of snips to defuse Nazi trip timers that he used to prune roses during his twilight years. His father, Colonel Ray Beckley, testified at the Nuremberg trials in 1946 and is featured in D-Day: The Lost Evidence, a History Channel show set to air on June 6.

Beckley wasn't too thrilled, however, when his dad sent him to Virginia Tech, an all-boys military school -- especially when he found out that his six-foot-six frame was too big for the planes. "The day I graduated, an Air Force guy showed up," Beckley recalls. "He says 'You're too tall to be a pilot.' I couldn't fit into the cockpit! And I said, 'Hang on a second. I just went through four years of college, and now you're telling me?'"

Beckley wound up in a flight-training program in Pensacola, Florida, anyway. While there, he lived with the family of Colonel Robert Harris Sigholtz -- whom LIFE magazine immortalized in a famous cover shot -- and became best pals with the colonel's son, Bobby. "We played every sport together," Beckley recalls. "We double-dated at the prom -- all through those cathartic years. He was the opposite end of me in football."

Bobby followed his dad's footsteps into the 82nd Airborne but was killed in Vietnam. "Siggy went back for his second tour and was walking through a rice paddy one day, leading thirteen guys, and they all got hit," Beckley says. "He carried three guys to safety from the fire zone. Goes back -- they're still taking heavy fire. He covers a guy with his body to protect him. MedEvacs and gunships come in, and they scatter the enemy. They roll him over, and the only thing Siggy says is, 'Take care of my men before you take care of me.' They propped him up, and he bled to death."

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