Jay Meehan: Kenny and Sammy
Kenny Binatena and Sam English were so quintessentially male, they would have given Howlin’ Wolf the shudders. But if their exceptional skill sets for masculinity had rivals, they no doubt would have been high intelligence, generosity, empathy, tenderness, and outrageous humor.
In a time when western ski towns boasted character-rich populations of renaissance men and women, Kenny and Sammy were a collective standard by which others were judged. Top-notch college wrestlers both, they became naturals on local rugby pitches and legends on more than a few eclectic fronts.
Outdoorsmen to the extreme, they skied, snow-shoed, hunted, fished, hiked, and camped over whatever landscapes spoke to them with the most clarity. If it were rugby, the outdoors, hi-jinks, and appreciation of the female form that initially linked them, however, it would be the unforgiving timeframe of late fall/early winter 1985 that bonded them for eternity.
In two separate drowning incidents separated by hundreds of miles and the better part of two months, Kenny Binatena and Sam English (pausing here to search for a meaningful metaphor for death that wouldn’t cause them both to turn over in their graves ) were jerked from lives lived to the fullest and extremely well.
Although I’m fairly sure neither went "gently into that good night" in the Dylan Thomas sense, I can’t help but feel that when death stared them in the face, a certain amount of grace and acceptance was involved. When one ponders their respective final moments over a 30-year interval, remaining "real" is difficult.
Kenny, on a duck hunt with friends near the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge on the Great Salt Lake, drowned alongside his friend Hank Verrone when their flat-bottomed boat became swamped by rough waters and capsized.
Friends, pretty much in a frenzy and totally lacking in either grace or acceptance, kept up their search on land and water until, nearly three weeks later, his body emerged. They just couldn’t get their heads around any scenario in which their larger-than-life amigo wouldn’t survive.
Sammy’s demise in water made even less sense and, if possible, was even more shocking. Shooting pool at a watering hole up a side-drainage of Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, he accepted a ride back down with his new friends. The vehicle rolled, ending upside down in a small creek with Sammy knocked unconscious and his head underwater. Another brilliance dimmed!
Kenny’s early innovations on the ski slopes with Bob Theobald and John Jenkins helped form the "freestyle" template that continues to this day. A totally fearless participant in any endeavor that crossed his path, he never met a seemingly-impossible challenge he didn’t like. (If only the tossing of a rude bartender for distance was a full-medal sport!)
It probably should be mentioned that he did acquire a decent amount of metallic material in his lower extremities as surgeons attempted to keep up with his lifestyle. None of this slowed him down, of course.
To say Kenny was a Main Street saloon icon would be an overwhelming understatement. Word spread quickly when he was "out on the town" and becoming part of his traveling circus was both an honor and usually an event to which one would want to bear witness.
Sam English, although similar to Kenny in so many ways, was also somewhat more reserved. A teacher and coach, writer and poet, outfitter and muleskinner, intellectual and academic, Sammy embodied the traits to which most of us could only aspire.
Prank-wise, the dude was hall-of-fame! Calling in two rutting and pissed-off bull elks to have them square-off across your shared campfire was one of the joys of his life. As was stumping you with a piece of Sherlock Holmes trivia or playing keep-away with Kenny and your pint of whiskey.
Those of us who arrived in Park City near the cusp of the ’70s and were lucky enough to spend quality time with these two loveable rogues were fortunate indeed. Our hearts and memories are full. They gave us the slip far too soon!
When we gather to swap stories and hoist a beverage or two this Saturday afternoon upstairs at Main Street’s No Name Saloon, the prank will be on them. Over 30 years we have kept their memories alive and, no doubt, fellow ruggers and assorted sidekicks will continue the tradition. With you, mates!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.
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