Ross Landing has its fair share of consummate individuals. Like any other small town in America, we are blessed (and cursed) with a patchwork quilt of personalities that shape us, for better or worse. As I visit cousins and relatives across the county, state and country, I’m always returned to Ross Landing memories and examples of those that have had a meaningful impact on my life. A teacher just passed and her passing reminds me of our home-grown humility and modesty, something I am in sore need of today.
As a young man, mostly still a teenager, even thought I was twenty, I was lucky enough to find a good paying job with a man who, at best, could be called a “character.”
In the Summer of 1970 working on a damaged D-9 Bulldozer out on a deserted bombing range, miles from nowhere, there stood a man all of five feet four and weighing in at around one hundred and fifty pounds. The tattooed and perpetually greasy Dean Harper had a face like the map of some forbidden under world drawn by a recovering Sunday morning drunk at the local trailer park picnic.
“Axiel, your damn right I crossed the equator and I’ve earned every one of these damn tattoos. What about you, you hippie girlie peacenik? Get a damn haircut and hand me the socket wrench! Time is money” He was John Brown’s foreman. I was thinking, as I listened to Dean, that my hair wasn’t that long and I did even know if I was a “…nik” of anything at twenty years. I handed him the half inch drive with a 3/4 socket, more confused about my identity than ever before. Dean was one of those hard luck guys, guys you instantly like and want to trust but quickly learn they will always disappoint you. He could have been lots of things. His face did him no favors and he could barely read but, to use his words, “damn it to hell,” he could manage the dickens out his money – better than any banker. But on this 1970 August afternoon he was just one of those hard drinking day labors that will pass through my life, some remembered, most not. John Brown, on the other hand, was then, and is now, an eternally vivid memory ladened with all kinds of baggage.
Tall, balding, pot-bellied, John Brown slaughtered the English language just about better than anyone. He also had the innate ability to get twenty-five cents from a nickel, appear out of nowhere when least expected and turn invisible when most needed. He had missed the big one, WWII, and the little one, Korea, but it was 1970 and no cares about that any more. That summer working for John Brown I learned what I didn’t ever want again in my life. I learned to recognize what a flimflam was, to easily spot a con, understood being trapped by a ‘smart dumb southerner’ and became wise to the fringe dweller’s white art; opportunism and exploitation. To call John Brown a scalawag would be a great insult to scalawags.
On the other side of the coin, and for most of us there is always another side, John Brown was lovable and kind, in his own unique way. He adored his children, was more than good to his poor, sad brother, sometimes an easy touch when he thought you needed money, and one of the very best joke tellers ever to walk the shores of Boggy Bayou.
Somehow or other the changing world had slipped into Ross Landing. Almost unnoticed an odd, out-of-sorts and appearingly innocuous but complex force had become part of the fiber of the town. John Brown, Dean Harper, and others like them, felt the disruption and knew in their heart-of-hearts it was not an advantage. In their soul, they felt like 1941 had flipped to 1970, with no 1950s or 1960s in between. Lots of folks over at the Palm Leaf Trailer Park where Dean occasionally slept or out on Rocky Creek where John Brown lay his head, lived in this bewildering world of betwixt and between. They did not trust institutions but would work for them and cashed their checks. The “rule of law” belonged to “The Man” not them. Their parents had been religious folks but they had become unattached to any specific religion and had no source of meaning in their lives – except working hard for a roof and food tomorrow. Unknown to them they were uncertain about their own tomorrows. They were not afraid of any one thing but of almost everything. It was all moving so fast. Mostly they feared the future and just about anything they didn’t understand. The fault of the world, in their eyes, rested mostly with anyone of brown or black skin who were “agitating the situation and trying to change what was working just fine, thank you very much!”
The balance of the blame fell on folks they called “the idiot college people who think they are smarter than me.” For the Dean Harpers, John Browns and, in some fashion, me as well, the world problems were clear and the answers easy; avoid any change. Their anxiety levels were off the Richter Scale and moving up, daily. All they really wanted was an explanation that would bring them some form of inner peace and reduce their raging anxiety. At fifteen and twenty years I understood that but didn’t know it yet. They would do anything to escape this “circle the drain feeling” that women’s liberation, unions, civil rights, NASA’s moon trips, hippie Woodstock, peace movements, the sexual revolution, diet soft drinks and the Surgeon General’s band of cigarettes …. All complex issues from a changing world … created inside them their never ending, always growing, anxiety.
I so wanted to help but was frightened to ask and unsure just how I could. At the end of the day, no matter what, all these folks were still my neighbors, friends, fellow journeymen. Everybody, me included, was and still is looking for some way to understand and live in a quickly changing world that had no resemblance to what parents or grandparents referred to as “the good ole days.”
On the third hot summer day of changing out pistons in the ancient and well-worn D-9 Bulldozer, covered in diesel fuel, my hair matted, my beard knotted in grease and dirt, I was sent to town. John Brown was buying everyone lunch. We were all shocked and worried what his hidden agenda was – but our collective hunger suppressed our individual fears and we accepted his kind offer. We drew straws and I came up on the short side, tasked by John Brown to take the orders and purchase a hefty load of basic junk food covered in mayonnaise, soaked in ketchup and buried in hot sauces. I drove the dilapidated military grade 6X6 truck into Ross Landing, heading to the A & W Root Beer Drive-In. Since I was driving a vehicle too large to park under the serving awning in one of the marked slots for car-hop service I found a shady spot on the side and hopped out.
The A & W Root Beer Drive-In is an iconic hold over from the 1950s and a spot that, even still on this hot 1970 summer afternoon, could be frequented by several of the angelic Ross Landing young ladies. That was my hidden agenda. I mean, really, the place was not known for speedy service or good food. A young man and his date did not come to the A & W Root Beer Drive-In for service or to eat. It was “the place” to see and be seen. So, along with my assigned “lunch for the guys” I was there to see and be seen.
As I walked over to the “Order’s Here” window, as I cruised the parking lot looking for familiar cars and trucks, I heard, “Oh My God, what happened to you, Axiel? Has there been a national emergency that turned you into a giant magnet for all the oil and dirt in Ross Landing? Is it safe for you to be here? Good God Almighty, you look like something my cat pulled from the garbage dump?”
I wanted to run away. Coming up on my left, moving fast, fast, fast with the long strides of a basketball player and the wing span of a giant Pacific Albatross, coming my way with glasses askew, hair curly wild and black as the night, was one six-feet, two-inch-tall, no heavier than two bags of cement, zestfully energetic Mrs. Robert Steven Benét, Angie to her friends, my former humanities teacher at Ross Landing High School.
I thought to myself, “What in the world have I done to deserve NOT having a summer off from parents, preachers and teacher?” Is it because I might have a lack of love and compassion for my fellow man? Or is it just my luck of the draw? Granted, Mrs. Benét was an excellent educator, loved by most, deeply trusted by some and admired greatly by all who ever served as an instructor of anything. She was far from shy, never very subtle, always straightforward about today and somewhat curious about tomorrow, which was a redeeming feature in a collection of teachers, many of who I did not know, who appeared to be more in the past than in the present. But she could be loud, loud, loud which was mostly embarrassing for any early twenty something.
As a teenager growing up in a time that was defined by “change,” and illustrated by folks who didn’t know what was happening in the world, and could only blast everyone in the worst possible way, Mrs. Benét was a safe-haven. During the Viet Nam war and the Civil Rights protests the boundaries of common decency were beginning to be torn down, removed, erased from society, brick by brick. A John Birch Society Book Store popped up downtown. But Mrs. Benét, a wiser mind than most, understood that anger and moral posturing were no antidote to anxious rage and fanatic behavior.
In simpler terms, when we, her humanities students, discussed the virtues of Leonard Cohen’s song lyrics next to those of Walt Whitman or the pleasures of viewing the figurative art of da Vinci verses the confusing abstract Jackson Pollock, she understood the sudden gushes of fury and competing vitriol, as sides were chosen – the room dividing along the traditional lines of misunderstanding, the “it’s us versus them,” mind set – Mrs. Benét knew that this way of thinking only feed each other’s fires and she wanted none of that in her classroom.
With a chosen reserve, a humility, she modestly spoke up … and most of us listened … because we were shocked!!! Like the A&W Root Beer Drive-In meeting, Mrs. Benét was an articulate, bold, in-your-face with her opinion person. So, to have this loud person suddenly speaking modestly was a wake-up call. She knew that humble and modest speech was the direct opposite of the sudden gushes of fury and competing vitriol being born in our classroom arguments. She knew that there were no easy answers that could explain the bigger issue of our strong disagreements on art and, by extension, our life. She trusted in the mystery of the human being … and the belief that we would, one day, learn that there are no 100% arrangements that can end a conflict. She was well aware of the need for endless searching and adjusting and figuring out ways to find points of agreements that would allow us to be neighbors and friends sharing different points-of-views about Leonard Cohen and da Vinci and enjoying one or the other or both, no matter the day of the week or the month of the year. She had the courage to embrace her own anxiety and not try to run away from it. She lead us, by example, to do the same.
That August afternoon was her final lesson for me, and it was a humdinger!
She asked what I was doing at the A&W Root Beer Drive-In and I explained Dean and John Brown, the D-9 Bulldozer and all of us working out in the woods on some deserted bombing range and John Brown’s sudden magnanimous to feed us lunch, no strings attached. I went into great detail about the moral and philosophical issues surrounding such an offer from such a man as only a twenty-year-old can do. She listened attentively, occasionally nodding her thick curly black hair in my direction. Then I got to the part about me getting the short straw and that, according to John Brown, I’m the person he sends to town with the money to buy the lunch because I’m the lucky one. And maybe this was too much of a burden on me. Maybe I didn’t want to be that person, the marked lucky one. Maybe I just wanted to be like everyone else. Maybe I was the Joe of Joes, the hard-working guy that lived an honest life and then passed on into oblivion. Maybe that was all any of us ever wanted, peace and tranquility in a world that is constantly turning and changing with every sun rise and sun set, a constant churn of uncertainty and anxiety.
Suddenly, there was a ruckus under the awning in one of the car-hop slots. Two guys, both in penny loafers, one with dimes in the slot the other with pennies, both in stylish 1970 casual yellow slacks and almost identical Madres shirts, were in each other’s face. They were my generation’s version of Dean Harper and John Brown, just better dressed and with newer cars. Standing behind one of them was my old girlfriend, Mary Ellen Hall. She was trying to stop the argument. I smiled and thought to myself that Mary Ellen looked great when, out of nowhere, Mrs. Benét appeared between the two bleeding Madres shirts.
“Just what in the world do you two think you’re doing,” she asked? “This is a public place and my kids are in that car next to yours. And I don’t want you using those kinds of words around my kids or my friend’s kids or, for that matter…”
“Buzz off, old lady,” said the bigger of the two! “This is a private conversation! If you don’t like it, take your rug-rats and head on back to finish cleaning that crap trailer you live in.”
Everything falls apart when one person talks like this to another. Wars have started for less. These two knot-heads didn’t fear anyone or anything. A war to them would give meaning to their lives, and it didn’t matter who they went to war with: man, woman, child or tree. Instinctually I knew this. I knew that in an instant Mrs. Benét, Mary Ellen, Mrs. Benét’s kids and most of the innocent folks lunching at the A&W could be in the middle of an ugly and useless fight that was all about testosterone. I had to act quickly. What if they had guns? Why that thought entered my brain I’ll never know and why I didn’t run away is a real question for the ages.
If any of you have ever heard me sing you know that fingernails on a chalkboard is a nicer sound. I started to sing, at the top of my lungs, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder as I jumped up on the picnic table next to the “Order Here” sign. Once stable on the table top I started to undress. I had no shirt on so the grimy, gross blue jeans where the first to go. Oddly, in my haste, I realized that I had not removed by work boots and the jeans were stuck on the boot tops as I twisted and turned, delivering, at full volume more, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.” My D-9 diesel fuel and dirt line clearly marked my waist, from just South of the bellybutton up to my beard line. A massive collection of dirt and diesel oil glistened as sweat rivulets drained my chest, accentuating the Tidy Whittie’s that covered my manhood and enhanced the view of my bare bleached legs. As I started “Seen a lot of things in this old world” the picnic table began to wobble and creek. Like a flash of lightning it crumbled and I feel at Mrs. Benét’s feet seminude but still singing, “Oo baby, here I am, Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.”
Needless to say, the crowd was at first awed then entertained, then convulsed with laughter and finally grasping in horror as I feel amid the rubble of what was once a good picnic table that had held many a kid sipping a cool A & W Root Beer from a frosty mug. As I struggled to pull up my filthy blue jeans, everyone focused on me, some complimenting my dancing and my white undies, none mentioning my singing, the manager called the police. As I bent down to retie the laces of my boot I saw the big guy, the one who yelled at Mrs. Benét, and noticed that his yellow pants were a little stained and thread bare around the cuffs. He was smiling and talking with another sandy haired girl who had applauded, sixty seconds ago, my efforts. The other guy, the quiet one, I saw drive off with Mary Ellen in the passenger seat. In a matter of minutes order was restored naturally to the Drive-In as if nothing had happened. A few minutes later the police arrived but the manager, an old friend I had grown-up with, told them all was okay. The ruckus, he told them, had settled itself, no harm done and that they missed one hellva fine display of singing and dancing by a semi-nude oiled up filthy young man covered in dirt and diesel fuel. “…and with a really nice pair of clean white undies on.” They didn’t smile, just started asking more questions. Mrs. Benét, who knew them both, whispered something to them and they were off. As they left she walked over to me. “How are you doing,” she asked?
“I’m a little anxious right now. I was suppose to be back with lunch for everyone and well… as you can see I’m still here. John Brown may can me today and …”
“Not to worry. All the Moms here have just spoken with your manager friend and in just a moment you’ll have enough junk food and root beer to sink a battle ship. Mrs. Arnold, you remember Mrs. Arnold, don’t you?” I did not. “She taught math. Anyway, she said she’ll ask her husband to donate a new picnic table from his hardware store. And I’m sure the story will be out and about Ross Landing before I get home so, no worries … all’s well that ends well … even John Brown will know the truth,” she said. After a brief pause she looked me up and down and then commented, “I’m not surprised, you know.”
“What do you mean, Mrs. Benét?”
“Call me Angie, all my friends do. And don’t look at me like that,” she said. “You’ve been out of high school three years, I’m not your teacher any more, just another Ross landing friend.” She smiled and started towards her car when she stopped, laughed and turned to me. “Anxious, you said?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Very philosophical of you …what was it you were always reading in my class? You carried that book all year. Don’t tell me….” She paused, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Very Kierkegaardian of you, yes, very.”
“Very what,” I asked?
“The more original a human being is, the deeper his anxiety.” She smiled again. “Kierkegaard, right? Yep, you’d be amazed at the books I’ve read,” she said walking back to her kids and her car. Looking over the open car door just before getting inside she called out, “Axiel, very original, very human, wonderful, just wonderful.” She paused, dropped her eyes to the ground, lowered her voice and humbly spoke, “… Thank you, thank you so very much for being … original ….”
She reached into her pocket and removed the biggest key ring with the most keys in any one place I have ever seen and, as she fumbled looking for her car key, she yelled, “But think twice before considering a career in opera …. And for the love of God, will you please wash your hands and face before you eat your food!? I mean, honestly, who knows what germs you may be …” She stopped, waved, got in the car and drove away.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her it wasn’t me reading the Kierkegaard book. I’m not sure who it was. More than likely it was either Tom or Jimmy or one of the other Boggy Boys. I did carry a fake cover all year. Inside my fake “The Mill on the Floss,” a gift from a sweetheart (and a book that I never read), I rotated copies of all the Harold Robins books. Plus, on the more sophisticated side, a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint… all books that teenage boys only read certain passages from and compared notes on later.
I am just now seeing her obit. It says all the right things that should be said about a person who gave her life in service to her community. I feel like I am one of her many students who have wonderful, important secrets shared with Mrs. Robert Steven Benét… All of us carrying and sharing her humility and modesty … and for that I am peaceful.