From High Rock Mountain
June 22, 2013
From High Rock Mountain
June 22, 2013
Published in The Dispatch, Lexington, NC: Thursday, August 8, 2013
The following is a deeply personal rambling written in fragments after the death of my life-long friend and boon companion, Ben Philpott. There will be other opportunities to comment on current events and idiot laws and the shame of our legislature. For now, I need to ruminate on this loss and this gift. Some of you have heard parts of this, which were read at Ben’s funeral. I take this opportunity for, as one of our high school friends said that day, “This one is tough.”
In this situation one always thinks of when they first met someone. For Ben and me it was really early.
Our first common experience was actually pre-birth. Our parents were returning from a Kiwanis convention in Asheville in the winter of ’53. This was on U.S. Highway 64 as I-40 was years away. So here our parents were, careening down the mountain in a Roadmaster Buick at breakneck speed with two pregnant women. I think this marked Ben and me both as the drivers we became.
It also may be why we spent so much time in cars together. Not just around town or “across the river” or to Chapel Hill or the beach, but major road trips: two West Coast treks for over a month each time, one to Key West, one to New England, a weekend journey to Scotland during our Oxford summer and later golf caravanning around Ireland with Fatz and Dr. Jessup.
A lot of stories: the statutes may not have run on all of them, a lot of music, from Buck Owens and Bob Wills to Sinatra and Bennett to the Delfonics and the Chi-Lites to the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots to Buffett and Jerry Jeff.
We owned at least two albums together, The Mills Brothers and Little Richard (I don’t know where they are now). There was a lot of singing along as the miles passed or as we cruised the lake in Alvin’s “battleship.” We thought we sounded pretty good, taking the occasional vague compliment as a call to continue. One fine evening, 20 years ago, while “chaperoning” some hoodlums, we sat outside the Welborns’ beach house and sang all the Mills Brothers we knew and every single Beatles song from every album in order. The high school youths marveled.
As one would expect, there was a lot of adolescent silliness: writing ballads about many of our classmates, all to the tune of “The Wreck of the Old 97”; Beno creating a “religion” based on the non-sequiturs of a classmate complete with prophets, priests, etc.; attempting to write a musical version of the Book of Job and only getting the first act finale chorus (“Gird up your loins and answer like a man …”); Beno writing a complete satire of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” under the pseudonym, Bertolt Safka.
I am haunted by the memory of a day in high school when Ben said that due to being cast in Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” he needed to learn how to smoke for the role and the afterschool trip we made to buy cigarettes. I told him he didn’t need that for the play and just wanted an excuse to start smoking. Right now, I can see him light that first smoke, amid my feeble protest, and it breaks my heart.
Often I have referred to Beno in this space, once calling him “the purveyor of gems from the cultural frontier.” He introduced me to Texas Swing, Sondheim and single malt. I introduced him to Earth, Wind & Fire, Jung and oysters. We shared our first visits to Gettysburg, the Grand Canyon and the Golden Gate.
I have referenced him numerous times in columns in a manner that only he would recognize, such as any use of the phrase “a combination of the two,” which was the title of his Milton piece. He responded to my memorial of our mentor, MiIdred Ann Raper, by printing it out, grading it as she would have and mailing me the red-ink dripping result, which was as if she had done it herself.
I told him many times that he was a frustrated English professor, to which he readily agreed. I am not sure what I would think or know about a seemingly infinite number of topics were it not for exposure and opinion provided by the Beno.
Ben was strong-willed, frighteningly intellectual, acerbic, at times brutally honest, funny, fun, exasperating, unfailingly generous, lovable, interesting, corny, creative and at times brilliant. He had his own theories of, well, everything. That was his true gift, his creative approach to all of life and life’s challenges and the sure belief that he was right. It served him well in most pursuits making him a good, albeit different force, on the basketball court or in the courtroom or in crafting his various often breathtaking writings.
The only pursuits where it failed him were golf and driving a car. There are many ways to do both successfully; Beno’s were none of them. Once, when asked how I would describe his golf swing, I responded that I found it better not to watch.
Divergence of opinion was common, though even in disagreement, I wanted his unique take on things. For example, we disagreed on the death penalty. We were both against it, of course, as sanity would dictate, but he disagreed with my reasons. I finally got him to grudgingly agree that all reasons are valid.
He played the cynic well, yet under that veneer was a soft heart and gentle soul. Mostly, he hid them well. However, let the conversation wind ’round to his beloved niece or nephews or his wife or particularly his son, Harry, and he was as sentimental and effusive as any of us.
In the past two decades, we talked frequently of Harry whom I called the “young prince” and whom he called “the lad,” and Ben’s pride and joy were unmistakable and unabashed.
Sadly, he is done.
Indeed, in the words of the old song, “We shall meet but we shall miss him. There will be an empty chair.” Now, I don’t have anyone to sing the Mills Brothers with or anyone to point out the ridiculous and make me laugh or the sublime and make me marvel.
And we are brought to this painful place where we are indescribably diminished even as we know that we are immeasurably enriched by the life of this notable, singular character. He will always be a part of who we are — and with that we are blessed.
Thanks be to God
Okay. I’ve been sick. At worst, I have felt like a Hindu learning the finger food was fried, rabid bat, not eggplant crisps. At best, I have felt like the Jersey Shore. Only in the last few days have I felt like reading, much less writing.
The primary culprits were pneumonia and my obstinate idiocy. Feeling crappy at Christmas, I got the docs to prescribe meds in hopes of avoiding the hospital. It didn’t work. I visited my pulmonary doc and when the nurse checked my vital signs, she could have been looking for shrimp in a kosher deli. I did not have any. The worst vital was my blood pressure. Suffice it to say that I have little in common with Abe Lincoln, but at that moment, we shared the same blood pressure.
The young, relatively inexperienced doctor proved so grim in demeanor that he freaked Deirds, who for a while thought the end was near. I had a nice trip to the emergency room, then was checked into a regular room where they shot me up with so many antibiotics that bacteria started fleeing the room like lemmings. I slept for two days, only vaguely aware that I was being visited by somber friends and family who thought they might be viewing my animate carcass for the last time.
Gradually, we returned to reality and relaxed. My appetite returned, and I would heartily recommend the fruit cup for any one unfortunate enough to have a stay at WFU Baptist. I started feeling better (though in this case the bar for comparison was low – I felt better than a desiccated wombat). I started recognizing my hand. The doctors began repeating a weird mantra – “there’s not much reason for you to be here.” Luckily they didn’t mean that my pneumonia was hopeless; they meant that I could be treated as well at home as in the hospital.
The means for treating me was a semi-nefarious device called an infusion pump. The size of a smart phone on steroids, battery operated, having a digital screen (unlit, which meant that Deirds and I could read it only under fluorescents in the kitchen or bathroom or with a flashlight), it pumped liquid antibiotics into me all day and night. This through a “pick” – a two tubed IV hook-up in my arm. Which had to be kept dry. Which meant I had to take 43 second showers with my arm wrapped in Saran wrap with the machine’s alarm beeping. And the bag of antibiotics had to be changed at the same time every day.
I had to bear the device in a “fanny” pack, which posed a physiological problem in addition to the psychological stress. I have no fanny. Where some have butt cheeks, I have mud flaps. What I do have, however, is a nice little pot belly that has developed in the last five years or so. It has the size and shape, though not the texture, of the Christmas wreath outside a condominium door.
Being connected for so long to anything works weird mojo on the mind. I ate with it. I watched TV with it. I urinated and defecated with it. I slept with it. It heard my snores. It heard my night whelps and murmurs. It heard all the conversations between my wife and I cussed it. I swatted at it. I began talking to it. I held it. I petted it. I began telling it my most secret thoughts and dreams. I mailed it a card. The florist delivered flowers. Soon, we became……
Well, you can see where this is going……. Come the day when the nurse finally unhooked us and severed the connection, I took Annelise (yes, I had given her a name) outside and, with the help of a hatchet, a 3 wood (which I hit much better than a driver) and a ball peen hammer, reduced the leech to an Irish stew of wires, plastic splinters, and Mott’s apple sauce in a black fanny pack. Two days later, when the courier from the Baptist pharmacy showed up to get the pump and take it home, he shook the bag. It didn’t jingle or jangle. It made a sound more along the lines of what you’d hear if you took a baseball bat to a baby’s head. The courier shook his head.
“Did you fall down the stairs?” he asked.
I nodded, instantly recognizing that he’d given me an alibi.
“It happens a lot,” he smiled.
Unhospitalized, unhooked and unsick, I have been on the men eventually, within the last several days, have been feeling spunky enough to resume human contact, even type a little. In fact, I have improved to the point where I am almost my old self, at least to the extent where my short term memory is a little iffy. Reread my first paragraph, and you’ll find I am starting to repeat myself a little. So, this is as good a place as any to sign off my first blog of the new year. Don’t worry, faithful readers (all 7 of you) – I’ll be back soon.
Hugs and hickies,