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Last Sunset with Harry and Deirdre

In Uncategorized on September 22, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Last Sunset with Harry and Deirdre

From High Rock Mountain
June 22, 2013



In Uncategorized on September 22, 2013 at 6:56 pm

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