Ben and Me

 

Ben, on the right, always seemed to have a cigarette in his hand. So did I, but I never looked as cool as Ben. That’s El Duomo in the background. We were visiting Florence at the time, on leave from our post in Germany, sometime in 1959.

Ben and I seemed destined to be good friends. After being drafted, we started basic training on the same week at Fort Ord, Ben down from San Francisco, me up from Los Angeles. After Basic, we ultimately ended up in a Signal Corps outfit in Germany to serve out our two-year obligation.

In Germany, we were both assigned to Headquarters Company as clerk typists and office gofers.

So we became best buds. I think we considered ourselves “outliers” in this foreign Army environment we found ourselves in. Actually, Ben was the true outlier. Smart as two or three college professors combined, Ben must have felt himself apart from his fellow soldiers, including the sergeants and officers above us, though he never came across that way. I was just along for the ride and profited from my association with Ben. People thought I was smart because Ben was so smart.

Here’s how Ben was important in my life. Growing up in Compton,  I didn’t have a single friend who did well in school. Of my two best friends, one became a sheetrock installer and one became a professional gambler. We were good pool shooters and better bowlers, clumsy shoplifters, and all-around bottom-feeding juvies. We all agreed that school sucked big time and that those who studied and did well were weenies.

By contrast, Ben grew up in a Jewish tradition that valued learning. Ben was going places. He told me once that his family would sit around the dinner table at night discussing the news and ideas of the day.

Man, that seemed exotic to me. Our family discussed the meatloaf when we said anything at all. My dad, with an 8th-grade education, worked in the oil fields. One of Ben’s relatives was the famous labor leader in New York, David Dubinsky, who hobnobbed with presidents and governors.

So when Ben and I would be on leave in Italy or France, Ben was like a docent to me. We visited the museums of Paris and Florence, taking in the paintings in the Louvre and the art in the Ufizzi Gallery in Florence, the heart of Italian Renaissance art. I even learned to pronounce Michelangelo’s David as Daveed, Klee as Klay. After a time, I wanted to be like Ben.

Here’s the interesting part of this story. After our service was over and we were back in the States, Marie and I visited Ben. Ben was living with his boyfriend in his parent’s home, one of those archetypal upper-class San Francisco townhouses. Ben was gay. I had no idea. Sounds unlikely, doesn’t it, that I could be so naive? But it was a different time.

Later, Ben visited me in Compton, a city of gated windows, used car lots, and a growing gang presence in the projects. Compton started out ugly and grew uglier through the years. It reached its peak of danger and ugliness during the “Straight Outta Compton” years of the ’80s. I saw my hometown in a new way, through Ben’s eyes, and I saw that Compton was a blighted town. I never knew. It was just my hometown.

As I said, I didn’t know Ben was gay. It was only later, when I was older and looked back that I could see signs.

Ben must have recognized that I was confirmed heterosexual, right down to the soles of my feet. When we took those trips around Europe, we slept in the same room (and once in the same bed) and I was never uncomfortable, and Ben never made a move. (It might have been that I wasn’t cute enough to make a move on, but I don’t want to think that. I kid.)

Postscript: I don’t think Ben is still alive. I’ve made numerous futile attempts to locate him. He might have perished in the San Francisco HIV epidemic that spread through the bathhouse and bar scene on Castro Street.

I wish I could talk to Ben one last time. I would tell him how much he meant to me. I’m pretty sure that, at least partly because of Ben, when I got out of the Army I didn’t return to my job as a telephone installer. Instead, I returned to college and ended up a college professor that, whatever else you might think of it, is a very good job. I also learned to appreciate art, literature, and the life of the mind, a habit that has enriched my life and has given me much pleasure through the years.

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There are 12 comments.

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  1. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Ben sounds like he was a very special person, in many ways. How sweet that he was a part of those early years. 

    • #1
  2. Sandy Member
    Sandy
    @Sandy

    I found your reflection on this special friendship moving and I’m sorry you haven’t been able to find Ben. I suspect he learned a few things from you, too—or I hope so.   (By the way, that would be “Il Duomo,” but I kind of like the Spanish version. Vaguely threatening in a good way.)

    • #2
  3. Steven Galanis Coolidge
    Steven Galanis
    @Steven Galanis

    In fairness, meatloaf doesn’t inspire good conversation. I ate a lot of prime rib in my youth, and I can tell you that when you put mouth watering food in front of turkeys all they do is gobble, gobble! 

    • #3
  4. cdor Member
    cdor
    @cdor

    Nice story, Kent. It’s likely that many of us have crossed paths with another soul that had greater meaning in our lives than we realized at the time. It’s kind of a haunting feeling. But what I wanted to point out was the fact that you ended up a college professor. How many of your buds in high school would have guessed that? And how many of them, given a different family background/upbringing actually had the ability to do something similar…like Ben? Yet Ben ended up not so good it seems. I don’t know, life is strange.

    • #4
  5. Goldwaterwoman Thatcher
    Goldwaterwoman
    @goldwaterwoman

    I so understand that early time in our lives when homosexuality was just not in our lexicon. After college a  friend and I moved to San Francisco where our first apartment was a studio with a double bed that pulled down from the wall. We slept on it together with never a thought in our heads that either of us could be gay — which we most assuredly were not. In those days the word gay meant you were having a happy time. Remember? 

    • #5
  6. Rodin Member
    Rodin
    @Rodin

    Great story. I, too, had a kind of mentor early in my life. It ended with a sense of betrayal (not entirely one-sided, not spoken of, and not repaired). But it did influence me and some life decisions. It might have been better, but it certainly could have been worse. 

    • #6
  7. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Your post prompted me to take another stab at searching for my best friend in my first assignment in Germany. Turns out he is almost certainly alive and well in Virginia. I had worried that he succumbed to alcohol at a youngish age, like his father.

    • #7
  8. Sandy Member
    Sandy
    @Sandy

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    Your post prompted me to take another stab at searching for my best friend in my first assignment in Germany. Turns out he is almost certainly alive and well in Virginia. I had worried that he succumbed to alcohol at a youngish age, like his father.

    You never know what will come of spending a bit of time on Ricochet. 

    • #8
  9. JustmeinAZ Member
    JustmeinAZ
    @JustmeinAZ

    I was so naive I didn’t suspect  my first husband was gay for the first 10 years of our marriage. Back in the 60’s it was anguish for him too. I think I took his confession better than he did. I never blamed him for his gayness, just for being a jerk and a totally unpleasant person.

    • #9
  10. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    JustmeinAZ (View Comment):

    I was so naive I didn’t suspect my first husband was gay for the first 10 years of our marriage. Back in the 60’s it was anguish for him too. I think I took his confession better than he did. I never blamed him for his gayness, just for being a jerk and a totally unpleasant person.

    I know a family just like yours.  They were married thirteen years.

    • #10
  11. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    You were lucky to have such a great friend and he probably felt the same way about you.  When I was a kid, one of my best friends came from a family that had 7 kids. One turned out gay and I think also eventually moved to San Francisco. He always acted feminine and would prance around to make us laugh. He was never treated differently in the family or neighborhood. We never thought anything about it – he was just my friend’s brother. Five kids were deaf, including him. They were a very loving family.

    The difference between then and now is stark. I think back in those days you didn’t wear your preferences on your sleeve. Now it’s in your face, forced and many kids are confused about their identity when they shouldn’t be. They should just be kids.

    • #11
  12. Steven Seward Member
    Steven Seward
    @StevenSeward

    KentForrester:

    I even learned to pronounce Michelangelo’s David as Daveed, Klee as Klay.

    Huh.  I didn’t even know that one.  I’m still working on the pronunciations of Ingres, Bouguereau,  and Mucha.

    • #12
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