Another extended autumn, and the grass is dry, the leaves brittle. Rain has deserted the Long Beach Peninsula.
During a drought, a persistent human being can wade the small fine river called the Chinook and keep his hair dry. At its mouth, large silver-sided salmon moil the silky russet water, praying for freshet.
Although I know he has died, I'm half-expecting my bi-annual visit from George Benbennick, the gnarly white-haired gentleman, who, for 25 years, solicited me for a donation to Sea Resources.
George was Sea Resources, just as Ray Millner and Kenny Osborne and so many others are. Have been, for 25 years. Just as in my heart I am. For we have all done our share to build this worthy restoration project and the landscape that shapes it.
George always looked to the future. His intention was to build a foundation, a legacy for students. George didn't particularly care all that much for the river itself, not in an ecological or emotional way. George cared deeply for the kids. They were his inspiration. In fairness, he was not the warm understanding mentor young adults prefer in their choice of elders. George wasn't affectionate with his peers either. In the truest sense of the word, George was a curmudgeon.
George wanted to guarantee that the kids had a program benefiting their physical and mental development, and the betterment of their community. He strove to shape a vocational program that might speak to students from both ends of the social spectrum. Not all high school graduates go on to college. George wanted to hand them specific tools that would empower their future. After all, hard physical work and responsibility inspired George's beginnings. Vocational tools served him well.
Over the years, George pressed my wife and me countless time for an annual donation to Sea Resources. It took years to figure out that he was calling on us every six months. George wasn't sneaky or dishonest - only persistent toward his vision. His cause was a million-dollar foundation. The Sea Resources Foundation was his obsession, his love, his raison d'etre.
George had a strong bow-legged walk and a firm handshake. His eyes wore an ocean blue hue that twinkled devilishly. They pierced right into mine, as sure as an arrow. "Good morning," he would say, not mentioning my name, "You know why I am here?" His hand would come out as determined as his mind. The shake was muscular. Even as he grew older and slighter of frame, the man retained that handshake. He was a man's kind-of-man.
Indeed, there was always a youthful tenacity to George. I always imagined him as a youngster selling newspapers or scampering to mow yards. Hustling, a kid with a mission. George once told me that he ran a gas station and repair shop in Bremerton, Wash. Later he sold cars. That was easy to figure - George could sell anything. He made good money after the big war. He was professional, organized, and always capable. He was a curmudgeon with a big heart.
George was in Bremerton before World War II, when the human pace was different, when men hustled for work. They drank their liquor neat, and draped their tired legs over the long dirty brass rail that ran the length of the wooden bar. They never spoke that word "tired." Their needs were simple, their ideals shaped by middle-class values.
George's wife, Madeline, followed him closely to the grave. Unfortunately, I never met the lady. With her went a broader biography of her husband. In those last waning years, the village gossip suggested that the couple were at odds. Americans love sensationalism. Truth be told, George and Madeline had many good years. Somewhere long ago, the couple danced the two step, pressing love and infatuation as surely as the winter freshet shapes the Chinook.
Unfortunately, George became more and more cantankerous. He proved disruptive at meetings, pushing the previous director at Sea Resources, Brent Davies, to distraction. But Davies worked around George, and the institution prospered. Common sense dictated that a smart leader doesn't stomp on a dream, or the dream-maker. Everyone, in fact, suffered George with patience. He was the last of the rough riders, more street fighter than diplomat.
George continued with his meetings well into the autumn of his life. He loved to talk politics and took in an occasional baseball game. He liked a good glass of beer. When the weather turned fair, he guided his RV toward Alaska. The camper was a beast, and George suffered poor eyesight. Undaunted, he drove like Mr. Toad in Wind in the Willows. Because of his driving record, board members insisted on driving George to our monthly meeting at Sea Resources. None of them wanted an accident on their conscience. It would be easy to imagine George haranguing us from the other side, from some car sales lot in heaven. Sometimes we purposely "forgot" to call George and remind him of the meetings. We plodded along without him. Those meetings were peaceful.
Where does admiration come from? Why do we choose a curmudgeon as a hero? The answer is simple: George had the courage of David, the same David we remember from Michelangelo, the shepherd who felled a giant. George was unadorned as the naked statue itself. But he was not eight feet tall, nor embellished from a single fractured block of Cararra marble. George was a rough-hewn hero, short and barrel-chested and driven to the end.
It takes courage to knock on a stranger's door and ask for money. It takes courage to insist on competence or perfection. It takes courage to follow up or follow through. George pushed people to the limit. He insisted that they participate in their community, that they dig into their pockets and be generous. Stand and be counted, that was George's motto. Ultimately, few had the courage to say no to George.
My father once told me that he needn't be my best friend. He had a job to do, and that job was to raise me right. If he was gruff or dominating, so be it. Well, that persona fits George. He was a principled man who wasn't afraid of the consequences of standing up to the plate and staring down a fastball.
Perhaps that is George's legacy. He was our Ty Cobb, the legendary baseball personality who was universally respected for his skill, but reviled for his bad manners. Of all the other "gentlemen" who played ball with the "Georgia Peach," as Cobb was known, remember me one. Nice guys are often forgotten. Ferociousness scribes our memory. Like it or not, we retain the memory of a true curmudgeon, the hustler, a flinty base-running warrior.
Like a force of nature, George returned to our business every autumn. A human being can't escape a memory. When the grass is dry and the Chinook moil in the silky still waters of Baker Bay, I'll remember George as sure as salmon returning.