em>Things are entirely what they appear to be and behind them… there is nothing. Jean-Paul Sartre, French existentialist philosopher and writer, 1905-1980.
Where do we begin? When do we begin? And do these questions even matter?
Henry Bennett is not my own name, but it is the name I write under. Henry Bennett, whom I called Pa, was my mother’s father, my first hero.
In 1918, the last year of World War I, a body cart pulled by two tired soldiers creaked over a muddy French battlefield to collect the dead. When they lifted him, Pa cried out. Gassed and shot through the left knee, Pa still had more to do in this world.
During a year in a Paris hospital, his neighbor Selmer, offered Pa a sales job. Selmer sold premium musical instruments in Europe and wanted to expand to the United States. Pa agreed, and became the company’s first overseas salesman.
During the next forty-five years he sold to everyone in New York City, from school bands to Frank Sinatra’s backup Nelson Riddle, the Tonight Show band, and to every “Big Band” imaginable – Tommy Dorsey, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Buddy Rich, and more. He became well known, well respected and somewhat wealthy.
One day a soldier buddy gave Pa tickets he couldn’t use to a Ziegfeld Show on Broadway. In the theater, Pa watched one particular 4’ 10” dancer who wiggled a lot, often without clothes. He fell in love. Who wouldn’t? The great jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman stood best man at their wedding. My mother quickly followed. I always called her Ma.
In 1943, at 16 years of age, Ma stood at the end of a New York pier, a young girl waving to a ship on its way to Europe and World War II. On it was the love of her life, 18-year-old Joe. She never told me his last name.
Joe never made the war. A German U-boat sunk the troop ship in the frigid North Atlantic.
Her mother arranged a quiet abortion. Ma was never the same, not from the abortion but from the death of the only man she would ever love. Living now seemed pointless, and she never found a reason for it though she searched in every gin bottle she could get her hands on.
During the next decade, loosed upon America’s throbbing, boisterous hub of music and entertainment, and backed by some money, Ma blew through New York nightclubs like a drunken twister. Known as “Hank’s girl,” she paid no cover, rarely paid for drinks, never waited in line, and partied with the famous and infamous. For a time she became a Vogue model. It was something to do.
On the last day of 1953, a bitter, blowing, snow-framed New Year’s eve, Pa sat down to watch a boxing match on a newfangled device called a television. At the opening bell of round one, my grandmother excused herself to the bathroom. At the closing bell, Pa roused himself from his reverie and found grandma on the bathroom floor, dead. An asthma attack.
That wake-up call stirred Ma. Approaching her late twenties, she was in serious “old maid” territory, still living at home. Exiting from a ten-year hangover, she took care of Pa and got a job teaching at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Manhattan. There she met an incredibly tall Irishman who, during the next two years asked her too many times to marry him. She refused.
Then Pa found another wife, and it was clear that this new wife didn’t want vestiges of the old wife around, and that included Ma. Almost thirty, with no prospects and no place to go, she accepted the next marriage proposal.
And here I am.
No truer statement could be made of me than I am an accident, but in reviewing my history what confuses me is why so many?
Had the body cart not wheeled by the battlefield in good time Pa would not have moaned. He would have died and I would not be here.
Had a German U-boat not sunk a ship, had Joe returned safely home, I would not be here.
Had a soldier used his theater tickets, Pa would not have met grandma and I would not be here.
Had grandma not died my mother would most likely not have felt forced to accept a proposal to a man who ended up beating her, a man who died a broken, drunk, bankrupt loser at the age of forty-nine. And I would not be here.
No doubt in a fashion we are all accidents, but I must be honest and add that in the space I have here I have recounted but a few leading to me. Such flukes pile upon one another like cartoon cars in a highway calamity and I shake my head.
Friends, with the best of intentions and a background of mysticism (not to say religion) insist these accidents show a purpose to my existence, as if nature insisted on me, but if that were true, surely by my seventh decade I would have stumbled upon the reason. I have not. Unlike Ma, I have not sought an answer in a bottle. I do not drink, never have, ever.
For sanity’s sake, I must follow Sartre’s advice and realize that behind all these mistakes and coincidences and happenstance lies… nothing. They just are, and I just am.
Perhaps this is my greatest challenge. And to accept this is the final hurdle of my life.
It is a high jump for an aging man.