THE 1950s & 1960s

 “I, uh, started out as a child,” is how Bill Cosby began his wildly popular second comedy album in the ‘60s. I was a Bill Cosby “freak.” Likewise, Ray Stevens, Andy Griffith and Brother Dave Gardner.

Modern psychology tells us that we all “start out” as children, that those several early years for the great majority of us are, indeed, “formative.” It’s “who” we are, like it or not. So, I’ve always had a sort of “bent” sense of humor—and it permeates everything I do, say or write.

People in my church choir have still not gotten accustomed to my “smart-ass” comments at rehearsal, but they laugh anyway.

I was an active, happy child, growing up in working class southwest Hickory, NC. My birth certificate says I was born in “Cleveland County,” but I was actually entered the world in a country medical clinic about a quarter mile inside Lincoln County on NC Hwy 18 about 25 miles southwest of Hickory.

“Toluca” has the “entering” and “leaving” sign on opposite sides of the same post. I don’t remember anything else there, besides Dr. Edwards’ gray stone clinic. The highway doesn’t even widen there, although there is a major strawberry farm there now. Cleveland County is actually several hundred yards south of the building I was born in.

“It’s close enough for government work,” as our elder daughter says.

My mom and dad, Clyde and Naomi, were mostly educated in the school of hard knocks, but they were intent that I receive a college education—only the second one in my family—probably because my left arm was paralyzed by a birth injury known as “Erb’s Paralysis.” I’ve met only a few other people in my lifetime who even know what this is.

My folks were “common people” who made their share of mistakes, including parenting, if I am permitted an opinion. But they did not want their only child to have to work in a hosiery mill, a furniture factory, a roofing company, or driving a truck—as they did.

Even though they spanked me with a belt or a switch more than I really deserved, I am eternally grateful that they drove me to get that education—and to excel at whatever I tried. Today, as I approach my mid-60s with artificial knees, neuropathy in my feet and Type II diabetes, I am thankful that education of 40 years ago helps to keep my mind and spirit occupied.

Our four adult children and six grandchildren all live hundreds of miles way, but I am never lonely with our two big black dogs to keep me company while beautiful, darling my wife, seven years my junior, still goes out to earn our living. I also have my constant companion, Arthur… Arthur Itis. Several times a day, Arthur “plays notes” on my lower spine like a piano keyboard.

Even though I was an only child, I had lots of “brothers” and “sisters” in the neighborhood. We played every rough, physical game you can think of. I especially remember the all-day baseball games on a vacant lot—with final scores like 230-228—and football games in a briary creek bottom, from which we often went home with our clothes torn to shreds.

One game we played that would horrify parents today was “war.” We would watch World War II movies on TV channel 13 on Saturday afternoons, then go out to another vacant lot, choose up sides and dig our fox-holes. We didn’t throw rocks at each other, but dirt clods, indeed, were shattered on the rumps of our foes. We also lobbed Pepsi bottles and water balloons into “enemy camps.”

We learned what would be a novel idea today, all of us, about “competition”—especially in light of today’s politically correct city recreation departments which don’t want kids to experience “losing.” That’s why they either post an incorrect “close score” or don’t post the score at all in games like football or basketball. When I was growing up, we found that the “winners” of our game “war” were the last ones in possession of the field, after the other kids had quit and gone home hurt or crying, or both!

By learning about “losing” at such an early age, I also learned that I didn’t like it. “Winning” was just a lot more fun, so that’s what I focused on.

When I hit sixth grade, I joined the Boy Scouts, and I began to be influenced by people other than my parents and my teachers in school.

My smart-ass, know-everything attitude still got me in hot water with every bully at school and in the neighborhood. I’m proud to say, though, that I retired from fist-fighting undefeated by the time I was 14.

I fondly remember Claude S. Abernethy Sr., my 65-year-old Scoutmaster, and of course, Frank Barger, my football coach at Hickory High. They taught me “things” my parents couldn’t, because my parents had never had the same experiences.

“Mr. Ab” was a member of one of the first Scout troops in America, Troop One, Hickory—which most people don’t know—and “Coach Frank” taught me about real discipline, not just getting my fanny tanned for misbehaving. His widow, Mrs. Becky Barger, a truly classy lady, sang in the same church choir as I did for a number of years.

Coach Barger taught us that “you never argue with a fool, because pretty soon, the people around you won’t know which one’s the real fool.” He helped to change my attitude with his own rough-shod ways. I always felt that, underneath that gruff exterior, was the most highly principled man I had ever known.

Dick Sain of Hudson and Joe Caldwell of Hickory were junior high football coaches who taught me a lot about winning and losing, too. My first honors English teacher at Hickory High, Barbara Rost—whom I really disliked at the time—taught me to love literature and “good writing.” She was followed by Genella Allison and Jean Ball, two more great teachers, and Mary Ellen Snodgrass was more like "my best buddy" than a teacher.

I had the pleasure of being the manager and scorekeeper for an undefeated basketball team in high school and playing on two undefeated football teams in junior high and high school. Those guys were like “war buddies,” and we always remember our time together.

The first money I remember making was payment for mowing grass around the neighborhood, when I was about 9 or 10, then catching spring lizards in our creek to sell for bait at a local country store. I also helped a buddy of mine with his newspaper route on “fat” Wednesdays and Thursdays. That’s where I learned how valuable a water pistol full of ammonia can be with a big, unfriendly dog chasing you.

I learned about civil rights by reading the newspapers every day, almost religiously, and by watching the TV evening news. I remember very well Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

When he said he wanted his “children to be judged by the content of their character, and not by the color of their skin,” it made incredibly good sense to me—even though some around town were telling me I should care about Dr. King’s skin color and the skin color of some of my friends.

That movie, “Remember the Titans,” could have been made about the 1966 football season at Hickory High. The coaches and players went through many of the same tribulations as depicted in the movie—and we also went undefeated and were declared state champions.

My best friend at the time, our fullback, Mike Mallan, died in a plane crash 10 years later as we were preparing for a reunion, again as in the movie. The school set up a “Team Before Self Award” named in his honor, and my younger son, Scott, won it in 1994. No one at the school ever knew of my close friendship with the namesake of that award, and thus, the sweetness of having my son win it.

I am a 1971 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill school of journalism—where I learned how to have a great time—and I went on to a 23-year career in corporate and institutional public relations. I had already spent some six years in newspapers by the time I graduated, so I was looking for a career in something different but related.

I spent 15 years as North Carolina public relations manager for Centel (Sprint/Embarq/ CenturyLink) in Hickory and, before that; I was director of community relations at Catawba Valley Technical Institute (now Catawba Valley Community College) for 6½ years. I also spent more than a year in the news bureau at Lenoir-Rhyne College. Aside from my public relations career, I also have worked part-time for several political candidates, have written sports and features for newspapers and magazines and have broadcast sports on two local radio stations.

I “semi-retired” in September 2000 because of bad knees and arthritis in my back, and I have chosen to work only part-time since then. For that reason, I have the time to serve as a Caldwell Soil & Water Conservation District supervisor, a position I was elected to in 2006.

My wife and I live on a 10-acre piece of ground we call “The Plantation” on “Big Gunpowder Ridge.” It’s on a hill in “Bumtown” (if you’re not sure where that is, you need to refresh your Caldwell County geography).

In 1976, I earned a master’s degree, summa cum laude, in political science at Appalachian State University in Boone, concentrating in public administration and minoring in junior college education.

For almost 20 years, I have been a part-time community college instructor, mostly teaching the basic College Student Success course at CVCC. I have also taught writing and public relations classes at Lenoir-Rhyne, Appalachian State and Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute. Most recently, I taught political science at Cleveland Community College in Shelby for two years.

I also have been a Nationwide Insurance associate agent based in Hickory since 2001, and before that, I spent three years in the automobile business.

My lovely wife is Leslie H. Benfield, a broker's assistant for big outfit we’ll leave unnamed because they don’t like “unapproved advertising.” We have two sons from my previous marriage—former Navy Lt. Com. Dennis Allen Benfield Jr., a nurse anesthetist in a private hospital in Fredericksburg, TX, and Marine Maj. C. Scott Benfield, a Cobra helicopter pilot who served three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Our daughters are Lindsay P. Drunasky of Woodbridge, VA, a statistical analyst for the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, and Keriann P. Useugi, a recent PhD graduate of Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, who works for Nestle in the New York City area. We have six grandchildren—Lauren Elizabeth, Audrey Belle, Meredith Faith, Nathan Bruce and Grace Mackenzie (all Benfields) and Caroline Laurel Drunasky.

As I hinted earlier, two of our favorite companions these days are our Black-Labs-mixed-with-whatever dogs, Rowdy and Bambi.

Very important to both Leslie and me is our church membership at New Jerusalem Lutheran Church, affiliated with the North American Lutheran Church. We had worshipped for more than 20 years at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hickory, NC, until the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America decided in 2009 to reinterpret the Holy Scriptures so that gays and lesbians in active relationships could minister from the pulpit. We are both sinners, indeed, but we believe that what God said was a sin thousands of years ago, is still a sin that requires us to ask for forgiveness.



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