Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Coffee Smugglers

We’d been on a dental mission with Evergreen4kids at Habanero, a village along Highway 44 a little north of Barahona, Dominican Republic, on the coast of Neiba Bay. Some know that very good coffee is grown in the DR. Well, the dental team liked it. But for most of us, Dominican style was (no pun intended) foreign. The locals fill a 4-oz cup half-full of sugar before pouring in the coffee. The result, as you might guess, the necessity for the dental mission.

It was common for us to get bales of beans from a local roaster so we could give bags to mission supporters when we returned. Most of the team members also bought for themselves. On two of my four trips, I bought a half bale of 20 1-lb bags of a local robust blend. At $2.75 a bag it was a good and tasty deal. One year I bought a full bale and gave beans to many of my friends.

Getting the coffee home wasn’t a real problem. We packed a bale in each of our check bags we’d used to bring in medical supplies. It was split up by payee when we were back in Vancouver, WA. Twenty lbs. didn’t make the checked bag overweight and was within the personal use guidelines determined by the DR and far less than the US allowed.

The year I bought a full bale we’d checked in at the Santo Domingo airport and were waiting for our flight. A few minutes before scheduled boarding time, my granddaughter and I were called to report to a room in the main concourse. She had been upgraded to first-class and had the privilege of being in a lounge. I thought I might be getting an upgrade too. We found the room after having to ask several times.

Two uniformed Dominicans met us, and our bags were on a table in the center of the room. They had a conversation in Spanish which neither of us understood. The man opened both bags and pointed at the bale of coffee in each. He said something to the woman then cut the burlap at the top of the bale in my suitcase just enough to remove one 1-lb bag of coffee beans. He did the same with my granddaughter’s.

It took no imagination to believe they were looking for drugs, so I was expecting confiscation and perhaps being held for questioning. The two had another conversation in Spanish, then he said in nearly perfect English, “Hurry to catch your flight. Your bags will be on board.”

I still had some doubt that the coffee would be in our bags when we did customs in Puerto Rico, but they were there. The inspector asked me about the cut bag, and I told him the story. He said something like if they really suspected drugs, we would have been detained without the bags being opened in front of us. He said, “Probably just justifying their work time by being able to make a report.”

Those to whom I gave the ‘smuggled’ coffee and I enjoyed it but not with half sugar in a cup.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Nothing to Do

This was originally posted on in April of 2019:

Two years ago, next week, I was sitting on a lawn chair on my deck reading Mark Vonnegut’s Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So and had an observation of myself from afar. I had the thought that someone peering over the fence could think I was mentally ill. Mark Vonnegut is a highly educated (BA, Swarthmore College – MD Harvard Medical School) and accomplished man who suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder

The sun was bearing down making the deck surface temperature in the low or middle 80s, and I was dressed in jeans, sweatshirt, wool socks, and a wide-brim hat. My thought was that one would more likely expect to see someone catching the post rainy season rays bear-chested in swimming shorts. Who wears layers of clothing on the deck on one of the first sunny, over 70°, days of the year?
Well, I was in my 8th day of recovery from very invasive intestinal surgery. I’d purposely and progressively reduced my Norco (hydrocodone/acetaminophen) intake from 2 tablets every 4 hours to ½ tablet every five hours. But, I still didn’t want to fall asleep and get overexposed to the sun. Can you imagine sunburn on and around of a row of ten staples on your abdomen?
Back to what I gleaned from the book. Mental illness has nothing to do with intelligence, and intelligence has nothing to do with morality. Thus (or perhaps not thus), morality has nothing to do with mental illness, etc., etc.
So, after reading the book, and re-reading some parts, I have a somewhat different perspective when I see someone by outward appearance homeless or acting strangely (harmful and illegal behavior excluded). I now wonder if the poorly dressed man in a city portico has an engineering degree or if bag lady was a pediatrician.
Now two years after that day, I contemplate sitting on the deck in shorts. Yikes! Who’d want to look over the fence and see my 82-year-old sagging ______ (fill in the blank). These two years post cancer, I’ve been dressing to keep the sun from contributing to another round even if my tests have shown zero markers since the surgery.
As I check the sprinklers in preparation for the predicted hot, dry summer, I try to remember my thoughts (or at least some of them) from that time. Perhaps the Norco had control at the time and my thoughts were just one of its side effects mixed with another – delusions paired with drowsiness. Did I really read Vonnegut’s book? I did, but it probably took me twice as long as it would under a normal state of being.
I do remember thinking about my garden which the year before produced what you see here. There will be no garden this year because (need to think of an excuse to put here). Last year the garden was as if I’d made an attempt to grow something in dust bowl impacted North Dakota soil. The weather wasn’t bad the year of my surgery, but I’d not been able to put down every other year steer manure compost my clay dominant soil requires.
As many of you probably suspect, my having gone through the cancer sequence, but without radiation or chemo, gave me a sense of urgency to finish Nescient Decoy and Echoes of Nam. It’s time to admit that I did.
By my randomness, would you suspect I had nothing to do today? Well, there was the repairing of a broken sprinkler head.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Duane says

Duane Benson [ my son] lives in the Portland, Oregon, area and is director of marketing for Milwaukee Electronics and Screaming Circuits. “We get good tech jobs in this area, but the more jobs we get, the lower the quality of life gets for those workers,” he said. “Commutes get longer, housing gets more expensive.”

Benson said the answer, generally, is not to send high tech jobs to smaller, more remote cities. “The supply chain does not reach out to those smaller cities,” he said. “The cultural and community things that tech workers want are less likely to be there. We need to be real creative in the areas where people want to live. High income jobs cannot exist without low-income jobs in support and low-income jobs cannot exist if low-income earners cannot afford to live in an area. We need fast, easy and inexpensive ways for people to get around and to add community housing in the mix…Attempting to create new tech centers without solving these problems will just end up re-creating the problems in other areas.”

Duane's comments are in response to “How to grow tech jobs in the heartland, as told by techies by Matt Hamblen in Fierce Electronics on Dec 13, 2019. The full article can be read on: how to grow tech jobs-...

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Real Author or Not

Does being self-published make you not a real author? How much effort went into a book not jumped on by an agent or traditional publisher? Were beta readers of Echoes of Nam just being nice by not being critical responders? I and probably most others never expected to have our self-published work scream into the market and have major publishers ask to negotiate for our contract. But it does hurt when someone says, implies, or infers it’s not worth reading because it was never in hardback or distributed on the front counter of a major brick and mortar?

Waha-waha-waha! May I have some cheese with my whine? Long ago I realized that just because I’ve written doesn’t make me a writer. There’s more than the physical activity and grammar aspects of putting out words. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not going through a period of self-doubt or self-deprecating. And, I’ve said before, “There is more to writing a book than writing the book.”

I struggled with point of view in telling my Vietnam/retrograde amnesia story about men who for obvious reasons cannot relate to their formative years. My most daunting problem was how to justify third person omniscient knowledge of all the facts related to my characters and those intimately involved with them.

Flash bulb!

It occurred to me that biographers use creditable documents and interviews to put real-life stories together. Thus, I did a re-write with a narrator who lives within the story. That narrator was a minor character in my first effort. One reader asked how many interviews I conducted for the background – none. I’ve known many Nam vets over the years and had a missed opportunity to be one myself. I also gleaned many concepts and ideas from a dozen or so books written by Vietnam vets. At the onset of my earlier drafts I had finished James Bradley’s The China Mirage,[mfn] I’ve also read Bradley’s Flyboys and Flags of our Fathers.[/mfn] thus, my idea for presentation of the retrograde amnesia story.

I essentially gave up on the project until I read Ray LePoidevin’s Alternate Route. I realized, “Damn the torpedoes full speed ahead!”[mfn]Generally accepted paraphrase in US Navy tradition of a comment by Admiral David Farragut. [/mfn] I had work to do.

Back to my opening question. 
I’ll quote only one reader, the man who wrote his own experience Ray LePoidevin. “Even though a work of fiction, in ECHOES OF NAM, John Benson does a superb job in articulating the mental and physical pain, confusion and suffering that many survivors of war deal with daily. Even as a combat vet, this story has affected the way I look at homelessness among veterans. While the V.A. has come a long way in dealing with PTSD and other disorders facing our soldiers, sadly there are many who still "slip through the cracks." For that reason alone, this could be a true story.” 
 Ray’s endorsement alone makes me feel that Echoes of Nam was written by a real author.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Jason Carter Finn

Twenty-five-year-old Jason Carter Finn doesn’t have a clue about his random CIA missions that have no obvious relationship to his primary job. He’s been recruited as a document translator after his graduation from Oregon State University.

Neither does he have a clue that he has fallen in love with an agent he believes to be working for Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Eventually, he tires of the lack of real social interaction in the covert lifestyle of the CIA and resigns.

Finn becomes aware of a double meaning for decoy after his grandfather dies. Then he gets a life changing text message with a meaning only to him and the sender.

Nescient Decoy is available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Chicken Soup

Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Best Advice I’ve Ever Heard included my contribution “Good, Very Good, Best”.

High school was difficult for me in the mid-1950s. My high school counselor told me that college wasn’t in my future. I would graduate in the middle of my class. And we were poor—my widowed mother often stretched a half-pound of hamburger to feed seven kids. He concluded our pre-graduation meeting with, “Benson, I believe the military would be a good fit for you.” 

I did well in the Army, and my electronics training was a foundation for later things. The counselor’s advice was good, but it wasn’t the best advice I’ve ever heard.
   My work in the Army qualified me for a manufacturing job with a small company in Minnesota. It was a low-paying position, but any job to support my wife and three kids during a Midwest winter was a good job.

The agency I’d been with in the Army recruited me to return to Virginia for an unposted civilian job. The government salary wasn’t significantly higher, but health benefits and other perks gave me the incentive to accept the offer.

However, I still needed a part-time job to support my family once we settled in.
So, I worked evenings and some weekends as a clerk at one of the stores in a rapidly expanding drugstore chain. After less than a year, I was recruited into the company’s management program. Compensation in the training program was equal to government employment, so with the expectation of advancement, I changed jobs. Leadership skills I’d learned in the Army were a personal asset in my new occupation.

The day I was promoted from trainee to assistant manager, my district manager said, “You’re moving up faster than most, but remember this—while climbing the ladder of success, you might have to climb back down someday. In other words, always treat those you supervise with respect and fairness.” His advice was very good, but still not the best advice I’ve ever heard.

We were spending a summer afternoon with friends from church, and our conversation turned to our work and the future. Our friends were preparing to move back to their home state, where they were both certified to teach. My friend Lyle asked about my own work and what might be ahead for me.

I told Lyle that my previous boss, who had recruited and promoted me to manager, was moving up to the corporate office. He told me I was on the fast track for supervising one of the new districts. The increased pay and responsibility seemed like a good incentive to accept the position, but I lamented that the working hours and traveling time would increase.

When Lyle asked what I’d really like to do, I told him, “Teach.” I explained that my favorite job had been teaching operation and field maintenance of communications equipment to U.S. embassy personnel when I was in the Army.

He asked if I had a teaching degree, and I told him I had taken only a few college classes. When he suggested that I could enroll and maybe transfer my previously earned credits, I said, “I’m nearly thirty-three, with house payments and a family to support. Do you know how old I’d be if I went to college now?”

He countered, “How old will you be if you don’t go?” That was the best advice I’ve ever heard.

Three years later, I graduated with a teaching degree and started a satisfying thirty-five-year career as an education professional. I retired from teaching with an advanced degree, and now I can afford hamburger.

My high school counselor’s good advice was helpful. My district manager’s very good advice was practical. But the best advice I’ve ever heard, my friend’s question, was life changing.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Before Grandpa was Thirteen

One grandkid said, “I’ve heard that one at least once Grandpa, but you should write it down in case you or one of us forgets what you said.”

Actual memories of things that happened ‘way-back’ in the 1940s are difficult for me to recall with any measure of precision. These short stories about when I was young are true or nearly true. Some have been modified to protect the guilty (me) or embellished a little to fill in details that may have been or could have been.

Parts of my stories might be thoroughly debunked by the questioning of witnesses if they could be found or are willing to testify against themselves or me.
If you weren’t there, what difference does it make? After all, these are just my stories, not testimony under oath in court or in a congressional hearing.

Coffee Smugglers

We’d been on a dental mission with Evergreen4kids at Habanero, a village along Highway 44 a little north of Barahona, Dominican Republic, on...