If this is blather is to seriously be considered as a personal blog, I need to acknowledge the passing of a dear friend, memorable character and a woman who I thought of as my surrogate mom. Joan Benson, the mother of Bill, one of my very closest friends, the guy who taught me everything I know about basketball. Except what I learned from Red on Roundball.
The first time I met Joan was in 1972. I had just graduated from college and Bill and I had loaded up a Driveaway Oldsmobile to be delivered to Spokane and headed west to seek our fortunes. After driving all night we pulled into the Talking Bird Saloon in St. Regis Montana for breakfast. As we were mounting the steps to the restaurant door we saw the headline in the newspaper stand, “93 miners trapped in Sunshine Mine fire.” Bill’s father was a miner, working at another mine in the area, the Galena, but he was on the fire rescue crew and Bill knew his dad would have finished his shift at the Galena and gone right down into the Sunshine to find the survivors. If there were any.
That moment on the steps of the Talking Bird and the moment his Mom came to the door to greet us are as clear to me as if they happened yesterday. Actually much clearer, but I’m old. His dad had indeed gone down into the Sunshine the evening before, and hadn’t come home yet. “Oh, Billy” were the fist words out of her mouth, our eyes met as she embraced him and they were wide and tears were streaming down her cheeks.
In those days Bill had shoulder length blonde hair that made him look a bit like a Viking warrior. He was pretty sure his parents didn’t share my noble view of his appearance. I think the next words out of Joan’s mouth were, “God, your hair!” We went directly into the kitchen and she took the clippers to Bill, giving him a new recruit buzz in about five minutes. The rest of the next couple of days are not so clear to me. I think there were only two survivors, so the death toll was ninety-one. Bill (Big Bill, my friend’s dad) had been up all night, down in the mine which was full of poisonous gas, pulling out bodies. He had to stop because he couldn’t hold his stomach and if you lost it in your gas mask, you’d be a statistic too.
Imagine a small community losing 91 people in one terrible accident. The area consists of a scattering of small towns built up on every patch of scarce level ground along the South Fork of the Cour d’Alene River. The Bensons lived in Wallace, there was Burke, Silverton, Mullen, Pineville, Osburn and the big town, Kellogg. Bill could remind me of others. Every person in every town was effected. And that’s how I started the most memorable summer of my life, four months that played a major part in making me the person I am today.
Joan didn’t suffer fools well and she didn’t suffer me much at first. The thing that we joked about through the years was her finally forgiving me for spilling milk on her new carpet at dinner. But I also think she recognized me as a soft and pampered “Easterner.” The summer changed the soft part, but that’s another story. Fortunately she was receptive to my charm and more importantly she really liked the two women in my life over the years. She and Â Bill’s dad bonded immediately with both my girlfriend at the time and the woman who eventually became my wife, both of which possess irresistible charm and neither of which could ever be described as pampered. It didn’t hurt that my antics were always good for a laugh and a story. She didn’t hide what she was thinking so it wasn’t too long before I knew I was accepted into the family. I thought of the Bensons as surrogate parents.
So rest in peace Joan. You were a beautiful, smart, loving person, fiercely loyal to those you loved and not a person anyone would mess with.
That summer is the source of about three quarters of my stories. Firestorms, whorehouses, narrow brushes with the law, my basketball baptism and rubber duckies in the river. But more about that later.