Have I ever told you about my friend, Ben?
“It’s a funny thing about friends, you don’t even like some of them. You just ‘have’ them.”
Years ago, on my grandparent's coffee table there use to be a book of essays by Andy Rooney and I read the quote above in one of them. It has probably been over thirty five years since I have seen it, but it resonated with me. It made me wonder.
Ben is my friend and I like him.
Here is the thing, I did not like him at all at first. We moved in next door to each other our freshman year at Texas Tech and we could not have been more different. He grew up on a large ranch near Alpine, Texas and I drove in from Colorado in a beat-up convertible with a mullet. My apprehension to Ben quickly faded as I came to admire his humor, his toughness, and his loyalty. We joined the same fraternity, drank a lot of beer, got in a few scrapes, chased the same girls, and pretty much did all the things normal college-aged guys do in their formative years. One night at a party, I bet another guy five bucks that Ben could kick his butt. Now Ben was not a big guy, but he quickly was there to help out a friend and was willing to try until a few others intervened. We use to laugh about that a lot.
There was another time a few guys tried to fight us in an alley where we were parked. I remember trying to load all of our friends in my giant old Cutlass convertible when I look up and Ben is standing in the middle of four or five guys yelling for us to get out and fight. I jumped out of the car and played peacemaker and we escaped unscathed but I always regretted not just standing in the circle with him and taking our lumps. Ben made me want to be more of a man.
These stories shouldn’t paint the wrong picture. Ben was often a gentleman. Quick to laugh and compliment. He was kind and generous. If he had a dollar, he would share it with you and often did. There was not anything he would not do for a friend.
After college, we were groomsmen in each other’s first weddings but didn’t get to see each other much. I got a call one night from Ben telling me he was joining the United States Border Patrol. He said if they called for a reference not to sugarcoat anything, just tell them what happened. Sure enough, they called and I told them all I could. I knew Ben would be perfect in any role serving his country and he was. He got busy going on adventures. I got busy with work and kids. We didn’t talk much. I missed him.
Over the last twenty-five years, I have actually only seen Ben a small handful of times. He always shares stories of the things he has seen in the line of duty, sometimes they sound exaggerated, but the truth is, with Ben, you never really know. He sent me a t-shirt and a hat from his squadron once and I wore them with pride. I liked to brag about “my buddy in the Border Patrol” and all the things he has seen and done. To me, he became less a friend and more of a mythical character. I have seen pictures of awards, medals, and shooting competitions and I am always so proud of him. I have often fantasized in my mind, a lonely soldier out there watching over all of us. One part John Wayne, one part Woodrow McCall, and maybe a little bit of James Bond mixed in as well. What man wouldn’t want to be described that way?
A few weeks ago Ben let me know he was retiring. He had put in his years serving our country and it was time to move on. Something about it made me sad. I pictured an old cowboy sitting on his porch watching the sunset with a glass of whiskey and his dog by his side. He shared a picture of the knife and the watch that his squadron gave him. I was again so very proud of him. I hope he knows that.
I think after all these years, I finally understand what Rooney meant about just “having” friends. I have been lucky enough to have a lot of friends in my life, but I have been blessed with a precious few like Ben. The kind that would show up at a moment's notice if you needed them. The kind that would help you out in a fight or loan you money without asking. The kind that knows your weaknesses but likes you anyway. True friends like that are hard to find.
The truth is, I’m kinda sad because I don’t really know much about his life and he doesn’t really know much about mine. Maybe that will change as things slow down. However, I do know this: My life has been better for having known him all these years. I felt safer every day because I knew someone was out there protecting our country. To this very day, I do not doubt, for even a second, that if I needed him, he would come ready to kill or die for me. Maybe those sound like words from one too many action films, but for a real man like Ben, those are words to live by.
This may seem like an unremarkable story, or maybe I just do not have the right words, but I wanted to tell you a little about my friend Ben. He has been on my mind lately. Some everyday heroes go unnoticed and that is a tragedy.
To Ben himself, thank you for being my friend. Congratulations on your retirement and your humble service to our country. My life is better because I met you. Our country is better because of men like you. Enjoy your retirement and viya con dias until we meet for a whiskey, my brother.