Thursday, 4 October 2012

Highs In New Castle: A Handful Of Bennies

Ben Franklin guru J. Leo Lemay had an inspired idea for closing his three-day international scholarly symposium celebrating the bicentennial of Ben’s death. After a moveable intellectual feast of two days at various Philly venues, he’d bus the 100-plus symposiasts down to his home turf, the University of Delaware in Newark, for a morning of scholarly papers and a fancy lunch.

Then he’d bus them over to sleepy little New Castle, several thousand contented folks sweetly vegetating 25 miles south of Philly on the Delaware River, have Governor Mike Castle greet them in the town’s vintage Court House and then, and then—ship the folks back to Philly aboard a sunset cruise.

Neat idea, no? Well, almost. Except nature nixed the notion—because the tide would be flowing back to sea, thereby turning a 90-minute cruise into a maddening four-hour slog. It gave a new twist to the term au courant. Still, this fluke of nature was about the only flaw in a tremendously instructive three days, an academic phenomenon as rare as a multi-faceted genius like Franklin.

Almost half of the attendees were Ben buffs, amateurs who followed the scholars around and listened attentively to their high-IQ emanations out of sheer love of the man. Consider my luncheon table: To my left was a 40-year-old male nurse and ethnicist from Glenside who confided in me later that he had hired Philly’s Ben-imitator, Ralph Archbold, to greet guests at his wedding reception.

Next to him was the 40-year-old director of the Illinois Tax Assistance League. I teased him that a Springfield, Illinois, man could be arrested for defecting from Abraham Lincoln worship. His rejoinder was that he had had it up to there with Abe-pushing, and that Ben had become a welcome relief.

Next to him was a half-retired professor of chemical engineering from the University of Florida who confided that he got hooked on the old charmer when he tried to get his sons to respond to Franklin’s autobiography with the same enthusiasm he had felt when he was their age. When they groused and sulked, he reread the book—and got seriously hooked, so much so that he has written a book on Ben’s love lives that Hastings House published a few years back.

Another 70ish amateur, the retired board chairman of Washington’s public TV station, was armed with a sheaf of photocopies of his piece in the Washington Post explaining Ben’s penchant for young ladies. He bristled a bit at the sexy title some hip copy editor had affixed: “Our Founding Flirt.” But I found his essay as perky as the headline.

One of the five international scholars contributing to the symposium, a Frenchman from Lyon’s Jean Moulin University, heads their American studies program. (Jean Moulin was the Resistance fighter who tangled with Klaus Barbie in Lyons.) Next to him was a 40ish exporter of General Electric products from Manhattan. What a bunch of buddies old Ben has accumulated.

The table conversation made me ashamed that I had a Ph.D. in American Civilization yet knew so much less than they did about one of the country’s seminal figures. They talked chapter and verse, footnoting blithely as they swapped their expertises over such arcane topics as the sad fact that Ben in London didn’t know that his wife had died until months later. One informant knew the name and sailing dates of the vessel bearing the bad news to Ben as he sailed blithely past it on his way back to America.

And they even stumped the scholars with deceptively simple posers at the symposium itself, such as, “Did anyone actually call Franklin ‘Ben?’ The professors’ collective response: “Huh?”

Wandering around New Castle, I locked onto the frequencies of some other Bennies. Like a deputy attorney general. A clothing salesman from Newport, Kentucky. A hardware salesman from Baltimore; he was a real revelation. His Ben shtick was collecting all the medals struck in Franklin’s honor—he has an astonishing 500-plus already.

He’s got a deposit down on the most expensive one he’s lusted after to date, the ceramic mold for an Augustus St. Glaudens medal that was never actually cast. It was vetted because the pose of Ben naked to the waist, decorated with laurel leaves (a la Horatio Greenough’s George Washington) was deemed “tasteless” in the 1890s. O tempora, o medals.

But the most interesting Bennie to me was one Knox T (“Call me ‘Bud’”) Long, an American history teacher from Moorpark College, north of L.A. This 54-year-old has turned the loss of detached retinas to the gain of a new career as the Ralph Archbold of the West Coast. What started out as an effort to inject some positive notes into the massive disillusionment of his post-Vietnam, post-Watergate classes has bloomed into a second career. In June, he’ll lay this trip on the First Amendment Conference in Dallas. A few more big engagements like that and he says he’ll risk leaving teaching for good.

Archbold gave Long great encouragement on his visit to Philly. Now into his Franklin gig for 17 years, Archbold displayed the magnanimity that most folks saw in our city’s spiritual godfather by inviting a dozen of the Bennie groupies to a free feed at the Dickens Inn, followed by the dessert of watching Archbold use his Franklin-era press to pump out printed souvenirs.

I asked Ralph if he wasn’t beginning to O.D. on old Ben, especially during this year of wall-to-wall Franklin. “Absolutely not,” was his genial reply. “I’m learning so much from these scholarly papers that I’m too busy trying to figure out how to fit the new material into my act to feel OD’d. This has been Ben Heaven for me.”

Mid Atlantic magazine was preparing a major feature on Archbold, and Ralph was proudly waving advance proofs at me as he sailed off into the sunset. Whoops. Make that got back onto the bus to Philly. Sorry, Professor Lemay. You can’t have everything perfect. That’s one thing Ben surely learned.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, December, 1990

No comments: