Chapter Excerpt – Robert Benjamin: I Promised You Daisies

…We had not taken ten steps when a voice broke through the background hum of city noises and the mutter of traffic down the hill.

“Aren’t you both a bit old to be playing with those little toy airplanes?”

What…? Us…?  Those are fighting words… no, wait, don’t say anything yet…

My mind had been back at the flying field, and what I was hearing didn’t fit the images I’d been savoring. He must mean someone else…  As I looked up it became clear that he did not. Right there in the middle of the sidewalk, inspecting us with a stern, penetrating stare, stood a well dressed man of medium stature, perhaps ten or fifteen years older than us. As our eyes met, he broke into a warm smile and stepped forward.

“I’m sorry, but that was too good to pass up. My name’s Hugh Pendleton, and I make ‘em too”, he admitted, gesturing toward our little red and white model. “Do you live here on the hill?”

“Yeah, we sure do…right around the corner on Grove Street.” I put the heavy box down on the sidewalk and reached out my hand in greeting.   “I’m Bob Benjamin and this is my wife, Karen. We just got back from flying and now we’ve been playing the parking space game.” Karen turned toward our new friend, still holding the airplane. “Hello. I’m Karen Benjamin….” She hesitated, looking intently at Hugh Pendleton, and then her eyes  widened in recognition. “…oh ! You’re Doctor Pendleton, from the surgical staff at the  hospital!”

“Yeah, I’m an Orthopod. Have I met you already?”

Karen wasn’t sure how to respond. “Not really…I’m in my junior year in the School of Nursing  and I’ve seen you on rounds.” She hesitated again, then glanced down at the model airplane she was holding. “Do you really build model airplanes too, Dr. Pendleton?”

He smiled again. “My name is Hugh, and yes, I do.”

We stood there together on the old brick sidewalk, the three of us sharing odd snatches of information about ourselves. What a coincidence…can I really believe that strangers who share such an uncommon interest should meet like this? People walked past, and we shifted from one edge of the narrow sidewalk to the other to make room without breaking off our conversation. Each passerby in turn slowed, nodded a greeting  and then hurried on, trying not to stare back at the girl holding a model airplane right out there on the street for everyone to see. We nodded back to each of them in turn, not speaking, until at last Karen broke into laughter, “…they don’t know what to say, do they?” Hugh and I just shook our heads in mock solemnity.

Karen had been describing her progress through the nursing curriculum, and we realized that she would soon be rotating through an assignment that would put her in contact with some of Hugh’s orthopedic surgery patients. She and I tried to hide our surprise that Doctor Pendleton, a hospital staff physician in private practice, shared what appeared to be genuine pleasure in learning that he would get to work with Karen, who was still just a student nurse in spite of the dedication that was obvious in everything she said, and we wondered how we ought to respond.

Then Hugh was looking at me. “What about you, Bob. How do you keep busy when you’re not building airplanes?”

This was the part I was afraid of, even though I knew it was coming. What am I supposed to say? It bothered me more than I would ever have expected, each time I had to explain. “Well, I guess you could say I’m on an extended break from college. I’m working in the computer lab at the hospital while Karen goes to nursing school. When Karen graduates and passes her State Boards to practice as an RN, I’ll go back to school full time myself.”

“That sounds like a fair enough deal. I have several good friends, couples, who started out that way, supporting each other.” He glanced at Karen, then looked back at me. “Where were you studying…did the two of you meet on campus?”

“Bob and I…well, he sort of discovered me a year or so ago, when we were both down in New Jersey.” She paused and looked at me.

“Yeah, I got lucky and went to the beach on the right day.” What do I say now? “I, ah, was at Bowdoin College, in my junior year, and I decided that it would be a good idea to take some time away, work for a while, and make sure I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life.”

“Bowdoin! I’m impressed. I did my undergraduate work at Harvard, class of ’53, and I ran into quite a few of you North Woods guys. What’s your field of study?”

“That’s where I got in trouble…I wasn’t sure for a while. Once Karen graduates, I’ll go back for my degree and go into education…public school kids…I’m not sure what subject yet.”

“Good for you” Hugh nodded at the model Karen was still holding. “I don’t know about your science background, but from the look of that you might want to consider a science or math curriculum. I’ve discovered that being good with these little airplanes we build is a pretty sure sign of being good at a lot of other things, and a good way to communicate, too.” Hugh reached out toward my model. “May I look at that? Did you build it in your apartment?”

“Actually, no,” I explained. “I built it in the little studio apartment out in Brighton where I lived last year, before we got married, but we do have room in our place around the corner. I have a workboard under the bed that I can set up on one of our desks. I’m thinking about starting something new, but I can’t decide exactly what I want to build next”

Karen laughed, “…yes, and then Bob will get balsawood shavings and sanding dust all over the apartment…” She paused to smile and nodded toward me. “…but then he cleans it all up himself, so I don’t worry about it.”

Hugh looked at her carefully. “Don’t you mind the smell of the dope, when Bob does covering and painting?”

“The summer when we first met, Bob showed my little brother Curtis how to start building models himself, in our basement down in New Jersey, and then we all started going out to fly them together. I saw how interesting the models could be, and I discovered that I didn’t mind the smell the way I thought I would. Besides, we have a fan he sets up in the window to clear the air, so it’s not a problem.”

As we stood there the sky had been growing darker and now the antique gas lamps of Beacon Hill began to come alight.  It was clearly time for us to go our own ways, and that was when Hugh’s offhand invitation opened up a new world for us. “I live a few doors up the street… right there,” he offered with a gesture over his shoulder. “Why don’t you two come over to my place for a drink after dinner? We can visit some more, and I’ll show you the workshop space I have rigged up down in the basement…I made a deal with the landlord so I’d have a place for my airplanes. Maybe you’d like to share it with me…there’s plenty of room for two of us to work down there.”

Just before eight Karen and I were back on Myrtle Street looking for the house number Hugh had given us and still wondering to each other whether this whole adventure could possibly be real and not something we had managed to dream together. As my wife had reminded me more than once over the past few hours, senior surgeons usually don’t even speak to student nurses. “I think it’s exactly the way he said”, I insisted. “Anyway, we’re going to find out soon enough.”

The doorway was wider than most, set back into the weathered brick of the front wall and raised above the level of the sidewalk by several granite steps. The door itself was dark varnished walnut, flanked on one side by the usual list of apartments within and those little intercom buttons that permitted callers to identify themselves for admission to the common hallway. As we stepped through it another door opened and Hugh Pendleton appeared to usher us inside. His two room apartment consisted of a large living room facing the street and an equal size bedroom in the rear. A small but complete kitchenette was squeezed into an alcove between them, with an equally small but functional bath balancing the arrangement on the other side. The varnished walnut of the outside door repeated itself in dark, deep paneling that covered every wall, giving way only for the broad bay window that opened up the entire front of the room and a large fireplace that dominated the far side. A substantial fire of well trimmed, dry logs was crackling there as we walked in, reflecting rich dancing highlights and real warmth off the huge leather sofa and easy chairs that filled the center of the room. Books lined one wall, titles of maritime history and adventure and oversize volumes of aviation lore alternating with rows of medical texts, and a stack of recent issues of The New England Journal of Medicine spread itself over a broad table next to the chair nearest the fireplace. Hugh, now wearing a comfortably baggy old sweater, turned away for a moment and then  reappeared carrying a cocktail shaker that he waved in greeting. “I just made up some vodka martinis,” he smiled, “and something tells me you’ll share one with me after a hard day of model flying.”

It was all just too good to be true, but it was real. The three of us relaxed in comfortable disorder on that deep leather furniture, Hugh sprawled back in his subtly worn armchair by the fire, his partly filled glass leaving a moist ring on the top of the stack of medical journals. Karen and I shared one end of the broad sofa as she alternated between leaning against my shoulder and straining forward in her enthusiasm to answer Hugh’s questions about her impression of the hospital. We spoke of the rigors of medical training and

Karen recounted the challenges of the nursing curriculum as she had experienced them so far.

“Karen won’t tell you this, Hugh,” I offered, “but she’s making a habit of being at the top of her class in each successive rotation.” My wife lowered her eyes for an instant, barely nodded, and said nothing.

“I am seriously impressed”, Hugh told her. “You are to be congratulated…” He paused. “Have you considered the possibility of specializing in surgical nursing after graduation? Perhaps we’ll get the chance to work together someday.”

He turned to me. “What about you, Bob? I’ve heard a little about some kind of computer project within the hospital, but nothing specific.”

“Right now it’s just data collection on admissions…nothing exotic,” I explained. “They’re not at the point yet of, say, integrating lab results into a patient database.” I explained the computer applications research program that had been set up at the hospital a year ago, and with some reluctance described my role as the leader of a team of data entry clerks, confessing the frustration that was already troubling me. “I managed to become the Data Collection Supervisor a month or so after being hired by the project, but it’s obvious that my job is still clerical.”  I paused. Should I be talking about this?

“I can’t help feeling out of place working alongside the programmers and the systems analysts who are people just like me but for the completion of a few more terms of college study. The Director made it clear to me that without a degree, by definition I can’t be considered for a more responsible position within the project. It’s embarrassing, but I guess I’m stuck with it for a while.”  I glanced at my wife. “I’ll be going back to school… at least part time…in the spring, taking night school classes at Boston University that will fill in some of the requirements I need to meet to go back to Bowdoin to graduate.”

Perhaps he was aware of my discomfort. Hugh began to talk of his days of medical internship and surgical residency, explaining how he and two other young doctors with the same interests had pooled some common space and created a small work area where they could devote a few hours of free time each week to building model airplanes. He went on to tell of the discovery of this secret workshop by a newspaper reporter who wrote a sympathetic article describing this unusual interest and how valuable it was to the young surgeons as a counterpoint to the rigors of their medical duties.

He went on.  “Even now, even though I have so much more control of my time, and so much more of it free, in private practice, I treasure knowing that I have this unique activity that I can do in my own way, and I have my own special place set aside for it. Remember I mentioned that I have my own little basement workshop…want to come and see it?”

Of course we did, and almost as if we were kids trooping off to see a secret clubhouse in the woods we followed Hugh out the door, ice-tinkling glasses in hand. A few feet along the housefront one of those basement doors lay in deep shadow in its own stone alcove two granite steps below the level of the sidewalk. Musing that there ought to be a troll, or at least a gnome, guarding it, I was not at all surprised to hear an anachronistic rasping clunk as the old lock responded to Hugh’s key and the heavy door, which revealed itself to be of solid wood nearly three inches thick, creaked open. Behind it we saw a long narrow corridor, really a passageway, of bare brick walls. Overhead the heavy open beams of the main floor allowed us just enough room to walk upright, and the floor of flagstone set in concrete was dark with what seemed permanent moisture and green hints of moss at the edges. Halfway down one side, dimly lit by a single bulb in a wrought iron fixture, another heavy door, twin to the one we had just come through, guarded the basement apartment. Just visible in the gloom at the far end a third far less stout door promised to lead to the rear of the building. Nonchalantly pushing it open, Hugh beckoned us to follow him outside with the comment, “Watch out, the steps are kind of steep.”

They were. Gray with age, a split flight of open wood stairs hugged the walls of the narrow airshaft and at the bottom, visible only in what light filtered down from the little square of open night sky four floors above, yet another battered door waited. Thinking, “He’s got to be kidding, this can’t be for real…” and feeling foolish balancing a half filled martini glass in one hand  while holding Karen’s free hand in the other, I followed Hugh to the bottom. A step ahead, he shoved open the last door to reveal the absolute blackness of an unlit basement, nearly disappeared as he stepped inside, then reached up in a gesture of familiarity to touch a hidden switch. Two small bulbs glowed to reveal a gray stone basement. It would have been unremarkable expect that against the far wall, just dimly visible in the shadows, I saw the shapes of several large model airplanes. Through the musty damp stone smell I caught a hint of the sharp-sweet aroma of aircraft dope and in that instant understood that I was going to be at home in this place.

Hugh flipped another hidden switch and all at once we found ourselves standing in an intimate pool of warm light, surrounded by the dim basement walls that somehow no longer seemed to matter, looking at a freestanding plywood  wall built across the center of the basement with a workbench extending most of its  length. The uneven concrete floor was swept clean, several chairs lay about in odd disarray, and a great open storage cabinet of dubious ancestry covered the stones of the wall that marked the front of the building. And there were airplanes…the model shapes I had seen in the shadows were of several radio controlled models of designs I had seen at various flying fields. Now they rested down here, wings removed, with a light gathering of dust proclaiming that Hugh had not flown them for some time. It was clear to me that they represented the good stuff, big complex models that used the really top quality equipment I had so far only been able to dream about. Trying to look everywhere at once, to identify all the wonders of this place and learn all I could about the interests and abilities of my new friend while at the same moment sharing his conversation, I could see right away not only that all of the models really had been flown but also that Hugh Pendleton’s abilities as an aeromodeling craftsman were good enough that I knew we were going to get along well together.

Karen was excited, too, and she listened attentively as Hugh described how he had arranged to pay his landlord a small extra rental fee for the use of the basement space that most tenants would likely have ignored. We dragged chairs over into the small circle of light centered on that long workbench, feeling its warmth and sense of intimate inclusion all the more strongly for the musty darkness just over our shoulders. Finding space on the bench for the glasses we were still carrying, now empty but for a few remnants of ice cubes, we resumed our conversation just as we had left it upstairs, all of us at ease in this improbable sanctuary.

We stayed late that night, agreeing without comment that it was Saturday and none of us had obligations in the morning. Shortly after we realized that sitting on those old chairs in the purposeful clutter of the model shop was just the right way to explore our new found fellowship, Hugh disappeared upstairs long enough to mix one more shaker of vodka and vermouth. We sat until the small hours, nursing our glasses dry and sharing one story after another of models and medicine, all happily blended together. It was clear enough that Hugh enjoyed his role of host and was pleased at being able to share his good fortune with new friends. My Karen appeared to relax too, and the tightness that had been starting to seem like a natural part of her face began to soften and slip away.

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