It was in the summer of 1991 when I happened across a gentleman named Ray. To help set the stage, I need to bring you into how I met up with this remarkable man.
During the mid to late 80’s I found myself consumed with vintage drum collecting. I believe the older instruments were produced better than any of the instruments I was performing on at the time. I found the instruments of the 1920’s and 30’s really lent themselves to the literature I was performing. Additionally, the instruments were pretty easy to come by as there were very few avid collectors. However, the vintage drum explosion was just around the corner.
I spent many hours (and many dollars) hunting for vintage drums. Scouring pawnshops, garage sales, flea markets and had just been introduced to a very interesting trade paper called “Not so Modern Drummer” (a spinoff of the major publication “Modern Drummer”). Over the years I had amassed a collection of more than 60 vintage snare drums. These drums were all unique – some more desirable than others but all wonderful in their own right. Some of the drums were made of metal shells, others from wood all with that wonderful vintage dust and build up packed nicely on their aged bodies and inner workings. It was my great passion to clean up these gems and in some cases, put that back into playing condition. In some cases getting the instruments back into playing condition took some real dedication and detective work.
The process after purchasing the drum was usually more difficult than finding the relic tucked in the corner of someone’s junk pile at the local flee market. Once the transaction had been completed, I would need to take a full assessment of the drum and what parts may be missing after 60+ years. Using a drum key as well as flat tip screw driver, one can begin their work.
Imagine you just unearthed a 1920’s snare drum, bargained for its purchase and now see the instrument needs a certain screw or washer or some other moving part in order to do two things. One to complete the drum so it is playable and two, bring the drum back to its original condition from the time it was first assembled. This is no easy task as the local hardware store does not carry the type of hardware needed to recondition these babies.
Keep in mind, many, if not most of these drums have been reconditioned with new parts, parts which are readily available to us immediately. I on the other hand we vintage heads are purists and would only rebuild the newly purchased drum with 100% authentic parts. That was part of the fun, looking for that special, one of a kind thumb screw for some obscure drum made in some obscure time.
It was in 1989 I found myself in need of a tiny thumb screw for a 1920’s Leedy drum that I learned of a man named Ray Benjamin. Ray, a resident of Kerrville Texas, had informed me he had the missing screw and would be sending it up as soon as he could get to the post office. The cost was a mere $2.00 plus shipping [.25 cents]. Within a week, the screw arrived to my home in New Jersey. Along with the screw came a very nice letter of introduction followed up by some questions concerning the particular drum I was working on. Rays letter really moved me for some unknown reason (I am still unsure what prompted the feeling I got). I wrote a short letter of thanks and mailed it back to him at the address indicated on the envelope. Along with my thanks, I enclosed a photo of the newly restored drum and thus our relationship was born.
Shortly after my initial letter of thanks, low and behold, I received a letter back from Ray with a word of thanks from him for my letter. This went on for a few months – months of mail exchanges from a man whom I never met. Although we never met, I had the deep sensation of an unmistakable bond forming.
During these correspondences, we started to begin adding sentences concerning our work, free time and family. Before long, the letters turned from vintage drum talk to talk of family and life in a more serious vein. As our pen-pal relationship grew, so did our concern for each other. Not in the subtle sense but in a truly heartfelt way that one may experience but once in a lifetime … all this with a perfect stranger. This stranger slowly but surely became part of my extended family. Together with his wife Margie, they continued to share stories of tennis, God’s work, recreational activities, drumming (for Ray, with the jazz combo) and of course his numerous trips cross country in his beloved RV.
We began to write to each other on a regular basis, usually once a month. Sometimes more frequently, sometime a bit less but the relationship survived decades of letters, most of which I have in my possession. Many letters which I do not have copies for were hand written from overseas or some other remote location sent.
During our years of writing, it was Ray who suggested strongly, I write down my stories of work, daily occurrences, specific stories which feel to me to stand out from the norm. I took his advice and began keeping a detailed journal from which now, you are getting a glimpse into.
From 1989 to the present our relationship continues, although many life changes have come to my dear friend Ray and Margie Benjamin, they are always with me, in my thoughts and spirit.
Excerpts from those letters which I collected over the years are still to this day, thought provoking and meaningful to me. I can see how from letter to letter our relationship builds, culminating in years of sharing family, life, death, work, drums and lots of inner thoughts.
From the start, Ray wrote all his letter by hand, no computer, only pen and paper, the old fashion way. Each letter was on lined paper like we used while in grammar school in the late 60’s early 70’s. What memories would come flooding back with each letter I received from my pan pal so far away? I do remember in 1991 Ray purchased a personal word processor but even after that, he wrote most letters in his own hand. I still have all of them and love and cherish each meticulous ink stroke.
Below are some extracts from our many letters.
Letters up until around 1991 were drum generated with a growing sense of commitment…
June 4, 1991: “When are you planning your trip to E. Canada? You know Eastern Canada is a mere 400 miles from NJ. “
October 23, 1994 “By the way I do agree, one day we will meet face to face. I really look forward to that day.” “I am always in search of a better life and lifestyle - I am always pushing for new opportunities. I will always keep my eyes open for the unexpected. That is what truly keeps helps keep me on my toes.”
December 11, 1994 “Success is measured by happiness, not by money or how many people know who we are or anything of that nature.”
Over time, I learned Ray was significantly older then myself. To this day I do not know his age but would place him about 40 years my elder. This made the relationship all the more special on some level. He was the type of guy who would offer his advice to me but in the most subtle way imaginable. His tactic was to compare his advice with a story of how the same circumstance surfaced during his life… a brilliant way to display reassurances to anyone, by showing, leading, teaching without jamming your convictions down ones throat!
As 1995 was approaching I began to see Ray and Margie’s financial situation take a downward turn for reasons unbeknownst to me. I was aware of this because the man who once supplied me with a simple $2 screw was selling off most of his collection. Let me tell you, he had one hell of a collection, 50+ instruments, all quality, all highly desirable.
By 1995, vintage drum collecting was booming. There were shops springing up all over the place that dealt with this precise stock. Furthermore, the Not so Modern Drummer subscription went from 200 subscribers worldwide to roughly 2000! People began to understand exactly what they had and exactly how much someone else would be willing to pay for it. Snare drums made in the 1920’s by William Ludwig would sell for $2000.00 where a few years earlier the same drum would fetch $200.00. Buyers from all over the world were getting involved in the vintage drum explosion and many of our precious instruments would find themselves in China or in Europe. Many would find a new home with the top orchestras of the world. It was a bittersweet feeling as I recall … happy the instruments were going to professional organizations but sad to see the cost of these beauties rise like a balloon filled with helium.
By early 1995 Ray sold most of his 50 collection to a prominent collector out west. I would imagine it was to help pay for life as both Margie and Ray were getting on in years. I remember thinking, why didn’t he offer to sell me any of his collection? Why would he leave me out of his massive collection? Later I learned the collector in Iowa offered him a considerable sum for the entire collection and would not make the offer again. Take it or leave it now! Ray opted for the sure thing and who can blame him.
March 2, 1995: “The greatest fear I have is that I burn out before I am forty. Okay it's not my greatest fear, but now and again I have to remind myself to take a break.”
July 7, 1995 “Ray, I take great solace in having such good friends like you and Margie. I would like to come and visit one day“
December 7, 1995 “You are a true friend Ray, and I do love you dearly for your friendship and understanding.“
February 22, 1996 “Due to a very busy schedule my plans to visit Texas have fallen through. I am personally sorry for not making the trip”
July 3, 1996 “By the way the picture I choose to give you is of me (of course) in Vienna at the Musicians cemetery. Yes I cut my hair very short! This cemetery is the final resting place for Brahms, Suppe, Wolf, Schubert, Strauss and of course Beethoven. I was truly moved just to be there. Budapest was one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to. Also Krakow was fantastic. I love to travel”
Signed: “I promise you, I will make it down to Kerrville one day. Stay well my friend.”
May 9, 1997 “This is a beautiful hall to perform in. The stage itself is sensitive. I can hear the basses from the far side of the stage.”
July 24, 1997 “As Always love to you both. How I would love to come to Kerrville. Perhaps this coming year will allow me!”
The letter below refers to my mother’s passing on 1/16/98
January 24, 1998 “I wish I could write more, or even ask how you are, but I can’t. I promise the next letter you get from me will be upbeat. I am glad to have you and Margie as friends, even long distance friends at that. I need some time to pull myself together and deal with all that has happened. I have very bad memories of the past month and need to move on.”
February 5, 1998 “I was touched and moved to hear your voice Ray. It was just what the doctor ordered. I guess that’s why you are the “wise” man and I am still learning the ways of life. I am still in a state of shock, although I am dealing with the whole situation better than last week.”
Time off … due to a very difficult period in my life, coping with the death of my mother was something what caused me such great pain and grief. I required several months to work past the anguish and despair.
Next letter of significance:
December 29, 1998 “I arrived home a few days earlier than expected from Europe this time. I had a wonderful time (including the KlangBogen Festival in Vienna). I performed many concerts throughout central Europe again, what a fabulous experience. However, on my solo train trip from Budapest to Brno (Czech rep.) my suitcase was stolen from my hands… yes, this is true. I actually observed this man or gypsy watching my every move. At the stop in Bøeclav, he grabbed my luggage and ran from the train. The doors closed as I watched him run away. This whole episode took place in about 2 seconds. Well, I have been to Europe 20 or more times without incident, it was bound to happen to me sooner or later. The gypsy ran off with everything, from my tuxedo, contact lenses through my notebook computer. Oh yeah, he also stole my airline ticket home! Holy cow!!! The only thing I remained with (perhaps the most important) was my money, passport and my life. Not bad, no one put a gun to my head or threatened my life. The next stop on the train was Brno, my stop. So I went to the police station in Brno and they told me that they couldn't help me because I was an American. I was more upset with the police then with the gypsy. The next morning I went to the airport in Prague and asked them for the next available flight back to the States. There was one seat remaining on the 1:15 flight that day. I grabbed It., and here I am. To make a long story short, I filled out a police report when I returned to the States along with a sworn affidavit. I presented it to my insurance company (accompanied with a list of stolen items) and the Czech/American Embassy in Washington DC. I am now waiting to hear from Prudential about what is covered and what is not. What a fiasco.”
My visit with Ray & Margie
June 23rd 2003 5:01 AM 2003 San Antonio Texas: (in the airport waiting for my 6:00 AM flight)
I had one goal in mind for my short stay in Texas, to visit my dear old Pen Pal Ray Benjamin and his wife Margie in Kerrville.
I have been threatening Ray for years now that I was going to make the journey to Kerrville for a real face-to-face visit. I have expressed my desire to get myself down to Texas for more than 7 years now. When I finally came to the decision to make it happen, I began to be overwhelmed with all sorts of feelings. My mind began to race with both excitement and trepidation. I was about to make all the fantasies of a pen pal friendship become a reality and for me, this was just a bit overpowering. I was to actually meeting the person behind all these letters, all these years. Was he really like I imagined him to be? Was he as nice, caring, thoughtful, pleasant and ambitious as his letters painted him out to be? I was nervous, nervous about my decision to make a dream become a reality. I was always told that the best part of a fantasy is just that: a fantasy. When you cross the line between fantasy to reality, sometimes you can be let down by “the grass is always greener” scenario. Furthermore, as an avid reader with a pretty impressionable mind, I have a pretty vivid imagination and was concerned that my imagination may have taken over the realities of his life and living. Perhaps I built it all up too much? Perhaps I was in for a real let down and would/could never really recover from such a meeting? I had begun to build up this long overdue trip into absolute panic: questioning my every move, thought and motive.
In retrospect, these concerns couldn’t be further from the truth. Now that I have actually made the journey, I tell you this, I was foolish for allowing my fears and anxieties get in the way, even for a split of second.
When I finally came to the absolute decision to purchase an airline ticket, I knew I was going and there was no backing out. 15 days prior to my desired departure date, I went on-line to seek out the best price for a ticket. After searching the net for endless hours [before I knew of such wonderful search engines!], I came across a travel agent in Houston. They were able to secure my ticket for $395, which included the new "security" taxes. I was set to depart on June 21st at 6:00 AM from Newark International Airport and return on June 23rd also departing at 6:00 AM from San Antonio. Once the ticket was secured, I reserved a small, very small (as I would soon find out) car so I can make the journey from San Antonio to Kerrville, which was about 65 miles northwest of the City. The price of the rental car came in at a comfortable $46.00 and offered me unlimited mileage. Now, where will I stay? I have traveled pretty extensively in my years and the one thing I have learned the hard way is when it comes to accommodations, not to be a cheap bastard and make sure I am going to be pampered while I am away. Especially in Hotels! For all overseas flights, I will dish out the additional 1 to 2 thousand dollars for a business or first class ticket. I will complain to my family and friends that the airlines are ripping me off but when I get on the plane for a 10 hour flight and I am sitting in a comfortable seat, being pampered the way I like it, I know that I have made the right choice. So onto my Hotel, I wanted to stay at a really nice hotel in the center of town, located close to the Alamo and all other attractions that downtown San Antonio had to offer. As fate would have it, a friend of mine who was touring with AIDA just happened to be in San Antonio during the same period of my much-anticipated trip. Through Disney (The touring company of AIDA) he was able to secure a deluxe room for me (which had two bathrooms) for the low price of $58 per night –the normal “tourist” rate was $189.00. This was the beautiful St Anthony Hotel located a few short blocks from the Alamo. I was thrilled to have been able to score some points in my "less expense" column for a change. Naturally, I accepted the fantastic deal on a great hotel and location. So it seemed that everything was in place and everything was going according to plan.
For the next 2 weeks, I began to dig out all my old letters to and from Ray. Should I bring them with me or should I leave them home? Ultimately, I decided on leaving the letters home for safekeeping. (Later I would discover that Ray had copies of every correspondence that left New Jersey). While I was sifting through the letters, I once again was able to witness the development of this long distance relationship. Tucked in the file with all the letters were countless photographs that carefully documented Ray and Margie’s home, hobbies and vast travels in their RV. Still sifting through the photos I noticed that some years back, Ray began collecting vintage die cast model cars. After talking it over with my wife we decided that a die cast 1950 model Chevy should put a smile on Rays face. I searched the internet until found what I was looking for. Along with Chevy, we found a delicately sculpted piece of crystal that housed the New York City Skyline in a 3-dimensional setting. After securing these 2 items, I began to think it wasn’t enough, I should bring them more. I began sifting through our photographic exchanges over the years and put together a portfolio of my own. I included all my favorite pictures of Ray & Margie’s travels, concert pictures and other pictures of some of my travels. Now, I felt better, I really wanted to bring with me some sort of personal touch.
For such a short stay, I wasn’t planning on checking any luggage under the airplane; instead, I would just bring my trusty overnight bag. After years of travel, I have been able to manage my life with every miniature item one can imagine. From my alarm clock, to toothpaste, toothbrush to deodorant, miniatures have indeed served me well.
Another gift … something more to present. I found myself going online to seek out all the companies that would deliver a gourmet basket to Kerrville. I was looking for gourmet jellies, fruits, pastries, breads, cheeses and anything else one could imagine. After an extensive search, I came up with a few choices. However, the cost of delivery was more than the basket itself! It was amazing to me that a company would charge such an exorbitant fee for delivering their own products. In addition the added cost of shipping perishables added $29 more to the already exorbitant cost. To add insult to injury, none of these companies would deliver on a weekend. When all was finally said and done, I decided to find some additional things in Kerrville upon my arrival. So now I was all set, gifts planned out, air, car and hotel all arranged, all I needed to do was wait for June 21st to roll around and get on the plane.
With only a few more days to go, I began to think of what I was about to do and why ... again. The thought passed through my head that I was going to the same State that my estranged father was living and I was going to see a man who was probably around my father’s age. But thought came and went ... I was not going to see my father while visiting Texas; instead, I was visiting a man who was father like to me in more ways than I thought. Over the years, especially the past few, we shared more than vintage drums and die cast cars. Without effort or even provocation, we settled into some very personal exchanges. Our letters, although personal in nature, never made me feel uncomfortable. On the contrary, I felt extremely comfortable sharing some of my deepest thoughts and beliefs with a man I never met.
It was June 20th, and my only chore for the day was to pack all my miniatures, gifts, pictures and a change of clothes into my very compact carry on. With that done, I had nothing left to do but wait for the appointed hour to leave my home for the airport. I went to bed early, in anticipation of my early departure but sleep didn’t come easily. I tossed and turned for what felt like hours. In less than 36 hours I will be in Kerrville, meeting the man behind the letters. At some point I must have fallen asleep, probably due to an over active mind. My alarm was set to go off at 4:00 AM but I woke up out of a very sound sleep at 3:40 AM. I glanced at the clock that sits on the far side of the bureau and thought it would be better to get up now then to let the alarm go off. I headed for the kitchen and switched on the already prepared coffee pot and waited until I heard the first sounds of percolation. Down to my studio where I took a brief (cold) shower and morning nature break. I was finished in just minutes and had enough time to check my e-mail, feed the cat, and empty the dishwasher from the wash I set the night before. My sister-in-law Diane has a moonlighting job, which allows her to create her own hours. On Saturdays, she normally arrives at work by 6 AM and works though her shift without break. When I mentioned the hour I needed to arrive to Newark International Airport, without hesitations, she offered to take me. Although the airport is only 20 minutes from our homes, I am still (to this day) perplexed over why she would pick me up at 4:30 AM when my own wife threatened certain death if I woke her up when I was leaving the same morning.
Sure enough at 4:30 Diane arrived at my house, careful not to honk the horn at that hour, she merely waited in the driveway with her headlights peaking though my picture window. I looked out the through all the plants and shot a “thumbs-up” sign to her. I grabbed my bag and pulled the door tightly closed after setting the ever-reliable security system. The ride to the airport was uneventful with the exception of my thanks for the ride, over and over again. Once at the airport, I kissed her on the cheek and off I went. I realized at that moment, I was really going; I was really getting on a plane to Texas. I had a connecting flight that first stopped in Dallas-Ft Worth Airport with a 35-minute layover and a change of aircraft. We disembarked the flight and I had a few minutes to kill, as I saw the next departure gate just a few feet away. I decided to go outside and smell the Texas air. It was about 8:15 AM (local time) when I set foot for the first time on Texas soil. As the automatic doors of the "Salid" opened, I was hit with a blast of horribly humid 86-degree air! It was only 8 AM what the hell is it going to be like at noon or worse yet, by 4 PM? The 2 days I spent in Texas the temperature never went below 79 degrees but never above 105, so, I guess I shouldn’t complain! I am told that the summers can get really hot and this was just the beginning of the dog days of summer. After arriving at the San Antonio Airport, I proceeded to the Rental Car location, picked up my car and proceeded to route 281 South in the direction of the St. Anthony Hotel in downtown San Antonio. I found the hotel (despite the detours signs) and pulled into the valet parking area. I had arrived before check in time but was accommodated as nicely as one can imagine. The room was spacious with plenty of natural light. There was fruit, sodas, juices and water all complimentary waiting for me in my room.
After unpacking the few items I brought with me, I placed 2 phone calls, one to my wife and the second to my friend Dan who was touring with AIDA. I was extremely weary from my morning travels coupled along with the now 93 degree moister soaked air I was attempting to breathe in. I let Dan know that I had arrived and was going to seek out some breakfast. The hotel was located just 2 blocks from the Riverfront walk, which meant that Starbucks was only 2 minutes away. That would later become our rendezvous point. With coffee in hand, we headed over to our choice of nearly 50 restaurants to choose from on the lower level of the walkway. Within a few minutes a grilled chicken salad was sitting in front of me and a few minutes after that, the plate was as clean as a whistle, I had been up for nearly 10 hours without eating ... I was hungry! After lunch, we headed over to the theater where Dan would be playing his 2 PM show. I walked into the orchestra pit and checked out a fantastically elaborate percussion set up. I decided I would hang around, in the pit for at least the 1st half of the show. By intermission time, I was ready to drop, I needed to put my head down and close my eyes for a while. Dan and I made some plans to catch up later in the day. Walking back to St. Anthony’s Hotel via Broadway and Houston Streets, I found myself getting dizzy from exhaustion and the thick wet air. As soon as I reached my room, I turned on the shower and jumped in. The cool clean water felt like someone gave me a shot of adrenalin directly into my veins. Regardless to my newfound strength, I plopped my travel weary body onto the bed. My plan was to sleep for an hour and then get up and walk to the area of the Alamo. I closed my eyes and thought about my big day, which was yet to come. The thought of my visit to Kerrville was so exciting to me that it was like getting a 2 shot of adrenalin! With that, I got up, got dressed, locked up room 733 and headed back out into the sultry air towards the Alamo. The day continued like this and each and every block I walked up and down only led me to more souvenir shops and crowded streets. Well, it was a Saturday in June and I should have expected that people were vacationing. I walked around for several hours until I received a phone call (on my cell) that Dan was free for dinner. We took a walk back down to the River walk and found a wonderful little restaurant to eat at. We talked some more about “life on the road” (Dan had been touring now for 28 months) and general chitchat. Dinner was exceptionally good; it included a very spicy tortilla soup and grilled chicken salad (yes, another one) followed by an espresso and crème Brule that was baked to perfection. I figured the crème Brule was well deserved after the day I had.
Exhausted, I returned back to the hotel but this time my only mission was to get some sleep, some real sleep. It was about 8:30 but I didn’t care, I got undressed, jumped back into the shower, washed off the city grime and found myself back in bed by 9:00 PM. Within minutes I was enjoying a soft, goose down pillow beneath my head, a soft but warm quilt atop my body and the air conditioning set on a cool 60 degrees.
June 22 Sunday: The day we met.
My plan was to leave San Antonio at about 10 AM and drive to Kerrville arriving by 11:30, I figured an hour and a half should be enough time for me to get there, get lost and then get back on track. I woke up after a wonderful night’s sleep (which is rare for me when I am not in my own bed) at around 6:30 AM. After showering, I went downstairs to the breakfast area and once again enjoyed some exceptionally good service. The breakfast was served home style and included juices, coffee, eggs or freshly prepared omelets, breakfast meats, pancakes, waffles, French toast and all the fixings’ one can imagine. After breakfast, I retired to my room where I did some writing, forcing myself not to leave too early for Kerrville. I wrote for about 2 hours before powering down my laptop. Standing up, stretching my legs and twisting my torso from side to side, I began to feel the circulation enter back to my sedentary body. I began to gather my gifts together for a slightly earlier departure.
By 9:45 I was at the valet parking retrieving my car from its storage. The radio stated: “It’s 88 degrees and the forecast is calling for temperatures to reach the low 100's”! I didn’t need a weatherman to tell me it has hotter than hell!
The hotel was located just off the highway 281 and 10. It was route 10 west that would take me on my 62 mile journey to the city limits of Kerrville. Off I went! I was terribly excited and as the miles clicked away on my odometer, I grew more and more anxious, but this time it was an anxiety of great feelings. I turned on the radio and found sandwiched in-between the country music stations was a nice Classical station playing music of the Baroque period. (I later learned it was NPR: a public radio station as most are in Classical music). The time passed by quickly on this somewhat deserted Sunday morning highway. And then … there it was …
There it was, directly in front of me, a sign that said“TX-16 S number 508” - "Kerrville next exit" as I took the exit and made my first left onto Route 16, I began to imagine what it must be like to live in Kerrville. For starters, Kerrville was in the mountainous region of Texas and that helped bring in cooler weather. Kerrville was a breezy 94 upon my arrival. I passed stores, restaurants, and shopping malls as I follow route 16 for the 3.3 miles my trusty map suggested. As I passed the hospital, I knew I was close, Ray mentioned in his last letter to me the hospital was only five minutes from his home. I looked for Rio Robles Drive and took a leftand an immediate right onto Chaparral Drive. I was just blocks away and nearly jumping through my skin. I knew I would recognize the house, as I had pictures sent to me some years earlier. I know there was an extension built a few years back because I had those photos to. Looking at the house numbers I saw: 29 … 35 a few more houses to go ... 39 and finally 41. 41? That doesn’t look like the house I remember from the pictures. But it had to be, I was at the right address on the right day in the right city and State, it must be it! I pulled up in front of the house, noticing a white 1999 Ford sitting in the driveway. As I walked up to the front door, I saw through the window, what appeared to be a computer? I knew Ray did not own a computer, so I figured I was in the wrong place. I pressed the doorbell and waited. My heart was no longer pumping as rapidly as it was a few moments earlier. Now, I was truly perplexed. I glanced at my watch and it was 11:30 on the nose (we agreed on an 11:30ish meeting). After no one answered the door, I got back in my car and drove back up the road, stopping and asking neighbors if I was in the right place. Ultimately, I picked up my cell phone and dialed Rays number, "Hello" Ray answered, "Ray, where the heck are you" I asked "well, I am here, where are you"? He asked. I explained my dilemma and he chuckled and asked me to head down Chaparral once again. This time, Ray was standing outside his doorway.
We greeted each other without any trepidation whatsoever; I was so comforted to see him (and find him) that all the fears I had concerning our little “get together” turned into distant memories. Ray later explained the doorbell had a mind of its own and would sometimes get confused with a neighbors bell.
After a firm handshake and quick gaze into each other’s eyes, I told Ray that I needed to get some things out of the car. Walking back, my heart began to race again, not from fear this time but from an excitement that might come but once a lifetime. I went back to the car to collect the parcels that made the journey with me, gathered them up and walked into his home. Ray’s lovely wife Margie, who allowed me, without hesitation to kiss her on her cheek, greeted me warmly. I offered her the plant and flowers I purchased as I entered Kerrville. I began to look around their home. It was exactly as I pictured it, everything looked just like the photos we shared in past correspondences. I didn’t know what to do first … talk, look around, should I offer the other gifts I brought down, no idea. Ray took over quickly as I am sure he sensed my nervousness. His first remarks included his absolute delight that I made the trip. (Later Margie shared with me that Ray had been fidgeting all week, in anticipation of my visit. Ray even called me just a few days before my departure from NJ to see it I was still coming, for some reason he really wasn’t sure or believed it).
There was music playing in the house, nice cool Jazz, not to loud and not to soft but just right. Sitting on top of the Music center were a sea of memoires reflected the family photographs, more insight to the Benjamin’s became apparent. Just to the left of the music center was the famous addition that was built some years back. Ahhhh, this is what I remember! From some photos Ray sent to me years prior to this historic visit, I imagined that the addition, (a rather large glassed in Porch) was in the front of the house, not the side. Furthermore, Ray & Margie had painted the house thus confusing me more when I first arrived. I commented that it was a nasty trick to play on their friend from New Jersey.
My mind began to race as I wanted to say everything I had “prepared” for weeks in one long sentence, but once again Ray rescued my from my inarticulate ways. He invited me into what I will call his “inner sanctum”. This room, which sits at the front of the house, is flooded with sunlight; I found it to be a cheerful place where we spent the next portion of our visit. This room once held an enormous collection of vintage snare drums and memorabilia from days gone by. The room still housed many snare drums, by my recollection 10 in all. As we walked into the room, my eyes panned back and forth several time unable to focus on “all” the wonderful items. Not only the fantastic pieces of history which sat high above his desk on shelving units designed by the master himself but collections of letters, stock portfolios, file cabinets and his collection on Die cast vintage model cars. When I looked at the cars my heart nearly stopped beating. Why? Well, Ray had a vast collection of these cars, which he had sent many photographs illustrating. From the looks of the photographs, I imagined that the cars were much larger than they actually were. I had purchased a 1:24 Car where he had all 1:43 scale cars. I didn’t fully understand what all those numbers meant before 1 week ago. In my quest for a perfect gift, I had started to do some research on model cars, knowing that Ray had a vast collection. I took out all the pictures he had sent me and looked for something that was not pictured. I saw a 1950 Chevy that looked wonderful, so, on impulse perhaps, I placed my order. A few days later the car arrived to my home from California. I opened it up and examined the Chevy to see if there were any visible defects. Nope, everything looks fine. Then I took the photos out that Ray sent some years earlier and compared the Chevy to the cars in the pictures. It appeared to be a perfect match, so I was thrilled with my impulse to snatch up this Chevy. Little did I know that the scale was way off the mark. It was at this point, I said to Ray that he needed to open up the other items I had with me. I went inside, through the living room and into the kitchen to retrieve the package I brought with me. I handed it over to Ray so he could unwrap the offering. I was blushing ... I could feel it. Partly because I love to give gifts to friends and partly because the size of the car was gargantuan compared to what I saw sitting before me. He unwrapped the gift, carefully opened the box, pulled the tissue paper away and peered in. His blue eyes widened with excitement (or concern, I thought) but no, Ray was indeed an exceptional man. He never once alluded to the enormity of the car, on the contrary. He shared the offering with Margie who smiled with appreciation and then took it over to the mantle on the fireplace. Sitting on top of the mantel was a 1:43 model of a trailer hitched RV, full to scale and a perfect reproduction (I am sure) of one once owed by the adoring couple. He placed the Chevy next to the RV and stated that it was a perfect mate for his RV. Regardless to the validity of the statement (which I believe to be true) Ray eased my mind and made me once again feel wonderful. All my anxieties were somewhere back on highway 10, between San Antonio and Kerrville.
Back in the inner sanctum, sitting on Ray’s desk were vintage drum books and catalogs that he shared with me. To the left of the drum books were photographs, photographs I once possessed, which traveled to Kerrville long before I made my trip. I was so taken back by the vision of “MY” photographs: I was speechless. Hanging on the wall, just to the left of the word processor (not computer) were plaques and acknowledgments of Rays past. An Honorary document for the musicians union declaring him a lifetime member, a degree certifying Ray as a graduate of Geology were among the four carefully placed hangings; more insight to this pen pal of mine.
I found Ray to be a meticulous man, extremely organized and very thorough in his filing system. I was beginning to see how much we really had in common. Throughout the day, during lunch and a very pleasant scenic drive of Kerrville we shared endless conversations. There was never a lull in our conversation. After our lunch and sightseeing excursion we returned back to 41 Chaparral to enjoy some strawberry and mint chocolate chip ice cream. Margie helped herself to two servings, 1the strawberry, followed by the mint chocolate chip. We sat down in the living room which was quite comfortable and had a lived in feeling which made me feel very much at home. Eating ice cream and sharing more stories of work, family and life in general, I discovered some very interesting facts about Mr. Benjamin on that faithful Sunday afternoon. Ray was a native of Canada settling in Texas in 1967. He worked for the oil companies as a “hands on trouble shooter” and his work took him to all corners of the world, which made for a very interesting 30 plus year career. I was truly taken back by his stories about times gone by.
It was approaching 4:00 and I was beginning to feel like I was over staying my welcome. I didn’t want to leave, not for a moment but I didn’t want to impose of Ray and Margie’s hospitality beyond what I felt was right. At the stoke of 4, I began to hear birds singing, I didn’t think much of it, other then maybe I was hearing things, or just plain old tired. Although I tried to pick myself up and depart, a few more hours passed. During those few hours I would make comments like, “I should be going” or “I would like to get back to San Antonio before dark”. I was waiting to see Ray’s reaction but he never reacted the way I expected. After a long visit, I thought that they were surely tired of entertaining me. On the contrary, if they were, they never showed it, nor do I believe it for a moment. Once again I began to hear birds singing but this time caught a glimpse of the culprit. There was a clock next to the new addition of the house, just right of the double glass doors. A bird would sing each hour that passed with the tune of 12 different bird species. Well, I felt better knowing I wasn’t losing my mind and had only one regret, I wish I could have stayed to hear all 12 birds sing.
It was now after 6 PM and felt that the time had indeed come for me to take my leave. I could have stayed all night, no question, as I felt full acceptance from my dear friends in Kerrville. It was then that Ray took me back to the inner sanctum and began sharing with me more details of his life. When I first arrived I had noticed tags on each drum in the back room, it was now that I was told that each tag has a name on it, this name is the person who will receive the instrument after Ray passes. We spoke of Margie and her continuing battle with Alzheimer's disease and the toll it has taken on him. We spoke about the process of aging and those who have passed before us and so much more. It was during this conversation that Ray repeatedly expressed his gratitude for my visit. He told me I was an exceptional man with a big heart, I retorted, on the contrary; “you” are the exceptional man I made the visit for. His next words will stick with me for the rest of my life: “you are like my adopted son Jim” and I returned the honest feeling that he was certainly an adopted father for me. Not wanting to cry in front of him, I turned the conversation to our next visit. I assured Ray and Margie that the time would come again, sooner than later.
As we walked out of the front room, we walked by his journals, going back nearly 30 years. He had kept a collection of journals marking each day, each month and each year. The journals were all placed in chronological order and sat upon a shelf that I remembered from pictures he had sent. I thumbed through a few of them, carefully not intruding to deep on these writings. I was impressed to say the least. Such dedication to any craft is surely worth mentioning. I was envious on some level but in the same thought made the connection of my own writings, which Ray had helped, inspire. So we have come full circle, writings, pictures, gifts, love, feeling and a plethora of other emotions not mentioned.
Before we said our “good-bye’s” we took the opportunity to mark the day with a photo opportunity. How fitting I thought. First, Margie and I stood in front of the fireplace, my left hand delicately placed on her left shoulder. Click! The memory was captured. Then Margie took a photograph of Ray and me in the same location. Our arms crisscrossed each other’s backs and as the camera made its familiar clicking sound, our hands, which were on top each other’s opposite shoulder, squeezed tightly. With that squeeze, I held back my tears yet again. The final shot of the afternoon was a warm picture I asked if I might take, of both Ray and Margie. Ray was only happy to comply but asked that I make sure I get the 1950 Chevy in the photo. The Chevy was still sitting next to the RV on top of the fireplace.
Before I left Ray and Margie gave me 2 gifts, one for me and one for my wife. I promised not to open up my wife’s gift, as I would leave it for her to open upon my arrival home. The gifts that Ray so thoughtfully picked out for me were exceptionally special. A verbal history of Drummer Ray Tough along with a pair of his wire brushes and a Down Beat Magazine dated December 1938 that was littered with Tough’s name through-out. He also presented my with a vintage drum key from the 20’s. All of these gifts will be cherished and held onto for the remainder of my days.
I pulled out of 41 Chaparral slowly and began my drive back to San Antonio. The 65-mile drive flew by in what felt like 10 minutes. I drove the entire way, without any aid from the radio. Lost in my thoughts about what had just taken place, thinking of when I will get back down to Kerrville and thinking I have been blest a million times over for ever meeting a couple like the Benjamin’s. My little contribution to their lives and their large one to mine would remain emblazed in my memory for a long time. I am able to write this account without any hesitation.
I am still unsure about the exact reason for my visit. Was it selfishly for me? Was I looking for the answer to unasked questions? If so, what would those questions be? For now, all I know is I spent the best 6 or 7 hours of my life in Kerrville on a hot summers day in June.
While in San Antonio, I was walking around, somewhat aimlessly with my friend, when I looked down on the ground only to find a one hundred dollar bill sitting just to the right of my feet. Karma, good fortune?
March 9, 2009
Since my visit all those years ago, Ray and I stayed in touch. During a rather busy period in my life, I neglected to write to him for about 7 or 8 months, this was around March of 2007. When I finally got around to writing, I never received a response. To this day, I am not sure what happened to Ray and Margie, I suspect they have both passed. If this is so, I feel there is no better tribute to them and their memory then placing the above journal entry on the Web for all to see.
God Bless you both, wherever you may be.
March 13, 2007
My Dear friend,
Writing is one thing I truly love to do but to hear your voice on the other side of the receiver last week was incredibly rewarding. I am glad I called and was able to hear your voice and get an update. If I am in anyway responsible by this so called "wake up call" I am honored … this is what friends do for each other. We were on our way to a symphony performance when you came into my mind so strongly. At that very moment, I told Sasha how strong the feeling was and she said, call now, right now don't wait for later or tomorrow, good advice! So I picked up the phone and hit "Ray" in my phone memory bank. You are the only "Ray" in my book so … the phone rang … you picked up. I was happy to have found you home and we were able to share a few minutes together talking.
To be honest, I am worried about you. I know you are dealing with Margie and all that entails. I cannot even imagine what you are feeling or going through. All I can say is I am here for you anytime you need. Just pick up the phone and we can chat away at a moment’s notice.
I am thrilled to have received your warm letter of March 3. I am happy you had the energy and focus to write and fill me in on more details of your daily life. What is this about hip surgery? I had no idea! I trust you have fully recovered or are at least close to meeting that challenge. I don't like thinking of you alone in Kerrville …I know you are incredibly strong and have the support of so many, your children, friends, parishioners and distant NJ friends but I would prefer to spend weekends in the Lone Star State with my friend.
Please write to me to tell me the doctors "interpretation" of this silver dollar size lump! I am most disturbed to hear this news. Perhaps a Kerrville visit is in order sooner than later. Please let me know what is happening with your health as I cannot think of you in any pain.
I need to get out the door but will write again soon. I don't mind your hand written letters at all, it brings us full circle. This is how we began so many years ago.
Talk soon, sending love to you always,
Before, during and after the April 2007 letter, I was immersed in a project which snatched up nearly all my time. Although Ray and Margie were always in my thoughts, I rarely had the energy to dedicate to a letter. My plan, at the time was to continue documenting my current activity, which included opening a Musical Production at the Asolo Theater in Sarasota Florida, then on Broadway in New Your City. Needless to say, I had a very busy few years and time simply was at a premium. As it turns out, I did keep pretty good notes on the productions and perhaps one day, I will offer them to you.
Often my thoughts drifted to Ray and Margie – also by this time, I was in the third year of my new job, Orchestral Personnel Manager or the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. There wasn’t enough time in the day to work both jobs, raise the kids and be a husband but somehow, I did it and with great success! I attempted to call Ray several times during this lost time but was never able to reach him. From the very start of our relationship we had a sort of forbidden deal about using the phone; “no, let’s just write” was our motto. On occasion, the phone would ring either here in NJ or his in Texas. When my mother passed in 1998, the phone rang, when I learned of Margie’s Alzheimer’s disease I called him, some surgeries, detected lumps, and other medical conditions. Ray and I used the phone sparingly but when we really felt the need for that immediate gratification, the phone was are chosen method of contact.
With my new positions in various organizations, I decided to get rid of my beeper, phone, palm pilot and whatever other electronic devices I possessed for one all in one device, a blackberry! In doing so, I was able to combine the multiple items I had into one, easy to use device. The one problem was all my contacts were not as compatible as I thought they would be, so in some cases, well, most, I had the same person listed in my blackberry with multiple listings. When I would perform a search for a person, I would usually us the first contact for them that came up.
Fast forward a head: On December 25 of 2009, I was updating the contacts in my blackberry when I realized I had two entries for Ray Benjamin. One had an area code of 803 and the other 830, an obvious typo on my part. My heart began to pound and pound as if I had just figured out the great mystery of life! [I had been calling and searching for Ray, scouring the NET, calling Kerrville Newspapers, hospitals, etc., no Ray] I dialed the number using area code 803. A few rings of the phone and the same unfamiliar voice came on the annoying answer machine. I hung up, paused, thought for a moment that I must have been dialing the wrong number for the past year … indeed, I was. I picked up the phone and dialed area code 830 and a few rings later was greeted by a warm, kind, questioning voice… “Who is this” – I responded, it is ME, it is Jim from New Jersey!! Is this the home of Ray & Margie Benjamin? “Yes it is, let me get Ray for you”. I was overjoyed to hear Ray and Margie were alive and well.
During the course of our conversation I learned Margie was in an assisted living facility and rapidly declining from her Alzheimer's disease. Ray sounded very weak and with almost no spirit in his voice at all. I truly felt pain and compassion for my friend from Texas. After hanging up the phone, I sat down and wrote a very long letter to Ray summarizing the past 12 months of my life and all the new adventures that had taken place. One month turned into two, and two into three … My life has become so busy with work and family, I fell into the trap of life and neglected to follow up my lengthy letter. Nearly a year has passed…
December 2010: after mourning & suffering personally for nearly a year due to the loss of my brother John, stuck in the doldrums, I decided to do go to the store, purchase Christmas cards and send them out. I felt the need to reach out to all those friends and family members I had neglected over the past 12 months. One of the first cards I wrote was to Ray. I wrote very few words but chose them accordingly. Much to my surprise, about a week later, I received a card from Ray. The card was simple, yet perfect it read:
January 4, 2010
So glad to hear from you. You’re still my favorite pen pal. I’m now living alone as Margie passed on June 11. I’m adjusting I went to five bereavement classes and it helped me. There is a possibility I may move to Colorado to be near my daughter. Hope you are well and having lots of music. As Ever, Ray
After receiving the card which touched my very soul, I picked up the phone to speak with my friend. We spoke… Ray sounded stronger than the last time I spoke with him. We spoke of Margie, John, Christmas, moving to Colorado, life in Kerrville; the million dollar entertainment center built in is community and much more. His closing words to me were “This is the best Christmas present I could have wished for”. Needless to say, I was moved beyond words and realized once again, how blessed I am for having people like Ray touch my life. By the end of the conversation I learned Ray will most likely not move to Colorado in the near future but stay in Kerrville. Also how he misses is partner and friend Margie and how he still to this day, values our friendship which now spans about 25 years.