My Friend Ben

Ben was the most intense person I’ve ever met. He was a white power, Nazi skinhead and a convicted felon. He confessed to me on several occasions that he had seen people get murdered. You have never met anyone like this man.

Before I ever met Ben I had heard about him. Everyone in the scene knew of him. He was universally feared and respected. And the stories surrounding him were a mile deep:

As a youth he had successfully evaded arrest by punching out a police officer. When the officer tried to cuff him, Ben attacked him as viciously as he could, knocking him unconscious. He escaped successfully. All of this occured in front of a music venue; at least twenty people witnessed the scene.

Once in a fit of road rage, he cornered a man in a parking lot and broke his knees with a baseball bat. He did this with all four of his kids in the car.

He served a stretch in prison, where he stabbed another inmate with a pencil. He filled a peanut butter jar with water, stuffed it in a tube sock and used it to smash another inmate’s face. He  started a fire in prison, which is why he had arson on his record.

And on, and on, and on.

Ben had no fucks to give. He confessed that until he was 30, he never expected to stay out of prison. He was a wild man walking civil streets.

I first met Ben when I was eighteen years old. He had just been released from prison and was working at a local tattoo shop. I frequented this tattoo shop to see another artist who worked there. He and I would talk casually when I came in. He terrified me:

He was giant compared to me – eighteen inch arms, broad shoulders, and three or four inches taller. His left arm was covered in prison-style Aryan Nation symbols. The ben 5 (2)word “SKINHEAD” ran in large bold letters across his bicep just below the sleeve. On the back of his triceps were the words “WHITE” and “POWER.” An Iron Eagle brandishing a swastika covered his entire chest and stomach.

Across his knuckles, instead of the traditional “LOVE” and “HATE,” Ben had “HATE” tattooed twice – once in red and again in blue. A Hitler youth dagger ran down the entire length of his spine, and across his back, shoulder to shoulder, ran the words, “SIX MILLION MORE.”

At the time, I was working at UPS, loading trucks for the sunrise sort. The truck I loaded delivered to Ben’s tattoo shop. I would often see packages for him as I loaded my truck, and I mentioned this to him the next time I saw him. His packages were sent COD; he offered me free tattoos if I could swipe the packages and deliver them in person. I told him I would think about it.

I really wanted free tattoos; but I also wanted to impress the older guys. There was no way I could steal a package, though. But I had an idea I thought might work: I’d tape the packages to the underside of the truck. Then, I’d follow the truck to its first stop where I would liberate the hidden packages, deliver them myself and collect my fee. Thankfully I never tried this – it most certainly would not have worked.

I continued to pay for tattoos and nothing more came of it all. Before long I found another tattoo shop I preferred. Our social circles no longer overlapped. Last I heard Ben had been fired from the tattoo shop for fist-fighting a customer in the parking lot.

About six years later I was running my own martial arts gym when I got a call from a friend who worked at a local bar. He said there was a regular at his bar – a real tough guy – who watched the local MMA fights and thought he could do better. He was looking for a place to train. My friend asked if he could give my number to him and I agreed.

I got a call within an hour. We agreed to meet at my gym after hours for a private workout. He arrived on time and I recognized him as soon as I saw him. I was instantly nervous. But after several hours of training, I was pleased to discover that a once terrifying man was now below my strength and skill level. We enjoyed our sparring sessions and quickly became friends.

He was a tremendous sparring partner – strong, aggressive, seasoned. After several weeks of training I told him that I remembered him from the tattoo shop and asked him if he remembered me. He had a good laugh when he put it together: “You turned out alright,” he said. We continued to train for several months, occasionally heading out to the bar together after our sessions.

Before long I had to close the gym and find a new apartment. This was tough for me; I didn’t have a lot of options. At the same time, Ben was looking for a new roommate at his house. He offered me a room at his place: “you’re the straightest person I know,” he told me. I accepted.

Ben and I lived together for almost two years, during which time I got to know him better.

He was a fantastic weightlifting partner – strong as an ox, and gifted with an inner fire that could move mountains. We would have combine-style weightlifting contests, repping two plates on the bench to failure, usually tying in the 18-21 rep range. We’d throw a plate on the curl bar and play a chicken game of “I go, you go” until someone quit. We both had that intensity and we resonated when we worked out.

He had some peculiar habits: he would hoard kitchen items in his room – a hangover from prison life. He would stand at the window in the living room and peak out the blinds, complaining that every car in the street was looking his way. He would hit on every single girl that he saw. About once a month he engaged in a knock-down-drag-out street fight outside a bar, or even a gas station.

He once told me, “I think if you and I fought you’d probably beat me, but if it ever comes to that I’ll stab you.” He was dead serious. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or intimidated.

Ben was chronically codependent. He hated being alone, especially at night. A different girl stayed over every night of the week. It was like a hostel. If the sun went down and he didn’t have a girl over, he’d make as many calls or drive as far as he needed to hook up. He admitted that he only enjoyed women when he was pursuing them; once he had them he was immediately disinterested.

And then there was the racism: his racist hate ran deep. He would argue that the Holocaust never happened, that blacks were genetically inferior to whites, and that national socialism was the only proper form of government. But as seriously as he took it, it was nothing more than a projection of his own self-hatred. It was painfully obvious, at least to me, that the real enemy was within.

The more time I spent with him, the more unhappiness I saw in him. He was miserable, wretched, insatiable. He flew into a rage for petty reasons and displayed a consistent inability to cope with confrontation or opposition. And yet he was immensely powerful, fearless, and intelligent, with the discipline and drive of a warrior.

He considered himself too cool for everything. He quit his car club because he was too cool. He wouldn’t go to parties or to other people’s houses because he was too cool. He wouldn’t see movies because he was too cool. He was so cool that he could never laugh in public or have fun in the company of others. The truth of the matter is that Ben hated everybody. He was completely at war with himself.

As time went by he began to pick arguments with me. Several times things became heated; we almost came to blows, but one of us would leave before it got crazy. He always apologized, but it was clear that he could not control his temper or his displaced rage. It was also clear that he knew no other way of behaving.

I did not support Ben’s politics. But I was not afraid of them either. All too often people avoid those with extreme views instead of befriending them. This is tragic. Bullies bully because they feel victimized. If you have a bully in your life, love and understand him; don’t engage in a divisive counter assault.

Ben needed a friend more than anyone I’ve ever met, and every day that I engaged him and made him laugh he moved one inch further away from hate and violence and one inch closer to real community. To quote the Good Book, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

By the time things became uncomfortable between us, I had decided to make a serious effort to return to school. This was quite a personal development for me. He was supportive of the idea, and shortly I moved back to my parents’ house to prepare for departure. Ben and I met up several times before I left, and I bid him farewell before I moved.

I had been away at school for six months before I heard from him. Out of the blue he called me with one of the most candid conversations we had ever had. He told me that he considered me one of his best friends. He told me he missed me. He said that he hoped nothing had happened at the house that left me feeling tense or angry. I assured him that nothing had, and returned his friendship in kind. There was something gentle and real about this conversation. These were the last words we ever spoke.

Three months later Ben was dead. In a shocking turn of events, he shot and killed himself in a public park on the fourth of July. No one saw it coming. He was survived by his ex wife and his four children. They were devastated.

Rumor had it he had been battling a serious pill addiction – Oxycontin and another opiates. He had broken up with a girl he really liked, and he was weeks away from his fortieth birthday. I sensed in him an utter exhaustion with his life of hate and a disillusionment with the fruits of his violent lifestyle.

I have never shaken the feeling that our final phone call was a cry for help; I simply misread the signs and underestimated the depth of his pain. Every day that goes by I wish I could have saved him.

The world does not value Ben’s ideas or lifestyle, and rightly so. But despite them he was a real person like any of us. He suffered for real, and to a greater extent than many of us. In his pain he hurt many others. Had his hostility been met with love, who knows how much better things may have turned out.

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3 thoughts on “My Friend Ben

  1. Pingback: Road Rage | Matthew J. Summers

  2. Pingback: Autobiography | Matthew J. Summers

  3. Pingback: My Friend Chris | Matthew J. Summers

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