Travels With My Best Friend

Who’s your best friend?
For me, that’s an easy one – my wife Lydia. There’s no one I’d rather be alone with.
The trouble is that time alone is hard to come by. I work relentlessly. (I’m writing this at midnight from a hotel in New York City.) She works even harder teaching our four children and running our organic farm in Virginia.
We live in the fast lane. I like it there. But speed and ambition pose hidden dangers to relationships. When we married 22 years ago, I wondered why couples divorce after twenty years together. Now I see that there are lots of reasons. But you can boil them all down to one word: drift.
This happens gradually when the most important relationship consistently takes a back seat to profession, child rearing, volunteer assignments, and even Monday Night Football. Then one day you wake up and realize there’s a stranger living in your home.
I’m as vulnerable to this danger as the next guy. So I work hard to keep my best friend close. One thing we do is leave the world behind once a year and stamp our passports. Travel criteria are simple: go in the dead of winter; go someplace hot; and go alone.
This year we chose St. Thomas. Yeah, I know …entry into the U.S. Virgin Islands doesn’t require a passport. But we got a stamp. You’ll see.
With our kids at home in the hands of a trusty couple, Lydia and I packed our bags with beach gear, books and organic food. Mango, coconut and papaya are the only locally grown crops on the island. So you pay big for food that’s processed and shipped. We opted for good stuff from home.
As soon as we boarded the plane, Lydia delved into Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I began reading my Christmas present from Lydia: John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. Published in 1962, it’s a first-hand account of Steinbeck’s journey across America with his dog. Along the way Steinbeck interviewed people he met. Here’s how the book begins:
When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch …. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping.
Lydia knows me well. I instantly fell in love with this book, so much so that I finished it during our first day on the beach. Then I started Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Meantime, Lydia began working her way through To Kill a Mockingbird. Few pleasures can top sitting beside a beautifully tanned woman on a Caribbean beach, reading and discussing characters like Sydney Carton and Atticus Finch.
To maximize beach time, we packed a lunch each day: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We bought the bread on the island – $9 a loaf. News is costly, too. The Sunday Times was $15.50. But we only spent about $3 a day ($21 for the week) on breakfast and lunch, thanks to Lydia’s thrift.
At night we broke out clothes we seldom have time or occasion to wear at home – linen pants and summer dresses – and headed for out-of-the-way restaurants offering freshly caught seafood. The best place we found was Herve, a French restaurant set atop a hill that overlooks the city. Our waiter was a former criminal defense attorney from St. Louis who walked away from law and moved to the Caribbean. He’s been waiting tables for eight years and never been happier.
Our waiter at Herve took this picture of us
We met lots of interesting people on our journey – a West Virginia garlic farmer who moved to the islands and opened a restaurant; a woman from Philly who wanted a change and now works at a seaside bar and grill; and a college student from Queens who decided to take courses on-line and live where the sun shines year round. They all had the virus that Steinbeck calls restlessness.
Then there’s Garth, a fisherman from Maine who moved to St. Thomas. Hemingway would have loved this guy. He’s single, rugged, and spends his days on the open sea aboard his 30-foot boat. Acting on a tip from a local, we tracked down Garth and negotiated with him to serve as our private sea captain for a day. We said take us where cruise ships never venture.
Speeding over waves that took the bow of the boat airborne, we entered the British Virgin Islands. From a dock, we got our passports stamped. Then it was on to some uninhabited islands. There are many of them in the Caribbean. We found one that had nothing on it but white sand, some coconut trees and breathtaking views.
As we approached, Garth turned off the engine, dropped anchor and informed us that we’d have to swim to shore. This was a surprise. We were out a ways and the water was 20 feet deep with the current running out. So we’d be going against it and neither of us is a particularly strong swimmer.
I’m fortunate to have a fearless wife. We jumped in. So much of our marriage has been about swimming in deep water and going against the current. It makes for rich love.
Together we reached the shore, a little out of breath and the taste of salt coating our lips. Amazingly, we were the only two people in the world on this tiny island.

That’s where I was a couple days ago. Now I’m looking out the window of my midtown Manhattan hotel room. It’s cold, dark and snowy outside. Although alone, my mind is on my journey with my best friend. We are separated tonight. But there’s no distance between us.

 

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Sunset in St. Thomas

Who’s your best friend?

For me, that’s an easy one – my wife Lydia. There’s no one I’d rather be alone with.

The trouble is that time alone is hard to come by. I work relentlessly. (I’m writing this at midnight from a hotel in New York City.) She works even harder teaching our four children and running our organic farm in Virginia.

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Giving Beats Receiving

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Frank Capra’s classic film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ opens with friends and family praying for George Bailey, whose about to jump off a bridge. God summoned an aspiring angel named Clarence to help. “Splendid. Is he sick?” Clarence asks.
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“No. Worse. He’s discouraged,” God responds.
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Capra was onto something. Discouragement can eat a man up just as fast as cancer. A big source of discouragement is loneliness, especially during the holidays. With that in mind, I wrote a tribute to my grandfather and posted it a few days before Christmas. He’s alone and MY MICKEY MANTLE was intended to give him a lift. This is a postscript to that story.

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My Mickey Mantle

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When I was a kid, most of my friends looked up to athletes. My hero was my grandfather Merle Shelton. I used to call him my Mickey Mantle. The Mick was my grandfather’s favorite ballplayer. In my eyes, Merle was just as legendary. This month he celebrated his 84thbirthday. Not bad for a guy who has smoked a pack a day since he was a teen. He did adult things early. On his 17th birthday Merle walked into a Navy recruiting office in Pittsburg and enlisted. It was 1943 and the military promised a better future than the coal mine he worked in.

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Me and Julio

First a follow-up on my last blog post about teaching children well. The number of reader responses was off the charts. I heard from a Wall Street banker, an artist, stay-at-home mothers, lots of fathers, a Harvard professor, many grandparents, a surgeon, a minister, and everybody in between. Even David Crosby’s lovely wife Jan chimed in. Responses came from as far away as Dubai and Ghana. Usually blog comments are just that – a comment. But I received dozens of emails that read like letters flush with emotional memories of your best times. I guess we know what matters most.
Now, I had intended to make this blog post about my short piece in the Dec. 6 issue of Newsweek, titled ‘A Historic Wreck in New Orleans.’ It’s about how the government is doing to a New Orleans neighborhood what Hurricane Katrina couldn’t – wipe it out. But alas, you’ll have to go here if you want to read it because I've decided to write about something else in this space – my new friend Julio. He’s a 29-year-old migrant farmer from Mexico City. He works here in the states on an organic farm that supplies some of the more upscale restaurants in the DC area.
This past Saturday Julio had a rare day off. So he offered to come to our place to work. We paid him the same rate he makes at the farm. At lunchtime I invited him inside to eat. Just under six feet tall, he had on a gray winter jacket, dirt-stained pants and muddy work boots. His hands are weathered, his cheeks raw. He has a thick Spanish accent. But his eyes tell you everything you need to know – that he’s genuine, humble, and true. As he warmed himself by the fire, I served him a toasted tuna fish sandwich with dill pickles canned by my wife, potato chips and some chocolate almond cookies. I made it a point to treat him like a VIP because that’s how I felt about him. As he ate, I did what I do – ask questions.
How long have you been in the States? (9 years)
Where is your family? (Mexico City)
Do you have children? (A 6-year-old son)
Would you like your family to come here? (Yes, but immigration lawyers charge too much and do too little.)
The first time you came to America, how did you get here? That's when he put down his sandwich. He said he was 19 when a member of the Mexican Mafia guided him and a dozen or so others on a four-day hike through the Mexican desert before crossing the border by foot into Arizona, where Julio nearly died. I asked him what happened and he tried to illustrate by shaking violently at my kitchen table. Despite being in the hot Arizona desert, Julio’s body got fatally cold. He used the word “chills.” Hard to know just what happened. Seeking medical attention wasn’t exactly an option. But he survived. Here’s the interesting part. The price of admission to the U.S. was $3,000. That’s how much the Mafia charged in 2001 to deliver an alien over the border. (Today the cost is twice that much. The Mafia is a big fan of Arizona’s new get-tough border policy – it’s driving up the price of admission.)
So, I asked, how did you come up with that kind of money? (“I started saving when I was 15 years old.”)
I pressed him to explain. He said he worked very hard as a young teen, doing any kind of labor he could find. Every two weeks he stuck about $30 in a bank account. It took him four years to reach $3K. Then he withdrew it all and gave it to a man who makes his living navigating aliens over the border. Julio was one of a dozen people in the party. The guide made close to $40,000 during that four-day voyage. “The drug business is only part of what the Mafia does in Mexico,” Julio told me. “There is a lot of money in immigration.”
For five years Julio crossed back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico, bringing American currency back home. The last time he entered illegally he was with a bunch of aliens, packed into a truck like cargo in the dead of summer. Two passengers died. They essentially cooked to death. Julio remembers like it was yesterday.
Today Julio has a green card, a driver’s license and a visa. When he goes home to see his family in Mexico in a couple weeks, he’ll travel on an airplane and carry papers. Then he’ll return here at the end of February to begin another 10-month stint as a farmhand, sending almost everything he makes back home. Most of it goes to take care of his 6-year-old son, who suffers from a medical condition and recently underwent a very expensive surgery that will take a couple years to pay off. That’s Julio’s life. Meantime, the food he helps grow feeds the elite who dine at Washington’s finest tables, including the lawmakers who can’t figure out what to do about immigration.
But I’m not talking politics. I’m talking about perspective. When I was 15 I was working odd jobs and saving up money for a used car. At 19 I took a couple years off from college to serve a volunteer mission for my church. Those are the choices afforded to an American teenager. Today I work about 70 hours a week developing and writing stories. I see my wife and my children virtually every morning and every night. Those are the privileges of an American adult. Julio lives alone in an apartment in rural Virginia. He drives a car that barely runs. He sees his family eight weeks a year. On his day off he works to earn a little extra. Yet the guy has a smile on his face.
My wife and I invited Julio back. I think I can learn a lot from Julio. Lesson one – be grateful. Lesson two – when you think life is rough, think again

GreenCard

First a follow-up on my last blog post about teaching children well. The number of reader responses was off the charts. I heard from a Wall Street banker, an artist, stay-at-home mothers, lots of fathers, a Harvard professor, many grandparents, a surgeon, a minister, and everybody in between. Even David Crosby’s lovely wife Jan chimed in. Responses came from as far away as Dubai and Ghana. Usually blog comments are just that – a comment. But I received dozens of emails that read like letters flush with emotional memories of your best times. I guess we know what matters most.

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TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL

George Winston

This is a bit of a departure from my normal blog posts. No talk of criminal athletes, eminent domain takings, foodborne illness, or Indian casinos. Today I’m onto something more important than all those things – children and time. Last week I took my 10-year-old son Clancy to see pianist George Winston. Clancy is a good little piano player and George Winston is his favourite performer. We drove over two hours on a school night to reach the concert hall. And we didn’t get back home until after midnight. But in between my son and I heard ‘Thanksgiving,’ ‘Carol of the Bells,’ ‘Snowman,’ and The Peanuts classics. As a father, I got a charge looking at my son looking at George making a piano sing.

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Jeff Benedict is the bestselling author of sixteen non-fiction books, as well as a television and film producer. His latest book, The Dynasty, is the definitive inside story of the New England Patriots under Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, each of whom cooperated for the book. Published in 2020, it was an instant New York Times bestseller. The book is being developed into a 10-part documentary series, which Jeff is executive producing. In 2018, Jeff co-wrote the #1 bestseller Tiger Woods and he was an executive producer on the HBO documentary “Tiger” that was based on the book and aired in 2021. The book is currently being developed into a scripted series, which Jeff is executive producing. Jeff is also the executive producer on a documentary based on his book Poisoned that will air on Netflix. In 2017, he co-produced “Little Pink House,” a feature film starring Catherine Keener and Jeanne Tripplehorn that was based on Jeff’s book of the same title. And in 2016, Jeff co-wrote with Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young his bestselling autobiography QB, which was the basis of an NFL Films documentary. Jeff has been a special-features writer for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, and the Hartford Courant, and his essays have appeared in the New York Times. His stories have been the basis of segments on 60 Minutes, CBS Sunday Morning, HBO Real Sports, Discovery Channel, Good Morning America, 20/20, 48 Hours, NFL Network, and NPR.

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