Dr. Robert Bennett Remembered

- by Bruce E. McKinney

Bruce McKinney and Robert Bennett, June 1962

Every book collector has a personal story.  Two men set me on the path to appreciating history.  Bill Heidgerd and Dr. Robert Bennett got me into this fix.  To both I’m grateful.  Dr. Bennett passed away in August and I remember him as a profound and positive influence.  I share this story.


In life, from the remove of decades, I have long understood that Dr. Robert (Bob) Bennett made a difference in my life.  In New Paltz, New York where I grew up, he was my freshman home room teacher and sophomore year my World History teacher, as well, between the summer of sophomore and junior years of high school, a 29-year-old teacher offering three soon-to-be juniors to spend the summer with him travelling across America and back.  That was the summer of ’62 and changed my life.


The deal was straightforward.  To occupy a seat in his 1960 Dodge Polara four door sedan we each needed to contribute $250 for the oil, gas, and wear and tear and bring $250 for food, lodging and sundries.  Once white, his car would make the 5,000+ mile trip without mishap.  He was barely older than us, we crossing the border between 15 to 16, he 29.  He was smart, with a light sense of humor, a professional educator, curious to understand what made us tick.


Scott Yaeger and Mike Stillman, fellow classmates, were offered seats and subsequently I became the third.  For me the money was a problem.  My brother was in college and our family resources thin.  I had been earning and banking money every year toward college and negotiated with my mother to use $250 of my education account for the gas and wear and tear.  My parents contributed the $250 for food and spending money and the deal got done.


I was a big guy and my seat behind Bob on what would be a remarkable experience. My 6’4” frame canted to the right for my long legs to fit, may be why I’ve remained left leaning all my life.


Not knowing what was really going to happen, Bob prepared a set of maps and the first one he handed us was New York State and we then knew we’d land somewhere near Niagara Falls the first night.  We were starting from New Paltz, exit 18 on the still new New York State Thruway.  What with the three families saying their goodbyes and novenas we got a late start landing on a farmer’s property, somewhat past the falls after midnight.  We brought pup tents, a Coleman cooktop and 2 lanterns and made camp in the dark, hoping our presence on the side of a country road would not disturb anyone.  Posts and pegs and a smooth spot quickly became our necessaries.  That evening and the next morning we soon learned that Scott’s many Scout badges were for pitching tents, making fires, and cooking.  My estimation of him was previously based on his high grades, his fast running and that his father had been a New York Giant [when they were still a baseball team].  Bob chose well.  On the other side of the back seat was Mike Stillman who would become my best friend over my life.


Soon we were learning the rules.  Scott sat shotgun and was the navigator.  I quickly became the guy who would see America at a 30 degree angle.  It worked for me.  Early on you could see America was flat, the towns and occasional cities punctuated with rivers and bridges spread out over miles and miles of farms and forests.  The first destination was Detroit where we traversed Deerfield Village, Henry Ford’s enactment of early America and a Ford Assembly plant. There, taking a break we took in a movie, without a chaperon, meeting three young ladies in the dark who were less impressed when we stepped into the light.  In the telling “where we are from” landed in a thud. Their Motown didn’t quite match up with our inordinate pride as we explained our Wallkill River was one of only seven rivers in the northern hemisphere flowing north.


While we were becoming familiar with America we also needed to find newspapers.  My family read five papers a day and I was always on the lookout for news.  Newspapers aside, we became accustomed to looking for campgrounds and 2 dollar hotels.  That meant sleeping in the woods or staying in edge of the city establishments that featured running water and bathrooms at the end of halls. 


Some motels did offer special rooms with TV but I don’t think we ever saw them until we were on the west coast.  Between papers we would do our listening to Bob’s radio that was just one step up from our 6th grade can and wire experiments, thin and tinny.


After a stop to see cereal being made at the Kellogg plant in Battle Creek, we moved on making a beeline to Chicago.  By then I suspect Dr. Bob was wondering what he had been thinking. 


There, we took in several museums, including the Field, and were becoming familiar with how to get student tickets.  There we had the requisite Chicago steaks.  The trip was to be 8 weeks and I had $250 / 8.  There would be many peanut butter days to make my budget reach.  The budget for souvenirs was quickly cut to postcards.


Within a week the routine was set.  Letters were to be written and our families encouraged to send us missives along the route addressed to General Delivery.


Heading west we were becoming experienced travelers, able to compare what we had already seen.  Upstate New York more rolling with trees while the Midwest 10 days later heading into Iowa, becoming flat on a scale I’d never imagined.  Lowell Thomas of Dutchess County had released his Seven Wonders of the World in Cinerama in 1956 and Bob was periodically filming America in her majestic majesty. Thinking this epic voyage would be headed to the movies we occasionally changed our underwear and shirts.  Alas, it would never reach Broadway. 


At some point, Broadway or not, Dr. Bob suggested and then quickly added an exclamation point on planning to wash our fetid garments.  The trip was to be a history lesson, not a science experiment.


Mr. Bennett’s plan was to run west after Chicago dipping down into Iowa and Nebraska before we would lean north along America’s Canadian border.  Along the way we stopped at Grand Island, Nebraska using our pooled funds to rent a hotel room.  We must have been mostly camping because I remember the unspeakable excitement to get into a room with a shower at the end of the hall and then immediately jumping on the beds, one collapsing.  I was the one to speak to the night clerk to explain how “one of those darn beds” had collapsed.  The clerk unsurprised, explaining to “put it back together.”  No harm.  Wyoming was to be in our immediate future and on the Mobil Oil maps we were carrying Cheyenne looked to be about the size of New York City because that city’s print was large by comparison among the other places in Wyoming.  It turned out Cheyenne was probably half the size of Poughkeepsie and it was during their Jubilee Days.


Being visiting gentlemen, having been to New York City several times, we contained our contempt until several inebriated Cheyenne local advocates confronted us about our foreign accents and asked Mike for his opinion as to whether Wyoming or New York football players were better.  Mike stood up to them, saying “oh yeh” while I was backing away looking for law enforcement.  In a quick moment they made friends and Mike earned our respect.  Mr. Bennett brought us along to learn about himself and we would learn so much about ourselves.


Driving north among the steepest mountains we had ever seen we were heading through Jackson Hole, Wyoming to Yellowstone.  Camping was by reservation and there were different camps and we moved among them to find the bears, moose, elk, foxes, thermal baths, eagles and Old Faithful.  Of a morning we saw a male Moose and Bob encouraged us to step out for a filmed exploit. A moment later what we thought would be good for the sports pages quickly became a near miss for the obituaries.  The Moose then, to Scott’s ears, he’s still certain he laughed at us as we ran away.


We all Catskill Game Farm veterans, now understood what the wild west was.  We stayed there most of a week.


Then moving north, we headed into the Glacier National Park. The gate was at St. Mary’s.


The place had a very honest backwater feel.  The cabins rustic. The tents tied down suggesting  the winds randomly arrive with fierceness.  The mountains simply announced our Shawangunks to be minor alternatives.  In time we took the Highway to the Sun, an unforgettable trip.  Driving high into the mountains, rising above the snow line, reaching where mountain goats lived, we knew we were in the presence of the power of nature, even in the presence of God.


Out on a short drive, Scott and I saw an appealing mountain looming into the early sunset and decided we’ll try to climb it and get back by night fall.  Mike and Bob returned to the campsite and we started the ascent.  It was beautiful with a feeling of fall in the air.  Short of the peak we realized, “Oh, lord” and we had to hustle through the gathering darkness.  Later that night, our energy still not yet depleted, we went running toward the welcoming lights of a store near the campground.  In the darkness I took a nasty spill and a nearby aid station patched me up for $3.60 leaving me a small piece of stone near my kneecap as a visible souvenir. My children, when small some thirty years ago, liked me to tell the story of my many scars.  The chip of bluestone was always one of their favorites.


After the spill, within a day we were out again on a 10 mile hike to Grinnell Glacier.  Much of America had once been covered in glaciers and the chance to see one of the few in continental America left a lasting memory.


In time we packed up, knowing another kind of adventure would soon be on hand.  Across Montana, slipping through the Idaho sleeve, across the barren wastes of the State of Washington, all to get to the World’s Fair now open in Seattle.


There we stayed in the city, taking the monorail out to the Fair.  It was a comparatively small event with an emphasis on the future while still providing carnival rides if you could afford them.  I couldn’t and didn’t need to try to get sick. I could do it on my own. 


Toward the end of July it was time to head south, taking the sharp left, getting onto US 101, to follow the Pacific Ocean until we would run out of money and time.


Not far down we found a cliff-side turnoff in Oregon along the Pacific.  By reputation, the water was cold and Mr. B. encouraged us to try to get in.  I helped set up the overnight camp and Scott and Mike prepared the chicken a la journey, and then into the setting sun we stripped down and ran into the ocean as Bob filmed the exploit.  We got in and came racing back, leaving us speculating what the water temperature was.  One of us knew about the Alaskan Creep, the current carrying Alaskan melt to nearby shores. Mr. Bennett laughed and we slept well.


We must have come by Portland but our focus was on the Sequoias in northern California and we were soon there to drive through one of them that was so large we could drive through its hollowed center.  Some of those trees were said to date to the time of Christ and Bob spent several days, as the first-class history teacher he was, explaining what all had happened worldwide from the day these Sequoias first sprouted.  He had a first-class mind.


San Francisco would soon be our next stop.  I was a big guy but also a big baby and used my nickels and dimes to call my mother from the YMCA to say I wasn’t being protected.  She responded succinctly, “Get over it,” and immediately did.  We were far from home, my money getting thin and I was to figure it out.


With about $100 left, the math was easy.  What had been a $4.10 a day budget, would be a $3.30 plan.  With San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, Los Angeles, Knots Berry Farm, Disneyland, a few random national parks and then Las Vegas ahead, I was reminded I was born to handle those kinds of challenges.  What she said has stayed with me throughout my life, You’re up to this.


Between the opportunities Bob and the perspective my Mother provided, they helped me grow up.  I date those few days to when I became a man.


While in San Francisco, Marilyn Monroe died.  The newspapers were consumed with it and television screens were on everywhere.  Having become accustomed to living on the road, most of the time I didn’t have to buy the papers.  You could find them section by section in the trash.  Even better, if you asked politely at hotel desks for newspapers, many provided both the national and local editions for free.  Bonanza!


On to Yosemite to use a tent platform.  Bob had us out in the car early every day, getting us up high for the vistas, following some of the famous hiking routes that early explorers had scouted.  From the valley Half Dome and Bridle Vail Falls were part of our camping vista.  Paradise!


On to Los Angeles to Hollywood and to the General Delivery Window at the downtown Post Office.  My Mother was mindful I was down to three bucks a day and sent along her best wishes with a sawbuck. Tinsel Town was turning out to be expensive.


From the 1950’s we grew up on Walt Disney and here we were going into Disneyland.  Mr. B. arranged some kind of a break on what were student passes.  That was a break but to get into the scary stuff you needed to pay more.  That was beyond my budget but once I noticed a steady crowd at the main exit in the afternoon I asked if anyone leaving might let a polite kid to use their pass for the rest of the day.  Instantly I moved up from the general admission to access to many of the rides. Bless ‘em!


Not to leave Hollywood alone we walked up to Boris Korloff’s home and walked by Jack Benny’s.  For about fifty cents you could buy a Map to the Stars.  There were some nice hotels nearby and I thought I’ll want to come back.  A dozen years later, building a Taiwan based trading business, I used the nearby Biltmore Hotel as my now and again west coast office.


Not to miss any possible disasters we scheduled a half day trip on a fishing boat to catch whatever was running.  Thank God we only booked a half day.  It turns out Bob’s family must have been seamen because he was immediately comfortable.  Mike, watching from the dock, was wondering why the boat wasn’t staying still and soon found out when we suited up into rubber pants and started out.  Mike soon found he had an internal alarming clock that encouraged him to rush for a bowl every 29 minutes.  The fish were running but he soon didn’t care.  I’ve always been good with numbers and noticed he was getting sick every 29 minutes.  Back on land I suggested that be his lucky number.


Soon after we decamped to Las Vegas.  Mike, with money in his pocket, marched into the casinos and won.  I, on a slim budget, spent my time walking by the slots running a finger into the coin returns for the occasional forgotten coin.


At this point we had been on the road for seven weeks and began to think longingly about the homes we had summarily dismissed.  We still had Hoover Dam to see, then the Grand Canyon, and the others seriously considered going into the Canyon by burro.  Trusting my life to an animal wasn’t going to happen.


From there we began making a beeline to and through New Mexico where we stopped at Gallup, noticed the jail and the liquor store.  Now that we were becoming a bit worldly we were starting to see New Paltz in a new light.  We had been lucky to live there and over the next 4 days Bob and Scott, now our accepted back-up driver, drove and refilled and drove on into the deepening night.  Down to the last day I didn’t have enough money for my share of the motel charge and tomorrow’s breakfast, so I slept in the car.  Bob thought it would be okay to sneak in but I was good sleeping in the car.  Later the next afternoon, with a dime in my pocket if I needed to make a call, they let me off in Bay Head, New Jersey at the hotel my mother summered.  Soon I walked in unannounced, going directly to the snack bar knowing she’d let me charge some lunch.


It had been a fabulous 23 state experience.  With Mike and Scott I made life-long friendships.  Bob’s generosity of spirit made it possible.  He made a difference.


We knew him as a teacher but he quickly earned advanced degrees and became an administrator and principal.  No doubt thousands of students grew up under his intelligent influence.  I was just one and he made a lasting difference on me.


I remember him in a deeply positive way.


Bruce Evan McKinney