I’m with my brother and sister this this morning outside Philadelphia, waiting to go to my uncle Benson Brock’s funeral this afternoon. I have written elsewhere in this blog about his passing, but I want to go into more detail about who and what he was to all of us.
Benson was born eleven years after my father, so my image of him as a boy was of a much more glamorous and interesting person than my parents were. Benson dropped into our lives from time to time with tales of learning to fly an airplane, tuning pianos for a living (this seemed impossible to me), playing jazz in nightclubs. Living in Philadelphia, he represented the Northeast of my early childhood, left behind when we moved south to Atlanta. If I was lucky, he and Dad would sit down together at the piano and read through duets together — a four-hands arrangement of the William Tell Overture was a favorite. Sometimes he would play Scott Joplin rags for us or tell ridiculous jokes. I knew he was not married, had no children, drove a 280Z, and lived on a house on an airport where he kept his airplane. I think I thought it was impossible anyone could do all these things — whatever they wanted, apparently — without any obvious negative repercussions.
As I grew older and started thinking about my path through life, Benson continued to loom large in my imagination of what I could be and what I wanted to do. When I felt lost in my first year of engineering school at Rice, Benson’s example — switch to music school — was an option in front of me, and in fact what I ended up choosing. When I decided I wanted to learn to fly, it was because Benson had done it so I knew it was possible. As my brother Jeff reminded me last night, Benson’s example was always there as we became men, showing that there was a path for us outside of conventional wisdom, outside of what was expected, and that we should believe that path was something we could achieve even if we didn’t have the skills or the background that other people on that path did.
Somewhere along the way Benson found his way into commercial flying, and over the years he followed that career to a number of different places. He particularly loved flying for Air Wisconsin in Colorado — the routes were short and the pay wasn’t very good, but he loved the mountains and the airplane he got to fly in them. Later, Air Wisconsin moved to Philadelphia and Kim and I found ourselves seeing a lot more of Benson. The highlight of this time was that we finally got to play some jazz together — more than once Jeff brought his bass down from Rhode Island and all three of us played on piano, bass, and vibe. Jeff’s son Sam even joined us on sax once.
Benson retired a couple of years ago, maybe a year after we moved to Brno in the Czech Republic. I was distracted with work and living abroad and I didn’t make as much effort as I should have to stay in touch, but we did still connect every so often. I thought of Benson as young, compared to Dad, so it never occurred to me that he was already older than Dad was when he died — Dad only made it to 64. I was confident we would have time to catch up again, play some more music, talk about flying, tell some more lousy jokes.
Fate proved me wrong on that point last week and closed the last chapter of Benson and Dad’s generation of Brocks. I’m bitter with it, and with myself for not treasuring and caring for that connection a little deeper. But in truth I already learned, long ago, the most important thing I could learn from Benson. It’s quite simple: Remember that there is always another path to the one you are taking, and if you want that other path, a little hard work is all that’s required. Also, don’t be afraid to tell absolutely lousy jokes.