Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Ben Morreale: A Remembrance
Exiled mobster Lucky Luciano was stuck in Italy. And with him, Ben Morreale.
Sometimes I would see Ben at the coffeehouse. “So,” I inquired, “what’s going on with Lucky Luciano?”
Ben would just smile. “Oh, he’s still sitting over there in Italy with his maid.”
And so Luciano remained trapped in time and space, 1940s Italy. History marched on but not Ben’s story.
Writer’s block. I understood Ben’s situation.
I met Ben in the latter part of his life. He was from a different generation, born in the 1920’s. During his early years he watched the communists in his Brooklyn neighborhood march in the May Day parades. In those days communists weren’t completely demonized. But that would change.
Ben served in the Pacific Theatre during World War II, building airstrips. One time he ran for cover when a Japanese plane strafed the field. “I always wanted to meet that pilot and thank him for missing me,” Ben would say.
After WW II came the Cold War. West versus East. Democracy versus Communism. Opposing ideologies, each backed up with nuclear weapons.
“You better go to Europe before they blow it up,” advised one of Ben’s college professors.
Thanks to the GI Bill, Ben ended up in 1950s Paris. He was among other American expatriates like George Plimpton and Max Steele, founding editors of the Paris Review. Ben was an angry man but, as he explained, he channeled his anger into his writing. He wrote a short story simply entitled “Hate” that appeared in the Paris Review.
After his Paris days Ben became a college professor, teaching at Goddard College in Vermont and then at Plattsburgh State in New York.
I first “met” Ben through one of his books, “Down and Out in Academia.” It was a fictionalized take on his teaching experiences, particularly his time at Plattsburgh State during the Vietnam War era. It was not well received, at least officially.
One day when Ben was playing tennis, he crossed paths with the college president who knew about Ben’s scathing book.
During this encounter, Ben recalled, the president said: “You’ll never receive a raise as long as I’m the head of this college.”
When Ben told that story, I would ask him if being passed over for a raise was worth the price for writing “Down and Out.”
He smiled. It was worth it.
I met Ben personally through a local writers group. He talked about the difficulties he faced, an older writer trying to find an agent or publisher. Publishing was all about new talent, young authors.
But Ben persevered. Other books made it into print, including La Storia, a non-fiction work he co-authored about the history of Italian-Americans.
But, as it does for all of us, time was catching up with Ben. He walked slower, used a cane. He was retired from teaching but not writing. Sometimes he mentioned a work in progress, a novel about Lucky Luciano, fiction mixed with history. The story had stopped with the mobster’s deportation to Italy. The exile was stuck in a house with his maid, a situation devoid of conflict and action. Ben would wait at his keyboard, hoping for the words to come that would free Lucky.
Bits and pieces of Ben’s memory faded away. Facts, dates, miscellaneous data. Then people.
The last time I spoke with him was at the coffeehouse one afternoon. Even though I had known him for years, he didn’t remember me. “Were you one of my students?” he asked.
But despite all the changes, Ben was still Ben. He was courteous, didn’t act angry or annoyed that I was a lost memory. Instead, he was amazed that I knew so much about him while he couldn’t recall my first name. He appreciated my interest in his work.
I would see Ben at the coffeehouse on occasion but he didn’t recognize me, despite our re-meeting. I was a complete stranger.
When he still knew me, Ben said that he found an unpublished novel in his possession, one that he had forgotten he had written. A writer can forget his own creations.
Even though I had never sat in his class, Ben taught me one important truth.
Memories fade, people die. But the written word lives on.