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around him. He'd hear the sounds of myriad insects, of whip-poor-wills and an occasion-
al coyote. Then he'd look up at the stars, drop his gaze to the horizon, and break into a
big grin as a light breeze rustled nearby branches and sneaked around his collar. Those
familiar shapes on a nearby outcrop were the silhouettes of century plants against an
infinite Chihuahuan Desert sky.
Two events profoundly influenced Ben's last two decades and his impact on others. In
1981 he befriended retired businessman Erle Rawlins, and until Erle's death in 1995,
at the age of eighty-seven, they set an incredible example for anyone anxious about
infirmities and aging. A tall, stout, bespectacled man with thick white hair, Erle was
one of the most cheerfully level-headed people I've ever met, interested in everything,
and his resolute optimism soon came in handy. The second influential event came late
in 1985, when Ben was diagnosed with myocarditis. After a yearlong convalescence at
Erle's Dallas home, during which his strength further declined, he was accepted into
Stanford Medical Center's transplant program and within a few weeks received a new
heart. The next morning my friend was roaming the hospital corridors, jovially inter-
cepting strangers for conversation and walking more easily than he had in months. He
was weak from the surgery but ecstatic about a second chance at life.
Ben was an ideal heart-transplant patient because he followed all medical instruc-
tions, yet resolutely lived as normally as possible despite impediments. Oblivious to fa-
cial swelling and other side effects that would have threatened the vanity of some of
us, he gave riveting lectures about the operation and its impact (one was titled “I Left
My Heart in San Francisco”). In the years following surgery, Ben and Erle explored the
length of Baja California by car and conquered the difficult road to Batopilas, in Mex-
ico's Barranca del Cobre. They led memorable excursions for Chapman students and
alumni to Costa Rica and the Galápagos Islands, and laughed about their six-thousand-
mile southern route from Dallas to Orange County by way of Tikal, Guatemala. In my
own recollected images Ben is animated, effusively recounting their journeys, and Erle
is always smiling.
As much as he loved the Southwest and Mexico, Ben was endlessly nostalgic about
California and popular music; a movie about his life would have to be filmed in “La-La
Land,” with soundtrack by Jackson Browne, the Eagles, and Fleetwood Mac. Although
he railed at human onslaughts against nature, whenever I'd say something critical of
Orange County traffic and smog, he'd brag about the comeback of endangered brown
pelicans at Bolsa Chica Wetlands, near his Huntington Beach condo. Ben found my up-
coming move to New York unfathomable because, whatever the lure of exotic travel, he
couldn't imagine actually living anywhere other than California. And as for rock-and-
roll, our fellow herpetologists Janalee Caldwell and Laurie Vitt told me, “He visited us
in Topanga Canyon and reminisced about music from the 1960's and 1970's—Ben knew
all the lyrics, Laurie played the melodies, and we sang for hours!”
One-sided praise shouldn't obscure my friend's humanity, especially since Ben
laughed readily at his own foibles. He was zealously private, phenomenally picky,
and downright quirky; a half-century after we first met and fifteen years after his
death, I cannot claim to fully understand who he was. Ben was annoyingly dogmatic
and judgmental, as well as impossible to pigeonhole politically, since his opinions
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