Local Lifestyle

Thursday, Dec 12 2013 12:52 PM

HERB BENHAM: Even when friends like these get old, they don't get old

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Herb Benham

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By HERB BENHAM, Californian columnist hbenham@bakersfield.com

My best friend turned 60 recently. "Best friend" is a quaint term and I'm not sure it fits here -- Albert rolling in golf buddies up north and me with people here.

However, in high school, it fit. During college, it worked. Best friends or not, Albert is one of my oldest.

His 60th was a surprise party at Slow Hand BBQ in Pleasant Hill. You want your old friends to come -- new friends, too -- serve pulled pork, barbecued ribs, beef brisket and chicken dusted with a dry rub. They'll fly across country or drive six hours for that.

I had two plates. Old friends can eat a lot. Old friends can be hungry friends.

Before Albert, there were only tennis friends. Albert was smart -- his dad a surgeon and his mom an English teacher at BC. We had books, but the Palitzes had bookcases in every room with books tumbling out that they caught and read with the greatest of ease.

Al took on "The Magic Mountain" at 13 when he was home with the mumps. This isn't "Lord of the Rings" -- it's 716 pages of Thomas Mann in full literary bloom.

A couple months ago, he recited parts of the book to me. Really? You remember something that dense from when you were 13?

Al was smart but that wasn't all. He was funny. Smart and funny is a killer combination.

He went to Yale and met his wife, Pam, there. She was lucky. He was real lucky.

Al became a doctor. He and Pam raised three smart, lovely girls. They've lived in Lafayette for nearly 30 years.

We reconnected about 15 years ago. Funny doesn't get old. I keep some of his emails in a file.

He remembered a friend at my rehearsal dinner saying: "Life is a one-way boulevard, and death owns all the cafes."

A few years ago I encouraged him to take up swimming.

"I could never get over the sense off drowning," Al wrote. "I could never get over the idea that it was unnatural for a Jewish man to be swimming."

We tried organizing a book club. Somebody suggested Proust. Al responded:

"Proust is dead and there is no one around here to defend him, so I will let his book lie, unread, as it should be."

Al spoke at his surprise party. His was the most charming, funny speech you could have imagined and it was hard to think he hadn't worked on it for weeks. Al attributed whatever success he had had in his life to showing up.

"For me, it's the people around me that make it great. And make it easy."

Modesty is a winsome quality but hardly tells the story. It's one thing to show up. Another to shine.

At the party, I took a leave of absence from my plate of barbecue and recorded a video tribute.

"Half the music I've ever listened to, half the books I've ever read, half the laughs I've had and half the questionable decisions I made before I was 18 were because of you."

I'm glad he showed up when he did. I was lucky. Real lucky.

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