Ben Stein's Diary

Summer and Sandpoint

By From the September 2010 issue

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Saturday

Here I am up in Sandpoint. It is late July and it is hot, hot, hot. Really hot. I slept late, occasionally getting up to look out my window at Lake Pend Oreille. It was calm, dotted with sailboats for an upcoming regatta. There was not a cloud in the sky. Really a fabulous day except for the heat.

Alex and I had breakfast -- my usual, English muffin, eggs, and orange juice-rested, and then started to walk into town. It was too darned hot. After about an hour of walking, I felt short of breath, then desperately short of breath. With aches in my stomach and shoulders. I was only about five minutes from our condo, so I just bravely went to my condo and lay down, wheezing and feeling miserable.

My thoughtful bride went out on the deck next to my bedroom and lit up a cigarette. We called our pal Tim Farmin and his wife, Penny, to come over and look at me to see if I were about to die. Tim is actually a boat mechanic, but he is so thoughtful and observant that we use him for all kinds of tasks, like pulmonary observation. He watched me for about half an hour, during which I fell asleep. I awakened feeling a lot better so we went out on my wonderful boat and headed down the lake.

Now, bear in mind, I have been coming to Sandpoint for about 20 years, more or less, and this was the first time I dared to go the whole length of the lake, which is roughly 40 miles from our marina. This is my first lake-long venture.

Why the difference? Because I have a new (actually used) boat that goes a lot faster and handles better in the water than my sturdy gorgeous Thompson. It goes over waves that would in the past terrify me.

Anyway, we raced past Whiskey Rock, about 20 miles down the lake, where, years and years ago, I would go with my late pal, Peter Feierabend, and where my son and his son would dive off the boat and swim in the cool waters of the lake. Peter was a dear friend who died in a rafting tragedy on the Snake River about 13 years ago. He was one of my best friends and I miss him keenly day by day. I felt safe around him. Then he died in circumstances we still do not know.

Anyway, we zoomed by Whiskey Rock, steered to starboard, and found ourselves in a large bay next to a naval station used to test submarines. Farragut Naval Base or something like that. Amazingly, the lake is so deep at this point that the U.S. Navy uses it to test submarine hulls. It is around 1,200 feet deep at the bay we were in, which, charmingly, is called "Bayview." We stealthily came into port in an endless no-wake zone, then my pal Tim parked the boat in a maneuver that allows him to make the boat go more or less sideways. It is always a shock to me when he does that.

Then I got off the boat and went into a bar and had a Diet Coke and popcorn. The people at the bar were all super-friendly. Many of them said they were big fans of Fox News. They are not generally fans of Mr. Obama.

Then back to the north end of the lake and off to port to the "Bottle Bay Resort," actually a smallish café, on the dock in Bottle Bay. It was jammed with revelers who all seemed happy and cheerful. The recession has hit this area very hard but somehow the people here seem quite buoyant.

The people looked so cheerful that a thought came to me that often comes here: Sandpoint is America the way it used to be. No one here litters, literally no one, because it is their town and to litter would be like littering in their own back yard. No one honks, except people from outside Bonner County, because it's inconsiderate to beep at your family or in your club. Everyone greets each other by name. Because it's a family as much as a town. Maybe it's a club.

That's what I keep thinking: America used to be a club. All Americans were members and so we all took care of each other. Then, troublemakers started turning us against each other, and now we have a certain class of people who think America is just a big beautiful woman to be raped and vampirized. We have others who think America is a villain to be blamed for their own failures. Heaven forbid that anyone should ever assume some blame for his own situation. No, no, no. It always has to be the capitalists' fault or George Bush's fault or Ben Stein's fault. We cannot ever open that Pandora's box known as adult responsibility. Then we would have to ask painful sociological questions that no one wants to ask....I had better not go there. That way lies the worst possible crime, ThoughtCrime, from which all other crime flows...best to stay away.

Well, anyway, we had a good meal at Bottle Bay, then headed back in the gathering dusk to our dock at our development here, The Seasons. We sat out on the dock for a long time watching the moon come up, then I headed back to my hooch with my bride.

My downstairs neighbors were being noisy but they eventually went to sleep. I hate noise so much I cannot express it, unless it is self-inflicted. I read once that shows I am deeply fearful. Certainly true.

Alex and I stayed up watching a documentary about the Korean War. Wow, what a freaking nightmare. Cold, snowy, or else hot and raining. Huge numbers of infiltrators and traps and ambushes. Terrifying numbers of Chinese troops. Greatly inadequate equipment. Thank you, Harry Truman.

When I watch what our fighting men and women have gone through so I can ride my boat on this perfect lake in peace, I am brought to my knees. WHAT CAN WE EVER DO FOR THEM THAT IS GOOD ENOUGH? They are truly God's ambassadors on this earth. Let's treat them like the superstars they are.

And then, lights out and lying in bed listening to Warren Buffett's trains. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which goes past The Seasons all day and all night. I love it. I cannot tell you how much I love that noise. Better than any music. Why? Who knows? Sometimes potential buyers here at The Seasons ask me how I deal with the noise of the trains. I tell them I wish there were more train noise. I just love it. Again, who knows why?

By the same token, there is a boat and ski shop here in Sandpoint called the Alpine Shop. I go in there often to meet my pal Tim Farmin or my other pal Tim Hutto. Or my other pal Bob, the owner. The smell is of motor oil and marine engine lubricant and it just smells great. Intoxicating. Reassuring.

I got into bed after a midnight snack of reheated spaghetti and meat sauce but I couldn't sleep. I was too jazzed with rage at my downstairs neighbors to fall asleep.

I moved from my room overlooking the lake to the guest bedroom -- really Phil DeMuth's bedroom -- overlooking the BNSF railroad tracks. I still could not sleep. Just too angry about the noise.

I turned on the TV. It was like a window into bedlam. One channel after another of people selling various fake nostrums for various real health problems. Lawyers asking you to call them to sue for any number of causes of action. Then there were the TV shows, of crazy people in crazy situations, reeking of sex and violence. There seemed to me to be absolutely zero connection with any form of real life experience. It was as if a psychiatrist asked patients at a state mental hospital to write down script ideas and dialogue and then other people put the scripts into shows and put them on the air.

Only on TCM and American Movie Classics, which have movies from long ago, does there seem to be any connection with humanity as it's lived in Sandpoint. I watched some silly movie from the 1930s about The Thin Man and it calmed me down.

Monday

Another hot one. I got up feeling quite well and went out to do various errands. Picked up medicines for my wife's sore throat at the Sandpoint Super Drug. Picked up furniture for my guest room at Staples, which has really great office furniture at dirt cheap prices. Then off to Wal-Mart to buy a suitcase for my wife. I found a good one for $29. How can we possibly compete with China? Any by the way, it is amazingly easy to shop here in Sandpoint. Very little traffic. Endless free parking. Helpful sales staff. No bad attitude people. Very easy to spend money here.

Then back to The Seasons for a little ride out to Bottle Bay for an early dinner. Tim Farmin and our pal Sue Hatch came along. For quite a while, we were the only customers. The boats came in and out for fuel and Wave Runners roared by. I had one of the best salads I have ever had. Feta cheese, lettuce, strawberry, and huckleberry dressing.

What would my ancestors from Russia make of me, their progeny, sitting here in North Idaho on a lake, just getting off my new (used) boat? Not a Cossack in sight. Not another Jew in sight. More than enough to eat. What would they think? How did they make it in those horrible times they lived in? Could they have imagined that even paradise would be as good as life in America?

How can I ever express my gratitude to America, which gave us poor, wretched Jews the opportunity to make something of ourselves...the opportunity and the security.

Years ago, I used to discuss this with my father, about how America has offered every ethnic group the chance to be the best they can be. If people cannot make it here, I feel bad for them, but it's not America's fault.

I went online when I got back to my home and read some angry e-mails to me about how heartless and mean I am to note that among my small circle of friends, most of the ones who are long-term unemployed do not have good work habits (which often means substance abuse), don't keep up with needed job skills, and sometimes have trouble getting along with others. The angry letters talked about how, supposedly because I am "rich," I don't care about people who are worried about money.

This is sad. I am not rich. Not even close. I worry about money endlessly. My pal Phil once said he had spent most of his life worrying about money and I know the feeling well. I use up far too much of my limited resources helping people in financial trouble, and this puts me in financial trouble.

But I do find it really interesting that some people-often immigrants-can find jobs even in the worst recession, often low level jobs, but still jobs, and others, usually American-born college grads, cannot find jobs even in high prosperity. Motivation is an important part of life. Not the only part, but a big part.

Well, back to the lake. My wife and I are going to look at the moon over the water. The moon this month has been immense. "Like a policeman shining his flashlight through your car window," as my pal Wlady says.

Then I will have more spaghetti and think about how blessed I am. 

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About the Author

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes "Ben Stein's Diary" for every issue of The American Spectator.