Ben Stein's Diary

Not Cambridge

All roads lead to Knoxville -- and beyond.

By From the June 2009 issue

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Tuesday 

Here I am at Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National Airport. It is a drizzly, cool day. I am heading off to fly to Knoxville, Tennessee, on a US Air flight. I have an uneasy feeling and now I know why. The smiling ticket agent who has been processing my ticket suddenly looks up from her computer screen and tells me the bad news.

“Your flight has just been canceled,” she says.

“Do you mean it’s delayed?” asks the meek passenger.

“No, I mean it’s not going,” she says cheerily.

“When’s the next flight?” I ask.

“Ten p.m.,” she says, “but that one might not go either. Our flights have been getting canceled all day.”

Oh, great. US Air is a fascinating airline. Incredibly terrible service and incredibly high fares. Good combination. The flight attendants and ticket clerks are fine, but the people who arrange the service don’t really care a lot about us passengers.

Anyway, I called my driver, Bob Noah, who had just dropped me off. He raced back and scooped me up and off we headed on Route 66 and then down mighty highway 81 into the Shenandoah Valley toward Knoxville. What a great guy he is. No clothes, no reservation, just changes his plans on a dime for little me. What a GREAT GUY!!!

The truth is that I love being driven. I’m like a dog. I love going for rides with my human driver, in this case, Bob. Plus, the Shenandoah Valley is beautiful. Green rolling hills. Valleys. Passes. Small towns with cute little gas stations. We stopped at one in the tiny hamlet of Buchanan, which, for some odd reason, the man at the gas station pronounced “Buckhannon.” Oddly, even though it was early April, snow fell on and off, along with a cold rain. I took videos from the back seat of the scenery and sent them to my pals with my fabulous Verizon Voyager handheld phone computer miracle machine.

I slept for a really long time and soon we were in the outskirts of Knoxville. Well, not that soon. It took eight hours. But what the heck? I didn’t have to drive, so no problemo. Actually, Houston, we do have a problem. We got very lost. The directions someone had printed for Bob Noah really were poor and we wound up in some godforsaken suburb. A kindly Realtor working late in his office gave us directions to our hotel, but we couldn’t follow them. Miracle! My Verizon Voyager had a built-in navigator. I simply entered the hotel’s address and a talking woman in the phone and a tiny little map showed us the way to the hotel, block by block.

I had called the only person I know who hails from Knoxville, the beautiful Kay Kinkaid, and gotten a dinner reservation suggestion for a place called Chesapeake. Bob and I walked there in bitter cold rain and had a good meal while watching the hapless Michigan State squad get killed by the mighty Tarheels. Actually, I do know someone else near there. A lovely woman named Jennifer who lives in Maryville, a small town nearby. But I was too tired by then to call anyone. Back to my room and into a deep sleep.

Wednesday

NOW, THIS IS THE KIND OF DAY a man lives for. I got up, rendezvoused with Bob, got into his car, and headed off to brunch at a sparkling new Waffle House. Get this: The All-Star Breakfast served all day. Two eggs any style. Toast with butter and jam. Bacon or sausage. Potatoes or grits. Seven dollars and ninety-nine cents. Made fresh before your eyes. How can you beat it? It is perfection in a meal.

Then over a scary mountain pass where a middling snow was falling. Past a million fireworks stands and motels. Into a forest. Then down the mountain and into Williamsburg, Kentucky, and the University of the Cumberlands.

Williamsburg is a VERY small town with a number of lonely-looking stores. But the campus is beautiful, with lovely buildings all of a similar design and a university-owned hotel, where I took a long nap. I would happily stay at that hotel again; however, duty calls. I went downstairs and met up with the high officials of the school, an incredibly friendly, kind, and good-looking group of men and women. We took a lot of photos together. Then we had some singing and prayers by a few students and their music teacher while we had a super good dinner. The room where we had dinner had immense windows and we could see the clouds scudding through the sky and brilliant sunlight between them.

I had the privilege of sitting near a fantastically successful local area businessman and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Forcht. They are immense benefactors of the school and had brought me there. Mr. Forcht told me about his stupefyingly successful enterprise of radio stations, banks, nursing homes, and newspapers, just for starters. Wow. But he was very modest and down-to-earth. He gets up at four every morning to walk his dog. You can’t beat that.

This man was truly impressive. So were the president of the school and all the high officials and wives I met. We had an awards ceremony, heard some brief speeches, then off to the auditorium for my speech. It was a bright, very large gym-auditorium, filled with enthusiastic men and women and teenagers. A bagpipe group from Knoxville entertained us. Then we heard more singing of religious songs and more awards were passed out for meritorious acts to the state and the community. These people are the salt of the earth. I cannot quite tell you how much I love them.

I gave my speech, and it was well received. I talked about the spiritual, moral dimensions of the economic crisis and how the people who victimized us had to lack an appreciation of the presence of God in man to have done what they did. It has been an obsession of mine for some time now.

Then I signed autographs and took photos for about 90 minutes, and then off to a McDonald’s and then to a gas station for snacks. At the gas station cash register, a staggeringly beautiful girl and her fiancé smiled and joked with me.

I loved my visit. University of the Cumberlands. Don’t forget it. It is the backbone of the nation, just as is Harding in Searcy, Arkansas. Not Cambridge. Searcy and Williamsburg.

Sunday

WOW. WHAT A DAY. I got up amazingly early— 7 a.m.—swam, got dressed, ate, and went over to Hollywood Center Studios, where we used to do Win Ben Stein’s Money years ago. I miss that even though it was super stressful. Today, I am making a TV commercial for wonderful Comcast.

I am the co-star. The star is Shaquille O’Neal. Yes. Shaq. That one. The best basketball player on the planet. Seven foot two. And a super smart, pleasant, funny guy. A true gentleman. Very pleasant indeed. I can’t tell you the plot of the spots because they are a secret, but I can tell you they will make you laugh. They are really, really funny. Shaq was signing autographs, posing for photos, just a super smart, fun guy. But it was hot and we had to keep going in and outside and it was really hot.

At one point Shaq took off his shirt and was doing boxing moves in his T-shirt. Wow, did he look formidable. I was scared.

We had lunch on a stage where we used to have magic shows when we were doing Win Ben Stein’s Money. It brought back a lot of memories.

I really hated to end the day. I know I have told you this a million times, but life on the set is the best life on earth. It is worth suffering for.

Wednesday

I AM ON THE PLANED HEADED TO DENVER to drive to Colorado Springs to speak to a logistics battalion just back from Iraq. They were there for 15 months. Brave men and women.

I am marveling at Mr. Obama’s idea to put on trial lawyers who rendered legal opinions that terrorists could be subjected to very stressful interrogations to save American lives. Punishing a lawyer for giving his opinion? Is Obama out of his mind? Is there no Constitution left at all? Punishing lawyers for following a law and a presidential directive to protect the nation from terror bombings? My wife worked in that Library Tower skyscraper in Los Angeles that bin Laden was trying to knock down. The CIA saved her life by aggressive questioning of terrorists. And Obama wants to put the lifesavers on trial? I guess he really is not listening to the right people.

Plus, he apparently wants to have the U.S. unilaterally disarm ourselves of nuclear weapons, a guarantee of national destruction. This is old-line ultra-confused leftist thought. What strange unconscious anger someone close to Obama must have to want so much to destroy this country. Have us disarm while China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea have nukes? This is suicide. I am positive Obama will think better of it. Yes, positive. I am scared, though. Really, really scared.

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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.