Ben Stein's Diary

The Heart of the Matter

What would Col. Denman think?

By From the May 2014 issue

Bush White House circa 1948
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Thursday

I have always loved West Texas. I came here for the first time about ten years ago for a speech. The benefactors of the event had a reception for me at the Midland Country Club (or maybe it was the Petroleum Club in Midland). I was moseying around the pool and munching chips when a beautiful, middle-aged, blue-eyed woman with an immense diamond ring called out to me.

“Your father-in-law was the handsomest man I ever saw in my life. I went to high school with him in Prescott, Arkansas, before World War II and I had the maddest crush on him,” she said in a beautiful Southern accent.

That was our beloved Barbara Duke, a wealthy widow, whose husband was a major factor in the “mud” business. We became close friends. She had a home in Indian Wells, at El Dorado Country Club, down the road from our house at Morningside out east of Palm Springs. She had indeed been a close friend of my beloved father-in-law, Col. Dale Denman, Jr., back in Prescott, and we had that to talk about. 

She often entertained and we met at El Dorado her pals from West Texas, especially Si Wagner and his lovely bride, Lissa Noel Wagner, both from major powerhouse oil and gas families in the Midland-Odessa region. We had many happy Thanksgivings at Barbara’s house and we visited her in Midland. Her pals were all upbeat and lively and filled me in on “fracking” long before it was in the news.

Midland is a small town with almost no trees and it’s flat and the wind howls. But as Mrs. Laura Bush, a Midland girl, and her husband, George Bush 43, who became a Midland man, used to say, “Our people are our trees.”

We genuinely loved Barbara Duke, loved her to tears when we said goodbye just after a dinner. But like everyone must, she got sick and passed away a couple of years ago. Si Wagner, a genuine hero of charity and philanthropy, died at about at the same time.

The parties at El Dorado stopped and we truly miss them. They were far smaller versions of Gatsby’s parties and we have no equivalent.

Now, I am back here in Midland for a panel discussion on the economy, missing Barbara Duke something fierce. The panel will be at an arts center at the University of Texas, Permian Basin, called the Wagner-Noel Arts Center because it was paid for largely by gifts from Si and Lissa Wagner. I was hoping she would be here but she’s not.

Everyone here is friendly and I keep thinking how much I miss those halcyon days at Barbara’s house. The audience was wonderful. My fellow panelists, an economist named Ray Perryman and a brave whistleblower accountant named Mr. Bowen, were voluble and smart and patriotic. The woman I sat next to at dinner was a magnetic, pretty, witty, sweet-faced academic named Lea Anna Good. I am CRAZY about her. My hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Brescia, are brave Army heroes now at UTPB in Odessa. They could not be more hospitable. 

Midland out my hotel window. The horizon goes on forever. Just nothing but small buildings and American flags. I feel safe here. Far from Sevastopol. Far from Simferopol. Still farther from Belsen. I feel safe here in the heart of the heart of America, and it’s a great feeling.

Plus, no recession here. The whole area is exploding with growth. Counter people at McDonald’s make $18 an hour, I am told, and welders can easily make well into six figures, as can high school dropout truck drivers. Fracking the Permian Basin here is yielding stupendous fortunes. 

But I miss my Barbara Duke desperately. Just desperately. I wish Lissa Wagner had come so I could talk about old times. Barbara was irreplaceable, but talking about her helps, too. God, I miss her.

By the way, before the panel, I toured the tiny home Bush 41 lived in here in 1948 when he started out in the oil business. It is so cute. It reminds me of Babs Duke. It’s so all-American and looks so safe. I wonder how Bush 41, scion of one of the wealthiest families in the nation, Yale man, Skull and Bones, star Ivy League first baseman, heroic Navy pilot, felt about being in Midland. I guess he was bravely staking out a claim to his own life. I have always admired him and that house made me admire him even more. I’ll show you a picture.

I just love being in the center of the nation, surrounded by the nation, with the horizon of the nation stretching out forever against a light blue sky.

Saturday

Now, this is a different story. Alex flew here to Little Rock, Arkansas, to meet me so we could go visit her beloved Uncle Bob, Col. Denman’s brother. Bob Denman, immense military combat hero in Korea, at the Cho-Sin Reservoir in the ice and snow with the Chinese swamping them, is now in rehab—a result of getting pneumonia and getting dehydrated—and Alex and Bob’s son Bob, Jr., his wife, Peggy, his younger son, Stan, and Stan’s wife, La Donna, and I are visiting Uncle Bob. At 85, he’s still in great shape and his mind and memory are razor sharp. When he talks about Korea, he gets emotional, and when he talks about his late wife, he gets very emotional.

Otherwise, he’s the same as he has been since I met him in 1968. We are all simply a great deal older. “Life goes by pretty quick. If you don’t slow down, you might miss it.” (F. Bueller.) The rehab is a cheerful place, by the way, extremely bright and well lit and spotlessly clean. But let’s face it. The people here are old. Their memories are a huge share of their possessions. However, as far as I can tell, few of the people here have the extraordinary flesh and blood connection with their memories that Uncle Bob has.

Except for his time in Korea and in the Army generally, Bob has lived in Arkansas. His immediate family all live in Arkansas. He is simply surrounded by family who know him and love him. They know his stories and his adventures and his achievements. They know how big a man he is.

It is not great growing old, but being Bob Denman is pretty damned good.

Sunday

An interesting day. I went with my cousins, Stan and La Donna, and my big wifey, to watch a dance recital that Brittany, Stan, and La Donna’s beautiful daughter are in. It was at a performing arts center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. I loved it. I like dance recitals when the dancers are thin and lithe and when I have even a clue about what the dance theme is. One of the dances upset me though. It was about a group of little blonde-haired blue-eyed girls being held in captivity by a group of large black men. The title of the number was “For sale by owner.” I had no idea what that meant but my smart wife said it referred to the black men being pimps and the girls as prostitutes. Can that be true? Can that be true of college-age dancers in Arkansas? I guess it can.

And this brings me to a thought. As we all know, the South kept black people in horrible captivity during the horrendous era of slavery. As we all know, vicious racism has been a major feature of American life for centuries, and we are all shamed by it.

But look at where we are now. The progress of racial harmony and understanding has been spectacular since about 1965. In that auditorium at UALR, black and white dancers mingled easily and happily. They laughed together, danced together, rejoiced together. In the restaurants of Little Rock, black and white diners sat cheek by jowl and ate. Blacks and whites are together all over the South, far more so than in the West, where I live.

To me, it seems as if very little media attention is devoted to this unique achievement. The South is treated as a pariah in the media endlessly. I just tonight saw a story on CNN about a phony racist prosecution of a poor retarded black man in Greenwood, South Carolina, for a murder he did not commit. He was rescued by a very smart woman lawyer (white, of course, just for the sake of drama).

Now, I know Greenwood. I spoke there very recently. My audience was racially mixed. There was no racial ill will shown at all—and I am extremely alert to such things. Greenwood—about an hour from Greenville—is a place of progress and achievement in race. I noticed not a word of that in the CNN documentary. Not a hint. The CNN show was inspiring, but it showed a highly selective and outdated vision of Greenwood. This happens to the South in the media constantly.

I offer you a truly sickening example. Some psychos in Hollywood made a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Of course the premise is a disgrace to the greatest of presidents. But the movie also portrays Confederate soldiers as flesh-eating ghouls to be killed with usual blood curdling vampire-killing methods like bayonets through the skulls.

What an astoundingly psychotic depiction of some of the bravest souls in history. They fought in part for a bad cause, slavery, but they also fought because they felt their homes were being invaded. The immense majority were not slave owners. They fought largely for their own version and vision of freedom. To portray them—my wife’s ancestors—as vampires and ghouls is nauseating beyond belief. Hey, Hollywood! The descendants of these people beat the Nazis and the Japanese and prevented an American Reich. Get grateful.

Well, anyway…after the dance recital, we went to visit Uncle Bob again in the rehab. He was in a cheery mood and looked extremely well, like all Denmans do. His sons, Stan and Bob Jr., had brought over children and grandchildren. His hearing is attenuated, so I sat very close to him (a typical Denman courtesy extended by Bob and Stan). I asked him what he did all day.

“I just lie there and think about things,” he said.

I asked him about what things. He talked about his childhood in Prescott, about how his elder brother, my father-in-law, Dale Jr., had drilled him in marching so that when he got into ROTC he was all set about that. He talked about teachers he had known in Prescott, and about how he wished he had “done more heroic deeds in Korea.…” 

“You were already put up for the Silver Star,” I reminded him.

“There were a lot of other things I could have done,” he said.

He talked about when his face had gotten burned by a “friendly fire” white phosphorous grenade, and they told him to just put salve on it and go back to fighting. 

I asked him what he wished he had done differently in his life.

“I wish I had traveled more,” he said. “I always wanted to go to Spain because I studied Spanish for four years in high school. And I’m sorry if I ever criticized anyone and made him feel bad about himself because that’s about the worst thing you can do…to make someone feel bad about himself.”

We talked about how it felt when he got back from Korea and saw his wife, Mary Evelyn, and Bob Jr., and his father again, and he started to cry.

I paused in my conversation with him for a while and then he smiled and said, “I can’t tell you all the things I think about.”

There were no dry eyes among us when we left him, although I feel sure we’ll see him again in May. The visits did him good, I would say, and he looked happy.

Wednesday

So, now i am in D.C. at the Watergate and I have a cold. I stay up late reading the newspapers and I just feel sick about the defense cutbacks. Russia rearms and we disarm. Perfect recipe for catastrophe. China rearms. Iran arms furiously. We eliminate the Tomahawk cruise missile and the Hellfire air-to-ground rocket. And we kick Israel in the teeth every chance we get while ass-kissing the Iranians, who don’t even hide their contempt for us.

Frankly, I admire Obama for not getting us involved in Syria and I don’t think there was a damned thing he could do about Crimea. But to disarm the last bastion of freedom on this earth while its enemies grow stronger? That is just plain betrayal. What would Bob Denman think? What do they think about it in Midland? 

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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.