Gentle, Funny Rebel Hasn't Enough Time

Ben Stulberger started calling me sometime early last year. Not a lot, just every now and then. He sent me two letters, with enclosures.

Ben always has opinions he wants to express, usually about some pretty weighty subjects, but he includes plenty of the personal as well. His two grandchildren, actors Ione Skye and Donovan Leitch, swell him with pride.

Hearing from Ben always makes me smile. He's energetic, funny, gentle, determined and pretty outrageous to boot.

He called again last week; it had been a while since we'd talked. He asked about my baby, about how I was, and he told me he had enjoyed that morning's column, about the war in the Persian Gulf. Then he said this would be the last time that he'd be in touch.

Cancer in his lungs has spread to his brain.

The news, which Ben doled out almost as an aside, put me off track. It seemed to collapse something inside me, stinging sharply then spreading into an ache.

Ben Stulberger, 77 years old, this nutty Hungarian, had become my friend.

We changed the subject; I can't remember to what.

Before we hung up, however, I asked if I could stop by. I wanted to meet Ben and his wife. They live in Leisure World, in Laguna Hills. They've been there for three years.

I visited the other day, during the rain.

"I've come up the rough way, in New York," Ben is telling me now. He is lying on the living room couch, only he keeps getting up for this or that. His white mustache is neatly trimmed. His eyes are always crinkling in a smile.

"I always was a fighter, and not macho," he says.

Ben doesn't really know where to start. He is wondering, I suppose, what I want. Matilda, his wife of 55 years this June, is looking on. Ben tells me how happy he is that I am here; he never expected it, it seems that's just the way his life is.

I recall a closing line from one of Ben's letters.

"I am the happiest, 'richest' man in the entire world," he had said. He signed it, "Respectfully, Ben Bela (Bella) Stulberger."

So I ask him if I should call him Ben. He says how about Bella, that's what his family usually says. I try, but it doesn't feel right.

Ben was my own grandfather's name. To me, Ben seems to fit this man too.

Matilda says her husband was always a bit of a rebel, doing things not easily explained.

"When everybody else was making money and buying houses, he joined the merchant marine," she says. Back then they were in Brooklyn, where the two of them--both children of immigrants--were born.

Well, you see, Ben explains. They bombed Pearl Harbor. Back then, he had two children and a hernia; he would have been 4-F. But his daughter had survived meningitis, he was so grateful, he had to do something right away. He signed up for the merchant marine.

He saw Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, all because of the Germans' African campaign. His ship brought back German POWs to Newport News. He was a translator for those men. Only he couldn't think of them that way. They were Nazis; they were pigs.

Later, I read this from a letter that Ben wrote to Matilda from Antwerp, Belgium, on June 7, 1945:

Happy anniversary, may we enjoy the rest, many more, in peace. . . . I saw walking a survivor of the concentration camps, like a skeleton, with one of my shipmates who said, "He's a Jewish POW." One of my people. Felt sorry. I walk toward the survivor to ask if he needed anything but I started to cry, and I don't remember when I cried last. My hand was shaking like never. Will never forget that. . . . These Nazis are monsters. . . . It is the saddest day of my life, even tho I should celebrate our anniversary. I miss you and the darling kids.

You see, this is what happens, Matilda says. Her husband can get carried away; he could talk off your ear. Even she gets bored with his memories of war. She wants to talk about happier things.

"So we can't talk about it," Ben says, looking toward his wife.

Yet there is plenty more. For 25 years, Ben drove a cab in New York. The stories pour out, most of them ending with a smile. Who can say how much they've been embellished with time? No matter. Here, Ben is the star.

"We were at the United terminal," he says. "And I said to the other taxi drivers, 'Look who that is!' And Mr. Tricky Dicky smiles. This was after he was vice president, after he had lost the governorship, and he starts coming over, like he's going to shake my hand. So I say, 'That creep! That crumbum! I wouldn't touch him with a 10 foot pole!' "

Ben is really laughing now, having a great time. We are in a back room, the one Ben calls his shrine, the one with the pictures and posters all over the walls. Maltida hates it. She says if Ben had his way, this stuff would be all over the house.

Moments before, we are watching two music videos of English rocker Robyn Hitchcock. Ben has a leading part. He has his grandchildrens' Hollywood connections to thank for that.

"They just put me in for effect," he says, "But I got $150 for it."

In the first, "Madonna of the WASPs," Ben is Fellini-esque. His bald head sprouts tufts of white hair above his ears. He's in a white undershirt and baggy black pants. In "One Long Pair of Eyes," he wears glasses fitted with metal slinkies popping from each eye.

It cracks me up.

"They wanted an old guy," says Matilda.

"They wanted a Picasso type," says Ben.

Of course, Ben was heavier then. Since late last year, when his cancer was diagnosed, he's lost 25 pounds.

Ben doesn't like to talk about any of that. He will, only if he must.

You want to know about his three children, or about Ione and Dono, he can talk on and on about them. Ione's name has even been in crossword puzzles, not to mention a $1,000 answer on "Jeopardy!"

"So my 77 years have been fulfilled a dozen times over," Ben says. "With my remaining time, I'm going to try to do what I haven't done yet. Last night, we had lobster tails. I never had lobster tails. They were wonderful!"

All the excitement, I can see, is tiring Ben out. He needs to sit down. His breathing is labored, but he doesn't want to be still.

Just before I leave, after about two hours of rousing talk, I ask Matilda how old she is--just another extraneous facts that reporters are always putting in their notes.

"Seventy-six," Matilda says.

"Seventy-seven next month!" Ben pipes up. Maltida swats him on his arm.

"Numbers, I don't like numbers," she says.

"They didn't give him any numbers, did they?" I ask Maltida, motioning to her husband behind his back.

She nods her head yes.

"Not enough," Matilda says. Her gaze drops downward. She barely whispers the words.

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