Ben Fincke

I just got Joyce Brown (married to Gwil) onto the Manumit site.  Very exciting.  Here are the words she spoke at Dad’s memorial..  Maggy


When talking to Kate a few weeks ago, about speaking today, and of my memories of Ben and those long gone Manumit days just before the world went to war – she thought it might be good to talk of the Manumit of then, of the Ben of then and the class of then that he was about to teach. First and foremost, it must be understood that in those days Ben was not Ben – he was Benjie.

I got to Manumit School and Camp in the summer of 1939 and – having been there for the camp part and loving it, I was quite assured that by fall, when I was enrolled in the school part, I was not going to be a “new” kid.  However, I was soon to discover that Manumit Camp was greatly different from Manumit School.   In the world from which I came, kids did not swear, grown-ups did – four letter words were unheard of.  Such words did not appear in books – much less in movies.  Girls wore skirts.  No one went “steady” until college.  And kids thought grown-ups knew more than they did and feared and respected the power grown-ups held.  You might have thought that Manumit Camp must have prepared me a bit for a more open world,  and perhaps it did, but nevertheless I was in for a shock.

The group Benjie was to teach and which I to join had been together since the birth of Christ.  None of them had been to camp so I didn’t know any of them.  They all knew eachother intimately.  They were terrifyingly smart!  I was told I had an “inferiority complex”, they said words like “incredible” and “damn” and “hell”.  They argued about religion, politics.   They wore blue-jeans – rolled up – and boy’s shirts untucked.  They read books all the time.  And there were couples –  the boy and girl kind, who held hands openly, sat together.   Joanne and Gwiffy; Joan and Dean, Barbara and Klaus, Agie and Lindy, Ellen and Lindy, Barbara and Lindy.  Camp had not prepared me for any of this. They were sophisticated. These ones did not -no way – attend camp.

The only thing odder than a “new” girl was probably  a new teacher – of which species Benjie and I were.   He could only have been about 22. (edited to 24 after I learned from John Seegar’s talk that Ben had attended grad. schl.)  I was 10 about to be 11.  We loved him from the getgo.  But this he didn’t know.

We could not have been an easy class to teach.  There were about 15 of us – some 11s, but mostly  12s and 13s.  I had had the singular advantage of having attended public school.   I could spell and add.  (The class spelling was atrocious in spite of all the aforementioned reading  – of course the boys didn’t read – so their’s was even worse.)

Benjie, the darling, to my great delight introduced the Spelling Bee.  This added to my minimal stature – as I always won.  However, while being able to spell and add gave me a bit of caché –  the real entrées into Manumit high society was imagination and erudition.

Just for an example:  Here’s a ditty which you may recognize, written by Anne Fincke and Joanne Lindlof aged twelve.

Scintillate scintillate globular vivific
Feign would I fathom thy nature specific
Distantly poised in the ether capacious
Strongly resembling a gem carbonaceous.

Where was I?  HELP!!  I had no friends.  Not that any one was mean – there was no spite, in these kids.  I just went unnoticed in the day to day braininess of it all – hadn’t read a book in my life, except ‘Mary Poppins”.

All this preamble is just to say that Benjie, the new teacher, came to my rescue.  I did have an inferiority complex – who wouldn’t have?  All I could do was spell and add.  Somehow, whenever I offered a remark on something, anything – inexplicably, the class burst out laughing…it was definately AT not WITH.  Benjie would slap a book on his desk – his way of showing disfavor – and sternly tell the class to cut it out and listen to what Joyce is trying to say.  Trying   –  oh well.  In any event, he took me up.  He sought me out.

I had actually become quite despairing – afraid to open my mouth.  He took me on a ‘Long Walk’.   A ‘Long Walk’ with Benjie was a very big deal.  He coached me in Public Speaking 101 – “Before blurting, THINK…”  or somesuch, no doubt.  Although I didn’t learn the lesson, and still haven’t,  I was glowing after my “Long Walk”.   I had had a wonderful time with Benjie who thought me worthwhile and given me his time.  I – we all – adored him.  He was young, wonderful looking, madly in love, and as happy as could be, really, with us, his class, and the job he was doing with it.  He was wise, and full of fun.  He could do no wrong.   Ben, was amazed to learn in later years of the adulation in which Benjie was held.

Benjie wasn’t that much older than we were, really – and once in a while it showed.   Here’s an instance:

One day, I, in one of my not unusual trances am suddenly brought back to life by a gunshot.   It is actually the aforementioned book slamming down on Gwiffy’s desk – but really slamming.  I leap up.  We all do.  “That’s it!,” shrieks Benjie.  He strides to the door; stands in the open doorway for a moment with his back to us;  turns to the silent room and with quiet fury  delivers the ultimate blow.  “You had better find yourselves another teacher.”  And out the door he goes – slamming it unmercifully. We leap again.

Ben told us later, that the first thing Benjie did after this display of histrionics, was to go into the bathroom and throw up.  What had happened, as I later learned, was that the class was supposed to be having a discussion and planning our bi-yearly play – when out of nowhere, according to Ben, there was pandemonium;  the boys had gone beserck – first a bit of razzing, then throwing stuff, then anger, fury, and finally boys slugging it out and Benjie losing his cool.

It’s not possible to explain the sense of loss after that door slam.  We girls all immediately began to bawl – many tears and fury at the boys.  The boys immediately all blame eachother.   What has happened?  Are we to lose Benjie –  each of us wondering, (ie, “Am  I to lose Benjie ?)   Someone kept screaming “Shut UP.”  No one did.  A babble of suggestions; everyone shouting at once.  How were we to get him back? Should we send an emissary?  Who should be the emmisary?  No, we shouldn’t’t send an emissary – we should go en masse.  Should we write a poem, a song?  Whose fault was it?  Was he serious?

Meanwhile, Benjie, after his sojourn in the bathroom sat on the stool under the stairs and quaked and moaned as he  listened to the rising racket in the room.    “Oh My God,  what have I done – what have I done?”  He felt he had lost control of the class; had certainly lost  control of himself; had acted violently (anathema to him);  was horribly ashamed; was a lousy teacher; in way over his head  – the kids would never want him back –  he should just run away with Magda.

Then – sudden quiet,  door opening.  Silence.  Footsteps.  Benjie just huddled, as Gwiffy (his favorite – his little brother, really, and our natural emmisary) rounded the corner of the stairs – where he stood and said humbly “Aw Benjie, come  on back, will yuh?”   which he did to an ovation, lots of tears and laughter and apologies all ‘round, mostly from Benjie.  And the  “Roger Bacon Play ” proceeded.

Which  play was my great triumph, thanks to Ben.  He could have been a director – I almost wrote “should” – but no way – he had found his metier.  It was also the cause of my near downfall.   I was so good in it that my mother, an actress herself, promptly took me out of  Manumit with the intention of sticking me in the Professional Children’s School.  I spent a week in NYC railing, weeping, begging – to no avail.   Little did she (or I) know that she didn’t stand a chance.  Who should arrive at our apartment door at the end of that miserable week, but Benjie, with Magda at his side.   I couldn’t believe it.  I swelled.  The hero and his chosen one came all the way from Pawling – to save me.  Lordy, lordy, he wanted me back.  Benjie said things to my Mother about me which I couldn’t believe.  Mother was impressed.   Mother relented.  Into school and out again and back again – all in the space of a half a year.

I tell that story, because Benjie was heroic – always  – and so was Ben.   How many other kids, I wonder did Benjie and Ben rescue, I wonder, aside from me  and Gwiffy, who had appeared at Manumit aged four.

He did such wonderful things for us and enlarged our lives in ways undreamt of.  He was full of drama.  No one could read poetry as Benjie did.  No one could direct us in plays, as he did.  No one could infuse us as he did.  We were so proud of him.

Manumit was glorious in 1939 and 40 for those of us kids lucky enough to be there.  the glory was in large part due to Benjie.

He was in love – madly – which of course everyone knew – there was no hiding it – it was flagrant and very lovely – with the most beautiful and dear of women.  Magda.  How we loved her.  Although, for my part, I only knew her as Benjie’s love.  Magda had the most beautiful legs.  I remember being at her side playing jacks at the Main House, as she lay in a lawn chair sunning herself.  Between turns I would look in fascination at those gorgeous long silk sheethed calves stretching out from her skirt.  Something about it wasn’t right.  “Magda,” I finally said, “I don’t think your legs will get tan through those damn stockings.”   She opened her bluest of eyes and to my chagrin, burst out laughing.  And then stretching out a langorous hand she stroked my head,  “I hadn’t thought of that. Thanks Joyce,” she said.  Then, still laughing, “Ben says you do come up with the darndest things.”  I gathered I shouldn’t’t have used the “D” word, but so what?  I was in bliss heaven!   ‘They’ talked about me. It was unbearably wonderful.

I mustn’t go on and on – but this has been a grand exercise for me. So many marvelous memories keep knocking at my brain – saying “tell me”  “tell me”.  Well, I’m not gonna tell any more.   But thanky, Kate for the fine suggestion – it has done me a world of good!.

But first a few words about the after “then” which is much longer and just as fruitful – but the whole telling of it won’t be here – just a synopsis.

In 1941 we all lost Ben,  Magda too.  Unable to stomach murdering his fellow beings, he chose C.O. Camp instead.  He spent the war cutting down what was probably a virgin forest, God forbid.  Great drawings self-portraits of himself, came Magda’s way – bulging muscles and all.   By then Grae and Maggy were on the scene.  It was my future Mother-In-Law, Susan Brown, who helped Magda through this time.  Magda never forgot that – or did Ben – even during the difficult period of Sue’s later life.  They saw to her.  They always loved her, even when she was difficult to love.

When I married Gwil, erstwhile Gwiffy, the bond was complete.  Ben was Best Man at our wedding.   Our daughters, Kate and Kitty, were the closest of friends.  Their first “overnights” were spent at the house of the other.  The many many Fincke/Brown dinners and long long evenings.  Chasing kids out with “grown up time”, as Grae, Maggy, Kate, Kitty, and our son Jason, will well remember.  The discussions, the gossip, the love.

And then, much later – through Gwil’s illness and death the Finckes were there.  HOW THEY WERE THERE!  I will never never forget….the hospital after Gwil’s first operation…how they arrived; unexpected in all their glory.   I saw them before they saw me; they were at the nurse’s station inquiring.  Their eyes were swollen and red, but they did not stream until they caught sight of me.  Until they saw me – they were upright and tearless.  Gorgeous in the extreme.  Visions they were.  Elegant.  A run into their arms – a clasp.  Elegant and smelling of themselves.  They later told me that they had decided to wear their best, and do no weeping.  They wanted to be substantial for me.

I, and mine, and so many of us here, were and are, enfolded in that substance for these many many years.