I got home from work and found a box waiting on the dining room table, sent by a man in Florida named John Moore. Inside were the collected works of the soldier-teacher-poet B.D. Trail -- Benard Doss Trail -- the man who taught me how to write, 20 years ago when I was a young Air Force enlistee and took a couple of composition courses offered on base by what was then called Tarrant County Junior College. I sat up with Kat that night and read her most of them aloud, and laughed, and cried. I could hear his voice in them -- the stock phrases and allusions to Eliot and Sophocles that he used to reveal himself, or at least the bits he wanted to reveal. She and I resolved to read "Growing Old Together" every year, on the anniversary of our meeting.
Over the years, I've met a few of Ben's other students and we all have the same impression of him: He was the best teacher we ever had. Ben was the only member of the TCJC Northwest faculty who actually liked coming out to the base to work with us GIs. He was an Air Force brat, an Aggie who'd done two tours of duty in Vietnam as a military intelligence officer with advisory units. The war informed his poetry. (His other big themes were love and suicide.) There were four or five images that had made such an indelible mark on his consciousness that they appeared again and again in his work like recurring nightmares: "The Face," "The Mining," "The Grenading." Probably his best known poem is "The Grenading," which appears online a couple of places -- in Viet Generation Journal and the "continuing anthology" Poets on the Line. (The latter site includes a few of Ben's other war poems, as well as an obituary by the custodian of his legacy, Dock Burke.) John Moore has also posted some of Ben's poems and a brief biographical sketch at the Vietnam Veterans Home Page.
The impression I had of Ben was of a man who felt things deeply but wasn't always able to find words to express them -- in person, anyway. He spoke of them quite eloquently in his poems. He was a wiry little bastard, grey-bearded. He wore small round glasses and smoked little aromatic cigars. His whole life had prepared him to be a soldier. What he witnessed in Nam inspired his muse and, ultimately, destroyed him. He was a big recreational shooter who still had his Army officer's .45. On a Monday, when asked what he'd done over the weekend, he'd invariably say, "I went out to the range and busted some caps" -- soldier's slang. We used to talk a lot about Hemingway and "the coward's way out." When he finally decided to cash in, though, he did it peacefully: in a garage, on New Year's Day, plugging up the exhaust, starting the car and quietly drifting off into oblivion.
Another former student of his told me there was a woman that Ben wanted to marry who refused him. Perhaps it was the one he wrote about in "Dating Your Ex-Wife." (I never knew he'd been married; we didn't have that kind of relationship. He apparently had a son, too, and two daughters. I never would have guessed.) I often wondered if he'd realized how much he meant to all of us. Reading his poems "A Lesson," "My Dunbar Students" (about his days teaching English in a "historically African-American" Fort Worth high school), and "Father-Professor," I realized that he had -- it just wasn't enough to sustain him.
One day when I was taking his Comp 1 class, he approached me with "an offer you can't refuse." Instead of attending his regular class, I'd meet with him at the base library after duty hours. (Later I realized that this was the same library where he'd spent countless hours as a dependent kid. The white-haired lady behind the desk was the same one who'd been there in those days.) I'd write twice as many papers as his other students, on different topics -- mainly explicating literature. In this way, not only was I able to receive the first real feedback I'd ever had on my writing, but I was immersed in a world of words and ideas that, up to that point, had passed me by.
I'd slithered through the public education system in New York like a wet turd on verbal ability that was partly innate, partly stimulated by a mother who used to watch the Brit shows on PBS and practice sounding her vowels like the people in them as a way of diluting her Hawaii pidgin accent, and buy books that were nothing more than lists of books to leave lying around the house for my sister and I to discover. In my high school days, the educational flavor-of-the-month was "relevance," so I never had to endure Beowulf or Chaucer. Instead, we read Richard Wright, Bernard Malamud, Piri Thomas, Malcolm X, Edward Albee. One of the abiding regrets of my life is that I sat out three semesters at TCJC while awaiting orders to follow the B-1 bomber to Abilene and by doing so, missed out on the chance to experience Ben's great love, British literature, with him as my guide. (He also taught comparative religions.)
But I did receive my first exposure to a lot of mostly American writers I'd missed, through him. "You have a really big vocabulary," he said. "It is not, however, necessary to use all of those words in every sentence." He handed me Look Homeward, Angel and I was astonished to read a sentence a page long that made sense. Next, for contrast, he introduced me to Hemingway and the simple power of short, declarative sentences: "I woke up. I took a shit. It felt good." Then it was Steinbeck, who remains maybe my favorite of the '30s American clan. At the end of my first semester with him, Ben presented me with a hardcover copy of Salinger's Nine Stories which I have since passed on to my middle daughter. (All three of my daughters write, but she's the only one who lets me read her stuff. She's a fine writer, but says her younger sister is better. Perhaps someday I'll find out.)
Ben taught me that if you need to explain your point to a reader, you haven't done your job as a writer. And that writing is a craft to be mastered. I still have all of the papers I wrote for him. Occasionally, I'll take them out and marvel at how much cleaner and more elegant my prose was then than it is now -- because I was doing it for him. I spent the first half of my life waiting for something to happen to me that was worth writing about. (When that didn't eventuate, I started writing anyway.) I'll spend the rest of my time here trying to write something that's worthy of him.
I want to find out where he's buried, so that someday I can pay him a visit. I imagine that I'll leave him a package of cherry sours and some little aromatic cigars, and say to him (as he does to a deceased academic in "In Memoriam: Professor Maenchen-Helfen"), "Rest easy in your grave, for you rode with Attila."
ADDENDUM (1.18.2012): Received these photos today from Tom Kellam of the TCC Library.