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Good RX VGrinding out an American Dream
By Benjamin Benoit
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Benjamin Benoit
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOrigins (1800s)
In the early 1800s, amidst Napoleon's failed Russian campaign, a man named Alexander Benoit, who spoke seven languages, decided to seek a better source for raw materials to tan leather. My great-great grandfather, Alexander, came from Strasbourg, a city in Europe on the French/German border known for tanning leather. The family name has always been Benoit; when Alexander moved to the Dominican Republic, he was simply known as "Monsieur Benito," the Italian translation of Benoit. Italian was the native tongue of the Corsican Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon's father Charles was an associate of Alexander's father, also named Charles. When Napoleon ascended to power as Emperor of France, Charles Benoit recommended his son Alexander to Napoleon during a banquet the two attended. Napoleon took the advice of his father's old associate and utilized Alexander as an interpreter of the Russian language during the disastrous war with Russia. Monsieur Benito is what Napoleon called him, and the name stuck as he later traveled to the Dominican Republic.
As an older man, Alexander married a young wife, and I have seen pictures of the married couple, validating the claims of a great age disparity. There is a story that illustrates his propensity to correct others' mistaken perceptions of him—a personality trait that recurred in other relatives in many subsequent generations. As the story is told to me, it seems that the locales were snickering in their native tongue about his inability to keep up with his young wife. Spanish was not Monsieur Benoit's first language, and thus, in a country of Spanish speakers, he was considered an outsider and was subject to the prejudices that often confront foreigners. As Monsieur Benoit was walking with his new bride, some disparaging remarks were made by some locals about the old man and his young wife. The locals spoke in their native tongue, thinking that the old man wouldn't understand. Using their language, Monsieur Benoit turned the tables on them and explained to them that he did not appreciate their comments. Shocked, those locals did not bother him again.
He settled on land in Santiago, Dominican Republic, called Jacagua. This pueblo, best known for remnants of an old church built during Columbus's settlment of the New World, had fertile land for agriculture. The remnants of the church, destroyed by an earthquake, happen to be on the Benoit property. The remains are vestiges of the first settlement of the new world. Its masonry, bricks, cruciform pilasters, buttresses, and fragments of vaults can still be seen today on the property.
Monsieur Benoit had eleven children, one of whom was my great grandfather Carlos Domingo Benoit. Before his death in 1900, Carlos in turn had seven children. One of those grandchildren to Alexander was my grandfather Anselmo Benoit. The family that he and my grandmother Maria Mercado created on this hallowed ground is where this story begins.
Chapter TwoThe Depression Years (1929–1941)
During my grandparents' childbearing years, the world went into an economic tailspin. Personal income, tax revenue, profits, and prices dropped, while international trade dropped by more than 50 percent. The Latin American countries, such as the Dominican Republic, depended heavily on the investment of the United States in such farming products as sugar cane. When the United States wasn't spending on those products, the Latin American countries felt the squeeze as well as the rest of the world. Crop prices were said to have fallen 60 percent. This led to diminished demand, and since there were few alternate job sources, people fell into despair because they could not earn a living. Germany was busy blaming Jewish immigrants for the economic woes of the world. With the onset of the Depression, Nazi support grew in Germany, and in 1933 Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany.
The Dominican Republic in 1936 was far away from the United States' recovery plan for an economically depressed world. My father said he had a German tutor when he was young, so I estimate that the tutor's interaction with my grandparent's children had to be about this time. My father was eight years old in 1936. The tutor was probably a refugee, as a result of the climate warming up for war in Germany. On my grandfather's farm, roosters crowed at the crack of dawn, signaling that it was time for the cows to be milked. The boys were taught, at a young age, how to milk a cow. Horses carried the farmhands. Chickens were allowed to roam the grounds, as payment for the eggs they laid. Donkeys carried produce from the area where they were grown and plucked to the area where these products were repackaged and stored to be shipped to local groceries. Although the grounds were set back a suitable distance from the road, the grounds were surrounded only by barbed wire fencing, allowing easy viewing from outside the property. Dogs guarded this area from possible thieves. Most of the work was done early, before the sun was at its hottest.
My uncle Juanito, the last of ten children born to Anselmo and Maria Benoit, was a newborn in 1936. Three years later, on a bright day in 1939, a family portrait was scheduled that would capture each child's personality. It was this picture that inspired the story I am telling. I have only recently retrieved a copy of the picture, and perhaps it is not exactly what I remembered it to be. The following description is based more on what I remembered than on the actual character of the photograph. Or maybe there was another picture, taken at the same time, that I remember seeing as a child. I have inserted the aforementioned picture on a subsequent page, to serve as a reference for the characters I will describe. The picture was taken after the occurrence of the story I am about to tell.
My uncle Socrates always seemed to appear stoic and scholarly. My uncle Servio had the look of a troublemaker, reminding me of my middle child. That propensity for trouble is what made him the uncle destined to have the most fun. My aunt Safronia I thought was kneeling, but she was sitting on the ground with her head tilted into my grandfather's knee, expressing the subservient tendencies that would plague her as an adult. Her brother Santiago, who was the second youngest, and who would be thrown into the servant role, clung to my grandmother to make sure Juanito, the baby sitting on my grandfather's knee, would not steal his thunder. Trying to play junior psychologist, I would have to say that this might have contributed to the inferiority complex from which he suffered through his entire life. Standing in the middle of my grandparents was my Aunt Tuta, who was cool and confident. She was the oldest of the ten children, so she could be bossy. Then there are my Aunts Sara and Nina. The two of them took my grandmother's gift for gab. They were spicy like my grandmother. If there was a discussion going on at the house, you could be sure that those two were in the middle of the debate. Nina was more of a jolly talker, where as Sara, was more of a reactionary speaker. The male whose sense of humor was equal to my Aunt Nina's was my Tio Pepe. His smile could have lit up the picture, although his demeanor was calm. Finally, there was my father, Salomon, sticking his chest out to keep up with his brother Pepe.
Salomon Benoit was prideful. He was right in the middle of the pack, both in age and in temperament. He would fly off the handle when he thought anyone was wronging him. But he could also show a large capacity for imparting wisdom with discipline. I imagine that on the day of the photo shoot, everyone was pressed to get properly prepared, because in the actual picture, the children appear stressed. I was told that my uncle Servio fought my father about something a ten-year-old fights an eleven-year-old for—despite the warning of my grandfather to knock it off. I see the dynamics of my own three children, and then I multiply this by three and add one to understand that the volume of that home was like the television presentation of an opera turned up to the highest volume level. Fortunately for television viewers, they can turn down the volume. My grandparents did not have that luxury.
In this organized chaos, my uncle Servio evidently told the younger Santiago that their brother Salomon's allotted piece of dulce de leche was not going to be claimed, because he had not finished his chores that morning. Servio coaxed Santiago into going to fetch the unclaimed treat for the both of them. As Santiago snuck away to obtain the coveted prize, my grandparents were delegating responsibilities to the older children to help get the others cleaned up and ready for the impending photo shoot. The duty of preparing Santiago was given to my Tio Pepe, but the young boy's whereabouts were now in question. Knowing that time was of the essence, Tio Pepe recruited my father Salomon to help him find the younger boy. They both searched high and low, to no avail. Meanwhile, Servio met the young Santiago behind the bathhouse with the sweet delight. There the two of them were feasting on my father's candy. Neither of the two seemed to have any remorse. Not Servio, because he never thought anyone would catch him, and not Santiago, who was too young to know any better. The wax paper that wrapped the candy was thrown on the floor.
By this time, my grandfather, feeling the pressure of a deadline, yelled at my father to get ready. My father, being obedient, told Pepe that he would have to continue the search for Santiago on his own. As fate would have it, my father went to the bathhouse, only to find the youths content and with a last piece of candy in Santiago's hand. "Pepe is looking for you," shouted Salomon. Then he noticed the wrapper on the floor and the last piece in Santiago's hand. My father always said he could have been a great detective, and at this point put that ability front and center. He turned to Santiago, who swallowed quickly, and asked him, "Where did you get that piece of dulce de leche?" Santiago, being too honest to cover up for the two boys caught in the act, ruefully said to Salomon, "Servio told me that you did not do your chores." Santiago went on to tell Salomon, "Papa said we could take your share of the candy as punishment, according to Servio." At this discovery, my father turned his steaming anger toward Servio, whom he asked, "You did what?" A battle between the two of them ensued. Santiago then ran to get the adults. My grandfather Anselmo tried to break this up, and, when he was unsuccessful, proceeded to tie them to a tree. A disciplinarian in his own right, my grandfather whipped them with a stick until they apologized to each other. To my knowledge, the two brothers never had an estranged relationship, but this would explain the two on opposite sides of the picture, and my father having his chest exaggeratedly pumped out. Eventually the two would begrudgingly give in to their father's request of being civil to each other, but not before causing a hockeylike brawl in the heat of the Caribbean sun.
As much infighting as there must have been, there was still great love among them. I never detected any rift between any of them, and thus I must surmise that, as they matured, their love for each other must have been strong enough to overcome any differences they may have had with each other. Perhaps their arguments were not anything that a good night's sleep couldn't take care of.
Chapter ThreeThe World War Years (1939–1945)
Although my father's family lived under the military dictatorship of Trujillo, my father never served in the military. I have heard many stories of World War II from my father-in-law, Jim Martin, who served in the Royal British Navy as a seventeen-year-old. Those stories were not similar to my father's. For a teenager in the Dominican Republic, life was a paradise, as long as you towed the line in Trujillo's police state.
My father told me of a party that he, Pepe, and Servio went to that they were told not to attend. Anselmo had asked the boys not to go to this party because the boys were committed to doing chores the next day. He also knew that there would be alcohol served at this party. The boys, being boys, made a promise they had no intention of keeping. That night, as my grandparents went to sleep, the boys embarked upon their descent into mischievnousness. They quietly took two horses from the stable, a couple of hundred yards away from the house. The eldest boy, Socrates, chose to stay behind with the two younger boys. As the anticipation of this party grew, the boys decided to stop at a store to purchase liquid encouragement. In Latin American countries, the local shop is known as a bodega, while the shopkeeper is known as "El Bodeguero." The bodega was dark, lit only by candles, dusty, and dingy. It was an old establishment that would leave an unappealing impression upon any modern-day American, used to fresh meats and vegetables. However, it was a source of many different household necessities, including coconut macaroons and liquid nourishment. The boys couldn't care less how the store appeared to them. They didn't know anything better.
The shopkeeper asked the boys, "Do your parents know your whereabouts?" Pepe, the oldest, responded, "They are sleeping but asked that we take the horses for a ride before we go to sleep." The shopkeeper, knowing full well that it was a crazy excuse because horses are not like dogs, who have to be walked at night, simply smiled and replied, "Okay then, just don't get into any trouble." There were no carding rules back then, so the shopkeeper sold them alcohol. What the boys didn't take into account was that the community was still small enough that every one knew every one in the community. As they took off, the shopkeeper laughed and shook his head in disbelief.
As the boys arrived, many at the party noticed that the boys were more boisterous than usual. The night grew longer and with it came more observances of the boys. The night culminated in my father grabbing one of the horses and riding around the party like a rodeo cowboy. Making a fool of oneself was not the Benoit way. There was a degree of decorum that was expected of the Benoits. One of the higher members of society at the time asked Pepe, "Does Anselmo know that you are at this party?" Pepe, despite being drunk himself, was sober enough to decide that it might be a good idea to go home. Pepe responded by saying, "I am going to tell my father tomorrow." Pepe then went over and grabbed the horse from my father and led the boys back home. My father told me that that was one of the most embarrassing times for him, and that he would learn to despise anyone who acted as "silly" as he did that night.
The next afternoon, Anselmo stopped at the store the boys had been to the previous night. The shopkeeper, being as nosy as the next person, asked, "Anselmo, were you aware that the boys were here last night?" Shocked, my grandfather asked the shopkeeper, "What do you mean? The boys were here last night?" The shopkeeper spilled the beans about the sale of booze to the boys. However, the shopkeeper did not reveal which boys were present. Thus, my grandfather assumed that the list included the eldest, Socrates. Anselmo went back home to address this. He called out all the boys, except the younger two. He asked them where they had snuck out to the previous night. As no one came forward initially, the beatings started. My uncle Socrates swore up and down that he was not involved, but my grandfather did not believe him, and the other three did not come to his defense. When my father cracked under pressure, my grandfather marched the boys to the house where the party had been to get a detailed description of what went on and to have the boys apologize.
Excerpted from Good RX V by Benjamin Benoit Copyright © 2012 by Benjamin Benoit. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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