Dirk Benedict received his degree in Dramatic Arts from Whitman College in Washington. He has starred on Broadway, in films, and in several hit television series, including The A-Team and Battlestar Galactica. When he’s not making a movie or writing screenplays, he pilots his own airplane, composes music, plays the piano and trombone, goes fishing, or just relaxes with his two sons. Dirk Benedict divides his time between California and Montana.
The great dilemma of “how to free man in spite of himself” had been the overriding concern of my father’s life. With his untimely death, the great dilemma was solved and he was free in spite of himself. Through the happenstance of chromosomic makeup, it would fall to me, the middle of three children, to inherit the passion of his quest. What had been his through dying, I sensed with justifiable fear could only be mine through living.
There wasn’t a fishing trip, a grouse-hunting expedition or skiing trip he took me on, not even a summer’s evening of playing catch with the football, that didn’t involve a discussion of this great dilemma and the issues involved in it. Everyone experiences life and everyone eventually experiences death, he said. It is the manner in which they do both that is crucial. He felt that it wasn’t enough just to “go through the motions” of living one’s life, and he was obsessed with the discovery of the cause of what gave each life’s motion its unique qualities.
The passion of his hunger for answers to that question made people nervous, uncomfortable…it made them stay away. This self-induced quarantine eventually crept into the confines of his own family. So in 1961 he found himself stranded, cut off, alone…except for the bespectacled presence of his sixteen-year-old middle child. During the next two (and final) years of his life, he would pour the intensely passionate culminating thoughts and ideas of his life into the captivated ears of his soul’s sole audience. The heart and mind of that young audience was in turmoil as he struggled to understand the impossible..but there was another part of him that was religiously tucking everything away for future reference.
My father began letting go: He let go of a marriage of over twenty years; he let go of a law practice he had spent his lifetime building…he simply gave it carte blanche—clientele, books, typewriters, paper clips and all—to a young attorney fresh out of law school; and he let go of his pride and joy, a 1955 Jaguar sports roadster XK140 which he had spent many a winter’s evening fine-tuning into a machine that would take top honors at road rallies. He let go of his home as he took to the road in a 1959 Volkswagen to finish the book he was writing in motels and hotels across the Northwest. He let go of all the material possessions that a lifetime of instinct for the finest of everything had gathered. He was “on the road” for the last two years of his life.
What he didn’t let go of was his family. He tried, for he knew that except for the sixteen-year-old crewcut sponge at his elbow, they had let go of him. To them, as to all others who knew him, he was no longer the friend, the professional peer, the father they had known, respected and loved. Out of my fear and inability to comprehend, I too tried to let go of this whirling dervish of philosophic oratory, but I couldn’t…
Life-struck, young, I crept through breathing halls
of old museums ghosted rich with fancies sheer,
humbly whispering, “We seek a sanctuary here,”
and pausing in those throbbing stalls,
I felt the voice of Beauty as it calls,
and heard it sob against the granite walls.
I couldn’t let go. Was it all written and inevitable—the amount of time I would have at his side soaking up what I thought I didn’t understand? Did a primal instinct for my own survival hold me a prisoner, a moth to the flame of his final fiery hunger for answers? Did I know that only fourteen years later I too would begin an odyssey alone and searching for the same answers?
We fished and traveled and laughed and cried and time melted away as the torch was passed.
Sunday, August 4, 1963…the sun was shining with a brightness that only the clean, clear air of Montana can allow. My father arrived at the family home to pick me up. A perfect day for fishing.
I told him I wouldn’t be able to go, as I had agreed the night before to help a local rancher stack some hay.
“But we had agreed that we would spend this day together.”
“I know, Dad, but it’s a chance for me to make some extra money.” I was going off to Whitman College in the fall and was very aware of what that would cost and that I would be the main source of providing it.
“Money? It’s more important that we spend this time together.”
“I just feel that since I’m going to college this fall, I should take every chance I can to earn some money.”
My dad pulled his billfold out of his pocket and took three one-hundred-dollar bills out of it. Three hundred dollars that I would later learn were the sum total of his present resources.
“How much money are you going to make stacking hay?”
My dad handed me the three hundred dollars. “There. Now let’s go fishing.”
I stood frozen on the spot. I couldn’t take it.
“Son, money has no value. None whatsoever. Never put it above the living of your life. Never do anything for money. If you don’t stack hay today and don’t make fifteen dollars, you will still go to college. And it you don’t…if you can’t afford to get a college education…so much the better. College isn’t the answer to anything. It is only important as an experience. So instead of college, maybe you’ll hitchhike through Europe or hop a steamer to some foreign country, and that will be the experience through which you will discover your life. But money has nothing to do with it. Never use it for a reason or an excuse for anything. Ever. Now, let’s go fishing.”
I remained frozen on the spot. My mind tried to understand, to make a decision. I couldn’t manage.
My father solved the dilemma. We never went fishing. Not that day. Not ever again.
It took me two years, but I finally found the words to put on the slab of marble I had placed on his grave:
George Edward Niewoehner
March 13, 1912—August 4, 1963
My father, I am yours. You keep me straight with your kind leading. Nor shall anything count for more with me than you and your good judgment, which I shall ever follow.