40 Greatest Influences of the last 40 years #24 The 3rd Triumvirate aka Ben Stull/ Brad Willcuts/Chris Kinman
Today is Ben Stull’s birthday. Unfortunately he isn’t here to celebrate it with us as he passed away a few years back. Going to his funeral a few years back was one of the most surreal and sobering moments of my life. Ben was a good friend and a great person. His birthday seems a fitting day to reflect on him and the close friends he and I shared.
Growing up, I remember having sleep over birthday parties at Ben’s house. There was a girl in our class with the same birthday and it usually turned out all the girls were at her birthday party and all the boys were at Ben’s.
As I think back on it, Ben and I actually had a lot of sleep overs as kids. I can recall he and I camping out in my backyard and firing Nerf guns at each other. I remember going out to his big house on what back then was the outskirts of town. I remember us playing basketball in his drive way, riding bikes, playing hide and seek, and trying to learn how to skateboard. This is totally random, but I remember Ben won the TCBY bike raffle and no one believed him. I didn’t either unill I saw his picture posted in the window when I had a hankering for some FroYo, Yo!
This was like 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade that we were close friends. Sometime in there Ben was in the local summer musical. I think it was a production of Annie but I can’t recall for sure. Not only was Ben in it but so was Brad Willcuts (and I want to say Brian Rhodes was in the summer musical one time as well, but Maybe I just have all these “B” names jumbled in my head. Ben Brad Brian. Ben Brad Brian....).
Now Brad and I had been friends along with Casey when we were kindergarteners. His mom was “the science lady.” I don’t know the exact circumstances but she had some kind of affiliation with the Pacific Science center in Seattle. She would do special science classes every so often. They were like “Crime lab chemistry” where she started the CSI craze andI learned how to get finger prints with a #2 pencil and scotch tape. There was a robotics class where you got an actual robot, batteries included and everything. I went to several of these over the course of elementary school. And Brad, Casey and I were burgeoning scientists. However, in the classic tale of children disappointing their parents, Brad spurned rational empiricism for dramatic expression and became an actor. Actually, I am sure Brad’s family was always quite proud of him and his acting. His aunt was briefly my substitute art teacher in college. She was a little intense and intrusive with her enthusiastic suggestions, and I was a little rude to her I am sorry to say. I mean not explicitly rude, just kind of had a “let me get back to work now” kind of attitude. Ask Brett Barker, he was there. As was Casey Richards, not the Dude at #37, but the chick he tried to play naked hide and seek in the dark with. Neither Bret nor Casey are on the top 40 countdown, but maybe they should have been.
At any rate Brad and I had a bad/super great habit of making each other laugh uncontrollably. Whether is was while his dad was trying to help us build a pinewood durby upon car, or while grading each other quizzes in Mr. Fazzari’s class we would crack each other up. Even when I threw a football and made Brad crash into the hedges in my back yard and he come out bruised and bloodied with a scratch across his forehead. I said it was a killer battle axe wielding gnome that got him, and we giggled about that for weeks. Or the time I convinced him to stack a bunch of cafeteria chairs up so we could hang a poster, and he fell and got a concussion. Once I was sure his parents weren’t going to sue me, we laughed at that for weeks too, because he had actually said out loud “Ok, sure I will be stupid and climb up this wobbly stack of chairs” and then he did just that, and fell, and was knocked out cold. Hmm, it appears that Brad got hurt a lot when He was around me, and all I remember is laughing. No wonder he eventually changed schools.
By 7th grade Ben had figured out how to skate and was pretty good. I had bailed on being Tony Hawk in favor of being Toni Kucoc (I know, I know, that’s my go to reference? Hey how many famous Basketball playing Tony’s do you know? There like Antione Walker or Antonio Daniels or even Anthony Davis, but no Tony. See I would have been the one! But I digress). Brad at this point was skating too. We were all 3 in drama class together and did some school productions, but they were involved in theatre outside of school as well. Both of them were thespians. Lords of the stage! Imperators of Improvisation!
I can recall Ben and Brad had to do a video country report on England for Geography class. It was hilarious! I remember Ben dressing in drag and doing his best cockney marm accent saying “I’m being paid minimum wage to tell you about England!” Then there was Brad standing with an umbrella and the camera slowly pans backs to reveal the softly falling snow as he educated us on the weather patterns of the UK. I forget the rest of it but it was bloody brilliant. For the record I did my country report on Italy (shocking, I know. I really embraced cultural diversity and tried to expand my horizons at 14 years old). I channeled my distant relative Fr. Valentino (who may or may not make an appearance on the top 40 count down) to impersonate the pope, and enlisted my little brother and sister to replicate the spaghetti scene from Lady and the Tramp. I edited in footage of the Rosebowl and claimed it was the coliseum, but at least it was actually the 94 Italian World Cup Futbol team on the pitch in the clip. Of course in terms of production value and audience enjoyment, Brad and Ben blew me out of the water. But the only opinion I cared about was the opinion of the 3rd and final member of the 3rd triumvirate who said my country report was better. And that lone dissenting opinion came from Chris Kinman.
So back in the aborted 30 for 30 a decade ago, I regaled Chris with his own spot on the countdown, and I used the descriptor “Leprechaun Pimp” which at the time seemed more flattering of a compliment than maybe it dose now that I am old and hip hop has passed me by. But as you continue to read this post it will be obvious that he is inexplicably connected to Brad and Ben and his natural place is right here in the 3rd Triumvirate. I don’t believe there is any historical precedent for a 3rd triumvirate, so no allusions to Ancient Rome or Byzantium are in order. Neither are modern references to the 3 Amigos or 3 Stooges quite appropriate.
The last time I had seen Ben, Chris and Brad all together was at my high school graduation.
It was my graduation, not their’s because they all ended up attending the local high school and I remained at DeSales. But they came to see all their former classmates get their diplomas. They had another previous class member that went to DeSales but ultimately bailed to WAHI. I think her name was Kelly? Kimmy? Chrissy? Maybe that was her sister? At any rate, Brad had some 8th grade relationship history with her. As did I. Well I had proposed to her at one point. Over the phone. At Brad’s house. When Ben and Chris we’re there. She had said “sure,” initially. But quickly backtracked when I started making wedding plans.
Well at graduation I was fairly excited, at least for me. So when I saw the 4 of them I believe I hugged Kimmy, or Kelly, and told her I loved her. In my revisionist memory I hugged, dipped and planted one like Adrian Brodie on Hallie Berry. But I know it didn’t really go down like that. I may have actually kissed Ben immediately after that to continue my streak of hilarity, but I was never that smooth. Kelly(I’m pretty sure that is her name) was less enthusiastic when I bought ice cream from her the next day. Yeah the whole thing was awkward.
Well the only reason I bring up Kelly and my awkward exchanges with the 3rd Triumvirate is because at Ben’s funeral, Brad referenced that very day in his eulogy. He also mentioned many other instances of the 3rd Triumvirate together, but I was very proud to know I had been at least peripherally involved at one time in what has always been a tremendous friendship.
That funeral was surreal for a lot of reasons. First and foremost an old friend with a wife and kids was taken right out from under them. That is sad and tragic and makes us all contemplate our mortality and the fragility of life. Second was the mixed emotions of being happy to see old friends, and honestly wanting to indulge that to avoid overwhelming sadness of the loss. Third it was December and it was snowing and the heat in the church appeared to be broken so everyone is shivering. Fourth, the projector playing the slide show tribute to the music of James Taylor (which was exquisitely perfect for Ben and that is all you really need to know to know who Ben was) was malfunctioning. Chris and his mom were probably sick of me commenting on it every 5 seconds, but in an afternoon filled with awkward pauses, and the only thing you hear is a demonic “IIIII’ve seeeenn fiiirrre, III’vve seeeeenn raaaaiiinnn” in the background, you can’t help but say “That’s creepy.”
In addition to the 2 living members of the 3rd Triumvirate, Chris Hanson, who may or may not make an appearance on the countdown in the future, was there, as was his baby brother Greg, who I thought after 20 years must be his older brother Gene because he was like 6’8” by now. Since the funeral was not really the place to catch up I agreed to meet up with Brad and Chris and bunch of other people later that night.
I was looking forward to seeing people and getting a chance to talk in a less oppressive environment than a church. But when that environment actually became more loose, I balked. Initially Brad invited me to meet up at the Marc restaurant lounge. I had worked at the Marcus Whitman hotel. I spent a lot of time there, ate a lot of food there, which was always excellent. It was a nice place as long as the packs of snooty wine aficionados didn’t get too inebriated en mass. But then Brad text me that they were redirecting to the Green Lantern Tavern. (Quick tangent: Walla Walla has the Green lantern known simply as “the Green,” and the Blue mountain Casino a half mile down the street known simply as “the Blue.” There is The Red Mobkey downtown which I assume is colloquially known as “the Red” but I have never actually been there. I feel like if you opened a club with a plain black exterior and just a bouncer and a velvet rope with no official name, it would become known locally as “The Black” and be a gold mine with no need for advertising ever, but I digress).
“The Green” was one of the iconic watering holes in Walla Walla. It was a loud, go out, get drunk and cut loose kind of place, popular with college kids and young people (and old people) alike. It was exactly where Ben and Brad and Chris and basically any other young person in Walla Walla would have hung out at. This made sense as it was like a half block away from Brad’s Parent’s gigantic house. Chris’s parent lived only a block further away. I had only been to that house once when I was 6, so of course I remember it as being huge too. I had been to the Green about twice as much as I had been to Chris’s house, and it wasn’t really my scene.
And as random and unimportant as that might seem, it goes back to the same comment on 8th grade that I’ve made before. At some point in 8th grade other kids started to grow up and started to get involved in,.... oh I don’t know, sex, drugs and rock and roll for lack of a better term, and I was pretty much a late bloomer. Like seriously, I didn’t start listening to Nirvana until like 1997. In a world where people are divided into groups by what they do, be it for work or for fun, I did a lot of nothing, and my personality always ran counter to the people I was doing things with. I didn’t party. Had zero interest in it. And yet personality wise that is who I gravitated towards. Skaters, actors, bands, wanna be rapper/gangsters, basically any kind of artistic pursuit. And yet I had no artistic talent. Basketball was my artistic medium, and that put me on an island court alone from both other athletes and other artists. How this played out in 8th grade was literally Ben, Brad and Chris riding skateboards to Green Park elementary school to “oly”and “grind” and wherever else skaters do, while I was running after them dribbling a basketball. I think we all knew how ridiculous this arrangement was at the time, but it allowed me to be where I felt I belonged, even though I couldn’t do what everyone else in the group was doing, and everyone else got to do their thing, and laugh at my occasional one liners.
How did this same dynamic play out 20 years later as adults?
As it turned out I got double booked that night. David Rae an old friend of mine from when we worked together at the Marcus Whitman called me up and invited me to play basketball. (David Rae is not on the top 40 countdown, but maybe he should have been.)
So there I was again, caught between my love of the game of basketball (that didn’t quite love me back) and my desire to connect with people I felt I fit in with (but had no common activity to engage in). I was 35 years old and It was eighth grade all over again. And of course my response was the same as it would have been 20 years earlier. I didn’t want to choose so I just stayed home. Let me clarify. I wanted to play basketball. Playing Basketball had always been what makes me feel better. But to blow off all my old grieving friends to go play basketball would have been callus, insensitive, and just plain rude. So instead, I decided to blow them both off for an evening of self pity masquerading as grief.
So the sad thing is I don’t even know what led to Ben’s passing. Tragic accident is all the more of an explanation that I ever got. Of course I would have found out more if I had gone to The Green.
I had not been in any kind of regular contact with Ben in years, but I had more than a few chance run ins with him or his family over the years. I almost never recognized him between the changing shape of his body and the evolution of his facial hair. I think I saw him downtown with a fu man chu and some extra weight around the middle looking like a Bulgarian circus performer. I saw him another time at Blockbuster (so you know that was a long time ago) with Ted Tuggle maybe ? He was very skinny at that time and had a Rip Van Winkle Beard (not to be confused with Robby VanWinkle, who I mentioned my last 2 posts).
Ben told me that since I had last seen him at my high school graduation, he had gone to Montana for college and majored in “Medial Theatre.” I don’t know if I have that term correct, but I can still hear his voice saying it in my head. I have heard it said that when someone dies the first thing you forget is the sound of their voice, but that seems like the most backward notion of all time. If anything the voices of the deceased live on as strong as any memory. I will forget what people looked like before I forget the sound of their voice. Ben had just returned from the peace corp at the time and that helped explain his Parisian Beatnik appearance. So putting together the pieces of his life that I am privy to, he majored in theatre, then served others on this planet on a humanitarian mission in the peace Corp. From there he appears to have lived over seas in Far East Asia and had a wife and children. Probably met his wife in the peace Corp. Became “internationally known.” A citizen of the world. It was over seas where his tragic passing occurred. Ben lived an intentional life, and yet he was open to following whatever path life led him down. Ben did more living in his short life than I probably ever will.
So to sum up the 3rd triumvirate I need to go back to the 1st. The first Triumvirate were my basketball coaches, the people that held the keys to my dreams of on court glory. And while we differed on method we were aligned in goal( to win basketball games). The 2nd Triumvirate were the peer standard I could compare myself to for what an upstanding young man in my social/religious community should look like. And then the 3rd Triumvirate were kind of a window into a quasi-parallel universe, where slightly different values and world views may reveal options or opportunities I never seriously considered.
But I think all ten of us, the 3 triumvirates and my self, can take stock of our lives tonight. We all will have our cherished accomplishments and our personal regrets. But we can all take solace in our gratitude for having known Ben for as long as he was gifted here on earth, and we all can share in our experience with each other and the ties that bind us no matter how long it has been or how awkward it is now.
Ok, I think I am done with Triumvirates.