By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
What made Ben decide to file suit more than a decade after his bungled delivery? "I was pissed off and I had nothing to lose."
In addition to being uncommon, lawsuits in the British judicial system move very slowly. While awaiting a result, Ben discovered competitive Scrabble. He doesn't remember the first time he played, but he does recall always loving words and reading. By the age of eight he found a game that combined his passion for words with his competitive nature: "I would rush home from school in England from 1983 to 1989 to watch Countdown, a letters and numbers [TV game show] in which the aim was to find the longest word among nine random letters. It was my dream to be on that show."
But Ben didn't speak Hebrew when he moved to Israel. This led him to the two institutions that have helped define his life: St. John's College and competitive Scrabble.
"His mother tongue was English, so we sent him to an American high school," says Nili Bloom. "I think this saved his life, because the system in Manchester was quite different and quite cruel. He couldn't really express himself. At the American school, he got a lot of individual attention -- from day one he started to bloom and express himself." The school's small classes and academic concentration led Ben to begin reading up on colleges in America. Eventually St. John's caught his eye.
Ben says his four years at the college were a revelation. The curriculum is loosely based on the University of Chicago's Great Books program, in which professors and students eschew conventional textbooks. Instead they read, discuss, and write about the philosophical, mathematical, and scientific texts -- Plato, Newton, Hegel -- that constitute the Western canon. Ben took to it with an almost manic zeal (his intensity belies his claim that procrastination and laziness are his worst vices).
Ben cut a striking figure on campus. He was an extrovert among introverts, and he was always hustling someone for something.
"I remember him asking all the pretty girls to carry his lunch tray for him," says Ian Brennan, one of Ben's closest friends at St. John's. "He was perfectly capable of carrying it himself, but he's a tricky bastard. He used to ask me to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for him, because he said he couldn't hold the knife right. It was bullshit of course. It took me months before I realized he was messing with me."
I attended St. John's with Ben. I don't remember the first time we talked, but I recollect the first time I saw him. He was part of the small group that comes into the college during the second half of the freshman year, named "Febbies," after the month they appear on campus. Febbie convocation can be a raucous affair, with upperclassmen in attendance only to hoot at the more appealing coeds and laugh at the expense of the obvious goofballs.
That day students applauded loudly for an attractive young lady who sashayed across the stage to shake the dean's hand. When it was Ben's turn, he thrust himself onto the stage and strode purposefully, if unevenly, toward the podium. There was a smattering of polite applause. No one wanted to laugh or make fun of the cripple. Suddenly all the irreverence in the room was replaced with somber respect. Then Ben turned, smiled crazily, and waved. The uncomfortable bubble of propriety burst and people began to laugh.
More than once I saw Ben standing in the quad, amid the quiet would-be philosophers, shrieking about how he was the second coming of Christ.
"When we read the New Testament sophomore year, I actually felt strongly that it held some answers for me," Ben remembers. "I had often questioned my faith -- for obvious reasons. Actually, for a while I was a practicing Messianic Jew -- I said my prayers before every meal and everything. Then I realized it was bullshit. No offense to Christians or Jews or whoever, but I don't practice any religion anymore."
Brennan remembers Ben's brush with Messianic Judaism: "It wasn't always easy to tell when he was messing around, but I remember him calling himself the Messiah because he'd been born dead and brought back to life. He was pretty serious about Christianity for a while, but I'd like to think he didn't really believe he was the Messiah. I don't think the Messiah would try to cheat at cards the way Ben did. I mean, we'd all be sitting around the table, last round of bets, and Ben would blurt out, 'A full house is really good, right?' And he'd always complain if he didn't win. 'How can you take money from a cripple?'"
Ben didn't restrict his zeal to sedentary games. Despite the fact that one of his legs is shorter than the other, and running requires him to jerk his torso backward and forward like a Weeble toy, he constantly played soccer, basketball, croquet -- anything in which he could compete physically. I often saw him, shirtless and sweaty, running across campus. At every dance party, Ben occupied center stage, caroming off the walls like a racquetball.