Baseball Buffs, Iron Men, Cancer, Incontinence and the Nomad Life
by Suzanne Hudson
Above: Author, actor, and happy nomad G. Brian Benson with Joe Formichella in the WHBP studio
It was a delightful intersection of multiple roads--some literal, some symbolic; some more travelled, some less. He and my husband Joe found shared interests and bonding over 1) participation in Iron Man Triathlons and the enjoyment of biking; 2) love of history; 3) baseball history in particular; and 4) most particularly, the Negro Leagues.
What did he and I have in common?
“I have occasional, slight incontinence at the most inopportune times, but aside from that, I’m good.”
That’s what G. Brian Benson told me when I asked about the after-effects and prognosis from his prostate cancer surgery back in April of 2020.
“Welcome to my world,” I said, with the empathy of a (ahem) semi-elderly little old lady with the life motto of: “Ya gotta laugh" when it comes to such absurdities as incontinence (and random chin whiskers and the like).
I expect Brian would agree with that motto. This upbeat, obviously honest, open, and adventurous fifty-five year-old recently spent two nights parked in our driveway, his camper plugged into the power pole placed there for just such a purpose. He had set out from Oregon two months earlier, had driven down and across the western states, zigging and zagging, not afraid of serendipitous side-trips, no hard schedule ruling his whims, no time clock to punch, a free-spirited Road Warrior.
The December, 2019 cancer diagnosis had been devastating, that "c-word" with the power to push death to the forefront, to dangle the dread of telling loved ones (his 27 year-old son Michael in particular) goodbye, to goad too many of us to go directly to "give up." But after the initial shock and fear, Brian found himself shedding the doomsday perspective and slipping into the much more comfortable skin of peace and acceptance, especially after a pre-surgery stint at the Optimum Health Institute in San Diego, a holistic time of cleansing the body and spirit, detoxing, exercising, and the cultivation of gratitude, celebration, meditation, and mindfulness. He came to a sense of clarity, an opening up of the heart and soul, the liberation of surrender, and an appreciation of the now.
Due to COVID, the surgery was postponed for April of 2020, when a friend dropped him off at the hospital door, where, like so many others, he had to deal with this battle alone and lonely. But he made it through and saw his new lease on life as an opportunity to, as he says, "get off the hamster wheel" of Los Angeles auditions, the constant self promotion and marketing of his acting skills, his speaking skills, his books, going round and round and round that wheel of sell-sell-sell. It had been more exhausting than he had realized, given this fresh look at his life.
That was when he bought his used camper and decided to hit the road, documenting his adventures on Patreon, keeping true to that open heart, trusting in the kindness of strangers, and hoping to intuit some guidance for his next steps going forward.
G. Brian Benson is no stranger to wanderlust. In the early 90s he participated in a twenty-three day Outward Bound course in the Colorado mountains, where the did "a little bit of everything," including a daily hike in the thin, high-altitude air to a new camp site (and when you picture a "camp site" you should just picture an open-sided tarp held up by a couple of sticks), a solo trip along a creek for three days (during which he fasted), and some rock climbing. He made a commitment to the Peace Corps, where he was hoping to serve in Morocco, but another kind of commitment, marriage and the birth of his son, ended those plans. Yet the rolling stone was in motion again by 1996, when he set off on an open road biking trip that took him across the northern tier of the United States, from Seattle, Washington, to Washington, D.C. The guy is no rookie when it comes to adventure.
He's no slouch in the acting department, either, rich in resume and practical experience (writing, producing, spoken word, etc.). You can see for yourself in the current television series (premiered in 2020) "Sangre Negra" (Black Blood) a telenovela style, intergenerational family saga featuring Erick Estrada and described as "a cross between'The Sopranos' and 'Dallas'." Brian plays a gringo, Lester Volke, a deeply flawed but famous sports reporter who is, shall we say, not the faithful husband. Even though the roles Brian enjoys the most are those that "have a nice or inspiring message," he is often cast as "that 'normal' guy with a dark side." Yep, this guy Lester in "Sangre Negra" is smarmy through and through, and is also something of a sniveling "p#ssy" (to quote a crime boss character). You can watch the show here:
So what do you do when you want to offer uplifting performances but you often get "that dark guy"? You just go out and make your own dadgum film, which is what he did with "Guitar Man," a 2011 short, based on a dream he had. He wrote AND produced AND acted in it. The film's message? "We all have a lot in common and our true gifts reside in ourselves." It's a simple yet profound message, and it worked, because the finished product racked up a plethora of acceptances into film festivals, garnering awards and honorable mentions around the country. The guy does not shrink from stepping out on a limb, taking a risk; in fact, he embraces the eschewing of the old "comfort zone."
It's no wonder he's traipsing around the U. S. of A. in a camper, documenting it for posterity.
And I wonder if he's had any unusual, surprising, or even horrific experiences on this road trip. "Mostly I've been overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of people, by their hospitality." He describes being welcomed to Paola, Kansas, by one Kristen Green, a stranger who simply loved the energy of what he was doing. Kristen booked him a gig at the local library, where he presented his children' books to receptive audiences. She also found him a camper site by a pond, where his "Nomadland" neighbors took him fishing and proved to be delightful people. But, according to Brian, southern hospitality DOES live up to its name, is a different animal (in a good way), is in a whole different category, and here in Baldwin County it is personified by my husband Joe's cousin Janine Rillo, who met Brian through a mutual friend on Facebook.
Anyone familiar with Janine knows she's a natural facilitator and is 100% about looking for the good and positive in all things. Like Kansas Kristen, Janine was taken with Brian's trajectory from cancer to coast-to-coast, describing him as "a kind, empathetic, courageous adventurer who becomes an instant friend." She gave him a sampling of local eateries (Dragonfly, El Mexicano, Bay Breeze [for his birthday], East Shore Cafe), local pastimes (Page & Palette, art walk, the big pier at sunset, and, of course, The Branch), historical spots (from Ft. Morgan to Tacky Jacks), and hot spots--Florabama!--where he had his first Bushwhacker. "I'm enjoying living vicariously through him for the time being," she says, "but his journey and achievements leave me inspired."
Which brings me back around to husband Joe, who has been inspired by baseball ever since his father put a glove on his hand, which ultimately led to . . .
Joe's nonfiction book Here's to You, Jackie Robinson: The Legend of the Prichard Mohawks was installed at both the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Missouri, so of course he was tickled to hear about Brian's obsession with the Negro Leagues, a serious hobby that began in the mid 1970s, when Brian was around ten years old. He came into possession of a publication, Sports Collectors Digest, that contained a list of the mailing addresses of all kinds of athletes, including veterans of the Negro Leagues. Young Brian set about writing letters, enclosing index cards suitable for autographing along with a SASE in each envelope to make it impossible for an icon to say something like "no." Clever kid. As a result, he has an extensive and impressive collection of signed "baseball cards" from the likes of Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, PeeWee Reese, Hank Aaron, Don Newcombe--even boxer Jack Dempsey--just to name a few. I thought I saw Joe's brown eyes turn just a little bit green, but still Joe gave our guest a copy of Waffle House Rules, his fictional rendering of Fairhope, "Penelope" (think "Daphne"), and Baldwin County, along with his last hardback copy of Mohawks, well, just because. Just because some things make a spiritual kind of sense, you don't thumb your nose at Karma, and kindred souls ought to be giving souls.
Sometimes it seems like all the good roads lead here, to Waterhole Branch. And those good roads bring us some good and interesting folks. Thank you for sharing your story with us, Brian, and that power pole will be waiting for you to meander back to this familiar intersection.
More links to G. Brian Benson and his work are below: