Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Bengal Group

I gathered again with my Bengal Group buddies last night.

The Bengal Group was formed in 1986 and consists of me and many of my old high school pals, along with other friends we’ve met along the way. As we emerged from college years ago and began concentrating on our families and professional careers, we noticed that we were seeing each other less frequently. An inexorable drift had commenced, distancing us from the close bonds of friendship which had sustained us throughout early formative adulthood. We shared what seemed at the time to be monumental trial and tribulations throughout high school and college, weathering those waters together – always having each others’ backs. By Reagan’s 2nd term, those ties were oddly strained by life and, without noticing how or why, we found ourselves seeing each other less and less frequently.

What could we do that would halt that drift, we found ourselves wondering?

We all remembered what it was like to be in college and broke – sometimes unsure of how we could see our education through to the end. Flitting around that memory, we decided that we would form a scholarship group that would fund annual cash grants to students at Louisiana State University. We would gather once per month, kick some dough into a collective “kitty” and then solicit applications from LSU students who could demonstrate financial need. Thereafter, we would select students from that application pool and award them the money we’d saved or raised over the previous year, gathering at a dinner banquet with the students and their families to confer the grants.

Maybe a common effort would halt or reverse the peculiar drift pulling us away from each other.

At first, the end-goal of our noble effort was eclipsed by the knowledge that---come what may---we would see always each other on the 3rd Friday of every month, as we met to guide The Bengal Group’s mission. We looked forward to the gathering each month, where old tales would be burnished, new stories fashioned and bonds of abiding friendship strengthened. As years went by, though, our Group coalesced into a more focused concentration upon our actual mission --- helping LSU students financially.

In the beginning, our meetings were about escaping from our homes for a “Guys’ Night Out.” Poker and beer and BBQ formed the lion’s share of the agenda. After the “business portion” of those early meetings was concluded, we would often wander from our meeting venue and patronize old college haunts and juke joints.

Over the years, though, we bought less beer and more ice cream.

We also gradually increased our contributions over those early years. We initiated and now maintain an annual golf tournament to raise additional funds. Last night, as I again gathered yet again with my old friends, I marveled at how, after almost 25 years, our focus was now comfortably resting upon both goals.

I’ve lost count over the years of the dough we have given away, but it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars now – far beyond what we ever thought we might accomplish when we sat down that fall evening so many years ago and hatched this plan over beer and memories.

Our regiment is “one short” this year, having lost Paul Jennings to cancer last July. Pursuant to Paul’s request, his obituary asked those attending his funeral to forego flowers and direct donations to The Bengal Group. At the service, there was not enough room in the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Baton Rouge to house the friends Paul had touched over the years, so many of whom responded with testimonial contributions in “P.J.’s” name. As the years will come and go, we are left as loving shepherds of Paul’s memory and the monetary gifts made to The Bengal Group, as “P.J.” had asked. It is an assignment all of us hold so close to our hearts that we cannot speak of it without emotion. Thus, we do not speak of it much.

And so anyway, there we all were last night – guys I’ve known since junior high school and some even before that---sitting together in the LSU condo one of the sons of our members, who is now himself a student at LSU and doing well. The drive to last evening’s university-area meeting venue took each of us by the dorms and apartments in which we used to live when we were students at LSU so many years ago. I drove past the old Morris Apartments on Janet Street, where Mitch Wall and I shared a one-bedroom apartment. Mitch had a steady girlfriend (Sweet Eileen, to whom he has been happily married now for a little over 100 years, it seems), so he got the bedroom. I lived on the fold-out sofa in the living room.

Motoring across Nicholson Drive and over the parallel train tracks forming the entrance to Tigerland, there was Tiger Plaza apartments, still standing after 36 years. Dr. Bill Lovell and Ken Howard and I shared a two bedroom apartment in that large development for $375 per month, utilities paid. Billy had a steady girlfriend, so he got a bedroom alone, although I seem to recall we may have played a hand of poker for the privilege. I mean, of course, the privilege of the bedroom alone, not Billy’s girlfriend. In any event, I bunked with Howard in the other bedroom. (Does anyone else see a depressing continuity here?) As I motored by that large conglomeration of buildings, I wondered if they ever got all the sheetrock holes patched in Apartment # 222.

You know what’s cool? As President Joe Copus attempted to call our meeting to order last evening, after he’d fed us boiled shrimp, smoked sausage and exquisite baked tenderloin, I noticed that all of us old line Bengal Groupers were in the living room of his son’s condo, while Kevin Copus and his LSU pals and girlfriends migrated to another room…where they watched us conduct our formal business…interrupted by the sort of monkey business which erupts regularly among old friends about whom all is known. The circuity of that type of gathering is cool, although I wonder what the younger folks made of us and all our old, oft-told tales.

Here is one of the tales:

Allen Darden, now a brilliant partner at a respected law firm in Baton Rouge, used his voice to trump the ambient tumult. Apropos of nothing, really, he says to me, but addresses the Group:
“Hey, Clary……remember the time we went relic hunting? Guys, Clary calls me for lunch. (NOTE FROM MANAGEMENT: This happened almost 20 years ago, but Allen tells it as if it was yesterday.) We’re eating lunch and Clary asks me to identify something I’ve always wanted to do, but haven’t yet attempted. After a few false starts, I say to Jim that I’d always wanted to use a metal detector to find some Civil War bullets. Jim says to me: ‘OK, Allen. Then, a year from this lunch, you will be able to say you’ve done that because we’re gonna do it together.’ I agree and—within days—Jim calls me and says we’re the proud owners of 2 metal detectors and we’re gonna strike out and find Civil War relics. Man, I get books and maps about our area and where the troops had traveled and fought. Clary comes and gets me in his truck. We have an ice chest loaded with beer, right? We each pop us a brew and we have those between our legs as we head north from Baton Rouge, up towards the battlefields around Port Hudson. He’s got his .357 magnum pistol under the seat. We have 2 metal detectors slung in the truck bed. We’re drinkin’ beer and all fired up. So, we pass the Port Hudson Battlefield State Park and Clary says: “Hey, let’s go look in here, Allen.” I say OK and we swerve off of U.S. 61 and into the State Park. The FIRST thing we see is a HUGE sign that says: NO ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES --- NO FIREARMS --- NO METAL DETECTORS --- NO PETS. We cruise past that red-lettered sign in silence as we take in the words. Then, Jim takes a pull of his beer and looks at me and says: ‘Dude, we need us a DOG.’”

The lads cackle and hoot, although the story’s been told umpteen times over the years. The laughter serves as a catalyst for another story and then another and I begin to note that I figure prominently as dumbass-in-chief in most of these tales. No matter, I laugh with my old pals.

Copus gavels for order, but the tide is hard to stem.

Kevin and his young friends watch us from other rooms.

Gradually, we come back to order and tend to our business. We have almost $35,000 in our treasury and we must be solemn guardians of how we give it all away. But, soon we start to chuckle and meander away from the mission yet again. Story after old story effervesces throughout the meeting. Thus, it is only by the hardest that we are able to muscle through our agenda. But, we finally do.

This morning I feel happy.


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