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The Private Jack Benny

June 2024
2min read

In the fall of 1951 I was twelve years old and living on the island of Okinawa. My father, an Air Force colonel, was the public information officer for the 20th Air Force, headquartered at Kadena Air Force Base there. At that time the 20th was flying bombing missions from Okinawa to Korea.

Conditions on the island were not ideal. We lived in a Quonset hut, and because of the “night soil” fertilizer used locally, we didn’t have fresh produce or dairy products. We used canned vegetables, cold-storage eggs, and reconstituted milk. There was no television, and the sole radio station was run by the armed forces. Few permanent structures existed, since the island had been virtually destroyed during the war. For a twelve-year-old boy, though, it was a neat place. With all the aircraft activity and countless battlefield sites to visit, I was enjoying it.

In the silence I could almost sense Benny realizing he had been talking seriously to a kid who had expected something funny.

One day it was announced that Jack Benny would visit Okinawa and give a show at Kadena. To me, as to most youngsters who grew up during the radio age, Benny was a big star. Our family would gather and “watch” him on the radio each week; it would be a thrill to see him in person.

Since my father was the public information officer, it was his job to meet Jack’s troupe upon arrival at the base, and he said I could go with him as long as I didn’t get in the way. The flight arrived somewhat late, but finally the C-54 taxied to where we were standing. The usual military and civilian officials had gathered to meet the plane, and I had a tough time getting a good view. I did manage to see my father shake hands with Mr. Benny. I was somewhat taken aback by the fact that he looked much older than he had in the movies, but then I realized that he was not wearing his famous toupee. Too soon he was in a staff car and gone. I was disappointed not to have gotten a closer look.

On the way home Dad said he had to stop by General Stearley’s quarters. Maj. Gen. Ralph Stearley, the commanding general of the 20th Air Force, was my father’s boss. While my father went inside, I sat down to wait on a comfortable rattan chair on the general’s screened porch. His quarters, although not plush, were great by Okinawan standards. The porch looked out on the South China Sea, and I was enjoying the view when I heard the unmistakable voice of Jack Benny from inside. I realized that he must be staying at the general’s quarters.

Suddenly there he was. He walked through the door from the house to the porch, saw me sitting there, and came over and sat down right across from me. He looked tired and began to relate how strenuous the trip had been, how rough it had been traveling through Korea, moving mainly by helicopter and jeep. He went on for several minutes, and I couldn’t help thinking, “This is like having a conversation with my uncle. He’s not funny at all.”

But then I grasped something that helped me years later when I became a newspaper reporter and had occasion to talk to a few celebrities. People are just people. Their public images do not necessarily reflect their real personalities.

After a short silence I could almost sense that Benny was realizing he was talking seriously to a kid who had expected something funny. Just then General Stearley appeared in the doorway and asked Benny if he would like a drink. For a second Benny looked at me, and then, in his “on air” voice, he asked, “Well . . . how much are they?”

“Jack, they’re free,” the general said, smiling.

And with that unbelievable timing, Benny replied, “Then I’ll have two.”

I felt Jack Benny had performed just for me.

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