I’m rarely sentimental about towns I’ve never visited, but Benton Harbor, Michigan is an exception.
Benton Harbor was named after five-term Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who earned the honor by helping Michigan achieve statehood. His grand-nephew, also named Thomas Hart Benton, is one of my favorite American painters and muralists. The younger and more artistic Benton was the son of Maecenus Benton, who served in Congress himself after a stint as prosecuting attorney for Newton County, Missouri.
It’s at this point in the Benton/Benton Harbor history that my sentimental twinges begin. Maecenus Benton lawyered in Newton County, Missouri, while I was born in Newton, Iowa. My little Newton happened to be home to the Maytag Company, my father’s employer for decades. In 2006, Maytag was sold to the Whirlpool Corporation, whose administrative headquarters still are located in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
In one more lovely, serendipitous complication, Benton Harbor is located along the eastern edge of Lake Michigan on the Paw Paw River. When I lived in Liberia, my whorled tabby cat was named Paw Paw because she loved to knead sofas, pillows, people and other animals with her paws, just as if she were kneading bread.
The joke around the compound was that she had a Liberian name, since ”pawpaw” also was the local name for the meltingly luscious papaya that hung from the trees surrounding the house. I thought I’d seen every kind of pawpaw in the world ~ little yellow ones, fat, round ones the color of pink grapefruit and orange-fleshed giants as big as watermelons but, as it turns out, I’d missed one variety. Michigan’s Paw Paw river is named for a different fruit with the same name. While not a papaya, the Benton Harbor version of the pawpaw is a cold-tolerant cousin to the soursop, another tropical fruit which grew in my Liberian yard.
The web of connections woven between my life and the small Michigan town are intriguing. But when I hear the words “Benton Harbor”, I never think first of politics, art, agriculture or history. Whisper “Benton Harbor” into my ear, and I’ll whoop right back with a cackle and a cluck, “He’s everywhere! He’s everywhere!” As generations of devotees know, “he” is Benton Harbor, a mild-mannered, crime-fighting shoe salesman from Midland City, USA, popularized in the 1960s and known to hundreds of thousands of radio listeners as Chickenman.
Created by Dick Orkin, Radio Hall of Fame inductee and Production Director of Chicago radio station WCFL, Chickenman first aired on WCFL’s Jim Runyon show in the spring of 1966. Runyon served as narrator and Orkin himself voiced Chickenman. The two were joined by a cast of characters that included Police Commissioner Benjamin Norton, the Commissioner’s secretary, Miss Honor Helfinger, Chickenman’s girl friend Sayde Leckner and his mother, Mildred Harbor. Also known as “The Maternal Marauder”, Mildred Harbor occasionally helped out with the crime-fighting, riding along with her son Benton in his yellow Chicken Coupe and dispensing motherly wisdom while he confronted such foes as the Chicken-Plucker, the Bear Lady and Big Clyde Crushman.
It was old-time radio for a new day, a combination of comedy, crime-fighting and drama that recalled the thrill of huddling around the family set for Fibber McGee and Molly, Lux Family Theater, The Shadow or Dragnet. Even more simply, it was story telling. It wasn’t meant to be “read” or “watched”, it was meant to be listened to, as in this episode where Chickenman discovers his precious chicken suit has been snagged by a sneaky and stereotypical competitor.
Click to play The Case of the Missing Chicken Suit
From the first episode to the last, Chickenman was in turn earnest, insouciant, self-effacing, naive, bumbling and screamingly funny. He wasn’t a super-hero, and he wasn’t an anti-hero. He was just a guy with a good heart, a trusting spirit and the best of intentions who happened to believe it was possible to overcome evil. The fact that he thought donning a chicken suit and flapping his arms was the best way to do it may seem a bit strange until you consider the perspective of his girlfriend, Miss Sayde, who was heard to say, “If you can get past the clucking and the feathers flying around, he’s actually doing some good.”
For those of us who don’t mind a few flying feathers, the best news may be that the spirit of Chickenman lives. For most people, Benton Harbor is just another Michigan town, and crime-fighting belongs to the psychological profilers and scientific sorts. Still, there are people committed to doing good and being good despite the judgment of the world, and there are people who continue to rejoice in setting and meeting their own, idiosyncratic goals even when ridiculed or dismissed by an utterly perplexed world.
I discovered one such person months ago, tucked away into one of my favorite blogs. Sara, one of the Rumcreeters crew, had gone off for a weekend ski trip with a group of friends from her old high school. Like many of us, she wasn’t entirely certain the “reunion” thing was a good idea. As she put it, ”…I was sure that the weekend would be a recurrence of my worst grade 10 nightmares, when my best friend found a new group of friends and I had to eat lunch in a bathroom stall because I had no one to sit with.”
Happily, the weekend was a success, filled with skiing, movies, drinking and junk food – a perfect prescription for any class reunion or corporate retreat. Best of all, one of her friends provided the sort of experience that would have made Benton Harbor, the crimefighter, beam, even as it would have bemused the good citizens of Benton Harbor, the town. As Sara puts it,
I spent most of my time skiing with my two friends, one of whom does not have a winter jacket, so he snowboards in a chicken suit. He had rented a chicken suit in grade 12, partly to promote his campaign for student council, mostly because he wanted to rent a chicken suit. However, he recently found a chicken suit on Ebay and bought it, because really, there are too many times in life made for a chicken suit for renting to suffice. So he now snowboards in a chicken suit. (His goggles fit over the chicken face mask, though he says his eyes still get freezing cold.)
She goes on to say that her friend doesn’t do it for the attention. He doesn’t do it to make a statement and he’s not doing it on a dare. He just snowboards in a chicken suit. And then, in all apparent innocence, she asks the one question worth asking: ”What would life be like if more of us did the same?”
Watching Olympic snowboarding with friends recently, I found my answer. As Shaun White flew above the halfpipe, the intake of breath around the room was audible. Someone said, “Oh, my gosh! I’d be so chicken to do that!” Never one to miss an opportunity, another friend said, “Sure. But you’re chicken to do anything!” while another added, “Everyone’s a chicken about something…”
Perhaps because Akio Toyoda’s visit to Congress had been so highly publicized, he was the first person who came to mind. As if in a dream I saw the President of Toyota Motor Corporation seated before his inquisitors, dressed in a chicken suit. The image was so funny I couldn’t contain myself, and neither could my friends once I told them the story. We began inventing scenarios: Queen Elizabeth at the Changing of the Guard – in a chicken suit. Helen Thomas appearing at a White House press briefing – in a chicken suit. Any parent showing up at any parent-teacher conference – in a chicken suit.
With a little less thought and a little more visualization, it’s clear what life would be like if more of us did the same. Surely there would be less pomposity, a bit less self-importance, less worry about hierarchies and far less concern for propriety. With luck, there would be more spontaneity, more whoops and hollers, a little more joie de vivre and a whole lot more laughter.
With even more luck, it wouldn’t be long before Benton-Harbor-the-Chickenman’s battle cry would be transformed. If enough of us could bring ourselves to get over our embarassment with clucking, waving arms and flying feathers, Benton-Harbor-the-town might take a look around and say,
“They’re everywhere! They’re everywhere!”