Of the tens of thousands of photographs my father took in his lifetime, his favorite was of a farmhouse in Maine, the barn and silo holding ground at the top of a low shorn hill, shot from the fence line far away. It was a fall day, the clouds were puffy and white. There was a pond with ducks in the foreground. Not a particularly outstanding photo, nothing that would win awards. But he loved it. He was on his way to a sales call, probably to sell a shop owner in Belfast $80 worth of calendars or ballpoint pens. He spotted the farm as he passed and, because he always had his camera in the back, pulled over and found his angle.
I’ve come to love this photo, too, because more than the barn or the ducks or the clouds, it captures my father. There’s balance, there’s beauty. There’s stillness and stability. Humility, self-sufficiency. A wistfulness. And perhaps, in his act of taking the picture, there’s a certain sanctification of that place, that farm. Maybe for its purity of purpose, maybe for the peace it provided.
My father, Benjamin “Bunny” Morse Barr, died a few weeks ago at his home in Auburn, Maine, of acute leukemia. He was 95. My oldest brother Peter was at his side, dutifully, lovingly, as he always had been in the years leading up to that moment. My two other brothers and I could not be. We live in New Jersey and Dallas and Los Angeles, and the pandemic kept us at our homes, resigned to daily Zoom calls and sporadic texts from Pete. “He had some cottage cheese and a little water.” “Dad said he’s not up for phone calls.” “Transitioning him to morphine.” “Hardly any lung capacity.” And then around 8:30, “I think he’s gone.”
It was a quiet death, after a quiet life. He was, after all, a quiet man. But not unnoticed or unimportant. In fact, Ben Barr occupied an immense space in the consciousness of his family, his friends, his community. The life he led, while never so illustrious as to be written about in papers, nonetheless helped create the very foundation on which Postwar American life, and particularly American Jewish life, was built.
He was born in Chelsea in 1924, and grew up on Dehon Street in Revere, just two blocks from the beach. That would be his playground for the next years: the boardwalk, the ocean, the food stands.
The Cyclone Roller Coaster. The Crescent Gardens Ballroom, where the silky sounds of the Dorsey Brothers and Duke Ellington would swirl their way into his ears, igniting a passion he would follow to the end.
The labor strikes that swept New England in 1933 drove the family north, to Auburn, Maine. There, Ben’s father built Rock Maple Wood Heel, where Ben worked during his teenage years in between school, photography and playing trombone. He attended Bates College for a brief stint before enlisting in the Army. It was 1943, America was at war, and Ben’s father had heard that if you enlisted, you were guaranteed a less hazardous assignment. That was not the case. He was made a radio technician in the 3rd Army’s 150th Combat Engineers, the company that would build pontoon bridges across German rivers to transport Allied troops and tanks. After a few weeks playing trombone in the Army band, Ben shipped out from Fort Devens, bound for England aboard the Queen Mary.
Ben’s two years in the war would shape much of his memory the rest of his life: the close buddies he made; landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day; the liberation of Buchenwald; the Battle of the Bulge; building the first pontoon bridge across the Rhine as German soldiers shot at him from the opposite bank, then standing with General Patton later while he peed in it.
That experience widened his 18-year old understanding of the world, to be sure. He had seen close up what people endure. He had been shoulder-to-shoulder with boys tasked to carry out terrifying work. While that forever disrupted many soldiers’ connection to humanity, it imbued my father with a deeper curiosity, drawing him close to people. He delighted in their eccentricities, he sympathized with their struggles, he reveled in their achievements.
After returning from Europe, the strains of war proved too fresh and too unnerving to focus, so he dropped out of Bates. Restless, struggling with what we now understand as PTSD, he fled to Boston and worked for a family friend, earning enough money to return to Europe, this time as a solo traveler, his camera once again at his side.
He met Lois Jacobson in Portland, and in 1951, they married. My mother said she had many suitors at the time, but fell in love with Ben because he was gentle and smart. He read her poetry and wrote her romantic letters.
Lois went to work as a medical secretary, and Ben founded an automated food service company with his good friend, Arthur Beckerman. Their automats and vending machines filled most of the shoe and textile factories throughout Northern New England, and for many years, they thrived. In the early ‘60s, they were approached by an emerging fast food outfit from Chicago interested in selling them exclusive rights to the franchise for Maine, New Hampshire and northeastern Massachusetts. But Ben and Artie had just paid off their debt, they knew nothing about making hamburgers, and they weren’t keen on leaving their growing families for months of training, so they told McDonald’s they were passing. Years later, a similar offer came from IHOP, and again, they passed. A decade later, most of the mills in New England shuttered and relocated to Asia, and Ben’s business failed. He regrouped, eventually settling with a Lewiston-based advertising specialty company, where he remained until he retired, though he continued to service a handful of accounts into his 90s, out of friendship and to stay busy.
In hindsight, my Dad would say, he probably should have jumped on the franchise offer. But my parents enjoyed their life in Lewiston-Auburn. They had four sons and a full, fulfilling life. They would go skiing in the winter and to the beaches in the summer. They hosted dinner parties with friends, barbecues with family. They prayed and partied at their temple, and sometimes at the other temple.
They shuttled their boys to basketball games and summer camps and piano recitals, and over time, to graduations and rehearsal dinners. Their fortunes rose and fell, houses got sold and downsized, but Ben pressed on.
Work, though, wasn’t what drove him. He read voraciously – books, newspapers, magazines – usually with a Dunhill pipe or Cuban cigar in hand. He and Lois would walk the summer sands of Old Orchard Beach, visit their sons and families across the country, travel to Israel and Ireland, go on cruises to Italy and Croatia, meet Tony Curtis, and enjoy the company of their lifelong friends. And for nearly 30 years, Ben played trombone with the Auburn Community Band, the distant melodies of the Crescent Gardens Ballroom still reverberating in his ears.
These are the touchstones of a life that, against the backdrop of a world now so disconnected and unrooted, feels nostalgic, dusty. Even the way he carried himself smacks of a bygone era: his twinkling charm and quick, dry humor, his life-knocks-you-down-but-you’ve-got-to-pick-yourself-back-up credo, his spirited stories of good times with great friends, the pocketful of pens imprinted with “Ben Barr” at the ready, the restorative joy of a piece of herring and a belt of good scotch at the end of the day – or, if one of his sons happened to be over, the middle of the day.
There were times he would look to his circle of friends and envy what they had. Most of them achieved great success and wealth early in life, or inherited it. Either way, it afforded them the ease and escape my father worked so hard for, but never quite reached. (Those trips and cruises were all gifts from us, his sons.) I never looked at it that way, though. His ride may have been uneven, but he took that unflinching, clear-eyed acceptance of life that had been forged in him during the war, and persevered.
The victories and the defeats, the tragedies and the blessings — it was all part of it.
His was not a life that influenced the currents of American industry or culture. It wasn’t a life broadcast wide for its spectacle. But it was an authentic life. A round life. A distinctly American life, and a purposeful life. Not unlike that farmhouse in the picture he loved so much, holding ground on that low shorn hill in Maine, still, stable and wistful.
Adam Barr is a film and television writer in Los Angeles.