Great Explorations

by Tom Ashley  

My great-grandfather, Sir James Benston, was born in Mansfield, Ohio, on May 12, 1865, the penultimate day of the American Civil War. He was an engineering graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was the inventor of many navigational aircraft and automotive instruments. His electrical navigation devices would save many sailors’ lives. His invention of shatterproof glass was universally accepted by airplane and automotive manufacturers. He owned substantial stakes in Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors. By the age of forty he was a wealthy man.

Those were days of great adventure and exploration in both the United States and Europe.  His prowess made him so well known that he came to the attention of Sir Ernest Shackleton, resulting in an invitation to join the team of the legendary Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917). He was the only American in the fifty-four-man crew. He was also the eldest by four years.

The story of his ship, The Endurance, has been a well-told tale for over a century, but my grandfather gave me further insight into his father’s psyche and how, for over eight hundred days, he feared each would be his last. However, my great grandfather survived and was knighted by George V and returned to Detroit, his wife, two sons and his business. He was shattered by his experiences and began to sell off all of his companies. He realized he had a larger calling. He convinced Henry Ford and the powers behind General Motors, Albert Sloan and Charles Kettering, to donate millions toward the cure of the devastating diseases of cancer and cardiac arrest. These automotive giants’ names now appear on two of the world’s greatest innovative research organizations. My grandfather and his brother lived comfortably but not extravagantly. They served on the boards of both charities until their deaths. My great- grandfather donated his entire estate to the study of disease. He died peacefully at age ninety-four on my seventh birthday, April 1, 1957.

As a boy I dreamed about walking in my great-grandfather’s footsteps. I’d see polar bears, I’d live in an igloo with Eskimos, I’d spear fish for dinner. Cold weather wouldn’t faze me. After all, I’d survived the forceful, dank Detroit winters in my seven or eight years. Shackleton’s Antarctic venture was voraciously covered in the then age of great exploration – essentially a failure on one hand – that had left three dozen men stranded on the ice for over two years. But for a young boy to be directly related to one of these men was awesomely important, and I too would head off into this world of adventure.

I dreamed of returning home and telling my friends stories of sailing the great oceans, meeting indigenous peoples, mushing my team of huskies through ice floes and of all my difficult but satisfying exploits. I’d be given a key to the city and be on the front pages of the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit Times, and the Detroit News. I would even be called to Washington to meet Ike at The White House. Maybe later I’d take my team to the North Pole and be the first person to do both expeditions and return to even further acclaim.

But I’ve abandoned those visions and now dream of having a vodka martini on the patio at the Ritz Carlton in Malibu, overlooking scantily clad sun bathers gracefully draping themselves by the Pacific Ocean.

I came to love writing fifteen years ago when I joined the writing workshop at the IRP. It became a learning and bonding experience.  Thoughtful critiquing led me to expand on memoir and fantasy, and the talents of others has proved a great source of inspiration.