The spirit of Christmas was in the air late in December of 1956. The first snows had fallen in the high country as winter announced its arrival in the Superstition Wilderness Area east of Apache Junction. Low stratus clouds engulfed the towering spires of Superstition Mountain while a slow drizzling rain met with the approval of the local cattlemen.
Deep in the Superstition Wilderness there was an angry, bitter and lonely old man who had chosen isolation rather than the kindness of friends. “Old Ben” had been prospecting these mountains for more than a decade. He believed the old Dutchman’s lost mine existed and he wanted to find it. His search for the Dutchman’s gold had become as strong for “Old Ben” as the devotion of any pilgrim of Islam headed for Mecca.
My father and I visited Ben over the years because he and Dad had something in common. They were both veterans of World War I and had served with General John Perishing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe. Both men had witnessed the slaughter in the trenches along the Western Front. Both men had survived the horror of trench warfare in Europe. Each year Dad and I tried to visit Ben’s Camp a couple weeks before Christmas to say hello.
Ben functioned well in the mountains, but within society he was a misfit. His experiences, no less than that of my father’s during the war, had left his heart laden with hate for those who were associated with the production, distribution and application of war materials that were designed to destroy thousands and thousands of lives during a terrible time. Ben chose to live apart from this society because he couldn’t forget the rattle of machine guns, exploding artillery shells, fumes of poison gas and the screaming agony of the wounded and dying soldiers on the battlefields. The war had been over for almost forty years, but Ben still lived in the shadow of its horror.
Dad had also survived the battlefield of that war and for that reason understood Ben and was his friend. Ben and my father had spent many hours in idle conversation discussing the Dutchman’s lost mine, each being careful not to reveal any important information about its possible location.
We often sat under a large boulder in Petrasch’s old camp in La Barge Canyon talking about the Dutchman, Jacob Waltz. Sometimes Dad and Ben would hike up to Petrasch’s old camp on Tortilla Mountain and spend the day.
Christmas was once again coming to Ben’s Camp in the Superstition Wilderness, but he never celebrated Christmas because he didn’t see any real value in it. He said there was no God or Jesus Christ at Flanders, Verdun, or the other battlefields of Europe. Once again we bid our farewell to Ben and began our hike out of the mountains leaving the lonely old man to cope with his misery. As we drove home that day I thought of old Ben and his lonely existence.
Arriving home we found Mother had decorated our house and a beautiful tree for Christmas. The spirit of Christmas filled our home as friends dropped by with a friendly “Merry Christmas.” My mother was always full of the Christmas spirit and she wanted to share it with everyone who would listen or sing carols with her.
On Christmas Eve morning I got up early and talked to Dad about our friend Ben. I kept thinking about Ben and finally suggested to Dad that I wanted to hike back into the mountains and spend Christmas Day with the old man. I was young and very impressionable at the time. My father’s first concern was my mother and our traditional family’s Christmas get together.
“What is Christmas,” I asked, “if it is not about sharing one’s friendship? Didn’t you teach me this dad?” Mom and Dad decided to allow me to share my Christmas spirit of friendship and giving with Ben on Christmas Day. Mom provided me with a couple of quickly wrapped Christmas presents for Ben and I grabbed a colorful ornament from the tree. I prepared my hiking gear and I was on my way to First Water Trailhead.
I arrived at First Water about noon. By the time I reached Ben’s Camp the daylight was rapidly disappearing. I called out for Ben as I arrived in his camp, wishing him a Merry Christmas. He called back inviting me into his camp. He immediately scolded me for leaving my parents on Christmas Eve and coming into the mountains. I handed him the two small packages mother had wrapped for him. The delicate glass Christmas ornament had survived the hike in my backpack. I handed him the ornament and then suggested we needed a Christmas tree. Ben laughed and said, “You’re not going to find many pine trees in this desert.”
At that moment I could see that Ben enjoyed having my company. He ended his comment with, “The only trees around here are those devilish Cholla.”
Near Ben’s camp, in the dark, using a small flashlight, I found a Cholla cactus skeleton that would serve as our fitting desert Christmas tree. I piled some large rocks around the base to hold it in place. Once the Cholla was secure Ben and I went about decorating it.
We placed the Christmas bulb from my mother’s tree on top of the Cholla. We added a few pieces of tinfoil here and there. We then made some ornaments out of empty sardine and bean cans. Ben had a plentiful supply because he loved sardines and beans. We made a simple garland out of bits of colored string we found in camp. The tree was not an ordinary one, but then Ben was by no means an ordinary man. And this was also no ordinary occasion for Ben. The meaning of Christmas had found its way into Ben’s heart in that odd-looking Christmas tree. We laughed together at our effort to create a Christmas tree. We had found the spirit of Christmas together.
We sat admiring our handy work when Ben reached into his bag and removed a very old Bible, then placed it under our tree. He looked at me with a tear in his eye, and said, “Isn’t this what Christmas is really about?”
Yes, we were celebrating Jesus Christ’s birthday in the simplest manner. The happiness of sharing our friendship on that Christmas Eve I will never forget. My father eventually talked Ben into returning to society and being a friend to others.
This lonely old man taught me that it is not how much you have, from Kollenborn, A-4 it is sharing of your friendship with others that is so important. Since that time many Christmases have come and gone, but few of them are remembered as this one.
Ben returned to the world of the living and each Christmas for many years, until his death, we received a card from him addressed to “My Desert Christmas Friends,” and simply signed “Ben”.
After almost fifty years we still decorate and enjoy a Cholla cactus skeleton in our home for Christmas.