Wayne Bennett

There's a story I've been telling for years. A true story. A story about a guy who used to hit on me. A guy I brushed off, but gently, I hoped. Still hope.

He played guitar for the Breadbasket Orchestra and Choir, which played at the meetings of Operation Breadbasket, which I attended on a regular basis back in the good old year of 1968. He was a kind man. And he had a white guitar. Spanish, he told me. He often talked about getting together - maybe going to meet his mother. He had the phone number of the woman I lived with at the time, and he would call me, but I always bowed out of any further commitment. Gracefully. I hope.

On the night that Martin Luther King was shot, long after the news reporters ran out of things to say, long after my housemate and I had fallen asleep from weeping exhaustion, the phone rang.

He apologized for calling so late - I think it was about 4 am. - but he had had to wait that long before a phone line was open. He was calling from the Lorraine Motel. In Memphis, Tennessee. His voice was shaking. "Are you all right?" he wanted to know. Yes. I was. I didn't know it yet, but the West Side of Chicago was going up in flames. We would discover all of that in the morning.

In the meantime, I had a short conversation with my rebuffed but still loyal admirer. Calling from the Lorraine Motel. In Memphis. Where he and the band leader had had a conversation with Dr. King about what MLK wanted them to play at the rally. Right before King had walked up the stairs to his room and out onto his balcony.

"Precious Lord," Wayne told me. Dr. King wanted to hear his favorite spiritual. I had heard the Breadbasket Orchestra and Choir do it many times. I think we both cried over the phone.

I don't remember seeing him again.

I was telling that story once more to friends last night - I can't remember why, talking about the '60's, I think. And I couldn't remember his name. I used to have his card, but that's long gone. Nevertheless, this morning I remembered that his name was Wayne. And now I have the internet. So I went to work. And I found him.

I found him in Wikipedia. I found him on YouTube. I found out that Wayne Bennett was a blues guitar player who was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in 2001. Ten years after his death.

I knew nothing of all of this. To me, he was a kind man who wanted to "get to know me better." But he was old (37), not very tall and to my young idealistic eyes, not too prepossessing. A little chunky, for my taste. Not what I would have called handsome. And I never knew until this morning that I had been briefly courted by a consummate musician, someone admired by his peers, an inspiration to others. Someone I would have been proud to know. Had I known enough to know that.

But I've always been proud to have known him. Even as an ignorant little white girl, who knew nothing of him at all. Except that he liked her, that he was a kind man, and that when tragedy took us all, him quite particularly, she was the one he reached out to.

I don't deserve my pride in that. But I take it, anyway.