Ben Clift’s business acumen not only made him the world’s richest man, but also created several of the world’s most powerful women. The technology he invented, and brought to market, is unsurpassed. His efforts in large-scale pollution removal, petroleum-free vehicles, coupled with his Amazon reforestation program, made him history’s greatest environmentalist. His support of community, theater, and sport is legendary. Yet, his clandestine, one-man crusade impacted hundreds of millions more people than all of his other achievements combined. Follow his rise from a happy retirement to becoming the most powerful man in the world in this, H. Ben Clift’s intimate biography.
He kept looking at the digital readout at the right bottom of his computer monitor. It said twenty minutes to five, exactly the same as the last time he looked. She’d gone to lunch with friends in East County, just as she had so many times before. She should have been home long ago. Usually, when she was running late, she’d call.
He swiveled, got up from his leather arm chair, went into the bathroom, filled his water glass, and paced back and forth across the room the two of them used as a shared library and den. When he sat back down the digital readout had changed to eighteen minutes to five. The ring of the telephone made him jump, and drop his wireless mouse to the floor.
“Hi,” he said. “Where are you?”
“Mister H. Ben Clift?” The voice sounded strange.
“This is Grossmont Hospital. There’s been an accident. Your wife is in critical condition. You better come as quickly as you can.”
Ben jabbed the phone’s OFF button, slammed the handset into the cradle, leapt out of his chair, and dashed into the bedroom. He threw off his sweat suit, pulled on khakis, a collared shirt, and slipped into his topsiders. He found his wallet and glasses, grabbed his keys and cellphone out of the basket by the elevator’s sliding door, and punched the elevator button. She’d fallen in love with the elevator’s opening directly into their top floor condo. Now he cursed while he heard it grind its way all the way up from the basement garage.
He’d always loved the roar the old V8 made. His was the last year Mustang offered that engine. It was the way a car should sound, or at least the way all the hot cars sounded when he was a kid. The other sound he loved was the squeal of the tires when he put his foot down hard on the accelerator at a stop sign. This time, he didn’t even hear it as he fishtailed out onto Rosecrans.
Rosecrans, he knew, was the shortest, and usually the fastest way to get to I-8. The exception was at this time of the evening. He left Rosecrans at Nimitz, and accelerated up the hill. He made the light at Chatsworth, and then came to a sudden halt. Traffic inched along until everyone reached the lane closure, where a sign declared, “Beautification Project, Point Loma Association.” He gave the work crew the finger, even though he recognized three of his neighbors.
The Mustang’s speedometer read over eighty before he reached the end of the on-ramp that serves as the beginning of I-8. A mile later, not far past Sports Arena Boulevard, the traffic slowed to barely ten miles an hour. Ben swung to the right, threw up a cloud of dust passing several trucks on the shoulder, cut off a couple of old ladies to get back into the left lane, and cursed the engineers who thought it a good idea to narrow the interstate to one lane for a hundred yards, even if it was at the I-5 interchange.
At most times of day, the trip from their condo on Kellogg Beach to the Grossmont shopping center across from the hospital, took twenty-five minutes or less. Now, he’d been driving for twenty-five minutes and was only approaching the junction of State Route 163. The stretch of 163 from I-5 to I-8 through Balboa Park, Ben knew, was the shortest designated Scenic Highway in all of California. At this time of day, it only made for adding more congestion around him. Ben swore at all of the cars in his way. He cursed again at those that would crowd onto the freeway at the up-coming I-805 and I-15 interchanges.
Ben’s watch showed twenty-minutes to six when he spoke to the lady behind the glass window in the Grossmont Hospital emergency room. “I’m Ben Clift. My wife is in there somewhere.”
The lady put a visitor’s badge on the stainless steel tray below the window. “Bed nine,” she said. “Go through the door on your right.”
Ben heard the lock release buzz before he reached the heavy metal double door. He pushed his way through, noticed several men and women in green scrubs scurrying to and fro, and started looking for number nine.
He paused before the curtain pulled across the room’s entrance. He took a deep breath, and a wipe of his eyes, before he reached out and pulled the curtain open. She lay there, motionless, with all but her head covered by a white sheet. The big wheels on the gurney must have rolled her in. Now they just sat there. Bottles and bags fed tubes down each of her arms, and disappeared under the sheet. Instruments with green displays, flashing colored lights, and yellow traces moving across their faces, sat on stainless steel carts beside her and behind her head. Three tentative steps brought him next to her. The entire left side of her face showed bruises, scrapes, and scratches. One eye was swollen shut. He kissed her forehead. His tears dripped off of his chin onto her hair.
“Mister Clift?” The quiet voice behind him jerked him erect and turned him around.
“She’s badly injured.”
He stared at the woman in her pale green scrubs and cap. “How bad?”
“Severe concussion, multiple internal injuries, crushed arm, and crushed leg. Her left side may never be the same.”
“Can I hold her hand?”
“Right hand, sure, that’s fine.”
He watched the curtain close behind the nurse, shoved the room’s only chair next to the gurney, sat in it, and slowly slid his hand under the sheet and gently took her hand. She didn’t move. He bowed his head onto his chest, and cried. The siren that went off in his ear snapped him to his feet.
Four bodies rushed through the doorway, one pushed him and his chair against the wall, and two of them grabbed the gurney and shoved the remaining two drug the carts, poles, bags, bottles and instruments right along beside the gurney. Ben followed until a hand gently took his elbow. “I’m sorry, sir. You can’t go any further. Please wait back in room nine.”
Twenty minutes later the same scrub clad woman came into the room. “I’m sorry, Mister Clift,” she said so quietly he could barely hear her. “Your wife has died.”
The following week will forever be a blur in Ben’s mind. His daughters and daughter-in-law scurried about, making sure all the details of the memorial service and the ensuing celebration of life were not only done, but done perfectly. A glowing obituary appeared in the newspaper. E-mails flowed out to everyone. Friends and neighbors seemed to arrive morning, noon and night, each bearing condolences and food. His freezer and refrigerator overflowed with casseroles. A checklist appeared detailing everyone he needed to contact, from the bank to the theater’s season ticket office. Two dozen death certificates arrived in the mail. When he finally dropped Pippi off at the airport for her return flight, he was totally exhausted. That afternoon’s nap lasted two hours.
After testing yet another new casserole for dinner, Ben sat on the balcony and tried to review everything that had happened all week. He gave up. Instead he tried to think of all of the things he’d managed to do by himself. Two loads of wash, one white, one colored, were clean, folded, and put away. He’d loaded and unloaded the dishwasher not once, but three times. He made some decisions, but taken no action, on how to logically rearrange the contents of the kitchen cabinets. Both bathrooms sparkled after he finished with them. He’d gone to the market and found everything he needed. The bank recognized his user name and password, and let him access his accounts. The house cleaning service came an extra time at his request. He’d even stared long and hard at her closet, but couldn’t bring himself to part with any of it.
Thinking of her closet jolted him out of his self-congratulatory mood. He knew he didn’t have to get rid of any of it. There certainly was no sense of urgency. But, those were her things, her things alone in a world that revolved around the two of them. That world was gone, shattered by a drunk Arab terrorist. The new world held only him. As long as her things were anywhere nearby, he sensed he’d never escape from their world.
He stood up and peered into the living room. They’d picked the sofa together. The artworks on the walls were of places they’d been. They both liked the CDs in the rack. Things like those weren’t hers. They were theirs. They evoked memories, memories he would savor forever. Her stuff was chains, chains that tied him to a world now gone forever. He shook his head to try and drive those thoughts out of his head, and turned on the television.
Television for Ben consists of three things. First is sports, especially baseball. Second is any science or technology documentary. Third is anything she wanted to watch before his bed time. This night, his second favorite science channel began a documentary on the double helix only a minute or two after he sat down. The world around him faded away as he let himself be absorbed by the way in which a nucleotide uses its sugar side to mate with another’s phosphate side. The shows commentary made the assembly process sound oh so romantic. DNA strands, it seems, don’t enjoy being single. They’re always looking for each other for a lifetime together.
At the commercial, he got up and walked around their condo. He, like DNA, had found his soulmate. Unlike DNA, someone stole his from him. The show continued with the statement that DNA always exists as a stable, double-stranded molecule. Furthermore, they added, DNA strands are always put together using a preexisting strand as a pattern. At this point the show diverged to point out that sugar, no matter which kind, is composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. He shook his head in wonder of the basic stuff of the universe. Carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, it doesn’t get any more basic than that. The Phosphate side appeared even simpler. It consists of only phosphorous and oxygen.
At the end of the show, he got out of his chair, stretched, and said to himself, “Simple stuff, just twisted together in a double helix. Nothing to it. Probably works for everything, everywhere.” He turned, and headed for the bathroom and his toothbrush.
The first time he got up to pee that night, he found himself thinking about his first college physics class. Like all undergraduate engineering students, hard core science and mathematics classes filled his freshman and sophomore years. Once through them, he never thought of them again, until that night. Back in bed, he tossed and turned, worrying about the formulas for rotational torque.
The second time he got up to pee, he found himself thinking about his college chemistry lab. He’d always liked the way the magnetic stirrers managed to mix chemicals without having to put a hole in the bottom of a glass beaker. He spent another hour in bed wondering if the same principle could apply a circular pattern of radio waves to a material.
The third time he got up, his thoughts hovered on the resonant frequency of electrons rotating around atomic nucleoli. The dawn’s first light, and the bizarre question buzzing around in his head, drove him to shave, shower, and begin his morning exercises.