Benjie Johnson, lifelong Drakes Bay oyster farmer, dead at 56

03/27/2014

Ben “Benjie” Johnson, an oysterman who struggled to find his way after his family’s farm in Drakes Estero was sold, died from complications of pneumonia in Oklahoma City this month. He was 56 years old.

Many will remember Benjie’s long battle with alcoholism, but his close family will recall a funny and loving young boy. At 4 years old, his mother, Joan Clifton, said “he’d be outside playing with the other kids when he’d come running into the house. He’d grab me by the legs and say, ‘I love you, Mommy,’ and run back outside.”

Benjie was born August 7, 1957, in Aberdeen, Wash., a timber and fishing town on an estuary. The oldest of his generation, he was named after his father, Ben Johnson. His grandmother Wilma Manely called him “Benjie-body” to distinguish from his dad, and the nickname stuck. 

His grandfather Charlie Johnson had been in the oyster business in Washington since the 1940s, interrupted only by a brief and unsuccessful venture raising dairy cows in Kansas. Employed by Coast Oyster Company, Charlie was tasked with excursions to Japan to buy oyster seeds. He went so frequently that he kept a second home in Sendai, about 200 miles north of Tokyo, and there met his second wife, Makiko.

Around the time Benjie was born, Coast Oyster Co. was planning to close down an oyster farm on Schooner’s Bay, an extension of Drakes Estero, that it had operated since 1955. Charlie jumped at the opportunity and purchased the title around 1957. He founded the Johnson Oyster Company in 1961, and his family soon followed him south. 

Charlie pioneered an innovative growing technique he had learned in Japan, hanging oysters on wires instead of resting them on the silt. Swirling in the tides, the oysters grow twice as fast as they do in the wild because they filter more nutrients and feed on more plankton. 

Above an estuary’s bottom, they are also free from predators like crabs, stingrays and starfish. 

As kids, Benjie and his siblings helped string the oyster seeds onto eight-foot pieces of wire on the weekends and during summers. The siblings threaded together an alternating pattern of shells and three-inch pieces of bamboo that were later replaced with pieces of plastic piping. 

The children also spent time exploring the wilds. Benjie taught his younger brother Mark to fish for perch near the oyster racks, and his sister, Michelle Mercer, remembers how she, her brother Jay Johnson and Benjie would steal the workers’ boots and go for long hikes along the bay, sometimes all the way to the ocean. 

“We explored every hill that was out there. You name it, we’ve been on it,” she said. “We would come back so muddy and wet. My mother would be so mad.” 

Benjie also had a fondness for practical jokes. Another employee at the plant was terrified of snakes, so Benjie brought a hemp rope on a camping trip. To scare the older man, he twisted the rope in the dirt to make it slither.

Benjie went to West Marin School and completed a few semesters at Petaluma High School before his parents divorced and his mother took the children to Oklahoma, where his stepfather lived. Benjie later tried to finish his studies, but a motorcycle accident in twelfth grade prevented him from graduating. 

Still, Benjie was an intelligent person, Michelle said. “He used to sit in front of Jeopardy and could answer all the questions,” she said. 

Around the time he turned 17, Benjie returned to the oyster farm. Work began early at the plant. The exact time shifted with the tides, but it was often still dark as employees emerged from their trailers. Benjie motored out to the racks of oysters, lifted the wires onto a boat and brought them to shore. At the day’s beginning, his hair would have stood stark against the murmuring, black waters, a sandy-blond St. Elmo’s fire as it caught the early light. 

Average in height, Benjie was the spitting image of his father, Ben Johnson. A scar on his eye from the time he crashed a go-cart into a boat hull when he was 9 years old was just like his father’s from a football injury. 

Benjie’s body was trim and muscular, and he carried a touch of pride in his step. “He looked like a cowboy,” Mark said, “but being raised out in West Marin, you never know.” The weight of the oysters put Benjie’s body under constant strain—depending on how large they had grown, the wires could range from 75 to 250 pounds—but his family members remember the years as one of the happiest times in Benjie’s life.

“That was what Ben loved, going out on the bay,” Michelle said. “And he loved to talk with customers and sell the oysters. He’s very much a people person.” 

Every other word out of Benjie’s mouth was a curse, but he loved to tell jokes and stories of his exploits. He was quick to laugh. “He could tell more jokes than anybody I knew,” Joan said.

Benjie was particularly close with his younger brother Jay. They lived and worked together at the plant and went out together, hitchhiking rides into Petaluma or San Rafael. Both shared an affinity for collecting coins. 

One night around 1 a.m., the brothers were driving home when Jay spilled a can of soda on the console in Benjie’s red Pontiac Firebird. 

“They got into one heck of a fight,” Joan recalled. “They were going at it tooth and nail.” The brawl spilled out of the car and onto the front lawn, where it caught the attention of a patrol car. The police officer stopped the fistfight and knocked on the front door. 

“I have two young men out here that are pretty well getting themselves into trouble. Do you want me to take them in?” the officer asked.

“I don’t know,” Joan replied, barely awake and trying to make out the figures through the dark. After a moment she recognized her boys: Benjie with a black eye, Jay with a bloody nose. 

“Do you want me to take them in?” the officer asked again. 

“No, I can handle them,” she said. She sent them to the bathroom to clean up. The brothers took one look in the mirror and burst out in laughter. “Well, look what you did to me,” Jay said, and they smiled as they compared their cuts and bruises.

“They stayed together, they worked together, they did everything together,” Mark said of his two older brothers. “That’s probably what changed Benjie.”

Jay became mixed up with drugs. On leave from a halfway house for a weekend, he committed suicide in February 1980, shooting himself at Benjie’s home on a hill above the plant. 

Benjie found his body, and the family buried him, only 22 years old, at the Olema Cemetery. The memories troubled Benjie. He spiraled into alcoholism that claimed the next few years of his life. “He floated in and out, back and forth,” Michelle said. 

The disease affected many in Benjie’s family, including his father, Ben, and his uncle Tom. Family members were regulars at the Two Ball Inn, and Benjie sometimes played pool at the Old Western Saloon. The liquor often ignited bitter arguments and sometimes even led to gunfights.

One of Benjie’s proudest accomplishments was getting sober through Alcoholics Anonymous, a daily temptation he withstood for roughly a decade, his mother said. Tom mentored him as he became sober.

“It’s supposed to be anonymous, but he was never anonymous about it,” his cousin Chrissy Ridens said. “I don’t know who Benjie helped, but I know he had friends that called upon him as a mentor and counselor. He spent a lot of time trying to fight whatever demons he had.”

Benjie was constantly busy, attending A.A. meetings and keeping himself healthy. He stayed sober for roughly a decade, and lived with his grandmother for a time in San Pablo, where he painted houses. 

He took up bowling, and eventually worked up to a 171 average at Country Club Bowl in San Rafael. He continued to seek out coins, expanding the collection he and Jay had started. At one point, the coins and guidebooks stacked vertically reached about four feet high.

After work slowed down, Benjie returned to the oyster farm and he began drinking again. He relapsed into alcoholism seemingly by chance: He had terrible toothaches and went to see a dentist. After a surgery, he took prescription painkillers but could not control his usage. The liquor bottle was not far away. 

He eventually purchased a modular home in Petaluma with a kitchen his mother envied and his own blue Toyota Tacoma pickup. Having a place of his own made him happy: it was something he never felt he deserved. 

In 2005, his uncle Tom sold the farm to the Lunny family. Some family members say they were consulted only after the fact, after the papers had been signed. 

“I think they felt the world closed in on them when the company closed,” Chrissy said. “That was their livelihood. My cousins didn’t have anything else to do: they were born and raised as oyster farmers.”

A few months after the sale, Benjie’s father was having knee surgery from his football injury when doctors discovered a small tumor in his lungs and diagnosed him with cancer. He stayed at Benjie’s home until he died that December.

Benjie was often alone, slipping deeper and distancing himself from family members with his drinking. Makiko lived very close to him, but she told him not to come visit if he was drinking. “He’s a sweet boy if he didn’t drink,” she said. “He was still a good man.” 

Many of his valuable coins were stolen, including one prized $5 gold piece with an Indian head on it that his great grandfather had given to his daughter, who had passed it onto Joan. “He would have guys come over and spend the night or whatever and he ended up getting things stolen,” Joan explained. “He was a friend to everybody.”

Benjie found solace walking his dog, a Rottweiler he named Casey after a favorite niece who shared his birthday. One night as Benjie was walking Casey, the unleashed dog ran into the street and was hit by a car.  

“I had to get him away from the circumstances. He was going downhill fast,” Michelle said. 

Benjie moved in with her in McAlester, Okla., where they both cleaned houses. After a time, he moved to Oklahoma City. He hated the state with a passion, and often discussed leaving. 

“He never did go back to California. He always wanted to, but he never progressed,” Michelle said. “I told him I’d give him a bus ticket, but I guess the feelings were too deep. With his uncle selling the oyster plant right out from underneath them, he was totally lost when that happened.”

Benjie seemed to know his health was declining during the last few months of his life. He struggled with homelessness but made efforts to contact his family. His mother visited him last summer in nearby Shawnee at a bowling alley; they discussed the old times, the camping and fishing trips of his youth. 

Benjie called his brother Mark a few months ago: he said he wanted to quit drinking, but it was just too hard. 

After Mark told his daughter Ashley her uncle had called, she asked for Benjie’s phone number. Benjie had always been a great uncle to his nieces and nephews, taking them for treats at Perry’s Deli. “I remember for my 13th birthday he bought me my first camera,” Ashley said. “He treated us as if we were his own kids.” 

When Ashley called him three months ago, she asked if he remembered buying the Polaroid. He said he did and laughed. 

Pneumonia infected both of Benjie’s lungs, and he likely felt stabbing chest pains as he coughed and wheezed at a campfire earlier this month. 

He was taken to a hospital for smoke inhalation. He asked nurses not to tell his family, and they respected his wishes for 12 days. A doctor called Michelle late on a Friday night, waking her after midnight. 

“We want to put Ben on a ventilator,” the doctor said. 

Michelle said she didn’t understand, and she asked how many days Benjie had left; the doctor told her it was a matter of hours. In the morning, Michelle called the hospital and a nurse held the phone to Benjie’s ear. He could barely speak, but he acknowledged that he recognized his sister’s voice. 

“I just wanted to tell him that he wasn’t alone,” Michelle said. “I just wanted him to know that he wasn’t alone, that he will always be in my heart for the rest of my life. I told him it was okay to let go.”

She told Benjie his mother was going to call as soon as she hung up; three minutes later, a nurse called her back with the news that Benjie had passed after his mother said goodbye. 

“I know he waited for me,” Joan said. 

At the bottom of a bottle, Benjie could glimpse his reflection: with one eye, he watched himself through the liquid and tried to decide which way he was swimming, whether he felt like he was floating or choking. The memories and emotions swirled, were drowned and dredged up.

At the end, Benjie’s vision was clearer, and he must have welled with loneliness. But perhaps he felt Tom’s hand on his shoulder as he was welcomed back to the farm; saw Jay’s smile as his mother gifted them a shining, gold coin; smelled mud and brine as he roved the hillsides with his sister; felt the warmth of his mother’s hug or the slow and ceaseless rocking as a barge gently took him beyond the waves.

 

Benjie Johnson’s family requests that any donations be made to your local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous.