A Higher Calling
Story by Doug Ward
Ben Kramer, deriving a fierce and wondrous energy from his autism, swims from one Gulf Island to another and communes with eagles in treetops.
You sense something is unusual when you first meet Ben Kramer, the caretaker at Bradsdadsland Campsite on Hornby Island. You're not sure why. It's not his unkempt look: long uncombed hair, the wild beard. This is Hornby after all, one of the counterculture's last redoubts.
It's more his clipped speech pattern, the rapid fire bursts of detail. But, then, it's not the way he's talking. It's what he's talking about. Like when he invites you to watch him feed the eagles. Or the way he insists on giving you a tour of of the camp site. You tell him that it's okay but he's already striding away. Barefoot.
The tour meanders through the well-groomed grounds and ends at the foot of a towering old-growth Douglas Fir. The eagles, he says, will fly to him at the top. He begins to clamber upward. His perch at the top is about 50 metres above a rocky shoreline. He's one cracked branch away from death but you have no doubt he will make it up and down. You can tell he's got a different mental hard drive. His own vertigo-less autopilot.
It makes sense later when you learn that he has autism. It's all part of the story of Ben Kramer, 43-year-old tree climber eagle, photographer, son of Holocaust survivors. His is an archetypical Gulf Island story about an offbeat person flourishing in an off-kilter world. The Gulf Islands have long attracted refugees and rebels. They are places where people can turn what was a weakness or a disability into a strength. Ben is part of this tradition.
Most days at Bradsdadsland, summer campers are treated to the spectacle of Ben scaling the Douglas Fir, from branch to branch, barefoot. To the campers below, it's a high-wire act with no room for mistakes. But Ben carries it off with the nonchalance of a guy striding across a putting green to retrieve a golf ball from the cup. There's a constant smile on his face.
"I'm not afraid. If I know I am secure from falling, I have no fear. I've done it so many times. I've climbed trees all my life."
Isaac said that autistic people have a lower sense of fear and danger than most people. ``But something magical seems to be happening. Usually eagles won't get near people.''
Once Ben reaches the top, he removes his back pack and pulls out a fish or some roadkill. It's his cue to the eagles living in another fir about 20 metres away. One of the eagles leaves its aerie and swoops toward Ben, who has become a familiar provider. As the eagle approaches to snatch the food, Ben grabs his camera and snaps. His eagle photographs are displayed in shops and galleries on the island.
His most memorable encounter with the eagles came one day last year when Ben noticed from his perch that one of the eagles' babies was missing. Ben searched through the underbrush beneath the tree, found the young eagle, and carried it back up to its nest in a bulky sports good bag. As he moved to place the eagle in its nest, another baby eagle fell out in shock at the sight of Ben. Fortunately, it fell only a few branches below. Ben climbed down and retrieved the bird. On his way back, a branch cracked to the horror of the spectators below. Ben instinctively shifted to another branch and completed the rescue. His mission was watched by a group of campers. One of them caught the whole exercise on video tape, which Ben loves to play for people.
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Ben is a high-functioning autistic, unusual but hardly rare! His story shows how early intervention by caring adults can teach many autistics how to negotiate the world. It also proves that the best treatment for autism is inclusion and integration into the community. Autism is a developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life. The result of a neurological disorder that affects brain function, autism and its associated behaviours occur in about one in 500 people. Its symptoms can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations, from mild to severe. Children with autism often appear relatively normal in their development until the age of 24-30 months, when parents may notice delays in language, play or social interaction. Language develops slowly or not at all. Behaviour may be overactive or very passive.
That something was different about Ben became apparent when he was about two years old, growing up in Montreal. He was aggressive and barely spoke. A few years later his mother died. His father, Abraham Kramer, was already carrying the burden of a time-consuming fur business. And he bore the psychic pain of having narrowly survived the Holocaust. He opted to place his autistic son in a foster home.
The foster parents, Ruth and Willy Weber, raised Ben like one of their own. "I did many bad things every day,'' Ben says. ``Some people wanted to put me in a lock-up home. But Mrs. Weber, she thought I was a normal fellow. She figured she could raise me up. She had me like a son.'' Her biggest challenge was teaching Ben how to speak. ``When I was 10, she told me that if I didn't learn then, I would never learn. I went to speech therapy and began to understand more."
In the summer Ben would attend special camps. It was at one in upstate New York that he learned to swim. Fifteen times he has entered the 43-km endurance test that is the New York Marathon swim. He has finished 13 of them, spending about nine hours in the water each time. Tomorrow he's entered in the Nigel Miller West Vancouver Seaside Classic, a three-km swim that starts at Ambleside Beach, and on Wednesday he plans a solo crossing of the Strait of Georgia.
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As you might expect, there is a story behind the name of the campground, Bradsdadsland, where Ben works as a caretaker. The Brad in Bradsdadsland is Ben's brother Isaac, who called himself Brad for a time after arriving on the West Coast from Montreal. It was part of his search for a new identity. The dad in Bradsdadsland is Abraham Kramer, who was born and raised in a small Jewish shtetl in Poland.
At the outset of the Second World War, Abraham joined Stalin's Red Army, was captured as a POW and spent most of the war working as a farm labourer for a convent in the German Rhine Valley. Abraham met his wife, another Polish Jew, in a camp for displaced people after the war. They emigrated to Canada in 1949. They had three boys: David, who died at eight, Isaac and Ben. Abraham became a prosperous furrier in Montreal. He had lost virtually his entire family including seven sisters and all his cousins. He rarely talked about the war but it haunted him for the rest of his life.
Haunted his family too. ``There were so many unspoken things in our family,'' recalled Isaac Kramer. ``There was a profound sadness to my father. He had lost everyone he knew, he lost his eldest son and his youngest son turned out to be autistic.''
To find a new life, away from his family's pain, Isaac moved to the West Coast in the late '70s. He had no interest in taking over his father's fur business. So his father decided to invest his money in B.C. real estate to provide for his sons' futures. In 1980, Abraham bought a piece of waterfront property on Hornby, which because of its ocean view and cathedral of alder used to be the island's lovers lane. Isaac eventually turned it into Bradsdadsland Campsite.
"I came out West to recreate the world I missed as a kid. That's why Bradsdadsland is a perfect world. It's out of the picture book that's in my head. Hornby," he said, "is a place for people to either remake themselves or seek shelter." Hornby did allow Isaac to reinvent his life, which he now leads in West Vancouver. The island became, as well, a place of reinvention for Ben Kramer, who arrived here nine years ago, just after his father Abraham died.
"A lot of Ben's abilities to do the things he does derive from the fact that Hornby is a respite,'' said Isaac. And so, to the Hornby locals he's become the eagle photographer at Bradsdadsland. The fearless scuba diver called "Ben the Deep." The marathon swimmer who can stroke to nearby Denman Island and back to Hornby.
And the man who never wears shoes. He goes shoeless when he drives or shops at Hornby's co-op store, when it's bushy or prickly underfoot, when he climbs to see the eagles. Ben has been barefoot since he was 14, recalled Isaac Kramer. "We all let everybody know how we want to be treated. So we send out signals that we are not what you expect. It's Ben's way of saying that I'm a bit of a one of a kind."
Doug Ward is a Vancouver Sun reporter.
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