To do this — to insist upon conformity in a society that values individual freedom more than orthodoxy and still hope for fun — Benjamin talks like a surfer and acts like a drill sergeant.
“I kind of go back to that hippie thing,” Benjamin says, referring to the era in which he himself came of age. His older brother was in Vietnam when Benjamin was in third and fourth grade, so although it was 1967 and he lived at the beach, he absorbed “this whole sense of the military, the sense of the tradition that the military brings, the sense of order that it brings. I like that. ‘This is the standard. These are my expectations. I want you to bring yourself up to that spot, and you will feel better about yourself by doing it. Be better than what you think you can be.’ That whole Army thing, ‘Be all you can be’ — that’s a right-on statement. It’s not just a marketing ploy. It’s the truth. All of a sudden I got on a soapbox there, but I really dig that about Mr. Benjamin’s. It makes people come up to a level that they have not had to before. It’s not that they couldn’t or didn’t want to, but that nobody asked.”
This describes, in a way, the path of Benjamin’s own life.
“In 1978,” Benjamin says, “I moved to Hawaii.”
He was a 19-year-old surfer from Point Loma who’d spent five months working in a restaurant to buy a one-way ticket to Maui. He was headed, specifically, to a famous surf spot called Honolua Bay.
“Some guys went to Kaui,” he says, “but I knew Kaui wasn’t for me, because back then, Kaui was, like, nowhere, nothing. Too remote, you couldn’t make a living. And the one thing that my dad definitely instilled in all three boys was, at a certain age, you’re off the wallet.
“So I go there, and the surf’s incredible, beautiful, idyllic, it was the perfect place for me. I don’t mind heat. Some people are made to live in Telluride, and some people are made to live in Arizona. I am made to live in the tropics. That’s where I always feel my best.”
Benjamin said to himself, This is it. I’m not going back.
He learned to shape surfboards, and he started what he calls a “pretty decent little surfboard company.” For a while, he lived with a girl and her giant dog, Buick, in a van. He was making custom boards and doing some retail, and “it was like a dream, really. You know that joke you see in the movies?”
Here Benjamin does a perfect parody of an envious slacker, saying, “Man, you’re living the dream.”
“That’s what I was doing. I was young. Totally in shape. Single at a certain point. No marriage. No kids. No anchors. Living in Lahaina. You can just see the picture I’m painting. It’s pretty good. Why would you leave that?”
In 1983, five years after Benjamin bought the one-way ticket to Hawaii, his mother, Eleanor, was diagnosed with cancer. He came home to Point Loma, but that was just a temporary thing, he thought. Benjamin’s father, Donald, was by then in his 29th year of running Mr. Benjamin’s Cotillion, a business he’d started in 1954 with two Tommy Dorsey albums, a Sears record player, and 35 sixth-graders from Del Mar Village Elementary. Peter Benjamin had been born 4 years later, in 1958, and by the time Peter reached sixth grade, it was a given that he would, like his two older brothers, learn the cha-cha, the foxtrot, and the waltz at Mr. Benjamin’s. He danced with Vicki Willoughby and a red-haired girl named Karen Patterson. He surfed, and he grew his hair down past his shoulders.
Like his brothers, Peter Benjamin worked for his father after sixth grade, making punch, checking boys and girls in at the door, nudging boys who subconsciously tucked their hands into their pockets, and handling the occasional emergency.
One night during a dinner dance, Donald Benjamin pushed the bar on a glass door and his hand broke through the glass plate. “I was in seventh grade,” Benjamin says. “He says to me — this is just like my dad — ‘You take over the class. I have to go to the emergency room.’
“So I’m a seventh-grader among seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders, and I have to go up on the stage, put a record on, say, ‘Okay, everybody dance,’ and that kind of stuff, and I was a sort of reserved kid, so I have a very definite memory of that.”
Benjamin’s father must have had a definite memory of it, too. As the summer of 1983 turned into fall, Donald Benjamin got a call from a woman in Valley Center.
“Valley Center was kind of a unique place at that time,” Peter Benjamin says, “the avocado farmer’s Rancho Santa Fe.” The farmers wanted property and rolling hills — “that kind of Tuscan vibe” — but they also wanted social refinement. “We really want Mr. Benjamin’s here,” the woman told Donald Benjamin.
Donald Benjamin said that although he appreciated the opportunity, he was not interested in driving to Valley Center.
“But,” he told the woman, “my son will.”
So 25-year-old Peter Benjamin put on a suit and tie and drove to Valley Center. Except for the night his father cut open his hand, he’d never been in charge of a cotillion class, “but I assume what I did was I paid attention. Even though I didn’t know I was. You know what I’m saying? It’s almost through osmosis, right? Through absorption. I absorbed class administration.”
His first class was 20–25 kids. “Did my father think I’d be Mr. Benjamin’s at that point? Probably not. But he knew that it’s never bad to have a multitude of different skills. My father was always that way. He did a lot of things.”
So Peter stayed in San Diego. He kept teaching. His father got a call from Scripps Ranch, “which back then was nothing. Scripps Ranch was tiny.” Soon Peter was teaching in Valley Center, Scripps Ranch, Tierrasanta, and Rancho Peñasquitos. Like circuit preachers, the two Mr. Benjamins made their rounds, stating in the same way the same essential rules of civility, using the same dress code in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and the new millennium, ushering hundreds and then thousands and tens of thousands of 12-year-olds across the wide chasm that separates them from the opposite sex. Hawaii receded, but Peter Benjamin continued to shape surfboards. It’s never bad to have a multitude of different skills. He went on a blind date with a college girl named Stacey who knew his name from his surfboard logo, married her, and they had a son, who grew to the age where he would stand in a pair of khaki pants and a button-down shirt at the edge of a school gym, facing a line of girls.