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Unflagging zeal

SAUNDRA AMRHEIN
Published July 5, 2003

Before Ben Garcia became Otok Ben-Hvar, before his heart gave out 20 times, he once rode a lawn mower across the United States, played Santa on Red Square in Moscow, got married in an ambulance and danced ballet at Juilliard.

Figuring he's living on borrowed time, Ben-Hvar is fighting a deadline to accomplish one more feat, this one steeped in patriotism, nitrates and the humble chutzpah of Forrest Gump.

He wants to plant a 5-foot maple tree on the White House lawn.

"This is the first American national tree," exclaims the wiry, white-haired retiree from Holiday. "A tree planted with all the soils of every state."

Plus Washington, D.C., and the U.S. territories, five in all, he points out. In thanks for the soil samples sent by every governor, the 67-year-old has traveled to every state and territory with the tree - racking up more than 113,000 miles.

"That tree has been on some pretty fancy planes," he said.

For the nonbeliever, Ben-Hvar offers thick binders and scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings and letters from the nation's governors. There are photos of smiling airline passengers and bewildered flight attendants holding the tree. In one, serious looking Navy SEALs gather around its burgeoning branches. In another, the potted plant sits alone in the belly of an empty C-130 cargo hold.

Ben-Hvar has gained some attention and credibility during his four-year quest since the day he first planted a maple seed in a soil-filled plastic macaroni salad bowl.

He's been written about in the Congressional Record and won the support of a U.S. senator from New Hampshire. He hopes the tree, growing in soil he originally gathered to form his grave bed, will be planted on the White House lawn this Thanksgiving.

"It symbolizes all of America," he said of the tree, sparkling eyes squinting in concentration. How can the White House disagree? "It's historic!"

From dancer to skater

Long before he started lobbying the White House, years before two appearances in the Guinness Book of World Records, Ben-Hvar was born Ben Garcia in Jersey City, N.J.

A cleft palate at birth forced him into clinics as a child. He was misdiagnosed as mentally retarded and spent his elementary school years in special education classrooms.

When the family couldn't afford doctor bills, officials forgave them. The generosity planted seeds of patriotism in the impressionable young man. But the cleft palate left his speech slurred. One writer once likened his high-pitched chatter to the quacking of a duck.

By high school, the prankster was born. On a whim, he signed up for the Army Reserves.

"Just to get out of class, I went," he said.

After high school, he studied ballet at Juilliard. School officials say he was registered in the late 1950s.

But he never graduated. During Army reserve training, he jumped 10 feet out of an airplane and smashed his foot.

"That finished my dancing career," he said. No more stints at New York nightclubs and off-Broadway shows.

"That's how I became an ice skater."

From skater to pilot

To strengthen his torn lingaments and tendons in his right foot, Garcia took to the ice. His agile frame whirled blind teenagers around the rink. He gave lessons for Jersey City Recreation Division and nursed Olympic aspirations.

A faded newspaper article from the time says that more than figure skating, he was "mastering trick and dare-devil skating, including twirling of blazing batons and jumping through hoops of fire."

He became somewhat of a local celebrity.

"People stopped and kissed me, they stopped me in the street!" he said.

He never made it to the Olympics, and his dancing foot didn't heal. Meanwhile, he lived in the back of a religion store in Jersey City, selling rosary beads and statues. He started a truck company and a theater company that brought opera to poor, inner-city children.

"That's how I became a pilot," he said.

Crash leads to celebrity status

Squinting, perplexed that he needs to explain that transition, he elaborated:

"Well, we had to get the singers to the various schools."

Garcia took flying lessons and with his savings bought a Piper Colt aircraft with 108 horsepower.

In 1969, he dropped $24 and joined the Great Atlantic Air Race, the eight-day adventure designed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic claimed by two British aviators. Three hundred and ninety competitors raced between the top of the Empire State Building and the London Post Office Tower in a 3,500-mile dash. Some competitors used hot-air balloons, Roman chariots and vintage cars.

His Piper Colt did not have a big enough fuel tank for the trip. He planned to glide the last 99 miles.

"All I needed was a tail wind to blow me over," he says. But things got thorny on the first leg to Canada.

Greeting Ben-Hvar and the cavalcade of reporters at the airfield were aviation officials, ordering him not to fly. He and his plane were not equipped for the flight, they said.

So he called the plane manufacturer and agreed to meet them in Pennsylvania, where they'd outfit his plane with a bigger fuel tank.

Instead, he crashed, landing upside down in a Pennsylvania field and getting knocked in the head with a jar of peanut butter he had brought for the ride.

Back in New York and London, no one knew what became of him.

" "DON'T GO' - THEN ATLANTIC SOLO PILOT VANISHES," a headline from the London Evening News screamed.

After he called New York, volunteers raced down to scoop him up and bring him back.

"DOWN ON THE FARM! THERE'S DAREDEVIL BEN" another London headline announced.

He got back to the Empire State Building, this time deciding to go in the commercial flight category.

"I punched out again, and there was an off-duty motorcycle cop waiting for me. In 17 minutes, he had me at the JFK airport," he says. He arrived at Heathrow on roller skates.

"How else was I going to get from Heathrow to London?" he asks, wrinkling his face, incredulous. "I didn't know anybody."

But they knew him. Crowds gathered to cheer him on as he raced for the Post Office Tower.

Peter Bostock, in his book, The Great Atlantic Air Race, wrote about him several times.

"With three days stubble of beard on his chin, he arrived on roller skates, creating Pandemonium at the top of the Tower as he hurtled toward the final check-in station with a hunk of his unfortunate aircraft's fuselage rolled up under his arm."

Man becomes "Battling Ben'

After the Great Race, and the newly earned nickname Battling Ben, he steered to the White House.

In part of his quest to prove that one man can make a difference, he gathered 1-million signatures in support of troops in Southeast Asia while backing the gradual withdrawal of forces from Vietnam.

Newspaper stories detail his presentation of the signatures to a White House aide, accompanied by 150 friends and family on Labor Day weekend, 1970.

Letters signed by President Richard Nixon thanked him for his "patriotic spirit," as well as the "thoughtful tokens" Garcia left behind for the president and his wife, including an "attractively designed ice bucket."

Soon after, Garcia enlisted in the Army full time and became a paratrooper. He was 34.

An accident ended his military career after his parachute failed to open in a 1975 jump. He plunged 1,250 feet onto a sand hill, broke 40 bones and blew out his eardrums.

"Then I decided to play Santa Claus in the Soviet Union," he said.

Santa gets cold reception

He began first bringing little toys and trinkets as an "ambassador of good will," he said.

Then, in 1977 he showed up in a red Santa suit, ringing his bell on Red Square. Agents with guns surrounded him.

"They wouldn't arrest me," he said. "But they would hold me."

The next 13 years, he made many friends during his frequent trips to the Communist country.

"The Moscow News asked me to judge their pie-baking contest," he says, pointing to photos of himself in a Santa suit leaning over a table of sweets.

Through the 1980s, he also became a motel owner in Maine, suffered a string of heart attacks, and landed in the Guinness Book of World Records - twice.

The first time was for "the longest lawn mower drive."

The 1988 book states: "Ben Garcia drove a rebuilt AMF lawn mower powered by an 8-horse-power Briggs and Stratton engine (he replaced it twice), 2801 miles, 4,507 km, across the United States from Old Orchard Beach, Portland, Maine, to Los Angeles, California, in 38 days from 6 Oct.-13 Nov. 1986."

The purpose, he explains: "To trim the nuclear arms race."

In pictures, he's bundled in a coat and scarf on the mower, an American flag flapping in the wind behind him. He's trailed by a mobile home on a four-lane highway.

He next appeared in the Guinness Book in 1990, this time for an unusual wedding. While being treated for one of his many heart attacks, he proposed to a friend, thinking the end was near. En route from one hospital to another, they married in an ambulance on Nov. 11, 1988. He survived. The marriage, his second, didn't.

Kindness shared in Balkans

Russian officials barred Garcia from entering the country again after 1990.

So he started making regular trips to Bosnia and Croatia, even before the war in Yugoslavia. He played Santa to Muslim and Christian children. When the fighting began, he kept up the trips, driving over bomb-pocked roads and through war zones.

"I'd just drive," he said. "I didn't know where I was half the time . . . I knew they needed me. I knew how much one person could bring joy."

At first he handed out little trinkets, finger puppets, things he could buy with his own money and donations he could score.

Once he brought 2,000 pairs of roller skates.

Then as more newspaper and television stories about him appeared, the donations came by the boxes. Pictures show trucks hauling presents through Bosnian and Croatian towns. Guards and townspeople grew to know him by sight.

"One time I pulled off the side of the road in my Santa suit, sick," he said. "Kids saw me and got scared. They ran away. Their mom came down and said, "Ben-Hvar?'

"She knew me on the side of the road!"

Tree-planting idea takes root

Garcia changed his name for the beloved island of Hvar off the coast of Croatia, where he stayed for long periods.

In 1995, officials in Croatia granted him honorary citizenship.

But Ben-Hvar wanted to be buried in American soil. So in 1997, he began writing to every state and territory, plus Washington, D.C., asking officials to place a pound of soil in an enclosed plastic bag and a self-addressed stamped envelope.

Over the next two years, they complied, but not all did so readily. One governor's office refused at first "in the interest of conserving taxpayer funds." That was the office of Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. After a follow-up request by Ben-Hvar, Bush's office relented.

The soil came in from American Samoa's coral beaches, a Nebraska cornfield, an Iowa family farm. Some states sent historic soil: Oklahoma, dirt preserved under a Sherman tank that fought in the 45th Infantry Division of France; New York from the site of the 1777 British surrender at Saratoga.

Once the soil came in, Ben-Hvar felt overwhelmed. He changed his mind and decided against a foreign burial.

"No way can I be buried away from my (American) patriots," he said.

He took some maple seeds from his back yard in Maine in 1999 and planted them in a teaspoon of soil from each of the 56 samples. Within two weeks, it started to sprout in its plastic macaroni salad dish.

"I became so excited about it, I started taking it on a tour," he said.

He began contacting the White House, asking that the nation's tree be planted there.

Last year, Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire replied with a letter of support. Smith said he wrote to President Bush. Smith also published a letter of commendation about Ben-Hvar in the Congressional Record, Nov. 12, 2002.

So far, Ben-Hvar said, the White House has ignored his requests.

Numerous calls to the White House from the St. Petersburg Times went unreturned.

The tree means more than all his other adventures, Ben-Hvar says.

"It's more permanent, it has more lasting meaning, and it involves every person," he said slowly, his voice laced with the lyricism of a storyteller.

"It brings us together," he said. "It's the president's home, and the president represents every American, and so does the tree."

With the tree, Ben-Hvar travels with an American flag on which he's stitched vials of soil from each state. The vials hang on the stars in the order the states entered the union. He's also sewn vials on the stripes that hold grains of rice carrying the names of each victim of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the sight of which prompted another heart attack.

He wants to fly it from every state Capitol, starting with Tallahassee this Sept. 11.

Ben-Hvar can't understand why he's still alive. Many of his friends have died. Innocent lives were snuffed out by terrorists. Yet, with all his heart attacks, including one that resulted in a death notice, he is still alive.

"He feels so blessed by God to have survived everything he has," said columnist Tom Weber, who has written countless pieces about Ben-Hvar over the years for the Bangor Daily News of Maine.

"He has just a pure passion for life."

Ben-Hvar can't be stopped.

"When it comes time I'm on my death bed, and I've been there many times," he said, "I don't want to think, "Heavens, I haven't done enough.' "

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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