When you’re a child, you feel as if you’re pretty much living a normal life. Not much is exceptional or memorable. I’m sure that’s why I never questioned my friendship with a neighborhood boy named Greg Bambenek. In my childhood memory, Greg was fun, interesting, cute, mischievous, and unexceptional. He was my best friend from about age eight to 13 (when I felt it wasn’t acceptable to be hanging out with a boy a whole year younger than me).
It took nearly 50 years for me to realize that Greg was always exceptional. Today (among many other things), Greg is known as the inventor of Dr. Juice – scented bait designed to attract specific fish. His brand is sold worldwide. But Greg is also a practicing psychiatrist, a survival-level outdoorsman, a musician, and an adventurer. We found each other again online – as grandparents on opposite sides of the country.
In talking with him, I got to revisit our shared past in a quiet, landlocked Minnesota town when I thought it was normal that Greg should chase me with garter snakes and trap me in the limbs of his backyard tree for hours at a time. Or that I would trust him enough to allow him to blindfold me, walk me down his basement stairs and into position, and then remove the blindfold. My 10-year-old-self faced a beaver hanging upside down disgorging his intestines six inches away from my nose. Or that walking into his upstairs room would set off flashing lights, a siren, firecrackers, and gales of laughter from Greg.
Later, when we were young teenagers, Greg and I ran through a warren of tunnels under our local high school to sneak into a lecture by the noted Wernher Von Braun - the former Nazi scientist turned Director of the Marshall Space Center. The man whose post-war vision infused America’s space program with innovations and made him a controversial national hero. To this day, I have no idea what Von Braun said that day. He may as well have been speaking Martian (a planet he suggested visiting within his lifetime). I understood precisely none of it. I only knew that the moment was important and, more importantly, adventurous. Greg, however, sat transfixed, cradling his curly blond head in his hands, eyes sparkling, nodding now and then with understanding. I do recall checking my friend out in a new way, thinking he was kind of cute but still a whole year younger than me. Not boyfriend material.
After graduating high school, Greg studied medical science with the goal of becoming a doctor of psychiatry. For most people, this academic quest would be strictly books and papers and endless tests. But, as a pre-med college student, Greg managed to land a research project that led to his spending many months in Vietnam, Thailand, India, and China, where he learned to speak Mandarin, studied acupuncture and Chinese medicine. In Southeast Asia, he conducted research on marijuana use among American troops fighting the Vietnam War and did related assessments for government agencies and the World Health Organization. This quest for knowledge took him to Kathmandu, Kolkata, New Delhi, Kabul, and beyond.
In those travels, Greg experienced being tossed into a car with a band of drug dealers under attack by rivals, saved the life of a young American woman in Nepal who’d overdosed on Hippie-era drugs, and hooked up with a redheaded woman from America who (wearing a brown wig) attempted to steal medical secrets from a researcher in Nepal. In the Indian city of Agra, Greg fought off a gang of young men who sexually harassed his female companion. His next stop was the Taj Mahal, where he played his guitar, setting off an echo that reverberated for an entire minute. All this, and more, before officially entering medical school.
As a practicing psychiatrist, Greg worked as medical director of a Native American treatment center in Minnesota and other human service venues while continuing his world travels. One trip took him to Belize, where he met an indigenous Mayan fisherman who baited his line with scents from local plants and small jungle critters. Fish were easily caught using a line and hook with a piece of scented cloth attached. That launched Greg’s next identity as Dr. Juice.
Much of Greg’s childhood was spent at his father’s side fishing, hunting, and exploring the natural environment. Rivers, lakes, and forests provided not only food for his family but also a deep understanding of the natural world. He put that history and the experience with the Mayan fisherman together, spent months in his lab examining the physiology of various fish – specifically their olfactory systems - and developed his own pheromone-based fish bait. The result was Dr. Juice Fish Scent - irresistible to fish and to anglers all over the world. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal even wrote articles about Dr. Juice. At least one U.S. President also chose the bait for a fishing trip after Greg tested George H.Bush’s fingers for a scent that would either attract or repel fish when he applied bait to a hook (the Secret Service dudes at Bush’s side were not pleased). Results of that test may explain why the former President (an avid fan of angling) didn't have much luck as a fisherman.
Today Greg lives in a spacious cabin on the edge of the largest lake in the world – Lake Superior in Northern Minnesota, where no fish is safe from Dr. Juice. Having grandchildren hasn’t slowed him down, and he travels, hunts, and continues to look for more good trouble to enjoy. The only difference now is that it’s not at the expense of his trusting neighborhood girl friend.
With America’s favorite holiday of overindulgence fades into memory, and we head into a season we hope is filled with more joy than anxiety, I send you all my best wishes and gratitude for staying with me on my weekly ramblings. Please send me your thoughts and responses at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THIS WEEK'S promotion of Indie authors is a slate of eBooks that are entirely FREE to download ! My short story The Goodly Goody Girl is among them. (and if you chose my "twisted tale" and enjoy it, please drop me a note and let me know!)