1980: Canvas, Diesel, Brasso & Bentley

It’s been said that of all the senses, smell is the strongest trigger when it comes to recalling memories – and that has definitely proved to be true for me. The smell of linseed oil and turpentine instantly takes me back to the winter of 1974 and the chaos involved when my first “for-real” painting class coincided with a rather painful break-up. Play-doh1 has a similar, though indirect, effect as it has a smell confusingly close to the classic Coty perfume Emeraude, a fact that I was quite vocal about until I realized it was the fragrance of choice for my girlfriend at the time.

But for me the trifecta of olfactory cues consists of damp canvas, diesel exhaust, and the pungent ammonia reek of Brasso.2 The slightest whiff of any one of these three aromas instantly transports me back to 1980 when I was serving as a platoon leader at FT Richardson Alaska, as it did the other day when the ammonia I was using to clean the hall bathroom had me time-tripping back to the days of steel helmets, green fatigues, and the constant rumble of multiple M34A2 “deuce and a half”  trucks idling in the background.

The flashback was enough to prompt me into sitting down for a break, but as I perched on the edge of the sink and thumbed through the digital edition of the Anchorage Daily News on my phone, I came across a name that completed my forty-one year trip through time faster than you could say “Doug and Tony”.3

Thomas Bentley.

It was an obituary for one Thomas Bentley of Wasilla, Alaska. The location threw me as the Bentley I’d known had grown up in the Great Lakes region, but as I looked at the picture and mentally trimmed four decades of grey hair and jowl I realized that this recently deceased gentleman was the Bentley that figured so prominently in my eighteen months as a platoon leader.

November 1980

As I have written elsewhere I was simultaneously elated and depressed to be assigned to FT Richardson AK after my unexpected grounding from flight status due to an undiagnosed vision problem. It was a literal comedown to accept that instead of cruising at 1000 feet AGL (above ground level) in a UH-I helicopter I would puttering around at 3 feet AGL in an M151 jeep. However, I had been blessed by a valuable lesson I’d learned as a missionary to “bloom where I was planted” and make the best of a bad situation. Maybe I wasn’t going to be the dashing aviator I’d always hoped to be but I was going to be the best freaking truck platoon leader ever! After a two-week period of observation I put into action a two-part plan to raise performance standards through an ambitious training program and regularly scheduled technical inspections of assigned vehicles. It was an ambitious plan that could have easily ended in failure if either one of the following “ace cards” had not been in play:

  1. An outstanding company commander in the form of CPT Robert Moore who provided  me with the perfect balance of guidance and freedom.
  2. Preparation in life that most of my fellow lieutenants lacked: I was five years older with a good part of that time spent working as a roustabout for Chevron USA at the Swanson River oil field, I was the son of a career non-commissioned officer in the Navy and I had seen every John Wayne movie from The Alamo to The War Wagon!

It took a week or two for me to firmly establish that “things were going to change in Delta Trans” but eventually when I showed up at the side of a truck clad in coveralls with creeper and flashlight in hand drivers took me seriously and eventually would go to great lengths to best my inspection checklist, especially when the highest scoring driver got the rest of the day off.

Unfortunately some of the more senior drivers remained a little jaded; one of the most vocal being SP44 Fourth Class Thomas Bentley. Bentley was already hampered by an inflated sense of self-esteem brought on by logging thousands of miles as a truck driver both in and out of the Army, but he also harbored a deep resentment towards me personally. I had been involved in a domestic disturbance call at his quarters late one Friday night and subsequently intervened in a scuffle he’d gotten into with his temporary barracks roommate a few nights later, so I knew that at some point there would be a showdown.

The clash came about during a field training exercise that had him detailed to stay back to repaint parking lines on the motor pool floor, a task that was possible only when most of the vehicles were out of the motor pool). Citing his aforementioned driving record he snarled that he was “a god-d*mn truck driver and not an f**king painter” then stormed out of the building to his five-ton tractor parked right outside. Feeling a bit irritated myself5 I followed him out to his truck, jumped on the running board,  pulled open his door and as I assumed my best Duke stance6 barked:

“Get back in there and start painting, or I am going to kick your ass!”

“What – you’re gonna write me up?”

“No, I’m going to drag you out of that cab and literally kick your ass!”

Time slowed down to a crawl as he scowled at me – then he quickly switched off the truck and sped back inside. I trailed him with my own scowl but stopped at the door after he entered so he couldn’t see me collapse with pent-up tension and relief when a) he didn’t call my bluff and b) I’d avoided an ill-considered career-ending incident.

Something must have clicked because from that point onwards we had an uneasy truce, but despite that slight improvement life just got harder for Bentley. A few months later he was served with divorce papers in the middle of a work day7; given the domestic disturbances of the preceding months it came as no surprise to me, but the development visibly shook him. However I didn’t suspect the depth of his turmoil until my next round of technical inspections a couple of weeks later. As usual, each driver tried to one-up the next, but I knew the competition had kicked into high gear when I looked into the engine compartment of a five-ton truck and found all the copper fuel lines polished to near-solar brilliance with Brasso. I was a little surprised because the five-ton section held most of the grumblers who scoffed at “training stunts” – but I was even more surprised when after calling out “I’ve found a winner” I looked up at the driver behind the wheel to find Bentley with a slightly sad smile on his face.

It was the first positive measure I’d seen him take so I wasn’t completely shocked when he put in an application to attend a professional leadership course the following spring. The real jaw-dropper came about when he graduated first in his class then spent the rest of his tour as an outstanding soldier. He was transferred to another duty station close to the same time that I left the platoon for assignment to battalion staff, and as all the good-byes were being made I felt compelled to ask him what prompted the change.

“I dunno. Maybe I just got tired of kicking back. Maybe it was the ass-kicking that didn’t happen…or maybe it was because for the first time in my life somebody gave enough of a rat’s-ass to threaten an ass-kicking for a good reason.”

April 2021

Other than a comical case of mistaken identity8 I never saw Bentley again. I assumed that he’d eventually end up in Minnesota or Wisconsin but according to the obit he returned to Alaska and became a commercial truck driver based out of Wasilla. He also remarried – and that time it stuck as a widow of some 20+ years was mentioned in the write-up. I was pleased that he finally had a happy ending, but I also had to smile at the two “happy facts” I’d learned from him; principles that served me well during the years ahead as I worked with young people in the military, academia, and Scouting:

  • Don’t give up on a “problem child” no matter how obnoxious they may be.
  • I had to stop using John Wayne as a template for leadership.

——————————————————————————————————

Notes

  1. Play-doh: modeling compound intended for use by toddlers. First formulated as a wallpaper cleaner in the 1930s, it has been sold as a toy since 1956, is produced in several brilliant colors, and has a slightly musky vanilla like smell that was trademarked by the current manufacturer Hasbro in 2018.
  2. Brasso: Metal polish designed to remove tarnish from brass, copper, chrome and stainless steel. Made up of ammonia and isopropyl alcohol. First sold in the UK in 1905, it has been the bane of an American G.I.’s existence since before the World War II.
  3. Doug & Tony: Protagonists in the 1966 Irwin Allen sci-fi series The Time Tunnel.
  4. SP4: Specialist Fourth Class. Junior enlisted paygrade equal to corporal but without the leadership role.
  5. The post facilities engineers ran tests in the motor pool building the following spring that found a frightening number of exhaust fans non-operational. We’d been breathing dangerously elevated levels of CO1 (carbon monoxide) which was the likely cause ed for the high level of agitation most of the preceding winter.
  6. Colonel Marlowe from The Horse Soldiers.
  7. The MP (military policeman) serving the papers was quite arrogant and when questioned about the appropriateness of serving I the papers in Bentley’s workplace sneered “I can go anywhere on this post I want”. He wasn’t quite so arrogant a year later when he was reassigned to the battalion as a supply clerk, having been punitively reclassified after failing a drug test.
  8. See 2003: “Have You Ever Heard of An Artist Named David Deitrick?”

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