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?”

1980: “…you have a nice smile!”

May 1980

It was a toss of the dice that seemed to be a sure thing. Despite interest in branches of military intelligence, engineers, and armor, I chose transportation during the process that would see me transition from an ROTC cadet to second lieutenant. As a service support branch, transportation lacked the prestige and challenge found in my former first choices, but due to my lofty position on the order of merit list it would give me an almost immediate entry to flight school and training as a rotary wing aviator.

It did just that, at least for a brief season, but all too soon a heretofore undiagnosed vision problem grounded me permanently. Colloquially known as amblyopia, or “lazy eye” but formally known as “lack of convergence and fusion”, the ailment could make flight under night or instrument conditions more difficult or dangerous.

It didn’t have to be a death sentence for an aviation career, but my company commander bluntly told me he didn’t want to waste his time helping me fight the decision, though I suspect the fear brought on by my obscure medical jargon played an undue influence on his decision. My disappointment was eased a bit by an interim assignment to the staff of the U.S. Army Aviation Digest, but I was still struggling with the unhappy turn my life had taken…

…until the afternoon I got the phone call telling me I was being assigned to FT Richardson.

May 1970

It was a bit late in my high school career to be taking up athletics. Football had come late to Kenai Central High School, our team arriving on the field just two years earlier. I’d taken tentative steps to try out for the team that year and the next, but an overall shortfall in my life had put me off until my senior year, a shortfall that consisted of the lack of:

  • Transportation for after-school activities.
  • Friends on the team.
  • Basic athletic ability and skill.

I also had the lack of support of the leader of our local congregation, who loudly stated that no one from the head-coach down to the assistant manager for towel control would waste time with me. Fortunately service as a teacher aide in physical education class had garnered a good reputation with the head coach but he made it plain that my lack of experience would work against me. I could be part of the team the following autumn – but as for playing time….

August 1980

The whirlwind was just starting to die down. In less than two months I had raced through:

  • Permanent-change-of-station
  • In-processing at FT Richardson
  • NBC (Nuclear/Biological/Chemical Warfare) school
  • SnowHawk (introduction to training in an arctic and mountain environment)

…all of which had played out against the backdrop of a mysterious knee problem that had my right leg in a full-length cast until just a few days earlier, which didn’t make standing in line for the cashier’s case in the basement of the post exchange any easier. The line seemed to be taking forever to move but I kept myself distracted by making a mental list of all the changes that had been made in the place since I’d last been there as a dependent, noting that with all the moving about the home entertainment section was still down here in the basement.

August 1970

Coach had kept his word – I got to suit up for games but spent most of my time playing center, guard, and tackle as in: “sit in the center of the bench, guard the water bucket, and tackle anyone taking a drink without spending at least a full quarter on the field.” It wasn’t the best situation, but there were some definite benefits:

  • I enjoyed what time I did get on the playing field.
  • I’d made new friends’
  • I was in possibly the best physical shape of my short 17 years on earth.

…and the next week I’d be going to the FT Richardson PX to buy the stereo record player I’d been saving all summer for.

August 1980

“Lieutenant, I cannot cash this check…and frankly I would think you’d know better than to come down here again without clearing up that other matter.”

“URK?” (A.K.A. my usual clever retort)

“Your NSF check from last spring. You haven’t made good on it yet – or the service charge!”

I tried to remain pleasant as I fell into a financial version of “He Said/She Said” at the cashier’s cage. I explained that I hadn’t even been in the command last spring and that she must have me mistaken for someone else (hint – she was) but it wasn’t until I pulled out my identification card that the chief teller left her desk and came over to act as referee. She picked up the Alaskan driver’s license that had slipped out of my wallet with my military ID and studied it for a minute, said “Lieutenant, you have a nice smile”, then started tapping out Central Accounting’s number on the phone.

Then she smiled.

August 1970

“I’m sorry but AAFES policy doesn’t provide for the sale of floor models.”

The salesgirl with a white name tag and a sitcom-mom shag haircut carefully explained the situation a second time. My record player of choice had proved to be a very popular RCA model that had sold out quickly. In addition to having a fairly nice sound and a reasonable price the unit was equipped with a pair of woodgrain speakers that clipped together and snapped in place over the turntable to make an easily portable unit, which was definitely an asset in the highly mobile life of a service dependent…and every one of them except the display model had sold out earlier in the week.

I could feel my face warm with a flush as my frustration threatened to erupt in a confrontation, but my inner fifty-year old man took over and with an effort to avoid a blow-up I shifted my gaze down to the toes of my shoes while I calmly explained my situation:

  • I’d worked and saved all summer.
  • There wasn’t another unit to be found in Anchorage or down on the Peninsula.
  • Even if there had been I wouldn’t be back at the Ft. Richardson PX until October.

The empty feeling in the pit of my stomach dropped even further floorward as I realized that the clerk with the Mrs. Brady haircut hadn’t spoken one word as I rattled off my concerns. I braced myself for what I assumed to be the final shutdown, but as I looked up she had just a hint of a smile as she turned and murmured to the gold-tagged supervisor who had joined the discussion after finishing a call on a nearby wall phone.

She turned back to me, flashed a smile usually found on your youngest/coolest aunt (the one that always had chewing gum) and said: “Young man you have a nice smile. You’ve also been very patient in what could have been a very unhappy situation…but I think we can figure out a way to get you your record-player.” She started to explain a lengthy AAFFES regulation, but once she got past something about no exchanges or refunds all I heard was the WAH-WAH-WAH trumpet sound of grown-up dialog in a Charlie Brown animation special.

I was getting my stereo.

August 1980

The Florence Henderson shag had been replaced by a Dorothy Hamill bob flecked with grey and the white badge she had worn as sales staff had been replaced by supervisor-gold but the “cool aunt” look was the same.

“You were once a dependent here on post weren’t you?”

“A long time ago.”

“You still have a nice smile.” She turned to the clerk and gave permission to cash my check. It turned out that there was another lieutenant on post with my same surname and HE was the one who’d been bouncing checks.

“…and you’re still very patient for a young man.”

Northway Mall Office “Plug”

NorthwayMallChugach

This illustration may have been the first assignment I received from the Anchorage advertising firm Murray, Bradley and Rocky. After I ran the ARCO illustration on the 22nd I got to thinking, which got me to rooting around what tear-sheets and records I still have from that time – and this is what I came up with. I know that I did it in late 1980 but so much was going at the time I can’t be sure which one happened first

…and my records are so spotty. For years I kept meticulous records, hauling at least two (and sometimes more) full file cabinets everywhere we went but after thirty-nine years and seven moves I’ve lost a lot of stuff. It’s the kind of illustration you’d see now only in a specialty publication or used to establish a nostalgic theme and would now be done in Photoshop or purchased from one of the numerous photo houses that flood the Internet.

It’s also of a time before internet commerce lead to the proliferation of ‘dead malls”. While Northway Mall was headed in that direction long before the rise of the Internet, when this advertisement first ran it was the one nicest shopping centers in Anchorage, anchored at each end and the middle with major retailers like Safeway and Pay-n-Save.

…though we were more interested in the Waldenbooks, gaming arcade and Art’s Video Mart stores where a good portion of my lieutenant’s pay was squandered on the 1st and 15th of every month….

1980: ARCO Program Book Illustration

ARCO1980

My first freelance assignment after getting transferred to FT Richardson in 1980.

Actually I need to explain something: I started doing freelance work for role-playing game companies while I was still in school – mostly spot illustrations but also some micro-game covers. This was my first non-fannish assignment and was contracted through Murray, Bradley and Rocky, an Anchorage advertising agency that I think is still doing business albeit under a different name.

I did a LOT of advertising work in Anchorage and even won a “Bonnie” ( Best of the North award like the Addy award in other cities)

Music: White Car

 

Despite my fondness for the genre I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about the British progressive rock group Yes. I immediately took to their first single ”Your Move” but the AM radio version I first heard at the University in the fall of 1971 did not accurately reflect the band’s basic sound. The raucous addendum “I’ve Seen All Good People” tacked on to the tail end of the album track was missing from the radio version, so I was immediately taken with vocal harmonies and a pleasant, maybe even pretty, acoustic accompaniment topped off with a majestic but not overpowering organ in the last couple of measures.

Hmmm. Kind of like Crosby, Still, Nash and Young, I thought.

Then Marty and Jeff  down the hall played The Yes Album in its entirety and I became a fan of the band on their own merits and not because I though they sounded like someone else…but since I really, really liked the harmony and uncomplicated nature of “Your Song”  I mentally filed it in a place separate from Fragile, Closer to the Edge and other subsequent Yes Albums.

Time passed, and music evolved:

  • The Moody Blues broke up then reunited into a shadow of themselves.
  • Emerson, Lake & Palmer alternately mugged our ears/broke our hearts  with Love Beach.
  • Along with more than 200 million other Americans I survived the Great Disco Epidemic by the narrowest of margins.

With all these changes I found my tastes in music evolving to modern jazz artists like Tom Scott and Tim Weisberg while my progressive rock albums gathered dust on the shelf. I also found that my life was changing as I went from student to missionary to student to soldier  – until one night when I was sitting in our quarters at FT Richardson with KRKN1 playing on the radio  while I was spit-shining boots.

…so while I’m fumbling with matches, a can of Kiwi shoe polish, and an old diaper, an album began to play on the radio. I missed the introduction  – and as KRKN was an album-oriented rock station there was no deejay patter in between tracks  –  it  took almost all of that first track to figure out that maybe, just maybe I was listening to a new Yes album.

Then the track ended, there were several seconds of between-track silence and then the second track started to play, and I was transfixed.

  • Kettle drums lead with synthesizers-posing as strings, creating a melody that toggles between classical music and a motion picture soundtrack.
  • A mandolin plays a syncopated accompaniment in the background.
  • A very martial-sounding roll on the snare drum and a kettle-drum repeat winds up the segment.
  • The whole thing starts over again and repeats three more times.

…and then the vocals start but I will warn you: if you listen too closely they screw everything up. The first few times I listened to “White Car” I really keyed into its quasi-soundtrack feeling and let the vocals work as pure instinctive sound – another instrument in the band. The combined effect of  indistinct voice and music painted a magic mental picture of walking along the docks of a port in some alternate reality steampunk city and taking in the sights:

  • Ships featuring both sails and steam-powered paddle-wheels
  • Nautilus-like submarines with bulbous glowing eye-ports
  • Rigid-frame airships; zeppelins winching cargo up and down from the surface
  • Singer Gary Neuman2 driving around in a Stingray convertible

SKKRRIITCCHHHH!

Nothing can drag the tone-arm across the Great Record Album of Life like this non-sequitur.

I see a man in a white car
Move like a ghost on the skyline
Take all your dreams
And you throw them away
Man in a white car.

 ….namely Mr. Neuman’s white Stingray, which is the official subject of this composition.

 However this short (1:21) song worked such powerful magic for me that I trained myself back into listening with “vocals as instruments” ears  and I’ve kept “White Car” in every format and playlist I’ve had since that night in 1980. It provides a wonderful eighty-one second side-trip to a nicer world and has done wonders for the anxiety that so readily besets me.

My only complaint since then is minor and has to do with the song’s placement in the playing order of the album Drama. It brings to mind a spin-the-bottle game I was drafted into when I was much younger. I say drafted, but I went quite willingly when I found that the game already included a beautiful brunette I was very interested in.

…but when I sat down in the circle I discovered that the young lady in question was flanked by…by…I’m sorry – there’s just no tactful way to describe the two young ladies sitting to each side of my  raven-tressed Faye Dunaway wannabe. Their appearance in contrast to her beauty  was as jarring as having “Man in a White Car” situated between the equally jarring and discordant  “Machine Messiah” and “Does It Really Happen?

.. but that contrast might just be what makes “White Car” so beautiful. Sometimes a sharp contrast goes a long way in bringing out both physical and musical beauty.


Notes:

  1. KRKN (104.3 FM,) was an AOR (album-oriented rock) FM station in Anchorage Alaska from 1980 to 1986 when it changed to an oldies format. Through a process that totally mystifies me the KRKN call letters are now assigned to a country music station in Iowa.
  2. Yes, that Gary Neuman of “Cars” – the 1980 New Wave techno hit that will now be running through your mind and driving you crazy for the rest of the week.