I sometimes think that my mother had a penchant for alcoholics.
Vince Benoit was a French-Canadian gambler—an alcoholic—a man who smoked furiously. And he was the latest in my mother’s legion of lovers. He was floor manager at a new, illegal gambling club in Portland. In today’s big casinos, he’d be called a pit boss.
On the phone from home, my mother told me about her new love and his job. She assured me that the new gambling club was better connected, larger, and more inviting than the Chinese gambling joint we knew when I was a kid. She also maintained that Vince hadn’t taken a drink in almost three years.
My mother and Vince drove down to El Centro for an enjoyable visit shortly before our squadron shoved off. We had a sentimental two days together.
I dearly loved my unconventional mother. During their visit to the base on a pass that I wangled through Barney McShane, they met several of my cohorts and they got a close look at a TBF Avenger and an F4U Corsair.
Vince Benoit was not a tall man, perhaps only a half a head taller than my mother. Dressed in dark jacket and tie, even in the heat, he presented a trim and sinewy figure. He had a thick, black thatch of wavy hair sprinkled with specks of gray. His face was angular. Heavy, razor-straight eyebrows crossed his brow. And his penetrating, blue eyes seemed ever watchful.
I was prepared to dislike the man.
Yet during his two-day visit to El Centro with my mother, I found him to be gracious, warm and personable—a quiet man of sharp insight and a wry sense of humor. With my mother, he seemed affectionate and always attentive.
I liked him.
During those final days in the desert, for reasons I can’t even remember any more, I had access to one of the squadron SNJs. And for the sheer hell of it, I took my gunner, Ernie Linsmaier, up on an aerobatics flight. He was eager.
I climbed high, perhaps 10,000 feet, where it was safe and where nobody on the ground could see us. Once we reached altitude, I picked up speed, kicked the SNJ into a snap roll followed by a loop, a split-S, a barrel roll, a couple of easy wingovers and I think I may have even done a full Immelman. Ernie’s head was reeling. But he handled it well. Novomiting. No obvious fear.