By Major Van Harl USAF Ret
Living in a town with a large Army Post you can find military gear at the local thrift stores. I find OD green wool blankets, pup tents, field type clothes and canteens.
I am forever looking for canteens. If hard times come you will not always be able to find clean drinking water, so you need to be able to carry your water with you. The green plastic, one quart canteen is hard to beat. In fact it is so successful that there are numerous civilian knock-off versions of it out there.
When I went to Infantry school you could not carry enough water. The heat of South Georgia could put you down in a hurry. I carried canteens in what we called Israeli style; four one quart canteens. When the re-supply truck showed up I was the first one to get to the five gallon water jugs to re-fill my canteens. Many of my fellow Infantry classmates succumbed to the heat and even had to be airlifted out of the training area–not me.
I was in a thrift shop the other day and there was a WWII cartridge belt with the old style metal canteen and cup. I bought these items for three dollars and headed for the door. As I was driving home flashes of my days in the Boy Scouts started passing through my mind and it was the smell of the old canvas Army gear causing this effect.
My car smelled like my Scout Master Reggie Barber’s garage did back in 1967. I was the assistant quartermaster for my old Troop 66 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. After each camping trip we had to go over to Mr. Barber’s house and take care of the gear that had been used. There was a loft in the top of his garage and it was full of the troop’s camping gear and a lot of it was WW II military canvas items that had been donated to the troop.
Now-a-days all the camping equipment is made of plastic and man-made fibers. They do not have the same smells of old canvas that has been treated with water repellent chemicals like the G.I. issue items my Uncles used in Germany in 1944. My job was to make sure the canvas was clean and dry before it was stored away. This was humid Virginia and a damp tent left for a couple of months would rot beyond the point of use very quickly. There was no money to just go out and buy new items if I failed to take care of the troop’s gear.
With the smell of the new found WWII treasure in my truck I had to call my old Scout Master. Mr. Barber is in his eighties and lives in Florida. He was a Navy aircrew member on PBM-5 seaplanes patrolling off the east coast, during the war, looking for German U-Boats. He flew sub patrols out of Brazil during the war prior to that country entering WWII on the Allied side. Both the US and Germany could enter Brazil. He would come back from a sub-chasing mission to find the very German sub crew he was hunting, sitting in the same Brazilian bar his aircrew was drinking in.
After the war he worked for the Navy as a civilian. But it was the smell of canvas that got me to pick up the phone and call. I saw Mr. Barber in the summer of 2009 for the first time since I was in the eighth grade. He was in Denver visiting family and we had lunch. Talking with someone I had not seen in forty-one years was delightful. Of course his children that I had known were all grandparents now.
Smells can bring back some of the oldest memories in the shortest of time. With a lifetime of military and police work, some smells are best not remembered, but old canvas smells are a fond memory. One old canteen reconnected me with my past and that was a good thing. I will keep looking for canteens and calling my Scout Master. Both the canteen and the man have helped me get ready for life and the hard times it can throw at you.
Thank you Mr. Barber, you made us learn our field craft skills so we would remember. They have paid of well for me in life and yes I will always Be Prepared.
About Major Van Harl USAF Ret.:
Major Van E. Harl USAF Ret. , is a career Police Officer in the U.S. Air Force was born in Burlington, Iowa, USA, in 1955. He was the Deputy Chief of police at two Air Force Bases and the Commander of Law Enforcement Operations at another. Now retired, these days he enjoys camping, traveling, volunteering with the Girl Scouts and writing. [email protected]