Speaking of Generals, One That Should Have Been, and What My Mom Should Know

So there I am, late Sunday afternoon, heading down 95 South in my rented car, about 7 hours after leaving my home in Reno, listening to Public Radio, glad my trip was almost over.  A press conference with Secretary of Defense Gates, and a general (whose name I did not catch) was playing on my satellite radio and both men were being asked about the resignation of General McChrystal.

The first reporter’s asked both men if it was “fair” for McChrystal to have lost his post, “…since most of the comments that appeared in Rolling Stone didn’t even come from McChrystal, but from his staff….”

Gates gave a polished answer that centered on chain-of-command and insubordination.  Then it was the general’s turn to speak and he said that he physically got sick to his stomach when he read the comments, stating what McChrystal had allowed to happen violated the very thing that makes our military work, the fact that the Commander-in-Chief was a civilian, and the military took its marching orders from the Commander-in-Chief.

The next reporter asked both men if there wasn’t a conflict that had been brewing for quite some time–a conflict between what McChrystal wanted to do and what the civilian administration wanted.  Both Gates and the general restated, more forcefully, that the chain-of-command made such a scenario impossible, reiterating the military takes its orders from the civilian Commander-in-Chief.

Then another reporter asked if the big mistake McChrystal made was to have allowed The Rolling Stone to do an interview, and again both Gates and the general stated that point was completely irrelevant as to why McChrystal had to go.

My first thought was:  Who the heck are these reporters?  Did each of them come with their own agenda of how our military is supposed to work, or were they simply ignorant of the basic tenet that our military answers to civilian dictate?  Then I wondered if these kind of questions came up when MacArthur was fired, or if most of those reporters from that era actually served in the military themselves, and thus they clearly understood what insubordination was and still is…

Unlike the fathers of folks my age (and older–I’m 54 years old), the sand wars we have fought since Bush senior went into Iraq (but not Baghdad) really was an effort of a few–with little sacrifice made “at home”–whereas our fathers and our nation fought  and sacrificed as one in WW II.

Many argue our current lack of collective sacrifice is one reason we have now been entrenched in Afghanistan for 9 long years; to which I would add our national fixation with “winning” makes this “war” impossible as we will never win as long as car bombs continue to kill indiscriminately  and those whose land we have been in now for nearly a decade come of age and decide to strap explosives to themselves to avenge the misery war always brings, victorious or not…

Then I thought about my former boss, and dear friend, B.V. Johnson.  Lt. Colonel USAF (Retired), B.V. Johnson.  Vietnam War Fighter Pilot, B.V. Johnson.  President of Universal Gaming, B.V. Johnson.  President of Aristocrat U.S., B.V. Johnson.  President of Innovative Gaming Corporation of America (IGCA), B.V. Johnson…

I thought about the last time I worked for B.V. at IGCA, and how we both fought together to save IGCA;  how we won most of those battles, but ended up losing the war–IGCA now in the slot machine graveyard, buried somewhere near Sigma Gaming, and the other companies that had–and lost–their moment in the casino gaming industry.

I also thought about the nice e mails I had just exchanged with B.V.:  him telling me how happy he was that he moved from Reno to Tennessee, how good his life was going, and how the drop in elevation made his chronic breathing difficulties more manageable.

There will probably be many of Kenny (Adams’) readers who recognize the name B.V. Johnson.  A few of them will know that B.V. stands for Barrett Verle.  Some of you may know that his nickname, B.V., came when he was a Captain in the Air Force, and there were some 5 Captain Johnsons at the base he flew missions from, and that every time the loudspeaker would announce “Captain Johnson report to…” that all of them would show up until they came up with going by their initials… Hence, B.V.

Some may know of B.V.’s “I love me” room, a room devoted to his long career in the Air Force, a room filled with medals for valor and bravery, a room with pictures of him flying fighter jets, after-burners on, “heading 180 degrees straight up”.  B.V. was always very wary of folks seeing this room, as he did not want people to get the wrong idea about him, that he was some ‘golden boy’, even though he was.

If you have ever met a fighter pilot who flew in battle you’ll know what I mean when I talk about B.V.’s swagger… He could be having a heated discussion with someone one minute, and a couple of hours later buying that person a beer, both of them laughing and talking louder and louder as the empty bottles of beer line up like soldiers.  As a ‘career’ military man, he liked his rituals and ceremony, while he also hated ritual and ceremony.  He could have–and should have–been a general, but as he’ll admit, speaking his mind and not playing politics kept him from ascending what he–and our country–deserved…

My favorite war story is one B.V. finally relented and let me read, a story written by a “back-seater” on a night mission B.V. flew in Vietnam.  The “back-seater”  (the guy behind the pilot, B.V.) wrote how they dipped down below the tree-line on a moon-lit night, taking a lot of enemy-fire, B.V. turning the jet sideways to reduce what the enemy could shoot at as they flew toward their target, his wing-tip nearly scraping the ground, how they could hear their jet taking fire and being hit, how B.V. took aim on the target, shot, and then turned on his after-burners and headed “180 degrees straight up”…

The back-seater than tells how harrowing the mission had been, how lucky they were to not have been shot down, and how B.V. got on the radio and said, “We’re going back in… I missed the target…”

B.V. was (and is still) a fighter.  He likes a good fight, and he knows how to win;  most importantly, he always wins with honor and integrity…

I never served in the military.  My mother’s brother, Uncle Doug (where I get my middle name from), was an Annapolis Graduate, served brilliantly, and prospered mightily after retiring from the military.  I remember Uncle Doug doing one arm push-ups when he was in his fifties.

Uncle Doug wanted to get me into the academy, but it was the 70’s and I was not a big fan of the military;  I was (and still am) what my father referred to as a “bleeding heart liberal”.  Plus, when I was a kid, my father drove me out to a military school, me crying the whole way, promising that I would “be good”, so any mention of military, to me, meant punishment…

Since B.V. refuses to allow Ken Adams (or anyone) do his life history (Ken would do a great job, just as he has with all of his excellent oral history books he has written–if you have not read Ken’s books, you really should), I hesitate in writing about him;  though after hearing the radio interview, I was compelled to…

B.V. Johnson tells many great stories.  I believe all of them are true.  I loved to hear him talk about growing up in Montana:  the story about how he mangled his ankle in a horrible horse riding accident;  the fact he came from a Mormon family;  what it was like growing up on a farm.

But by far, my favorite story is the one he would tell how he killed a prized-sheep by accident while fending off a turkey that was out to get him, with the funniest line always getting me in tears, “Who the hell knew a turkey could climb a ladder?”

I cannot do the story justice, but in the end, B.V. was forced to retreat into the barn to escape the turkey, climbed up the ladder to the hay loft to avoid the bold frontal attack the turkey employed, only to have the turkey climb the ladder like some special forces commando,  leaving B.V. the only ammo he had left, a pitch-fork that he hurled at the bird, and the sheep that pitchfork landed in, and the considerable collateral damage the whole skirmish created… I will admit I felt bad for the sheep, but that’s the ‘bleeding heart’ talking…

After a full career in the Air Force, a career that saw B.V. as a Top-Gun instructor (B.V. used to tell me he never liked Tom Cruise), a fighter-pilot who flew many missions, won many medals, trained many men, commanded scores more, B.V. decided that he wanted to do something to keep him busy, so he went to a slot technical school in Reno, and he then went to go to work for Universal Gaming as an entry-level technician.

I’m not sure how long it took, but I think it was only a matter of less than a year, B.V. Johnson went from slot technician at Universal, to President of Universal.  Those were famous times for Universal:  the legendary stories about Randy Adams (no relation to Ken) and Gary Harris selling Mag 7’s stepper slot machines, and selling them so much and with such ferocity that IGT got Nevada Gaming Control to make its infamous “near miss” ruling, putting the skids to the Japanese company from competing with IGT in the stepper market.

I met B.V. when I was asked to interview for a sales position with Aristocrat.  I was sitting in the lobby, waiting to meet the sales manager, when this guy walks through the lobby, wearing docker pants, a button-up Izod sweater , and a hair cut that looked home-cooked–B.V. Johnson himself, though, at the time, I thought he was an accountant or another worker-bee, and did not learn his name until a couple of hours later when I was escorted to his office for an interview… After spending about 15 minutes with B.V., I knew I wanted to work for him–there was nothing political about him, and I knew he was a straight-shooter.

Those were interesting times at Aristocrat. B.V. had to constantly do battle with Australia;  like many companies that have great success in one market (Aristocrat owned the Australian market), they expect that success to somewhat naturally occur in every new market they enter.

Most of the time I was on the road, selling machines up in Oregon, but when I did spend some time in the Reno office, I would often see B.V. come into work, looking a little tired, and I knew that he had been involved in a late night phone conference that easily could have been conducted late in the afternoon… I truly think there were some Down Under who thought they could wear B.V. out, but, like I said before, B.V. likes a good fight, and there’s no one I’ve ever met who could wear him down…

Okay, so how did I get from driving to Vegas, hearing a radio interview about McChrystal, to telling a story about B.V. Johnson?  Well, the interview was so incredible in terms of the reporters refusing to understand how our military gets its orders that I suddenly realized that I had done the same thing with B.V. when I worked for him at IGCA…

I went to work at IGCA for several reasons:  new management at Aristocrat (lack of stability at the top has bedeviled Aristocrat ever since Lenny Ainsworth was pushed through door) wanted to conduct sales  as if we were an established commodity (hire order takers);  being “rewarded” for running the sales team and increasing sales by 600% while increasing the price per slot machine from $4995 each to $8995, my reward being my compensation reduced by 30%; IGCA had a Linux, pc-based platform it had developed and they were licensed in Nevada (Aristocrat took another 4 years or so before they were finally licensed in Nevada); and, importantly, B.V. Johnson was at the helm.

We did some incredible things at IGCA to keep it alive.  One of the more amazing feats was to get Arizona law changed so that our electronic table games were recognized as 1 gaming position, instead of the 6 stations their gaming board interpreted as law.  This was important in Arizona because “live” table games were not legal, but gaming positions were limited, and having our electronic blackjack, roulette, and craps seen as 6 stations instead of  1 made the economics of selling the units (that sold for about $85K each) hard to justify.

We finally got all the bugs out of the new platform, and our first game, Monster Money, was a top performer every place we put it… It was Harrah’s top “nickel” game, beating out Aristocrat, WMS, and any other video multi-real, multi-coin machine.

But IGCA needed more money.  And that’s where things went downhill, as the major investor and board member decided he had had enough, so we were forced into looking for new investment dollars.  Unfortunately, the guys that came in did so with promises of millions, with fairly good intentions, but problems in their own house that potentially could be problems for licensing.   The whole IGCA downfall has many more details to it, but that’s not the point.

The point is that there was a key time when I forgot the chain-of-command with B.V.  Yes, I was a Senior VP, and B.V. relied on me speaking my mind, but I really fought “the system” when the new investors came in–I refused to take any orders from them until the deal was closed and they had passed licensing, and I was being my normal antagonistic self.

Now don’t be confused about issues of licensing and B.V. Johnson.  He knew I was right about some of the things I was saying about the new guys having no say in our business until the deal is done, and no one was more strict on compliance issues than B.V.  But I took things too far.

One day B.V. and I were staring at the big white board he kept in his office;  on the board was one side for “money coming in”, the other side was “money going out”… I don’t even remember what the issue was, but B.V. said he was going to do something and that if I didn’t like it, I could go “f” myself.  I got all upset, and didn’t understand that at that moment I was supposed to soldier up and follow orders.  I lost track of the chain-of-command, and I was insubordinate.  I’ll gladly be insubordinate to false authority or folks I don’t respect, but B.V. had true authority–the type great leaders posses–and I deeply respected him.  I was way out of line, and I should have been busted down to private, if it were the military…

Okay, here’s the other reason I write this story:  to honor the living… A little more than a month ago Tim Parrott died, and, like B.V., he too was a war hero.  Tim’s story is just as inspirational as B.V.’s, but I’m not sure I ever read any accounts of his heroics (flying helicopters, carrying out wounded, taking enemy-fire).  Tim was a private man, and, so is B.V.  But B.V. still lives, and will probably outlive many of us out of sheer determination and will.

The other reason I write this is that I went to see my Mother after some meetings I had in Las Vegas–she lives in San Diego area, and her Alzheimer’s has not only stolen most of her mind, but now her body is betraying her too, and that time is drawing near where she will dissolve into nothingness and die…

I wish she could read this story and know that her son “did good”, and that her son is friends with a living hero, B.V. Johnson, that her son is a buddy of a true general, or one that should have been…


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