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Remembering Benjamin Harry Etling

We welcome the ambassador to Detroit.

Benjamin Harry Etling Sr. passed away peacefully Monday, September 28, 2020, at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara. Survivors include his sons Benjamin (Dianne),  Robert, William (Debra), and Bert (Laurel) Etling; granddaughters Lisa and Leah (Patrick) Etling McElearney; grandson Will (Abigail) Etling; and great-grandchildren Laurel Etling Socolow and Mercer and Rowan Etling. His beloved wife Marion (Prellwitz) died in 2010.

   He was born in Detroit, Michigan, on September 19, 1923, to Benjamin Werner Etling II and Selma Carolina Braasch Etling. His middle name honored grandpa’s  brother, who died as a teenager.

   Long before Mick Jagger pranced at Ford Field, Ben Etling trumpeted at Tiger Stadium.

   “When I went to Wayne State University in 1940, we were the half-time show for the Detroit Lions. 120 in the band, probably 20 trumpets, marching in formation. We spent two weeks perfecting the show,” he said. At that time, Tiger Stadium was called Briggs Field. What was Detroit really like, we asked. “It was a jungle,” my reticent dad laughed. He was never one to go on about himself. “Lafayette Elementary was just a normal school,” he admitted. He was in a harmonica band, playing for assemblies and PTA meetings. Visionary automaker Preston Tucker’s niece, Shirley, was in his 7th grade class, and they went to the family’s estate for her birthday party. At Lincoln Park High, dad got his first trumpet.

   “In the early days when we’d go to a ball game, we’d take the streetcar downtown. You could stop at a store on the way, and get some grapes or something,” recalled my father.

   “I think probably the nicest thing was when we would go camping. We got our first car in 1933, when I was 10, a 1931 Ford Model A. There was no trunk or anything, but the car had running boards where you could clamp things. We packed a tent and all our gear and drove 200 miles, up to Silver Lake, and camped there for 3 or 4 days, cooking out over a fire.” One of my favorite memories is Dad cooking us all eggs and bacon over a campfire at frosty Glacier National Park. 

   In 1943, dad left the metallurgy apprentice school at Ford, where he was testing batches of steel, and entered the Army, aged 19.”They gave us a test, then they sent everybody to basic training. We were at Camp Barclay in Texas for 13 weeks of medical corps basic training. They selected those above a certain IQ level to go to specialized training. I went to Camp Maxey, a distribution center where they decided what school you were going to. Our group went to Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee. I got out in March of ’46.

   “I’d been playing in the dance band. I applied to NC State to get into engineering, and I went there in the fall. The best band I was ever in was the NC State marching band, where I was the soloist.” He performed a tricky triple tongue epic, Stars in a Velvety Sky. He played in an eight-piece ensemble for a party given by Governor Scott, who sat down and chatted with the band. They had numerous late-night gigs, making magic from nine to one. 

   Dad earned a mechanical engineering degree at North Carolina State, then went to work for Western Electric in Winston-Salem, eventually transferring to a rocket operation AT&T maintained at Vandenberg AFB in 1966. There he worked on cost control in an office beside a vast hanger where intercontinental ballistic missiles were constructed. Indoor owls swooped through the cavernous confines. One engineer had a charred chunk of crud about the size of a baseball on his desk, part of a guidance package that had survived a fiery re-entry as a disintegrating satellite slipped from space, finishing up in a farmer’s field in Montana. They tracked its origin by serial numbers on the transistors. “One of ours!,” he said proudly.

   From time to time one of the hundred-foot long missiles would be trundled out to a launch site, set erect, and hurled by a fiery fist halfway across the Pacific to Kwajalein Atoll. Dad tormented that atoll for over twenty years. As far we could tell, the Kwajaleinos had never done anything to him, but he wouldn’t explain. He said that info was only available on a “need to know” basis basis, honoring his modest security clearance. Perhaps this breaches it. Sorry! But spy-wise, any Ivan on the Amtrak that runs for miles through that top secret space station could pop Polaroids of poised projectiles while sipping syrah in a crushed velour armchair atop the Coast Daylight observation car.

   In retirement he enjoyed blowing his horn with the Village Band and Santa Ynez Valley Wind Ensemble, and curating his classic car collection. He modified them to his taste, once cutting the hardtop right off a ’63 Thunderbird, painting it red, white, and blue, and adorning it with tiny gold stars. It graced many a Solvang parade.

   He was a founding member of and deacon at the Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church. He and Marion delivered Meals on Wheels for many years.

   He loved a good game of Scrabble or croquet. Ever the fierce competitor, he was always a good host, a congenial and sportsmanlike foe on the board or on the lawn.

  Dad was 97 years of age. Gabriel, strike up the band, a new trumpeter is at the gate.