Archive for the 'sea stories' Tag
Sailors “spin yarns” or tell “sea stories” which may contain marginal truth. They differ from landlubber fairy tales in that whereas a fairy tale begins, “Once upon a time,” the sea story begins with an assertion of truthfulness, “This is no s…”
My career of over 39 years has left me with no shortage of sea stories, all of which, as stated in the definition above, begin with (or at least contain) an assertion of truthfulness.
I think one worth sharing with you is the story of when I first “counseled” one of the enlisted men in my division in my very first ship, the USS ENTERPRISE (CVN 65). This yarn is not a “sea story” in the classic sense in that it isn’t rooted in an event that involved way too much liquor in a far-away liberty port, but it IS true and it came from a very important period in my career, a time that, I realize now, set the stage for everything that followed.
Let me set the scene for you…, I was 23 years old, just out of the Naval Academy and my year of nuclear propulsion training. I was assigned to the Big E in the Reactor department where we were responsible for the care and feeding of the ship’s eight nuclear reactors. Our job was to make steam, pure and simple – steam to drive our main engines, steam to make electricity, steam to send to the catapults to launch aircraft, steam to cook the food and steam to do the laundry. In Reactor department, it was all about making steam and making lots of it, 24/7 while underway.
And we were underway a lot. The Big E was the Queen of the Pacific Fleet, always where the action was and always sailing fast. I joined the ship in July, 1974 and we deployed that fall. I quickly qualified to supervise the propulsion plant and was immediately assigned to lead Reactor-4 Division, a unit of about 65-75 Sailors of varying technical specialties who operated and maintained the 2 nuclear reactors in the #4 propulsion plant. It was a big job and I had a great deal to learn, a very great deal and not a lot of time. We were expected to get up to speed quickly and start contributing to mission accomplishment right away. And on the Big E, the pace was always fast.
Now one of the very magical things about the Navy is the process that has developed over time to teach junior officers how to be officers and how to lead Sailors. As you might expect, there’s a great deal to this “educational” process (most of which isn’t written down anywhere), but the most important part is the role played by the division’s senior enlisted Sailor, the division Leading Chief Petty Officer (LCPO). This senior Sailor can make or break the junior officer assigned to his care.
Well, on the Big E in 1974, a very difficult time in the Navy as you may recall, the good Lord truly smiled on me because my LCPO in Reactor-4 division was simply the finest enlisted man I’ve ever served or sailed with, bar none.
His name was Senior Chief Machinist Mate Robert D. Neil from Riverton, Wyoming. Riverton was a small mining town and Senior Chief Neil knew his only job opportunity following high school would be to work underground, deep underground, like his father and grandfather before him. Senior Chief Neil had never gotten very far from Riverton while he was growing up and had never seen the ocean, but he knew that joining the Navy would keep him out of the mines and get him out of Wyoming, so he signed up to learn a skill and see the world.
Senior Chief Neil spent ten years in destroyers before he entered the nuclear propulsion program; he had been around the Navy a long time and seen just about everything at least once. Although he only finished high school, it appeared to me that Senior Chief Neil had the equivalent of PhDs in human relations, life, the Navy and nuclear propulsion; he was unbelievably wise and totally dedicated to the Navy. I’ve never met another man like him, in or out of the Navy.
Fortunately for me, Senior Chief Neil took my education very seriously. He always started our conversations with, “Now that Naval Academy stuff is OK as far as it goes, but there’s a helluva lot more to this business than what you learned there. And don’t let your education get in the way of learning what you need to know …,” And off we’d go on yet another lesson on what he thought I needed to know.
One of the things I needed to learn, and learn fast, was how to counsel the enlisted men in my division. Now these Sailors were a very interesting group. Their ages generally ranged from the low 20s to the late 30s. Some, a very few, were in it for a career, but the vast majority had volunteered to avoid being drafted and sent to Viet Nam. Two things they had in common were that they were all pretty intelligent – the nuclear power program standards saw to that – and they mostly hated the Navy. So it made for some very interesting leadership experiences when my enthusiasm for the Navy ran head-on into their individual and collective attitudes. As Senior Chief Neil used to say, “Mr Harvey, you’re dangerously enthusiastic for someone who is so goddamn naive.”
But as smart as many of my Sailors were, and as experienced as some of them were, they were all still human and certainly had their fair share of human problems, big and small, with the additional stress of extended deployments far from home that comes with Navy life. On most occasions when one of the Sailors needed to talk about a particular problem, Senior Chief Neil would listen, ask a few penetrating questions that got right to the heart of the issue and then guide the Sailor to reach the best solution that fit the circumstances. Senior Chief Neil rarely imposed a solution on a Sailor; he always wanted to make the Sailor think he had solved his own problem, or at least resolved it as best could be done given the circumstances. A big part of my education in “Navy 101” was watching Senior Chief Neil in these counseling sessions and then talking with him afterwards about what he said and why he said it. Those discussions were pure gold for me and provided invaluable lessons-learned I applied throughout my own Navy career.
Finally the big day came when Senior Chief felt I was ready to “solo” in counseling. This step was a big one for me in my development as a junior officer and in the statement it made to the division; Senior Chief Neil was sending a signal to my Sailors that he considered me ready, not just ready to counsel Sailors, but also ready to lead them.
Senior Chief had carefully selected the time during the deployment and the issue for me to handle – one of our Sailors had received a “Dear John” letter with a twist; not only was she leaving and getting a divorce, she was taking their little daughter, too.
Now, we were operating in the Indian Ocean and would be for several more weeks – that meant no mail, no communications with home (except emergency Red Cross messages) and no ability to leave the ship to try to get home and deal with the situation. In effect, there was absolutely nothing I could say or do that would have any real impact on this Sailor’s very real problem. The bottom-line, I couldn’t really solve anything; I knew that and the Sailor knew that. But what Senior Chief Neil also knew was that no matter what I said, I couldn’t make things worse. And that was the key factor as far as he was concerned – I’d get some “street cred” in the division for taking on a very tough problem of one of our good Sailors and there was no way for me to screw it up. Theoretically.
Before I sat down with the Sailor, Machinist Mate Second Class (MM2) Vernon Oyers from Oklahoma City, Senior Chief carefully reviewed all the facts with me and gave me what were, in effect, my redlines.
Senior Chief knew that MM2 Oyers was going to ask me to go to the head of the Reactor Department and request that MM2 Oyers be given permission to return home and try to reconcile with his wife and save the marriage. Our department head was a very tough, no-nonsense officer who would, of course, deny the request as there was no way to make it happen and the rationale was not, in the Navy’s eyes in 1975, compelling.
What Senior Chief Neil wanted to ensure was that I would also deny the request and so appear to my department head as a junior officer who had the guts to say “no” and wasn’t afraid to potentially be seen as the bad guy.
In his final guidance to me Senior Chief said, “Mr Harvey, there’s just no way to do this from the goddamn middle of the Indian goddamn Ocean. And no one, no one, expects you to say yes, not even MM2 Oyers – he just wants to see someone in authority care enough to listen to him. And that would be you. So just goddamn listen…, sir.”
The time for the meeting finally came and MM2 Oyers dutifully appeared at the small, battered government-issue gray desk near the back of the engine room that served as Senior Chief’s and my office. There was some privacy there due to the equipment arrangement and you could actually converse without shouting.
MM2 Oyers was a very solid Sailor; he did his job willingly, pitched in when extra effort was needed and was a very steady watch-stander. He was respected within the division as a shipmate you could depend on. He was also a very proud “Okie” who lived and died for Sooner football. He was the kind of Sailor every division needs – one of the guys who just gets it done.
We started talking; actually he started talking and I just listened. And I wasn’t ready at all for what I heard. I had expected a kind of rushed statement of the facts followed by an expression of the desire to go home and sort everything out and then a question concerning if there was anything I could do to help.
What I heard was the story of high-school sweethearts who grew up together in a very small town. I heard the story of how their love grew and how they eventually convinced the parents to give their blessings to the marriage. I heard the story of the drive across country after the marriage that served as a honeymoon and damned if I didn’t hear about the honeymoon, too. I heard about everything
I was stunned. I had rehearsed this meeting a hundred times in my mind, imagining every twist and turn the conversation could possibly take, but I hadn’t imagined this.
Petty Officer Oyers kept talking and I kept listening. But when he started talking about his daughter, he started crying. I was sitting there in a panic. After all, I had never even had a serious girl-friend and here was this Sailor asking me advice on how to save his marriage and keep his daughter. This wasn’t in the script! Finally I started tearing up myself and I said, “Oyers, give me the special request chit; I’ll approve it and see what I can do for you.” Tearfully MM2 Oyers gave me the chit and thanked me profusely for my help and support.
As Oyers left, Senior Chief Neil came in. He took one look at me and said, “You screwed this one up, didn’t you?” He stuck his hand out and asked for the chit. He glanced down to where I had signed it checking the “request approved” box, then glared at me and said, “I’m going lose this chit and get Oyers to re-do it. We’ll do this whole goddamn thing again and this time we’ll get it right. There’s no way you can take this to Cdr Read (our department head) – he’ll have your ass and you’ll look pretty f*&^ing stupid to boot.”
I stood up and took the chit back, “Senior Chief, it’s my division so it’ll have to be my ass.”
Senior Chief looked at me, smiled and only said, “Aye-aye, sir.”
In view of the fact the holidays are fast upon us and noting the need for a bit of levity around these parts, the following sea story is submitted. As all good sea stories are wont to begin, this one too begins “This is no sh*t” — all the more appropriate as you read further. Besides, the current post count stands at 666 and *that* simply cannot be left to stand for even a little while… – SJS
Naval Aviators (and by extension, Naval Flight Officers), of the tailhook variety that is, tend to be a peculiar lot. On the one hand we live to fly “at the boat” and yet, the prospect of actually doing anything else besides actually aviating is well, anathema – for some. Early on the behavior was learned at the feet of our elders – the sage department heads and XO and of course, the grand wizard himself, the CO (with occasional helpings from the local deity – CAG). GQ station? Rack or Ready Room, door locked and flicks on the reel (that’s movies on a reel-to-reel projector for the iGeneration…). Later, when offered the opportunity to serve as ship’s company, we feign the vapors and allege as how we will “be forever scarred and isn’t there a spot on CAG staff and why do I have to go back to sea but not in a squadron?” Well, some that is. Others, think differently .
For you see, it is during that tour that one comes to work with a whole new breed of creature in a way that the temporary residents of the air wing never could – ship’s company. An assortment of black shoes, brown shoes (of the, you know, VP type), and nukes. Ah yes, the nukes – but that’s another story.
One comes to work with and appreciate the skills and sacrifice of such a diverse clan made up of SK’s, OS’s, QM’s, IC’s, AB’s, and BM’s amongst others. Now each has their own field of specialty – the SK’s were supply folk, the QM’s did the navigation grunt work (because, you see, the ‘gator and his henchmen – the ANAV and QMC, were not believers in GPS and demanded a full day’s navigation work, including celestial, the taskmaster…). And the HT’s? Well, the HT’s were the handymen of the ship – doing the dark, dirty, hot, nasty jobs that kept the gleaming city of aviators and sailors afloat and functioning.
So it was that your ‘umble scribe found himself midway through another mind-numbing at sea period as navigator on the second ship of the renowned Nimitz-class, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69). Now one of the many responsibilities of the ‘gator and the Nav Department is the material condition of the navigation bridge (home, as it were to the CO, ‘gator and bridge watch teams during underway periods) as well as several other spaces throughout the island. Included in that roster of spaces are the head (“rest room” for our Air Force readers) that is just aft of the port side entrance to the Nav bridge and abreast an area quaintly known as the “blue tile” area – so named for an area that is a pathway for distinguished visitors on their way to visit the CO. Ergo, it is an area to be kept spit/polished clean and shiny.
And it was, of course, owned by the Nav department.
Funny thing about heads – just like their shore-based counterparts found in dwellings across the land, there is a requirement to vent gasses overboard. And just like their shore-based counterparts, they can get blocked. Not necessarily by bird’s nests, but any one of a number of other devices including corrosion or misplaced rags. The end result is the same – noxious odors, like uninvited guests settling around one’s self.
So it was during this particular underway period that the faint beginnings of a malodorous presence was detected by the ‘gator who, ever alert for that which would offend the big CO, made haste to summon the denizens of Nav, posthaste, to clean the offending head. With much elbow grease and disinfectant, they applied themselves and the odor withdrew, for the moment. Alas, as it was summer and this was the warm waters of the Caribbean, temperatures crept inexorably upward and the odor reasserted itself. This wicked game of olfactory hide and seek continued over the next day, day and a half and finally drew the baleful glare of said CO upon the ‘gator.
“Fix it” was the non-verbal communication – passed and quite clearly received.
The Chief Engineer was summoned and with him a young hull tech (HT). By this point in time, the odor, an overly ripe, heavily ammonic one, had manifested itself throughout the blue-tile passage way and hung like a curtain in front of the entrance to the bridge. With SECNAV himself due on the morrow for a visit, the pressure was well and fully on. The Chief Engineer departed the premises to consult his oracle, leaving the HT to continue the search and the ‘gator in dark funk. The sun was setting in the west – and a glorious setting it was, displaying all manner of vermilions and gold and yet, the ‘gator – he a connoisseur of such, was unable to appreciate it as he and the HT began an expanding circle search forth with to locate the source of the odor.
Let us hit the “pause” button for a moment here and further describe the lay of the land. At twenty some years of age, IKE was not quite the spring chicken she was when the ‘gator first boarded her as a young Ensign with his first squadron, the Bluetails of VAW-121. In the intervening years sensors and other equipment had been added and removed. Supporting those systems, like great bundles of ganglia, were cable runs located in the overhead. When he and the ship had been young, such was the paucity of cables in the overhead that he could walk relatively upright with little fear of busting his noggin at the top of his 6’4” frame on said cables. Now, twenty years later and thick, twisted bundles snaked their way down through the island to the main part of the ship below – obstructing what lay behind them to all but the most determined of searches – the same kind normally reserved for finding the rear-most sparkplug on a V-8 shoe-horned into a cavity reserved for a wimpy 4-cylinder. The kind that required fingers of, oh, a foot or so in length. With eyeballs on the end to better see what one was looking for.
So, it was while thinking evil thoughts and contemplating his immediate future — of a visiting SECNAV having to be escorted to his bridge through his spaces wearing a HAZMAT suit because of the increasing toxicity of the air that he turned to the HT and asked if he could sense any differences in the intensity of the smell, all the better to try and locate the source.
Whereupon, said HT, who must have been all of a very young 18, paused, and turned to the ‘gator and with the most mournful look the ‘gator had ever beheld, said “sir, I’ve been sniffing sh*t for so long I can’t smell anything anymore”
And with that, the ‘gator’s heart melted and his dark mood fled as he said with a slow smile “Well, I’ve been shoveling sh*t for so long now that together we ought to be able to locate it by sight” and they recommenced the search this time starting with a careful inch by inch search in the passageway’s overhead. And it was while doing this, stretching from the top of an overturned wastebasket (and hoping the Safety Nazi’s wouldn’t put in a surprise appearance) that the ‘gator felt something crumble under his hand. Grasping some more, a cascade of brown powder fell on the ‘gator and a surprised HT – both of whom were quickly reduced to retching coughs in the face of a flood of gasses, freed from the now open vent.
Sometime later it was determined that the offending vent pipe had so many coats of paint sprayed on it over the years that the coating of paint was all that was left when the original pipe material had rusted (‘scuse me, corroded) away. A repair party was summoned and by daybreak, a new vent pipe was installed, restoring the decorum of the sacrosanct area, well ahead of SECNAV’s arrival.
And the ‘gator had re-newed appreciation of the great American White Hat to add to his esteem for the aviation wrench turners and box swappers with whom he was previously acquainted.
As well as a story to pass along to you, gentle reader.
From the ancient of days, seafarers have been legendary for the yarns they spun and the percentage of truth found within. The Navy blogsphere is no less a venue for the same, though one may find the tale beginning with “This is no s…” Here, however, one finds compilations – from life on a CV to observations that spanned a career. Ever wonder about snakes in the cockpit and landing an F/A-18 single engine – on the ship? How about North Atlantic Ops in the Bear’s lair during the Cold War? Or just laying it on the line? And we’ve become familiar with a Date with Destiny here in these very pages. Now, while there is a distinct brown-shoe flavor to the majority of the above (some say its because we excell at swindling and trading horses – practiced regularly on the flightdeck and ready room…) point is, there’s some great tales out there worth a lunch break or two to kick back and spend a few in another world, another time without cluttering the nightstand. Any other recommendations out there?
- On Midrats 19 April 2015 – Episode 276: “21st Century Ellis”
- John Quincy Adams — The Grand Strategist: An Interview With Historian Charles N. Edel
- 4 Reasons Not to Resign Your Commission as a Naval Officer
- About Face: A Return to Marine Corps Innovation
- On Midrats 29 March 15 – Episode 273: Partnership, Influence, Presence and the role of the MSC