Tags: sea stories
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.”