Haze gray memories

All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came.
~John F. Kennedy , Newport dinner speech before America’s Cup Races, Sept. 1962

I have never learned to sail a wind-driven vessel, nor do I recall the difference between a sloop and a ketch. That said, it does not mean I have no familiarity with ships, storms, life aboard ship, or the special bond that seafaring men (or women) have as a crew at sea.  For eight years out of a twenty-six year Navy career, I was a member of ships company, on a Virginia-class cruiser, a Spruance -class destroyer, and a converted amphibious transport dock-turned-command ship (for the U.S. THIRD Fleet).  I have spent months at sea repetitively in the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, Mediterranean,  and Caribbean Seas.  Perhaps the readers of this blog, merchantmen and military navymen (and women) have also looked upon Naples, Italy with Mount Vesuvius as a backdrop in the early morning.  As a Petty Officer on a ship that was one of the very first Navy visitors after forty years of the Cold War,  made port in Varna, Bulgaria. On deployment to enforce blockade of Saddam Hussein’s illicit oil trade after the Gulf War, transited the Suez Canal and made circles in the Red Sea. Like the apostles of Jesus two millennia ago, I walked the streets of old Jerusalem, visited Cyprus and Crete, Turkey and Greece.  Gazed upon the ruins of ancient seafaring civilizations four thousand years old.   I’ve ridden trains on a day’s liberty time as a Pacific Fleet sailor between Yokosuka and Tokyo, Japan,  and as an Atlantic Fleet one from Marseilles to Paris, France.

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, And a gray mist on the sea’s face, and a gray dawn breaking.
~John Masefield

A man I have known casually for years at a place I have written about many times, Liberty Tobacco, a cigar lounge in San Diego, California, is another Old Salt.  We both have long careers in the electronics industry and worked at some of the same places in San Diego.   But tonight we learned that we have been to the same places underway on ships,  and to shore stations around the country.  Twenty-five or thirty years ago is a long time in an age where, in a social media-world, memories last minutes or perhaps hours till another attention-seeker replaces them.

We shared memories of the school buildings for our respective Navy trades being across from one another on the shore of Lake Michigan.  We were assigned to electronics schools ( perhaps five years apart) at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of Chicago.  And we both have been through the fire-fighting trainer in Norfolk, Virginia. This is a large complex of buildings built to resemble shipboard compartments where fuel-oil fires are set ablaze.  Into the heat,  dense smoke, and real danger, crews are trained to combat them,  and to become familiar with all the tools and roles needed to fight and preserve a ship.  At sea, there is only your shipmates to keep your vessel afloat.

Other memories of putting to sea on your first ship get dusted off and refreshed while talking.   The times standing watch on the ship’s Quarterdeck in the middle of the night alongside the pier in Italy, you can chuckle about the garbage barge alongside – with something moving (not human) in the shadows.  Or noting wharf rats the size of cats rooting around a dumpster in the dark at the head of the pier. And realizing what “rat guards” on your mooring lines are designed to block.

Memories of winter rain in Panama that will soak you to the skin in minutes.  One of the wettest places on Earth,  the year-round rain recharges the waters in the Canal Zone powering the locks on each end of the Isthmus.  Swapping stories of liberty visits in ports ten time zones away from home that are extended to a month when a casualty occurs.   For one it was the ship’s screw (the propeller, in civilian-speak).  Without a shipyard and drydock, this enormous thing had to be replaced underwater by specially-trained teams.  For the other,  when a gas-turbine engine has to be flown from the USA and replaced in the Netherlands Antilles.  Due to a prior transit in a freshwater river in the Northeast USA, killing the built-up marine growth – and then immediate transit to the Caribbean resulted in the cooling inlets for that turbine being choked by dead organisms and engine destroyed by overheating.

The sea speaks a language polite people never repeat. It is a colossal scavenger slang and has no respect.
~Carl Sandburg

While some of my friends have experienced sea-sickness on a harbor ferry in San Diego bay, and worn the medical patches when first putting to sea on cruise ships and small frigates,  these aids may become unneeded when accustomed to life at sea for months at a time.   With merchantmen and Navymen, the camaraderie of sharing shipboard stories,  having weathered hurricanes and strong gales in the mid-Atlantic and off the western coast of Mexico transiting from the Panama Canal, the memories seem only days old instead of a quarter-century.   My shipmates and I have marveled at the  different colors of ocean water, the patterns of currents, bright sunshine and placid seas turn gray-black and stormy within hours.  I’ve been concerned for brightly color birds alighting on our ship as we leave port and then been still there twenty miles to sea.  Crossing the Equator and the International Date Line,  as a Navyman I have been both Pollywog and seasoned Shellback during the traditional ceremonies of the “Shellback Initiation”.

And some of the other ‘initiations’ like standing a first watch on the bridge – learning to always check your binoculars handed to you,  especially at night.  Some salty Bosun’ mate (Boatswains mate) may have first smeared a little shoe polish in the eyecups.   Or being especially vigilant while  manning instruments and reporting conditions during underway replenishment.  Any sailor will acknowledge the gait at sea is unique, an adaptation to simply performing your duties while the ship rolls in heavy seas.   Huge waves breaking over the bow of your ship become commonplace.  Watching a smaller vessel in your group seeming to disappear in the trough of the waves and then pop up as the waves crash by.  While performing maintenance on deck, looking out and seeing a small sailboat, manned by an individual sailor, pass alongside hundreds of miles from shore.

The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever. Jacques Yves Cousteau (brainyquote.com)

For the many who are serving or have served honorably in uniform, we have a bond that few understand.  For those who have spent several months, several years, or a working life,  at sea, we have another strong bond that years and decades later we recall clearly.   Perhaps it is indeed the stirring of the salt in our blood,  the sea spray on our skin,  and the experience of working together in times of routine,  in danger and in emergencies when we all realize just how we are and will always be, Sailors.

[quotes, except where noted, via writebyte.net ]

Lessons of a military life

#2. If you’re gonna be stupid, you’re gonna be strong!

Flashback to 1977

My Navy career had a lot of great life, management, and leadership lessons. Many are undecipherable to those who have not been in military service but range from teamwork, testing physical and mental limits, courage, decision-making, and taking responsibility before being given authority.   In Navy boot camp, the first thing learned is obedience to authority.  Line up, no talking, do not move,  and other commands.  A second is quickly having situational awareness, introduced to recruits around 0400 (4 AM) on their first morning with a barracks wakeup.  On my first morning,  a metal trash can was hurled clattering across the floor.  That, and a simultaneous yell of “Get your @#$ up!”,  by the Company Commander.

For 9 weeks  recruits are converted from civilians into military service men and women.  Attention to detail was another lesson.   A military uniform is worn is a precise manner and everything from stray threads to “gig lines” – proper alignment – and cleanliness are inspected.  Deviations from the expectation often result in exercise – pushups, situps, 8-count body-builders.   In addition, some “special attention” is paid, verbally, to the offender.  However,  everyone in the unit is afforded the same attention.  To build cohesion, the expectation is for others in the unit to help their shipmate improve for the good of the unit as a whole.  Making one’s bed, or rack,  had to be done in an equally precise manner.  Proper stowage of uniform items is also according to regulations.  It was the proper folding and stowage of underwear that earned me “special attention”.  I had reversed the left-right folds prescribed by the company commander.  For that and other misunderstandings, I  became the “Polack” – an endearing term – to the company commander until I graduated and became a “Shipmate”.

 Thirty years later (2005)

Half a lifetime later, I was again in training.  This time it was as a Navy Reservist selected for advancement to Chief Petty Officer (CPO).    There is a century and a quarter of tradition in the Chief Petty Officer ranks, where these senior enlisted men and women train and mentor enlisted sailors and junior officers.  Officers provide the mission and the direction.   Chiefs take their direction and delegate the execution to sailors they place in charge of their division. Chiefs oversee their divisional petty officers,  and they in turn, place more junior petty officers in charge of division Workcenters made up of several sailors. The purpose is to identify and mentor sailors to gain leadership skills and advance up through the ranks.  To be a trusted member of the Chiefs’ Mess, a First Class Petty Officer, who may be technically proficient,  has to be trained to think and act, not for self-promotion,  but to delegate and mentor more junior sailors.  Also, it is a Chief who deflects criticism,  rebuke or conflicting directions given by a junior officer to an enlisted person in their division.  It is the Chief who relies on advice from the years of expertise within the Chiefs’ Mess, to lead sailors, handle interpersonal conflicts, maintain discipline, and mentor junior officers to perform to the Commanding Officer’s expectation of warfighting proficiency.

As a Chief Petty Officer Selectee, prior to the promotion ceremony each September, each undergoes  a period of training (exercise, team-building, lessons in leadership, traditions and CPO history) and builds camaraderie within the Mess.  This formally begins when selection results are reported.  And there are invitations to Chief Petty Officers, both on Active Duty and Retired to participate in the “Season” to build the sense of identity as a Mess.

To this very day, I still chuckle over the introduction of our trainer, a Chief Petty Officer who carried a bullhorn with a frequently-used siren.  He combined exercise with Question and Answer sessions. We had “homework” every day, including Navy lore, songs, and so forth. We were supposed to share everything we learned and help our fellow Selectees with tasks and such.  If we “failed” the answer or task, our trainer had a memorable response:

“If yer (sic) gonna be STUPID, yer gonna be STRONG!”

And then,  “DOWN and give me twenty (push ups)!”

Everybody laughed, labored, and “suffered” together but everyone learned.  And everyone got stronger, leaner and became a member of the Mess.   But then, in the last ten years, politics, social pressures, and a lack of clear direction ( a military needs clear objectives), also affected the leadership at the deckplates.  But being a member of the CPO Mess,  “Chief Petty Officer, United States Navy”, is the recognition I will treasure for life.

I think a lot of the issues that were reported during the last ten or fifteen years within the leadership – the Chiefs and the Officer community – was due to abandonment or at least a minimalist approach, to training the Chief Petty Officers and mentoring junior officers.  I hear it is returning to the tried and true. 

Setting the mail buoy watch

In a politically-correct world that has tempered practical jokes, initiations and rituals, I miss some of them.  Twenty-five years ago,  I was assigned to a guided missile cruiser, my first time putting to sea that was not a harbor ferry or pleasure cruise.   Though my primary assignment was maintenance of the electronic systems in my division workspaces,  I volunteered to be a bridge-to-bridge phone talker during the Underway Replenishment, or UNREPs.  I knew I was going to enjoy life at sea, as I was initiated by the deck seamen who were the helmsman and lookouts.   Practiced in the art of good fun, the deck seaman handed me night-vision binoculars for my first watch. It was nearly pitch black on the bridge. He almost got me.  I caught the whiff of black shoe polish applied to the eyecups of the binoculars.

1395286500-2As for me,  a new crewman on my first ship,  my “salty” (experienced) maintenance supervisor sent me aloft to perform a maintenance check.   While this was in port,  I was to go about a hundred feet above the waterline, so I paid very close attention to the proper safety procedures.  He got me outfitted in climbing gear, lanyards, helmet, bucket of tools and sent me aloft to verify operation of the aircraft warning lamp atop our receiving antenna.  Once aloft, white-knuckled,  I found there was actually no physical maintenance involved.  But the experience cured my fear of heights forever.

w12-1-mail-buoySome time later,  it was one young seaman being prepared for a most-important mission that was most amusing to me.   His mission: Capturing the mail buoy.   It was one of the harmless but amusing initiations for a young Seaman’s first time at sea.  The build up  was important.  The crew was expecting mail, letters from home, Care packages, and so on.   A plane flew ahead on the course that the ship was following, dropping the mail buoy.   It had to be retrieved.  In hardhat, foul weather gear, sound-powered headphones,  life jacket, lifeline and a gaff,  the Seaman was posted to the forecastle and was instructed to keep his eyes peeled for the buoy.  Twenty or thirty minutes in the cold breeze and sea spray later, of course, one of the Boatswains Mates, lookout or bridge watch would then cuss him out (over the headphones) for missing it.  Of course, both the Deck Officer, the Bridge OIC and the Chief Boats were in on the joke.

CGN-39Another practical joke was played on new seaman on the Low-Visibility Detail.  These are lookouts posted to the forecastle during foggy conditions in busy sea lanes.  “Boats”, an experienced junior Petty Officer, requested the new seaman on the detail, to signal to the bridge to report whether the Ship’s Whistle (a truly thunderous horn) was working properly.  He straight-faced told the seaman, the bridge watch could not hear it. After protecting his ears with each blast,  he turned to wave up to the bridge. “It works”.    The fun lasted only a few minutes.  The Skipper came onto the bridge, demanded to know what that fellow was doing, and after a brief chuckle, put an end to it.   He gave us all sorts of oral navigation quizzes to torture us, since we tortured that poor seaman.

 

destroyermen tell no tales

4347_1153409202041_3983536_nOn a warship there are few times that anything without a strict mission-related purpose is permitted aboard ship.  Of course,  this does not necessarily mean trinkets  the crew buys in a foreign port of call have to be shipped home.   After a visit to Turkey,  there were many nooks and crannies aboard the Proud Pete that were stuffed with oriental carpets, leather goods and other swag. Another time, after a port visit in the Caribbean, many crewmen had Cuban cigars.  And all sorts of goods from stops in the Mediterranean.

The oddest thing to be brought aboard the PETERSON were the temporary port-a-potties welded to the forecastle.  But none of the crew wanted “that”.  It was ordered from the naval authorities during staging for our Haitian interdiction operation which might result in taking aboard refugees.  However is was my tenure’s last Commanding Officer who introduced something I could only guess was some private joke with those who knew him when he was an Ensign – aboard the PETERSON – fifteen years earlier.   It may now sit at the bottom of the Atlantic.

DD969“It” was a park bench the my Commanding Officer, CAPT. Edward Zurey authorized to be installed (welded) in the athwartships passageway near the Ship’s Store.  A corner that during his tenure became known as “Broadway and Main” (for the Main Deck).

 

bench

New Year’s field day

shopping

Anyone who has served in the military knows that at some point, their installation, military unit, or occupational speciality, will reorganize, merge, or close (“disestablish” in military-speak).  In my experience aboard the USS TEXAS (CGN-39), when the ship entered the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard at Bremerton, Washington in 1992  for an overhaul but was decommissioned part-way through, one of my duties was to remove an accumulation of years of my division’s electronic maintenance materials, records, files, and publications.  Twenty-five years ago,  electronic storage required several cabinets and boxes in an auxiliary storeroom; paper binders, manuals and the local records pertaining to two prior decades of repair, acquisition and transfer of equipment had to be reviewed, removed and sent for destruction.

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While not due to any closure,  the reorganization of my garage this past week has drawn on some of those analytical skills in reviewing or disposing of things collecting cobwebs and dust in the garage.  The last time I did this was at least a year ago.  Since then,  most things have been moved from on top of the rafters in the garage, to one side and then the other side of the interior.  (I haven’t been able to park a car in the garage for at least seven months.)  However, I did find (again) my Navy Senior Chief uniforms in a trunk, as well as a box with random uniform insignia in the former Navy working uniform style (blue-gray “camouflage” pattern).   I sorted through boxes of old framed pictures, loose papers, photographs about 50 years old, cards and letters I sent my mother thirty or forty years ago from my duty stations at the time.   

This was all as a result of putting Christmas decorations away for another year.   Since I was boxing them up and looking to consolidate what my wife had already consolidated,  I started to put other random boxes together.  And now. perhaps, I will finally be able to move everything to the opposite side of the garage, so I can pull down all the uninsulated pegboard and half-tacked drywall on the other side, and install new.   At least, before Spring cleaning.

140226-N-YO710-013

Intermediate Maintenance Availability (IMA) periods stink.  I have to continue using the garage (or at very least keep the laundry facilities operating) and preserve my access to my tools and “stuff” throughout this period.   At least, I do not have to stand watch around the clock.   But I do have to keep an eye out for refuse removal.  The crew keeps putting the galley waste in the garage, when the pier trash bins are a short walk to the driveway.  We do not tolerate any stink in my workspaces. 

Gun control begins on deck

While assigned to a naval ship, from the early 1990s till the late in the decade,  one of my additional duties was as a watchstander .   I was part of the Quarterdeck watch which controls movement of personnel and material on and off ship while in port.    The Quarterdeck watch is made up of an Officer of the Deck (OOD),  a Petty Officer of the Watch (POOW), and a Messenger of the Watch (MOOW), under the general supervision of a Duty Section Leader and a Command Duty Officer.  We all are charged with maintaining the safety and security of the ship – or station (Installations also maintain the same structure) while the vessel is in port.

To be qualified to stand a watch on  the Quarterdeck,  each person has to complete training requirements including firearms training.   This is normally managed by a Petty Officer from the Armory,  a Gunners Mate or Master-At-Arms.   On this particular day, were at sea,  and in calm weather.     It was a time to renew my  qualifications at a “range” set up on the fantail of the ship.  We would shoot at targets in the direction of the open sea.

EUCOM Image
image courtesy US NAVY EUCOM, 7 JUL 2011

This was a time for refresher lessons on firearms safety.  Handling of pistol, rifle or shotgun,  hot weapons,  jammed rounds and so forth.   Occasionally we received instruction in prayer.  Prayer?   On one memorable occasion,  a young Sailor, we thereafter called “Barney Fife”, was on the line with four of us,  and the Range Master standing behind and to the left of our group.   At the command to “Commence Firing”, after the first or second trigger pull, there was a “Zing!”, followed by an immediate   “CEASE FIRING!!!” and “UNLOAD!”  or something to that effect.  One of our group had somehow discharged his weapon such that a slug ricocheted off the deck dangerously close to the Range Master.

Billy.   This was the same young Sailor that one of the deck seaman with sound-powered phone ( for internal ship communications) had fooled into waiting for a shore-to -ship phone call  while they both were on a sea detail.  He was a good-hearted but slow-witted guy.

Thereafter, Seaman Jones (not his real name)  was permitted to stand the Quarterdeck watch only as Messenger – and was not allowed to touch a weapon.   We were assigned to the same duty rotation, and as I was generally the OOD watchstander,   I would allow him only to stand downrange of me.   While the Gunners Mate may have pronounced a saltier blessing in our young Sailor’s direction,   I think we all were generally very thankful to the Almighty that day!