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 ]

How Millennials Killed Mayonnaise – Philadelphia Magazine

In my email today I saw this story from my feed Pocket posted from the Philadelphia Magazine.  And perhaps it is my age, my nostalgia, or something about potato salad or tuna with mayo – real mayo that is,  but mayonnaise stories resonate with me.  Alas, in truth I also have succumbed to post -20th Century condiments.  The mayo that I do buy – is avocado-based!

via How Millennials Killed Mayonnaise – Philadelphia Magazine

Quest for non-Fire, Ice Tea and a Paleo-donut

In the late summer in the American West, life has challenges including “excessive heat” warnings, brush and forest fires, snarled traffic, and where to go for a getaway that is  not “tourist pricey”.     Living in a region that everyone heads toward:  beaches, nearby islands, amusement parks, and mountain retreats, I want to avoid all these in summer.   Of course,  getting out away from the crowds of people for the weekend leaves the desert  and the deep sea.   Without a boat of my own, the sea is out of the question and the desert – only a few foolhardy migrants and the Border Patrol are out there in August.

Last weekend, in a spur-of-the-moment outing to celebrate my birthday,  my spouse and I thought we would go to Catalina Island off the coast southeast of  Los Angeles.  With no ferry seats on a return trip that day,  we looked elsewhere.  The popular amusement parks like Disneyland were off-limits, not because of the crowds, but because our annual Pass does not permit entry during the popular summer months for tourists.  And Nature was also causing chaos.   Brush fires along destinations we alternately considered were, like the Spirit blocking the Apostle Paul’s travel to Asia, directing me to go north up the I-15 freeway.  And so we went to Temecula, about sixty miles north of San Diego.

Yet no road trip with my wife is properly prepared unless she has a large cup of  fresh – or at least, recently-brewed UNSWEETENED ice tea at launch and part-way through the adventure.  I could write reviews on scores of places , “convenience” stores and “fast food” drive-in windows, who must not sell a lot of unsweetened, fresh tea.  When you no longer tolerate sugary soft drinks, water is about the only other choice. Even the dozen brands of bottled iced tea are a last resort.   Does anyone really like a passion-fruit-flavored Iced Tea beverage?  (For my European and British-tradition tea drinking readers,  while you have no idea whatsoever about “iced” tea as a beverage,  it is consumed by the millions of gallons annually in the United States. I have had Britons and Irishmen in those respective countries look at me as completely mad when I described brewed tea, refrigerated and poured over ice.)

Once her tea is secured, and the approximate travel time between consumption and the need for the first bathroom stop is calculated in my driving computer ( my head) we set off.  As anyone in Mid-Life, who travels frequently with their spouse, that is, fifty-ish,  the climate control in the vehicle is a frequent issue.  I generally like the air conditioning ON in the car anytime the outside temperature is above 75F.    Normally we are at opposite extremes -when she is cold I am hot.   When I am comfortable, she pulls out a sweatshirt or a jacket.  If roll a window down, she wants it up.  And so on.

At least now with our lifestyle that can at times be confused with the “Atkins diet”, the “Keto diet”, “Paleo diet” or “vegetarian”-ish, we do not bother with correcting folks.  I can eat anything, though I choose more often to eat healthy food and in smaller portions.  So what is the meaning of “Paleo donuts”?

The Paleo diet seems to be at odds with any encounter with donuts.  However, as some may be aware,  I have been focusing on a better diet and exercise for much of the last eight or nine months.  I do not subscribe to fads, particularly ones identified with the eating habits of extinct people.  But on our travels into Temecula, we found a farmers’ market I talked about in an earlier post .   I spotted a vendor offering samples of donuts and like a smart aleck, opined that that they would have to be gluten-free or Paleo -diet friendly for me to accept.   Those were.

When someone has the opportunity to eat his own words, and if they are in a donut,  I will.  Without regret or “cheating”.  A sliver at a time.

 

Popeye was no vegan

1395286500-2During the years I served on Navy ships underway on deployment,  one of the most anticipated days was the mid-point of the cruise when the Command authorized a barbecue for the crew.   This was known as “Steel Beach”.  We all would form long lines to have a burger, roasted chicken, hot dogs,  and potato salad, baked beans and chips.  And a beer.  But I can understand the excitement about a barbecue – even a steel beach one.  It seems to be part of the human DNA to enjoy roasted meat.  Perhaps it was the way food had to be containerized, frozen, powdered, steam-blanched for long voyages.  At least, we never had salt beef, hard-tack or meal-wormy bread of our sailing ship forebears.

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Steel Beach, USS PHILIPPINE SEA

I guess I could have fared worse.  Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs have been issued to servicemen on the battlefield – or during Chief initiations – or in SERE schools for generations.   But in our changing society, I hope that vegetarians or vegans do not come to control the food selection of a captive audience be they on a forward operating base or a deployed destroyer.  In Twenty-First Century society,  we have a number of people who choose to eat vegetarian or even more radically, make food choices as “vegans”.  The latter disdain any product that has anything to do with animal-origin; these folks condemn animal-related food industries.   Of course, prior to modern refrigeration and frequent underway replenishment,  I imagine had there been vegans onboard a ship thirty years ago, they would have been hard-pressed to determine if what was offered from the galley had been a creature at one time.   SOS and powered eggs at breakfast, or sliders at lunch hardly seemed to be animal products.

One of my childhood cartoon heroes, Popeye, certainly had a thing for spinach.  But I don’t think he would ever have turned away from barbecued steak, ribs, or a brat.  I certainly never saw any war movie where the men (and women) lined up for soy or critically read the ingredients in any of the slop they were served.    I learned as a child while watching movies about dinosaurs, aliens, and vampires,  there is an undeniable dominance of meat-eating creatures over plant-eaters.   Tyrannosaurs were definitely the hunters that preyed upon the herbivores.   Lions and other big cats, wolves, foxes, and coyotes are predators.  Barracuda, killer whales and other cetaceans are meat eaters.   I know that human beings are more omnivorous, and when times were tough, hunter-gatherers would get by on flour ground from plants.  A rabbit or lamb might do if a bison was not available.  I have heard of some Amazonian warriors eating their enemies.  The Aztecs did have a thing about human hearts, but a Sailor would have to be very hungry to eat someone you had played Spades with late nights.

Gratefully, cannibals do not seem prevalent in the military services.  Nor do I encounter any at my employer.   But I have encountered vegans.  And some of these are a little ill-tempered, particularly when you tease them why they are not joining you in savoring barbecue for lunch or the team picnics.   But inquiring further,  I learn that vegans are predisposed to feeding their cats or dogs in the same manner they have chosen for themselves.   While I can understand personal choice in the type of sustenance that humans put in their bodies,  I am at a loss to understand how we humans project the same ethos on our dogs and cats.

Then again,  I was eating some cantaloupe tonight with my dog monitoring my every slurp.   To humor him, I gave him a small chunk.  He ATE the chunk of cantaloupe.   But of course, he had also just eaten scraps of the barbecue roast I had on my dinner plate.   Omnivores.  I would think it cruel and unusual punishment to restrict him to soy proteins and vegetables.   He might decide to snack on me one night.  Vegans can be a little unpredictable.

the measure of a Man

in hindsight, one of the things I miss the most about military service, is the camaraderie.  In particular,  when independently- acting individuals, which all civilians are,  go successfully through the crucible that begins in boot camp or basic training, that shared experience is indelibly stamped on one’s character. Sit three individuals from three different eras and three different branches of the military, and quite soon all will be talking, laughing and swapping tales as though they knew each other for decades.

From boot camp, individuals are shaped and reshaped into a highly-effective team in their units, in field operations and exercises, in ships or aircraft,  armored vehicles or in combat squads. There is a common jargon and understanding that comes from overseas assignments, difficult environments, passable chow, and either adrenaline-pumping action or numbing boredom.

And one day, it all comes to a end.  A final enlistment concludes with retirement, and with the hanging up of the uniform,  so end also the phone calls from your peers or your “reporting senior” (the officer you report to).  Also,  the periodic transfers, carefully-written evaluations, frequent deployments, and daily Physical Training ( running along the beach at 5AM) – and periodic assessment – are left to others.

Sadly, unless the now-retired military member obtains employment in a profession closely allied to the military,  the camaraderie of the Chiefs’ Mess: the traditions, courtesies, and respect that a Chief Petty Officer has earned in the naval service are only weakly understood by a civilian employer and less so by your never-serving civilian supervisor.

 

 

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. 

when the lights go out

Sometimes the best lighting of all is a power failure.  Douglas Coupland / http://www.brainyquote.com

I swear I only measured the voltage of the dead lamp.  I didn’t cause the whole neighborhood at that moment to go dark.

pexels-photo-132340.jpeg

Determining the reason why that fixture was bad was on my to-do list for six days.  In my garage, I have a cheap light fixture – the one dime-store novels feature in the dingy hotel rooms or corridors – mounted above the kitchen door.  One evening, I switched on the light switch – and the lamp went on.  I turned it off when I was done.  I turned it on again and it immediately went dark.   Seems simple enough but can be easily tested whether the light bulb burned out.   That’s where life steps in and pushes down on the to-do list.    Fast -forward to today.   Motivated,  I finally recalled where I put my digital multimeter (one of three I have) in an accessible tool bag.  I hypothesized  – I am an engineering test guy – the light switch itself went bad.     But just as touched the meter a second time to the fixture, the house and garage and outside went pitch black. Without a sound.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before. Edgar Allan Poe
/www.brainyquote.com

Fumbling in the dark to find my cell phone just inside on the dining table a few feet away,  I found the “flashlight” function.  First thing through my head was the thought, were I at sea, I would have myself chewed out by myself for being so ill-prepared and untrained for emergencies.   O brother!   But before I could get all my protective gear,  tool bag and batten down the hatches,  the lights snapped back on.    My mind did not go to all the dark places, when I second-guess my actions.   I mean, really.  I just came home from a bible study group I lead tonight. I was still feeling the glow of good participation and feedback.

I wonder if this was like the last power failure where a guy hit the wrong switch by mistake.  That error a few years ago shut down virtually everything in Southern California for several hours. A “training opportunity.”   Tonight, with everything back up within a minute told me that it was human error again.

It’s a lot like my work right now.  I have a broken device, some confusing email, and my boss has absolute confidence I will determine the problem now that I am back to work.  Can you get it resolved by Thursday? Thanks.    No pressure.  I just need to run through everything myself.  I could sure use a power failure at work about noon tomorrow – maybe for a week?   Thanks.