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.

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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.

 

getting back in the game

Finishing races is important, but racing is more important. Dale Earnhardt
https://www.brainyquote.com

In the sports world,  professional athletes sometimes get injured or sick.  For some, surgery for torn ligaments, broken bones or other issues requires an extended absence.  In the MLB, baseball players can be put on the DL (Disabled List).  In the NFL, football players have injury categories including the Injured Reserve (IR) list.   For the guy or gal whose career does not have millions of adoring fans, bright lights and cameras or sponsor endorsements,  she can be hospitalized at the worst time where work or family are concerned.  For compulsive, “Type A” people – and I am a recovering compulsive worker –  time away from the office is being away from my team and from the battle. I certainly felt that way when I had to retire from the Navy eight years ago.   It took years to lose that compulsion to be involved  and to simply enjoy being “retired”.

the home stretch

Many know in the game of baseball,  between the “top” and “bottom” of the seventh inning, is a time for the fans to “stretch”.  And then the game resumes.  For a month of recovery from abdominal surgery,  my work life feels it has had that “stretch”.   While I did not plan to be away so long, after a few weeks at home,  the light housework, cooking, and a few other chores seem preferable to the whole regular job thing.

What am I thinking!

Of course, I have been working almost forty years,  so this is as close to “retirement” as I’ve gotten.  My youngest adult son still questions my work ethic, “are you STILL off work? When are you going back?”, he says.   I remind myself he’s only held a real job for two years.  Forty more to go (unless he eventually learns to save a dollar or two).   As a  Baby Boomer I know taking time off only leaves a bigger headache to return to.  What is time off worth to you?

To get a week at home, a few might trade work for a hospital bed.  Fewer still might trade,  for two weeks away,  surgery, staples, hospital food and daily changing bandages.   Maybe for three weeks, one or two might volunteer for a hospital stay, including an operation; a persistent cough that racked your body with pain each time;  use or not use painkillers which alleviate pain but slow down healing; bedrest,  antibiotics, itching  and requiring help to pack medicated strips into the surgical incisions twice daily to properly heal.

sporting legs, backs, sight, and wind

The last leg.  On the back nine. The finish line is in sight.  A second wind has kicked in.  Athletes want to be in the race.  With apologies to Dale Earnhardt, the sooner restarted the sooner I reach my finish line.

After four weeks,   going back to the “job” is preferable.  A discussion I had with a blogger concluded that suffering is needed for great art, drama, and writing.  Is my blogging getting BORING?  I am not suffering!  Where do I get inspired?  Suffering at work.  I am not used to working like this!

With my return to work,  there’s going to be an adjustment. Others are going to suffer.  Dogs won’t have my company during the day.  Barbecuing and making dinner for my wife coming from work are going to be a weekend-only thing.  Coming off the DL is an adjustment.  Work is going to expect that I will return to my suffering program and knock a homer out of the park.  Perhaps my dogs will be inspired to blog.

 

one man’s junk

“…is another man’s treasures” – see etymology

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Looking over all the random stuff I have collected in my travels years ago in the Navy, I am recalling how much I learned about marketing since those days. For the longest time, I was quite the buyer. Fresh out of bootcamp, I was “accosted” by a photography film and developing service. I think they were out of business before the contract expired.

“you are going to see the world, kid. You need something to take pictures and to develop them. Sign right here…”

It took a while to learn to bargain proficiently – which is how most of the world operates between vendors and customers. I love hunting for bargains today. I am always asking for any discounts, and chatting with anyone and everyone. But many, even today, will not admit they may subscribe to the old saying, “a fool and his money are soon parted”.

Thinking back to my childhood, two of my favorite characters from television or movies who were amazing at marketing (trading goods), was Pat Buttram’s Mr. Haney in the 1960s television comedy, Green Acres, and Don Rickles character, Crapgame, from the movie, Kelly’s Heroes.

Whether knowing the “talk” of a salesman with just about anything you wanted – or didn’t want, and helping me to avoid “being sold” to a guy who could trade up to get what he needed, I know that my experiences in the Navy were invaluable in my later years. If it was a more-comfortable chair for my boss in the Pentagon, I could get one through “appropriation”. Or if some repair work was needed sooner than the bureaucracy allowed, I could barter favors for moving the work order to the top of the “day’s worklist” stack.

But in the early years, particularly when traveling around the world, I was a tenderfoot with a pocketful of cash, so there were life lessons to learn in salesmanship and becoming a prudent shopper. How many of us, Sailor, Soldier, Airman, Marine, or merchantman have walked past a street hawker without looking or at least listening, to the pitch for gold, jewelry, or girlfriend – swag?

“My friend, my friend, I give you good deal!”

There was always a little marketing going on, from trading shipboard things like embroidered military unit patches, engraved Zippo lighters, military ballcaps. Before widely marketed, Levi’s jeans, Nike shoes, and other “Americana” might make good currency. Sometimes, barter involved Marlboro cigarettes, American whiskey, or music CDs. Yes, kids, there was a whole economy going on, before Paypal. Before Amazon. Before the Internet. A long time ago.

I recently found and then misplaced a picture of me and my shipmates sitting in a beachfront cabana somewhere in South America, decked out in Panama hats. Must have been Ecuador. We had encountered a pretty streetwise kid- a New York City kid visiting his uncle there – who was helping Sailors with the local menu and beer prices. I think he made a kickback but we weren’t complaining. Does any American twenty-something really understand the foreign currency conversion to the dollar? After blowing through your money on the first visit, wisdom then seems to show.

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Bulgarian currency circa 1995

And then there are unique buying opportunities. Ecuadorian vendors in Manta presented me with “genuine” Inca figurines. They were clearly cheap copies but the women selling them from a blanket made me feel I had to buy something. At a beach cabana a kid sold me (yes, I bought one) a fishnet hammock.

In Toulon, France, others offered ladies handbags far more reasonable than the Cannes Louis Vuitton storefront (of course cheaper meant a knockoff). I told my shipmate he could have saved $400 and his spouse wouldn’t have known the difference. Yet he bought the real thing. There were replica French (a nicer word than counterfeit) perfumes in Egypt. One sailor was buying these and fancy stopper bottles from other vendors, to resell at home.

Elsewhere there were Turkish carpets, former-Soviet Army medallions and belt buckles, and amber jewelry (in Bulgaria). Leather goods and inlaid gold and metal items in Spain. Jewelry using ancient Greek and Roman coins in Greece. Tailored suits in Sicily. How many visiting sailors bought panini sandwiches from buxom women in waterfront kiosks in Toulon, France? (These women were Italians!). Anyone visiting Toulon at the time knew “smash” sandwiches.

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With the Internet, I imagine these same vendors now have Point-Of-Sale shops, Apple Pay, PayPal and international shipping. Perhaps I too, shall open a little shop. “I give you good deal!”

fairy tales and fast cars

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Getting gas this afternoon for my wife’s 2016 Kia Sorento, a couple guys were chatting it up at the 7-Eleven gas pump.  I took them for car-guys.  Both men were Forty-ish, one looked a professional (that is, car-guy Neiman-Marcus  Sunday casual), and the other guy – who probably HAD money – looked like a grease monkey mechanic.  Both drove Datsun Z cars,  the former, a  jet-black early ’70s 240Z, and the other, an orange (“burnt sienna”?)  260Z.

“That’s a 240Z, isn’t it” I stated.  It’s always important for a car-guy to have other guys recognize your car – particularly a 45-year old sports classic. The “grease monkey winked, ” no. it’s a 350″.  But to anyone who was driving before DATSUN became Nissan, a 240Z or a 260Z were the cars that parents of the Millennium “Fast N’ Furious” movie franchise fans might have driven on Friday night or weekend road rallies.  I road in a 240Z twice in forty years.  I was in the Navy in 1979, when my buddy Ron owned one.  We drove around San Diego in that car for a year before he had the money to get the car modified to be a street-legal (barely) racing car.  A weekend after getting the car back, he had to park the car off the Naval Training Center grounds until he got all the proper papers to get it registered.   And sometime around midnight, a drunk Marine careening out the base Main Gate slammed into it  totalling the car.

The last time I road in a Datsun 240Z was six years later.   I road with a co-worker between Tucson and Phoenix at a 100MPH (160 Km) when our employer sent us to do a job up there.

But I had always wanted a fast car.   In 1978, I had been looking at sports cars,  but being young, single and in the military, I had money but not much sense.  I found out when I tried to sit in the sports cars, that I was like Cinderella’s stepsisters – I would have to cut a body part off to fit.  To get into a sports car, whether a Triumph TR6, or MG, or other two-seater, I  needed my legs cut off at mid-calf to shoehorn in.   So I focused, daydreamed, even obsessed over American steel.   In the 1970s,  San Diego was a smorgasbord of muscle cars – Firebirds, Camaros, Pontiac GTOs, Mustangs, Dodge Chargers and Plymouth Barracudas among them.

I transferred to Pensacola, Florida in 1978.   Where gasoline was 67 cents a gallon,  the South was almost equal to Southern California for the muscle car selection.    I thought I would buy a Camaro.    I was almost ready to part with cash,  burning a hole in my pocket, until one of my friends noticed something a little unusual with the 1973 Camaro (like the one pictured).   Bondo in a quarter panel.  Bondo in the trunk.  Rust!   Rust meant that this car had spent considerable time in the winter snows of the north and Eastern seaboard.  So I found and bought my second choice which was a 1973 Chevrolet Nova like the one pictured.  It had a six-cylinder engine, and though I had started to work a deal to swap in a Corvette motor a local guy had for sale, the deal never went through.  Pity.   I could have driven 140 MPH on weekends from Pensacola to New Orleans.   Or more likely been a guest of Roscoe P. Coltrane (Dukes of Hazzard) real-life southern sheriff counterpart somewhere between Florabama, Alabama and Gulfport, Mississippi.

There probably was a fairy godmother looking out for me.   In 1980, I drove a friend’s 1970 Chevelle SS around 130 MPH along the I-5 one very early Saturday morning between Anaheim and San Diego,  I didn’t have another chance to go fast until my drive in a 1972 Corvette Stingray in Tucson.  And my buddy only allowed me the one test drive.  Not that I was a reckless driver.  If I kept driving fast cars, I was a little too much of a lead foot to make it out of my Twenties.    That Chevy Nova may have been just the pumpkin I needed to have my life today.

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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.

 

Humble is not a pie sold at Costco

On the way home from lunch with friends today,  we stopped at COSTCO to pick up a few things.  While I enjoy our Sunday routine,  it is often at odds with how I spend the first part of my day.    As you may know, if you have followed either of my blogs for any length of time,  my wife and I are active members of our church.  For the last decade at least, one  or both of us serve as ushers for our worship service.   For the last five years,  I have been leading the ushers every Sunday for four to six months every year.  And that has helped me to overlook in others the shortcomings we all share.  In biblical parlance – sin.   Greed. Pride. Lust.  Et cetera.  On display at Costco.

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
― Rick WarrenThe Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here for?

Not that I am immune to “human weakness” by any means.   It’s why I go to church, why I pray and why I depend on the divine to help me when I’m weak.    See if my observations sound like anything you have seen:

  1. The bored clerk helping at checkout who seems genuinely irritated that a customer wants a box to carry out their purchases.
  2. The seven customers waiting in the parking lot behind the man waiting for a particular spot though there are two people pulling out a hundred feet away.
  3. The line of customers congregating around one of the sample stations – sausage, I think – blocking all but the most determined customers from going down the aisle.
  4. A wife berating a husband because he wants to buy some pickles  while she has a month-supply of chocolate in the cart.
  5. Several customers who found a deal – and are buying several bottles of Margarita (premixed) each – though the checkout clerk chuckled to me that Cinco de Mayo is still a month or more off.
  6. The woman who blatantly, if smugly sly, gets in front of me – two inches behind the man in line in front of her – and then motions her gal-pal to pull their nearly empty cart in front of us – three bottles of margarita, two of wine and cheese puffs or whatnot.

These are not representative of all, but a sample of people I’ve encountered.   For myself,  I have to hustle past the stadium-sized televisions positioned at the front of the store,  the random trinkets, and past the alcohol, to the steak and roasts.   I love to barbecue, and could easily spend my week with the smoker or barbecue going daily.

I would love to stuff my face with beef jerky, baked goods or those Salted Caramel chocolates, but that’s what I am declaring war on these days. On my new lifestyle- cutting out carbohydrates – I’m 22 pounds less than I weighed at the beginning of January.  And I intend to be twenty-five pounds lighter by the end of the summer.

Please God, help me love people.  Give me humility.  Help me say “no” to the gallon jug of BBQ Sauce to go with the steaks.   And help me with my own weaknesses!