By lex, on Mon, June 28th, 2004
Liberty in Dubai, United Arab Emirates
An aircraft carrier is like a small town. There is a constant grind of the rumor mill – You have to maintain a good reputation on a continuing basis. A bad reputation only takes one small hiccup.
There are only a few places in the Arabian Gulf that are considered sufficiently safe to put Sailors ashore for liberty. Dubai is one of these, depending on the threat condition sometimes you’d stay within a protected enclave (the “Sandbox”), eating schwarmas and drinking warm beer under a baking sun. Sometimes you’d get into town itself.
On a port visit in Dubai during 1999, when I was a squadron executive officer, I found myself with a cohort from my squadron in a Mexican restaurant, enjoying a nice meal (I got to choose from a menu!) and a couple of adult beverages, margueritas, in point of fact. When we’d entered the place, we discovered that a large group from our sister squadron was already there, and they kindly invited us to join them for dinner and drinks.
A brief word about “sister squadrons.” In the old royal navy, the hierarchy of loyalties was enumerated thusly:
“A messmate before a shipmate, a shipmate before a stranger, a stranger before a dog, but a dog before a soldier.”
Sister squadrons fill the niche between messmates (those you’d dine with, your own squadron) and a shipmate. Because sister squadron folks fly the same type aircraft as you, usually from the same home field, and you’d stand for them before you’d stand for a Tomcat guy, for example. A Tomcat guy would get precedence before a ship’s company guy, and a ship’s company guy would stand before any other ship’s crew, and well above a mere civilian (sorry, y’all). But even if the sister squadron folks would be well ahead of anyone else on the ship, they’d still be a long reach from your own folks. They were friends, but they were also the competition.
And like the famous quote from the movie The Highlander , “there can only be one.”
Anyway, as the meal at the Mexican restaurant in Dubai drew to a close, one of the department heads from our sister squadron, a little deeper in his cups than was your humble scribe, thought it would be fun to square off and wrestle with me.
It is not known at this writing how deeply considered this decision was, nor what the anticipated outcome was supposed to be. What is known is that the pride of the squadron would not submit to an unchallenged assault on the person of the squadron’s XO in the form of being wrestled to the ground by a sister squadron department head. No, that would never do.
What is also known is that a deeply hidden reservoir of long-disused judo instruction came back to me, even though it had been a very long time since my last training. The result being that very soon after his initial, over-balanced lunge to tackle me, my adversary’s usual and customary connections with terra firma were momentarily and comprehensively severed.
I threw him.
It should have it to be a relatively simple thing for him to react to, I thought. But on further reflection (while he was still airborne) it occurred to me that perhaps he did not know judo. Because the first thing one learns to do in judo is how to fall.
And my opponent did not know how to fall.
In flight, he resembled nothing so much as an octopus falling out of a tree. And when he landed, rather than absorbing the blow by rolling through his buttocks and back, he landed flat on his face, skidding briefly. This instantly took a fair bit of wind from his sails, and I rushed to his side, very apologetic. Fortunately, there was no more lasting damage than an ugly but meaningless rug burn that went down the side of his face.
We shook hands, parted company and went our separate ways.
After a night of further adventures, I returned to the ship for a well-deserved rest.
The next evening, the CO and I walked out to the sandbox to share a couple of beers with those Sailors who either no longer had the money or the desire to make their way out in town. Those from my squadron looked at me somewhat askance, as though I had been accused of some rather hideous crime. Although fairly new to the squadron, I was surprised at this, and gently probed, trying to determine what it was they thought I had done. The last night’s fun and games were the least thing from my mind, no more than puppies’ play, and certainly not the sort of thing to put off Sailors.
One of them finally came up to me – he’d had a bit more to drink than the others – and said, “We hear you kicked Mr. X’s butt last night.”
Oh, that? Not at all, just a bit of fun. Really.
Skeptical glances around the table. “Really? Because he looked like he got the stew beat out of him.”
Perhaps his face had swollen a bit over the course of the night?
I encountered much more of this sort of dubious attention. Couldn’t figure it out. A Sailor from the sister squadron came up, very much over-served, and seemingly keen on avenging the blow to his squadron’s reputation. My Sailors stood up behind me, bristling.
Now this definitely wouldn’t do. A bit of horseplay between officers ashore, with no hard feelings on either side is one thing. A squadron XO in the center of a brawl with Sailors on liberty is a whole other thing. Thankfully some of his friends shuffled him off somewhere before tensions grew any higher. I chose that moment to make my exit.
I was bemused by all this attention. Later that evening, back in town, I caught up with the department head’s running mate from the previous night, and asked him what was going on.
Turns out that my wrestling partner and his running mate, having had a few more adult beverages, were racing the clock getting back to the ship before liberty expired. Sprinting across the graveled approach to the pier in the darkness, the running mate saw a chain draped between two jersey barriers just in time to vault it. My wrestling partner, whether less perceptive or merely less fortunate (it had certainly been a bad night for him), hit the chain thigh high in full stride. He still hadn’t learned how to fall. A face-plant at high speed in the gravel added grievous insult to rug burn injury. This particular fall would leave lasting marks.
Getting up the brow, my wrestling partner was taken to medical for treatment. A few Sailors lounging around had not seen him fall, but had seen him come up the brow, bloodied and disoriented. They assumed he’d been in a fight, and asked the next set of returning Sailors if they knew what had happened. This latter group reported that he’d been thrown by a squadron XO, and named me as the thrower. By the time the story got down to that notorious rumor mill of the mess decks, my name was being used in the same breath as Jeffrey Dahmer. Nothing I could say or do entirely dampened the enthusiasm the people had for the alternative version of the story – it was just too juicy.
And as for me?
I had acquired a bad reputation.