By Lex, on Sat – April 30, 2005
I was talking to my chief-of-staff the other day about the first CO I’d had as midshipman – his name escaped me, but his adventures had not. One of those tales brought a glimmer of recognition to his eyes, and he asked, “what ship, and what timeframe?”
Turned out that nearly 30 years ago, the COS and I had been across the pier from one another – he as Lieutenant Junior Grade, and I as a third class midshipman. One of those strange circularities of the service, things that somehow ought to surprise, but over time and experience have lost their ability to do so. He remembered the CO well, and caught me up on his career after I’d left the ship.
Turned out the man had made admiral, and retired with one star on his collar. For reasons which I will in time reveal, this surprised me.
Back in the day I went to sea as a midshipman for the first time in the Summer immediately following the first academic year. We went to sea wearing the bell bottom denims and chambray work shirt of an enlisted Sailor – the folks with whom we would mess and berth for the three weeks that we were onboard the USS Nicholson, DD-982. My cohort and I were flown down to Charleston, South Carolina, escorted to the ship and shown where to stow our gear.
And then, we were taken to the forward magazine, where for the next two hours or so we bucket-brigaded five inch gun shells to the aft magazine. It was a mindless task – a task in truth calculated to fit our talents.
Two days later we were getting underway, having been instructed where we would watch, quarter and station. We could, by this time, find our way about the ship without getting lost or making too much of a nuisance of ourselves. A cold dawn mist turned into a steady, weeping downpour as the tug came alongside alongside, and with the other mids and all the men assigned to the bow for sea and anchor detail, I stood in that cold, lashing rain for the better part of an hour and half – just standing there, shivering, waiting. For what, I could not say. It was not required that I know.
Having completed (survived?) a rigorous plebe year at Annapolis, and already therefore a product of the service’s firm discipline, I still found myself from time to time casting surreptitious, almost resentful glances up at the pilot house, wondering what was taking so long, or why this had to be endured in just this way. We were doing nothing useful whatsoever, and starting to suffer from it – Foul weather gear was no part of our equipment issue. Eventually the first class Bosun’s Mate (who could not, by any stretch of the imagination be described as “kindly”) grunted and whipped his thumb over his shoulder, gesturing for us to take shelter in the foredeck break – out of the wind and rain. There we regained a bit of our composure – and there envious of the heat allotted to the men smoking, I nearly took up the vice myself. It would have felt so good to have anything warm.
This was a perhaps unintentional lesson, but unequivocally a part of the reason why the Navy sent us to sea first as Sailors, then two years later as officers. We had to understand what was going through the minds of the people on the weather decks – their confusion, and often, their physical hardship. It was a lesson I never forgot.
Well out into the open sea, we took abbreviated navy showers and changed into dry slops. Later I sat on a fantail bollard as the sun went down across an azure sea, writing a letter home to my girlfriend and feeling heartbreakingly poetic. Much of my time as a third class mid was spent either waiting for some tasking, or making some mistake and getting corrected in the execution of it. Another lesson, probably intentional – nearly everyone wants to be effective, and everyone needs training in order to be so. Much of the time I was frankly bored, and even when occupied with tasks, felt them to be somehow below me, even as I understood that there was very little else which I was qualified to do, and that all of these tasks, whether chipping paint or cleaning heads, had to be done. Eventually I found a sea-daddy to teach me some useful skills in the Combat Information Center, operating an air search console, tracking air contacts and entering them into the data link. And learned another lesson – not everything would be handed to me, some things I would have to go and get.
The CO was a brilliant, mercurial gentleman – also Richmond born and bred, and as I quickly identified his background by his accent, so also did he recognized me in mine. He kindly offered us the occasional seat to dine at his table, an invitation we would have accepted gratefully even if we had not been required to do so by the traditions of the service – the food in the mess decks was bountiful and wholesome, but not particularly pleasant to partake in. I was the only mid in the Supply berthing, and my presence there was greeted by the entire emotional gamut from indifference to outright hostility, and back again through indifference to a weary toleration which tip-toed almost up to respect, without quite breaking the plane. Respect, if not for myself or my rank (neither one of which had yet achieved any distinction whatsoever), than at least for my potential someday.
Many things stood out about that brief time many years ago, but the two which came most quickly to the forefront I shared with the COS: First, the CO decided one warm day in the Caribbean while swinging at anchor to hoist out his gig and go and look for lobsters for his table on a likely reef nearby. This effort, alas, ended in misfortune which was flashed around the ship with an alacrity that telepathy would have been hard fraught to rival – the CO and his coxswain had contrived to run the gig aground on a coral head, ripping out the bottom and sending it to the shallow bottom nearby. The fact that we mids were permitted to share in the whispered news, greeted with no small amount of revelry, is attributable to the fact that the Navy is used to integrating new people into organizations. The evident pleasure many in the crew felt at the CO’s misfortune was also a kind of lesson – He was neither hated nor loved, as far as I could tell, and if I could have captured the general feeling about him, it was that he was rather more popular than not. But apart from all that he was the CO, the man whose responsibility for the ship and crew were absolute, and whose authority, naval regulations explicitly state, is commensurate with his responsibility. He was not only the boss-man but the moral arbiter and dispenser of justice – punishment and reward – and as such a man to be feared in that closely knit community of those that used the sea. The lesson I took from this is that no man with such a great deal of immediate and personal authority can ever be truly loved – that behind all military discipline lies a complex combination of duty and fear. It is more important to be good and right than to be loved – leadership is not a popularity contest.
The gig was quickly salvaged and hoisted back into its berth – the coral-gouged hull a daily reminder to the crew, and no doubt the captain himself, of what had happened. Not a disgrace really, but something one could very much wish had not happened.
A few days later we were making for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for refresher training with the advanced training group. Our days and nights in the intervening period had been ruled by General Quarters drills, harassed chief petty officers slamming hatches closed and clicking stop watches while we dressed out in our battle dress or damage control gear, as appropriate to the assigned GQ station. We would be just sitting down to lunch in the mess decks when the GQ alarm would sound its ominous, repetitive gong, the ship would heel over alarmingly as the rudders were thrown on evasive steering courses, and fifty or sixty lunch trays would go clattering to the deck to the sounds of retreating footsteps of those sprinting to their stations, themselves still swallowing that last, desperate mouthful. Behind them, the poor mess cranks regarded the disaster left behind on the deck with sad faces, pursed lips and resigned shakes of their heads.
Eventually we raised the shore, and were greeted by that strange geo-political anachronism which Guantanamo represents- a US Navy base and its excellent harbor on the shores of a communist country with whom we share only a cordial animosity. I was acting as quartermaster of the watch from 1130 to 1330 that day, and a part of my routine was to inform the captain of the approaching hour of noon. According to a rote script used from time immemorial, I would relay that all the ship’s chronometers had been checked and found to be in accordance and request permission therefore to strike eight bells on time.
The log book for USS Nicholson for that sunny, tropical day in June, 1979 will reflect that eight bells were not struck on time: Backing into our slip, the ship’s fantail either drifted out of the dredged channel or the channel marker itself was misplaced. In either case, we grounded the starboard screw, violating one of the fatal “no-kiss” rules of maintaining command (“thou shalt not kiss another ship, the shore, or a shipmate”). When noon came and went the CO was in animated discussion with his immediate superior, the destroyer squadron commander. It didn’t seem right somehow to interrupt him.
And here was something interesting – there was no hilarity in this tale, as it made its way about the ship. Nothing of the suppressed mirth surrounding the gig incident. That earlier incident had happened to the captain – but this grounding had happened to the ship. The CO would be rung aboard the ship each day in port with four bells and the announcement, “Nicholson, arriving,” as though he was himself the personification of the vessel he commanded. But the ship belonged to the Sailors, as much as to the captain. They were of her, and she was from them. The CO might hold command, but he held it in trusteeship – everyone aboard knew that his command was both temporally finite and eternally revocable. The ship was theirs, and she was wounded.
All thoughts were on work from that point on, and all work took on a grim mirthlessness. The ship’s reputation had been damaged along with her propeller, and the officers, chief petty officers and Sailors were fanatical about repairing both.
At first I watched this with detached fascination, but shortly was myself swept up in it. I think it was in this moment that I made my transition from a student who was called “midshipman,” to a midshipman that happened to also be a student.