Saturday, July 9, 2011

Golden Chevrons, The Supreme Art and the Stinkin' Socks

The thing you have to understand about the Chief Quarters on the U.S.S. Lockwood is that all of us were well versed in the Supreme Art, the art of bullshitting. In a larger world where one would think that we odd eighteen or twenty chiefs were relatively insignificant, the irony is that all of us had egos of enormous sizes, way beyond our abilities and impact on things that mattered. We were a Proud bunch, with a capital "P." We were the Prima Donnas on board the Lockwood. And, the higher we were on the totem pole of rank, the bigger our ego, the more proud we were and the better we were at the Supreme Art. And, if on top of that we wore Golden Chevrons... well, there was just no describing how much our shit didn't stink. But, we who wore them would have obliged you with a description had you asked. We ran the ship. Period.

When I came aboard in 1975, I was a junior Chief Petty Officer and only thirty-one years old with eleven years in the Navy. And, to top it off, I had already passed my E-8 advancement exam and was scheduled for advancement to Senior Chief. That was nearly unheard of! The word was already out that I would be the youngest Senior Chief in the Pacific Fleet when the date arrived. I was on a fast-track of advancement. Unfortunately, that fact put me at a disadvantage in the Chief Quarters. With all of those egos, none of them wanted to hear that someone younger with less time in the Navy would be senior to them and living among them. The image of the crusty old Chief was something they aspired to, not a baby-faced, cherry-boy Senior Chief. My reputation and nicknames preceded me.

The fact was that my quick advancement was due to lucky assignments. The minutia and technical details of the exams up to the Senior Chief exam would have been my failure had I not actually worked in the Supply and Logistics areas where I learned the minute details by heart. Those specifics in the world of Naval Supply that I had not worked in took hours and hours of reading and study to memorize, boredom without end. I hated it. The fact was that I am not good at minutia. I'm much better at ideas, concepts and analysis. As it turned out, and lucky for me, the exams to higher ranks, like the Senior Chief exam, wasn't about the minute detail of my chosen rating, Storekeeper or about general Navy Logistics. It was about vague abstract ideas and concepts like leadership, problem solving, logic, reasoning, analysis, tactics and strategy. While there were books and study guides available, they gave no clue to what might be actual exam answers. The exam required thought and I used every minute of my allotted three hours to finish the test, but luck, opportunity and some innate ability came together and I passed it. And, so I reported aboard the Lockwood, with high expectations, into a coven of inflated egos.

Atop the totem, where typically an eagle is carved, symbolizing an ultimate power, sat Senior Chief Robert "Bob" Bolin, a Sonar Tech and a brainy guy who would have been called a geek in today's world. He was "the" top Dawg enlisted in the world of Anti-Submarine and Electronic Warfare on board. He knew the sounds of whales, Russian submarines and Lockwood's torpedoes and he could pin-point their position and direction, longitude and latitude, under the water. I have to admit that indeed he was good at all of that, exceptionally good at it. And I admit that he was exceptionally good at electronic equipment and how they worked, whether the equipment was related to sonar or not. But, on top of that he was a philosopher, at least I guess he was because he read a lot of books about Greek and Asian philosophy and history. He devoured logic problems and was intense in strategy games or any game where the object was to out-think and out-wit an opponent and, of course, win. Losing was not his thing and he didn't take losing well, especially if the winner gloated. Competition was his thing, and hardly a week went by when he didn't make a philosophical comment about the benefit to mankind of the concept of competition and winning. "Man is a competitor," is a typical statement he'd make, or "survival of the strong and fittest," is another thing he'd say, or "our job is to teach leadership and overcoming adversity." One of his favorite movies was "The Enemy Below" a 1957 movie that pitted a German U-Boat against a U.S. Destroyer in a battle of wits. I knew the movie. I'd seen the same movie in the naval leadership training course just as he had.

In some respects, Bolin and I were similar. Both of us worked hard at being the best we could be. Neither of us wanted to be singled out as a slouch. We knew the drill. You would have been hard pressed to find a wrinkle in our uniform or a spot on our white uniform. Both of us expected the same spotless performance of the divisions and departments we were assigned to. We took passing inspections personal, and failing an inspection as a personal insult. Both of us understood that challenges were overcome through better understanding of the challenge and good preparation. If an inspection was imminent, we held pre-inspections hours or days ahead of the official inspection, whether it was a personnel or functional inspection, and we corrected any discrepancies. There could be no doubt that we were good at passing inspections. And, perhaps finally, both of us had a knack for passing the new type of advancement exam that we encountered when we vied for advancement to Senior Chief. It was a different exam than we had experienced until then. While that list may not be all inclusive, it is basically where our similarities ended.

At the time, I was interested in Asian philosophy, Confucius and Sharihotsu (Japanese for Sariputta, the wisest disciple of Siddhartha Gautama, the original Buddha) you could say that I too was into Greek philosophy, but perhaps from a different perspective. I was interested in mythology and how and why mythical creatures and gods came about. My interest started for me with a personal desire to learn the what and why behind J. R. R. Tolken's "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," obviously fantasy using historical mythology and mimicking great characters of history with tentacles into religion and morality. Bolin and I had a number of good discussions and we found any number of ways to preach our philosophy even when we discussed mundane shipboard matters. If I was getting the upper hand in the discussion, perhaps with logic that he could not deny, he would laughingly call me "Frodo," a Hobbit character in The Lord of the Rings, which would infuriate me. He's say something like, "okay, Frodo. You got me." He knew it would get to me, and that's why he did it. He would change the discussion into a joke. And, with all of the other chiefs around listening, and frequently siding with Bolin, of course, everyone had a good laugh at my expense, and when everyone laughed, they always laughed with the Top Dawg, i.e., Bolin.

After I pinned on my Senior Chief collar devices and some time passed, and everyone was getting accustomed to my rank and the fact that I hadn't made any gross mistake, I had improved my department, and passed a major Supply inspection that put us into competition for the Battle "E" for the first time in several  years, the other chiefs finally began to accept me and I began to be included in the "Command" decision making process. Usually, that meant that policy changes affecting crew morale would pass through my in-basket for my opinion. The XO made sure of that, unless Bolin originated the idea. If he proposed the change, however, he would get my opinion before he submitted it to the XO. Everyone was happy with the process as far as I knew. The conflict came when Bolin left me out of the process, he leap-frogged over me. That occurred on two occasions.

Troublemakers were always a subject of conversations in the Chief Quarters, and all of us had one or two in our departments and none of them were better or worse than the others, so no Chief had any reason to crow about their own leadership ability when their own troublemaker(s) didn't seem to improve their behavior. My troublemaker was Emmanuel "Manny" Rodriguez (my poor memory tells me that name after an hour or two of thinking). Manny just didn't get it. He was a ready and willing hard worker at menial labor; such as cleaning the crew compartment; lifting, carrying and storing boxes and parts; and scraping and painting. Manny instinctively knew about line rigging and underway replenishment assignments and where best to take on supplies. But, when it came to passing advancement exams or working with Supply manuals, forms and records, he simply couldn't cut the mustard, and I doubted that he ever would. At the time he was in his second enlistment, perhaps twenty-five or six years old and around his sixth year in the Navy, a third-class petty officer and not likely to go higher any time soon. Manny's problems always happened when we made port and the crew had a chance to go ashore for rest and relaxation. He usually had too much fun, drank too much, caroused too much and, in many cases, fought too much. Manny was the subject of a number of Chief Quarters discussions. What to do with him? He wouldn't last much longer in the Navy. He was especially one of Senior Chief Bolin's topics of conversation; the top of his list, and Bolin was especially critical of me for not finding a way to motivate Manny. Bolin took it upon himself to tread into my area of jurisdiction, the Supply Department.

As I recall, on that day when shit hit the fan over Manny, I arrived at the Supply Office early. We were meeting the USS Mars, a supply ship, the next day and we had only a few hours to get our orders transmitted. Chief Brinkley, the chief cook, brought his food orders, and Chief Nault, another storekeeper chief, brought the general stores and ship's parts orders, and soon we had a stack of a thousand or so requisitions to be filled by the Mars. It was a busy and somewhat chaotic morning. I called Manny to the office and he, Brinkley, Nault and I sat down to go over the unrep (underway replenishment) assignments; Manny would be on the flight deck receiving stores in charge of eight or nine seamen who would break down the pallets of supplies, Nault would be in the storerooms directing traffic and stores to the proper storage locations, Brinkley would be on the mess decks, in charge of the gang pulling food supplies from the transfer line (a line of seaman stretching from the storerooms to the flight deck handing boxes down from above) and redirecting the supplies to food storage compartments. Each had their list of sailors assigned to them and each would notify their crew today of their assignments. We knew that for a few hours things would get chaotic, boxes and stores would be everywhere, passageways and ladders would be jammed with trip hazards, taught lines could break and recoil at neck-breaking speed, rough seas could topple pallets and break legs, arms or crush a sailor. It was a dangerous evolution. Each knew how to brief their team on safety. Each knew that safety was of the utmost importance and each knew how to safely conduct an unrep.

It was in the middle of all of that that I was handed a one-page, typed document from the XO, duly approved with the XO's signature. Manny, it directed, was hereby immediately assigned to the Supply Office for three months of familiarization with supply manuals and documents for the purpose of preparing for his second-class advancement exam. He was removed from all other assignments, it said. Senior Chief Clark, the letter said, would be held directly responsible for Manny's preparation. Additionally, the letter said, Manny would be restricted to ship during the upcoming Singapore port call to preclude Manny from creating or getting involved in any incident that might embarrass the Navy. Copy To: Senior Chief Bolin. Approved: Lieutenant Commander Magnusson.

As I recall, I got the gist of the letter at a glance and folded it and slipped into my pocket, mumbling something like, "I'll read it later," for the benefit of Chiefs Brinkley and Nault and the XO's messenger. But, had you been a fly on the wall, you would have seen the blood rise in my face, steam coming from my ears, laser beams from my eyes and smoke from my nostrils. I was pissed. I was furious. The fact was that I was already tutoring a number of storekeepers, including the ever present Manny, for their next exams, including various supply manual, forms and records from appropriate study guides, depending on the exam everyone would be taking. Manny had already spent several months in the Supply Office to familiarize himself with office operations to a point that he pleaded with me to be assigned back to the storerooms. He simply didn't get it. Nearly all of the work he did had to be redone usually under my direct supervision. We spent hours and hours redoing his work. He knew his shortcomings, and it was I who was taking his preparation to the point of browbeating and torture. I finally realized the both he and I needed to trust his future to fate. I liked him as a person and, in good conscience, I could not torture him anymore. Senior Chief Bolin had overstepped his bounds into my territory. The war was on.

The next day, as we came along side the Mars, Manny was in his usual place, on the flight deck ready for the shot-line from the Mars to haul in the heavier ropes that would transfer the pallets of supplies. The unrep was in progress. I got a verbal message from the XO; "What is Manny doing on the flight deck? He's supposed to be below decks." "First I heard about it. I'll come see you after the unrep." I sent back. All of us were busy. I had a good excuse. I waited until all of the stores were in the appropriate storeroom before going to the XO's cabin. It gave me more time to think of a better lie to cover my ass, the Supreme Art, to convince the XO that I hadn't read the letter until after the unrep. Meanwhile, I claimed, I finally read the letter and feigned surprise at its contents for the benefit of the Supply Officer Lieutenant close by. He knew Manny's history and he agreed with me; some, like Manny, are destined to be who they are, nothing more. But, he wasn't going to help explain the situation to the XO. I was on my own.

I was determined to tell the XO that I hadn't read the letter before the unrep, but at the last moment decided to tell him the truth. It went something like this, "XO, I read the letter and I thought about it. The letter is a mistake. I've already browbeat Manny to prepare him until it has become torture. He just doesn't get it, and maybe he never will. He's good at what he does, but he will never be more than what he is and he may never pass the second-class exam. He's happy doing what he does. He may be happier working with equipment or in the Deck Division, but he doesn't have the aptitude for paperwork or manuals. You have to give up on that just like I have."

"As for Singapore," I said, "how can you restrict him to ship when he hasn't yet done anything to deserve that punishment?" The XO took the letter, scratched though the "approved" and wrote "disapproved." I left his cabin a happy man.

A few days later we pulled into Singapore and everyone got the message about Singapore: Behave Yourself, with capital letters. Malaysia has the most tyrannical laws of any country in Asia and maybe the world. The least little thing could land you in prison or earn you a lashing with a bamboo club, such as littering a chewing gum wrapper or cigarette butt on the street, or spitting. Rumor had it that every US Ship Commander dreaded and prayed for sailors on their ships to visit Singapore without incident. The rumor was that the slightest incident was elevated to the Governor of Singapore, for his personal review and judgment. No ship commander wanted that! Singapore was one of the cleanest cities in the world, and its laws made sure it stayed that way. Sailors watched their P's and Q's in Singapore. Sailors were also told to stay away from Bugis Street, pronounced Boogie Street, and Boogie Boys. Boogie Street was notorious and unlike anyplace else in the world. Subic Bay was probably the raunchiest city in the world, with prostitutes and bar girls in every bar, and the city was nothing else but bars. The Hong Kong Wan Chai district was filled with bars and bar girls. But, in both of those places, sailors could expect women, often very beautiful women. But, that wasn't true on Boogie Street. Boogie Street had just as many transvestites, men dressed as women, or worse, as there were women. And, they could not, in most cases, be distinguished from the most beautiful women and were just as likely to rob a sailor as look at him. So, unless you wanted trouble, it was best to stay away from Boogie Street.

So, when we pulled into Singapore, especially after I stood up for him and knowing his inclination for trouble, I asked Manny to stick with me over the five days we would be there. I planned on a few afternoons and evenings in Singapore sightseeing and perhaps a couple of nights of dinners and drinks at a couple of nightclubs with friends, and souvenir shopping; a nice, safe agenda. He declined my offer. On the morning of our fourth day, the Singapore police brought Manny to the ship. He had dried scabs of blood on his eyebrows and chin and a black eye; he had lost his uniform shirt and hat as well as his wallet and I.D. card. The police informed our Captain to leave Singapore a day early to prevent "anymore trouble." Ouch! For a ship to be asked to leave a port was bad news. It would be reported to the Squadron Commodore and on up the chain to the Commander of the Pacific Fleet. It was a bad mark on our skipper's record. Manny had gone to Boogie Street. "Senior Chief!" he complained, "They looked like women!" "You were warned about that, Manny." was all I said. I was pissed, and very disappointed. Later, I stood silent with Manny at his Captain's Mast, the Navy's non-judicial punishment venue. He was reduced in rank to Seaman and restricted to ship for the next fourteen days of port visits, which meant he would miss going ashore in Australia and Iran. It would be at least two more years before he could take the third-class exam, again, to regain his rank.

Senior Chief Bolin felt vindicated, "I told you so," he said, but those who knew Manny, and what he could and could not do, knew Bolin was wrong. Manny continued to be the best at what he could do on ship, and the worst at controlling himself in the ports the ship visited. As for Bolin and I, it was on to Bolin's next brain fart.

From: Command Senior Chief
To: Executive Officer and all Departmental Chiefs
Subject: Departmental/Divisional Competition Program
Executive Summary: This proposes a competition between departments and divisions that maintain crew quarters with the overall objective to improve cleanliness and maintenance standards in crew quarters and to determine the best maintained quarters each month. Inspections will be held weekly, graded for cleanliness, neatness and comfort and the monthly winning department or division will receive extra time off and other awards as available... blah, blah, blah.
Signed//Senior Chief Bolin//

What a bunch of bullshit! It was a twenty-page, hand written document that ended up in my in-basket from the XO with a note "to type it up for his approval." More bullshit! As if we in Supply didn't already have enough to do! Besides, Bolin had people in his department who could have typed it. And, Bolin had it all perfectly mapped out; down to the number of demerits for dirty or unpolished decks, rumpled bunks, stains, clutter, mislaid uniform items, and on and on, minutia ad nausea. Included was that Chiefs would be restricted on how much "time-off" they could dole out to their own departments because the losers were not allowed more time-off than the winners. Bullshit! There were dozens of other good reasons for giving a guy a half-day off here and there that a Chief should be allowed to do; from personal necessity to jobs well done that had nothing to do with cleaning a crew's quarter to passing important major inspections that showed excellence and mission achievement. And then, to top it all off during a time when the Navy's policy was to reduce the number of inane inspections, Bolin proposed that crew quarter inspections be increased to once per week instead of once per month. Bullshit! As I read it, I was keenly aware of Bolin's skill at the Supreme Art throughout the document; the logic was undeniable, the reasoning and explanation perfect. It was something that any propagandist or car salesman would love, and the XO bought it hook, line and sinker. I set about to fight the proposal with all of the Supreme Art skills I could muster.

From: Senior Chief Clark
To: Executive Officer
Subject: Departmental/Divisional Cooperation Program
Executive Summary: This proposes a cooperation among the departments and divisions with the primary aim to improve the cleanliness and maintenance of crew quarters and to eventually reduce the need for frequent inspections, following current Navy policy. Inspections will be held monthly by a lead inspector and the lead crew quarter's cleaner from each crew compartment and each compartment will be graded for cleanliness, comfort, clutter, etc., with the objective to encourage that each lead cleaner implement lessons learned on the best practices for crew quarter maintenance. Graded results over time will show areas of improvement and areas needing more emphasis, thereby enabling planned and focused maintenance.
Signed//Senior Chief Clark//

It was a fifteen-page, typed document for the XO's approval, using the grading scheme Bolin proposed. It was beautifully written, with my best Supreme Art skills, and it elevated the argument to heights even Bolin did not anticipate. Beautiful!! The XO immediately saw that "cooperation," even though it was bullshit, since it would not change the habits of anyone on board, and neither would Bolin's plan, was a thousand times more aesthetically pleasing to the ear than "competition." It was a master piece. The XO approved mine, and returned Bolin's to Bolin. He was infuriated. He threw my plan across the Chief Quarters, cursing it as rubbish. It, nevertheless, prevailed and we followed it until we fell back into our old habits and forgot about it. The truth was that each Chief knew perfectly well how to maintain a crew compartment and were willing and able to do it without a command-approved plan that was, in fact, nonsense.

It was around this time that Bolin began to notice the peculiar smell in the Chief Quarters. I guess we had gradually grown accustomed to it, but we noticed it too when he brought it up. The guy who cleaned our quarters for us (we, of course, would not stoop so low as to clean our own quarters), mentioned that he had noticed it on his first day. "Nearly knocked me over," he said. So, we began searching out the smell. All of us hung our dirty laundry on our lockers, in a netted laundry bag outside of the locker, hanging in the isles between the lockers where we walked. Bolin made the rounds, sniffing at each bag. He stopped at mine, "this one smells the worst," he announced, "and Chief Boman's is a close second." Soon, all of us were sniffing laundry bags and it seemed to me that the overall democratic opinion was that no bag smelled better or worse than any other bag. They all stank! We were soon looking into what might cause all of our bags to stink and we finally discovered that it was our socks; black, nylon navy issue socks, the worst socks in the world as far as I was concerned. Taking our investigation a step farther, we concluded that our feet sweat too much because of our shoes. Most of us wore florsheim shoes, a plastic-like shoe that saved us a lot of time spit-shinning and polishing, but that were so air-tight they did not allow the feet to breath. Our feet stank, except for the two or three Chiefs who paid more for the popular Tom McCann boots.

The problem was solved. All of us promised to buy the boots and better socks and to wash our feet. Bolin's feet smelled just as bad as mine did, he finally admitted. We moved on to other things. I don't recall anymore contests with Bolin. I think we made our peace.

As I recall five of us among the eighteen or twenty chiefs on the Lockwood wore Golden Chevrons. Gold signified a clean, unblemished record, one chevron for four years of good conduct. It meant that we had never been charged or convicted in either NJP (non-judicial punishment) or a courts martial. We had the highest performance evaluations and we generally were thought to out-perform our peers. All of the other chiefs wore red chevrons, which meant that they had experienced some problem or another during their navy careers and their performance was only better than average. In other words, they weren't perfect and some could have been worse than Manny. The truth was, however, that we who wore gold were just lucky. I'd bet my last dollar that every one of them was just like me, lucky. I had talked my way out of a number of bad circumstances when I was a younger sailor, circumstances that could have led to red chevrons and I had managed to convince my bosses that I was good when in fact I was probably no better than average. The truth was that I was adept at the Supreme Art, and there is no better place to learn it than in the Navy. So was Bolin. I never asked, but I'm convinced that he bullshitted his way out of predicaments in his career too.

One of my last acts on the Lockwood was a letter that I had the XO sign, approving:

From: Executive Officer
To: Senior Chief Bolin
Order: Wash your feet daily.
Signed//Executive Officer//

I still laugh about that. I wonder if I should have received the trophy for the best Supreme Artist?


1 comment:

tclandis said...

Another great story. Thanks so much for sharing. Put these in a book!