Sunday, June 2, 2019

Memory





It was a brilliant springtime day in Southern California. The sun was bright and hot and the air was mostly clear, although a typical SoCal haze persisted, making the hills to the north and east look fuzzy and doubtless making the horizon less than distinct. On the other side of the hills the air was pristine and viz was clear and a million. Interesting how a couple of bumps on the ground can make such a difference.


My friends and I, each of us active duty U.S. Navy Squadron Corpsmen, had come to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro to attend the annual spring air show, and in particular, to watch the Blue Angels perform in their shiny new F/A-18 Hornets.

There was more to the air show than the Blues, though. One particular event was a demonstration of the Hornet's power and agility performed by a seasoned and highly experienced Marine Aviator in a single F/A-18A. He flew a very dynamic routine, rolling, looping, yanking and banking, all of it within the confines of the Air Station boundary (IIRC). At one point he pulled up into a low-speed Immelmann, showing off the new jet's ability to sustain maneuverability at high alpha (angle of attack). A funny thing happened at the top though. Instead of rolling upright, the jet seemed to pause for a moment. Still inverted, the nose dipped up and down, seemingly sniffing for the true location of the horizon. Surely he wasn't going to complete a loop -- he was much too low... 

Nevertheless, the nose came down and the jet streaked toward the ground. The nose pulled through and came back above the horizon, and the F-404 motors roared in full dry thrust, then snarled into afterburner. Everything looked precisely like the bottom of a well-executed airshow loop, except the jet was descending at a very high rate (circa 10,000ft/min) and the ground was much too close. In those fleeting seconds I hoped mightily for a miraculous intervention, but to paraphrase Admiral Tom Connolly's testimony regarding Bobby Strange's pet F-111B, there wasn't enough thrust in all of Christiandom to arrest that sink rate before the jet matched the world low altitude record. At about 50 feet a mass of flames erupted from the back of the jet, then it slammed onto the runway in a cloud of smoke, dust, debris, and fire.



##########

Human memory is a funny thing. I don't think a lot of people realize how much memory can diverge from the way past events actually played out. We can think back and see pictures of the past in our mind's eye which are sharp, fine grained, and realistic. How closely do those images match the reality of previous events though?

I've mentioned before that I had formal training in a number of naval medical sub-specialties. My basic rate was Hospital Corpsman, or HM-0000. Each time I completed specialized training through one or another navy "C" schools, a clever four-digit code was appended to the "HM" in my personnel record. The code that mattered most of all when it came to assignments was 8406, or Naval Aerospace Medical Technician The Aerospace Medical Technician was (is) also known as an AVT (I don't really know why), or more colloquially as a squadron corpsman. As that last implies, squadron corpsmen were assigned to aviation squadrons, one per squadron. AVT/8406 was my primary NEC and the most "in demand" of my specialties so I was always assigned as an AVT either ashore or afloat.

A big part of AVT training was aircraft mishap investigation. I found the training fascinating and I believe some of my best work was done when I was part of a mishap investigation. Finding out what caused a given mishap and then passing those findings and lessons along to the fleet was an excellent and satisfying way to support my aviation brethren and sistren.

One aspect of mishap investigation which was both surprising and very interesting was eyewitness accounts. I learned in training that every witness will see an event differently. At one point we were told that three people standing together and witnessing the same event will offer up three different accounts, often differing substantially.

At the time I thought our instructors were laying it on a bit thick but after working a couple of mishaps I realized that they'd been completely correct.

This led me to believe that untrained eyewitness were all a bunch of morons. Trained eyewitnesses, such as myself, were probably the only people capable of giving an accurate account of an event.

Then a funny thing happened while I was en route to collecting my prize at the Best Trained Witness Of All Time Awards Ceremony.

I found out that while I was trained in aircraft mishap investigations and understood some of the theory of memory and eyewitness accounts, I was not, in fact, a reliable witness.

By the time I discovered irrefutable proof of my shortcomings in perfect recall I had nearly a decade of experience in Naval Aviation. I'd been hands-on in about 20 mishap investigations, about half of which involved loss of life and/or total loss of aircraft. I'd also been on the other side three times in Sea King mishaps, flying as crew when we put one in the water, rolled one up in a ball at Dare County, and broke one in an out-of-envelope autorotation/hard landing on the boat. I'd been there, done that, and got the tee-shirt. I was a Naval Aviation Mishap Investigation God.

Yeah, right.

In April, 1988 the airwing was deep into the workup cycle preparing for a major deployment to the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea. I was on a weapons detachment to MCAS Yuma, one of my favorite places of all time. When we were on Det there I was always welcomed by the Station SAR guys and could fly with them as much as I wanted, which was pretty much every day. They flew the UH-1N Huey.
In the foreground, an MCAS Yuma SAR helo on display at the station air park. This example is an HH-1N, a dedicated Search and Rescue platform. In my day, station SAR still flew the UH-1N, a regular utility model configured for the SAR mission. In the background on the stick is an A-4L Skyhawk painted in the colors of VMA-214 -- the famous Black Sheep of WWII and Pappy Boyington fame. The Lima model Skyhawk was a Charlie model (including the J-65 motor) with Fox model avionics. The Black Sheep never flew Limas, and this example is emulating, to some extent, the Mike/Skyhawk II variant produced for the Marines.

Compared to the War Winnebago SAR configured Sea King, the November was a sports car.


In the way such things sometimes happened back in the good ol' days the Yuma SAR guys allowed me to to collect a nice bit of bootleg stick time. That last bit is why Yuma was one of my favorite places. But I digress.

At the midpoint of the det came a weekend, and that weekend featured the annual MCAS El Toro Air Show. The Blues would be there and this would be my first opportunity to see them flying the Bug. Therefore a couple of fellow squadron corpsmen and I checked out a gray navy Suburban and set off toward the big city.


On arrival we took in an amazing sprawl of humanity, reportedly 300,000 strong, and we took in the airshow. It was all soda pop and sunshine until the crash.





Being hard-charging AVT/Accident Investigators at the scene of a mishap, my friends and I sought out our El Toro Aeromedical peers and pitched in to help. There wasn't much for us to do other than run and fetch, but we ran and fetched with a will. By the time we had to head back to Yuma, we had a good idea of the main causal factors. A combination of indistinct horizon and an "expedite" call from the tower had likely contributed to the pilot's decision to continue a loop at too low an altitude. And something broke on the airplane, but that was probably just bitter icing on the cake. At the end of the day the cause was essentially running into the planet, an interesting but far from unheard of type of Controlled Flight Into Terrain. Fortunately the pilot, MAG-11 Commander Colonel Jerry Cadick, survived the crash, though he was badly injured.

Flash forward several months and a new Flight Surgeon joins our team on USS Boat. He's the replacement for the Flight Surgeon assigned to the Marine F/A-18 squadron on board, and he's come from El Toro. In a somewhat ironic twist, he remembers me from the crash investigation -- though I was only present for about six hours -- while I remember him not at all. Says a lot about my arrogant hubris. At some point we're having a discussion about the mishap and I ask him what broke on the aircraft. What, in other words, caused the aft end of the jet to burst into flames before it hit the ground? Fuel leak? Compressor or turbine failure?

"Nothing broke before the jet hit the ground."

"What about the fireball at 50' AGL?"

"There wasn't any fireball."

He just happened to have a rough copy of the tape which was part of the MIR. Note the lack of pre-impact ahem, and note the tower pestering Colonel Cadick in the second part of the video. Interesting stuff.



Yeah, no shit. No fireball. Well firetruck me. Who ya gonna believe, reality or memory?

It was a jarring but wholly appropriate learning experience. Took me down a peg or two. Perhaps I wasn't a mishap investigation god. A minor deity, surely, but I was no god.

##########

Flash even morward forward, and I'm watching parts of a 20th anniversary investigation into the death of Princess Diana. The investigator spends a lot of time questioning witnesses. Well, actually, he spends a lot of time explaining to witnesses what they surely must remember, given his comprehensive study of the events. It's remarkable how readily they change their tunes. I don't think they had a clue what was happening in their own minds.

Worth keeping things like this in mind when it comes to our flawed and limited ability to recall events "just as they happened."

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Spring, soreness, snow, and a Yellow Peril





As I set off on my morning run yesterday I thought, "Ahh, it's finally spring!"


For like the fifth time in the last month.


It was a glorious morning. The sun was warm and the air was close and filled with the scent of spring -- moist soil, growing plants, mowed grass and weeds, the first hint of decomposing compost.


Nona the Wonder Dog dashed about checking every everything that smelled interesting. She was so intent on following her nose that she kept casting her ball aside and forgetting it. As I'd launch into the sprint portion of my walk-a-block-sprint-a-block workout she'd scamper to catch up and I'd notice that she wasn't carrying her ball. At the end of the sprint we'd have to backtrack and find it. It was a bit irritating to the part of my soul that thinks making progress along a particular route is important. The morning was so beautiful that I couldn't stay irritated and I couldn't help but enjoy the backtracking as much as the progress.


It was my first good workout since tweaking my piriformis a while back and it felt really fine. This morning at 5 a.m. I'm paying for the layoff and new beginning as joints and muscles complain. There's simply a cost to be paid, and it's little enough in exchange for feeling good.

This morning as I log the daily weather observations I see that the air temperature fell only to 53 degrees overnight. Today's forecast predicts the arrival of another moisture-laden weather front, but this time it doesn't look like it'll be accompanied by frigid northern air. If that proves to be the case we'll have rain and thunderstorms rather than freezing drizzle and snow.

The last snowstorm, only six days in the past now, had and has all the usual idiots clucking like Chicken(shit) Little over global changing. Seems we've never had snow so late in the season. However, we had 6 inches of snow on May 23 in 2010, less than a decade ago. So far this month we've had 6 inches of snow, and that's 4.9 inches above average (OMG?). Not even close to the maximum in only the last 126 years, though. In 1898 15 inches of snow fell here in May.

Scale, context, perspective. Butt I digress.

Last evening as I was cruising past NAS Kimball (IBM/Kimball Municipal) I happened to espy a Yellow Peril. Of course I stopped. I dashed through the flight office, looking for the driver of the aircraft. No one was in sight. The FBO office was empty. Well, never mind, because outside on the ramp...


Before I could take that picture though a fellow in a leather flight jacket came out of the flight office behind me.


"Are you the Stearman?"


"Yes."


"Do you mind if I take some pictures?"


"Not at all, that's what it's for!"


Beautiful airplane.


This one was born in 1943.


You can read all about the Stearman here, and about forty-'leven-thousand-million other places.


I know not what others think, but when I see a Stearman...


Especially as beautiful as this one...


I can't help but think of the tens of thousands of Naval Aviators who learned how to slip the surly bonds in this aircraft.

May each of you enjoy the bountiful gifts that accompany living a life.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Awesome with a side of way cool





Awesome surprise in the mail today. "Hi Shaun, For driving in Nebraska... From BJ"


Not many of those in Nebraska. Thanks BJ!

Following a rough week or 10 days Dad had a good day today. Yesterday he was sure he didn't want to make the trip to town for his albumin infusion, but this morning he was rarin' to go. For some values of rarin', but still.

His sodium was up to 128, which we're attributing to the Red Bull.

Last week he asked me what Red Bull is, and it turns out his curiosity came from a Sonic commercial which I gather features a Red Bull slush. I picked up a couple of cans for him to try, knowing he'd never try it, and if he did, he'd hate it.

He likes it. Go figure. :)



Low sodium is a bad deal. Your body needs electrolytes to function properly. If your sodium falls too low a lot of nasty neurological stuff can happen. Dad's been right on the bubble for a while, and his sodium fell all the way to 120 last week. One of his doctors remarked that he'd never seen anyone with a 120 sodium who was conscious, let alone able to get in and out of a chair and push a walker around. Considering that, 128 is very nice to see, even though it's still seven points below normal.

Sometimes a blessing might seem pretty small. To mansplain it though, size doesn't really matter.

Heh!

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

A sneaky post for Paul





It's Tuesday but it's already been a rough week. Kinda. Depends.

If you measure the week starting day-before-yesterday on Sunday, not so much.


However...

About 10 days ago I pulled the hell out of my left piriformis muscle. It's a small transverse muscle in the gluteal area which connects from femur to sacrum and assists in a small way with hip rotation. I was doing some advanced hamstring stretching and overdid it just a tiny bit. Within an hour or so I had a great deal of soreness in my left hip and pain radiating down the back of my leg all the way into the calf.

The pain I was having is/was sciatica by definition, because it was caused by the inflamed piriformis impinging on the sciatic nerve. Fortunately, that meant that it wasn't the other kind of sciatica which is caused by a bulging or herniated disc in the lumbar spine. That's a different kettle of fish entirely, and potentially a bad thing to have. Sciatica caused by piriformis impingement is temporary and will get better with simple rest. Fortunately for me, I have enough background and experience to be able to tell the difference so I had no need to fret over scary possibilities.


Butt (!) it hurts a lot. It's the kind of grinding pain that makes you want to go to the doctor and beg for vicodin. I didn't do that. Aspirin worked well enough, and I can't afford to be too loopy from pain meds to be able to get around and do important stuff. The pain did make me grumpy and my grumpiness was attended by a bad attitude. It was a real struggle. Such is life.


Today the pain symptoms are rapidly getting better. It's still there and it still hurts but I don't even need the aspirin. Reduced pain has improved my outlook and disposition a great deal.


Which is good, because we had three inches of snow overnight and another 3-4 inches this morning! It's supposed to be spring!


Well, it is spring. Sometimes spring is like this.


And to be honest, nature's majesty is glorious. I don't think I can find the words to describe how much I love the fact that nature simply disregards my preconceptions and desires. When nature serves up what I consider to be a curve ball, my flimsy platform of hubris and self-proclaimed superiority and mastery vanishes, leaving me to fall on my (sore) ass. And I need that, baby. I so need that!





How much better is my disposition today? Watch the following one through to the end and be the judge. Perhaps not so much better!

Sunday, May 19, 2019

On Wisconsin!





A very long time ago, back in the 80's in fact, I was comfortably ensconced in my bed in the middle of the night. I was living off base with a young lady who was also a sailor (known in those evil days as a WAVE or even (shudder!) a sailorette) and stationed at Oceana. I had the SAR duty and my pager went off.

Those old Motorola pagers made you look and feel cool. You clipped it on your belt and everyone you encountered noticed that you were wearing a pager and were therefore really cool and engaged in very, very important work.


When the damme thing went off in the middle of the night, however, it wasn't all that cool. The pager would emit a series of piercing beeps and then give forth a voice message. In our case the message was something like, "SAR ROLLOUT, SAR ROLLOUT, SAR ROLLOUT!"

Cool or not, when the pager went off that night I was out of bed, into flight suit and boots, and out the door in about a minute. In those days I was a rude bastard, which I suppose hasn't really changed. When the pager tones sounded my entire being instantly focused on the mission, leaving exactly zero part of me invested in exchanging pleasantries or reassurances with the girl sharing my bed. In today's vernacular we shared a domestic relationship, but I wasn't exactly domesticated.

Four minutes after leaving the house I screeched to a halt and hopped out of my car, leaving it illegally parked next to the guard shack. I left the keys in it, knowing that the duty section would park it for me. From the guard shack it was a 50-yard sprint to the SAR hangar.

For some reason that's a memory that sticks in my head, the pager going off and my extremely rude but adrenaline-fueled dash to the hangar. I don't have any recollection of the mission. I know we fired up and flew but I don't recall any details.

##########

Flash forward some 35 years or so. It's zero dark thirty and I'm sound asleep. My phone, set to vibrate, goes off. I can hear the thing rattling on the bedside table better than I can hear any of the ringtones. I snap instantly awake and answer before the first vibration stops. It's Mom. Considering the time and my Dad's health, there's no possibility the call can be good news. It's either something bad or something really bad.

"Dad's on the floor and I can't get him up."

"I'll be right there."

Even after half a lifetime I can go from dead stop to full ahead more or less instantaneously. I still leave my clothes and shoes pre-positioned for quick donning. I've no one to rudely ignore. Do the math.

The distance I need to travel is just over four miles, about half the distance between my former abode and the SAR hangar. The travel time is about the same.

Dad's on the floor next to the bed. He was trying to get out of bed and slipped to the floor while reaching for his walker. He's okay and uninjured, but he can't get himself up. There's of course no way at all my Mom can get him up, he's easily twice her size. And she's no spring chicken.

I'm no spring chicken either, but I'm big and strong and I've got years of experience behind me. It takes a lot of strength and proper technique to dead lift a 250 pound human who can't provide any help or apply any strength to the endeavor. I've got both the strength and technique, and within only a few seconds Dad is safely back in bed. He's exhausted by the ordeal, and I sense that his condition and helplessness are very hard for him to bear. I wish I could make that better, but I can't. Life is full of hard stuff, and it doesn't magically become easy stuff just because you don't like it hard.

Back home again the night is pretty well shot. I read for a few hours, then fall into a restless slumber as the sky begins to lighten in the east and as I wait for the phone to vibrate again. It almost certainly won't (and it doesn't), but it might.

##########

Following five days of cool, damp weather, including an inch of snow, we had a week of beautiful springtime weather here in the southwest corner of the Nebraska Panhandle.


About time, too! Spring has been a bit slower to warm up this year than usual; you have to go away back to 1979 to find a similarly cool spring.


Extended longing for warm morning sunshine and leaving the windows open overnight makes the nice weather feel even better, and there are very few things that feel as good as a beautiful spring morning.


Now I just need to get the garden planted. That'll hasten the arrival of a last snowstorm or two, and then it'll really be spring!


On May 17 a slow moving weather front brought more cool and damp as well as some evening thunderstorms. Two-hundred miles to the east in Cozad, Nebraska, where my brother lives, nature threw down some tornadoes. As far as I know, no one was hurt and there was little if any property damage.



As an aside, I'll just point out that Cozad was in the area of all-time-horrific-catastrophic-death-flooding recently. You may recall that for about 36 hours the media reported said flooding as sensationally as possible. Many, many witnesses and experts and countless reporters and news anchors did their best to make the world understand that nothing so horrible had ever happened before.

Then (as always) the reports shifted to the next horrible, never-before-been-seen harbinger of the end of the world. By the end of that 36-hour period, the all-time-horrific-catastrophic-death-flooding had been completely forgotten. The media never told you that within a day and a half the flood waters had gone. You never heard about the farmers who planted fields, the cows that had calves and grazed springtime grass. No one mentioned that Insurance companies adjusted and contractors and construction crews worked. The mess was cleaned up in short order, and while that was happening, everyone kept on keepin' on, living life just as they had before things got wet for a few days. The forever hole of death and destruction is nowhere to be found. It never existed.

Yesterday there were reports about the all-time-horrific-catastrophic-death-tornadoes in south-central Nebraska and north-central Kansas.

Do the math.

(Remember, I did warn you that I'm a rude bastard.)

##########

Ever had one of those days? Looks like he was first caught by the tail, then ran headfirst into a second trap. Daisy chain ambush. Sometimes panicked flight is a bad choice.


The mouse was collected in my Mom's car. The mice simply invaded, making their way inside via the cabin air supply. The car smelled rank and putrid, and when I turned on the sir conditioning dog food shot out of the vents. There was a whole bleedin' commune living in there. Wednesday I took the car to Scottsbluff where Maintenance tore down the Environmental Control System, evicted the mice, replaced destroyed wiring and ducting, and ordered a new glove box.

I took the car home and detail cleaned it, which was a lot of work but well worth the effort. On Wednesday I'll go back and have Maintenance install a new glove box. In the meantime, Mom has given the cats run of the garage and they've slaughtered at least three mice so far. Perhaps we've got a solution in progress.




##########

Today while I was doing Dad's abdominal drain Mom went for a pasture walk. She walks most days and she can hike with the best. She's got a stout walking stick and good hiking boots, a cell phone with a hiking app, and three dogs that love to hike along with her.


When she returned from her journey she was bubbling over with excitement, having discovered both a badger and a bull snake. Dad was doing fine and back in his chair, so it didn't take much prompting to convince me to go with her and see if we could find and photograph the Snake and badger.

The snake had vanished, but the badger was still there!





All in all a nice day. Weather forecast calls for a few days of rain and cool temps with a possibility of snow Tuesday evening. Springtime in Nebraska.




Wednesday, May 8, 2019

VE Day





Has it been 74 years already?


VE Day was less than a decade and a half old when I was born. I'm feeling a bit confused here because I'm not sure whether that makes me feel young or old.

Countless writers and historians -- all of them better writers and historians than I -- will weigh in on what it all means, what we should always remember, what we should never forget, and why Trump should be executed for war crimes. No need for me to chime in on any of that. I do, however, have a tidbit to add.

Last year at the centenary of the end of the Great War, an immeasurable quantity of electronic ink was spilled over the sheer number of casualties during that awful conflict.

As we all know, the casualty count in World War Two, AKA the Second World War, was shockingly higher.

So shockingly higher in fact that when we look at the accounting numbers, most of us just go numb. Stalin is said to have remarked that a single death is a tragedy, while a million deaths is simply a statistic. As much as we all love to hate ol' Joe Steel, he had the right of it there.

Sometimes you see or hear a statistic that helps put such unimaginable numbers into a bit better focus. That happened to me today.

For a dash of perspective, according to the interweb oracle, 292,131 American service personnel were killed in action between December 8, 1941 and December 31, 1946. Of course the interweb oracle has to confuse things by adding an extra 385 days to the war, and by leaving out the 2,335 KIA at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. I'm sure there's a good reason. Or perhaps just a reason. Nevertheless, Slightly fewer than 300,000 Americans were killed in battle during World War Two. Using interweb oracle dates it works out to about 160 killed per day.

Now here's the "ah-ha" number I bumped into today. According to Geoffrey Megargee, author of "Inside Hitler's High Command," one point four million German service personnel were killed in action...

Wait for it...

Between January 1 and May 8, 1945, the last 128 days of the war in Europe. That works out to 10,938 killed on each and every one of those 128 days.



Overall the Germans lost 5.7 million killed in action between September 1, 1939 and May 8, 1945, a period of 1,948 days, or an average of 2,926 killed in action each day.

The numbers are still too big, but when I squint at those 128 days and ignore everyone else but the Germans, some of the fuzziness begins to fade.

I hope I never achieve complete clarity. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Corpsman Chronicles XVIII: Don't bring a chair to a gunfight





Snow last Monday evening, some warm days and some cool days since then, a bit more rain, and a possibility of snow tomorrow (Wednesday, May 8) evening. Springtime in the Panhandle of Nebraska.



##########

"Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." Alexander Pope, 1711; Edmund Burke, 1790.

Last time (time before?) I talked about how E-5's could become Duty Section Chiefs of the Day at NAS Oceana Medical way back in the good ol' days.

I also mentioned the E-5 Mafia, and how some of us were given the opportunity to excel as Chief's of the Day. It wasn't uncommon at all for E-5's to direct and supervise small groups of junior sailors, but it was fairly uncommon for E-5's to be in charge of a duty section. It was a bit of a challenge, but that was okay. Challenges are all part of the deal.

All in all the military is pretty good at providing the opportunity to learn and grow leadership skills. It's a hierarchical system, but that doesn't mean that one guy is in charge and tells everyone else what to do. Down to the smallest and most junior level, if you've got two E-1's cleaning shitters, for instance, one of them will be in charge and learning how to lead.

In some sense, being the Duty Section Chief of the Day at the NAS Oceana Medical Clinic wasn't a whole lot different than being in charge of another guy while cleaning shitters. There are more people and tasks to manage, and the scope of responsibilities is larger, but most of the leadership techniques are the same. You've got a mission to accomplish and a framework of boundaries within which to operate, and the trick is to nudge everyone toward mission accomplishment while keeping them coloring inside the lines. There are a zillion different ways to get there. Some paths are perfect, some are perfectly terrible, and most are serviceable but need work. It's a process.

During one of my first watches as COD, an interesting  leadership challenge arose. It was a quiet evening as I recall, and we had no patients in the building. Several of us were gathered around the front desk shooting the shit. In addition to myself, there was another HM2/E-5, who was a squadron corpsman like me. We were TAD to medical but actually belonged to A-6 or F-14 fleet squadrons. There were two or three other corpsmen as well, an E-4 and a couple of E-3's I think. They belonged to the clinic. The mission for all of us as a duty section was to operate the clinic's emergency department appropriately, so the distinction between us TAD guys and the folks who were permanently assigned to the clinic didn't matter. Nevertheless, two of us were different than the others, and that's all you need for an "us versus them" atmosphere to develop. That kind of friction could potentially be a problem in accomplishing the mission. This was rarely a problem, but it was something I had to keep in the back of my mind.

Anyway, there we were shooting the shit, and from out of the blue the other E-5 started talking about abortion. It didn't take long to realize that he was a bit of a zealot on the subject and felt a strong desire to convert others to his way of thinking. Some of the others in this situation were both female and junior in rank, and that combination makes for a perfect leadership pitfall.

So as COD, what should I do?

It was actually a pretty easy decision to make. Such an argument could only interfere with the mission, and would not support the mission in any way.

I took a lighthearted stab at derailing the topic.

"Okay, that's enough of that. How 'bout them Mets?"

But the E-5 wanted to stand firm on his First Amendment rights. He really had a fire burning to convert the heathens!

"Okay," I said, and gestured toward the tiny COD office. "Office."

Behind closed doors I told him that the topic was off limits, that it would interfere with the smooth running of the duty section, and that he had no First Amendment rights while he was on duty. He wasn't pleased, and tried to argue a bit, but was bright enough to realize that he wasn't going to win and that it was a stupid hill to die on. He was pissed, and I suspect he held a bit of a grudge, but that's the breaks of Naval Air.

That's leadership for you. Some pretty big challenges can come out of the blue and seem pretty innocuous. If handled correctly they turn out to be completely innocuous. If handled sloppily they can cause problems. Figuring out how to handle such situations is more an art than a science. It takes some trial and error and experience, and along the way you're going to make mistakes. Fortunately, when you're in the military you're living in a leadership lab. You get to observe a lot of leadership experiments, and if you pay attention you begin to figure out better ways and worse ways to do things.

And now...



To set the stage, here's one version of bringing a chair to a gunfight.



The feature presentation is a simple story, at least from my perspective. As for the other main players, the story wasn't simple at all. It's been more than 35 years though, and it's far to late to ask any of them to chime in, so you'll only get my take here, or at least what I remember as my take.

Anyway...

Seems like it was in the evening, after sunset but before bedtime. It was probably summer, because that year when I was an E-5 and began standing COD I returned from a deployment in May and was back into the Airwing deployment cycle in September.

A youngish sailor rolled into the Emergency Room with his wife and a couple of little kids in tow. They lived in base housing. Sailor and wife seemed a bit spooled up, and the kids -- probably two and four years old -- were in jammies and carrying blankets. The young sailor wanted to talk to the duty physician because he "was having problems."

We got the sailor checked in and pulled his chart. He mentioned that he was leaving for the boat in the morning and had been arguing with his wife about having to go.

This was far from unusual. Every time a deployment was about to begin there would be at least a few sailors trying to find a medical route to dealing with the stress of pending separation. It's a very hard thing when hubby/daddy has to go away for months at a time. There's no easy way to get through it. The solution is pretty simple -- everyone in the family just has to suck it up and do the best they can. It's not always clear how to do that though, and some people can find themselves facing a problem which they can't figure out how to surmount. When flailing about in a panic, usually at the last minute, getting "a note from the doctor" can seem like a good idea. "Dear Warship Captain, Johnny can't go on deployment because medical reasons. Sincerely, Doctor Navy, MD."

Of course it can't work like that. The deploying unit has a mission, and everyone attached to the unit understands that the mission comes first. In the case of a carrier battle group, at least back in those days, you're talking about 10,000 guys deploying for six months or more. Every single one can think of a reason they'd rather not go, and every single one knows that they wouldn't really be missed. Someone else could replace them, others would step up and carry their load. If 10,000 guys decided to bail, though, the mission would fail, and Mission is a very Big Thing. For a number of complex reasons, most guys simply can't stomach the thought of allowing the mission to fail. At a more immediate and personal level, most sailors simply can't abide the notion of letting their shipmates down.

Don't get me wrong, sailors aren't locked into a mission-before-all-else mindset 24/7/365. It's not all chest beating and bleeding red, white, and blue. Deployment offers adventure and fun, too, and that's factored into everyone's cost-benefit math as well.

In reality, all sailors get tugged in a lot of different directions when deployment approaches. It's never easy, and for some of us it was much harder than for others. 

One of the duty corpsmen took the fellow back into the treatment area. In a few minutes she fetched the Doc, a Lieutenant Commander Flight Surgeon who was also a rated Naval Aviator. An F-4 guy. The Flight Surgeon and corpsman disappeared into the treatment area, and we spun the wife and kids into the waiting room adjacent to the check in desk.

A few minutes later a base security vehicle screeched up to the entrance, lights flashing. A pair of enlisted (E-4 and E-5) MAA's charged in, looked around, saw the sailor's wife through the window of the waiting room, and dashed toward the door.

"EVERYBODY STAY PUT!"

Yeah, like that was going to happen.

I should probably say a few words about MAA's and the MAA force. Masters At Arms are the navy's police force; they're more or less like beat cops. There is an MAA rating, just as with other specialties like corpsman, jet mechanic, boiler tech, etc. At sea and ashore, however, the MAA force is (or was back in the day) augmented by other non-MAA rated sailors, usually on a TAD (temporary duty) basis. Most divisions or squadrons would be tapped to provide a dozen or so sailors to the MAA force every 90 days or so. The best I could tell back then, about one in 20 sailors who wore a badge were actually rated MAA's.

Does that mean anything significant? Probably not. I had to deal with some real klowns and keystone kops in the MAA force from time to time, but to be fair, MAA's had to deal with some real worthless shitbirds at medical from time to time. It's also true that in 99.9 percent of my interactions with the MAA force the guys and gals wearing the badge were completely professional.

So anyway, the two MAA's charged into the waiting room with me -- the Clinic COD and Head Man In Medical at the Moment -- on their heels. As they crashed into the waiting room they were yelling conflicting orders at the distraught and now frightened sailor's wife.

"UP AGAINST THE WALL!"

"ON THE GROUND-ON THE GROUND-ON THE GROUND!"

With a pair of terrified children clinging to her legs, the woman snatched up a chair and brandished it at the MAA's while backing toward the corner of the room.

The MAA's were still yelling, the children were howling, and the woman's fear turned from flight to fight. She was prepared to defend her kids.

The MAA's increased the volume of their shouted and still conflicting orders and began to move closer to the woman.

The woman shuffled back, kids wrapped tightly around her legs, and raised the chair as if its solid metal and vinyl construction were actually pipe cleaners and tissue paper.

I'd moved to the left of the MAA's and was more or less even with them, facing the woman. We were only a long step away from her and her kids. As she raised the chair the E-4 MAA closest to me began to draw his revolver.

For me at least, time slowed down to a crawl. The sound of shouting and crying became muted. My eyes locked onto the woman's face and I saw beads of sweat actually popping out on her forehead and upper lip. My peripheral vision blurred and faded.

I didn't weigh any options or make a decision. I strode forward two steps and wrapped my arms around the woman, then shuffled all four of us a couple of more steps back into the corner of the room.

"Easy. Easy. Easy."

I could smell the stink of the woman, perspiration and beer and stale cigarette smoke. She felt like a bundle of quivering steel cables. My knees were pressing the kids against their mom's legs. She still held the chair in a striking pose, and her arms were vibrating in tension.

"Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy."

My record was stuck.

My hearing began to return, and I realized that the MAA's records were also stuck. They were still shouting conflicting orders.

I turned my head slightly and saw that the E-4 had his piece out and pointing at us. Part of my mind noted that the muzzle appeared to be much larger than a .38. Larger than a .45 even. Really big. Maybe a 20 mm. Shit, maybe a 40 mm.

At this moment it was crystal clear to me that I had the woman under control and that her fight reflex was passing. The MAA's, who had also defaulted to a fight reflex, were now both pissed and a bit embarrassed. They stopped shouting.

I had a very strong urge to begin shouting. I was very concerned about the revolver pointing at me and was an instant from completely blowing my stack because these two fucking rent-a-cops were fucking things up in MY FUCKING CLINIC!

When the words came out of my mouth they really surprised me.

"Please step out of the waiting room."

There was a pause for a couple of heartbeats, then the E-4 began to holster his piece.

"And ask the Doctor to come in."

They left.

##########

Now here's the amusing part. I have no idea what happened to the sailor, his wife, his kids. I don't know if he hit the boat the next morning or if he was granted a pass. I don't remember if we sent them home or referred them for further treatment at the Naval Hospital or elsewhere. I don't remember what happened with the MAA team. I don't remember why they were after the woman. I'm reasonably sure that no one was arrested or placed in custody. I do remember talking at length with the Air Station Officer of the Day, and I remember the agony of writing a dozen or so log drafts before committing a final version to the big green log book. To the best of my recollection, I don't think the situation ever rose to the level of being an official big deal.

Having heard the story, a lot of my peers -- especially those in the E-5 Mafia -- wondered why I had interposed myself between a "crazy dependent whale and a third class with a gun." In those terms, it didn't make much sense.


On the other hand, having been there in that moment, everything I did seemed to be the right thing to do. The situation was extremely dynamic and multifaceted, and possible outcomes were rapidly springing into and out of existence. When I stepped in I did so without consciously working through an if-then-therefore piece of logic. It just seemed the right thing to do in that moment. In retrospect I think that as soon as I stepped into the line of fire the possibility of anyone getting shot evaporated, and I'd like to believe this was the outcome I was trying to force. If I try very hard I can almost convince myself of that. It's more likely, however, that my actions were less altruistic and more territorial. Perhaps I was the alpha male in that clinic, and perhaps I judged that the two MAA's were challenging me. Perhaps the primeval part of me couldn't let that stand. The sapiens part of me possibly bent my course toward protecting the woman and children rather than attacking the MAA's, but, well, it's all just speculation about a moment that happened nearly four decades ago.

It's a memory. A good memory all in all. Fun to think about.