Monday, January 25, 2016
A few weeks ago I wrote about a series of events that in retrospect seem to have been pinned to a single incident -- a bar fight.
From my perspective those events make for an amusing story. At the same time they are a touchstone to an important lesson about growing up and becoming a man.
Life is filled with events and touchstones and lessons. Not all of them are amusing.
In the heart of the Great Dismal Swamp, a rusting pile of scrap metal waited patiently in the gloom at the center of a clearing. It was a cold and damp December night, moonless and pitch black under a thick mid level overcast. It was quiet in the clearing; not even a touch of breeze to rustle swamp oak leaves still stubbornly clinging to their branches. The denizens of the swamp were in for the night, huddled against the chill air and waiting patiently for the warming rays of the morning sun to arrive.
|Dare County Range, North Carolina.|
The swamp was silent. Then, noise. From the south came the muted roar of jet engines, first swelling in volume, then fading slowly away. Thirty seconds later came a faint hissing from above, followed immediately by a thud and a sharp crack as something solid and metallic slammed into the rotting junk pile. A painfully bright light flared, sending hard, skittering shadows across the clearing and illuminating a thick clot of white smoke. The smoke hovered silently for a few moments, then began to slump and ooze down into the jumbled scrap as the marking charge consumed itself and guttered out. Cooling metal creaked and pinged, creaked and pinged, creaked and pinged, then went silent.
Miles away, over the southeast horizon, the source of the jet noise and pyrotechnics swam through an ocean of inky black nighttime air. It was a Grumman A-6E Intruder, the navy's premier carrier based bomber.
|A-6E Intruder from VA-65 near NAS Oceana.|
The two man crew of the intruder were practicing loft bombing, a method of delivering special weapons. What the Brits called "Buckets of Sunshine". Instead of lofting actual B-61's or B-83's, though, the jet and crew were flinging Blue Death through the night sky.
As the Intruder turned back in toward the target, the Bombardier/Navigator, seated to the right and slightly behind the pilot, had his face buried in the radar hood, tracking the radar reflection from the pile of junk. His hands danced effortlessly across the bombing system controls, refining and tuning the image on his scope and sending target information and steering commands to the pilot's display.
At the initial point (IP) the jet was at 500 feet and 500 knots. The B/N kept the system locked on target while the pilot followed computer generated steering cues. At the appropriate moment the system called for a four g climb and the big jet clawed for the heavens. As the Intruder reached the calculated climb angle and altitude the system kicked off a single MK-76. While the bomb arced toward the target, the pilot continued his pull, came over the top at somewhere north of 10,000 feet, and with the nose pointed steeply back toward the ground, rolled the jet upright. As the altimeter spun down he shallowed the dive to meet an altitude of 500 feet and scorched over the unseen swamp with 560 knots on the clock.
Over a 40 minute period the jet and crew made seven identical passes.
The eighth pass was different.
My pager went off just after 2300, dragging me out of the early stages of REM sleep. On this December night the message was for a SAR roll out.
The station Search and Rescue duty crew stood a 24 hour watch, 0800-0800. During the day we were more or less in an alert-30 status, with a requirement to launch within 30 minutes of being called. At zero-eight we'd muster, turn over with the previous day's crew, and DTA the aircraft. We'd fly at least once during the day, and quite often more than once. We'd do local training flights, dedicated SAR training flights, and quite a bit of logistics. We also did drone recovery.
At night we generally rolled back to an alert-60 status. The duty crew could go home at night, so long as home was on base. Those living off base could get a temporary overnight room in the BOQ or BEQ or crash on a cot at the SAR hangar.
The duty SAR corpsman had the option of sleeping at the clinic, about a mile away from the hangar. Medical had showers and comfortable racks, so I usually crashed there.
I was out of the rack and into boots and flight suit almost before the pager message finished. I went left out the door, then right, then left, left again, and into the emergency room proper. The two corpsmen on desk watch had been doing late-evening touch and goes but came fully awake as I charged onto the scene.
"Roll-out, fellas" I barked, "let's go!"
Twenty seconds later we blasted out of the parking lot in the duty 1969 Jeep cracker-box field ambulance, made a right onto Tomcat Boulevard, and charged through the front gate, emergency lights flashing.
Two minutes later I was in the SAR hangar paraloft, skinning into my wet suit with the assistance of a liberal dose of talcum powder. It was December and cold out so wet suits or dry suits were mandatory. I grabbed my LPA/SV2 and helmet bag and stepped next door to Maintenance Control as the rest of the crew rolled in.
We briefed quickly, manned the Sea King, and fired up. We were wheels up and driving south within about 25 minutes of my pager going off.
Airborne and en-route, the news was grim. An Intruder had been working the nuclear bull at Navy Dare, then gone off the air after making its final pass. The range tower crew had observed a fireball southeast of the target, on the run-in line. A single ejection seat beeper was transmitting, but there had been no communication with the crew.
We flew south out of Oceana in a cold and empty December sky, down an imaginary line between Sigma and Sandbridge, and out over Back Bay. Calm and flat, the water below was inky black and seemed to suck light from the air. It was a moonless night with a mid-level clag layer, and out in the sticks it was darker than the inside of a cow. Moments later a glad Yuletide glow erupted from Knotts Island, at that time and place the lone spark of humanity in the lightless void beneath.
We bent our course a little to the east, crossing Currituck Sound and the Outer Banks just north of Corolla, with stately old Currituck Beach lighthouse standing sentry to our left. A gentle starboard turn and we steadied up just seaward of the surf line, paralleling the beach and heading just a smidge east of due south, bucketing along at 110 knots, 1,800 feet above the restless Atlantic.
Within a few minutes the lights of Kill Devil Hills and Manteo lined up, the base of a flattened triangle with Nags Head at the apex, and we came right towards Stumpy Point and onto the range.
From my perch at the aft station I had a reasonable view of the Dare Complex. There were more lights than usual at the range tower and I could see vehicle lights slowly worming their way along the scarce roadways available, heading for a splash of yellowish fire. Our DF cuts on the seat beeper pointed toward the fire too, so that's where we headed.
As we came to a hover and slowly moved toward the fire I opened the aft door and took a close look. It was night, overcast, and very dark, and we were hovering over the Great Dismal Swamp, so as you can imagine, it was hard to make out a lot of detail. There was a fire, but not much of one, burning the reddish-orange color of jet fuel, probably consuming the last dregs of JP-5 from smashed fuel cells. The fire appeared to be burning in a crater, but it was hard to tell.
The spot light came on, revealing a lot more detail where the photons fell, but tending to wash out the rest of the view. As the spot played over the crater and moved into the trees, it illuminated the ghostly presence of a parachute, fouled in twisted branches about 100 feet from the crater. Not that there had been much doubt, but the parachute firmly identified this as the crash site.
The Intruder had come down on the fringes of the range proper, in an area which hadn't been logged for many years. The trees were taller than on the rest of the range, and packed more closely together.
"Whaddya think, crew?," asked the HAC over the ICS.
The seat beeper indicated an ejection, and we had a chute in sight, but no communication with either of the Intruder's crew. There could be a badly injured aviator in there under the snarled nylon, so there was really nothing for it but to put the swimmer on the ground.
The crew chief pointed toward a small clearing at 2 o'clock, and I nodded my approval. As the big helo sidled over toward the clearing, I strapped on my aid bag and checked my flashlight. Good to go. The crew chief rigged the rescue strop to the hook and paid out enough slack so that I could shrug into it. I stepped to the door, checked the fittings and gave the cable a good jerk, and stepped out into the night sky.
Down the hook I went, turning slowly as the cable paid out. I landed firmly, facing mostly north, my back to the burning crater. I thumbed the strop out, keeping the cable fitting away from my body until it touched the earth and grounded the considerable static charge produced by rotor blades flailing through air.
I stepped out of the strop, blinked an "okay" with my Pelican light, and turned around. Above me the Sea King dipped her nose and moved ponderously away. The spotlight winked out and I paused for a few moments to let my vision adjust to the gloomy darkness.
Looking around, the scene was one of utter devastation. It was immediately clear that the jet had come straight down. There was just one big crater, about 60 or 70 feet in diameter. It was hard to tell how deep it was, even with the flashlight, but it seemed to go a long way down. The margins of the crater were scrunched up muck and earth, here and there emitting wisps of smoke or steam. The crater appeared to be empty, but there were little bits and pieces of smashed and mangled aircraft all over the place.
And there was the smell.
There is always a powerful smell at a crash site. We humans are said to be visual creatures, with weak noses compared to other animals. Weak noses or not, we're olfactory creatures too, and the smell identified the reality of what had happened here far better than jumbled details my eyes could pick out as the flashlight played across the scene.
Crash sites all smell pretty much the same. Burned kerosene and hydraulic fluid, acrid, thick, eye-stinging. Burned and shattered metal, brassy and caustic. Burned and smashed soil, earthy and singed, sour like the smell of a doused campfire.
And not uncommonly, the smell of Death. People come apart in plane crashes, and my nose told me that had happened here. Nothing else smells like a disintegrated human. Coppery, bloody, visceral.
I began to circumnavigate the crater, carefully, flashlight showing the way. I'd taken only a few steps when I found a wallet laying on the ground. One of the card windows yielded a name, which was familiar and called up a face. The other card window revealed a family portrait. Wife. Kids.
I fished out the ID card and stuffed it in my chest pocket, then placed the wallet back where I'd found it. I moved on.
On the back side of the crater I began to pick my way through tangled brush and closely spaced trees toward the parachute I'd seen from the helo. Something caught my eye, a familiar object in an unsettlingly strange context.
It was a hand. A left hand, palm up and very slightly clenched, neatly cleaved at the wrist, bloodless and intact. Gold wedding band on the ring finger, slightly flattened.
In general, you leave stuff where you find it at a crash site, until the mishap investigators complete a detailed site survey and map the debris field. This includes all the "stuff" that was previously walking, talking, living human being. As a trained mishap investigator, I knew this. And I knew that I'd be back here in a few hours, putting my training to use as part of the investigation.
I pulled a small plastic-lined paper sack (a barf-bag, actually) from my aid bag, carefully placed the hand inside, and stowed it in the chest pocket of my flight suit where it joined the ID card I'd picked up earlier. Where the hand had come to rest I placed a plastic wrapped medium field dressing as a marker.
The hand had fingers, and the fingers had fingerprints, as well as a wedding band. These things had forensic value and could aid in identifying the victim, so recovering the hand made some modicum of sense. It could have waited, though. A couple of hours would have made no difference.
Something in me couldn't leave the hand in the swamp on a cold and empty December night. I moved on toward the parachute.
As I neared the place where chute and risers were tangled in tree branches, I stumbled over the B/N's radar hood. The flashlight revealed more debris; steam gauges, shattered bits of circuit breakers and instrument panel switches, cockpit lighting fixtures. Off to one side was a torn ejection seat parachute container. Near the base of the tree was a smashed seat pan. PCL littered the ground, scattered everywhere like confetti.
I looked back at the seat pan and the base of the tree, trying to wrap my mind around what I was seeing. It took a few moments, but finally enough mental gears made enough turns and what had been an oddly shaped jumble became the twisted torso of a man. No arms, no legs, no head. The torso still wore the torso portion of a flight suit, held firmly in place by the parachute harness, from which risers led to shroud lines and nylon twisted in the low-hanging branches above. The tangled chute hadn't come down from above, it had been blasted up from the base of the tree. By peering closely I could just make out the lettering on the sodden name tag on the flight suit; the wings and call sign made it a match for the ID card now resting in my chest pocket. This was, or had been, the B/N.
Lights bobbing in the gloom on the other side of the clearing caught my attention. I called out and made my way through the debris to meet the ground team from the range. As I neared the two men my flashlight beam caused a bloom of light to appear in the underbrush. Reflective tape from a flight helmet. The helmet was slightly smudged on one side but otherwise completely intact. The clear visor was down, oxygen mask still fixed in place, chin strap still snapped. It was empty though.
As I met up with the ground team I pulled my helmet off so I could hear what they had to say. I knew one of the fellows slightly, a local Dare County civilian named Mort who'd been a very helpful liaison when we'd been working up a new C-SAR syllabus. The grim look on his face didn't promise a happy report.
"Hey Doc," he said, "there's a body -- well, what's left of a body -- over there by the road." he motioned toward a path through the trees. The other fellow was talking on a hand-held, comming with both the range tower and the Sea King overhead.
"There's one back there, too," I said. "Let's see what ya got."
What they'd discovered was another headless torso, very slightly more intact than the other one, but naked, with no flight suit or harness to hide the pale ugliness of a death caused by high velocity traumatic disarticulation.
Two torsos made a body count of two, accounting for both crewmen, and put paid to the ephemeral, tiny hope for a less than completely awful outcome. I looked at my watch and saw that it wasn't yet 12:30 a.m. Zero-zero-twenty-something. I'd been asleep 90 minutes earlier. I'd been on the ground here only about 10 minutes. It seemed a lot longer.
Rescue adrenaline began to flee from my system and a great weariness began to set in. An imaginary scene began to play unbidden in my mind. A woman, sitting at a dimly lit kitchen table, glancing at a clock, then at the telephone. Wondering whether she should call the squadron or wait a bit longer. On the heels of that scene, another. Dark blue sedans coasting silently into the driveways of two homes.
I tried to halt the emotional plunge I was taking, tried to power through the anguish of disaster. I'd done it often enough before, and it had always been so easy. Just bear down, be professional, execute the mission.
This time it was hard, and I felt like I was only barely hanging on. With a great deal of surprise and no little terror I realized I was on the verge of weeping. Something told me that if I let those taps open I'd have a very hard time closing them.
Another part of me understood what was happening. It had come time to pay the piper. I'd thought I was tough enough to push all the tragedies I'd witnessed away forever. I wasn't.
I bore down and refocused. Within a few moments I was back in control. Pretty much. But a lot had changed in only a few minutes, and I realized that I was no longer the same fellow who had come down the hook.
Back to work.
The three of us stepped up out of the swamp, onto the road, and moved 100 yards west to a place where the trees retreated and offered up a clearing. I handed over the ID card and the bagged hand; the range crew would maintain control of and responsibility for the mishap site until formally relieved by the mishap team in a few hours.
I shook hands with Mort as the other fellow talked to the helo. I lit off my strobe and held it aloft while the big Sea King turned inbound. As the helo's spotlight came on I killed the strobe and stowed it, pulled on my helmet, and watched the rescue strop appear from the darkness. In moments I was up the hook and back aboard, the hatch was secured, and we were moving off into the somber darkness of a tragic night sky.
I strapped in and Zippoed a Camel to life. I felt a part of my heart tear loose and escape with the exhaled smoke. The crew chief handed me a canteen and I absentmindedly drained it. I must have been parched, but I felt no thirst, and no relief after drinking. I couldn't figure out what to do with the empty canteen and shifted it back and forth from hand to hand until the crew chief gently took it away from me.
|A-6E's from VA-34 fly a missing man formation over Normandy, June, 1994.|
Monday, January 18, 2016
While heavy snow and persistent cold are not unusual in this part of the world in December, we only see them in aggregate about one-fifth of the time. They don’t come every five years, either, but seem to cluster in multi-year segments every one to three decades or so.
Although we had nearly as much snow last December at Kimball (14 inches), air temperatures averaged 28 degrees for the month, and the snow had a different character and behaved differently. It was a wetter snow to begin with in 2014, and abundant sunshine caused some melting and crusting of the surface snow. In December, 2015 we had 15.2 inches of very fine, very dry snow and the 26 degree average air temperature seems to have been cold enough to prevent surface melting and crusting.
Therefore, the snow we’ve had thus far this winter has remained fine and powdery, as opposed to last year’s which quickly formed hard-frozen drifts. The two kinds of snow are very different. This year’s snow is prone to blowing and drifting with the tiniest bit of breeze, whereas last year’s snow didn’t blow at all. This year’s snow is easier to get stuck in, while last year the crusted snow was relatively easy to navigate. The difference is rather like the difference between dry sand and wet sand at the beach.
In the 1880’s Franz Boas, a German-American anthropologist, lived with and studied the Inuit people of the far north of Canada. One of the observations he made was that the Inuit had hundreds of different words for snow.
In later years some scholars declared Boas’ work in this regard to be flawed, calling it sloppy scholarship and exaggeration at best and at worst perhaps even a hoax.
Other scholars maintained that Boas was correct, and that furthermore, most other Arctic peoples have dozens-to-hundreds of words for snow.
The controversy over the number of words for snow isn’t about snow itself, it’s about how you go about defining what a word is.
Many cultures, including the Inuit, use polysynthetic grammar, where a base word is modified by adding one or more suffixes to add descriptive depth. Many other cultures, including our own, modify and describe by adding separate and distinct words in sentence form.
For instance, an Inuit speaker might describe our December, 2014 snow as “matsaaruti.” If he spoke in English he might say “heavy, wet, prone to form ice.” He might call our December, 2015 snow “pukak,” which in English might be rendered “fine, crystalline snow.”
The same polysynthesis holds true when the Inuit talk about ice. Rendered in English, the Inuit “auniq” might become “ice full of holes”; “utuqaq,” could become “old ice that lasts for years”; and “siguliaksraq,” would be “patchy ice forming as the sea begins to freeze.”
We can see, then, that Boas was essentially correct. There are many different types of snow and ice, and the Inuit -- as well as other Northern peoples -- use many different polysynthetic words to describe them, while we use sentences made up of subjects, objects, nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, etc.
If you spend a little bit of time researching this topic you’ll quickly find that the discussion is more about the words than about the physical reality those words describe. It’s easy, and in many ways enjoyable, to follow that rabbit trail. We are social creatures, after all, and we constantly talk about the weather, so the way we talk about and describe weather phenomena is naturally fascinating.
But that trail leads away from the physical reality of ice and snow, and I think it’s important to avoid getting completely sidetracked by linguistic theory and to remember that the subject of the discussion, snow and ice, is real, physical stuff existing in the real, physical world.
As I write this on Monday morning we’re 27 days into winter and 18 days into 2016. We’ve already had more cold, snow and ice than last winter, and more than in any winter of the last decade.
Looking at that paragraph, particularly if you’ve been propagandized by the political climate debate, you might be inclined to believe that something fundamental has happened, that the climate is changing in ways it’s never changed before.
This is where having real records to look at comes in handy. Looking back over the Kimball weather record since 1893, we see that on average we have these kind of cold, snowy winters about 20 percent of the time. They don’t come like clockwork every five years, though. The record shows that they tend to cluster a bit, in roughly 2-5 year groups every 10-30 years or so. Those clusters don’t come like clockwork, though, either. We sometimes see a single cold, snowy winter bookended by years of relatively warm, open winters. We also see the reverse, a single warm winter preceded and followed by years of cold and snow.
Valid records and valid data tell us some very important things about climate. Firstly, they absolutely refute the political theme of man caused climate change. This narrative holds that mankind has been pumping carbon into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution, causing a greenhouse effect which is altering the global climate in potentially disastrous ways. Were this the case, valid records and data would clearly and unequivocally show the change. They do not. Secondly, they also refute the counter-political theme which holds that mankind has no effect on climate. Of course we affect climate. We’re part of nature, and we affect climate in the same fashion that all other parts of nature do. Most importantly, however, an objective appraisal of such data and records reminds us that nature and nature’s climate are vastly complex, and that we do not understand them as well as we would like to believe.
As it turns out, a lot of the debate surrounding climate and “climate change” is very much akin to the debate sparked by Boas and his observation that the Inuit have many words for snow and ice. That debate is seldom about the physical reality about snow and ice, and most often about defining what, exactly, defines the terms word, suffix, sentence, grammar, etc.
Those are interesting arguments, but they rather miss the point. There are obviously many different kinds of snow and ice, and people with different cultures, societies, and languages describe these differences in many different ways. Those differences, however, are minor -- if interesting -- details.
Snow and ice happen in nature's realm. Nature is in charge there. She doesn't care about theories and principal component analysis. She'll snow when she snows, and not when she doesn't. Challenge her and she'll help you kill yourself, work with her and she'll help you thrive.
Snow and ice happen in nature's realm. Nature is in charge there. She doesn't care about theories and principal component analysis. She'll snow when she snows, and not when she doesn't. Challenge her and she'll help you kill yourself, work with her and she'll help you thrive.
Monday, January 11, 2016
While hard working farmers are slaving away in the spring, summer and fall, I get to live a life of ease. They plow and till and cultivate and plant and fertilize and spray and harvest. They do a lot of other hard stuff I'm only partially familiar with.
While they're doing that, I fix a little fence, check water, distribute salt, and pretty much take it easy. The cattle feed and water themselves for the most part, and I get to go hiking a lot.
In the winter, though, while farmers are safely indoors, sipping cocoa, watching RFD TV, and resting up for their hard run in the farming season, I'm...
Well, I'm out in the cold and wind and misery.
There's no free lunch.
Thursday, January 7, 2016
Reality isn't always as it appears, and nature doesn't always behave the way we think she does. Drill all the way down to the quantum level of the physical universe, and much of nature's reality appears to be turned upside down and inside out. Time, at the quantum level, turns out not to be a river flowing one way only, from past to future, but a broad highway, navigable in both directions, where quanta can cause effect before they even exist. At least that's what the math seems to say.
I'd dearly love to have a time machine. It would be so cool to go back and experience -- or at least observe -- the past, to explore history first hand. And part of me would be willing to part with much in exchange for the opportunity to relive a few of my own high water marks.
The macro me doesn't live in quantumland though, so the time machine is pretty much a wistful dream. I can 'member though, can't I?
Is it worthwhile poking around in the dim corners of memory? Perhaps not; just yesterday I read that of all the liars in the universe, memory is the smoothest and slickest of them all. Wouldn't it be a bust to actually travel back to moments of former glory only to discover that one is, and always has been, as full of shit as a Christmas goose? Maybe the whole thinking about the past thing is a waste of finite time and valuable effort. Maybe it's just...
Well, there's no way to know for sure, is there? I guess a little rummaging in the attic won't hurt anything. As long as I don't get caught in a temporal loop or something.
Anyway, a long time ago, in a navy far, far away...
Sarge posted the Sea Wars Ike Awakens video the other day.
(Actually a while ago now, since my best laid plans to publish this immediately met the indifference of life's cruel coulter. Since that time he also posted up the Star Wars at Navy video on the eve of the best football game of the century thus far.)
Sea Wars Ike was kind of a cute video, I guess, but it gave me the weirds. Herewith a rant...
The Green Shirt looked fairly normal. For an ABE, right? Except his float coat says PHOTO across the shoulders. What's up with that? Then it dawned on me that the video was produced by IKE's PAO shop, or whatever they call it these days. Back in the day it would have been X-4 Division. At any rate, the Green Shirt is probably not an AB. Probably a JO. Except I think they're no longer Journalist Mates but Mass Communication Specialists.
Just weird man.
The the R2D2 mop bucket. What we used to call a Cadillac. Yellow plastic? Oh man, that ain't right. It's supposed to be grimed and rusty zinc, dented all to hell.
The T-45 parked in the forward Hummer Hole. It's supposed to be a Buckeye, or a TA-4J. And in reality, those are supposed to be parked on Lex, while real warplanes are parked on Ike.
The crash tractor. What the hell is that thing? It's supposed to be a P-16, not a, well, whatever that thing is. And magenta flight deck jersey? C'mon now.
I guess the fellows from the generation before mine had similar observations when they looked at my flight decks. They were old then, just as I am old now.
The weps elevator looks right, the flight deck is steel and nonskid, and the 69 on the island is the same.
Hmmm. I remember the first time I saw that 69 up close and personal.
As I commented over at Sarge's, When they poured me off of the C-1 and onto Ike's deck, my BAV was still north of point one and the back of my shirt from collar to shoulders was sodden with blood. As I wobbled off toward ATO, where a rep from my temporary squadron would soon collect me, one of the mail handlers shouted with glee, "Would you look at this firetruckin' guy!?!"
Lemme tell you my story man.
It all happened in the wonder days of the early 80's, with Billy's big brother trying to get the boot print out of the seat of his trousers and a 600 ship navy a-borning. I appreciated the things my older and wiser shipmates were telling me, and I could watch things getting better and better minute by minute, but I had no real visceral understanding of how great it was to be alive and serving at the pointy end at that place and at that time.
It was early summer and the airwing I was assigned to had just returned to NAS Oceana following a major Mediterranean/Indian Ocean deployment. I was an E-3 (HN) squadron corpsman at the time, and TAD to the base clinic. As a trained but not yet rated aircrewman, I was also flying with NASO SAR. In those days you didn't get the wings or the designator until you'd completed the operational syllabus, amassed 50 flight hours, and received a favorable endorsement from the commanding officer.
That last detail had me in a bit of a limbo for a while. Even though I worked at medical ashore and afloat and flew SAR/MEDEVAC with the helo bubbas, I belonged to a fighter squadron, and the favorable endorsement had to come from my Skipper, CDR/USN/NSWFFP (No Shit World Famous Fighter Pilot). And I was not always his favorite enlisted fellow.
The Skipper had in fact given me the opportunity, a couple of months previously, to enjoy the rights and privileges of Enlisted Pay Grade Three (E-3) for a second time. I'm afraid I'd had a spot of alcohol influenced bother with the local constabulary.
But following the quiet, reserved discussion we'd had at Captains Mast, the Skipper had set me upon the path of Righteousness. First he busted me to E-3, fined me $750 (My base pay IIRC was just north of $400/month, and $750 happens to be $2,150 in 2015 dollars), and restricted me to base for 60 days. Then -- and more importantly -- he shamed me, by pointing out that I was a punk kid, taking on salty airs after making a single deployment, and making my squadron, my shipmates, and the navy look bad. Then and there I decided to straighten up and fly right. Which I did. Pretty much. For those values of straighten up and fly right achievable by a snot-nosed hard charging sailor fueled by limitless testosterone and energy.
I must have made a good job of it because the day I came off restriction, a favorable endorsement was tendered, and I received my wings and rating at morning quarters a few days later.
Which was a proud and thrilling moment, after which the Division Chief pulled me aside and told me I was going TAD to Ike for 60 days, to fill in for a squadron corpsman who'd gone on emergency leave. I was to catch Ike's C-1 COD "Mamie"* at Base Ops at zero-dark, first thing in the morning. Ike and her Airwing were in the midst of workups, operating along the east coast and down into the Caribbean.
This was good news as far as I was concerned. In those days airwingers spent about half the time on "the boat" and about half on "the beach." For east coast airwingers, the beach was one of four Naval Air Stations; Oceana at Virginia Beach, Norfolk at NOB Norfolk, and Jax and Cecil near Jacksonville, Florida. The Queer Det actually lived at NAS Whidby Island, Washington.
The boat had it's downsides of course, smelly, overcrowded, hard work and long hours 24/7, no beer, and for damn sure no women. The beach featured a more leisurely pace of (ahem) eight hour days, (ahem) five day work weeks, veritable oceans of beer and hot and cold running women.
But the beach had a dark side. There were more chickenshit rules and regulations than you could shake a stick at, and seemingly thousands of tin pot chickenshit dictators, each running their own little chickenshit fiefdoms. The boat sucked enormously, but the chickenshit was almost nonexistent. And the boat was where the real, useful, pointy-end-of-the-spear stuff happened. Where I could do what I'd signed up to do. Sailors, as they say, belong on ships, and ships belong at sea.
So after three months on the beach, and another three months to go before we even began making workup dets (Dets! A subject worthy of multiple posts!), sixty days on Ike looked pretty good at the time.
My runnin' mate Jimmy** reminded me throughout the day of the hoary old naval tradition of the "drinking of the wings." One isn't fully rated until one successfully executes the maneuver of drinking, in one go, a pitcher of beer in which the new wings have been deposited, then catching said wings in one's teeth.
Which I was all for, and all prepared for, even though such an activity might potentially bump up against the notion of straightening up and flying right.
We knocked off work at 1400. We were allowed to do this because we were defending the clinic's honor on the softball field and would play a weather makeup double-header against one of the fearsome AIMD teams.
At 1600 we took the field. By 1800 we had soundly thrashed our opponents twice. It was glorious. Pleasantly tired, dirty, sweaty and smelly, we headed over to the club, primarily for to drink my wings. I had a plane to catch in the morning, so I anticipated 45 minutes of fun, catching a slight cheap beer buzz, and an early night. It was not to be.
At the club we were turned away. NO ATHLETIC ATTIRE IN THE CLUB. Did someone say chickenshit?
I was disappointed but prepared to say "firetruck it, we'll just do it in a couple of months." Which is pretty close to what I did say. Jimmy, however, was concerned about the possibility of violating the wings drinking protocol. To the best of his knowledge, wings were required to be drunk on the day they are awarded. A sixty-day delay really wouldn't do.
"I know the perfect place," he said.
So Jimmy and I and Jorge (HOR-hay, never George) and Bob (Robert E. Lee (surname redacted) VI jumped into Bob's 1973 Opel Kadett and roared out the back gate, wound through the piney woods toward Lynnhaven, and pulled up at a single story dive bar set back in the trees on a gravel parking lot. Looking at google earth, the building is still there. The parking lot has been partially paved. It's empty, though, and there's no real way to tell if it's still the same bar. An interweb search failed to find a business of the same name. I will not mention the name on the off chance that an officer working cold cases at the Virginia Beach Police Department might stumble across this blog.
The parking lot held a half-dozen motorcycles and about 40 cars. The bar may have begun life as a home. You had to traverse a fairly large entrance foyer and hang a left to get into the bar proper. After making the left there was a long bar to the right, a dense pack of rickety tables in the near half of the room, and six cheap pool tables in the back. At the back left corner was a hallway leading to the heads. The place was dim and smoky and smelled of cheap tobacco, stale beer, urine, a tinge of puke, and just a hint of commercial deodorizer. Clearly a family place.
When we rolled in the big room was fairly crowded with folks who probably considered themselves bikers. Lots of unwashed fat, greasy hair, big shoulder tattoos, and too-tight leather vests. No sign of military patrons, which was a bit unusual for a bar in Virginia Beach. There was a bit of a lull in conversation as we entered and the crowd looked us over.
I didn't really think about it at the time, but I suspect the military was generally discouraged from drinking in this fine establishment.
I really wasn't in the mood for drinking. I was tired after the long day and double header, had a painful hook slide burn on my calf, and the clock was ticking away toward my very early morning date with the COD. Nevertheless, it was a duty thing, more or less.
The wing drinking was quickly and painlessly done. It's not really that much of a trick, particularly if you are prepared to let most of the contents of the pitcher run down the sides of your face. I was already dirty, smelly and damp and wearing a cheap softball uniform, so it wasn't much of a problem. As to "wasting" beer, which was (and is) a far from uncommon lament in certain crowds..., please. This was 1980's dive bar draft, the cheapest keg beer available to begin with and more than likely the supply line ran through the heads.
Watered hoss pi$$ or not, the beer had it's relaxing way with our quartet of brain stems and we launched into a delightfully detailed bull session regarding chickenshit. At some point Jimmy motored off to pump bilges. The next thing I knew...
A lot of that looks almost exactly like the fight I remember.
It started with some shoving, escalated to the legally required "BLEEP YOU, MOTHERBLEEPER!", and then the fists started flying. Of course it was Jimmy.
Great guy, sharp sailor, superb swimmer and aircrewman. One of the best friends I ever had. Dragged my dazed and confused carcass out of a smashed and burning Sea King one fine day at Navy Dare.
But at 5'5" and 140 lbs., Jimmy had a touch of little man syndrome which tended to become full-blown when he was drinking. A minor detail, so far as I was concerned. A wise man once said, "if you're gonna have friends, you gotta spot 'em at least one fault." Lord knows that Jimmy spotted me a couple.
Just as in the video above, it was hard to see exactly what was going on. If my previous bar crawling escapades with Jimmy were any guide, and they were, he was probably getting his ass kicked. So I waded into the scrum.
As you might imagine from the story so far, I was not unaccustomed to bar fights. They were officially frowned upon by both naval and civilian authorities, and by most of the rest of modern, genteel 1980's society I suppose. Unofficially, bar fights were grudgingly tolerated so long as damages and injuries were kept to a minimum. Me, I enjoyed the hell out of 'em.
We're all taught that fighting is uncivilized, and I suppose that's true to some extent. The problem, though, is that our intellectual ideas about civilized behavior sometimes come into conflict with reality. Unless they're sick or somehow otherwise broken, young men are wild animals wearing only the thinnest veneer of civilization and decorum. Their natural, fundamental drive is to breed, and part of breeding is finding one's place in the pecking order. This is a primal drive, springing from the primitive brain, fueled by energy and hormones. It can't be reasoned with, but it can be dominated by the thinking components of the brain. That takes a lot of work, though, and it's a process of trial and error.
Add a bit of judgement juice to the equation and the efficacy of cognitive reasoning fades. The veneer of civilization wears thin and the posturing of dominant behavior begins. So does the fun.
The idea of "fun violence" will doubtless be shocking to some, but c'mon. It's nature. Sure, there's risk involved. Hey, it's life.
I'd argue that more fighting would actually make things better. We male-type humans aren't really wired to kill in these kind of dominance matches. We're wired to submit if we're getting our ass kicked, to back off when our opponent submits, or to call it a draw before evenly matched parties get hurt too bad. If more young men would lose a few, win a couple, and tie a lot, they'd be better men for the experience. They'd burn up a lot of energy, gain a better and more visceral understanding of themselves, their fellows, and of the reality of life, and be able to go on to bigger, better, and less egocentric activities.
Where was I? Oh yeah, wading into the scrum. I peeled away a few layers of onlookers, collecting a solid whack to the beezer in the process. When I got to where I could see what was happening it looked like Jimmy was doing okay. He'd managed to crawl under a pool table and the fat, greasy bikers were having a hard time digging him out. They'd be able to do it eventually, though, so my plan was to open up an avenue of escape. I was doing more pushing and redirecting than fighting, and my size and level of fitness meant that my efforts were pretty effective.
There was one annoying little prick behind me though who kept whacking me on the back of the head with the skinny end of a pool stick. It didn't do me any harm, but it stung like hell. Eventually the lard asses behind him pressed him forward and I clouted him a good one, pretty much ending his combat debut.
While I was clouting Dances With Stinky Girls, I noticed Bob and Jorge shagging ass toward the front door. The intellectual part of my brain started to have a bad feeling about the situation.
But the Berserker was having fun in the midst of executing a rescue mission, so I swung back into the fray. It was only a moment's work to clear a bit of a path to the back hallway and as soon as there was an opening, Jimmy squirted out from under the pool table like a watermelon seed, down the hall, and out the back door.
Which left me rather in the lurch, and deep behind enemy lines.
Remember what I said about the way young men are wired when it comes to fighting? Well, women aren't wired that way. Cherchez la femme.
As I turned to charge the exit, SMASH! I was staggered by a blow to the back of the head. I never saw Stinky Girlfriend coming. Or more likely I saw and dismissed her as a non-threat. She wasn't doing the domination-submission dance. She was going for the kill with a 40 ounce glass beer pitcher.
The pool stick had stung enough to be annoying and distracting. The beer pitcher hurt.
The blow caused my brain to slosh around inside the brain housing group and gave me, unsurprisingly, a concussion. It also opened a large stellate laceration from which a significant quantity of blood erupted.
And it stopped the fight. Even the red-nosed, beer swilling professional loser denizens of the joint realized that things had moved from bar fight to assault. Stinky Girlfriend had seriously violated the rules.
At that point I was bleeding a lot and hurting even more. I was seriously dazed from the concussion and my brain was trying very hard to find a valid reset. I was deep in the heart of enemy territory, abandoned, surrounded, alone.
Not a good time to show weakness. I glared at Stinky Girl, leaned in, and motioned as if I was going to wallop her with a slashing backhand. I didn't, of course, but she flinched, went all mottled, dropped the pitcher, and possibly released some quantity of wee.
Then I turned, walked down the hallway, and out the back door.
You could have heard an asthma inhaler drop. In fact I'm quite sure I did.
The next few hours are mostly blank. I remember the zero-dark alarm going off, and having to shower to get the pillow unstuck from my head. I wasn't really still drunk, though I added that to my comment over at Sarge's place for a bit of sailor spice. In truth I hadn't had more than three or four beers. Well, maybe five or six.
But I was having an awful hard time tracking. If you've ever had a concussion, you know what I mean.
I got myself and my gear over to Base Ops on time and caught my ride. I was still pretty wobbly when we trapped aboard Ike, but things were starting to make a bit more sense. I had a major headache and the scalp laceration was still leaking, but I was headed in the right direction. Medically, at any rate.
When it came to the chain of command at my new temporary home, not so much. You never, as they say, get a second chance to make a first impression.
"What the firetruck," said the squadron's Chief Personnelman, "happened to you?"
"It's a long story, Chief. See, I was just gonna drink my wings, but I couldn't do it at the club, sooo..."
I believe I made history by being the first-ever sailor to be placed on Charlie Liberty before actually joining a command.
Well, when you start out in the hole, there's nothing for it but to climb out. Within a few weeks the stitches came out, the shiner began to fade, and my status changed from shitbird to asset. Workups are a lot of work, but they're also a lot of fun, and an opportunity to do a lot of cool stuff. I was a pretty good corpsman, had a bit more experience and sea duty than my peers, and took the opportunity to strut my stuff.
Sixty days flew by and I walked off Ike's brow at Norfolk, leaving behind a lot of new friends and shipmates. It was good to get back to Oceana and back to the Jolly Rogers, who were about to head for Fallon. Can you say great flying, minimal chickenshit, and Pigs in Space?
A few months later I was back in front of the squadron at morning quarters to receive a couple of nice letters of commendation from Ike's medical department and from my temporary squadron. A month after that I got to put my crow back on.
It was a good time to be young, alive, and doing what I was doing, where I was doing it.
They were good times.
As I recall.
*2 Apr 1982: COD 69, Dwight D. Eisenhower's C-1A Mamie (BuNo 136787), launched during the afternoon watch on a logistics flight, bound for Naval Support Activity (NSA) Souda Bay, Crete. A gentle breeze touched the ship, however, when COD 69 arrived overhead the island an overcast sky with visibility of only two to three miles and an obscured horizon ensured that the crew flew in instrument meteorological conditions. Mamie crashed shortly after 1614, though investigators could not determine the cause due to the lack of information. Low ceilings and poor visibility hampered rescuers, who finally discovered the wreckage strewn across the northeast side of a 1,400 foot mountainside about four miles from Souda Bay s navigational beacon. Eleven men died: CDR Richard W. Beiser, LCDR Bruce L. Cook, AD1 Carter C. Kriz, MM2 Michael W. Davis, MM2 John C. Shabella and AMHAN Brian E. Haley of the ships company; and AT1 Brian D. Lafferty of VAQ-132, AZ1 David E. Newbill of VS-31, AE1 Michael A. Nichols of HS-5, AME2 Kenneth R. Sorby of VS-31 and AMH3 Miles T. Glover of HS-5.
**James D. "Jimmy" Ritter: April 2, 1957 - December 24, 1987. Rest in Peace, Shipmate.