Thursday, January 7, 2016

Corpsman Chronicles VI: I Like Ike

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.
Real warplanes.

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 69Dwight 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 ship’s 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.


  1. And that my friends is how you tell a story!


    1. You're too kind, Sarge. Thanks.

      And I'm sure you know the difference between a sea story and a fairy tale...

  2. You are a Teller of Tales, an ability far to rare today. No wonde

  3. Lucky you grew up back then- today an Aircrewman would have lost his wings, been sent to CAAC, and probably not recommended for advancement- drummed out at EAOS. There's such a zero-tolerance atmosphere these days for anything and everything. Unless of course, you're wearing stars.

    1. Hard to believe people stay in today's military atmosphere. But again, they don't, do they? Not the good ones. And despite all the nanny policies the rates of drug use, alcohol abuse, domestic violence are soaring.

      I don't know about the rest of the navy at the time but everywhere I served we had superb leadership, up and down the chain. Real people with real warts who were nevertheless principled and knew that they served something much bigger than themselves.

      I wonder if there are any vestiges of principled honor left in the navy. I notice in reading the fat leonard story that mabus essentially said it's not the navy's fault if people aren't raised right by their parents. Hmmm. That's the same excuse the education bureaucracy uses to justify the terrible things they do.