Sunday, April 28, 2019
Corpsman Chronicles XVII: Chaff and Flares
I was going to tell you a funny story about Boards, and I will, but it'll be a bit incomplete.
At this particular time and place Boards and I were part of the NAS Oceana Medical Clinic's E-5 Mafia. Befitting our status as made men and women, most of us (maybe even all of us) were given a really good deal. We were "allowed" to become Duty Section Chiefs of the Day. From our perspective it was a good deal because we were able to get off of the regular five-section watchbill and jump into the 15-section COD watchbill. Just like that, we went from standing duty every five days to twice a month. We thought it was great. Our former fellow duty section members -- especially the non-made E-5's, thought we were a bunch of brown-nosing suck-ups. I didn't agree, but I could see their point. Breaks of Naval Air. You wanna be parta la Secondclassa Nostra, you gotta put in the worka in the trenchesa.
From the clinic admin and senior enlisted side, this was a good deal also. The E-6's and E-7's who previously stood duty twice a month now stood duty like, never. The clinic's sole Senior Chief (E-8), who hadn't stood duty since the Cuban Missile Crisis, was against the deal from the beginning. In his view, every enlisted sailor should be on the watchbill and standing duty in their proper rotation. No exceptions!
However, there's always been a strange operational methodology practiced naval medical circles, and the Senior Chief was outvoted by the clinic's three navy nurses, an Ensign, a JayGee, and a Hinge.
So the plan was adopted and we Mafia types began standing duty as Chiefs of the Day.
So, the duty thing. How to explain?
Back in the day, or at least back in my time, the entire enlisted crew of any ship or station was evenly divided into duty sections. In my experience there were always three duty sections on the boat, while the number of sections at shore establishments varied. Each duty section had "the duty" for 24 hours, in rotation. So in a three section rotation section one has duty today, section two tomorrow, section three the next day, then section one again, etc. I don't know for certain, but I suspect that today's navy still uses the same system.
Duty sections were/are slightly different at sea and ashore. At sea there are no weekends or days off or going home after work. Everybody works all day, every day, but people do have to eat and sleep and triple-s, get haircuts and shine shoes and stow their laundry, etc. The ship therefore has a regular day shift, which goes from roughly 0700 to 1800 or so. If your section doesn't have the duty, you get up at revile -- about 0600 -- and do your morning business and have breakfast, then go to "work" at 7 a.m. You work throughout the morning and get to go to chow at lunchtime, then work until the end of the day. Then you're kind of on your own; you go to chow, take care of personal stuff, watch television or read or play cards, etc. Then you hit the rack at lights out, around 2200 or 10 p.m., sleep all night, then get up at revile and do it all over again.
The ship operates 24 hours a day though. You don't pull over and park at lunchtime or bedtime. So at any given time about a third of the crew are busily engaged in all the stuff that makes the ship go. Thus the three section duty rotation.
What this meant in medical was that the duty section were present and running the shop before and after the "regular" 0700-1800 work day. So two out of three days you had a normal day, complete with a nice, uninterrupted (kinda/sorta) overnight snooze in your comfy rack. On the third day though, you were pretty much chained to main medical. Generally speaking, the duty section split up the overnight hours into two or three four-hour watches so that you could get some sleep, but no more than four hours at a time and always subject to interruption. There were exceptions to all of this. For instance, the four members of the flight deck crew were permanently 12/12 while underway -- that is, 12 hours on and 12 hours off -- and so weren't part of the three section duty rotation.
On the beach it was much the same, except there was a five-day, Monday-Friday work week, and everyone went home at the end of the day and had weekends off, with the exception of those on duty. The duty section was present in the clinic from 0700-0700 on their duty day. On weekdays they did their regular job from 0700-1600, but at 4 p.m. they stayed behind to run the Emergency Room while everyone else went home. On weekends the rest of the clinic was closed, but the duty crew was present in the ER. Just as on the ship, the duty section rotated watches through the night so everyone could get a little sleep, but no one got or expected a full night's sleep.
Clear as mud? I often wondered, but never got around to asking, how the Army and Air Force did things. Did they have duty sections? I know the Marines did, because they're part of the Navy. But I still don't know about the other branches.
Bright and early one summery morn of a Fine Navy Day, I rolled into the clinic to do my pre-work run. As I breezed through the ER en route to the locker room to change, I noticed that Boards, the Duty Section Chief of the Day (COD), had some serious thunder clouds swirling over his head. When I looked close I could see tiny white-hot lightning bolts striking the prominent bilateral protuberances adorning each side of his brain housing group (said protuberances being responsible for his nickname). He was grumbling as he scrawled rapidly in the duty section log book, enveloped in a haze of mentholated tobacco smoke as he sat at the COD desk. He ignored my opening insult and carried on writing. Must have been one of those nights. I do not think he agreed with my assessment that it was a Fine Navy Day.
When I returned from my 5.5 mile run I entered the clinic through the front doors as was my wont and proceeded directly to the Admin Office. With the exception of the locker room in the back of the building near the ER, the wearing of athletic attire was strictly prohibited in the clinic, which was one of the reasons I always entered through the front doors after finishing my run. I always stopped by Admin, too, in part to make sure that the Remington Raiders saw me flaunting a local regulation. I also had to collect a serving of post-workout Motrin from the cute little Yeoman (herself an E-5 of course) who manned a desk in the back of the space. She was on limited duty following a car crash and I flirted with her shamelessly, but she was on to me. She didn't mind funding my NSAID addiction and trading double entendres, but her heart belonged to some knuckle-dragging Boiler Tech in the fleet. All part of the Adventure.
As I strode into Admin Boards was busy copying pages from the duty log book for his morning report. The thunderclouds were still clearly visible, and he was being pestered by the Senior Chief, who immediately switched targeting to me and my unauthorized attire.
"No athletic attire in the building during working hours!"
As I answered I caught a flash of gratitude and a hint of a grin from Boards.
Taking a conspicuously slow look at my G-Shock, I noted that it was 0645. Clearly before working hours. However...
"And you're late for muster, too!"
Ruh-roh! I was well and truly in the shit, deep behind enemy lines, in a predicament I'd placed myself without any help whatsoever. Hoist by my own petard! I prepared for the worst.
In that dark, awful, moment I heard the sound of snapping glass coming from the copier. I glanced at Boards, who raised his eyebrows in a fleeting "what, me worry?" gesture before pressing the big green copy button. In that moment I realized what Boards had also concluded, that he'd managed to snap the copier platen glass by pressing the logbook down too firmly while preparing to make a copy. All things considered, pressing the go button was probably the single most contraindicated action he could take. So naturally, he took it. I rather suspect I'd have done the same, had I been in his shoes.
Sparks immediately shot from the copier as it squealed with a terrible sound of rending metal and plastic and breaking glass. Boards cocked his head and grimaced in feigned puzzlement as acrid smoke started pumping from the back of the unit. Power and lights went out in Admin as breakers tripped, then, with an audible click, backup lighting units flickered on, striving mightily to overcome the thick but already dissipating smoke.
With the gift of a miraculous distraction, I slipped out of admin, did the Superman in a phone booth thing, and made muster only a little bit late.
A few hours later Boards explained his actions with the copier. "Well, the morning wasn't going to get any more fucked up. Besides, I wondered what would happen. That was a pretty cool failure mode."
That's a good memory for me. In those days, with the crowd I hung out with, there was no end of fun and goofy hi jinks. As I was thinking back on this particular event, I was trying to remember what exactly had made it a rough night for Boards as the COD. Something tells me it was a memorable event, but I can't recall what it was. Thinking back prompted me to remember one or two memorable events from my watches as COD, so I'll have to share those in a future post.
Before I end this one though, I thought I'd share a few words about the Senior Chief. I didn't realize it until years had passed, but for as much as he rode me, that old fart always gave me an out. The athletic attire is a good example. By the letter of NASO regulation, athletic attire was banned throughout the clinic (and other formal work places) except for locker rooms and adjacent passageways leading directly outside. There was nothing in the regulation about working hours. It was a straight ban, with two specific exceptions. Period. Dot.
Why did the Senior Chief give me the "working hours" out, time and time again? I have no idea. But I'm pretty sure he was a complete master at managing young sailors, at keeping them coloring more or less inside the lines while not crushing the stuff that made them worth keeping around. It was many years before I realized that he was a good guy, and that every time I thought he was being a dick, there had been only one dick in the room, and it wasn't the Senior Chief.