Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Corpsman Chronicles XXII: Lead, follow, or get the firetruck out of the way

For those playing along at home, the Gang of Three Opus is still in the works, but it covers a lot of interesting ground and should be rather carefully edited before I turn it loose on the interwebs. Edited for clarity, flow and readability, not for scary or non-pc content, of course.

As I was checking cows this morning and daydreaming about leadership stuff, an unexpected memory popped up. The memory was of a moment in time near the front entrance of a particular Navy Exchange. Of itself, that particular moment makes for a rather interesting story. The weeks leading up to that moment in time are interesting too, as were the weeks following.


Anyway, there I was, striding toward the Navy Exchange entrance aboard Naval Shipyard Philadelphia.
It's all different now...
I'd just been released from the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. Unfortunately I'd been released to limited duty/convalescent leave and wouldn't be allowed to rejoin my unit until medically cleared. The medical authorities I was dealing with were very nice people, and I'm sure their parents were very proud of them. They were even reasonably competent World Class Physicians. But nary a one had ever been to the fleet, and they didn't understand my medical condition as it related to the fact that at my unit's present location, some shit was fixin' to go down, and keeping the world safe for Democracy would likely depend on my presence in theater.

As I strode toward the exchange I was physically in tip-top condition and felt fantastic. I was in a dark mood mentally from trying to reason with the fools the physicians who had fixed me good as new but now wanted me to rest and relax instead of jumping back in the Big Game. Bastards! I was an E-6 at the time, and decked out in nicely salty, faded cammies, which was the uniform of the day back where I'd come from. My boots were mirror polished, my eight-sided cover was three sizes too small (salty) and rode atop a closely cropped, nearly hairless scalp. My 1980's porn star slash Naval Aviation mustache was completely non-reg and unsat, my collars sported a caduceus and three-chevroned crow, both in subdued black, and on my left breast glowed shiny gold aircrew wings. Compared to the sand crabs and dungaree/khaki-clad shipyard sailors I stood out, shining like a diamond in a goat's ass.

And I knew it. So did the matrons of Philadelphia, who were presently keeping their daughters locked away behind thick, bolted doors. But that's another tale entirely. Ahem.

You've never heard me talk about Philadelphia. That's mostly because I only ever spent six days in the blighted city of scrapple, hard by the Delaware and Joisey.

How and why, you may ask, did I come to be there? I will tell you. Up to a point.

This was an interesting and dynamic point in history, though most people either missed it or have no idea. Book-ended by the wall coming down and the year following the CNN War, there was some freaky shit going down as the Soviet Union teetered near the abyss and a lot of frisky firetrucktards began flexing their peace dividend muscles. I was due to PCS for shore duty which was at the time and for various reasons rather unappealing. I called the detailer asking for an extension of sea duty and he countered with 6-12 months of overseas C-SAR (Combat Search and Rescue) field evaluations.

Sign me up!

"We'll do that, but first you have to sign this."

The "this" I signed means that I'm not going to say when and where and what and why and who and all like that. I signed, and no one has ever formally and officially told me it's okay to blab, so there you go.

Anyway, I get there and we're flying some fun missions in some upgraded iron with really cool bells and whistles. Lots of night work with new and improved stuff. It's fun and interesting and often quite challenging. It's a reasonably large effort, and while we're indeed evaluating capabilities in the field, the line between evaluation and operation gets blurred from time to time.

During a particularly blurred moment in the middle of the night our trusty olden (but goodun) aircraft is invaded by a single piece of metal which crunches the PRC-90 radio in my survival vest. It crunches it hard enough to shatter the radio and send several pieces of radio case and pulverized radio battery into the tissue of my chest wall. Several pieces slip between ribs and one or more of them nick the lung, causing it to deflate.

Some stuff followed, including insertion of a chest tube and a couple of plane rides, a couple of days in the Philly Naval Hospital, de-insertion of a chest tube, and shazam-bam, there I am, ready to jam. I'm now good as new, in superb health, and striding toward the Navy Exchange in all my splendor and ire.

I take a couple more strides toward the door and watch as a Chief Petty Officer steps out. He glances at me with curiosity. He's probably never seen anyone in cammies in person before. But the Chief is doing something I've never seen a Chief do. He's uncovered. I can see the piss cutter in the pocket of his his khaki jacket. In the pocket of his unzipped khaki jacket. And he's waddling down the sidewalk eating a fucking ice cream cone.

I was rather taken aback. I'd never before seen a Chief looking so unsat. I was very slightly surprised at how much it pissed me off. Something of my displeasure must have transmitted itself non-verbally to the Chief, because he took another glance at me and and his demeanor instantly changed. I could clearly see the change as it happened. I knew what the Chief was thinking. His eyes latched onto the gold wings on my chest, and while he had no idea what that black Marine shit on my collars was all about, he knew that gold means officer and that he'd better salute. I could see it coming from a mile away.

The Chief quickly shifted the ice cream to his left hand and rendered a fairly shaky, fairly sloppy, and completely uncovered salute with his right hand. I stopped directly in front of him and glared balefully into his beady little watery eyes. He swallowed, and a couple of rivulets of sweat spilled down his face. He held the salute while I looked him up and down. He was fat and his uniform was over-tight. Ten pounds of shit in a five-pound sack. There were ice cream dribbles on his shirt, on his right trouser leg, and on both shoes.

I locked eyes with him again, then slowly returned his salute with parade ground precision. With a head jerk I indicated that I wanted a private word with the with him, off the sidewalk and away from prying eyes and ears. He began to hoof it over to a stand of coniferous shrubs about 25 yards away, on the grass and well out of earshot of passersby.

What the firetruck was I doing? Why the firetruck was I firetrucking with a Chief? I was asking myself that very question as we walked toward the shrubs. The thing is, I wasn't really firetrucking with him. I was pissed at him, because he was walking around in uniform eating ice cream, uncovered, wearing the uniform wrong, and looking like a bag of shit. For perhaps the first time in my naval career I had a good idea what what various Chiefs had actually been thinking when they rang me up for wearing the uniform wrong or looking like a bag of shit. Now maybe this Chief assumed I was an officer. No doubt he did. But I was in the correct uniform, and I was wearing it correctly. As a Navy Chief he should be familiar enough with naval uniforms to know a Navy E-6 from a Marine Officer. Finally, the salute is certainly owed by the enlisted to the officer, but the return is owed by the officer to the enlisted. It is a sign of mutual respect. And as a sign of respect, it's perfectly appropriate for a senior to salute a junior. So I was in the clear. Probably. And I was pissed.

The Chief stopped at the shrubs and turned to face me. He'd pitched the ice cream as we passed a shitcan and shoved the piss cutter back on his head. He zipped up his jacket while I paused, thinking about what to say and how to say it. The momentary fright I'd seen in his eyes was gone. He still looked like a bag of shit, and I realized that I was pissed because I was disappointed. But he looked me in the eye and he was clearly ready to take his lumps.

"Jesus Christ, Chief," I said, "what the hell?"

"I ain't got any excuse, sir."

"I know that Chief." I looked hard in his eyes and what I saw there made me feel better.

"Do we need to discuss this further?"

"Nossir," said the Chief.

"Very well, Chief. Carry on."


Sharp salute, returned sharply.


A couple hours later I was sitting at a table in the EM Club, drinking a beer. I was still rather cross about being in Philly and not heading back to the unit. But it had been a good long while since I'd sat in an EM Club drinking beer and I was kinda digging it. It was a small club and carried a lot more nautical flair than an Air Station club. I liked it.

It was a weeknight and the crowd was small and quiet. Across the room a very well constructed female type person got up and sauntered to the jukebox. She clinked in some coins and after a moment or two began delightfully moving in time to The Pretenders. "Brass in Pocket," as it happened.

She moved and sipped from a long-neck. It was a nice distraction. She turned and scanned the room, still moving and sipping. Her eyes came to rest on me. Still moving, she took another sip and began to saunter in my direction, softly singing the lyric, finally stopping across the table from me. "...gotta have some of your attention, give it to me!"

Hell of a performance. Why the firetruck, I wondered, did I ever stop going to the club?

"Check please!"


The next morning I caught the bus over to the Naval Hospital. I'd hatched a plan overnight, and all I needed was an Aviation Medicine Section, or at least a Flight Surgeon willing to listen.

"Nah," said a fellow HM1, "closest aviation medicine is Pax River."

"Well, thanks anyway," I said, wondering about the logistics of zipping down to Maryland.

The HM1 must have seen my disappointment and threw me a bone. "I think there's a flight surgeon over at the shipyard clinic, if that's any help."



The Flight Surgeon was a girl, which I thought might possibly be a slightly negative thing, considering the fact that she was stuck in a shipyard clinic, and considering what I was gonna ask of her. By girl, I mean of course a female Lieutenant, MC/USNR (FS). No disrespect intended. But still. I was gonna ask for an "up chit," or formal clearance to return to duty involving flying. I figured that if I had an up chit, and I hadn't formally started C-leave, and if I could bullshit good enough, I could maybe get travel orders cut returning me to my unit. Seemed worth a try anyway.

I didn't bother bullshitting the Flight Surgeon. She was a Flight Surgeon. She'd seen this kind of shit before. I laid it all out, told her I was fine, and sat back and shut up. She tisked at the bruising, thumped the hell out of my chest, and listened carefully to my lungs with a high-dollar cardiac stethoscope.

"Who's gonna take the sutures out?," she asked.

"Dr. Lipshit," I said, "the unit flight surgeon."

"Harry Lipshit?"

"Yes Ma'am."

She snorted, then paused for a moment. "I want X-Rays."

Twenty minutes later she peered carefully at the X-Rays. She seemed to look at them forever. Finally she sat down at her desk and looked at me. She looked at me longer than she'd looked at the X-Rays.

"I think all that garbage is in the subcutaneous tissue and intercostal space. I don't think it's going to go anywhere. You're a First Class Corpsman and a paramedic. I'm trusting you to be smart. Are you going to be smart?"

"Yes Ma'am!"

She snorted and reached for an up chit.


I rolled into the travel section of PSD just after 1000. I had my orders in hand along with my medical records and up chit. Showtime. As I stepped up to the counter a JayGee greeted me. "Can I help you, uh, Doc?"

He'd started to make the cammies/aircrew wings mistake, but this was no pimple-faced JO. This was a Mustang. He'd been around, and he'd spent time in the fleet.

"Yessir," I said, "need travel back to my unit. I'm cleared medically and packed and ready to go."

He perused my orders and carefully read the up chit. "Not going on Convalescent leave?"

"Nossir." Keep it simple.

"Okay," he said, "We can get you on the 1400 if we hustle."

He turned, noticed an empty desk, glared at his watch, then yelled at a doorway.

"Chief!, where the fuck is Rowntree?" (Yep, Mustang).

"He's at medical, Lootenant," answered the invisible Chief.

"Well Doc here needs to make the 1400, can you do that?"

"I'm on it," called the still invisible Chief.

"Damme I'm good," I thought. Then the Chief walked in. You guessed it. It was the Ice Cream Man.

He walked up to the counter with a quizzical look on his face, then thumbed through my orders as a slow grin grew on his face.

"Damme I'm firetrucked," I thought.

"Goddam, Doc," said the Chief, "I thought you wuz an officer yesterday!"

"Ah, well Chief, that is..."

"Hey Lootenant," said the Chief, "Doc here ripped me a new asshole yesterday for looking like a ragpicker!"

"Good for him," said the JayGee. "But he still needs to make the 1400, so..."

"Right, Lootenant!"

Ten minutes later I had travel orders and tickets in hand. "You wuz right Doc. I 'preciate that."

"My pleasure Chief, and thanks."


As I walked back into the unit's spaces on the flight line the eastern horizon was just turning pinkish. Skeds was scribbling on the flight schedule at the SDO desk. Otherwise the ready room was empty.

"You up?," he asked.

I waved my hard-won up chit.

"Arright," he said, scribbling furiously, "Varmint 6-6, 2100 brief. Kay?"

"Roger that."

"Welcome back, Doc."


I'd been gone 11 and a half days. It was good to be back.


Still have the scars.

Still have the PRC-90, too. It was a golden time.


  1. Well, I, for one, am glad you recovered.

    1. Thanks Scott. Be nice if I healed as fast now as then.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Damn! Now that's a story!

    Well told BTW.

    1. Thanks Sarge, very kind words. The little movie camera behind my eyes shot a lot of good video. Be nice to have a video to text dohickey. Be nice to be taller for my weight and younger for my age, too...

  3. Damn, now we are getting close to Lex's Rhythms quality stuff.

    Great story. Spent some time in PNSY myself, right after bot camp, chipping paint in sealed up LSTs in the reserve fleet basin and sleeping thru training films. Returned many years later on a DDG for an overhaul and got family base housing which was actually pretty nice, and convenient. Went back a year or so ago to look around, now that it has been closed and taken over by the local corruptocrats. Surprisingly, the housing was all fenced off and rotting away. Our tax dollars at work.
    John Blackshoe

    1. Well, I feel pretty good about the way this one flows, but... jeez.

      Maybe if I keep working at it I can get close, someday. Astonishingly high praise John, thanks.

      I actually really liked everything about PNSY while I was there. I just didn't like being there! :)

    2. Probably the best part was "Blindman's" which was the NEX sandwich sop in the industrial area. So named because the gun who worked there was indeed, legally blind, and got the gig on some set-aside for hire the handicapped thing. Great hoagies (Philly speak for sub or grinder) and cheese steaks.

  4. A great story well told.

    "...no one has ever formally and officially told me it's okay to blab, so there you go." Yea, but when a multi-stared flag officer writes in a book info which one was told is classified, I felt that it had been de-classified. Plus, it wasn't anything the opfor didn't know. But, I know, some stuff should always remain under wraps.

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

    1. Thanks Paul.

      I don't feel like I should ever justify pitching principle just because someone else did and they happen to be famous. Also feel like I'm privy to details of certain aspects of operations which could harm our guys and help bad guys. And I think there's still a tattered but mostly intact fig leaf in place regarding stuff that happened in a certain area which is probably still useful to our guys.

      But mostly, I signed.

  5. By the way: How often does a Chief admit to being wrong?


    1. IMO, the good ones do it all the time. They just do it the Chief way. It takes a few decades gain a reasonably complete understanding, but then it all becomes clear. :)

  6. Great tale, well told. Let me guess. Except for the club and the shrapnel, you did not go looking for those sorts of encounters, but you did not shy away from them either. Life can be fun when you are young, indestructible and at the top of your particular heap. Except for the young and indestructible, you appear to be at that place now. Have fun. Mark

    1. Oops, Didn't mean to suggest that you went looking for the shrapnel. Mark

    2. Thanks for stopping by and commenting Mark. Much appreciated.

      Yep, I'm old and busted these days but still tend toward "all velocity, no vector." I certainly didn't go looking to rake Navy chiefs over the coals! As for the other, it's complicated. You've often hear the sports analogy, after lots and lots of practice you have an urge to get into a real game to see what you've got and if you measure up to your own expectations.

      Anyway, still having fun, including doing chores this morning in a howling snowstorm.

    3. "...still having fun, including doing chores this morning in a howling snowstorm." Yes, that sounds like real fun. You take care out there, you hear. ( To echo the shift Sgt. from ' Hill Street Blues '. ) Paul