Larry King gets admiral's send-off under way
By MATTHEW DOLAN
The Virginian-Pilot © July 17, 2004
Copied and posted 19 July 2004 - for educational & informational purposes only
NORFOLK — They met, not surprisingly, on a talk show.
Vice Adm. Al Konetzni Jr., then the commander of the nation's submarines in the Pacific Fleet, appeared on "Larry King Live" four years ago. He was there to talk about a new feature film about undersea warfare.
The host, who has interviewed everyone from presidents to psychics, was struck by the admiral's engaging style.
"He responds to what you ask him. He's emotional. He's bright. And he has passion, a sense of humor and he's from New York," said Larry King, a native Brooklynite.
"He stole the show."
On Friday afternoon, King, whose eponymous cable talk show remains CNN's most popular program, repaid the favor when he gave the keynote address at Konetzni's retirement.
Not many among the hundreds gathered on Norfolk Naval Station's Pier 12 appeared surprised that the television celebrity had befriended Konetzni. "Big Al, the Sailor's Pal," as Konetzni is widely known, made friends with a lot of people during his 38 years in the Navy.
Konetzni, 59, leaves the Navy as the second-in-command for the Navy's Fleet Forces Command, headquartered in Norfolk.
The command, together with the Atlantic Fleet, has broad power to set the course for ships, planes, submarines and sailors who are based in Hampton Roads and deploy around the world.
Admirers said Konetzni's passion is in his advocacy for the regular sailors, especially those who had fallen on hard times.
"There's a youngster here, and his name is Robert Holland," Konetzni said in an interview after the ceremony. "He was one of those guys."
"We were going to throw him out of the submarine force. But we got him on another ship," Konetzni said. "It was very easy to fix his problem. We had to threaten him a little bit, but that was OK."
Konetzni transferred him from Hawaii to Bangor, Wash., so he could be stationed with people he knew.
Holland "became the sailor of the year, and now he's in the seaman-to-admiral program. I can give you 30 more examples of the same thing."
Konetzni's efforts in the Pacific Fleet, said his last boss, Adm. William J. Fallon, helped stem the flow of sailors leaving the Navy by two-thirds.
At that time, though, some faulted Konetzni for being too hands-on, breaking too many conventions about how many chances a sailor should get. The retiring admiral defended his interventionist style.
"I think everyone of us in uniform has a very strong obligation to say it like it is, as long as intellectually, we're correct," he said. "And if we don't do it, I don't think we're doing our job."
Konetzni added that he did have some concern that as the Navy downsizes, the service might be tempted to go back to treating sailors as if they had been drafted.
"If we want an all-volunteer Navy, we have to be a prime employer," he said. When King walked off the stage on the submarine Jacksonville after the ceremony Friday, he walked over and bantered easily with Konetzni.
Naturally, their give-and-take turned to the people at home in Brooklyn.
"They're good at what they do," King said. "They become good ball players. Good truck drivers. Good thieves."
He flashed a grin at that last one.
"They're good at whatever they do," King said. "But military was not something most thought about. So the admiral, he cut his own swath. And I love him."
Konetzni explained that, while he was still in Hawaii, he had arranged a sub ride for King.
But the "master of the mike" has a double fear of water and enclosed spaces.
With Konetzni urging, King made the journey anyway.
"Well, this son of a gun, I love him. When we get down, when you're just at periscope depth, all you see is water," Konetzni said.
"And Larry turned to me and said, `Are we really under?' And I remembered saying, 'Yes, sir.'"
The crew, Konetzni said, couldn't help laughing at their guest's confusion.
"Water and I," King deadpanned, "are not in affinity."
With the story over, King, now in shirt-sleeves and his trademark suspenders, looked around.
"Hey, there's your wife," King said.
"Yeah, let's get out of here," Konetzni said.
And they were gone in a New York minute.
Reach Matthew Dolan at 446-2322 or firstname.lastname@example.org