Sid's N T I N S Locker
Rained in Dallas
by Paul D. Benton - ©1997
|It rained in Dallas last Wednesday.
It was a hard driving rain which soaked the city and threatened to snarl
traffic with an icy glaze. I had inspected two federal buildings in the
downtown area, just behind the infamous Dealy Plaza. My cloth Totes cap
kept the driving rain from running down my bald head, thence my face -
but black tasseled loafers are no match for either rain swollen gutters,
or the deep puddles which collected in the broken and sagging sidewalks
of the West Side. Soaked and chilled to the bone, my colleagues and I slogged
around most of the day from one building to the other.
Although the rain had slackened by Thursday morning, the passing wintry front still held the city in its grip. The misty rain may have even been tolerable had it not been for the penetrating dampness, which hung heavy in the near freezing air and permeated my clothing through to my skin. Neither my shoes, nor my trench-coat had dried overnight. As I walked in the general direction of today's business I felt the squishing of yesterday's rain in my shoes, and the cold wet collar of my raincoat against the back of my neck. Out of my car for only a minute, I was already chilled to the bone.
Then there were --- the Golden Arches --- just ahead and only a block out of my way. This was a welcome detour, since I would have traded my soul for a hot coffee. My pace quickened as I headed up Commerce street toward succor and warmth. Being so single minded in my pursuit of the hot brew, I hardly noticed the transit busses roaring past spewing black diesel exhaust, and splashing gutter water over the other hustling pedestrians.
As I drew nearer to the buses stopped in front of McDonalds the warm exhaust from their idling diesel engines mixed with this dank winter morning and formed little swirls of gray mist, which rolled over the sidewalk and enveloped the passers-by. I felt its warmth against my face - I saw the acrid blue exhaust - I whiffed the odor of raw unburned diesel fuel.
Suddenly I was no longer crowding three score years, and establishing myself in a fourth career. Just for a fleeting minute I was up in the lookouts' shears on a foggy, damp, and misty day off San Francisco. I remembered how the dampness always managed to worm its way down to the back of my neck and put a chill down my spine. If a lookout could only keep his feet warm and the back of his neck dry, not even the smelly puffs of noxious diesel exhaust could dampen his spirits and drag out his trick topside. I also recalled the cold and salt spray in Unimak Pass, where the ice which formed on the boat was so thick that we couldn't dive fearing uncontrollable stability problems. That was wet. That was cold.
I decided to sit a spell in McDonalds to warm myself. I toyed with the USA Today in my briefcase, but left it on the table for someone else to read. I had little interest in that day's news. As I sipped hot coffee, my thoughts returned to the street and how a bit of diesel exhaust mixed with damp heavy air triggered those little vignettes of memory neatly locked away in my subconscious --- it had been forty years ago that I reported to my first boat as a member of the deck gang.
In retrospect I realized just how much the men with whom I had served between my 18th and 21st birthdays influenced my entire adult life. My parents had cast a fair rough billet --- now the metal needed to be shaped, tempered, and polished. For this work they had given up their 17 year old son to the Navy. The great WWII had not been cold for more than a dozen years so most of the senior men in boats were veterans of that conflict when I joined the Submarine Force. These veterans were neither icons, nor saints --- they were just sailor men. Some drank too much; some were surly and sarcastic; some liked to fist-fight; some were not too bright; some kissed ass; some beat their wives; and some had to be reminded that they were the example. But when it came to submarineing they were all of the same ilk:
As a matter of routine the boat came first, last, and always --- not wives, not kids, not cars. When the work was completed, as well as it could be done, then it was OK to attend to personal business and life's mundane matters. Loyalty and leadership were BFD's- these were expected from all hands, particularly those with responsibility for other men, at all times. All hands, especially non-quals and junior persons, were expected to do as they were "asked"... the first go-round.
Character was a big part of leadership. Aleader stood by his word and could be counted on for it, even unto his own inconvenience. Character also meant that if someone was wrong about his behavior or actions (on or off the boat), he was told about it or even put on the spot by his peers to do the correct thing --- you did not worry about hurting someone's feelings or pissing off your buddy.
There was rarely a Captain's Mast, sometimes when we junior men would stray from the straight and narrow path, we were only to be reminded with a swift kick in the ass. Sure you could fight back or go whining to the XO, but the crew would be lined up to get a piece of you. How quickly a man learned to take his lumps, and that life in the Navy, particularly in a submarine was not easy.
It was not for all sailors, only those who were willing to sacrifice part of their youth and a good bit of their own personality to become the best at what they do, or to at least rub elbows with the best (if you don't think these veterans were the best, just ask the Japanese).
Living with these men, who did not resent or hinder progress, helped make me (and my contemporaries) what we were to become, for better or worse --- I have stood by their very simple code.
Therefore, I was doubly dismayed on Saturday when I read of the circumstances of the death of Dennis O'Brien MM3(SS), and considered the recent publicity regarding "blood pinning". I recalled my own presentation ceremony in Yokuska, Japan --- it just happened to be part of a full dress Admin inspection --- we newly qualified men stood in a rank apart from the crew. Our shipmates watched as each man was ordered "front and center" to receive his dolphins.
I can't recall the presenter's name, but just below this four striper's gold dolphins he wore the Navy Cross ribbon. When we were dismissed everyone in the crew walked down our rank and shook hands with each of us, this included the officers. I did not even have to get falling down drunk or a bloody chest to gain acceptance, the benevolent change in the attitude (including a bit more tolerance) of our veterans toward me bespoke of their acceptance. I carried those silver dolphins in many vessels, and wore them on my khaki shirt every day as a reminder of what seafaring, leadership, and character are about. The last time I wore them was a few years ago in Pensacola when I was privileged to pin on my son's gold Naval Aviator's wings. I was surprised and gratified at the nice comments and handshakes from those fine young men when they noticed dolphins pinned on my business suit --- they still had meaning.
I really do not know much of the nuance of latter day submarineing. However, I do understand ritual as a rite of passage. The blood ritual of circumcision of pubescent males in primitive societies comes to mind. Having observed many a Navy initiation, I have seen otherwise rational men wax both primitive and sadistic directly proportional to the amount of booze consumed. Perhaps they are just wannabees and have grave self doubts --- needing to inflict humiliation and pain on others just to pump up their own ego. Their rational, "If we make this real tough on the new guys, then we had to be tuff to get here in the first place".
Senior men present should have enough sense of propriety to know when enough is enough; and the leadership and character to limit and control those who would push the limits of sane diversion. Tailhook is the prime example (CPO initiations are not far behind) of chauvinism run amuck, and a gross failure of leadership --- from the CNO on down --- to recognize and control a nasty situation. It would have taken only one Squadron Commander not to look the other way and to tell his boys to behave themselves, to have avoided the whole incident.
Dennis O'Brien was a man whose life probably ended because he was being pressured to violate certain principals. Americans hate losers, cowards, and informers (informers are especially hateful to those with Celtic genes). In this regard he was none of these. He was, however, a confused young man squeezed in a vise of shame, with nowhere to turn for help. Shame on his seniors for lacking leadership by trying to force a man, who obviously felt strongly about submarineing, to rat out his shipmates, the men with whom he must depend on daily. Shame on his peers for lacking the character to step up and admit their mistake in staging a blood ritual, and take their lumps.
Dennis O'Brien understood loyalty, it was his shipmates who committed the unpardonable sin. They let him down. If I could have advised Dennis O'Brien, I would have suggested that it would have been better to leave his dolphins on the wardroom table, rather than to be part of a submarine with men such as these.
The Dennis O'Brien incident does not personify the legacy of the submariner, or any other group of honorable men. However, it seems symptomatic of a malady which has infected our military. Talk is cheap; it is in the doing of manly deeds in which nobility flourishes.
Perhaps submarineing has gone the way of baseball. Something which we all loved until the players became too smart to be loyal to their team.
Paul Benton is the webmaster for http://users.erols.com/marelk/