Sunday, August 30, 2009

Navy Airedale – Ground Pounder Story #1, Part 2 My First Day on the Flight Deck

They stood there at the far end of the Medical compartment; they were discussing me or at least my situation. I knew this because they would each take a turn looking over at me and then returning to the group discussion. They were the Doctor treating me, a Corpsman, my Department Officer (Maintenance Dept. in lew of anyone else more senior as they were all still flying) and The Master Chief.

I was laying there on a rack (it's what we call a bed) with a sheet covering my legs. I had been stripped of my boots and pants in order for them to take an X-ray picture of my hip. I had been bowled over by a Hub cover that came off one of my very own squadron aircraft. I had thought I had lost the leg. It was still attached but it sure felt like it had been cut off. I had an ice pack on it at the moment.

The Doctor waived my X-ray panel around and heads nodded. The Master Chief took a long, hard look at me. I knew what he was thinking. It was his Job after all. He was in charge of all of us Roof Rats from my S-3 Squadron, he handpicked each of us. We were fodder for the Roof, to be eaten alive if necessary and he would get more young bodies out of the 100 or so available to him. I had escaped sort of, carried off in a Stokes.

I did not respond. Somehow, I knew I was letting him down. I knew he wanted me back on that horse. Get back into the grind as soon as possible. The problem was this horse ate people. It killed, dismembered and disfigured ad nausea. I was lucky to have all my parts. What was I to do? Plenty of others in the squadron had declined to go up there, most of the married men in fact. This was the all volunteer Navy.

He was thinking "Can I get him back?" Of that I was sure.

The party broke up and the two medical folks wandered off to a small desk top bolted to a bulkhead (it's what we call a wall). Scripts to be written, Medical file to be updated; paper work was the lubricant of the modern Navy. Unbeknown to me at that instance, updating my file was going to be one of many, many entries by various medical Officers and Corpsman over the next 4-years.

The Maintenance O and The Master Chief spoke to each other for a few moments. I knew the MO would not come over to talk to me, but The Master Chief would. I lay back and closed my eyes. I relived the few moments of pure terror I had some 30 minutes or so ago. Had I not stood up the Hub cover would have caught me in the head. I am sure the outcome of that would have been totally different.

Sure enough the MO left and The Master Chief came over to me. He stood next to the rack and looked down on me, I tried to gauge his mood. He pulled his cranial helmet off, and pinned it between his arm and body.

"Well, no broken bones in there "T", you should be able to walk. Soon maybe. Be best for you to get up and about as soon as possible." He spoke to me without looking at me; he was regurgitating what the Medical folks had told him. Well, maybe he had X-ray vision he was a Master Chief after all. They were appointed by Congress and had powers we mere Petty Officers could only dream of. I was a lowly 3ard Class an E-4; he was an E-9 and a God in our command.

The Master Chief had virtually built the Enlisted Cadre of my squadron. We had recently transitioned to the new S-3 Viking aircraft from the S-2 Tracker. He had a say in who came to the squadron and who stayed as far as the Enlisted were concerned. I showed up as an E-3 Airman fresh out of A-School. Trained as an Avionics Technician (specialized in Anti-Submarine Warfare equipment) I wanted dearly to work the Flight Deck. It was my only reason for joining the Navy.

The Master Chief had detailed me TAD as it was known, to a sister Squadron for 'seasoning', they still had aircraft albeit the older S-2 Tracker that was being replaced. He sent all of the new Airman there to see which ones worked out. You see, as funny as it sounds there are people out there that don't really want to work, or at least work hard. You know, rolling up the sleeves, getting sweaty, grimy and dirty. It was his way of taking the measure of the men he had available to him. Separate the Hard Workers from the pretty boy's.

I loved getting hands on any aircraft, old or new. I reveled in getting the chance to get up into the old Tracker, chasing broken wires, crawling into the hell hole, hauling heavy tube filled electronics. I loved learning analog systems which in just a few months would be replaced with new digital stuff in the Viking. I wore my Radar Tracks with pride (these were grease marks made by the very long worm drives that spun the Radar Antenna up and down, the grease would not wash off your cloths, it was a mark that only S-2 Technicians had on them).

The Master Chief saw this exuberance and contrasted that against the two or three Tech's that sat in the air condition shop all day. This was at a Naval Air Station in north Florida so the air conditioning was an important clue how one would work out. Many times I was soaked in sweat from the waist up and still smiling, still volunteering for yet another Gripe to work off. The pretty boy's did my paper keeping me on the line in the sun. The Master Chief picked me and I was more than happy to serve as one of his Roof Rats. Well, until today.

I didn't know how to answer, I was used to responding to The Master Chief with an automatic "Yes Master Chief" or "Right now Master Chief". I was not sure there was any other way to respond to him (you never say Sir despite the superior rank, it's a Chief thing, something about working for a living or parents being married when born, who knows). He tapped me with his bunched up glove and said he would be right back. I watched as he walked over to where the Medical Officer was sitting. They spoke, both taking turns looking at me.

I knew what The Master Chief was asking, "How soon can I get him back up on the Roof?" The Doctor nodded his head and gestured with his shoulders like he did not know. The Master Chief shook his head slightly acknowledging whatever the Doctor had said. He was looking directly at me when he did this. The look on his face was a mix of disappointment and contemplation.

He walked back over and gave me a smile. "Well "T", they are going to give you some drugs and a Light Duty Chit. That should take care of you for a few days, till you are well enough I guess."

"There is nothing wrong with Light Duty "T", you need it, you should take it. You can't be up there and scared of the place, you have to have your wits about you. So, you take all the time you need."

He walked away. I lay there playing the words out in my mind. Every word. Master Chiefs just don't go around throwing words around, they mean something.

After a few minutes I climbed out of the rack. I took a few test steps. It hurt like hell. It wasn't just the weight on the leg it was the pivoting the hip does as you step. I sucked it up, found my pants and boots. It took me 20 minutes to put on my boots, I almost passed out a couple of times.

After I dressed I limped over to the Corpsman, he had watched me closely as I dressed.

"You know they don't need you up there. There are plenty of others to cover your job." He said. He was a First Class, an E-6. I wondered why he worked down here in the nice, clean, and quiet and air conditioned compartment.

"I know." I said. He handed me a prescription for a med he said I should take before I went to bed, I would not be able to sleep without it he said. Then he gave me another piece of paper. It was a Light Duty chit. "This will get you out of work."

I took it grudgingly; he picked up on the vibe. "You are not indispensible PO "T", nothing you do up there is important." He said. I looked at him and shook my head in the affirmative; I did not believe him though.

This was important to at least two people.

I limped around on the mess deck (it's the same deck where Medical is located) for maybe 30 minutes, making complete circuits bow to stern. I wanted to go up to my shop and stew but I was not sure I could take all the ladders (that's what we call the steps or stairs between each deck), 4 all told to get to my shop. I was still in a lot of pain and needed to get used to it or get some drugs. On each circuit I passed the pharmacy, the little hole in the glass beckoned to me wanting the slip in my pocket.

I finally climbed the first ladder that got me to the Hanger Deck. I had to take a break the climb had really hurt. I tried walking again, limping forward through the middle of the hanger bay. It was relatively empty as we did not have the whole air wing on board, just the two squadrons doing CarrQuals.

Again, after maybe 20 more minutes I tried another ladder and then another and then the last one that put me on the 03 level. This was the deck where my shop was located. It also housed the Squadron Ready Room and our Maintenance Control. It was Maintenance Control where The Master Chief would be.

I made my way to the shop and was able to sit for a spell. I was not in as much pain as when I had started out almost an hour before. My hip was really tender but I think the pivoting and turning was getting better. I gathered my belongings that had been brought here from medical. My cranial helmet, gloves and my float coat. The Float Coat. It was a white one with a large black checker board on the back. It signified that he who wore it was a Final Checker. It was handed out in my Squadron by The Master Chief but only after you proved yourself worthy. He would want this back if I did not return to duty.

Duty. That is what this was all about. It was what The Master Chief was trying to tell me down in Medical. Was it my Duty to go back? Was it his Duty to get back up there? How many men would go back after a near death experience? I did not know. I was only an E-4 he was the E-9. He was The Master Chief he could have just ordered me back to duty or demanded the Float Coat back.

I limped out of the shop and made my way to Maintenance Control. I stepped into the Air Conditioned compartment that was only half filled with Admin people since we were not fully deployed to the ship. An AZ2 noticed me first and mentioned something about a cat dragging me in. I did not acknowledge his remark; I looked towards The Master Chief's office. His Cranial was on a peg just outside so I knew he was in there. Another Admin Chief came over and asked how I was. "Ok I guess." I said. "I am here to see The Master Chief." He nodded and walked over to the office, knocking on the bulkhead before stepping inside. It was protocol; mere humans were not permitted to simply step in unannounced on The Master Chief.

There was some murmured discussion in the office that I could not make out and they both emerged. The Admin Chief simply got out of the way as The Master Chief charged out, he was like that. Went nowhere in slow step, if he was going anywhere it was important and he went at a brisk pace. Same here. He crossed the distance of the small space quickly. I wanted to step backwards away from him but dared not.

He stopped in front of me his eyes burning a stare into my own.

"How you feeling PO"T"?" He said.

"It's sore and hurts." I said

"So, what's your story?" he asked, his tone had changed.

I knew what he was asking. I was standing there in front of him holding my flight deck gear, helmet and float coat. Was I coming or going? Would I leave the Float Coat with him to re-assign to another.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the Light Duty Chit. I handed it to him and said "It's not made out to anyone in particular."

He unfolded it and looked at it, confirming what I had said.

"I thought you might hold it, in case you need it for later when it gets tough up there." I smiled at him and rolled the Float Coat up and into my arm and onto my back. "I'll see you topside." I said and left him standing there. I think that was the first time in over a year that I had known him that I saw him smile.

40 minutes later on Cat 1, AG703 came before me for a Final Check. No grudges held, I patted her down with loving devotion, paying particularly close attention to her one remaining wheel hub cover. I would kneel down as painful as that was and hold my left hand out with my thumb pointing Up. I would work the rest of the night and every day and night of that line period.

Epilogue: Some 14 months later The Master Chief would retire. He had 22 years in, had single handed and through herculean efforts on his own had won the Squadron the Battle E award (this for the best VS Squadron over the last year, 1977) no small feat. He was leaving on top, no one could blame him. I was asked to be one of his Side Buoys, a kind of honor. Side Buoys are 8 close and respected friends and comrades who form two columns that the Retire walks between while they salute him as he departs. I was not only the youngest I was the lowest ranked (now a 2nd Class or E-5).

At the end of the ceremony, after all the speeches and farewell stories The Master Chief stood before the Side Buoy's, the Boatswain Mate commenced piping him over and he walked between us. When he got to me he stopped, turned slightly, smiled at me and pulled out a slip of paper. He winked at me and then made the final steps out into retirement. The slip of paper he gave me was the Light Duty Chit I had given him some 14 months ago, a lifetime ago as it were. A new lifetime. Mine.

BT: Jimmy T sends.

Checkers in white float coats, in the midst of air ops, waiting for their next victim, this one is an F/A-18 on board the USS Enterprise. US Navy Photo.


Buck said...

The Navy is SO much different than the USAF. I'll not pass judgment on "better or worse," it's just way different. Example: My maintenance officer would have said a few words to me were I hurt on the job and in sick bay... and you know there may be more (examples). I'll bet you still have that Light Duty chit, dontcha?

JimmyT said...

Buck, that particular MO was a jerk as I remember, but we were on a detachment and things were busy for him AND more importantly The Master Chief was there handling things in person which went a long way. By this time in that Squadron The Master Chief yielded quite a bit of power and was fully authorized by the CO to do what was necessary to get things done. In any contest of rank, only the XO carried more power. He was a remarkable man. He became a legend as a civilian working at the Wing Maintenance Office (in Jacksonville, FL) as a Rep, shaming other men half his age working on the flight line. Every trip I made there I would check in with the Wing MO and then with him. We have had many a brew at the American Legion Post just down from the Naval Air Station there. A Great Man. I have a couple of more stories with him as the central character.

And Yes, I do have that chit.

BT: Jimmy T sends.

Bag Blog said...

I'm lovin' your stories. A few years ago, we toured the Lexington in Corpus Christi. I loved crawling all over that ship. If you go back two years October on my blog, I have several sets of photos of our tour.

JimmyT said...

Lou, I'll have to check that out. The Lex was built with a wood flight deck and I it served for a very long time, it was the ship used for training of brand new Navy Pilots so there are many Naval Aviators that started their careers on the "Lady".

BT: Jimmy T sends.

virgil xenophon said...

Jimmy T/

I'll just echo what I said in comments up-post about the unique and dangerous aspects of Navy life compared to the other branches. Hat's off to you. Better you than me, my man...