One thing we weren't aware of at the time but it became evident as
life wore on, was that we learned true leadership from the finest examples
any lad was ever given, Chief Petty Officers.
They were crusty old guys who had done it all and had been forged into men
who had been time tested over more years than a lot of us had time on the
planet. The ones I remember wore hydraulic oil stained hats with scratched
and dinged-up insignia, faded shirts, some with a Bull Durham tag dangling
out of their right-hand pocket or a pipe and tobacco reloads in a worn
leather pouch in their hip pockets, and a Zippo that had been everywhere.
Some of them came with tattoos on their forearms that would force them to
keep their cuffs buttoned at a Methodist picnic. Most of them were as
tough as a boarding house steak. A quality required to survive the life
they lived. They were and always will be, a breed apart from all other
residents of Mother Earth. They took eighteen year-old idiots and hammered
them into sailors. You knew instinctively it had to be hell on earth to
have been born a Chief's kid. God should have given all sons born to
Chiefs a return option.
A Chief didn't have to command respect. He got it because there was
nothing else you could give them. They were God's designated hitters on
earth. We had Chiefs with fully loaded Combat Patrol Pins in my day...
Hard-core bastards, who found nothing out of place with the use of the
word 'Japs' to refer to the little sons of Nippon they had littered the
floor of the Pacific with, as payback for the December 7th party they gave
us in 1941. As late as 1970 you could still hear a Chief Petty Officer
screaming at you in bootcamp to listen to him, because if you didn't, the
damn gooks would kill us. They taught me in those days, 'insensitivity'
was not a word in a sailor's lexicon. They remembered lost mates and still
cursed the cause of their loss... And they were expert at choosing
descriptive adjectives and nouns, none of which their mothers would have
At the rare times you saw a Chief topside in dress canvas, you saw rows of
hard-earned worn and faded ribbons over his pocket. "Hey Chief, what's
that one and that one?" "Oh Hell kid, I think it was the time I fell out
of a hookers bed, I can't remember. There was a war on. They gave them to
us to keep track of the campaigns were in. We got our news from AFVN and
Stars and Stripes. To be honest, we just took their word for it. Hell son,
you couldn't pronounce most of the names of the villages we went to.
They're all gee-dunk. Listen kid, ribbons don't make you a Sailor. The
Purple one on top? OK, I do remember earning that one. We knew who the
heroes were and in the final analysis that's all that matters."
Many nights we sat in the after mess deck wrapping ourselves around cups
of coffee and listening to their stories. They were lighthearted stories
about warm beer shared with their running mates in corrugated metal
hooches at rear base landing zones, where the only furniture was a few
packing crates and a couple of Coleman lamps. Standing in line at a
Philippine cathouse or spending three hours soaking in a tub in Bangkok,
smoking cigars and getting loaded. It was our history. And we dreamed of
being just like them because they were our heroes. When they accepted you
as their shipmate, it was the highest honor you would ever receive in your
life. At least it was clearly that for me.
They were not men given to the prerogatives of their position. You would
find them with their sleeves rolled up, shoulder-to-shoulder with you in a
stores loading party. "Hey Chief, no need for you to be out here tossin'
crates in the rain, we can get all this crap aboard." "Son, the term 'All
hands' means ALL hands." "Yeah Chief, but you're no damn kid anymore, you
old fart." "Shipmate, when I'm eighty-five, parked in the old Sailors'
home in Gulfport, I'll still be able to kick your worthless ass from here
to fifty feet past the screw guards along with six of your closest
friends." And he probably wasn't bullshitting. They trained us! Not only
us, but hundreds more just like us. If it wasn't for Chief Petty Officers,
there wouldn't be any U.S. Naval Force.
There wasn't any fairy godmother who lived in a hollow tree in the
enchanted forest who could wave her magic wand and create a Chief Petty
Officer. They were born as hot-sacking seamen and matured like good
whiskey in steel hulls and steaming jungles over many years. Nothing a
nineteen year-old jaybird could cook up was original to these old
saltwater owls. They had seen E-3 jerks come and go for so many years,
they could read you like a book.
"Son, I know what you are thinking. Just one word of advice. DON'T! It
won't be worth it." "Aye aye , Chief." Chiefs aren't the kind of guys you
thank. Monkeys at the zoo don't spend a lot of time thanking the guy who
makes them do tricks for peanuts. Appreciation of what they did and who
they were, comes with long distance retrospect. No young lad takes time to
recognize the worth of his leadership. That comes later when you have
experienced poor leadership or lets say, when you have the maturity to
recognize what leaders should be, you find that Chiefs are the standard by
which you measure all others. They had no Academy rings to get scratched
up. They butchered the King's English. They had become educated at the
other end of an anchor chain from Copenhagen to Singapore. They had given
their entire lives to the United States Navy. In the progression of the
nobility of employment, CPO heads the list.
So, when we ultimately get our final duty station assignments and we get
to wherever the big CNO in the sky assigns us. If we are lucky, Marines
will be guarding the streets. I don't know about that Marine propaganda
bullsh*t, but there will be an old Chief in an oil-stained hat, a cigar
stub clenched in his teeth and a coffee cup that looks like it contains
oil, standing at the brow to assign us our bunks and tell us where to stow
our gear... And we will all be young again and the damn coffee will float
Life fixes it so that by the time a stupid kid grows old enough and smart
enough to recognize who he should have thanked along the way, he no longer
can. If I could, I would thank my old Chiefs. If you only knew what you
succeeded in pounding into this thick skull, you would be amazed. So
thanks you old casehardened unsalvageable sons-of-bitches. Save me a rack
in the berthing compartment!