I’ve been lauded and loathed, reviled and revered, commended and condemned, but all I ever wanted was a last kind word. I don’t know about you, but that’s what I remember. I was about 19, and the ship’s air search radar had fried itself, and everyone was running around in circles wondering what to do. The consensus was it couldn’t be repaired onboard. Some wanted to send back to the States for a factory tech rep; some wanted to just deep six it. Nobody paid me any attention because I was just out of electronics school. Our Master Chief, however, usually an old curmudgeon, looked at me and said, “Let the ‘Reb’ fix it,” and I did. His “last kind word” changed my life on that ship.
Later on, when I became a junior officer, I was never good at hiding, and I ended up with all the “little” jobs that no one else wanted: mess treasurer, top secret publications accountability officer, lifeboat drill safety officer, controlled medications inventory officer, Bingo Night officer, etc. You name it. I got it. These were the jobs that everyone avoided and where the responsibility, and the possible trouble, outweighed any benefits except for the satisfaction of a job well done or a kind word or two.
Take top secret publications, for example. If you can’t account for every single page of dozens of highly classified publications at the daily inventory, you might as well pack your sea bag, because you are a “goner.” It’s almost as bad with controlled medications. You better know where every such pill is in the sick bay pharmacy, and you better know where the ones went that aren’t there. If not – you’re a goner.
Mess Treasurer is not that bad. It won’t get you thrown off the ship or out of the Navy if you screw it up, but it can ruin your reputation and make you lose all your friends. The job, just a collateral duty, involves planning the wardroom meal menus, purchasing the food, supervising the cooks and other things that you would expect from someone with a degree in hotel management. Everyone complains about the food. They want steak and lobster and Baked Alaska at bargain prices. The worst part, by far, however, is collecting the monthly mess bill from a few deadbeat officers, usually far senior to you, who won’t pay up. The reality is, of course, you are always expected to do your duty, but what makes small jobs like these tolerable is a kind word now and then.
Probably the strangest collateral duty I ever had was on a guided missile cruiser where the Captain (the Old Man) made me his official “Historian and Travel Commentator.” He was a hard skipper, not exactly a Captain Queeg, rolling steel Chinese Meridian balls around in his hand, as Humphrey Bogart did in the movie, “Caine Mutiny” (1954), but he ran a tight ship. Whenever we passed some interesting geographical location that you could see ashore, he would call me up on the bridge, if I wasn’t already there on watch, hand me the 1MC (the ship’s loudspeaker system) microphone, and expect me to tell the crew all about it. Like most ships, we ran a three-section watch bill underway, and for some reason, my “lectures” always seemed to come early in the morning when I was half asleep.
One morning, leaving Marseille, for example, he told me to come up on the 1MC and give the crew a running commentary on the significance and history of the landmarks that we passed. I wasn’t that smart, but I was a History major in college, and I had already been in the Mediterranean (Med) at least ten years by that point in my career, hitting most of the ports we visited several times before.
I really got into that “little” job, particularly after I later heard, second hand, that the Old Man had said: “Benny really knows his stuff.” That offhand compliment, that last kind word, was all the motivation I needed. In this case, really unsure what would interest the crew, I looked out to starboard and saw the Isle d’If and immediately launched into an overview of the novel about the Count of Monte Cristo (1844). You can still see, or could, the old chateau fortress that the writer, Alexandre Dumas, had his protagonist, Edmond Dantes, a merchant sailor, escape from after he was unjustly imprisoned for treason. I told how he had traded places with his dead friend, the priest, Abbe Faria; had sewed himself up in a canvas body bag and been thrown off the cliff into the very sea that we were passing through; how he managed to escape and found the hidden treasure the priest had told him about; how he gained revenge on his false friends who had railroaded him, and reclaimed his wife and son. Sailors eat those kinds of stories up, especially when the good guy wins.
My next “opportunity” to serve as tour guide came as we transited the Dardanelles, the narrow channel (less than a mile wide) separating Europe and Asia, enroute to Istanbul. The waterway, known in ancient times as the Hellespont, connects the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara, and is one of the busiest stretches of water in the world. You don’t want to go through there at night or in the fog. Back in the 1960s and 70s, it was working alive with Russian Navy ships, as it was the only outlet for their Black Sea Fleet. Only about 38 miles long, before it connects with the Bosporus at Istanbul, which leads to the Black Sea, the Dardanelles is packed with sites of historical significance. For example, on the right, as you head east, is the remains of ancient Troy, site of the Trojan War, which the poet, Homer, said was caused by the kidnapping of Helen, who was so beautiful that “her face launched a thousand ships.” About all to be seen from the water, though, is a bunch of stones.
A little further down, on the left, is the site the Gallipoli campaign (1915-1916), one of the most futile and deadly battles of World War I. Over 100,000 British, French, and Turkish soldiers were killed as the Allies tried to storm the fortified Ottoman positions on the shore. Although he later admitted it was a bad idea, Winston Churchill, who was First Sea Lord of the British Admiralty at the time, planned the campaign which had the ultimate goal of capturing Istanbul, the Turkish capitol.
The English Romantic poet, Lord Byron, famously swam across the Dardanelles in 1810 and wrote a poem (“Don Juan”) about it. This is the same Lord Byron who died fighting the Ottoman Turks in 1824 as a volunteer in the Greek army.
Several months later as we out-chopped (switched from the Med to the Atlantic Fleet) to the States, the Rock of Gibraltar came up over the horizon and the Old Man sent for me. It was my last “show time,” and I was ready, although it was just past dawn. “Gibraltar,” I said, with my voice reaching down into every compartment of the ship, and probably waking up those poor sailors sleeping in after the mid-watch (midnight-0400), “was first settled by the Phoenicians, the same people who settled Marseille (and the Philistines in the Bible), and was known to ancient sailors as one of the ‘Pillars of Hercules.’ Before the chronometer was invented and nobody knew for sure what their longitude was, sailors headed west through the Straits of Gibraltar were afraid they would fall off the edge of the world, even though the early Greeks had already proved that the world was round. It has been an important base for the British Royal Navy since 1713, much to the consternation of the Spanish, who claim it. In the harbor, which was Lord Nelson’s base before the Battle of Trafalgar, after which he ended up pickled in a barrel of rum, you will see, as far as I know, the world’s only remaining side-paddle wheel tugboat, and when you go into a café, you are going to get vinegar for your French fries, not catsup.
“Gibraltar is riddled with tunnels, which are controlled by the military, and if you climb to the top, you need to watch out for the Barbary Rock apes, which are bad about throwing things at you. Don’t ask what. There is a legend that they have a secret tunnel under the Strait over to the Morocco side as certain apes have been seen on both sides on the same day. Since it’s nine miles across by water, they obviously are not swimming. Another legend or superstition is that if the apes ever leave Gibraltar, so will the British. Winston Churchill was so concerned about this when he was Prime Minister that he took legal steps to protect them.
“Since Gibraltar is so small and space is at a premium, the airport runway crosses the main street which has to be blocked whenever planes take off or land. Also, and this is important, if the border with Spain is open, as it sometimes is, and you cross over on liberty, do not run afoul of the policemen there who wear the black, triangle-shaped, patent leather hats. They are the ‘Guardia Civil,’ or the civil guard, who answer only to the Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco. Do exactly as they say. They are real, live ‘007s,’ and they will shoot you.”
With the Suez Canal just a day or so away steaming across the Med, this was always a good place to explain the origin of the word “posh” or elegant. I would tell the crew: “Back when the ‘sun never set on the British Empire and Britannia ruled the waves,’ England’s P&O (Peninsular and Orient) Steamship Company ran a regular schedule through the canal and Red Sea to India. They supposedly stamped the tickets of wealthy passengers with the word, ‘POSH,’ which stood for ‘Port Out, Starboard Home,’ thus guaranteeing those passengers cabins on the ship with more shade and sea breezes for each leg of the sweltering voyage.”
During that seven-month deployment, relatively early in my Navy career, I learned several valuable lessons: I was reminded that the “little” jobs add up, and you have to make the best of every opportunity that presents itself. I learned that you never know what knowledge or information you pick up along the way might prove to be valuable at some critical point in your life and, most important, I learned that a kind word of praise, or even just acknowledgement, means as much to others as it does to you.
Here’s the thing: I’ve made many mistakes in my life; I can only hope that, when my turn comes, and I stand at the final reckoning, head bowed, before that long, green table in the sky, that the good outweighs the bad.
My younger brother, John Paul, my only sibling, died a few months ago after a long debilitating illness. We were not that close, because I was always gone in the Navy, but we became closer recently as the end drew near.
One of the last coherent things he said to me was: “All I every wanted out of life was a little money in my pocket and to be left alone.”
I loved my brother and that struck me as the sad summary of a life.
And then I realized that he, like me, was probably just looking for one last kind word.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby, a resident of Oak Grove, is a retired Navy captain. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.