In the Navy, when things start falling off airplanes, ships start running aground, and sailors start going over the hill, the head shed will often completely stop operations and call for a “stand-down,” a time to stop, think, and figure out what is going wrong.
Stand-downs often have to do with safety or discipline.
I’ve been involved in at least four of them – three involving deaths and one potential mutiny.
One death was in the 1960s when a friend of mine went topside to dump trash one night during a storm and was never seen again.
Oddly enough, his empty shoes were found on the fantail the next morning, causing doubt as to whether he had been washed over the side or just jumped.
Regardless, the ship did a two-day review of its foul weather safety procedures.
In the 1970s, another friend of mine was almost cut in half when he was hit by a steel cable that parted while we were alongside another ship during an underway replenishment.
Such cables connecting the ships are under immense strain, and breaking is not an uncommon occurrence.
Again, such operations on that ship were halted until an investigation was done, and it was determined to be “an act of God.”
For a while in the mid-1980s, there was a Navy-wide illegal drug epidemic and I was on a ship where someone was murdered in the ship’s library. I found the body.
Apparently, a drug deal had gone wrong.
Unfortunately for me, I happened to be in charge of the space where the crime took place and therefore had responsibility for the investigation.
When we got into port, we brought on the dogs, searched the whole ship, made a lot of noise, and nothing really happened.
As far as the mutiny, you’ve heard jokes about “nobody goes ashore until morale improves?”
Well, I was on one of those ships.
It was about 1963, and I was on a ship returning to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for overhaul after three years overseas.
It was a great ship, and I didn’t want to leave.
However, it was a union shipyard, and civilians had to do all the work.
Consequently, I got transferred to probably the worst ship in the Navy, a World War II-era destroyer escort that was fitting out up in Boston for a homeport shift to Key West.
I had hardly stowed my sea bag before I learned that everyone hated the captain.
I gave him the benefit of the doubt, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that he was a lug nut.
I was the leading electronics technician, so I had to deal with him every day. I believe in speaking truth to power, but not when power is a moron.
His favorite saying was “If you are on time, you are late.”
I never met a man so universally hated.
I didn’t hear the term “fragging” (murdering your superior officer) until I was in Vietnam, but this man’s life was in danger.
He had a new British MGB convertible car that he was very proud of and he always parked it alongside the brow from the dry dock to the ship.
One dark night, someone stuck a knife in the canvas top just above the passenger door, and then walked all the way around the back of the car to the other door, cutting the top completely off.
When he discovered what had happened, he went bananas, started a major investigation, and quarantined everyone to the ship, about 300 sailors, until the guilty party confessed.
Well, everybody knew who did it, but no one was going to tell, so we “stood down” for about four days.
The single guys like me thought it was funny; I didn’t have anywhere to go, but the married personnel, and especially their wives ashore, came unglued.
The women protested on the pier, called their Congress persons, etc., and the captain was forced to back down.
No one ever confessed.
I don’t know where he parked his car after he got a new top.
I seem to be star-crossed with MG automobiles; they keep popping up in my life – the Boston shipyard story; my first college roommate had one that I adored, etc.
I currently own four (three Bs and a Midget), but the most bizarre MG-related incident happened when I was stationed at the Naval Academy in Annapolis.
As you know, there’s a heated rivalry between the Army and Navy, especially in football.
On the runup to one of the Army/Navy games, a midshipman took up one dollar from each of his fellow classmen (not coed in those days), for a total of $4,000.
An Army exchange officer, serving as a company officer, had a brand new MGB and lived inside the “yard.”
Late on the night before the big game, a group of midshipmen, with cloth-wrapped, muffled sledgehammers, went to the Army officer’s home and beat his car to pieces.
They then left the money in his mailbox.
Since a new MGB cost around $3,000 in those days, he made about a thousand dollars on the deal. I know this sounds crazy, but I’m not making it up.
The other day, a gentleman at a gas station told me that he enjoyed my “sea stories,” and he obviously meant it as a compliment.
I laughed to myself, however, as I thanked him, because “sea stories,” in Navy parlance, is synonymous with “a pack of lies.”
I was thinking about writing a column entitled “Will There be Any MGs in Heaven?” but my wife said that was sacrilegious and that it would get me in trouble.
People, as well as organizations, often need to stand down – a time to reboot, to assess, to contemplate.
A couple years ago, I stood down and reset my life by going to France for a month to study French.
Although I had two years of college French, most of my knowledge of the language was gained autodidactically (taught myself), and I could feel my fluency slipping away.
But it was more than just the language; it was the whole “mise en scene:” leaving the country; living on the sunny Rivera for a month; eating the real Mediterranean diet; walking all over the village daily instead of riding in a car; carrying my groceries in a net sack instead of a plastic bag; reading the daily left-wing French newspaper, etc.
The school I attended, the Institut de Francais, located just down the road from where Grace Kelly had her fatal car wreck, has drawn diplomats, politicians, and Francophiles (like me) from around the world to its palm-studded campus since1969.
Utilizing the “St Cloud-Zagreb Method,” or “Total Immersion,” it stresses the application of the language – basically, you actually need to use the language to learn it.
From the first day until the last, every minute of instruction was in French.
And if you were overheard by one of the instructors speaking your native tongue (there were nine nationalities represented in my class), you were fined one euro for each word you spoke (all these fines were pooled for a gigantic party on graduation day).
In the late afternoon sessions (8-hour days, five days a week), we had the dreaded “expose,” where each student was required to speak in front of the class on a subject of their choice for 15 to 20 minutes.
Breakfast and lunch are on the premises; however, they are both nightmares as the instructors sit with the students and question you in French.
All the challenges aside, at the end of the month I felt refreshed, recharged, and ready to attend the Sorbonne.
Even great artists need to have stand-downs.
In the hills above the school, near the little medieval town of Vence, sometime home to expatriate writers like D.H. Lawrence and James Baldwin, stands the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence (Chapel of the Rosary), often referred to as the Matisse Chapel.
If you know art, you probably know of Henri Emile Matisse (1869-1964), one of France’s most famous painters, and a contemporary of Picasso.
His intense use of color in his paintings brought him acclaim as one of the “Fauves” (wild beasts).
He is perhaps best known in America (in my opinion) for paper cut-outs that he did in his later years called the “Blue Nudes.”
Anyway, the story about his “stand-down” and the chapel sounds like a movie script.
An atheist, toward the end of his life he contracted cancer and was hospitalized.
His nurse happened to be one of his former nude models who had become a Catholic Dominican nun.
She lived in a convent near Vence, and the convent high school was struggling to build a chapel on its grounds.
In gratitude to her, and in an apparent life-changing moment, Matisse agreed to help.
He not only designed the chapel, which is world-famous today, but covered its walls, stations of the cross, etc., with priceless drawings which he, unable to stand, made with charcoal attached to a long stick.
He later credited this experience with adding years to his life.
And so, my friends, what better time than the new year to stand down, to rethink, to reevaluate, to pick and choose?
I’m not going to presume to tell you how to live your life, but I can tell you that I’ve been privileged to see a lot of stuff in mine, and I can tell you, straight up, that you can’t find happiness unless you are happy with yourself.
Light a candle for me.
Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby, a native of Lumberton, is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note via email at: email@example.com and read previous columns online at bennyhornsby.com