By Brion Boyles
I once had a new kid report aboard our ship (USS WHITE PLAINS AFS-4) homeported in Japan. Tall, gangly, awkward and kinda goofy-looking, the crew took to calling him “Stick”. He looked like a stick, but seemed to be about as smart as one, too. Appearances aside though, at first blush he was a sight for our tired, sore eyes.
The WHITE PLAINS was a “fast attack” supply ship, ALWAYS at sea, delivering everything from ammunition to fuel to toilet paper, movies and ice cream… to every ship in the 7th Fleet. Our area of operations extended from halfway to Hawaii thru the rest of the Western Pacific, up to Korea, down around the Straits of Malacca/Singapore, the entire Indian Ocean from Australia up to the Gulf of Arabia. She was the most underway ship in the regular Navy.
Our division was Navigation, composed of a handful of Quartermasters (the Navy rating title for enlisted navigators.). There were only 4 of us. There was Chief Petty Officer Nezworski, I was the 2nd Class Petty Officer and the “leading Petty Officer”, “Skipper” Chuck Fisher was a 3rd Class, and Seaman Apprentice “Stick”. Our manning and watch station bills called for 7 Quartermasters, but we were always short-handed, which meant double the watches and workload for all hands. Every hair on your head mattered towards spreading the load.
Stick had managed to graduate from basic Quartermaster school, as had all of us, but I couldn’t quite figure out how. He did not seem… “right”. He could perform some very basic navigation tasks but needed a great deal of supervision. Whereas most guys could get a task down after a few tries, Stick needed days. Even when he got a few things down pat, he was sloooow. Navigation is a fast-paced work, dangerous and heavy with responsibility. Having someone always check his work effectively cost us one half our workforce. While Stick was on watch, someone had to be looking over his shoulder, when they could be getting a few hours of desperately needed sleep.
Stick was easy-going, likable and honest…but incurably narrow-focused. You could point to the deck and tell him to sweep it, and he would sweep the spot you pointed to… and nothing else. He wasn’t lazy… he just didn’t SEE beyond where you pointed. Instructions had to be SO thorough as to make GIVING them take longer than FOLLOWING them.
He was also incredibly intimidated by rank…even of those immediately over him. He might know a task inside and out, but if an officer was present, or he was being graded/observed, he would freeze like a possum. And heaven forbid the Captain asked him a question…
This is not good for someone whose job is on the bridge of a warship, surrounded by senior officers. A job that required a lot of multi-tasking: writing a flurry of entries in the Deck Log, making and encoding weather observations, plotting visual and radar fixes and so forth, while being able to spot danger and quickly report it to the Officer Of The Deck… a course or speed change to avoid collision or a coral reef, a problem with radar, or requesting assistance when things got busy.
On the other hand, Stick could tell you the name of the replacement drummer in a studio session where The Grateful Dead recorded some long-lost Side B title. He had worked at Tower Records in San Franciso, where he was a local legend. People sought him out as the premier music historian for the most obscure and forgotten details on vinyl. When thus engaged, the light switch would come on, and Stick was irrepressibly animated… a charming, bottomless fount of knowledge.
However, as his supervisor and mentor, I had to write his evaluations and make a recommendation for advancement in the Navy, not Tower Records. A new 2nd Class Petty Officer myself, he was almost my first evaluation to write up.
It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do.
Recommendations for advancement are almost automatic when someone has put the time in. One has to have a pretty bad disciplinary record or bad attitude in order not to receive one.
The Navy had plenty of use for someone who could swab the deck or take out the trash, but not much that recognized the value of being able to recite the lines of Mott The Hoople. There was no career for 20-year deck swabbers anymore. Those days were gone. You advanced, or you were “shit-canned”.
I saw to it that he advanced to Seaman but could not bring myself to do it for 3rd Class Petty Officer… of ANY job the Navy had to offer. He would have been diligent, honest, trustworthy and loyal in all of them… and competent or work independently in none. A danger to himself, others and the ship.
I told him so.
…and he knew it.
I told him that the best thing I could do for him was to recommend an honorable discharge at the end of his enlistment. I could NOT recommend him for advancement beyond Seaman. I told my superiors so, too… who took it badly, knowing how undermanned we were. For Stick, further military service …while it could be made ACCOMMODATING to his peculiarities and personal needs…would serve only to fetter our mission, cost a valuable manpower billet, endanger the rest of us and enslave him with restrictions that he really needn’t suffer…were he a civilian.
He took my advice with his customary grace and crooked smile. I still hurt for him to this VERY DAY, and think of him often… but I can’t help but feel I may have even saved his life, in many ways.