Thursday, January 14, 2010

Change of Command: A Story with Some Teeth

SAN DIEGO – I was going to brag about the weather in the Southwest corner when I sat down to write this column.

But it seemed familiar, and I found an earlier column where I had bragged more than enough. I think I have ridden that horse into the ground. Besides the Pacific is likely brewing some first class storm clouds to the west, which will roll in for a dreary month or so of rain, clouds, and dampness in February or March.

Then a friend from my first ship, the “U.S.S. Hawkins,” emailed me some old photographs, asking me to help identify a couple of officers from that wardroom long, long ago.

1968 Ship Photos

The photos were from 1968. Sailors were still a rough and rowdy bunch with most ship evolutions requiring brawn more than skill or knowledge. When a task was looming, many officers and chief petty officers were looking for “warm bodies,” not expertise in some specialized skill.

It was a beautiful August in Newport, RI, when my first change of command occurred. I had been aboard for about four months.

The change of command is a high point of ceremony on a destroyer. This one was to be even more of an extravaganza than most. The commander of the Cruiser, Destroyer Force, Atlantic Fleet, a three-star admiral was the guest speaker. The ship was rehearsed and inspected to death in preparation for the grand event.

As the first lieutenant (in charge of deck operations and boatswain mates), I discovered I was the officer in charge of the honor guard by virtue of my position. We rehearsed even more than the rest of the crew. For the ceremony, the admiral would be “piped” aboard and then inspect the honor guard, presented by me.

The ceremony was on a Saturday morning. The previous Monday evening, I was driving back from liberty when a car pulled out in front of me. Unavoidably, I smashed into the side of his car and totaled mine.

Lost Teeth Again

My rider, another ensign, went through the windshield and was hospitalized for about a week with many cuts and various bruises. The steering wheel stopped me from a similar fate, but it also knocked out my front teeth (again) and pretty well bashed up my face.

The “hail and farewell” wardroom party was held in the officer’s club, the “destroyer-submarine” club, four days later, the night before the ceremony. The admiral attended, and I had almost a private audience with him when he noticed my injuries. I explained the incident. He seemed to be most understanding. The other officers were envious I had so much time with the brass.

The next morning, the crew assembled in dress whites. I was resplendent in my white choker collar, white shoes, and Naval officer’s sword, if no one noticed the scars scabbing over and my puffed lips.

I assembled the honor guard, mostly second class petty officers, inspected their spotless uniforms, and had them fall into ranks under the awning on the fantail, rigged just for the occasion. The rest of the crew was assembled at quarters; the side boys were posted at the end of the brow leading up to the quarterdeck.

Admiral’s Remark

The sun was shining brightly. Red, white, and blue bunting decorated the life lines. Precisely at 1000, ten a.m., the admiral strode down the pier with a gazillion ribbons on his chest and bristling with “scrambled eggs,” the interlaced braid on the bill of his cap.

He came aboard to the band’s rendition of “Ruffles and Flourishes” while the side boys saluted him as he passed through their cordon and the boatswainmate of the watch “piped” him aboard.

He made a sharp turn and approached me. I commanded to the troops, “Hand salute” and flourished my sword in salute as well.

“Honor guard ready for your inspection, admiral,” I snapped as he returned my salute.

“Ready, to,” I ordered for the crew to end their salute as I briskly brought my sword back to my shoulder.

The admiral looked at me for a second and then asked, “How are your teeth this morning, Ensign?”

I then knew I was going to like the new captain. He was following the procession and began silently but visibly laughing behind the admiral’s back.

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