Mooning the Lincoln

First off, an apology is probably in order up front as this story may offend a few folks, but you need to understand the time period and also the crazy nature of being young and being assigned to a Navy F-14 Tomcat fighter squadron at Miramar, Ca., home of Top Gun. I’ll just have to spit ball the exact time this happened as I just can’t remember the date, but the year was probably 89-90. At the time I had been assigned to a tomcat fighter squadron at Naval Air Station Miramar, Ca. for a few years and I had a few pretty good friends who, like me, loved to fish. There were about 5-6 of us in the squadron who were always trying to figure out a way to wet a line. A friend of mine, Oscar, was in my squadron and an avid fisherman. He had spent some time working down at North Island Naval Air Base which was south of Miramar and right on the waters of San Diego Bay. San Diego Bay was a pretty vast area, running for miles and the bay itself held a submarine fleet as well as leading to 32nd street where most of the Navy ships were stationed when in port. It also led to the pier at North Island where the big aircraft carriers docked when in port. North Island was a very large base and there was a little military recreation/rental shop on the water where sailors and Marines could rent small fishing boats and fish in San Diego Bay. The boats were little 14-foot Boston Whalers which were docked right at the rental center, and you had to pass a Coast Guard administered test to rent the boat. Once you took the Coast Guard “rules of the water” exam and passed you were issued a laminated card issued by the Coast Guard which was your license to rent a Whaler without taking the exam again. Oscar had the license and he and I fished the bay quite frequently. Sometimes there would be 3 of us as our other friends Steve, Lucky or Frank would jump in the boat with us from time to time.

The bay had very good fishing and when we went fishing in the bay it was all about table fare. We were usually targeting Sand Bass, Calico Bass, Halibut and Sculpin. All were very edible, and a nice big Halibut would go a long way for our meals back at the house, so we liked to target Halibut, dragging big 2-3-ounce root beer Scampi rigs on the sandy bottom of the bay. The picture below was taken by Oscar during one of our fishing trips in the bay. A beach on the south end of the airstrip at North Island is in the background and we were near the mouth of San Diego Bay. We had a mixture of fish including a nice big Halibut, sand bass and sculpin that afternoon and you can see a little bit of our old rental Whaler with a little 25hp Johnson tiller on the back. I was in my late 20’s when this picture was taken.

There were restricted areas of the bay that were off limits to recreational boats and there was a floating bait barge nearer to the mouth of the bay. The bait barge was a regular stopping point for the charter boats and longer-range fishing boats so they could stock up on bait. There was a small submarine base in the bay, and it was one of those restricted areas we couldn’t be around. Often times when we were fishing the bay, we would watch Navy SEAL’s working with dolphins or sea lions and training for all kinds of different scenarios. The SEAL’s had special boats with access doors on the gunnel and the dolphins or sea lions would jump into the boat and hitch a ride with the SEAL boats from location to location. The dolphins and sea lions were the equivalent of a trained military K9, and they worked with the SEAL teams often, training in the bay. Frank and I made friends with a Navy SEAL while we were stationed in San Diego but when they were out in the bay working, we didn’t get near them.

Most of the times that Oscar and I fished together, there was a third in the boat. My good friend Frank was probably the one that went with us most. Frank was an electrician in our shop, and he and I rented a house together in the suburbs of San Diego. Frank was from Brooklyn and he and I were stationed together in San Diego, then again in Louisiana. Next was Steve. I met Steve not long after checking into the squadron. Steve was like me; an aviation electrician and he like to fish. Steve was from San Diego, and he knew the area pretty well. Steve and I became good friends and like Frank, Steve and I were stationed together in San Diego, then again, later in Louisiana. Steve and I were close, and we spent a lot of time together in Ca. as well as Louisiana. We had a lot of fun times together, both in San Diego and in Louisiana, but Steve’s wife passed suddenly, shortly after they were transferred to Louisiana and Steve’s life changed dramatically. At times, he wasn’t the same person I knew in San Diego, and after his wife’s passing, I worried about Steve a lot. In some ways, it seemed like a part of Steve was lost with the loss of his wife. We eventually parted ways after I moved to the Atlanta area, and he moved back out west. I learned of Steve’s passing a few years back and I just wonder if Steve found happiness again before his passing. He was a good friend and I miss him.

Another guest that Oscar and I had from time to time was “LT” or Lieutenant Dave “Lucky” Lopez. He was our Maintenance officer and the squadrons liaison between the enlisted folks like me and the pilots. LT was a fisherman and really enjoyed going out with us in the Whaler. LT was also an excellent fly fisherman and we wet a line together a few times in the mountain streams of Oregon while on detachment to a small Air National Guard base in central Oregon. LT had a hard job in the squadron and many times I saw LT go toe to toe with the pilots, making sure us enlisted guys were well taken care of. We worked very hard to maintain our jets and there was a balance between being overworked and successfully completing our mission without accidents. Believe me, there were accidents in the squadron. Our squadron had a reputation for accidents, and I just have to shake my head at some of the loss of life in that squadron. Everything from fishing boat accidents to crashing jets, it brought new meaning to the phrase “work hard, play hard”. When I got to the squadron, they had just returned from a 2-week detachment to the Nevada desert where 5 of the squadron maintenance personnel rented a fish boat at a marina on a large lake near our air base. Somehow the boat capsized in the wind and the 5 fishermen in the squadron swam for shore. Only 2 made it back. Shortly after I checked in, our squadron crashed one of our jets and the “RIO” or back-seater was killed in the crash. The pilot survived the crash, but the passing of the RIO was another life lost while I was in the squadron. It was a tough squadron to be in, the work was very very hard, and LT was the ringmaster for the whole show.

From time-to-time LT would join Oscar and I on a fishing trip out in the bay. We always had a few cocktails and LT would indulge during our fishing trips. Even though LT was an officer and there were some unwritten rules about fraternization between officers and enlisted folks, but LT really like hanging out with us fishermen in the squadron. He was one of us out in the boat and we treated LT just like another fisherman. During my first year in the squadron my dad came out to San Diego for a visit, and I set us up for a multi-day offshore fishing trip. It was Oscar, LT, myself and my dad on the trip and we had a blast. My dad and LT got along great together while we fished all day, played cards and drank bourbon at night. My dad would tell the story of that trip for years afterwards and he had quite a fond memory of LT. This was LT was holding up a Pacific Sheepshead and my dad was taking a picture of me taking a picture of LT.

There was one particular memory that has always been a favorite of mine and I’ve never really shared it with anyone till now but I feel it may be appropriate for a Memorial Day memory and I don’t think LT would mind a bit. I think the year was 89 and the USS Lincoln had just been brought into service as the newest aircraft carrier in the fleet. The Lincoln’s homeport was San Diego, and the San Diego area was very proud of the newest addition to the area and Pacific fleet. The USS Lincoln was a “Nimitz” class aircraft carrier which basically meant it was big. When it came into the San Diego Bay it got a lot of attention, both on the water and on the shore. The shoreline would be lined with people wanting to watch the big carrier come into the bay and pass right by the city itself. The bay police on the water would guard the massive carrier when it came into the bay and tugboats would help to steer the massive ship if needed. The bay police were on big Zodiac type boats, and they made sure that no recreational boats got near the carrier as it came through the bay. There were also trained Navy personnel with weapons on the carrier to watch anything the bay police might miss but it’s a big deal when the carrier comes in.

It just so happened that myself, Oscar and LT happened to be fishing in the bay when the Lincoln came back into port from a highly publicized 3-week mission off the coast of South America. The operation was a success, and the return of the brand-new USS Lincoln was a big deal in the area. As the Lincoln came into the bay there were news helicopters circling above and water cannons going off around the carrier from the fire boats in the bay. The flight deck of the carrier was lined with sailors in their dress whites as the carrier passed through the bay. We were fishing just inside the bay as the massive Lincoln entered the bay at high tide.

I gotta say this about the moment the big carrier pass by our little Whaler in the bay. The carrier was majestic, and the moment was very surreal as the carrier came by. It was almost completely silent as it came by, with the only sound being the low drumming hum of the big motors turning the giant propellers to move the massive floating city. I was standing on the bow of the boat with LT in the middle and Oscar at the stern as the carrier passed us. I could see the men lining the edge of the flight deck and I could see their black neckerchiefs and bellbottoms blowing the same direction in the wind. At the time, there were no women allowed on the carrier and it was all a bunch of dudes in dress whites just looking down at us fishermen. That’s when it happened, I was living in my best patriotic moment with a tear in my eye when LT just turned around and dropped trial right there in the Whaler. LT gave those sailors standing silently and motionless at parade rest on the flight deck a show they really didn’t expect. I think at that point, Oscar and I followed suit and dropped trail also. Here were 3 guys in a small fishing boat mooning our shipmates as they passed by in the bay. I’m sure those guys were hoping for topless ladies in tiny bikinis and LT made sure we got their attention by yelling and a few gyrations during the exhibition. It was one of the funniest moments of my Navy career and something I’ve never forgotten. I’ve stood on the flight deck of aircraft carriers as they came into the San Diego Bay, and I’ve seen the bay from the flight deck perspective often but there’s only been one time that I’ve seen an aircraft carrier from a Boston Whaler while exposing my backside to a bunch of sailors. It was a hilarious moment, and it was our fishing friend LT that made those kinds of moments for us. There was never a dull moment with LT.

LT was a great friend and a great fisherman who helped bring some great memories to my life during his time on this earth, but LT lost his life in a vehicle accident during a short squadron detachment to an Air Guard base in Ore. It was devastating to our fighter family and especially us fishermen in the squadron.

I remember attending LT’s memorial service at the chapel on base. It was standing room only and the crowds spilled out of the church. LT was single and I believe there were no fewer than 3 dozen pretty women in attendance. LOL… (LT could charm the ladies and usually provided the entertainment for the Officers Club at Miramar).

At the end of LT’s memorial service at Miramar these were the last words spoken during his eulogy. Most referred to LT as “Lucky” but he was “LT” to us fishermen and enlisted guys in the squadron.

Bittersweet Klamath Falls

Some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen and one place that I used to frequent during my Navy career but never really wrote a whole lot about was my time visiting Klamath Falls, Ore. There was a time when I thought that I wanted to retire in the area after fishing the Klamath River, the wild streams and the majestic mountain lakes for trout during our squadron visits. Klamath Falls, the town itself was small and nestled along the the Klamath River in south central Oregon. Some of the biggest trout that I’ve ever caught were out of the Klamath River and the best smoked trout I’ve ever tasted came from the trout we caught in the river and flew back to San Diego. My friend and our squadron Maintenance Officer, Lt. Dave Lopez was one of the guys in the squadron that loved to fish so he and I would visit a few streams in the mountains so he could fly fish. I was more of a conventional tackle guy but I enjoyed tagging along with Dave and throwing a rooster tail while he whipped that fly rod around. I also enjoyed fishing for trout along the shores of the Klamath River and we caught some monster trout using a floating cheese bait and nightcrawler combo from the shore while freezing our butts off.

I also like to play billiards and I was very comfortable in an old smoky biker bar or pool hall trying to hustle a little pool to offset my bar tab and compare my skills against the locals on their turf. While a squadron buddy and I were spending an evening at a pretty rough local bar I befriended a female undercover narcotics officer and spent a little time playing her boyfriend and cover for her while she worked undercover in the town to bust some local drug dealers who were dealing out of the bar. It was pretty interesting, and she was very upfront with me from the get-go about what she was doing. She showed me her badges, one of which was attached to the outer face of the holster of her handgun, while explaining what she was doing and asked me if I would help her by just pretending to be her boyfriend for a while. I agreed, hoping maybe it would lead to being her real boyfriend, but she was all about business and wasn’t looking for romance at the time. She was very fit and pretty and looked a little out of place in the biker bar scene so that’s where I came in. She had just moved to the Klamath area and the police force from south Florida where she worked in the narcotics division and since nobody knew who she was in town, she was perfect for the undercover police work. She was very determined in her work, and I was amazed at how fearless she was when it came to dealing with a very bad element. A true badass.

The year was 1988 and I was assigned to a F-14 Tomcat squadron at Naval Air Station Miramar, just outside of San Diego. Travel and training is something we did a lot of back then and it seemed like we were always on the road with the squadron. I’m not sure how it all started but my squadron got an invite from the Air National Guard unit at Klamath Falls, Ore. to come up for a couple weeks and do some dog fighting with the Air Guard and their F16’s. At the time the Air Guard had plenty of funds and offered to provide us with full per diem if we came up and played with them for a couple weeks. The story is that our Commanding Officer was single and met a lady friend up in Klamath so our trips up to Klamath became very frequent for a while. I was perfectly fine with that because I really liked the laid back area and the fishing was awesome. Every time we went up to Klamath, which was about once every couple months for 2 years, the Air Guard would roll out the red carpet and we were treated like royalty. I can remember a few trips up there where we had a party just about every night complete with steak and lobster meals prepared and guests (mostly female) were bussed in from the local area to have dinner and meet single sailors from a Tomcat fighter squadron. Keep in mind that this was just a year or two after the release of the movie “Top Gun” and everyone wanted to meet fighter squadron folks. Beer trucks were on hand and the taps were always flowing for about 40-50 of us young sailors. It was a party every time we went, and we got to be good friends with some of the locals. There were also dance bars that we frequented, and I still have to shake my head at some of the antics we pulled while running around town back in the late 80’s.

One of the most memorable trips and my last was a trip to Klamath was after about a 6 month period of no trips to Klamath for the squadron. Just 6 months prior to us returning my good friend and fishing buddy Lt Dave (Lucky) Lopez passed away as a result of a car accident while he and one of our technical representatives were returning from a fishing trip to the mountains outside of Klamath. It was a trip that I could have easily went on but because I partied the night before I just wanted to get to my rack for some much needed rest after my shift was over. I learned of the car accident the next morning and Dave was in critical condition at the hospital. Dave had a massive head injury and he passed after a few days. It was hard on all of us in the squadron but loss is something you learn to deal with in fighter squadrons. It happens and you just have to put it behind you and move on.

On my last trip it was late October and I wanted to fish the Klamath River in a section I had never fished before. I didn’t know much about where to fish along the river but a trip to the local bait and tackle shop can do wonders for a fishing trip. I was able to borrow one of the squadrons rental cars and head into town for some tackle for the borrowed rods and reels. The tackle shop was in town and it was a rainy day in Klamath. I found the tackle shop and talked with the guy running the store about a good location along the river that a friend and I could fish from the bank. The fella behind the counter was more than happy to give me a little information as soon as I told him that we were visiting town from the Navy. He told me of a little access road along the river outside of town where we could go and fish along the bank. It sounded like my kinda place so I bought the trout buffet of yellow floating Powerbait and a couple dozen night crawlers. If I needed to catch a trout out west, those two baits would be all I needed to get the job done just about anywhere.

After getting the 411 on the fishing I left the store and drove through town. When I was stopped at a light in town a police cruiser pulled up next to me and as I looked over danged if it wasn’t my old friend, the undercover narcotics officer driving that cruiser! I honked the horn and at first she stared me down and then realized who I was. We pulled into a vacant parking lot up the road and she told me the story of how they busted the drug dealers in town and how she had met a local man and they were getting married. During the bust, she had done a few shady things and instead of firing her they put her on the street instead of the narcotics division. It was cool seeing her again and it was the last time I ever saw her.

It was a Friday morning and we had till 2pm to fish until we had to go to work. We worked the night shift and got up early on Friday to hit the river. There was 3 of us going fishing, Les, Doug and myself and we had commandeered a rental vehicle for the morning. It was in the lower 40’s when we drove out to the access road in the cold rain and tried to find a good spot to set up a few shore rods. It didn’t take long and we spotted another fisherman along the shore in a rain suit with a line in the water, sitting on a rock. We stopped the car and I walked down to the rivers edge to ask him about the fishing. He was an older fella and told me he hadn’t had any luck but he shared his secret bait with me which was a old tin with some dried and salted shiners. They looked and smelled pretty rough so I decided to stick with the tried and true floating cheesebait and nightcrawlers. I asked if he minded if we set up down the shoreline in an opening about 20-30 yards away and he gave us the go ahead so off we went. The rain was cold and blowing and it didn’t take long for us to get uncomfortable, standing around in the wet and cold after we baited up and put the 3 rods we had in rod holders. I had rain gear and I found a good place to sit down around the rods while Les and Doug went up to the car to dry off and run the heater for a few minutes. I’m glad I hung out in the cold rain because a few minutes after my buddies left I looked at one of our rods as it doubled over and started pulling drag. This fish managed to tangle the other 2 lines on the way in but we had our first trout, a very large rainbow around 5-6lbs. It was a blast to fight the fish and I couldn’t help but think our old friend Lucky was with us that morning along the shoreline.

After we caught the first big trout that cold rainy weather didn’t feel so bad to Les and Doug, so we were all 3 hovering around the rods shivering and waiting for the next fish after untangling the mess from the first fish. It didn’t take long, and another rod went off and Les was fighting another good trout. We got that one in and baited back up. Again and again, we caught these large rainbows until the 3 of us had 2 nice trout a piece and we headed back to the base all proud with our catch. The funny part was that the old man fishing down the bank had paid us a visit just before we left to ask what bait we were using so we gave him the nightcrawlers and our left-over cheese bait. The plan was to freeze the fish for the trip back to San Diego and then slice them into steak slices, marinade them in Teriyaki and smoke them on my buddies Weber. As it turned out, we had to replace my buddy Les’s water heater right after we returned from Klamath on that trip, so we spent the day smoking trout and replacing his water heater. We had a lot of smoked trout, and it filled the smoker from top to bottom, so we bagged up a bunch and took it to the squadron for everyone to enjoy.

Just after that trip to Klamath it was the start of the first Gulf War and things changed fast. There were no more trips to Klamath and the focus of just about all the fighter squadrons was the Gulf War. I never went back to Klamath after that trip, but I’ll never forget the beauty of that area. To me, the air was always fresh with just a hint of the Pacific Ocean in the mix. Unfortunately, when I think of Klamath, I also remember that I had a good friend that lost his life in that place, so young and so far from home.

Lt, Dave (Lucky) Lopez

30 Days on the Rock!

When I look back on my Navy career and my life in general, sometimes I wonder just what in the Sam Hill I was thinking during the second quarter of my life. You see, I’ve broken my life down into 4 quarters just like a football game. Unless technology extends my life, I believe I’ll live till around 80 years old, give or take a few years and barring any unforeseen problems. If I live till 80 I can break my life down into 4 quarters and right now I’m just starting the 4th quarter of my life, just hoping I can take it way into overtime. Sometimes it’s like I’m reminiscing about a whole other person when I think back to some of the stupid things I did during my time in the Navy and essentially a good portion of the whole second quarter of my life.

I wholeheartedly believe that some brains never fully develop until that person is well into their adult years and I’m one of them for sure. Dr. Phil actually said it on his show a few hundred times while dealing with young adults and problematic behaviors. That was me, I had problematic behaviors shortly after I joined the Navy. It wasn’t anything serious like bank robbery, it was mainly uniform type regulation infractions and a few alcohol related incidents and it was just that I did not agree with some of the petty regulations the Navy had to offer so I was on a quest to bend or break a few. Unfortunately for me, the Navy has been in the business of dealing with hard cases like me for a few hundred years and they have it down to a science. If you screw up, you pay the price and if you continue to screw up they usually up the ante every time. For instance, the first time, you may get a pass, the second time they start to limit your freedom, give you some crappy jobs and maybe take a little money from you. After that if you continue to screw up they start taking your stripes or they drop you in rank. After they have taken all your stripes and you still want to screw up, they either discharge you back to where you came from or they send you to a “Correctional Custody Unit” or CCU for 30 days of rehabilitation Navy style. On the west coast, the Navy CCU was on a small island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, not too far from Alcatraz, called “Treasure Island”.

I was a hard case for sure but I was also a hard worker and the Navy had invested a bunch of money training me to work on jets. I can remember standing in my Master Chief’s office and him asking me if I wanted a discharge. It was kinda like that scene in the movie ‘Officer and a Gentlemen’ when Richard Gere looks up at Louis Gossett Jr. who is standing over him just after Gere got his butt beat down and a crying Gere says “I got nowhere else to go!!”. I wasn’t crying or anything like Gere in that scene but I told him I did not want to go back to Kansas and he told me I was going to go to CCU for 30 days so pack my bags. He said that if I ever screwed up again after CCU they were done with me and I would be thrown out of the Navy so this was my last chance. They had taken everything they could from me and now the rubber had met the road; either I straightened up or it was back to Kansas with my clown act. At the time I was young and single so heading off to the Bay area for 30 days and a wake up behind bars didn’t really rattle my cage too much so I was kinda looking forward to the change of scenery.

At the time I was stationed just outside of Fresno at a big Naval Airbase called Naval Air Station Lemoore. The ride to Treasure Island was about 4 hours and myself plus 3 other individuals were taken by the Navy’s Military police or MP’s in an enclosed van. The van was basically a cage on wheels with 2 long bench seats in the back. In addition to CCU on the island they also had a Navy Brig. The Navy brig is the equivalent of jail or prison and usually the hard cases waiting to get kicked out of the Navy or they were doing some time for crimes wound up in the brig. It was more like an extended stay for hardened criminals and Navy misfits. There were three guys in the back of our van besides me and they were all going to the brig to do hard time. They were shackled and chained to the metal benches we were sitting on but I was not handcuffed and I could move about freely. In the 4 hours we were riding together I got to know the guys in the back of the van with me and they were doing time for crimes like assault or robbery type stuff and one guy nicknamed “Ice Mike” was an acquaintance I had run across before while up to no good. Ice Mike was really a nice guy, he just had an anger management problem and at well over 6 feet tall and 250 pounds, when Ice Mike got mad someone was going to have a bad day. He was my friend by the end of the ride and we promised to keep in touch….LOL Not really, I just made that part up but we did cut up and laugh the whole way to Treasure Island in the back of the van with the other guys.

I was the first to be dropped off at the CCU building once we got onto the island. When we pulled up to the CCU building I was greeted by a “Master At Arms” First Class Petty Officer. A “Master at Arms” is like a specialized Navy police officer and the ‘First Class Petty Officer’ part is a rank of E-6. Their whole job in the military is that of a police officer. There were about 5-6 Master at Arms personnel serving as our hosts for the next 30 days while I was to be rehabilitated on Treasure Island. I can remember being told to stand at attention in a small foyer just inside the main entrance. I was standing with my toes touching a taped line on the floor and my nose was just a few inches from an American flag on a pedestal stand. Things were pretty quiet as I had arrived while everyone was at the chow hall for the evening meal. After 5 minutes or so the “Awardee’s started filing back into the building single file. (The “Awardee” tag is what we all were called while in CCU). They had to pass by me just to my left and I was able to sneak a peek through the corner of my eyes at my roommates as they filed back into the building. I’ll never forget the first Awardee I saw walk by me; his name was Patchen and he had just returned from some kind of sinus surgery and he had a gauzed up nose with two black, purple and blue eyes. At the time I didn’t know Patchen had just had sinus surgery and I thought maybe that was how they rolled around here and I was going to be in for a rough stay. After the dozen or so awardees filed in I was directed to the head Master at Arms office and I had a sit down chat with a Navy Chief about what was expected of me during my stay. Basically he told me that they were going to help me understand the difference between right and wrong in the Navy and how to be a better, more productive sailor.

My stay started with not being able to speak to anyone for the first 24 hours and I was also given a blue colored Dyno name badge. After the 24 hour no speaking period, since I was still a blue badge for the first 7 days, I could not watch tv in the evening, in the tv room or work out with gym equipment. Once I completed my 7 day period without causing any trouble I would be rewarded a green name badge and I would be authorized to watch tv in the evening for 2 hours as well as gym privilege’s. We ate 3 times a day and marched to the chow hall for our meals. We were spread eagle and searched for weapons every time we left the chow hall after a meal. The one story brick build we stayed in was essentially a few offices in the front of the building and a open barracks in the back with about 2 dozen beds with bars on every window. There were about 12 beds on each side of the room and a giant picnic type table that ran the length of the room where we could site and do book work. In the back of the room was an enclosed tv room and a small gym area with weights, a speed bag and a full size punching bag for us to take out our aggressions. One thing I did like about my stay was that we exercised twice a day and since I was a distance runner they would let me run around the island which was a 3 mile out and back, plus they would let me run twice a day. One of the Master at Arms guys was a tall, thin black guy by the name of Owens. He was a distance runner too and the only one that could half way keep up with me and since I always needed an escort we started running together. I don’t care who you are, when you run mile after mile with someone you get to know that person pretty well and Owens and I got to be good friends.

Owens had been in the Navy for over 16 years and was in great physical shape as well as a martial arts expert. More than once I watched him bounce a volleyball into the air about 7 feet and then deliver a flying roundhouse kick to the ball with the force of Pele. I made a deal with Owens and I helped him get faster at running by pushing his pace beyond what he had ever run before and he helped me learn to defend myself by teaching me some fly martial arts moves. We had a good time when we were running around the island and generally there was a beautiful view of Alcatraz as well as San Fran and Oakland while we ran. CCU itself was all about learning a different lifestyle and coping with the Navy in a more productive way. We would work on career development and positive motivation every day for hours on end. We spent hours sitting in a classroom listening to cassette tapes with motivational speakers like Gordon Graham and Earl Nightingale. Those are two names I’ll never forget because it was like we were being brainwashed by cassette tape in a semi-dark room and in complete silence except for the speaker on the tapes. We were constantly monitored to keep us from falling asleep and I’m mildly surprised they didn’t Scotch tape our eyes open and shine bright lights at us while playing the tapes. These sessions were mandatory and about the only thing I learned from that experience was to never listen to those two monotoned speakers ever again in my life no matter how long it lasts.

When I think back to my time on Treasure Island I believe that the most productive time I spent there was running with Owens because he was someone I could relate to and I respected Owens. He was able to convince me that life is a lot easier when you do the right thing in the Navy because he was living proof. One of his biggest goals while he was working at the CCU unit was to change people like me into sailors more like him. He also told me that there were a lot of people back at my squadron that were just waiting for me to screw up one more time so they could say “I told you so” and throw me out of the Navy. He told me if I learned nothing else from my experience at CCU, learn how to prove those “I told you so” people wrong. He said that if I did the right thing every day, day after day and went above and beyond, I could prove all of those naysayers wrong and so that’s what I did. I cleaned up my act and I did it for Owens, not for Earl Nightingale or Gordon Graham but Owens was the one person that got through to me so I did it for Owens. I returned to my squadron and cleaned up my act and was rewarded with our squadron’s Sailor of the Quarter award for my first Navy award ever just a few months after my return. I have received a ton of awards since but this one was special and still hangs on my wall of Navy memories.

Treasure Island is mostly closed down now and I’m not sure that CCU or the brig even exists anymore in the Navy but I got to see some pretty cool things while I was there too. It just so happened that while I was on Treasure Island it was Fleet Week in San Francisco and we got to sit along the waters edge and watch the Blue Angels perform over the Bay one Saturday afternoon during my stay. The Navy Blue Angels were flying the old A-4 Skyhawk at the time and I got to see one of the A-4’s ripping through the bay and right by us just feet above the water. The view of Alcatraz through the bars of my window for 30 nights was pretty profound and sent a message to me. It was an awesome site and the whole experience kinda changed the way I viewed the Navy.

More than likely if it hadn’t been for those long runs and long conversations with a First Class Master at Arms named Owens I probably wouldn’t of continued my career in the Navy but that 30 day trip to Treasure Island did what it was designed to do and I continued my Navy career.

As I reflect on my time at Treasure Island, I can’t help but to think it was just another fork in the road for me and I happened to choose the right path. My life has been filled with forks in the road and split second decisions that may have saved my life and I believe that I’ve had help because of my faith. I don’t quote scripture often but there is a passage in the Bible, Jeremiah 1:5 and it is a scripture that I ponder often.

“I chose you before I formed you in the womb; I set you apart before you were born. I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Nuts On Fire!! Nuts on Fire!!

In order to tell this story, I’ve got to go back a long way. I believe the year was 1989, shortly before the lead-up to the first Gulf War and I had been working on F-14 Tomcats for about 2 years. It seemed like the whole time I was in San Diego working on Tomcats I worked the night shift. The bad thing about working on Tomcats and working the night shift is is that your shift was supposed to end around midnight, but it seemed like it never ever ever ended around midnight. Most of the time we work on the jets till 2:00 AM, 3:00, AM 4:00 AM and sometimes we’d work on The jets until the sun came up and our day shift counterparts came in to relieve us. Our departure from work all depended on the next days flight schedule and aircraft availability to fulfill the mission. Basically, if the pilots needed 8 jets for the mission, we gave them 8 jets. One thing I can say about tomcats is that it was very hard work; it didn’t matter if you were an electrician, hydraulics man, metalsmith or engine mech, the work was hot, hard and dirty every night. The Tomcat was not only a big bad fighter jet, it was also a big fuel, hydraulic fluid and oil leaking dangerous hunk of metal and you had to respect that or things could be very bad. When young men work on multimillion dollar, 20 ton flame throwing machines of war, things can go from good to bad faster than a snake can strike.

I know you’re probably wondering about that catchy title of the story so I’ll get you up to speed on Navy squadrons and aircraft stuff before we get into the story. Generally in a fighter squadron you operate with 12 aircraft. Each aircraft is assigned a aircraft number from 00 up to 12 and out of those 12 aircraft a few may not be able to fly due to some form of scheduled or unscheduled maintenance. If a squadron can maintain an average of 7-8 aircraft being flight capable at any given time, you’re doing good. Some of the aircraft that are not flyable may have little problems that need minor maintenance attention and some may have big problems that require some form of specialized maintenance that could require months of waiting for the repair from a specialized group. That was the case with aircraft 00 which we appropriately named “Nuts” for short, so instead of saying “aircraft double zero” we just called her Nuts. Nuts had been a “hangar queen” of ours for just less than a year. Hanger queen means that it sat in the hangar unfixed for months. When the hangar queens are resting in the hangar waiting for specialized maintenance we would cannibalize the aircraft, meaning that we would take parts off of it in order to use for other aircraft to meet the flight schedule. Cannibalization was pretty common among the hangar queens and the longer an aircraft sat in the hanger the longer it would be cannibalized. In the case of Nuts, it spent close to a year in the hangar before the needed repair and after the repair was complete it was time to put it back together and fire it up….literally.

The bad thing about Nuts was that it had been cannibalized a lot and looked like Swiss cheese because it had so many holes in it before we put it back together. It was missing both engines, just about every computer had been taken out and probably hundreds of other parts including just about all of the gauges in the cockpits. It literally took us a few weeks just to get to the point of applying electrical power to the aircraft safely after we put it all back together. The engines were re-installed and every part that had been cannibalized had been replaced over the course of a few weeks. The longer an aircraft is in the hangar the longer it took to get it back in the air. We worked our butts off to make sure Nuts was ready to fly again before it’s year out of service was up. We had a deadline to meet and the aircraft needed to fly within a year or there was going to be some explaining to do with our Carrier Air Group Commander or “CAG”. CAG was our boss and you just didn’t let a jet sit a round for a year without flying it.

Once we put Nuts back together in the hangar, we jacked it up off the hangar deck and cycled the landing gear as well as many of the flight controls necessary for the aircraft to fly. Everything was working great in the hangar and it was time for us to tow Nuts out to the flight line to fire up the engines and bring the big jet to life. The engine mechanics were usually the ones in the front seat who started, ran the engines and did all the many maintenance checks that are involved with getting the aircraft ready for flight. The back seat of the Tomcat was for all the electronic equipment and the back seater had no controls for the engines, flight controls or many other systems. The back seater handled the navigation and weapons duties while the Tomcat pilot flew the aircraft. Most of the electronic testing and ground type electronic testing for us electricians and electronics technicians was done from the back seat. On the night we towed nuts out to the flight line for the first time it was late, we had been working all night just to get the jet ready to start. Everyone was tired and all we had to do was start the jet, try and run a few electronic tests as well as making sure the engines didn’t have any major issues. Well, like any other well laid plan in the Navy, it fell apart. Our engine mechanic and the guy that was going to start the engines on the Tomcat was my roommate “Chief” in the barracks and a good friend. I’m going to change a few names here because I think there may have been a procedure or two that was overlooked or bypassed to achieve our goal. In order to start and test the engines you needed to have a “turn qual” certification and it wasn’t easy to get. The squadron only maintained a few engine qualified folks and my roommate Chief was one of them. He hadn’t been a turn qual very long but we really needed to get the jet going and he was all we had.

It was probably 1am once we towed the jet out to the flight line and myself, Chief and about a dozen other ground crew folks started doing our checks. The jet was chalked and chained down for the engine run and I was going to be the electronic technician in the back seat while Chief ran the tests on the engines in the front once we got the jet started. In order to start a Tomcat you need a “huffer” which basically blows highly pressurized air into the engine to spin it up and turn it on. You also need an electrical cart to supply electrical power to the aircraft during starting. These two items are large pieces of ground equipment hooked up in close proximity to the aircraft and with a bunch of ground crew personal around the aircraft it’s pretty crowded. Chief and I finished all of our ground checks before climbing up into the front and back cockpit. The canopy was open and we jumped into the seats and started turning on instruments and gauges required for the start up. Chief and I had headsets on and we could talk with each other through the internal intercom system and we could also talk to the tower as well as our maintenance office inside the hangar. I was in the back seat doing my checks and talking to the ground personnel about 8 feet below on the ground. When it came time to start the engines we had to close the canopy as part of the procedures but I didn’t mind because we could turn on the air conditioning once we got an engine on line and it would be a lot more quiet and comfortable while doing my checks. We got the canopy closed and Chief gave the all clear to the ground crew and signal to apply huffer pressure to the aircraft. Chief was going to start with the left engine and then when the left was on line we would start the right engine. When the huffer kicked in I could feel the turbine blades on the big GE motor start to spin. Chief let the engine “windmill”, which mean letting the turbines spin without applying fuel or spark to the motor for a few minutes to warm it up. When Chief advanced the throttle from the off position to idle fuel would be sprayed into the combustion chamber of the motor and a giant 20k volt spark plug would ignite the fuel. I say “would be” sprayed into the combustion chamber but on this particular night something went wrong and the fuel didn’t ignite if it got fuel but for some reason the engine wouldn’t start. Chief told me over the intercom that he was going to make a second attempt to start the motor but we needed to raise the canopy to talk with a ground crew mechanic first. When Chief went to raise the canopy, it wouldn’t come up. The big canopy over the front and back cockpits was controlled by 3k pounds of nitrogen pressure and the bottle that held the nitrogen was depleted. We should have checked that before ever entering the cockpit but we were in a hurry and overlooked it. At that time we were a captive audience in the aircraft and the only 2 ways to get out of the aircraft in an emergency was to hand crank the canopy open with a small hand crank under the inside of the canopy sill and it took 275 turns and 5 minutes to open the canopy with the crank. The only other way was to blow or eject the canopy with the rockets that were inside the canopy sill and used for the pilot ejection sequence. If we had to blow the canopy it would result in some pretty bad burns and maybe death. Blowing a canopy was not advised and if you blew one and survived your Navy career would probably be over.

We gave hand motions to the ground crew to have them bring out a nitrogen servicing cart to service the nitrogen bottle so we could open the canopy. At that point we should have sat and waited till the canopy was serviced to continue but we made the decision to press on and try and start the engine again. Once again the motor didn’t light off so Chief kneeled the aircraft in an attempt to move any pooled gas around in the engine. Kneeling the aircraft mean collapsing the nose landing gear strut which is the position of the nose landing gear when it is launched from an aircraft carrier. When the strut is kneeled the nose of the aircraft is lowered considerably and any pooled gas in the engine is shifted to the front and when you are starting a Tomcat, kneeling the aircraft for a short period of time and then raising it somehow works for starting a stubborn motor. Once Chief kneeled and raised the aircraft he gave the ground crew the signal that he was going to try and start it one more time. We got the thumbs up from the ground crew Chief advanced the throttle to idle once again only this time there was a huge explosion in the back of the aircraft. The explosion lite up the night around the aircraft in a giant fireball and everyone on the ground scattered like roaches. I heard our maintenance department guys on the radio inside the hangar shout out “Nuts on Fire”!!!”Nuts on Fire”!!!From where I was in the back seat I could feel the heat from the fireball and when I looked back to the rear of the aircraft I could see flames engulfing the back half of the aircraft. Basically the engine had finally lite off but we had a lot of excess fuel inside the engine and when Chief raised the aircraft from kneel a lot of fuel ran out onto the tarmac underneath the aircraft which no one had seen prior to our startup attempt. When the motor finally lite off a line of burning fuel ran down the back of the tailpipe onto the ground and ignited the ground around the aircraft. At that point we were in big trouble, the back of the aircraft was on fire and I quickly realized I had no way out of the aircraft without blowing the canopy and risking my career and life. It was definitely a bad place to be in but out of a dozen people running from the fire only one grabbed a nearby Halon fire extinguisher bottle, ran towards the fire spraying Halon as he went and put out the flames. Words couldn’t properly describe the feeling of relief I had seeing those flames subsid as the Halon did it’s job. His name was Mike P and I’ll never forget that name or watching Mike calmly put out the fire and possibly save a couple of lives in the process. Things got pretty busy once Mike got the fire put out. The fire department showed up while Chief and I were waiting to get the canopy opened to get us out. I gotta admit that I was pretty rattled when I finally climbed out of the cockpit and put my feet on the ground. The aircraft had minor damage from the flames but nothing that couldn’t be fixed up. Nuts managed to get back in the air shortly after that night and it flew with our squadron for the next 3 years I was there. When I think back to that incident in the middle of the night, I thank my lucky stars and the big man upstairs for my survival in our Tomcat squadron. In my 5 years in the squadron we crashed 3 jets and lost at least 6 squadron personnel, one being a close fishing buddy of mine that I still think about often. Unfortunately bad things happen when you work on Navy jets and you rely on your training to save lives. Mike P knew exactly what to do when he saw the fire while 10+ other guys ran from the fire.

Storm in the Keys


The Florida Keys and the Key West area was always a magical place for me during my Navy career. As a kid growing up in the Midwest, never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined some of the fun times I had in the Florida Keys while in the Navy. Back before, during the Reagan years and beyond there was a need for aircraft to patrol our southern borders in order to combat drug smuggling and at times our squadron was tasked with helping the feds with drug smuggler detection, interception and interdiction. Basically our squadron was tasked with finding the smugglers and the feds were tasked with apprehension. The squadron would spend a few weeks at a time down on a little known key just north of Key West called “Boca Chica”. The Navy had a small air base there and we would operate out of the airbase during our stay. The Navy also had a resort type area on Boca Chica complete with a private beach, marina, bar, restaurant and other amenities’ to make our stay more comfortable and private while we operated in the area. Unless we went into Key West which was about 10 miles from the air base, you’d never know we were there as just about everything we needed was on the base including a laid back night life at the beachside bar and restaurant after a hot day of working on the tarmac. 

       Once the feds got a little more technical with their surveillance tactics using satellites and radar, the need for our services dropped off but the base at Boca Chica was tasked with a new roll which was providing fleet adversary training (ACM) or “dog fighting” training to the fleet. Basically, Navy pilots have to stay proficient in different aspects of their job, one of those being “air to air” combat. The central hub for that training became the base at Boca Chica for the east coast air bases and sometimes the west coast bases as well. It made sense because the area in which the pilots operated was way out over the gulf and the Florida Keys was the perfect location to operate from. As a maintenance man, I wasn’t complaining as I loved to fish so when I wasn’t working on the jets I was probably going to be either fishing or trying to find a way to fish. 

                     As my Navy career was winding down I was transferring from a F-18 Hornet squadron in southern Louisiana and I chose to take a I-level job which basically meant that I would not be working on the jets anymore but I would be working on the electronic gear that goes into the jet at a small airbase just north of Atlanta, Ga. called Dobbin Air Reserve Base. I would be in a repair outfit testing and repairing anything from computers to hydraulic actuators. If it used electricity and went to a Navy or Marine Corps aircraft they probably fixed it at one time or another. By that time in my career I was in a supervisory position and was the leading Petty Officer of our division. I managed about 50-75 sailors and Marines in my position and I basically sat behind a desk all day working on paperwork, doing training which included death by Power Point and managing personnel that were half my age. After 2 years of that desk job I was about to lose my mind so I cancelled my my orders and requested to go back to lacing up my boots and working on jets for one last 2 year Hooray before my plan to retire. I was able to finagle my way into a F-18 Hornet squadron right there at the base just down the road from where I currently worked. I had about 12 years of experience on F-18 Hornets so I quickly regained all my old qualifications and started my new job as a Avionics QA rep. I traveled with the squadron when they would be tasked with different aspects of the job and the squadron usually made 3-4 trips to Key West every year for fleet adversary training. On this particular trip I was less than a year from retirement and I had already “dropped my papers” for retirement.

      The squadron had scheduled a early fall trip to Key West for another ACM training detachment which was scheduled to last 2 weeks. Just enough time for me to enjoy a little laid back lifestyle in the Keys and squeeze in a fishing trip before getting back to the grind in Atlanta. I knew this was going to be one of my last trips with the Navy to Key West so I really wanted to get some fishing in while I was there. When we were getting ready to spend a few weeks in Key West we always sent an advanced party of about a dozen personnel to make sure all of the logistics are taken care of before the main body of aircraft and personnel arrive. The advanced party would set up our birthing assignments in the barracks at Boca Chica. One nice thing about being a senior first class petty officer is that I rated my own private room so I didn’t have a roommate like most of the squadron personnel. That comes in handy when in Key West because sometimes a roommate could be problematic if they like the night life and you didn’t. On this particular trip my fishing buddy Chris was going with the advanced party and he was tasked with finding us a fishing charter during our stay in the Keys. We were going to work a 24 on and 24 off shift which would give us the opportunity to get in a trip or two. Chris was a great saltwater fisherman and many times Chris and I had rented fish boats from the Navy marina and fished for Mai Mai or other predatory fish around the drifting offshore weed beds and floating structure. We also fished the reefs for bottom feeding grouper and snapper at times. We dove for lobsters during the summer lobster season and fished on our own a lot but we wanted to let someone else do the guiding so we could focus on fishing on this trip. Generally the squadron would have a big beach party during our stay at Boca Chica so in addition to steaks and lobster on the grill Chris and I were going to try and provide some fresh fish for the beach party grill. In the past we had brought Mai Mai for the grill but it was late in the season and that kind of seafood wasn’t really anticipated to be on the menu for this trip. 

      Chris called me a few days after he arrived with the advanced party and he had found us a charter captain for a night fishing trip to the reefs for grouper and snapper. It seemed Chris had run into a commercial fishing captain who made his living catching reef fish and selling them to the local restaurants and markets as well as exporting a few up the state. Chris told me that they hit it off and the captain agreed to take Chris and I out on an all night trip to the reefs located about an hour offshore. He said that we would probably catch enough fish for our upcoming squadron party and if we would just kick in 100 bucks total for gas and bait that would pay for a night of fishing. It was mostly going to be snapper, grunts and grouper but that sounded like something we could put on the grill along with about 50-60 ribeye steaks, lobster, baked potatoes and vegetables to feed the squadron. Our plan was to leave the docks at sunset and fish most of the night. When we felt like we had enough for our party and the captain had a good amount of fish for his business we would come back in. That was the plan. 

I arrived in Key West with the main body of our squadron on a Saturday and I immediately had to go to work. There was a lot of things to set up and we needed to get everything ready to start flight operations early on Monday morning. Chris and I were working as squadron QA reps and we worked the same shift which was from noon on one day till noon on the next day. Our squadron just rotated 2 separate shifts around the clock so we were flying and performing maintenance almost non-stop for 2 weeks. We made our plans to leave on a Thursday evening, fish all night and procure the fish we needed overnight then coming in on Friday morning, clean and refrigerating our catch for the beach party and cookout on Saturday afternoon. 

Work went pretty smooth during the week and Thursday finally arrived. We got off work at noon and went back to our rooms for a little 4 hour power nap before preparing for our night trip. Chris and I grabbed a bite to eat, headed to the pier and found the captain just before sunset . We were joined at the dock by 2 other Navy guys from another squadron that the captain had met a few days earlier and wanted to join us. The captains boat was an older wooden fishing boat, maybe 35-40 feet in length with an open stern area and a coffin type box right in the middle of the open deck at the stern. When we boarded the younger captain introduced himself as Rob and I could tell he was of either Cuban or Puerto Rican decent. He showed us around the boat and got us familiar with his vessel. Rob was younger than me but I could tell he was seasoned and knew his stuff. He explained about the function of the box in the back. The box itself was open at the top and about 4 feet high, a good 7-8 feet long and 3 feet wide. There was a wire about the diameter size of a clothes hanger wire that ran right down the middle of the opening and the length of the box. The idea was that once you caught a fish you could drop the hooked fish in the box and pull the fish and hook into the wire and give a quick jerk and the fish would be released from the hook and fall down into the box. The box was actually the storage area for our catch and the idea keep the fish iced as we caught them overnight and to fill the box by morning. If it was anticipated that we were going to fill the box overnight that meant that we were going to be catching a heck of a lot of fish but that was fine by me. The more fish catching, the better the trip as far as I was concerned. Once we got the tour of the boat and everyone knew where the safety equipment was we were off. There was a small pilot house and Rob jumped in the captains chair and pulled the boat away from the dock right at sunset. We were heading east away from the island once we cleared the navigation channel and headed for one of the many reefs that surrounded Key West. As we pulled out into the open water the sky to the west was a mixture of orange and gray colors where the sun was last seen before setting. Off to the east in the direction that we were traveling was a far off thunderstorm and we could barely make out the lightning inside the high reaching anvil cloud of the storm. Storms offshore in the keys at night aren’t uncommon and most times provide a little bit of a light show after dark and off in the far distance.  Myself, Chris and the other 2 guests got familiar while we were on our way to the reefs.

It was a beautiful early fall evening and the temperatures were very mild at the time. We were dressed for mild weather and I think we all had shorts and a long sleeve fishing shirt for attire and we only brought light snacks and drinks with us. Chris found a cast net that Rob had stored in the pilot house so about 30 minutes into our trip we stopped and fired up a portable generator and put out a large sodium light along the starboard side where there was a small winch. We anchored over a shallow area and ballyhoo started gathering around the glow of the light. Rob asked if any of us wanted a beer from a cooler he had brought and I took him up on it. Nobody else in the group wanted a beer so myself and the captain cracked a natty lite while we watched more ballyhoo gather under the light. We drank and waited as the baitfish group got bigger and Chris readied the cast net for a throw over the side on top of the circling ballyhoo. I looked out to the east and the storm over the Atlantic was growing bigger and moving slowly towards us. At the time I wasn’t really concerned because captain Rob was at the helm and working on his 2nd natty while Chris let the net fly and drop over a couple dozen nice big ballyhoo to use for bait. After we threw the net a few more times for a few more baitfish over the course of the next 30 minutes we pulled anchor to find the fishing grounds. Once again we were heading right for the storm but it was still far off in the distance. We finally found the reef and there was just a small chop on the water when we dropped anchor and back the big boat into place.  Captain Rob turned on the stern lighting and deck lights which lite up the whole back of the boat. He brought out some conventional fishing gear which was just some old Penn Squider baitcasters and heavier mono on a stiff rod with a circle hook tied to the line and a small weight at the bottom. The idea was to drop a small piece of squid on the hook down about 30-40 feet, wait till you feel and jerk and then reel the fish up. Most of the fish were smaller type grunts, yellowtail and a few grouper but since Rob was a commercial fisherman he was allowed limits of fish in the hundreds of pounds vice the smaller recreational creel limits imposed by the state. Once you got the fish in you just take it to the box, drop it down, release it and bait up again. Rob, on the other hand was old school, he was a hand line fisherman. He basically had the same set up we had with the hook, bait and line but his line was wrapped around his hand vice using a fishing rod and reel. I’d experienced folks that hand lined in the past so it wasn’t anything new to me but I preferred the rod and reel method.

We all baited up and Rob dropped a couple of chum boxes down to the bottom in a wire basket to get the fish stirred up and eating. Just as soon as we dropped our bait down we had a fish on. Most of the fish were 10-20 inches in size and for the first hour or so it was fun to be catching fish that quick. I kept watching the storm to the east and after about an hour of catching fish we all knew the storm was moving towards us and we were probably going to get wet. Captain Rob told us that it wasn’t unusual and they generally passed through rather quickly without and problems but by this time Rob was working through the last of his first 12 pack of natties and I could tell he was getting a little jacked up with liquid courage. I had quit drinking earlier when I realized that the storm was going to hit us and that little breeze we had turned into a moderate blowing wind with a beefy chop on the water. It wasn’t long till we could hear the thunder and we could see lightning inside the giant thunderhead, some of the lightning bolts slammed down onto the waters surface lighting up the night sky under the storm cloud.  The boat was starting to rock as the waves got a little more pronounced but we were still catching fish and having a good time. The box was getting filled fast and we had a variety of fish for the party. Rob wanted to take advantage of the good fishing and said that if it got rough we would ride it out in the pilot house till the worst had passed and we could go right back to fishing. There were a couple long bunks inside the pilot house along the wall and you could lie down and rest or sleep if need when out fishing on overnight trips. Soon the sky darkened and the waves came in with more of a rolling action. There was a beefy chop on the surface from the wind but there were also some big rolling swells which tossed the boat back and forth. The rain started and the wooden deck became slick to walk on with the pitching and rolling deck. It was still fairly warm out but the rain and the wind had definitely cooled us down and none of us brought any proper rain gear nor did Rob carry any on the boat. As the storm came in the the thunder and lightning is what made me nervous. Not so much the thunder but the lightning is something we could have done without. Chris and the other 2 fellows in our group finally broke down and put away their gear, heading for the pilot house. By this time the storm was in full swing and Captain Rob was definitely hitting the natty hard. It was blowing rain with occasional lightning and reminded me of some of the storms I endured back in the Louisiana marsh during a hot summer afternoon. The boat was old but very seaworthy and I felt the anchor release and re-seat on a few different occasions. The old boat slammed back and forth with the waves and I figured that if the big boat was going to come apart in the storm I’d rather be outside than inside so I rode it out with Rob and fished right through it. I was either holding on to the gunnel rails or clinging to the fish box most of the time but I kept right on fishing. There was a point during the height of the storm that it was nearly impossible to walk on the deck to get back and forth from the side of the boat to the fish box with a fish. It was a scary situation to fish with the boat rolling, tossing, turning and all the lightning but I figured that if  this was the way I was going out I might as well be fishing when I bite it. I gotta tell you that it was rough, even in a big boat it was rough. There was a time during the storm when I was completely soaked and chilled, sliding around the deck of the boat and I said a quick prayer asking for a little help from the big guy upstairs. I wondered if all that natty light that Rob was drinking gave him the courage to stay out in the storm rather than run back to the safety of the dock but I also figured that the man had to make a living and he had 4 able bodied deck hands that actually paid to help him. He probably didn’t run across a mentally challenged labor force like us Navy guys that often and he had recruited 4 of us top notch sailors on this trip.   

Finally, I could tell the storm was loosing it’s punch on us and the rain started to subside. The wind calmed and the waves turned to a small chop again. Chris and the other guys came out from the pilot house and we all went back to fishing. We continued to catch fish and laughed about the storm and everyone sliding around the deck with the fish we were catching. It was around 4 am when we finally filled the box with fish and we were all whipped and ready to call it a night so we pulled anchor, started the big diesel motors and headed west toward the dock at Key West. We chatted about our night of fishing and Rob told us about his fishing adventures up and down the east coast over the years. When we finally reached our dock at the pier I could see the sun rising off to the east in the same area I saw the approaching storm the night before. I was beat when I stepped off the boat and I had a good case of sea legs from all the rocking and rolling. Rob told us that he would dress out and half shell some bigger fish filets for us and we could pick them up Saturday morning before our squadron beach party. It worked out perfectly and we had enough fish to add to our grilled table fare at the party for everyone to get a taste of grouper and snapper from the keys. I’ve probably visited the Keys a dozen times since that trip but fishing the reefs through a storm in the middle of the night is a trip I’ll never forget.      

Five Years in Fightertown

“Blood was streaming through Dave’s hands that covered his face as one of the AME’s brought him through the hanger and back to the shop. I was coming from the shop, on my way to the flightline to help with the launch when I saw Dave’s slumped over body and the bloody mess all over the front of Dave’s clean pressed dungarees. I knew it was bad right away from the amount of blood loss, so I peeled off my t-shirt to help wipe away the blood and see if we needed an ambulance or just a car ride for Dave to medical to get him sewn up. We got Dave to the shop after I shoved my t-shirt in his face to capture some of the blood that was dripping all over our nice clean shop floor and I went to work to find out what happened and access the damage to Dave’s face.  Dave was our supervisor and rarely went out to the flightline. That was for his own safety because he was old and wore coke bottle glasses. Not a good mix for working around a moving aircraft that will cripple or kill you in a split second if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Seems ole Dave had been told to get off his butt and get out to the flightline to deliver a part that the shop needed during a launch. Dave was able to get the part needed but when he went out to the flightline to deliver the part he walked directly into a lower antenna blade protruding from the belly of the Tomcat. That’s why we didn’t let Dave get around aircraft. You see, in the Navy every squadron rule was written in blood, and we all knew to abide by those rules but every once in a while, some goofball in charge would forget about our rules and try to be a hero so someone with a nice clean uniform ends up being carted back to the hanger with a chopped off face. Once I got Dave calmed down and cleared the blood that kept streaming down, I realized that the cut was between his eyes and about a quarter inch in size. Seems old Dave must have been hopped up on blood thinners and with his heart racing it looked much worse than it really was. It only required a few stitches to get old Dave back to the shop and doing what he did best, paperwork.”

Welcome to the Cold War

cwm-set-basic1Athough I’ve seen the movie at least a half a dozen times I never get tired of “The Hunt for Red October”. It always brings back memories of my service in the Navy during the Cold War. To me, the Cold War was a war that we never hear about and could easily be forgotten but there are stories out there from sailors like me that will hopefully let it live on. -Jim Farmer
I believe the year was 1984 and at the time I had about 2 years in the Navy under my belt and I was assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron Three Zero Three, an F/A-18 Strike Fighter Squadron stationed at NAS Lemoore, smack in the middle of the rich farming community of the San Joaquin Valley of California. We were the Golden Hawks and our claim to fame was that we were one of the first active duty squadrons to receive the new F/A-18A Hornet aircraft and we were all eager to flex our muscles with our new formed squadron of a couple hundred active duty and reserve maintenance and aircrew. A fully formed squadron generally consisted of 12 aircraft and on the average 8-10 of those aircraft were usually available for our pilots to fly. In a tail hook squadron you work long hours with very little time off and there is always something going on that makes every minute very important. A squadron plans it’s calendar a year in advance and there are requirements for the pilots to meet to keep current in their qualifications with the aircraft such as shooting missiles, dropping ordinance such as bombs and mines, shooting rockets, Aircraft Countermeasures or ACM (dog fighting adversary aircraft) and a minimum of 20 aircraft take-offs or “cats” and 20 landings or “traps” on the aircraft carrier.

Our squadron had been to the Nevada desert a few times earlier in the year, as well as a few other trips to different areas of the country but we were planning a 2 week detachment to the USS Ranger (CV 61) for carrier qualifications. This was going to be a detachment designed to qualify all of our pilots on the carrier as well as qualifying the maintenance crews for certain job details that could only be done on the carrier. The plan was to fly the squadron personnel from the base to NAS North Island, a small air base on Coronado Island just south of San Diego and board the Ranger to head out to sea. A small detail of squadron personnel would stay behind to launch the squadron F/A-18’s and send them down to North Island in lieu of flying out to the carrier once it left port. My job was going to be to stay behind and make sure every jet we had available made it to North Island then I would hop on a Navy DC9 flight to North Island and jump on a Navy Sea Knight helicopter to fly out to meet the carrier somewhere in the pacific. My job on the aircraft was an electrician. Our shop consisted of about 8 other electricians besides myself and we ran 2 shifts when we were at home and on the road. As an electrician on the F/A-18 we were responsible for just about everything electrical. We took care of scheduled and unscheduled maintenance on a daily basis and there was always something to do. For a maintenance man on the aircraft the work never stopped. Generally speaking every shop always had something to do, it was just a matter of prioritizing the maintenance effort with a goal of meeting the demands of the next days flight schedule. Every day there was a flight schedule which required just about every available aircraft the maintenance team could ready for the day. There were always flight hour requirements for the pilots and each squadron was graded on the years total flight hours as well as how well the squadron completed all their assigned tasks for the year. Each year each squadron competed with other squadrons in our Carrier Air Group for awards like the Meritorious Unit Commendation award or “MUC”, the Battle Efficiency Award or the “Battle E” and the Safety “S” award. It was a big competition for us and it was always an honor to receive the award. The Battle E award meant that we got another ribbon or hashmark on our uniform as well a big “E” to display on the side of our jets. Going to the carrier was just another test for the squadron in the year long competition.

The time finally came and the main body of squadron personnel were gone to North Island and myself and a hand full of other maintenance personnel were launching the aircraft to head to North Island. The launch went without a hitch and spent the next 2 days waiting on a DC9 to take me to North Island. In the mean time I worked on the remaining few aircraft we had in the hanger that were broken and didn’t get to go to the carrier. Out of 12 aircraft assigned to the squadron we always had a couple of what we called “hanger queens”. Hanger queens were aircraft that were in some kind of scheduled maintenance cycle and while receiving the annual scheduled maintenance we robbed parts off of them for the aircraft that were flying. Sometimes parts were hard to come by so we would take parts off the hanger queens to use to meet flight schedule needs.

I finally got a ride down to North Island on a DC9 transport aircraft and soon there-after I met a Sea Knight helicopter on the tarmac at North Island for a ride out to the Ranger. This was my first ride on a helicopter so it was kind of a big deal to me. This wasn’t some ordinary helicopter ride, we were going to be flying out over the pacific for a 2 hour flight and meeting the Ranger somewhere off the coast of Mexico in international waters. When I boarded the Sea Knight I was greeted by a couple of aircrew guys that were assigned to the helicopter and took care of the passengers and cargo. There were about 8 other personnel on the flight that were headed out to the Ranger, plus a few boxes, bags, mail and our personal baggage. There were jump seats along the wall inside the helicopter and I’ll never forget what the aircrew instructed us to do before the flight began. They asked everyone to remove their hats and hold them in our hands. Any bolts, nut, screws or any other hardware that fell from the ceiling of the aircraft were to be picked up, placed in our hats and given to the aircrew personnel after we landed safely on the carrier deck….if we landed safely. That was very comforting information for my first helicopter flight. Here’s a picture of a Sea Knight helicopter:

120910-N-KB563-242 PHILIPPINE SEA (Sept. 10, 2012) A CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, assigned to the Flying Tigers of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 262 approaches the flight deck of the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) during flight operations. The Bonhomme Richard Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), along with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (31st MEU), is participating in a certification exercise. The evaluated event determines if the 31st MEU is capable of doing certain missions such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations or non-combatant evacuation operations with the ARG. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael Russell/Released)

When the helicopter started the engines and the rotors started spinning I realized why there would be nuts and bolts falling from the ceiling. That thing vibrated worse than anything I’d ever rode in before. Things were shaking and banging around and when it lifted off I was white knuckling my seat for sure. I couldn’t see much out the port hole windows but I could definitely see the blue of the ocean as we headed out to the southwest. I tried to sleep for a while but I was looking forward to getting out to the carrier and getting to work. I had been on 1 other carrier before so I was pretty familiar with what it was going to be like. A year earlier while I was still in school at my training squadron or “RAG” outfit, I was offered the opportunity to board the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) for a 2 week detachment out of North Island and worked for 2 weeks as a Plane Captain or what’s referred to as a “Turd Shirt”, mainly because of the brown shirt that the plane captains wore on the ship. The primary job of a Plane Captain was to take care of the aircrafts servicing needs and launch and recover the aircraft on the flight deck during flight operations. It was a dirty job and you were always covered in grease, oil, fuel, hydraulic fluid and anything else that you could collect on your body and clothing. The aircraft required chaining down anytime it was on the flight deck of the carrier and one of the jobs of a Plane captain was to chain the aircraft when it wasn’t moving. The aircraft required a minimum of about 9 chains and each chain weighed about 15lbs. The plane captains always had a load of chains thrown over their shoulders waiting for their assigned planes to come in to be chained down after a flight. The job of a plane captain was a hard tiring job but it was good training for me and it got me familiar with life on the carrier. The Carl Vinson was a big Carrier, much bigger than the little Ranger I was going to be working on this time around. Here’s a picture of the Carl Vinson and the Ranger:

050315-N-3241H-001 USS Carl Vinson (March 15, 2005) -- Prior to the first launch, nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson or the "Gold Eagle", teamed up with Carrier Airwing 9, steams through the Indian Ocean at over 30 knots. The Carl Vinson Strike Group is currently on a six-month deployment to promote peace and stability and respond to emergent events overseas. USS Carl Vinson will end its deployment with a homeport shift to Norfolk, Va., in support of a three-year refuel and complex overhaul. U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer's Mate Third Class Dusty Howell


You really can’t tell the difference in the two until you step out onto the flight deck but the Carl Vison was much newer, larger and nuclear powered carrier and the Ranger was an older, smaller non-nuclear powered carrier.

While on my ride out to the carrier I looked around the inside of the helicopter. Everything was exposed and along the ceiling there were hydraulic lines, fuel lines, oil lines and actuators everywhere. The jump seats we were sitting in were old and if you’ve never ridden in a military jump seat, the first time you ride in one you realize very quickly they were not designed for comfort. The bar across the front of the seat aids in putting your legs to sleep very quickly and the vibration from the helicopter eventually will put your butt to sleep also. It is very uncomfortable to say the least. The noise is deafening and ear plugs are a must. There were 2 aircrew guys that were sitting in jump seats also and they were wearing giant bulbous white helmets with boom mics to talk to teach other and the pilots during the flight. As we approached the carrier the helicopters engine pitch changed and we started circling the carrier below. The carrier flight deck sat about 70 feet above the waterline and we circling at a few hundred feet. I watched out the porthole window next to me and I could see aircraft taking off from the flight deck of the carrier. We were told by the aircrew that as soon as all the aircraft were off the deck we would land. Behind the carrier and to the starboard side there was a smaller Navy ship, a Fast Frigate, and it was there to guard the carrier from any unwanted guests in the area. At the time we were in a Cold War with the Russians and it wasn’t uncommon to run into Russian trawlers or Russian Navy warships that were out in the ocean spying on our operations. The frigate usually had loaded guns and missiles ready to go in case another ship got to close. Here’s a picture of our Fast Frigate escort. Notice the gun and missile launchers on the bow of the ship:55117

We hovered off the starboard side of the carrier for 15-20 minutes and I could see the never-ending trail of prop wash from the carrier that went on for miles. Finally we rolled the helicopter and headed for the flight deck. The helicopter pitched and banged around lining up for the landing. The carrier was still traveling at 20-30 knots of speed into the wind which was normal for a carrier during aircraft take-offs and landings. Finally the Sea Knight hit the deck right in front of the super structure of the carrier and we were instructed to get up and depart at the rear ramp. I jumped up and immediately got some feeling back in my legs and got the heck out of that flying coffin. I thought to myself that I hoped I never had to do that again. Once we got out of the helicopter I was met by some squadron mates who immediately took me and my sea bag to berthing. Berthing was where we slept and it was always tight quarters. Here’s a couple of pics of what carrier berthing looks like. If you were lucky you could find some blue curtains for privacy:


Once I found my sleeping arrangement and got my gear stowed it was time for me to got to work. One of my electrical shop mates showed me around the carrier and I found my workcenter as well as the galleys and a few other areas I would need to know about. On the carrier the galley is where we ate. There were at least 2 operating most of the day and into the night. They were small but efficient. They fed up to 3000 sailors a day and the food wasn’t bad. Food was very important on the carrier because of the work. You were constantly going up and down stairs and if you worked on the flight deck you were moving around all the time. The average sailor on the carrier burned a lot of calories in a day. On most modern day carriers there were 4 galleys, 2 main galleys somewhere near mid ship where the main hot meals would be served 3 times a day and 2 forward galleys that were almost always open and served sliders and dog or hamburgers and hot dogs. If you went to the forward galleys on the ship, as an enlisted man you had to stay out of officers country unless you were an officer. Officers country was just forward of mid ship and was only on certain decks. You could tell officers country by blue tile on the floor. The enlisted areas used green tile and officers used blue. We avoided officers country like the plaque. If you were enlisted and got caught there, there would be hell to pay.

During this detachment on the ship I was working as a green shirt which meant I was maintenance crew. I was working as an electrician and mainly working on aircraft in the hangar bay area during the day shift. I would also be working part time with other electricians as a troubleshooter on the flight deck during launches and recoveries. The way it worked was when we launched our aircraft each work center had at least one troubleshooter on the flight deck at all times during flight operations. There were a hand full of work centers such as the airframers which took care of any airframe or hydraulic problems as well as engine guys or “mechs” that took care of any engine or fuel issues, electricians like myself and a few other folks that took care of seats and environmental control issues like the heating and air conditioning in the cockpit of the jets. We all wore green shirts and we had special codes on our shirts and head gear to identify us and our job descriptions. On the carrier you fall into a routine. Everything is regimented and you can easily forget what day it is. Basically you work, eat, rest, rinse and repeat. That’s what I did on this detachment. There wasn’t much to write home about, it was just the same thing day after day. We just cruised around the pacific for a week or so without incident, pilots flying off and on all day and into the night with us maintenance guys fixing problems with the jets as they arose. If a jet had a problem that kept it from flying it would be hauled down the massive flight deck elevators to the hangar where it would be strategically parked and repaired as quickly as possible so it could get back onto the flight deck and ready for flight. The hangar bay on the carriers are massive and at times filled wall to wall with aircraft to be repaired.  Some aircraft would be down in the hanger overnight and the night shift guys would work all night just to get it fixed for the first launch in the morning. Here’s a picture of a carrier hangar bay:


For the first week everything went as planned with flight operations and the maintenance effort. On the flight deck during flight operations it’s a very dangerous job. I think working on the flight deck of a carrier is one of the top 5 most dangerous jobs in the world. As long as everything is going good it’s fine but it only takes one little thing to happen for it all to go bad. There are crashes, fires, people caught in the wrong places at the wrong time and any number of things that could happen….and they do. On this detachment it was all good. About the only excitement we had after the first week was the fact that we were operating in an area where the pacific was very rough with huge swells tossing the Ranger back and forth. These big waves in this area were called the “Troughs” and they were big, some reaching heights as high as the carrier and it really made the carrier roll back and forth and up and down. There were a lot of first timers that were getting sea sick during the period we were operating in the troughs and a lot of sailors were walking at odd angles down the passageways and anything that wasn’t tied down would fall off shelves. Our plates and glasses in the galley would slide back and forth. It was an interesting ride for a few days.

The Commanding officer of the ship was very nice to the crew and very personable. He talked to the ships crew every night over the 1MC which was a loudspeaker system throughout the ship and could be heard from anywhere and everywhere. He would talk to us about current events and let us know about the next days goals. On the first Sunday aboard the ship he hosted an Ice Cream social in the galley and anyone could come to the galley and have ice cream and meet the “skipper” or Commanding officer.

During the start of the second week the carrier spent the majority of a morning taking on supplies and fuel from a supply ship. This isn’t an uncommon event and it happens all the time on a carrier. Flight operations stop during this period and it’s quit a show for the first timer on the carrier. Fuel hoses are strung from one ship to the other and both ships move through the water, side by side in close quarters for miles.

The fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE 8), left, conducts an underway replenishment with the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) Jan. 15, 2007. Eisenhower and embarked Carrier Air Wing 7 are on a regularly scheduled deployment in the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command area of responsibility in support of maritime security operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Miguel Angel Contreras) (Released)

This is where it got interesting. Once the supply ship finished the replenishment and broke away from the carrier to sail off into the sunset, our Fast Frigate escort departed with the supply ship and the carrier was on it’s own. Sometimes it happens but as a rule the carrier always has some kind of escort within a few miles. The next morning when we looked out into the ocean from the hangar bay doors we saw that we had a new visitor. It was a strange looking ship off the starboard side of the carrier and it was very close to us. I could see some strange looking numbers on the side of the bow and there were some folks on the ship looking, waving and some were taking pictures. The ship looked something like some kind of large fishing trawler but it had some strange looking electronics and antennas on the masts. Here’s a picture of what it looked like:trawler

As we were standing in the hangar bay looking at the ship along side of us a hangar bay worker from the ships company walked over to us. The ships company guys generally wore purple shirts and were in the Navy just like us but were stationed on the ship full time. We just borrowed the ship to qualify our squadron crew but the ships company were there full time and had usually seen it all. The ships company guy looked at us and our puzzlement and said “welcome to the Cold War”. He told us it was a disguised Russian spy ship and they were interested in taking pictures of the new F/A-18’s on the flight deck. The rumor was that our escort had left to escort the supply ship back to American waters because there were Russian Navy ships in the area and the supply ship had no way to defend herself. Our carrier had more than enough firepower to fend for ourselves so the decision was made to leave us on our own. We watched for a while longer as the crew of the Russian ship continued to take pictures from very close by.

As soon as we started flight operations for the morning the Russian ship disappeared but then reappeared again as soon as all of our aircraft were back on the flight deck after the first launch and recovery. The Russians again came in close to snap photographs and wave as if they were our friends. This went on for 2 days with the same thing, if the jets were off the deck the Russians would disappear and reappear as soon as all the F/A-18’s were back on the deck. They were very interested in the jets and flight operations and had no fear of getting close to us. After 2 days of this little game with the Russians we had finally had enough. On the third morning the Russians were still hanging with us so we went about our business as if it were just another day. The Russian trawler was once again off our starboard side but on this morning we left one F/A-18 hidden from view from the Trawler behind the super structure of the carrier. It was out of view of the Russians and they just assumed all of our jets had left the area to fly the mornings missions. The Russians kept their distance until they assumed every jet was back on the deck before they made their move to get in close but during the recovery of all of the aircraft we snuck the extra F/A-18 off the catapults and the Russians just assumed that every one of our aircraft were back on deck. They were making their move in close and the skipper came over the 1MC to tell everyone who was interested and available to gather on the starboard side of the flight deck and hanger bay for a little mini air show. He said that if the Russians want to get a look at our aircraft we’d give them a up close and personal look at the jet and it’s capabilities. Keep in mind we had snuck a jet out into the area for our little surprise. It went off just as planned. When the Russians thought the jets were all on deck they made there move to get in close. We were all watching as the trawler got closer and closer. The skipper called out on the 1MC, “off the fantail aircraft 303 incoming for a mach run” which basically meant our aircraft #303 was coming from the back of the ship and was going to break the sound barrier very close to us. If you’ve never seen a fighter jet break the sound barrier it is a sight to behold. The aircraft is basically hauling ass at over 700 mph and when it breaks through the sound barrier or the speed of sound the concussion is enormous, especially if your are close by. This is what it looks like at the moment the sound barrier is broken:


In this case the jet came in fast and low and was only about 100 feet off the water and bearing down on the trawler. It was amazing as the jet dropped down from high in the sky and leveled out on the Russians. We all knew what came next. As the jet got closer to the trawler the vapor cloud started building around the jet and just as it reached the trawler there was a eardrum shattering BOOOOM that shook the carrier to it’s core but what was even more interesting is that the trawler actually squatted down in the water and we actually saw pieces of the trawler like maybe windows and radar parts go flying. The trawlers smoke stake bellowed black smoke from the diesel engine and it started shifting it course away from the carrier. We all cheered and yelled with some jumping up and down and giving the Russians the bird. The F/A-18 made a vertical climb and disappeared in front of the carrier. Within a minute or so we heard the 1MC go off again and the skipper said “from the bow aircraft # 303 incoming for mach run # 2”. We all cheered wildly as the jet dropped back down out of the sky and leveled off on the fleeing trawler. We could see the jet put the hammer down in full afterburner as it approached the trawler and we knew it was going to be good. The jet once again approached mach and the vapor built up around the jet. Just as it closed in on the trawler BOOOM very near the trawler and once again the trawler squatted deep into the water with more pieces of the trawler flying everywhere. More smoke poured from the stack and the trawler turned away even sharper than before. We all cheered wildly and some flipped the trawler off again as some grabbed their crotches at the Russians as they limped away never to be seen again. It was something I’ll never forget about the cold war. We spent some of our time messing with the Russians at sea and up in the northern reaches of Canada but a lot of the times we played with the Russians it was just that, play. They knew as well as we did that someday we might be fighting each other for real but a lot of what we did was designed for us to test their capabilities as well as them to test ours. Shortly after the end to the cold war one of the Russian Navy warships pulled into San Diego bay and they docked in San Diego for a few days and we got to meet our counterparts. We drank together, swapped stories, traded cigarettes, Levi jeans and the old Walkman cassette players for pieces of their uniforms and personal items from Russia. They were no different than we were, just a bunch of sailors looking for a good time.




The Marching Party


It would take me a lifetime to write about my Navy career but here’s a little peek at a small moment in my career that helped shape me into what I am today.  

        Before you can understand the story, I need to get you up to speed on what San Diego Navy boot camp was like in 1982. When I joined the Navy, I had rarely been out of the Midwest except for a few family vacations as a kid so flying into San Diego, Ca. at 10:30 in the evening to report to boot camp was a big deal. I don’t care who you are, you’re going to be a little freaked out for the first 48 hours or so. You go through a series of fun events within the first few days but one of the first things that happens after a good haircut is you go through uniform issue. This is a time when you are issued all of your Navy uniforms and undergarments and you stencil your name just above the pocket on all of your “dungaree” shirts and trousers or working uniform as well as stenciling your “skivvies”, hats or “lid”, socks and personal belongings. By this time, you have been formed into a “Company” which is a group of about 50-75 guys that you’ll be spending the next few months with, living in cramped quarters in a barracks without heat or air conditioning. Each person is referred to as a “recruit” for the duration of boot camp and we marched in formation everywhere we went. During my time in bootcamp there were at least 5-6 companies on the same time schedule as our company.

While we stenciled our new clothing our prospective “Company Commanders” were walking around watching us work on stenciling our gear. Company Commanders were the equivalent of a Drill Instructor in other branches of the service, more senior members in the Navy and could be recognized by a chest full of medals and ribbons, a lot of stripes on their uniform and these red ropes dangling in a loop from their shoulders. We referred to them as “red ropes” behind their back and “Sir” to their face. There would usually be 2 Company Commanders assigned to a Company and they were the boss, your mom, you dad, your best friend, your worst enemy and just like Sgt Hulka, they were our big toe. While stenciling my uniforms I could tell the Company Commanders were watching us to see who was paying attention to detail and doing a thorough job in a timely manner, so I made sure I did everything to perfection when they walked behind me and looked over my shoulder. It paid off to perfection and a week later I was dubbed our new “Company Yeoman”. Our Company Commander, First Class Petty Officer Marlor took a liking to me and trusted me the responsibilities of a Yeoman which was taking care of the daily logistics of head counts and mail call. I was the liaison between the company and our Company Commander. I liked my job, but our Company Commander was mean, I mean real mean. He was covered in tattoos from neck to toes and could outrun, do more push-ups, set-ups or any number of exercises we did on a daily basis. This guy was covered in tattoos before that sort of thing was cool. He was intimidating to say the least but in the back of my mind a little part of me knew this was all part of the act. The act of shaping us all into young sailors before setting us out to start our real Navy careers.

I don’t think words can properly describe the feelings I went through in Boot Camp. Besides the obvious things like missing home, a girlfriend, mom and dad and all of those creature comforts, you learn very quickly to do without. There were challenges on an hourly basis and there was so much to learn in a short period of time. There were great things that got accomplished in boot camp and there were failures and consequences to be paid. A few weeks after the start of Boot Camp we were all settling into a routine and starting to feel a little cocky. Feeling a little cocky was something that was not advised during boot camp. Us recruits feeling a little cocky made the Company Commander feel a little cocky too. Their idea of feeling a little cocky was singling out any one person who thought he was better than the rest or maybe someone who made a mistake? This person would become the target of Company Commanders enjoyment. Sometimes the Company Commander would take matters into his own hands and sometimes he would send a hard case to a “Marching Party”. A marching party was something that took place after dark, every other week on Thursday and there was usually someone going from our unit every time they had it. The ones that went never came back the same. It wasn’t like they got a lobotomy or anything, but they didn’t chat much about it, only saying it was 2 hours of hell and involved some crazy, out of control Navy SEALs. At the time about all I knew about the SEALs was that they were elite and mean. I only knew what I had read in our “Bluejacket” manual which is the sailors bible and has everything about everything in the Navy. In the manual they gave a brief job description of a Navy SEAL, and I knew they had to be tough.

After about a 4-week period of being our company Yeoman I had things down to a science. I knew my job inside and out and I got complacent. One of my jobs was to do a head count of every recruit in our company prior to sitting down for a meal. For every meal I would report the number of recruits to our Company Commander, and we would file into the chow hall for our meal. Sometimes a recruit would be sent to sick call or some other demand so the number of recruits going to a meal may vary from meal to meal. After 4 weeks on the job as the head counter before meals I just started winging it and throwing out a number thinking no one was checking my numbers. We went days with me reporting a headcount that went unchecked, so I thought it was just a formality. Yea, I was dead wrong. One day our Company Commander call me into his office out of the blue. Up until this point I had been his “Go To” guy in the company and could do no wrong. On prior meetings with him in his office it was generally a pleasant experience but, on this occasion, it was all business. I saw a side of him I had never experienced before, and he was pissed to say the least. He informed me that from his best estimation, in the overnight hours a week ago perhaps, something or someone came in and had made me a dumbass. He explained that he had been watching me operate at the chow hall head counts and had been checking my numbers for the last week. Needless to say, I was busted and for punishment I would be fired from my position and sent to the marching party on Thursday evening. This is the part I’ll never forget. He looked me straight in the eyes and in a stern voice he said: “You know Farmer, in the Navy complacency can get you killed, or even worse, you’ll get the people around you killed. I want you to remember that“. It was like the voice of experience had just spoke and my whole world just tanked. I was fired from my position and banished to the marching party. I wasn’t going alone as I soon found out that another recruit from our company had done something wrong and would be accompanying me to the party. His name was Powell, and we were both trying to find out all we could about what went on at a marching party but the guys from our company who had went didn’t want to talk about it much, siting a sworn secrecy.

Thursday night finally came after a long day of marching and classroom events. Everyone else was finishing their duties for the evening as Powell and I were donning our gear to go to the marching party at 10pm. Our gear included our working uniform with a watch cap or black stocking cap. We were told to march to an empty parking lot or “grinder” directly in front of the little store where we got our supplies. We would be greeted by our hosts for the night, and they would give us our instructions for 2 hours of hell. Powell and I really didn’t know what we were in for, so the mood was light as we marched to the grinder. When we got there the party was in full swing and we were immediately told to join ranks for a little chat before we got started. There were at least 2 dozen of us, and we were all in a formation, standing at attention while these big face painted gorillas walked through our ranks explaining to us how we had fucked up really bad and we were about to pay for it. They asked if anyone wanted to go home to momma before we got started but no one had the balls to go that route so without further ado we started doing different physical exercises while being yelled at by about 6-8 psychotic and somewhat humorous, Navy SEALs. They got in your face, they got in your ear and tried in every way to make us break and cry. I won’t go into detail but some of the exercises were very extreme with names like “Hello Dollies” and “Eight count body builders” and one of my personal favorites, “The Superman”. We would do push-ups but you would have to stay in the down position with your nose and body 2 inches from the deck. It didn’t take long till the sweat started mixing with the dirt on the ground and everyone’s faces were black and dripping mud. My working uniform was drenched in sweat and dripping, making a puddle of mud beneath me. They tested ever muscle in my body, and I was in great shape at the time. After the first hour my body trembled from exertion and my muscles were fading fast. If you were caught screwing up an exercise the SEAL’s were on you like a pack of wild dogs with 2 or 3 of these gorillas in your face screaming obscenities and just trying to get you to break. I finally decided that these SEALs were probably betting big money and taking a head count on how many of us they could break before it was over, so I made up my mind that wasn’t going to happen to me. They could break my body, but they couldn’t break my spirit. Names were a form of enjoyment for these guys, and they would make light of our names. When they saw my name was Farmer, they had a little fun with me, and my name designed to see if mocking my family name would break me or make me snap. They never put a hand on us, but it was degrading to say the least. Just before we were done, Powell, who was directly to my left finally broke down and the tears started flowing. He was physically spent and could give no more. They showed no mercy and giving up only gathered a crowd of these antagonizers.  That was the point in the evolution that I realized the reason that no one who had been there before me talked about it much. They didn’t break me and when it was over Powell and I marched back to the barracks with muscles either locked, cramping or in some kind of spasm.

When we got back to the barracks, everyone was asleep except for the two night watchmen. We were covered in dirt and told by the night watchmen in the barracks to get a quick shower and hit the rack for the night. One of the night watchmen asked us how it was and neither me nor Powell wanted to discuss it much. I promised Powell on the way back that I wouldn’t say anything about what went down. I showered and hit the rack for the night. It seemed like I had just closed my eyes when the lights came on and it was morning. I had slept a total of 4 hours, but it seemed like I hadn’t slept at all. When I tried to get out of my rack, my muscles were completely locked up. I have never felt like I felt that morning at any time in my life. I have competed in military and civilian marathons at a lightning pace and pushed my body to the brink of destruction, but I have never ever felt like that since. Powell and I went on to graduate from boot camp and start our Navy careers but that little 2-hour snippet in time will never be forgotten by me and I’m sure, by Powell also.

Although that was just a small fragment of my life there was a lesson to be learned and our old Company Commander was right, during my career in the Navy I’ve witnessed more than one incident or accident where complacency was the culprit, and the outcome wasn’t good. On the flight deck of an aircraft carrier there is an old saying “The moment you are complacent is the moment you jeopardize your life and the lives of everyone around you”.

F-18 Hornet High Power Nightmare


At the time I was more than chest deep in my military career and stationed at a small air base south of New Orleans along the Mississippi river. Physically and mentally, I was at the height of my game. I was strong and I had a hand in just about everything I could qualify for in our Fighter Attack squadron. I was a certified Physical Fitness Instructor for our squadron, I was an assistant to our squadrons Urinalysis Program Advisor and I was also a Drug and Alcohol Program Advisor and answered only to our squadrons Commanding Officer. As far as the jets went, I was qualified to do just about everything on the F-18 Hornet Fighter jet but fly it. I had worked my way into a Full System Quality Assurance job which basically meant that I could inspect and sign off on any maintenance done to the aircraft, some very critical maintenance that involved flight safety items. I was responsible for all the squadron audits and inspections and my job was to make sure the squadrons maintenance department followed the rules. There was a lot of responsibility that came with the job and I needed to be mentally focused at all times. One of the qualifications I held in the squadron, and probably the most dangerous was an engine high power operator, which meant that I was qualified to start and run the engines at a higher power settings from 80% to full afterburner. Sometimes our jets required engine testing before, during and after maintenance had been done or an engine had been changed out. There were only a couple of us that were qualified to do this engine testing and at high power engine settings as it was a very danger job. On this particular week night, my son Derek and I were home after a day of school and day care for him and a long days work for me. I was a single parent at the time and it was just Derek and I living in a little house just outside the main gate of the base. I could be at work in 10 minutes if necessary, and sometimes it was necessary. The phone rang around midnight and Derek and I were sound asleep at the time. It was the squadrons maintenance department and they were in a bind. It seemed the engine guys were troubleshooting a problem with an overheating engine compartment, most likely caused by a bleed air leak. Bleed air leaks were very tough to troubleshoot but it was a system that could cause the aircraft to wind up in a flaming heap so it was something that was very serious and dangerous. Bleed air is basically super heated, highly pressurized air that is bled from the combustion area of the engine to be cooled through heat exchangers and used for environmental systems like air conditioning and such. The bleed air lines were well insulated and ran along the inside of the engine compartment. There were joints and couplings in the lines and sometimes these joints would become unseated and spring a leak. The heat sensors in the engine compartment would warn the pilot that his engine compartment was getting hot and if it was not addressed quickly a fire could soon start. The pilots procedure was to shut the affected engine down and fly home on the remaining engine, declaring a single engine emergency. Needless to say, it was pretty serious to have a bleed air leak. Our squadron Maintenance personnel told me that they had no choice but to call because at the time I was the only guy holding a engine high power certification and they desperately needed the jet early in the morning for a mission. They thought they had the bleed air leak fixed, but needed to run the engines at high power to make sure. My job was to run the affected engine at high power settings and try to duplicate the discrepancy. If I couldn’t duplicate the discrepancy, my job was done. I would sign off the aircraft as fixed and safe for flight. The only wrinkle in the plan was my son Derek. I couldn’t leave him at home alone, as he was only around 10 years old at the time. I told the maintenance chief that I would drive out to the squadron and do it but only if Derek could come along. The chief agreed. I told the chief to have the guys get the jet ready for a high power engine run, which consisted of towing the aircraft out to a remote area, usually at the end of a runway, called a “high power pad”. It was generally well marked and had a big thick metal ring anchored down in the middle of an open circular area with a jet blast deflector along the edge to deflect and dissipate the very dangerous jet blast caused by the engines at high power settings. The jet had to be positioned perfectly, tied down with a very heavy chain, chalks and smaller chains to hold the aircraft back during testing. Once the aircraft was set up and ready, I would ride out to the high power pad in a work van with Derek and a hand full of maintenance guys. Derek would stay in the van with the windows up and hearing protection on while I ran the engine at higher power settings for a while and if all went well, we’d be back home in an hour. I woke Derek up and explained what we were doing. He was used to the military life and was familiar with what I did, our aircraft and our maintenance team. For him, it was like being awakened to a trip to Disneyland. He loved to see the jets and for a 10 year old kid to see his dad in a jet in full afterburner in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night was pretty crazy I’m sure. I got to the squadron and went into maintenance control to review the aircraft logbooks and familiarize myself with the aircraft. We had 12 aircraft total, and every one was different. They all had there little ghosts, hick ups and histories of years of maintenance. I chatted with the maintenance guys to find out what maintenance was done to the aircraft to fix the problem. Once we got all the formalities out of the way, we loaded up in the maintenance van and we were all on our way down the taxiway to test the aircraft that was waiting at the high power pad. When we pulled into the pad, there were several ground crew guys standing around waiting to assist in the evolution. The aircraft was chained and ready to go. We all exiting the van except for Derek who I instructed to stay in the van no matter what. I told him that it was very important that he DO NOT leave the van under any circumstances. The van was parked about 100 feet from the jet at the edge of the pad and we left the dome light on so I could se Derek at all times. I did a thorough walk around with my flashlight and scoured the aircraft and area for anything that might cause a problem. My plan was to start the right motor, which was the good motor, and then start the left motor which was the motor to test. Once I got all of the systems on line I would start running the left motor at higher settings and try to duplicate the problem. Sometimes I would really have to put the big GE 404 motors through their paces to figure out a problem so I warned the ground crew to keep on their toes. As I climbed into the cockpit ejection seat I looked over at the van and saw Derek staring out the passenger window with his oversized cranial and hearing protection on. The maintenance guys would all be scouring the engine compartment for leaks as I put the engine through it’s paces so I needed to keep a close eye on Derek as well as the instruments and engine parameters. I fired up the APU and cranked up the right engine and brought the big jet to life. Everything was good on the right engine so I started the left engine and got everything warmed up for some serious high power engine settings. The crew on the ground gave me the “all clear” and I made a quick check with Derek who was still looking out the passenger window. I pushed the left throttle up to the 80% stop and I could feel the thrust of the jet pulling the heavy chains and the aircraft lurched forward. The feel of the thrust from underneath me was a feeling like I’ve never experienced before. I’ve often wondered what would of happened if a jet were to get loose and snap the big chains while high powering. I gave the ground crew the signal that I was going to run the engine up to higher settings. This is where the most dangerous part comes in. The intake in the front of the aircraft becomes a giant vacuum at higher power settings and anyone within 15 feet of the intake during this time would be sucked up, chewed up and spit out the back of the engine in ragged pieces. Anyone around the back of the aircraft that wandered into the exhaust area would be blown into the jet blast deflector and thrown hundreds of feet from the area. All of our maintenance guys were well trained and know exactly where to be during any given time. I pushed the throttle to the 100% stop and scoured the instruments for anything abnormal. The aircraft lurched forward even more and I could feel the pressure on the holdback chain from the cockpit. The throttle was just a half inch away from busting the first zone of afterburner and I made one final check on Derek before really tearing into testing this engine. My thought was that I would rather find out if the jet was going to break on the ground than have it break in the air and crash it into a school house. I pushed the left throttle into afterburner and felt the extra thrust provided by the afterburner stage as the blue and white flame lit up the night all around the aircraft. I looked at Derek and I could see his eyes as wide as silver dollars as he looked back at the tailpipe flames reacting from my throttle motions. I pushed the throttle forward to full afterburner and left it there in order to heat the engine quickly. Each engine provided 22k lbs of thrust in full afterburner and the feel of the power underneath me was unbelievable. I quickly checked with the ground crew through hand signals to make sure everything was going well during full afterburner. I got a quick thumbs up and did a quick check on Derek who was still in the window watching intently. I jerked the throttle back to idle and then quickly pushed it back up to afterburner to simulate in flight conditions and hopefully duplicate the problem if it wasn’t fixed. I really put the engine through it’s paces and if it was going to heat up my job was to make sure it happened on the ground. After 10-15 minutes of running the engine at different power settings I had the engine in full afterburner and watched my ground plane captain walk to the rear of the aircraft, out of site of my view. It made me very nervous not to have a ground guy around within plain site. I pulled the throttle back to idle in order to get someone’s attention and the ground crew guy came running out of the dark, giving me the signal to run the engine back up. As I did he ran back into the darkness and I was left alone with the engine at high power. Out of nowhere my left “LH BLEED AIR” red flashing warning light comes on in the cockpit. Anything that is red and flashing in the cockpit means “warning”, and is a serious problem. Yellow flashing lights mean “caution” and is some thing that might be livable, but red means big trouble. Just to add to the dilemma, I also get an oral tone in my headset which is referred to as “Bitchin Betty” and she tells me I have a big bleed air problem in the left engine area. I did a quick check of the rest of the engine data to make sure the engine wasn’t overheating or operating out of perimeters. When I looked out of the canopy and on the ground for any sign of maintenance people it was dark and no one was around. I didn’t know if there was an actually fire back there in the engine bay but when I looked at the maintenance van, the door was wide open and Derek was gone. I can say this about that split second in my life; it was the most gut wrenching, uncontrollable situation I’ve ever been in. Only a parent could ever experience this feeling and it isn’t pretty. Just imagine that your child had just wandered onto a busy freeway of speeding traffic and you have no control of the outcome. To this day it’s hard for me to relive that moment in time. Within a split second I chopped that motor to the “OFF” position and raised the canopy to climb out of the jet as quickly as possible. I jumped down onto the ground from the canopy ledge which was a good 8-10 feet and ran to the back of the plane. There was a crowd under the jet and I could see Derek right there with the crew, under the engine area. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry but I nearly came unglued. I yelled at everyone including Derek who was looking up at me from a kneeling position. I asked Derek why he left the van and he said that the maintenance guys were waving him over to help. They were actually giving hand signals to each other because of the deafening sound and Derek mistook a maintenance hand signal for a “forget everything your dad said and come over here under the jet”. Basically the jet was still broken so it was back to the drawing board for the mechanics and it was back to bed for Derek and I. I told Derek that never again would I do such a stupid thing and he got a good grounding for not listening to his dad. I think I got a few grey hairs that night.