One thing we weren't aware of at the time but became evident as life wore on, was that we learned true leadership from the finest examples any lad was ever given, Chief Petty Officers.
They were crusty b*stards who had done it all and had been forged into men who had been time tested over more years than a lot of us had time on the planet.
The ones I remember wore hydraulic oil stained hats with scratched and dinged-up insignia, faded shirts, some with a Bull Durham tag dangling out of their right-hand pocket or a pipe and tobacco reloads in a worn leather pouch in their hip pockets, and a Zippo that had been everywhere.
Some of them came with tattoos on their forearms that would force them to keep their cuffs buttoned at a Methodist picnic. Most of them were as tough as a boarding house steak. A quality required to survive the life they lived. They were and always will be, a breed apart from all other residents of Mother Earth.
They took eighteen year-old idiots and hammered the stupid b*stards into sailors. You knew instinctively it had to be hell on earth to have been born a Chief's kid. God should have given all sons born to Chiefs a return option.
A Chief didn't have to command respect. He got it because there was nothing else you could give them. They were God's designated hitters on earth.
We had Chiefs with fully loaded Submarine Combat Patrol Pins in my day...Hard-core b*stards, who found nothing out of place with the use of the word 'payback' for the little December 7th tea party they gave us in 1941. As late as 1970 you could still hear a Chief Petty Officer screaming at you in bootcamp to listen to him, because if you didn't, the enemy would kill us. They taught me In those days, 'insensitivity' was not a word in a sailor's lexicon. They remembered lost mates and still cursed the cause of their loss... And they were expert at choosing descriptive adjectives and nouns, none of which their mothers would have endorsed.
At the rare times you saw a Chief topside in dress canvas, you saw rows of hard-earned worn and faded ribbons over his pocket. "Hey Chief, what's that one and that one?" "Oh Hell kid, I think it was the time I fell out of my rack, I can't remember. There was a war on. They gave them to us to keep track of the campaigns we had in country. We got our news from AFVN and Stars and Strips. To be honest, we just took their word for it. Hell son, you couldn't pronounce most of the names of the villages we went. They're all gee-dunk. Listen kid, ribbons don't make you a Sailor. The Purple one on top? ok, I do remember earning that one. We knew who the heroes were and in the final analysis that's all that matters."
Many nights we sat in the after mess deck wrapping ourselves around cups of coffee and listening to their stories. They were lighthearted stories about warm beer shared with their running mates in corrugated metal hooches at rear base landing zones, where the only furniture was a few packing crates and a couple of Coleman lamps. Standing in line at a Philippine cathouse or spending three hours soaking in a tub in Bangkok, smoking cigars and getting loaded. It was our history. And we dreamed of being just like them because they were our heroes.
When they accepted you as their shipmate, it was the highest honor you would ever receive in your life. At least it was clearly that for me. They were not men given to the prerogatives of their position. You would find them with their sleeves rolled up, shoulder-to-shoulder with you in a stores loading party.
"Hey Chief, no need for you to be out here tossin' crates in the rain, we can get all this crap aboard." "Son, the term 'All hands' means all hands." "Yeah Chief, but you're no damn kid anymore, you old fart."
"Shipmate, when I'm eighty-five, parked in the old Sailors' home in Gulfport, I'll still be able to kick your worthless butt from here to fifty feet past the screw guards along with six of your closest friends." And he probably wasn't kidding. They trained us. Not only us, but hundreds more just like us. If it wasn't for Chief Petty Officers, there wouldn't be any U.S. Naval Force.
There wasn't any fairy godmother who lived in a hollow tree in the enchanted forest who could wave her magic wand and create a Chief Petty Officer. They were born as hotsacking seamen and matured like good whiskey in steel hulls and steaming jungles over many years. Nothing a nineteen year-old jaybird could cook up was original to these old saltwater owls. They had seen E-3 jerks come and go for so many years, they could read you like a book.
"Son, I know what you are thinking. Just one word of advice. DON'T. It won't be worth it." "Aye, Chief." Chiefs aren't the kind of guys you thank. Monkeys at the zoo don't spend a lot of time thanking the guy who makes them do tricks for peanuts. Appreciation of what they did and who they were, comes with long distance retrospect. No young lad takes time to recognize the worth of his leadership. That comes later when you have experienced poor leadership or lets say, when you have the maturity to recognize what leaders should be, you find that Chiefs are the standard by which you measure all others. They had no Academy rings to get scratched up. They butchered the King's English. They had become educated at the other end of an anchor chain from Copenhagen to Singapore. They had given and owe their entire lives to the United States Navy. In the progression of the nobility of employment, CPO heads the list.
So, when we ultimately get our final duty station assignments and we get to wherever the big CNO in the sky assigns us. If we're lucky, Marines will be guarding the streets. I don't know about that Marine propaganda crap, but there will be an old Chief in an oil-stained hat, a cigar stub clenched in his teeth and a coffee cup that looks like it contains oil, standing at the brow to assign us our bunks and tell us where to stow our gear... And we will all be young again and the damn coffee will float a rock.
Life fixes it so that by the time a stupid kid grows old enough and smart enough to recognize who he should have thanked along the way, he no longer can. If I could, I would thank my old Chiefs. If you only knew what you succeeded in pounding in this thick skull, you would be amazed. So thanks you old casehardened unsalvageable son-of-a-b*tches. Save me a rack in the berthing compartment.
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