Thursday, July 19, 2012

Working A Winch

The photo above was taken aboard the USS Neosho in the summer of 1977. The ship was berthed in Norfolk at the time the photo was taken. Although it is a bit grainy and worn; it is, after all, an old Polaroid; you can see the buildings in the background to the right of my shoulder. We had just come back from somewhere; I don’t quite remember where; and were “slushing”, or greasing the wire cables which held the hoses for the re-fueling rigs. This was known as PMS, or the Planned Maintenance System. But there is a story behind the photo. There always is. 

Only 2 weeks before this photo was taken I was unable to engage a steam winch. For the uninitiated, engaging a winch refers to the action of  grasping the iron lever firmly, and with all resolve, moving that lever into a position where it will allow the winch drum to be attached, or “engaged to” the cog, or flywheel. This “marriage” allows the winch operator to let out; or take in; as much cable as necessary for whatever task being performed. It is a very basic concept, and as old as steam power itself. But, somehow, in spite of the gargantuan arms you see on me in the photograph; I was never able to perform this basic function successfully. Until one day at sea, not long before this photo was taken.
I was stationed on Rig 8 for re-fueling duties; which ran the gamut from laying out the lines necessary for the work, as well as a lot of line handling, or “heave-hoeing”. It was hard work, and we were all expected to know one another’s jobs on the station to which we were assigned. But, for the life of me, I could not engage that winch drum! This was a source of embarrassment to me, and I suffered some small amount of ridicule as a result, which is only to be expected aboard ship, where everyone is expected to “carry their weight”.  I needed to learn to engage that winch, or die trying. And one day I was about to do just that when my salvation came from a most unexpected source.

I don’t recall the name of my “Rig Captain” at the time, but he is the one pictured below with the crew of Rig 8, wearing the white helmet signifying his position. If you look closely you will notice that I am giving him the finger, without his knowledge. He was a hard drinking type of guy, and if he had been drinking the night before, he could be a real ball buster on station. But, on this one occasion, I was to see another side of the man; one that bespoke of a false fa├žade covering a soft heart.
Seeing me attempt to engage the winch for the 4th time was too much for him. We were now the only rig not “flying” during the re-fueling, and until that winch was engaged, we weren’t going to be pumping any fuel at all from Rig 8. This meant, of course, that one of the other rigs would have to take up our slack. That was an unforgivable offense aboard ship.

As my benefactor stepped towards me I expected the usual verbal lashing he was famous for; or a swift kick in the ass. I braced myself for a squall. But, to my surprise, he was smiling at me, and in a low, confident voice assured me that I could certainly engage that winch. Without offense, I shall try to recreate the vernacular he used, speaking as he did, with a New Orleans accent. “Lookit here Willie, this is a machine. You’s a man. That machine is ‘sposed to do what you say it do. I knows you can do it. You jus’ has to let the machine know that you know you a man. You do dat, and dat machine gonna do jus’ what you say it to do. Now go and handle that bitch again, and remember, you the man.”
All eyes were on me as I stepped up to that winch for the 5th time; which is probably a fleet record; and I gritted my teeth as I sunk that winch into gear. The “ka-chunk” sound of the cog being engaged never sounded; or felt, so good; either before, or after that day. I had finally beaten the machine! But I had also learned a valuable lesson about both myself and other people.

You never really know who you are until you see yourself through the eyes of another person. My strength was the direct result of someone else’s view of my weakness. His patient instruction; while really angry with me; was the result of his own experience as a younger man, when he was undoubtedly unsure of himself. Either that; or the yelling just didn’t work. I will never know for sure. But, the look of content on my face in the photo above is the end result. I think about that day a lot, the day I “beat the machine”.

This story comes back to me at odd times; usually when I am struggling with myself over something. And, when I look at that picture, it gives me strength. 

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