Friday, December 18, 2015

A Story From the USNS Jupiter

Bosun Browning and I were anything but friends. As a matter of fact, we had come to blows once, well, nearly to blows, one might say. I couch the episode in that light due to the fact that I had the presence of mind, and the swift footedness of youth to quickly repair myself to the Captain’s cabin for refuge.

The whole thing started innocently enough, with the Bosun, who is the man tasked with everything on deck aboard ship, and I, engaging in some trash talking of one another’s backgrounds. I was that bane in the side of all true Southerners, a Yankee, while he occupied in my young mind that special space reserved for the mouth breathing, knuckle dragging denizen of the Deep South. This “trash talk” had gotten somewhat out of hand, considering the fact that he weighed about 250 pounds and stood 6’4” in opposition to my 145 pounds and slender 6’ frame.

At the time, and remember I was in my mid 20’s when this story takes place, I knew little fear, and each evening after going ashore and running through the jungles of Diego Garcia, which are not very dense, the island itself being but 34 miles long and only ¼ of a mile wide at it’s widesest point, I would return to the ship and weigh myself, calling out to the Bosun that when I attained the unimaginable mass of 150 pounds, I was determined, actually hell bent upon, kicking his Cajun ass. This resulted in Bosun Browning awaiting the return of my boat each evening. He would then follow me to the scale and watching over my shoulder he would check my weight with me. This was a fight that was going to happen and he was planning on losing no time in getting the thing started.

The disappointment on his face each night as I hovered about 147 and 148 pounds was almost heartbreaking, even to myself, though I knew that should the battle ever occur, I was sure to come out on the short end. The Bosun, impatient for his chance at hastening my demise, always shook his head in disgust as I failed to attain the 150 pound mark. To this end he had begun handing me a candy bar, or a piece of cake, after each failed weigh in. As I said earlier, he was in earnest for the battle to begin.

As the months wore on and I continued to hold at 148 pounds, which is the most I have ever weighed, we developed a mutual respect for one another, but he was still looking forward to the impending battle with relish. Sometimes things don’t go quite as planned and there is often a valuable lesson to be learned, if you keep your eyes open and your wits about you. This was one of those cases.

One night, sometime around midnight, I slammed my hand in a hatch and the nail was throbbing and aching something fierce. I was roaming the deck, unable to sleep, when I chanced upon the Bosun, who inquired as to the nature of my trouble. Showing him my finger he looked pained and told me to follow him to his cabin. I was in such a state that I did just that, not knowing what to expect from my nemesis.

Arriving at his cabin he rummaged through some tools, and pulling out a drill bit proposed that he would drill through my finger nail, thus relieving the pressure of the blood beneath it and my pain. Such was my pain that, with a trusting and uncharacteristic willingness on my part, I agreed to this experiment.

With a surgeons gentle touch this large Cajun shrimp boater proceeded to drill through my finger nail, and did exactly as he said he would, with a gentleness belying our continued state of war.

This is the night in which I learned a most valuable lesson; that the person most likely to help you in times of distress, is often not your friend, but rather your enemy. I retired to my cabin to ruminate upon this philosophical discovery and what it really meant in practical terms, particularly aboard ship. What I came up with, in conclusion, startled me then, and I have often thought back to this event when faced with confusion by the actions of others over the next several decades.

Take, as an example, three people standing on deck in a storm at sea. Two are friends and the third hates the other two. One of the two is swept overboard. The friend stands there transfixed, unable to assist due to two reasons, the first being that he is so upset at the loss of his friend, he is effectively immobilized; the second being that he is conscious of the risk he would undertake should he choose to take some action.

The enemy, on the other hand, is not weighed down with all this. He only knows that should he not take some decisive action, he will be judged by a very different standard. The friend of the victim will be consoled for his loss, while the enemy will be reviled for doing nothing. His inactions will be dismissed as his having availed himself of the unexpected pleasure in seeing his enemy hurt. Due to this he will leap overboard in a maelstrom in an effort to avoid this perception. I have seen this type of behavior several times in my years at sea, as well as my many years ashore. I stored this lesson away and gradually, over the course of the next few months, the Bosun and I were able to mute our "cold war" until the whole argument had become pointless.

In November, after the monsoons had ended, we were both scheduled to fly home on a 21 hour flight from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, to Newark Airport in New Jersey. We had a pleasant flight, during which I learned his entire life’s story, as I am sure he learned some of mine. I found, much to my surprise, that I was actually beginning to like this guy.

We landed at Butler Aviation Terminal, which is located at the far end of Newark Airport and proceeded through Customs and then outside to the line of cabs waiting at the curb. The Bosun asked me to watch his bags while he went to the rest room and I assented.

As soon as he was out of sight I took his baggage, and tossing them in the back of the next available cab, handed the driver a $50 bill and told him, “Here’s $50, I don’t care where you take the bags.” I grabbed the next cab and hightailed it out of there in a flash.

There are probably many lessons to be learned from this story, but I will not assign myself to the task of pointing them out. My actions, at the airport that morning, would seem to call any judgments I might make on the matter, into question.


  1. I remember
    both of you in that photo, I was one of the Navy radiomen

    1. Now I gotta ask- who are you? Any photos or stories you want to share? I do guest columnists- you could be the next one. Let me know.