Last Kind Word

I’ve been lauded and loathed, reviled and revered, commended and condemned, but all I ever wanted was a last kind word. I don’t know about you, but that’s what I remember. I was about 19, and the ship’s air search radar had fried itself, and everyone was running around in circles wondering what to do. The consensus was it couldn’t be repaired onboard. Some wanted to send back to the States for a factory tech rep; some wanted to just deep six it. Nobody paid me any attention because I was just out of electronics school. Our Master Chief, however, usually an old curmudgeon, looked at me and said, “Let the ‘Reb’ fix it,” and I did. His “last kind word” changed my life on that ship.

Later on, when I became a junior officer, I was never good at hiding, and I ended up with all the “little” jobs that no one else wanted: mess treasurer, top secret publications accountability officer, lifeboat drill safety officer, controlled medications inventory officer, Bingo Night officer, etc. You name it. I got it. These were the jobs that everyone avoided and where the responsibility, and the possible trouble, outweighed any benefits except for the satisfaction of a job well done or a kind word or two.

Take top secret publications, for example. If you can’t account for every single page of dozens of highly classified publications at the daily inventory, you might as well pack your sea bag, because you are a “goner.” It’s almost as bad with controlled medications. You better know where every such pill is in the sick bay pharmacy, and you better know where the ones went that aren’t there. If not – you’re a goner.

Mess Treasurer is not that bad. It won’t get you thrown off the ship or out of the Navy if you screw it up, but it can ruin your reputation and make you lose all your friends. The job, just a collateral duty, involves planning the wardroom meal menus, purchasing the food, supervising the cooks and other things that you would expect from someone with a degree in hotel management. Everyone complains about the food. They want steak and lobster and Baked Alaska at bargain prices. The worst part, by far, however, is collecting the monthly mess bill from a few deadbeat officers, usually far senior to you, who won’t pay up. The reality is, of course, you are always expected to do your duty, but what makes small jobs like these tolerable is a kind word now and then.

Probably the strangest collateral duty I ever had was on a guided missile cruiser where the Captain (the Old Man) made me his official “Historian and Travel Commentator.” He was a hard skipper, not exactly a Captain Queeg, rolling steel Chinese Meridian balls around in his hand, as Humphrey Bogart did in the movie, “Caine Mutiny” (1954), but he ran a tight ship. Whenever we passed some interesting geographical location that you could see ashore, he would call me up on the bridge, if I wasn’t already there on watch, hand me the 1MC (the ship’s loudspeaker system) microphone, and expect me to tell the crew all about it. Like most ships, we ran a three-section watch bill underway, and for some reason, my “lectures” always seemed to come early in the morning when I was half asleep.

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