I didn’t want to ever be stationed in Japan. I had absolutely no interest…back in the 1990s. Now, it wasn’t anything personal or racist; I never felt comfortable enough about taking my family – wife and small children – to such a foreign place to live, work and go to school, all the while I was on-tap to deploy at any moment. And those moments were sure to happen. Often.
That all changed, however, in 1999. I’ve written about how this all came about here at length (see Tora Tora Tora), but let me summarize it a bit here.
At the time I got orders to Japan I was what the Navy labels one as “Not Physically Qualified” (NPQ) for flight, suffering from chronic and debilitating back pain and serious sciatica resulting from a severe back injury in high school, exacerbated by years of weight lifting. Due to this status, I was not slated for a Department Head squadron tour (a career-killer for aviators), and thus I became for Naval Aviation the proverbial round peg that can fit most any square hole. Are there are always a lot of squares that no one wants anything to do with?
So, after 9 months of living overseas in Italy where they “stashed” me on short-notice after a reservist backed out of NATO-based orders (best thing to ever happen to me in the Navy…next to Okinawa), I came home to reassignment to, like I’ve stated, somewhere I never had any intention of living: Japan. It was a one-two-three combo knockout blow.
Or so I thought at the time.
My recollections of the phone call with my Navy “Detailer” who broke the news to me….
“Introducing first…. from the blue corner, weighing a round 29 billion pounds, hailing from Washington DC and rated as the best, most capable sea-service in the whole-wide-world and star of the hit movie Top Gun, with 33 gazillion kills, and only two losses, it is the ass-kicker of the Brits, the Italians, the Germans and the Japanese, and subduer of Somalia pirates and innumerable small, defenseless Caribbean nations, abled-bodied and full of seaman, I INTRODUCE…The…
(more dramatic pause)
(most dramatic pause)
“And, in the red corner, weighing in at a few ounces over 192 pounds, hailing from Pensacola, Florida, rated by many as the best pound for aviator in recent years, with 3 wins, 1 of them coming by the way of knockout (TKO), and no defeats (but only 3 boxing matches during Aviation Preflight Training), he is the former middleweight Navy career champion, former super middle weight A-6 Bombardier-Navigator, and, former light heavy-lightweight weight champion, and former HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF HIS FAMILY… Lieutenant Commander…
(most dramatic pause!)
“Ding-Ding!” resounds the boxing bell. Fight’s on. I have a feeling it’s not going to be fair.
The Navy comes out aggressively swinging, not wasting any time with niceties or compassion. First, it’s a combo followed by a stiff right jab to the nose: “You’re getting orders to Japan.” I’m dizzy and stumble back a step, somewhat dazed by the sharp pain of the blunt words.
Before I could regain any composure, the second combination, a crossing blow from the left to the check, strikes: “It’s a non-flying job.” Confusion starts to reign as the throbbing realization of no longer being able to fly sets in. Let me put it to you this way: I didn’t join the Navy for its ships….
And the coup de gras, combo #3, a right hook square on the chin: “…and you’ll be assigned to a ship….” Tunnel vision sets in and stars start to orbit my psyche as I think about being “stuck” on a boat for months and years at a time….
Down to the mat I go, unreactive and stiff as a board, bouncing lightly upon being grounded. But as quickly as the Navy dropped me with this TKO, his gloves were found to be over-weighted with a healthy dose of misinformation. The fight was called; I told you it wasn’t going to be fair.
It seldom is with Big Navy.
It wasn’t Japan, but Okinawa to which I was being assigned. And there is a serious difference between the two. It’s like trying to call Hawaiian or Puerto Rican culture as the same as “American.” Okinawa happens to be surrounded by some of the most beautiful reefs in the world, all just an easy shore-dive away. Besides skydiving (and verifying my wife’s naked age of 24), scuba diving IS my passion.
While it was a non-flying job, I was able to maintain flying status the whole time, which meant I didn’t have to give up my special “Flight Pay,” which at the time made up a significant portion of my pay. Discretionary income became very important for scuba diving, as well as enabling the use of the centrally-located island in the Pacific as a hoping-off point for some massive travels.
And, most importantly, I was not assigned to a ship, but to a Flag Staff on Okinawa while ashore, and when required to go underway, I was assigned to ship’s staff, which is in no way, shape or form to be confused with “ship’s company” (no offense to any SWO-Daddies…and Mommas…out there). Who the hell joins the Navy to be ship’s company anyhow?!? I don’t like ships very much. Except when they are targets.
But, this is all simply to set a humorous stage for my initial tour on Okinawa as part of Tactical Air Control Squadron 12 (VTC-12, most commonly referred to as “TAC-RON”), or more affectionately known as “THE ISLAND OF MISFIT TOYS.” You see, no one with any, shall we say “normal” career aspirations asks to go to TACRON. No, it’s a place reserved for those Commanders who didn’t screen for a real command, and for officers that are, in some way or another, broken. Now, for the enlisted, it is a real place with real jobs, albeit somewhat off the beaten path. But for the O’s, if you find yourself down in this particular rabbit hole, you are sure to have that Talking Heads moment where “…you may ask yourself – Well…How did I get here?!”
So, this blog is actually about those fellow misfits. And God love’em all! I had some of my BEST times in TACRON, not because of the mission, or duty location, or extra overseas monies we all made. But because of fellow misfits, who, like in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, band together to overcome against the Abominable Snow Monster (analogous to most TACRON skippers, white and overly hairy, and have a hard time with the English language), as well as the Winter Warlock.
Wait a tic – mixed my Christmas special metaphors. Strike that last one; it is an impossibility to melt the icy hearts of leadership in the TACRON community.
Now, I was permanently forward deployed, but Detachments from the States rotated in and out every six months. So, there were no less than four complete sets of personnel that I had to welcome, befriend, work with, and farewell during my tenure on Okinawa between the summers of 1999 and 2001. BUT, the most memorable crew, and really the only Navy-related photos of that entire period hinge around three people, all fellow Navy O-4’s: Tracy (known better as “TC”), Rick, and Paul.
Paul was permanently forward deployed with me. He was an S-3 Naval Flight Officer, and this is no joke: just about the strangest cat I’ve met in uniform, and much like the spotted elephant of the Island of Misfit Toys. He certainly belonged in TACRON. He lived out in town, a few minutes walk from our house actually, and his overly violent three little boys and overly flirtatious wife “Kitty” were always the source of gossip and high amusement. “Strange?” I hear you wondering. Yes, strange. Paul once was part of a Captain’s change of command, but just a staff officer standing in ranks. The uniform for the formal event was Chocker Whites, the epitome of uniforms when one thinks of the Navy (think An Officer and a Gentleman; Paul was neither). However, when Paul realized he didn’t have the white gloves required as part of the uniform, and not wanting to be a stand-out by not wearing gloves, he instead substituted…wait for it…white athletic socks. Yeah, he didn’t stand out. Much. STRANGE.
TC, a Navy helicopter pilot, was my roommate for a time, and one of the funnier people I’ve met in Navy Aviation. A wonderful attitude, he brought Jew to the Navy like few others could. True story: once I noticed he edited a document I had typed, where I use two spaces between paragraphs. I noticed he was taking one of each of those groups out, a VERY time-consuming process. When I asked why, he looked at me and said he was saving memory. Wow, that was a new slant on tight-wad, and I grew up in a Jewish community! Sorry TC, no offense intended. For a guy who used a ruler to sign his checks (so it wouldn’t cross the printed line on the check), you had one of the very best attitudes of anyone in the Navy, before or since. Oh, and he’s not a very good Jew either; he ate most of the holiday ham, fat and all, we cooked and served at our Det Holiday party (wink)!
Rick was also a Navy helicopter pilot, and already knew TC quite well. I can’t recall if they were ever squadron-mates, but they were close friends, and stuck together while they waded through the cesspools often created within TACRON for no good reason. Rick was quiet, non-confrontational, and simply didn’t care to rock the boat. My funniest memory of Rick was a run-in he had with a Commander at the time, and overly gung-ho, juiced-up P-3 jock who had an overly inflated sense of importance to match his ego and steroid-inflated biceps. When Rick elected to actually stand his watch and do some critical tasks, he was ignorantly overruled and directed to “sit here and watch this brief,” which was being played on ship’s TV. So, Rick did just that. As the world came crashing down around him, he sat in the chair, staring at the TV, expressionless and motionless. When the same Commander came pounding back in to see what the problem was and saw Rick there doing what he thought was nothing, he asked Rick, “WTF?” Rick simply replied, “I’m sitting here watching TV JUST LIKE YOU TOLD ME TO DO.” Okay, you had to be there. And you have to know Rick – a gentle giant, if not a passive-aggressive one.
But I’m going to leave you with my all-time favorite story involving these three clowns. Oh, I meant characters. We’re in the ship’s wardroom one afternoon for lunch, and it’s almost filled to capacity since a full Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) is embarked. Now, you have to imagine something like, I dunno, twelve or fifteen tables of ten (at least), in a relatively small space with a low overhead, noisy with dishes clanking and filled with a cacophony of mindless chatter and howling laughs here and there. We are all there, sitting together, enjoying what was surely another wonderful culinary concoction of the finest sea-service, when suddenly, a young office a table or two over starts to choke. No one really notices at first, but like they teach you in first aid, he stands up, clutching his throat, in the international sign for “I can’t breathe and I’m choking you bastards, so HELP!” As more and more officers notice this scene, the noise dies down, until it’s almost near silent. No one has done anything yet. Finally, a shipmate stands up and performs the Heimlich Maneuver, which worked better than you could ever imagine it could! Out comes flying a huge chunk of unchewed and charred hamburger, which lands not far from TC. The place is now so quiet you could hear the meal running through our intestines. And after just the right amount of pregnant pause, TC states, matter-of-factly while looking at this fellow who just suffered a near-death experience, “Are you gonna eat that???”
The place burst out in tears!
And that’s what I love most about being shipwrecked by the Navy…in the Navy…on Okinawa between 1999 and 2001.
- On Being Cool & The Island of Misfit Toys (howardsruminations.wordpress.com)