The Most Unforgettable Chief I Ever Knew

By Don Gardner

ad4pt@juno.com

 

Mischief was his middle name …..

Steven Laite, now that was a guy to reckon with. I met him first at Headquarters when we were both RM1’s, and there I observed his keen, sometimes slightly weird, sense of humour. Steve left mischief behind after you relieved him. As his relief sat down to begin printing messages on the teletype, Steve would lift up the cover of the paper tape re-perforator when you weren’t looking and tear it, then sail out of the communication centre just about the time you noticed your message had stopped printing because you had run out tape, leaving you to type in the portion missed during the time it took to refeed the tape. Laite pulled this on a couple of different watches, but when it started happening to him, he gave up the game and went on to others.

During my second tour of duty at Headquarters in Washington, I made RMCS, obligating me to serve two years in that rate. My tour of duty ran out when I had about 18 months to go to retire; I asked if I couldn’t finish my career at Headquarters, but there was a guy rotating back from Alaska who had already been assigned. I had to go.

My next stop was CG Radio Station Long Beach (NMQ) where Steve was an RMC, the senior RM, and was on the RMCS list but had a couple of numbers to go. Why they sent me there to join Steve, with him pregnant and near the end of his term for promotion, I haven’t the vaguest clew; he kept the station patched together and was often consulted by an ET1 when there was a problem the ETs couldn’t figure out.

It was important that a fire be reported promptly and the correct fire zone given. One of Steve’s little mischievous ideas was that he often teased the station personnel by walking around with a decrepit often-used-for-fire-drills wastepaper basket crammed with wastepaper while everyone peeped from behind barracks curtains or other places of concealment and kept their eyes on him the entire time. Steve was on stage, so to speak, and enjoyed the popularity. Suddenly Steve would dart into the fire station, the barracks, volleyball court, or anywhere he thought would be a good place to start the fire without doing damage. When I arrived there for duty, we would start out together with a wastepaper basket then suddenly split up to confuse the guys, who tried to figure which one of us was going to set the wastepaper basket on fire. Everyone got a laugh out of this, especially Steve and I.

Before taking over from Steve, I had to page check a number of classified publications to ensure that all pages were correct. Everything went well except for JANAP 195, a confidential Navy frequency publication—someone had failed to enter a change page and retained instead the page already in the publication. I told Steve I would sign off on the letter that said all publications were current and correct and decided to let it ride since the publication is often changed—an updated page would eventually come in and all would then be OK. The page was never replaced while I was there; when Steve relieved me later, he re-inherited the problem.

Steve liked to drop anything and everything that would explode/implode off the cliff. Old televisions especially were wanted. Word would be passed and a crowd would collect. Steve would roll off a television while we all waited for it to implode and go flying into a thousand pieces. The bottom of the cliff looked like a disaster area. A bit of harmless fun kept our morale up.

One morning before station inspection, Steve told me he had a sudden brainstorm. When the CO, CRELE Pat Flynn, came out of his office and walked to my desk, which sat in an alcove, he saw Steve leaning forward slightly on the near bulkhead supporting himself with his left hand, while his right hand was in front of him at zipper level. The captain did a quick take, then exclaimed, What-the-hell are you doing! It appeared as if he was taking a leak against the bulkhead. Steve turned around with a sly grin on his face and showed him a piece of paper in his hand he was ‘reading’. The skipper enjoyed the joke.

After Steve made RMCS, he was put in charge of the ETs, but when I was short a watch supervisor, I had to put him on watch. Steve never complained, thank God, but I felt terribly guilty about usurping his position at the radio station, then adding further indignities by temporarily putting him on watch standing duty. I’m happy to say this situation was rectified in a short while.

Steve had another entertaining source of amusement: He liked to change titles or names slightly. For instance, Captain of the Port became Captain of the Pot, motorcycles became mudercycles (which actually seems appropriate), and Public Health was renamed Pubic Health. That one I liked best of all.

The CO liked all of us bigwigs and high muckety-mucks to eat together at noon chow, CO, XO, Laite, and me. I tried to get by with eating small portions because a big meal made me feel sleepy, and I certainly couldn’t take a nap. Steve, however, would load up his plate with triple portions of everything while we looked at him in amazement, envy, and a little hate that he could gorge himself in front of us. No matter how much he ate, Steve never gained weight.

After finishing off a large meal, he would then fill a bowl with ice cream. The skipper, XO, and I had to refrain from this gluttony by taking small portions. After consuming his meal and the big bowl of ice cream, Steve would push it away then lean back and say, as cool as you please, punctuated with a satisfied burp, ‘Ah, that will make a nice turd!’

Steve not only was a great electronics technician, he also knew quite a bit about auto mechanics. We both drove 1965 Fords with the same body colour and about the same engine size. At quitting time we would race out of the gate and up the highway. But one day Steve got ahead of me and suddenly I noticed a highway patrolman had pulled him over. I tried to drive by and not look at the scene but that didn’t work—the patrol waved me over, too. It seems one of the locals around there had reported something like drag racing was going on and wanted it stopped. Steve and I both got a ticket—$18.75, a sum I remember since that was the cost of a government savings bond. We didn’t race anymore after that, but Steve never gave out of ideas to have fun.

Again, Steve came to me one day and reported that an ET had found a ‘hippy shack’ at the bottom of the cliff as you come onto the station. Steve fired me up with enthusiasm as he described how one of the ETs would go around the point at low tide with a 5-gallon bucket of gasoline and would douse it on the hippy shack and set it afire.

When the tide was out and the ET3 despatched, Steve and I walked down to the edge of the cliff overlooking the shack and watched as the ET3 doused the shack, then lighted it up. Most of the enlisted men on the station were there to enjoy the excitement, but we had passed the word to keep quiet about it because we didn’t want the skipper to find out, knowing he would not have given permission.

The first burst of smoke looked like an atomic mushroom cloud. Soon flames began eating their way up the cliff, burning everything before it. We sent men to the fire station to get hoses, which they connected to the nearest hydrant and turned the water on.

One little problem! The pressure on the hose was way down—barely more than a trickle only—the hose had to be passed down the cliff to the ET3 and several men scrambled down to help. Right about this time the fire truck from the station down the road came cruising by; apparently someone had reported a huge, uncontrolled fire (perhaps the same person who reported drag racing). Fortunately for us they were not blowing their siren and didn’t come to the gate to enquire.

Steve casually mentioned—he knew how to get to me!—that he hoped the fire wouldn’t creep all the way up the cliff and begin a fire on station property. My overworked imagination kicked in and provided a picture of the station burning to the ground. Then Steve added that he hoped the CO wouldn’t find out about firing up the hippy shack.

I imagined the star above the crow on my left arm going up in flames—I’m busted back to RMC! I always thought the damn star was upside down anyway, but I did badly want to keep it because the money helped on retirement. Now I am indeed having serious second thoughts about letting Steve talk me into this pyromaniac caper—especially as the fire continued creeping up the cliff, consuming everything in its path.

‘Uh oh, here comes the skipper’, Steve said.

I mentally dropped a load in my skivvies. Oh Lord, let this work out, let the CO not be in a bad mood when he sees what we are doing to his radio station.

Normally, I’m not much of a praying man, but by the time the skipper got within ass-chewing distance, I must have promised God an awful lot. Flynn always had a red face and you couldn’t tell if he was PO’d or whether he had done a bit of exertion.

Steve explained what we had done to the hippy shack. He also pointed out we had discovered low water pressure on the station and that some of our fire hoses were leaking, a fact we had not discovered on ‘routine’ fire drills. Now we knew some of the hoses should be replaced and the water pressure situation could be serious if a real fire at the station occurred. The skipper agreed, in fact I think he enjoyed watching our little fire, with all the men pitching in to put a real instead of make-believe fire out.

I kept my mouth shut the whole time except to nod my head if the skipper said something positive and not court-martial-related.

The skipper invited the fire company to the radio station about a week later to check our hoses and water pressure. They were able to tell us what the water pressure problem was and which hoses should be replaced immediately. I don’t remember if anything was ever done about it, the Coast Guard always being on such a tight budget and never could spend money on things that were really needed.

  EPILOG

Having two RMCS’s at the radio station was overkill in my view, and I mentioned to LT Valentine Gaida, the district communications officer, that either Steve or I should go. I reminded him that Steve kept the radio gear patched together, that the district communications centre did not have an RMCS and I liked that duty.

After giving the matter thought for several weeks, Mr Gaida agreed to the transfer to the district, from where I retired when my obligated two years was up.

 

The End

 

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