Saturday, November 29, 2008

Call from the Big House


"USS Nimitz, CVIC, how may I direct your call?"

Since entering the Gulf, I had been assigned to the night crew. We worked the 12-hour shift from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Our primary mission: waxing and buffing the tile covered decks in and around the carrier intelligence center or "CVIC."

Our newest responsibility, however, was answering the secure "hotline" to the ship. That should have been the responsibility of the Radiomen in the Communications Department, but they had fucked it up. Apparently, they had shown some disrespect to a big wig who had called the ship. So, now I had to answer it.

"This is White House operator number nineteen," the female voice on the other end of the secure line said. "I'm calling for the Commander of Carrier Group Seven." It must have been one or two in the morning.

"Okay," I said. "Just a moment and I'll transfer you."

According to procedure, I wrote the details of the call -- the time, the name of the caller, et cetera -- down in a log book that our officers had made for that purpose. They loved the idea that our division would control the hotline and they were equally paranoid that one of us ignorant enlisted guys would screw it up like the Radiomen had. Before that call from the White House, though, we hadn't actually received any real calls.

Nevertheless, each morning as the officers rolled into the office, the first thing each of them did was to check the log book. So, I knew my entry of "White House" in the book would cause a stir at the end of my shift.

At first, the officers thought it was a joke, then they wanted every little detail. What else could I say? The operator called, I hit "transfer," and hung up. With two exceptions, I didn't think very highly of the officers in the intelligence division.

The first -- and best -- was then-LCDR. John Segura. Among his many fine qualities, two that stood out were his treatment of enlisted men like me (e.g., he spoke to us as equals) and his willingness to teach, not just order. I always attributed his natural ability to lead from his having been assigned to a special operations unit just before his tour on the Nimitz. Whatever the reason, John Segura stood out and I'm glad to have served under him.

The other officer I remember with some fondness was then-LT. Ross Holcomb. Mr. Holcomb's dad had himself been a four-star admiral. It seemed certain that is son was destined for flag rank too, until a fateful day in July 1988. On July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes, on station in the Persian Gulf, shot down an Iranian civilian airliner killing all 290 people aboard. Mr. Holcomb was the Vincennes' Officer of the Deck. His future as a ship driver was over.

Mr. Holcomb re-trained as an intelligence officer and was eventually assigned to the Nimitz. On some nights -- after midrats -- Mr. Holcomb would take me and another guy up to the signal bridge to look at the stars. He knew a lot about the heavens and pointed out the many constellations visible to us over the Gulf. I actually found it pretty interesting, much to my own surprise.

The Nimitz remained on station in the Gulf for about three months, during which time our jets patrolled the Southern No-Fly Zone in Iraq (this was back in the days before we occupied the country in toto). During that time, the ship made three or four short port visits to Jebel Ali, United Arab Emirates. It was as hot as could possibly be. On one of these port visits, Mr. Holcomb asked me a question.

"I need someone to get in their whites and give a tour of the ship." Mr. Holcomb had just walked into CVIC, where me and the other guys on duty were sitting around watching a video. I had lucked out and didn't have to stand watch that duty day, but Mr. Holcomb sweetened the deal.

"I'll give whoever can do it some near beers," he said. I didn't know if officers generally had access to near beer or if it was just Mr. Holcomb's private reserve, but it sounded good to me. So, I went down to the berthing, put my dress uniform on, and gave Mr. Holcomb's friends an impromptu tour of the ship.

That night, Mr. Holcomb came into the office. (Though I had no official watch standing duties, I still had to sleep in the intelligence office.) He gave me three cans of the low-alcohol beer. I decided then and there that I would try to save them until the birth of my child. I wrapped them up in a paper bag -- on which I had drawn a skull and cross-bones to warn others to stay away -- and with the permission of our Chief, I stored the beers in the office refrigerator.

That was a long summer, but as June 1993 rolled around the Nimitz turned south and began its transit out of the Gulf and started our slow trip back home.

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