Burton on the Bay
By Bill Burton
A Sailor’s Revenge
Paybacks are hell.
If one is on the receiving end, no question but what paybacks can be hell; but let’s look at the flip side. On the giving end, paybacks can indeed be satisfying.
You see, I have this thing about officers as undoubtedly many former and present enlisted servicemen have.
Back in the mid-1940s when I was a newly enlisted man in the Navy in World War II, I sat through countless hours of dreary lectures by officers. Sometimes, the talk carried on long enough that I got what was leftovers in the mess hall, which wasn’t much.
But seeing that officers were officers, they could pretty much chow down whenever convenient. Undoubtedly their menu was more appetizing, and the food wasn’t slopped onto metal trays as it was for fledgling sailors.
Officers deprived me of joining in the celebration of three most noteworthy occasions in my young life as the war was winding down. I spent V-E Day pretty much alone as my comrades enjoyed the festivities in the streets marking the end of the war in Europe because I failed to salute an ensign. He had me confined to barracks for three days, the first of which fell on the big day.
I missed my high school graduation at Arlington (Vermont) High School because I was in sickbay. A captain denied me a three-day pass to attend though I really wasn’t sick, just undergoing some fitness tests. His reason; he feared I’d be drinking.
Hell, I was a Vermont country boy. The only malt available to teenagers in my small hometown was in a milk shake. My steady girlfriend Dorothy never told me who she danced with that night and it’s probably just as well.
I wasn’t among those celebrating V-J Day, the biggest occasion yet in my 80 years. Early that day, I had seen reconnaissance photos of where my underwater demolition unit was to land in the planned invasion of Japan. We prematurely raised a few cups, which irked a young Marine officer.
Three days detention while every other sailor and Marine on base was out reaping the affection of the adoring citizenry. Our observance was limited to what our shipmates could sneak in to us which was sufficient though we envied those on the streets where kisses from pretty girls flowed.
Once at Sampson Naval Training Station in frigid upstate New York, I was so busy preparing for a barracks inspection that I forgot to shave. Hell, I had shaved the previous day and I was a teenager without much of a beard anyhow, so I wasn’t too concerned when the captain arrived with his white gloves ready to search for dust.
I quickly wished he had confined his scrutiny to cobwebs. I had been chosen to escort the skipper through the barracks. And all went well no dust, dirt, rumpled beds or unshined shoes until the end of his scrutiny. Ready to leave, he turned to me for the customary salute and said “Sailor, there’s stubble on your face.”
A lieutenant J.G. in tow informed me of the standard penalty; a dry shave with razor in front of my shipmates. No soap, no lather, no nothing, just a razor and blade until the face was smooth and shiny. And soon to be painfully chapped seeing as outdoor temperatures at the time were barely above zero, the wind howling, and as we had long marches every day.
I eventually got my paybacks; for the past 40 years I haven’t shaved. When I got an invitation from the president of the Naval War College, Newport, R.I., to be guest speaker at the formal retirement ceremonies of a decorated captain who nearly 50 years ago I taught to fish and hunt, I chomped at the bit. I could be in front of all those admirals, captains and commanders with a full beard and there wasn’t a damned thing they could do about it.
Also, the ceremonies were to be followed by food and beverage. Here was my chance. I could talk on and on, making them wait for chow. Officers couldn’t be discourteous and leave. What a turnabout from 60 years past.
An Officer and a Gentleman
As I was seated next to Adm. Jake Shuford waiting to be introduced, I scanned the program. Capt. Rand LeBouvier, a former Baltimorean, had not spent all his 28 years since graduation from the Naval Academy as an instructor shoreside. There was much about him I didn’t know.
He was a surface warfare officer, skipper of a couple of ships, participated in Desert Storm, Desert Shield, was in charge of unmanned space flight, wears a multitude of medals, was roughed up in the Pentagon where he was stationed at 9/11 and worked to aid the dead and injured. Hey, officers get into the nitty-gritty, too.
Then I thought of Rand’s wife Julie; within a week she was hosting parties for their son Chris upon his graduation from the Merchant Marine Academy, then her husband’s retirement and two days later their oldest daughter Tara was marrying Lt. J.G. Michael Lilleberg, a Navy submariner.
Look, I’ve got guts. I’m capable of screwing up the schedules of editors and admirals (now that I no longer have to answer to them and their minions). I can muster with a full beard (one of the few I noted on the base). But I lack the courage to challenge a Navy wife with a schedule like that. Even John Paul Jones wouldn’t have dared.
I kept my talk to the scheduled 20 minutes, sat back and proudly saw Rand’s passing of the flag and sword to the son he had watched commissioned several days before, then the whole family Rand, Julie (whose father was a submariner), Chris, Tara and Julia take their bows.
My paybacks, I realized, were in anticipation of the power I briefly held, but didn’t implement beyond flashing an old face covered with whiskers. As I looked into the audience and saw the faces old and new of officers from top to bottom, all Marines and Navy men, I wanted to salute them, one and all. They are our past, present and future, and deserving of our appreciation and our blessings.