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Strut On Out Of Here And Let Me Do My Job!

, , , | Working | October 6, 2021

When I was in the US Navy, I was a machinist. I operated lathes, milling machines, drill presses, etc., manufacturing parts for broken or damaged equipment. Most of the time, it was fairly stress-free. Machinists work to very exacting specifications — thousandths of an inch — but there’s usually loads of time to get the job done right. The machinist’s motto is, “Safety, Accuracy, then Speed.”

Being the Navy, emergencies of all sorts have a tendency to arise. Since I was the most experienced machinist — and the shop supervisor — I tended to handle most of the emergencies, though my apprentice machinists frequently helped.

One night while the ship was at sea, the storm we were travelling through damaged one of the control struts which stabilized and adjusted one of the ship’s critical communication antennas. That particular antenna would no longer track the satellite and compensate for the ship’s movement to stay focused on the satellite. This particular communication system belonged to the Admiral who used my ship as his flagship, so repairing the strut was a top priority. I therefore got rousted out of my bunk to make a new control strut. One of the ship’s electronics specialists met me in the machine shop with the equipment manual so I could figure out how to make the part. We started getting dimensions from the manual and comparing them to the broken strut at the workbench in my shop when someone started hammering at my door.

All Admirals have a cadre of staff officers to handle administrative issues, and these officers are often extremely senior Captains and Commanders (O-5 and O-6) who get assigned as Staff officers to train them up for possible future promotion to Admiral. In many cases, the senior officers in an Admiral’s staff out-rank the ship’s commanding officer. 

When I opened the top half of my shop door, the Admiral’s Chief Of Staff (CoS) — a very senior Captain (O-6) — started bellowing at me. He was a Flight officer, the type who looked down on anyone who wasn’t a Flight officer. He was also a graduate of the Naval Academy and was known for believing all Enlisted personnel were thieves and liars while having little to no idea how the nuts and bolts of the Navy work. He’d had run-ins with ship’s force enlisted personnel several times in the six months or so he’d been aboard. I am a Machinist First Class Petty Officer (E-6), and the Staff officers are not in my chain of command. Despite the Chief Of Staff’s rank, I do NOT work for him. 

Chief Of Staff: “The Admiral’s comms are down! You need to fix it! Now!”

Me: “Yes, sir. I’m working on it.”

Chief Of Staff: “Well, hurry it up, d*** it!”

The Chief Of Staff stormed off in a huff, which was probably his favorite mode of transportation. I closed the shop door again and got back to making a working drawing of the strut I needed to make, with help from [Electronics Specialist], also a Petty Officer First Class. We hit a snag right away, since the manual specified the strut must be made of a particular grade of stainless steel we did not have on the ship. [Electronics Specialist] and I chose a similar grade of stainless steel I did have in stock, and then he headed up to his office to start filing a “Departure From Specifications” report while I started cutting stainless bar stock to the proper length on the shop band saw.

I suddenly heard a thunderous hammering on the shop door.

I shut off the saw and opened the door, only to find the Chief Of Staff outside. Before I could say anything, he started bellowing again. 

Chief Of Staff: “What the h*** is taking you so long? The Admiral’s comms are down!”

Me: “Yes, sir. I’m working on it.”

Chief Of Staff: “You’re not working fast enough! That antenna is critical! Stop f****** around and fix it!”

Me: “I’m cutting the material right now, sir.”

He let out an incoherent bellow, followed by a foot-stomping exit.

I shook my head and left the top half of the shop door open, then went back to cutting the bar stock. I mounted the metal between centers in the lathe and got started roughing the dimensions for the strut. Suddenly, I heard more bellowing at the shop door. Note that the lathe where I was working was visible from the shop doorway, and it had only been about ten minutes since the last visit by the Chief Of Staff. I finished the cut I was making and then shut off the lathe and went back to the door to find the Chief Of Staff having a prolonged hissy-fit.

Chief Of Staff: “Aren’t you done yet? This is a critical system, and it’s completely useless until you fix it! What is taking so d*** long?”

Me: “With all due respect, sir, every time you come here and demand an update, it makes the job take that much longer because I have to stop working in order to tell you I’m working on it.”

Chief Of Staff: “You can’t talk to me like that! I’m a g**d*** captain!

Me: “Sir, every minute I spend talking to you is a minute I can’t work on manufacturing the strut. I was actually manufacturing the strut on the lathe when you arrived. I had to stop making the part in order to talk to you.”

Chief Of Staff: “Work faster! This is for the Admiral!”

The Chief Of Staff stomped off down the passageway. Instead of getting back to work, I walked down the passageway to Central and had the watch-stander get the Chief Engineer out of bed to deal with the Chief Of Staff. After explaining the problem to the Chief Engineer, I went back to my shop and got back to work.

After a bit more than an hour, I finished the part and called [Electronics Specialist] to come get it. I carried the finished piece over to the doorway to wait for him and was surprised to find the Top Snipe — the most senior Chief Petty Officer in Engineering — sitting in a chair outside my door. For those unfamiliar with Navy ranks, Chief Petty Officers are senior non-commissioned officers (E-7 to E-9). They are the institutional memory and the backbone of the Navy, just as senior Sergeants are for the other services. Even Admirals cut Chiefs a lot of slack.

Me: “Hey, Chief! What are you doing out here?”

Chief: “Running interference for you. The Chief Of Staff tried to come hassle you about the antenna strut a couple of times after you talked to [Chief Engineer], but I sent him out to the mess deck to wait.”

Me: “You’re kidding.”

I poked my head out the door and looked. Sure enough, the Chief Of Staff was pacing back and forth in the otherwise empty mess deck, glaring down the passageway toward the shop.

Me: “Cool! Thanks for the help, Chief. Job’s done, and I’ve already called [Electronics Specialist] to come get it.”

Chief: “Not a problem. Don’t worry about any blowback from the Chief Of Staff; Command Master Chief and I will have a word with the Staff Leading Chief Petty Officer before breakfast. [Chief Engineer] says you can skip Quarters in the morning. Go ahead and sleep in until you relieve the Central watch for lunch.”

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