I once turned a Navy ship into my own private boom box. This was my only real act of insubordination in uniform.
We’d played music many times before, on both deployments, but always with the Commanding Officer’s go-ahead. Usually this meant “Eye of the Tiger” (appropriate, as the USS Princeton had a longstanding association with the Princeton Tigers, and all things orange and black) or “Born in the U.S.A.” as a breakaway song. I heard of Academy classmates on other ships playing reveille songs – Officer of the Deck’s choice; an added incentive to qualify as OOD, as if not having to stand OOD Under Instruction wasn’t incentive enough – but not on Princeton.
The breakaway song itself was an odd tradition. Once every few days we would pull alongside the oiler, or the aircraft carrier, and take on fuel, several tens of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel. Both ships steaming ahead (even though we used gas turbine engines for propulsion we still called it steaming) on the same course, thirteen knots, about 150 feet apart, lines and hoses snaking from the supply ship to the receiving ship…There were entire books of Naval Regulations regarding replenishment-at-sea, huge binders of documents and lessons learned, but I don’t think breakaway songs are covered. By the time we’re done receiving our allotment of fuel – and food, and ammunition, and whatever else we might need – our routine was to signal for an emergency breakaway, whether the situation warranted an emergency or not. They figured it was good practice in case we had to do it for real someday. Both crews would expedite de-rigging the hoses and, as soon as the all-clear was given, we’d blast up to our maximum speed, outpace the oiler and scream ahead, execute an exciting turn, all the while blasting the approved song over the ship’s general announcing system, the 1MC.
Ideally you’d want a song that jumps right into something exciting: a drum solo, guitar riff, something loud and fast. Practically speaking, our Captain was kind of a square and went with the safe Springsteen hit. Very patriotic. By the third time hearing it we’d grown bored of it; after ten times it was annoying; after the umpteenth time it was just kind of sad. We changed it up for a week or two and played Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” but even that got old after awhile.
Reveille songs were right out. The ship’s bell and the bosun’s pipe was enough to wake people up, and I don’t think the Captain thought very highly of the concept of doing what was popular or faddish.
Our last day at sea of our second deployment in less than a year, coming back in to San Diego, I was the OOD. “I had the deck.” That’s still a thing we say. It means I was in charge of the bridge crew, the navigation, and the safety of the ship. The Chief Engineer was down below in the Combat Information Center as the Tactical Action Officer; he was senior to me, but I was still responsible for waking up the ship. At watch section turnover four hours prior – about 1:30 in the morning, or 0130 onboard, a terrible time for anyone to just be waking up – the CHENG had discussed the idea of doing a reveille song. For the last day. Of our second deployment. Because why not?
Now, at a few minutes to 0600, we’ve got the gear to plug an iPod into the 1MC. It never struck me as odd that for a practice so widely employed there wasn’t something more standard. A couple of techs had rigged some wiring to make it work, and that was that. I had the iPod cued and ready to go, and part of me is sad – all these years later – that I didn’t stop to appreciate the fact that I was about to violate our Captain’s orders. I would still have done it, but I wish I’d taken the time to savor it a little more.
Carry on my wayward son.
There’ll be peace when you are done.
Lay your weary head to rest.
Don’t you cry no more.
It took all of fifteen seconds – just when the music starts getting good – for the Executive Officer to call up. The man was second in command but probably would never be in command, based on his own career path, and the fact he reminded people of James Cagney’s character from Mister Roberts. He was frantic, wondering why and how music was playing, and turn it off, damn it, the Captain hadn’t approved. We did turn it off – a little slowly – and then the Captain called up, still groggy with sleep. He asked if there’d been music playing, and I wasn’t sure if it was his usual way of asking a question he already knew the answer to (an infuriating practice until we figured out that was his preferred method of “training” junior officers) or if he was actually still asleep. I told him yes, sir, there’d been music playing, sir, but now it was off.
Later he took me out to the bridge wing and, to his credit, didn’t chew me out. He asked why I’d decided to turn the ship into my own personal boom box (I spent my time not telling him that no one really used boom boxes anymore) and told me if I ever commanded a ship I could do as I saw fit. I already knew I wasn’t on the path to command, not because of this incident but because I had no desire to pursue it, but nodded anyway.
Years later I was the Officer in Charge of the Navy’s Mobile At-Sea Sensor, a barge with advanced equipment onboard to monitor missile tests. It wasn’t quite command at sea, but I did get to play songs for reveille, because I wanted to.
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