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A trip to a ship and a Navy Chief!

Updated: Oct 30, 2022

Success as an Admiral’s Aide depends on many things, but the most important aspect is knowing every detail about where you are going before you get there. Being prepared. Studying in advance and planning for every single move.

You cannot get lost. You cannot make a wrong turn. You cannot arrive at the wrong conference room. You cannot be at the right place at the wrong time. Even worse, you cannot be at the wrong place at the right time.

You should never stop to ask someone for directions along the way unless absolutely necessary. That’s embarrassing. When going places, the Admiral depends on the Aide and follows the Aide’s directional lead. The Admiral is walking quickly, either right beside you or one step behind you. He doesn’t want to be late and prefers not to be too early. He surely does not want to appear to be lost.

Timing is critical to your daily success.

Admirals will also want to know in advance where they are going, who will be at the meeting or event, and who will not. They will need to be briefed on the seating arrangement including who they will sit next to. They need to be prebriefed on the subject matter of a meeting, and any decision they might be asked to make at that meeting. There should never be any surprises. They are smart and need to look smart.

This is a blog about leadership and professional success. This is a story about a visit to a Navy ship and a Navy Chief. Much like U.S. Marines, you can always depend on a Navy Chief!

The ship

Probably the only thing worse than navigating to a meeting in the Pentagon for a young naval aviator loop is having to visit a real Navy combatant ship. A junior naval aviator in a land-based aircraft might have never spent any quality time underway on a ship.

I was a Naval Flight Officer for a land-based, submarine hunting P-3 aircraft for my first tour of duty. I had seen a lot of Navy ships in the open ocean flying by them at 300 feet and 250 knots. My actual sea time was limited to a couple of weeks as a college midshipman on the USS Nassau (LHA-4) steaming on station in circles with a couple hundred embarked Marines off the coast of Beirut in 1984 and one week as a midshipman tied up in port in Norfolk on the USS Merrimack, (AO-179), an oiler back in 1983. Both are decommissioned now.

On the Merrimack, as a rising third-class midshipman (the summer in between my freshman and sophomore year), I slept a lot, painted things gray, had plenty of soft vanilla ice cream and cold chocolate milk in the galley, and swept the decks. On the Nassau as a rising first class midshipman (the summer between my junior and senior year), I stood a lot watches on the ship's bridge in the middle of the night and decided I would rather stand watch on the bridge any time than down in the sweltering and loud engine room. I also started my lifelong coffee addiction when a chief quartermaster handed me a cup of black coffee at 0345 on the bridge one morning when he saw me falling asleep standing up and said: "Here, drink this, midshipman!"

Navigating the bowels of a real Navy warship can be hazardous duty for a young aviator Loop. There are gangways, bulkheads, berthing areas, galleys, passageways, a stern, a starboard, a port, a fo'c'sle, ladders, decks, “men working aloft,” “sweepers manning brooms,” a bow, a centerline, hatches, quarters, general quarters, pad eyes, cleats, an ensign flying, heads, an engine room, a quarterdeck, a bridge, an officer's wardroom, an enlisted galley, a chief’s mess, a combat information center -- and if you were lucky, a flight deck!

Meetings on board Navy ships required significant preparation. To get to the right place at the right time on board a ship, I would always request an escort because it was unlikely that I would have enough time to do proper advance work or a reconnaissance visit. The risk of failure was pretty high.

Brown Shoes and Black Shoes

I was a "brown shoe." As a naval aviator, when wearing my khaki uniform, I got to wear brown uniform shoes and was issued a cool leather flight jacket. The officers who qualified to drive and lead Navy warships are Surface Warfare Officers, or "SWOs." We also called them "black shoes" or just "shoes" for short. They wore black uniform shoes with their khaki uniform. They were not issued flight jackets. They were a tough group. After my four weeks on the USS Nassau during my summer as a rising ROTC senior, I knew I could never be a shoe. They are very smart, but they worked way too hard and got no sleep.

There was and still is a cultural difference in the Navy between "black shoes" and "brown shoes." The officer's wardroom for aviators was fairly congenial. We laughed and played jokes on each other and were always at the Officer's Club for Happy Hour by 1600 on Friday afternoon after perhaps slipping away to play a round of golf. As aviators, there was not a significant divide between a junior officer ensign or lieutenant junior grade and a mid-grade lieutenant commander, who was typically a Department Head.

Back then, the black shoes were not nearly as much fun. In fact, some of them were just outright mean and "screamers." For shoes, there was a major divide between junior officers and those who had made it to a Department Head tour. We used to say SWOs ate their young for breakfast after making them stand a 24-hour watch! I am confident my colleagues who were SWOs felt the same as they told me some incredible stories about shipboard life as junior officers.

A visit with the Black Shoes

On one fine Navy day, we were to visit a small destroyer in Norfolk, Virginia. I had been on the job a while and felt pretty nautical and salty by then. I was confident that I could navigate the ship without an escort, simply using a diagram of the ship’s deck and some good verbal directions. Perhaps a bit of complacency had set in. I have discussed how complacency is never good in a previous blog.

We flew from Brunswick, Maine to Norfolk, arriving at the Norfolk air station on base on time. We had an official white Navy vehicle waiting for us. I drove over to the ship’s berthing area. I pulled up to our reserved parking spot on the pier alongside the ship. I nodded to the spotter on the ship’s quarterdeck as we hustled out of the car towards the gangway to board the ship.

As we boarded the ship, the Admiral was rendered the appropriate military honors over the ship’s loudspeaker system, the 1MC. Four bells. Ding, Ding . . . , Ding, Ding. “Commander, Patrol Wing Atlantic Arriving,” accompanied by the distinguished and beautiful high-pitched whistle sound of the bosun’s pipe. At the same time, the Admiral’s flag was hauled up on the ship’s yardarm. We rendered a salute to the colors and requested permission to come aboard.

It was a small ship and short meeting, so to keep it low-key, I had declined the offer for an escort to meet us at the quarterdeck. Overly confident, I had the ship’s diagram and good directions.

“The wardroom is pretty easy to find, Lieutenant Fava,” the “black shoe” Executive Officer of the ship had assured me before the visit. I told the XO I could get there from the quarterdeck and would just meet him and the CO in the officers' wardroom.

Once on board and into the first hatch, down the passageway, up left, jog right, another dogleg left, and we would be right at the officers’ wardroom - the meeting place.

Field Day and Popeye

We were well on our way, headed to the officers’ wardroom, when I was stopped cold in my tracks as I rounded a corner on the planned route of travel. I was confronted with large x’s of crisscrossing, standard-issue, regular brown masking running across the passageway. that was secured to the bulkheads on either side with a Sharpie handwritten sign on a plain piece of 8 x 11 white copy paper that read: “SECURED for Field Day.”

I glanced down the passageway and saw a Popeye-looking sailor in standard Navy bell-bottom blue dungarees and a yellowing white crew neck T-shirt. He was laboring away left and right, left and right with a buffer machine and a spray bottle, waxing the deck for the field day evolution. Field day is short for an intense cleanup evolution. The standard navy blue-tile deck was beaming. Shiny and smooth as glass. It was still slightly wet in some areas.

Popeye hesitated for a second. He broke his buffer rhythm briefly and gave me the eye as I gazed past the brown masking tape.

“Don’t even think about it,” his look told me. He had a job to do. He was not happy about it. And he could care less if we wanted to get through the passageway. He looked back down to the deck and then continued with his waxing. For this junior sailor, waxing the deck was slightly better than cleaning the heads or scraping paint on a Navy ship.

He wasn’t too interested in rendering the Admiral or me any greetings or honors.

I wasn’t going to get past the tape blocking the only route I knew to get to the officers’ wardroom. And I wasn’t going to try. To do so would have been embarrassing to the Admiral and an excellent story for Popeye to tell his shipmates later.

About face

Remain cool under pressure. No problem, I thought. We did an about-face, and I started backtracking.

Following so closely behind me that I could almost feel his breathing, the Admiral muttered,

“You know where you are going, Loop?”

“Yes, sir," I said.

That was the truth. I knew where we were going -- to the officers’ wardroom. Now, if he had asked, “Do you know how to get there, right now?” perhaps I would have been obligated to answer differently!

I had two options at this point. Option One. Try to navigate by directional guessing. I should be able to figure it out since it was a small boy. I could do this I thought. I had flawlessly navigated a P-3 aircraft around the world, tracking Soviet submarines!

Option Two, grab the first able-bodied person and tactfully ask for help. I glanced at my watch. I had 5 minutes to get to the wardroom. Being late is not good. It would have to be Option Two.

As luck would have it, a real salty-looking Navy Chief was walking by. He was dead in front of me in his khaki uniform. He had an impressive rack of ribbons on his chest signifying his military awards and decorations. I quickly read his nametag.

“Good morning, Chief Johns, the Admiral is headed to the wardroom. Would you mind leading the way for us?”

The Admiral continued to breathe down my neck, one-half step behind me. Starring at the Chief, I rolled my eyes back and up towards the Admiral with an ever so slight nod towards the boss behind me.

“Aye, aye, sir! Follow me,” the Chief said without a second of hesitation.

“Good morning, Admiral, glad to have you on board, sir!” he said.

Off we went down several passageways and around multiple corners to the door of the officer’s wardroom.

As we entered each new passageway, my new best friend Chief Johns would bark out: “Attention on deck!” That is the traditional Navy announcement that a very senior officer was coming forward into the space.

Hearing that, all the visible sailors, and even some not so visible, would snap to attention and pop out of the way. Those walking in the passageway would smartly pivot sideways with their backs up tightly against the bulkhead so we could proceed briskly by.

Did I tell you I loved Navy Chiefs? Just like U.S. Marines, the Chief in the Navy as the senior enlisted sailor holds a special place in Naval history and the day-to-day success of the organization. They are the backbone of the Navy. The ones who get it done!

When I was commissioned as an officer by my father in 1985, who was then a Navy Captain, he told me: “Son, you will do well if you always listen to your Chiefs and take care of your Sailors.”

Chief Johns led us right to the wardroom hatch in under four minutes, pushed the door open, stepped aside, and said: “Have a great day, Admiral.” We had arrived on time.

“Thank you, Chief. You, too,” the Admiral said.

“Thanks, Chief,” I said.

“Of course, ‘L Tee’! Anything for the Admiral. Have a fine Navy day!” And, off he went.

Lessons Learned

As a leader, it is important to be prepared. Always know where you are going before you get there. Be prepared for meetings. As a lawyer, I always went to the accident scene when handling an accident case. I always went to the courtroom before a big Motion hearing or trial.

As a corporate executive, I still do the same. Know the meeting room or boardroom where you will be making a presentation. Know how to get there, where you will sit or stand and who else is attending the meeting. If you want to be a leader and an executive, you have to demonstrate executive presence. When things go wrong, pivot quickly and do not grimace. Keep going. Ask for help if necessary.

My wife and I raised three beautiful daughters, all of whom danced for years. Tap, jazz, modern, hip-hop, classical, and pointe ballet. I was a Dance Dad. Hundreds of classes and many recitals, and hundreds of dollars!

Before every major performance or end-of-year recital, we gave them the recital advice: "If you mess up, smile, and keep going. Remember, you are smart and beautiful. Recovery and composure are key. Unlike your Mom and Dad, most people in the audience will not even know you made a mistake. Just keep going!"

On this trip and throughout my 30 years in the Navy, Navy Chiefs were always full of wisdom and most willing to help a Naval officer with the right attitude. Many years after this trip, I had the benefit of a Master Chief and an entire "goat locker" full of incredibly wise, dedicated and hard-working Chiefs when I was a squadron Commanding Officer. On my aircrew of twelve in the P-3, I flew with two incredibly talented Chiefs who could find a submarine in waters anywhere in the world.

Thank you, Chief Johns. My dad was right: Listen to the Chiefs and Take care of your Sailors!”

My next post will discuss one of the most memorable days during my job as a Loop when I was not in uniform and wearing the loop. It involved a member of Congress and a fishing trip on the Androscoggin River in Maine.

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