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Deckhand, a congressman, and two admirals.

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

When I first got the job as an Admiral's aide, the Admiral told me in the initial guidance that I would have to do a bunch of tasks, some well above my paygrade and some below my paygrade. I discussed that initial guidance here. Regardless of the task, he expected me to do it well. I also learned early the importance of confidentiality - the hard way after a trip to a barbershop, which I relate in my earlier post here.

I remember a glorious Maine summer morning when the admiral called me in his office.

"Loop, close the door," he stated.

When he said “close the door,” it meant that he wanted my undivided attention.

"If the weather holds up this week, we are having a VIP fly in for a tour this Friday. He will want to tour the base, but the base tour will be very short. After that, we’re going to put my boat in the Androscoggin River and go fishing for the day. Accompanying the VIP will be another admiral. He’s a really good friend of mine. It is important to me that this day goes very well. Any questions?"

"No sir, not really," I said.

This is a blog about leadership from the perspective of a lawyer and naval aviator. This is a story about a fishing trip, my being a deckhand for the day, a congressman and two admirals.

The plan for a fishing trip

When I was still in the Admiral's office, he gave me some more details about my role the day of the fishing evolution.

"Now, here's the catch. You're not going fishing with us, but you're going to be there. You're going drive the VIP and other admiral to the dock, and I'm going to pull up in my boat and take the VIP fishing. You will sit on the dock with the brick in case we need anything. Any questions?"

The “brick” was the big black square walkie-talkie. We did not have portable cell phones or iPhones back then.

“Yes, sir. I got it, Admiral. You want me to be a deckhand for the day. No problem. I can do that," I said.

"Good, now I need you to find some Clamato juice before Friday morning. Buy about two to three bottles, some big red cups, and we'll need a couple bags of ice. This should cover it," the Admiral stated as he slapped two twenty-dollar bills in my hand.

I had no idea what Clamato juice was. I found it at the local grocery store that evening on the aisle near the tomato juice. I learned it was tomato juice mixed with spices and dried clam broth. It tasted a lot like a seafood Bloody Mary mix. It was pretty good! I know because I got a fourth bottle of Clamato juice and had to try it.

Later in the week, that Thursday afternoon, the Admiral got confirmation that trip was going to occur. He called me into his office again.

The Congressman

“Now, Loop. Congressman Silvio Conte is a Navy veteran, a longtime friend of the Navy and a truly great American. He will be coming with Admiral Flanagan. You also need to know that the Congressman has recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We want him to have a good day.”

Congressman Silvio O. Conte was a Republican member of the House of Representatives representing the First District of Massachusetts. He had been in the Navy during World War II. After the war, he went to college and law school. He served a short period in the Massachusetts Senate and was elected to Congress in 1958. The Congressman was appointed to the House Appropriations Committee, an influential committee position he held for his entire tenure.

He was elected to sixteen terms in the House of Representatives. In addition to being a veteran, a lawyer, and a congressman, he was an avid fisherman and champion of wildlife preservation.

He was coming to Naval Air Station Brunswick with Admiral William “Bud” Flanagan, who was the one-star Navy Chief of Legislative Affairs. Admiral Flanagan also hailed from the great state of Massachusetts. The Navy selected only the most polished and smart officers to be its representative on the Hill. Flanagan was just that. He had an MBA from Harvard. He had become an admiral after nineteen years of service, which was pretty exceptional.

"Bud's going places," the Admiral told me.

When Friday morning came, it was a picture-perfect day. We met Admiral Flanigan and Congressman Conte at the aircraft when it landed on base and quickly drove them over to the headquarters building. There, the senior Navy staff gave them a short presentation. We then provided a "windshield tour" of the base. A windshield tour is a drive along a pre-designated route where buildings and points of interest are pointed out through the vehicle’s windshield.

The briefing and the tour were complete in about an hour.

Off to the river

Fishing was next! We ended the tour at the base Bachelor Officer Quarters where I got the Congressman and the admiral into their VIP rooms. I had reserved two rooms so they could change clothes there. At the BOQ, we all changed into casual civilian fishing clothes. While they did so in their VIP suites, I ran down the hall and changed in the lobby head. I changed and was waiting outside their doors before either one of them came out. Never keep an admiral waiting. The Congressman had a great fishing hat.

I then drove the Congressman and Admiral Flanagan about 30 minutes away to the predesignated dock rendezvous point. The Androscoggin River is a beautiful Maine river with clear cold, rushing water, rocky shores in some areas, and tall evergreen trees hovering over the bank. Fishing guides describe the river as being good for "trophy-size rainbows and brown trout."

The air was cool, and although the water was icy cold, the sun was shining without a cloud in the blue sky. As soon as we arrived at the dock, right on time, I could see the Admiral a couple of hundred yards away in his boat motoring towards the dock. As the boat approached the dock, I used my expert Navy seamanship skills to assist in a smooth docking and embarkation of the Congressman and Admiral Flanigan.

Fishing rods, bait, and a cooler with Clamato juice on ice were already in the boat, along with some wrapped sandwiches. Off they went down the river, disappearing around a bend.

I sat there for about an hour, fighting the urge to drift off to sleep. There was not a sound coming over the brick. Back in those days, we did not have the luxury of checking in on cell phones.

After about two hours, I saw the boat laboring back up the river against the swift current and headed towards the dock.

"Hey Mark, we're coming back for a quick break," the Admiral said over the brick.

"Roger that, sir, standing by. I have you in sight," I replied as a good aviator should affirmatively respond.

Once again, I assisted with the docking of the boat. Once secured, the Admiral handed me a small trash bags with their lunch wrappings which I swapped for another bag of ice from a cooler I kept on the dock.

Off they went having not been successful yet in their fishing, but determined to try for another couple of hours.

The storm

They were not gone for too long when a cluster of dark clouds appeared to be coming our way over the tall evergreen trees. Sure enough, in about 20 minutes, as I saw the boat racing back towards the pier, the sky opened up with a hard, cold rain. The rain drops bounced forcefully off the dock. They splashed quite gracefully off the surface of the river, changing a smooth river and a picture-perfect, cool Maine day into a rather chilly, wet, and windy day with about a twenty-degree temperature drop.

The boat was racing back through the downpour. All I could do was stand on the dock, thoroughly drenched and help secure the boat as it pulled alongside. No one had anticipated the rain, nor did we have any foul weather gear, so everybody was soaked from head to toe, including the Congressman and admirals. At this point, we decided to call it a day.

I got the Congressman and Admiral Flanagan back in the vehicle. The Admiral departed the dock to take the boat back to a boat ramp. The rest of us drove back to the base completely drenched. The ride back was less than thirty minutes. Even though the trip had been unsuccessful in catching any fish, Admiral Flanagan and the Congressman were laughing and in fine spirits.

Just getting out of the Beltway and Washington D.C. and on the Androscoggin on such a beautiful day was therapeutic!

Doing laundry

Other than the suit he had arrived in, the Congressman did not have a change of clothes or an extra set of dry “skivvies” (that is what they called them). This was simply a one-day in-and-out trip. The fishing clothes he was wearing were drenched.

As we returned to the BOQ and walked the Congressman to his room, Admiral Flanagan said, "Congressman, you go take a hot shower, but first, hand me your clothes through the door. We’ll take care of them."

That's precisely what happened. I realized that we were going to wash and dry his clothes. I remember standing next to Admiral Flanagan at the Congressman's room door. The door opened just a few inches. Out came the Congressman's hands with a ball of wet clothes, socks, skivvies, t-shirt and all! They were placed right into the hands of Admiral Flanagan.

At the time, the mere irony and humor of what was occurring made it hard for me not to laugh. Here I was, with a Navy Admiral doing the laundry of a congressman in the laundry room of the Navy Officers Quarters. Back then, the washers and dryers down the hall in the laundry room were free, so all I had to do was buy a small pack of Tide for a quarter from the front desk and give it to Admiral Flanagan.

About an hour and a half later, Admiral Flanagan delivered a neatly folded, warm, dry stack of clothes to the Congressman's room.

Congressman Conte and Admiral Flanagan left that day late in the afternoon. I knew that despite the Maine rainstorm and the lack of any fish biting, the Congressman had a great time.

The rest of the story

A few weeks later, I received a very nice, personal thank you note from Admiral Flanagan. He stated that the Congressman appreciated his one-day venture to Maine.

Admiral Bud Flanagan went on to earn three more stars and become a four-star vice admiral in the U.S. Navy. He later served as the Commander of the Atlantic Fleet and retired from the Navy in 1996.

In 2001, he was working as a civilian in New York City for Cantor Fitzgerald on 9/11. His office was on the 78th floor the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and although he was usually in his office well before 8am, he was oddly late that morning when the terrorists flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower at 846am killing 658 of his Cantor Fitzgerald colleagues.

In early 1991, Congressman Conte passed away, succumbing to the pancreatic cancer. Newspapers reported that thousands of people stood in line in below-freezing temperatures to pay respects to him. Up to one hundred members of Congress attended his funeral, including former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill and Senator Edward Kennedy, both from Massachusetts, of Irish descent, and Democrats there to eulogize their friend, a Republican, a veteran, a lawyer, and an Italian American.

Lessons Learned

Other than my wife and parents, I don't think I ever told anyone in detail about being a deckhand that day as a young Navy Lieutenant. It has been over thirty years now. The Congressman and the Admiral were able to get in and out of town on a Friday afternoon without any visibility.

The trip reiterated the importance of workplace confidentiality and more importantly, relationships. To me, it was a couple of guys from Massachusetts going fishing on a Friday afternoon at the end of a long work week. Both were incredibly dedicated public servants well deserving of a Friday afternoon break after the base briefing and tour.

The Congressman's life also reminds me of the time when there was civility and collegiality in politics, when members of Congress from both parties could work together, respect each other, and actually get things done in Washington.

Personal relationships and professional networks are very important. As a Loop, relationships and networks were critical to my success. The same is true in my success as a litigator and corporate lawyer.

My next post will talk about the importance of trusting networks and relationships and Maine lobster. I very successfully handled hundreds of pounds of lobster sales as the Brunswick Loop.

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TD Smyers
TD Smyers
Jul 16, 2022

Thanks for the pleasant story and the reflections on civility, Mark! A great read to start my Saturday morning.

Replying to

TD, sure appreciate your feedback as always. It was indeed a different and more civil time in politics and our Nation!

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