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Family trips

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

Happy Veterans Day!

One of the many rules as an Admiral’s Aide, and a primary reason for so much focus on “attention to detail,” was that I was never to embarrass the Admiral. Never. That meant if I needed to get direct with someone or increase the volume and amplitude of the conversation, it was best not to do so in his presence.

This is close to the last post on the series of the lessons I learned as an Admiral’s Aide over 30 years ago. I have used these lessons in both my military and civilian careers. Learning from a great leader in a demanding job at the beginning of my career has served me very well for over 30 years.

This is a story about family trips with the admiral, making sure not to embarrass him, and again keeping my cool by being nice to others when things were not going well.

Don't embarrass the boss and try not to make a scene

In addition to not embarrassing the boss, I learned as a corollary that you should not lose your temper when dealing with other people. I learned this in so many daily interactions and trips that I took with the Admiral. That rule has stuck with me for many years, but admittedly it was then -- and is now -- one of the most challenging rules for me to follow, especially when things are not going as planned.

I made many trips with the Admiral when I was his sole traveling companion. There were also some trips as a Loop when I was included with the Admiral's family: A family trip when I was not really part of the family.

When his family was traveling with him for an official military event, I would ensure we complied with the Navy’s ethical rules and regulations requiring the Admiral to pay for his family expenses. Sometimes the travel would be solely with the Admiral and his gracious wife, Janie, whom he called his “number one shipmate.” On other occasions, the trips included his entire family with his two grown children accompanying us.

On family trips, the Admiral was always incredibly kind. He would start the journey by saying: "Mark, we're so glad you could come with us on this trip. Just consider yourself part of the family."

The Admiral called me “Mark” when I was in trouble or with his family. I really did not have a choice as to whether I was going on the family trip if official duties were involved, but nonetheless, I appreciated the kind words.

Regardless of being in the presence of family or not, whenever I went anywhere with him, it was still work. It was a lot more work with his family! The stress level was high because not only was I performing for the Admiral, but I was also executing a detailed schedule for his wife and his children.

Even though I was considered part of the family, I needed to remain calm even when failure seemed imminent, as I have discussed before. It was also important never to embarrass the admiral, especially in front of this family.

Door County, Wisconsin

One of my most memorable “all in the family” trips was to beautiful Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, in August of 1990. Sturgeon Bay is located in Door County in the middle of the 70-mile-long peninsula on the far east side of Wisconsin.

We were headed there because the Admiral’s wife Janie had been chosen to christen a new Navy Minesweeper of the Avenger Class built by Peterson Building Inc or “PBI.” PBI was an incredible American success story as a family-owned, multi-generational ship-building company.

Although it has since closed, at the height of its business, PBI had over 1000 employees, and constructed over 800 ships for 13 countries. In the early 90s, it was best known for its expertise in building beautiful wooden hull minesweepers with minimal metal to maximize their counter-mine capability.

The Sturgeon Bay trip included the whole family, the Admiral, Janie, and their two older children, son JD and daughter Sandy with her husband.

Door County in August was much like Maine. Crisp and chilly at night and cool, clear blue skies during the day.

Great fish

The night before the ship’s christening, we went to a traditional Door County fish boil. There, the cooks boiled freshly caught Lake Michigan whitefish to perfection in a giant black kettle over a blazing outdoor fire. The fish boil was finished off with a large burst of fire caused by the cook throwing some kerosene on the fire and making the kettle boil over. The cool air, large fire, fresh fish, and a cold beer made for an enjoyable evening.

The next day, the ship’s christening was quite memorable, with the minesweeper sliding sideways off a huge wooden platform on the pier and rocking back and forth violently a few times before stabilizing in the water. The Admiral's children rode inside the ship's bridge as it was tossed about into the water, which turned out to be quite a violent affair, knocking them off their feet and resulting in some minor injuries.

I was glad I had stayed ashore with the boss and Janie.

On that trip, everything went off without a hitch. It did seem somewhat like I was part of the family as there were no problems necessitating me being more of an aide than part of the family.

Off to the International Tattoo

We also went from Brunswick, Maine to Halifax, Canada, for the Admiral and his wife to be official guests at the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo. The Tattoo was a brilliant display of ceremonial military marching, drums, and bagpipes in a giant indoor coliseum. If you love a military parade and bagpipes, the Tattoo was the place to be.

For that trip, it was just me, the Admiral, and Janie. We took the Scotia Prince ferry to Halifax.

I was part of the family on that trip, also. I drove the car, loaded the luggage, ensured we had the ferry tickets, confirmed the rooms were adequate, made the dining reservations, and ate meals on board with them.

That was my job. I made sure it was all done right.

After a long day, I finally was able to retire to a small stateroom for a while with a single porthole looking out onto the Atlantic Ocean. It was too cold to go out on the deck, but the porthole view of the ocean was good for me. To this day, if I have a hotel with a lake or ocean view or one overlooking an airport runway, it's a good trip!

International travel for a Loop can be a challenge. There can be language barriers and protocol differences, especially when dealing with a foreign military. As a Navy Loop, my colleagues in the other US services knew what the Loop and the stars meant.

That might not be as obvious to a foreign military.

On this particular trip to Halifax, once we got off the ferry, I drove them to the nearby military base to check into our pre-arranged and confirmed VIP flag officer accommodations.

It was cold and getting dark when we arrived at the Canadian quarters. We were all eager to get to our rooms - me, the admiral -- and his wife, Janie.

We would like to check in please

We traveled in civilian clothes, so there were no visible stars. We arrived to check in at the front desk of a sleepy military quarters. It looked somewhat dated. A young disheveled Canadian sailor, not too impressed with our presence, was behind the desk to check us in.

I smiled at him, mentioned that we were there for International Tattoo, and provided our names for check-in. As we began some small talk at the check-in counter, the Canadian sailor asked me our names again. He repeatedly typed into the computer, making inquisitive looks that only became more inquisitive as the seconds passed.

He finally looked up and said, "I'm very sorry, Lieutenant, we do not have rooms for you."

Now was the time for me to remain calm when failure seemed imminent and especially not to embarrass the Admiral, standing inches away from me with Janie.

“Do you have your confirmation numbers?” he asked. I gave them to him.

“There must be some mistake. These are not valid numbers,” he replied. Like a Seinfeld episode, the sailor stated, “Very sorry, sir. No valid confirmation numbers, no rooms, and we are full. So very sorry. You know we do have Tattoo this week.”

Not good. Things had the potential to get heated now. I looked at the Admiral. “Sir, if you and Mrs. Johnson wouldn’t mind taking a seat over there, I will take care of this,” I said, pointing to a couple of brown lounge chairs in the worn-down lobby.

Don’t embarrass the boss, especially when he is with his wife. While I had no intention of making an international scene, I knew it was time to increase the amplitude of the conversation. That needed to be done “VFR directly.” For the non-aviators, that’s flying the plane using Visual Flight Rules, point to point, using the shortest distance possible, directly to a destination. Quickest and most efficient means of getting to the target.

It also needed to be accomplished with neither the Admiral nor Janie within ear-shod of the upcoming debate and potential collateral damage.

As they walked away, I heard Janie say, "Clary, what are we going to do? There's no other place with rooms around here, and we have to get a room. I don’t know about you, but I’m really tired."

Tell me your name again, please

“Tell me your name again?" I said to the somewhat disheveled sailor much in need of a shave and haircut.

“Petty Officer Simpson,” he stated, recognizing that the conversation was getting ready to take a different turn.

“OK, Petty Officer Simpson, I need to talk to the senior officer on duty at the base right now. I have a confirmation number, and I need a room fit for an Admiral and his wife. You have not been able to help me, so perhaps the senior officer on duty officer can."

I continued, "Admiral Johnson and his wife are special guests of your Admiral Jeremiah and are here for tomorrow's International Tattoo show."

"I'm so very sorry, sir. It is simply because we do have the International Tattoo that we have no rooms," he tried one last time.

"Wrong answer. Please get the senior duty officer on the line now if you cannot give me a room now."

He looked a little upset, but quickly and somewhat frantically began dialing a number on the registration desk telephone.

To his great credit, the Admiral stayed away in the lounge area keeping Janie occupied and well knowing what I was doing.

Having traveled worldwide and checked into many military quarters and civilian hotels, I know there is almost always an extra room --or two somewhere. Don't ever take the excuse that there aren’t any available rooms unless you have demanded a room from the most senior person at the establishment.

As I continued to push for the room, I spoke with the base's senior duty officer, explaining the slight confusion and that “there must be a mistake.” After what seemed like an eternity of being put on hold, but was probably only several minutes, the duty officer became very apologetic and asked me to put the young Canadian sailor back on the phone.

As I had expected, the local Canadian Admiral, the most senior ranking officer at this base, had a private suite available for his guests. Since we clearly fit that description, or at least we did now, the officer on the phone directed the Canadian sailor to check us into the Admiral’s suite.

There was a tremendous amount of apologizing. At that point, I was very gracious and thankful. Always be gracious when you get your way or a win.

I got the room keys and walked them over to the Johnsons, apologizing for the confusion and delay. I got their luggage from the car after I got them to the room. It was a very nice flag suite.

As for me, I got a rather spartan room with a small single bed tightly covered with clean white sheets and a gray wool blanket. The heater would not turn off.

I didn’t care. I was exhausted, and it was never about me. I reviewed tomorrow’s schedule and fell asleep within seconds.

Sure appreciate your gracious hosting!

Before we left, I made sure to make a note of the names of the senior duty officer and the confused front desk check-in clerk in my handheld "brain" so I could write them both personal thank-you letters from the Admiral when we returned to Maine.

I always enjoyed writing these letters.

That letter to the front desk sailor, with a copy sent to the Canadian Admiral, went something like this:

Dear Petty Officer Simpson,

Thank you for the wonderful reception and hospitality you provided us during our recent stay there for the International Tattoo.

My wife Janie and I surely enjoyed the beautiful room. It was the perfect touch to such an amazing trip.

Thank you again for a job well done!

Kind regards, Admiral Johnson.

Lessons Learned

From the family trips, I made sure I never embarrassed the Admiral in front of his family. I mean, he was an Admiral, and I was there to take care of the details and fix any messes behind the scenes. People were supposed to like him.

While at times I had to get firm and direct with others, I learned that cussing, yelling or screaming and creating a scene was never the best path forward.

In the past few months, I have witnessed that type of behavior in others in my travels, especially as covid has eased up and the airports and airplanes are getting packed.

Recently I was in line behind a man yelling at the luggage special services desk agent in the Atlanta Airport because his connecting flight had been cancelled due a significant day of weather, but his bag was lost. Raising and waving his hands, theatrically turning around to those in line behind him as if looking for an audience's affirmation and having no clue that those to whom he was looking only wanted him to shut up and move on. Asking her what "the hell" he was supposed to do because he had a wedding to go to tomorrow. Demanding to speak to the manager.

And the agent kept her cool, repeatedly apologized, and said there was nothing she could do or tell him differently other than she had put in a location request for the bag.

When he finally moved on and I got to the desk because my connection home had been cancelled also, I told her I was a former Delta employee. I apologized for his conduct.

I was hoping to get my bag also located and brought up from the bowels of the ATL airport as it was clear I was spending the night in ATL.

I told the agent I knew how tough her job was, especially on a day like that day. She thanked me, told me the same thing she had told the jerk, that she had put in a request and would text me when and if the bag was located.

"We're going to do everything we can, Mr. Fava, to find you bag. Thank you for your patience and being a medallion member."

I went and got something to eat in the terminal and received a text 45 minutes later that my bag was going to be on the carousel. When I retrieved it, I made sure to walk back by the counter, still with a long line, waive to the agent and mouth "thank you."

She smiled and gave me a thumbs up.

Not sure if by chance or purpose, the rude man was still nearby, walking in circles, yelling on his cell phone, looking at his watch and stewing. His bag had not yet been located.

Don't make a scene. Leadership by yelling and screaming is not leadership at all. No one likes a screamer.

Next, I will discuss going to the auto hobby shop with the Admiral on Saturdays. That felt more like family than family trips.

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