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I need a blow torch!

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

Be flexible, creative, and innovative, especially when things do not go as planned. I spent most of the night and day as an admiral’s aide planning every detail of a daily, weekly, and monthly schedule to ensure that such attention to detail resulted in the perfect execution of the Admiral’s schedule. Every minute of the day, I was thinking what are we doing now? What are we doing next? Where will be in 2, 4, or 6 hours? Where will we be tomorrow? What do I need to do now and follow up on for success tomorrow?

On any given day, I knew exactly where we would be, how I would get the Admiral there, and everyone else who would be there (including any last-minute cancellations) long before we got there. Not only did I know the names of the attendees for all meetings, but I also knew who the Admiral was going to sit next to. If there was a choice, I had requested in advance that he be seated next to his buddy admiral because I knew who in the flag mess he liked and who, well, let’s say -- he would rather not sit next to.


I meticulously planned the time we needed to leave to get to our intended destination on time. For all events, I knew if food, coffee, snacks, sandwiches, diet coke, or nothing would be served.


This type of meticulous advance planning and thinking has served me very well as a lawyer and corporate executive. A leader needs to have that kind of mindset.


Despite all this meticulous planning, things went wrong. The unexpected does and will occur. When that happened, not only did I have to remain calm under pressure, as discussed previously, but I had to be flexible, creative, and innovative with alternate action plans.


I did not have the luxury of additional time. Failure was not an option, so I had to think fast.


This is a story about a perfect plan for a visiting four-star admiral and a detail that went wrong, with an unconventional recovery option.


When the boss comes to town


On several occasions when I was in Maine as a loop, the Admiral’s boss came to pay us a short visit. He was an aviator Vice Admiral with three stars on his shoulders.

When the Admiral’s boss came, the planning and execution had to be perfect. The admiral’s boss wore more stars than my boss. He was the big boss in charge of all of Naval Aviation. He reported to an admiral with more stars than him.


Knowing and understanding an organizational chart and the chain of command was essential then and has been just as important in all my civilian jobs in the federal courthouse, the big law firm, and major corporations. You always need to know who is calling and where they are in the hierarchical org chart.


Rendering honors and military protocol


In the Navy, military protocol and appropriate rendering of honors are important, like ensuring that the three-star Vice Admiral’s pennant was flying on the base flagpole when he was “on board” the base. This was the same as being on board Navy ships. At the base headquarter facilities, the admiral’s three-star insignia would be hoisted on a side yardarm of the main flagpole as soon as he came through the base front gate when he was “on board” the base. The admiral’s pennant also flew on a yardarm attached to the front bumper of any vehicle the admiral was riding in.


Once when a four-star was coming to Naval Air Station Brunswick, I saw some anxiousness that I typically did not see in the Admiral. This was a big deal. Three and four stars are a dime a dozen in Washington DC at The Pentagon, but not too many four stars came to our sleepy little base in Maine. The Admiral wanted to make sure everything went right.


The Admiral asked me, "Now Loop, you sure you have the right four-star flag for the vehicle and the flagpole out front?"


“Yes sir, I do,” I said.


"And it's very important that his pennant only flies on the vehicle when the admiral’s in it,” he stated.


“Of course, Admiral," I said.


“And you have coordinated his arrival times with the base quarterdeck, so they know when he will be landing and when to strike his pennant at the headquarters?”


“Yes sir, Admiral,” I repeated.


The four-star was coming to visit in the middle of winter. Having been raised in the south most of my life, Brunswick, Maine, could be very cold in the winter.


Freezing rain, snow, and ice


The evening before the four-star was flying in, there was some freezing rain and precipitation most of the night. Temperatures were predicted to drop further that morning due to an approaching low-pressure system and winter storm.


Knowing the four stars' arrival time of zero seven thirty, I was awake at "zero dark thirty" in the morning. It was Maine cold. The sidewalk outside my rented two-bedroom house was covered in a sheet of ice and frozen snow. Icicles hung from the roof of the gutter over my front door. The branches of the pine trees hung low and sparkled due to the ice accumulation. I got in my car and slowly drove to the base to get the official Navy vehicle warmed up and ready. I would drive that car with the Admiral and the visiting four star.

Unlike my personal car that had been in my single garage overnight, the white Navy four door sedan was parked outside on the Navy base. It was a white, boxy, four door Chrysler K car with a blue fake leather interior and a large, clunky first-generation Motorola cellular phone mounted on the center front deck. In the late 80s, Chrysler was on the verge of failing as a major American automobile manufacturer; so, the politicians decided to save Chrysler by buying hundreds of K cars to be used by the military. That said, it was an ugly, junky car that rattled a lot.


The K car was covered in a thick layer of ruffled ice and snow. The doors were frozen shut. After knocking the ice off the driver’s door, I got in the car and turned on the ignition. The car struggled to start, but eventually turned over with a roar and a plume of white exhaust emitting from the back.


I turned the heater and defrosters on high. Then, I got back out and continued clearing the snow and ice off the vehicle by hand with a plastic scraper. Even with black gloves on, my hands were red and cold.


I had pre-positioned the fully fueled car near the arrival location of the vice admiral’s plane. I also had the four-star pennant for the vehicle in my briefcase. Having cleared most of the snow and ice off the front windshield, I was prepared to sit in the car for at least an hour before the big admiral’s arrival.

As the car warmed up, the remnants of the ice began to slide off the windshields. I retrieved the four-star flag attached to the silver chrome rod from my briefcase and slid out of the car. Carefully I began making my way to the front of the vehicle on the ice-covered pavement so I could insert the chrome pole into the yardarm post attached to the car's front bumper.


It was a simple contraption. Just a flag on a medal rod that was slid down into a hollow metal post with a small screw at the bottom of the post to lock the rod in place securely.


It was still fairly dark, with some freezing drizzle coming down. When I got to the front bumper, my first attempt to slide the rod into the hollow mast was met with confusion. The pole would not slide in the hollow space in the mast arm. It was more confusing because as a good loop, I had preflighted the same yardarm attachment the day before, and it had slid down easily in the yardarm mast.


What had happened in the past ten hours that now prevented this from working? I looked at my watch and realized the four-star was approximately forty-five minutes out. I knew the Admiral would be meeting me at the vehicle in about thirty minutes. Concern set in because not having a four-star pennant flying on the car when we met the Vice Admiral would be embarrassing and perhaps catastrophic, if not career-ending for me. I desperately tried to jam it in a couple more times without success. I thought: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? Had the metal contracted in the cold?


And then, it finally dawned on me. Overnight, the hollow metal yardarm mast had filled up with freezing rain. The freezing rain had turned into solid ice. I tried to bend the rod back and forth gently to crack the ice. Nothing. Frozen solid. Stiff as can be. Knowing it was cold and brittle with an outside air temp of 25 degrees, I stopped doing that. I was not in the position for the metal mast to snap off the car.


I need a heat source


Here's where flexibility, creativity, and innovation come in. It was time to think out of the box! If I only had a lighter, I thought, perhaps I could heat the rod. But no way that would work because it would just take too long, but a larger heat source indeed might.

Like a blowtorch, I needed a hand-held gas blowtorch!


I immediately opened up my brain, which I always carried with me as I discussed here, to my page of base phone numbers. I found and dialed the phone number of the 24-hour hotline for the base’s Public Works Department. The Public Works Department on a Navy base is the facilities management department that handles maintenance on all the military buildings and the support vehicles. They had a hotline for on-base utility and maintenance emergencies. I had used the number before to call in a maintenance issue at the Admiral's quarters.


This was an emergency, so I used the clunky cell phone and dialed the 24-hour number. Thank goodness someone answered the phone.


“NAS Brunswick Public Works, Petty Officer Campos, how may I help you, sir or ma’am?” the voice said.


This was a time when I did not hesitate to use the Admiral’s stars.


“Good morning, Petty Officer Campos. This is Lieutenant Fava. I am the flag aide to the Admiral. The Admiral needs a handheld blow torch. I assume you have one there and are qualified to use it?” I asked.


“Well, of course we do sir, when does the Admiral need it?” he said.


"Right now. He needs it right now. I'm on my way over to your building. I'll be there in 5 minutes. Please meet me outside at the official Navy white vehicle with the blowtorch lit and ready to go."


While I'm sure the young Sailor on duty answering the call thought I was crazy, he simply stated, "Sir, yes sir, I'll see you there shortly. I will be outside to meet you with a blowtorch." That's just one more thing I loved about the Navy - the respect and obedience to a lawful order given to an officer by a trusting Sailor!


As I glanced at my watch, I was down to about 15 minutes before I had to meet the Admiral with the vehicle. When I pulled up to the Public Works building, Petty Officer Campos was outside the door in his black Navy peacoat and white dixie cup cover, standing with a lit gas hand-held blowtorch.


I explained that we needed to heat the mast arm carefully. Without hesitation, the Sailor began performing said operation in a manner that appeared to me like he had done this hundreds of times before—gently sweeping the blowtorch up and down the mast yardarm of the vehicle a few inches away so as not to char the silver chrome enamel. In a matter of seconds, the mast arm started to steam and sizzle from the top until water was bubbling and boiling out of the yardarm.


I jammed the rod with the unfurled four-star pennant into the yardarm. I tightened the base screw to hold the pennant mast pole in place.


I then thanked Petty Officer Campos and shook his hand. I drove off, arriving back at the rendezvous point to meet the Admiral within minutes of his showing up. We then greeted the Vice Admiral upon arrival. I unfurled the pennant when we pulled up to his aircraft and the watch at the base quarterdeck hauled up his pennant at the headquarters building. He had come without his aide, and I had reassured his loop, who's aiguilette had three gold and dark blue spiral loops as opposed to my two loops, that I would take care of his boss.


Success


The rest of the day went off without a hitch. All the details of the visit fell in place nicely. It was a day of flawless execution due to hours of advance coordination and planning and thinking outside of the box.


“Great job today, Loop. The Vice’s aide told me you were one of the best loops he has ever worked with, and he works with a lot of them! Thank you,” the Admiral stated at the end of the twelve-hour day. That was surely the loop network at work that I discussed in my previous post. The Vice's loop was putting in a good word for me as I did take care of his boss. If I had not -- and something had gone wrong, the four star probably would have told his aide, and it would have been the aide's fault.


It was late in the afternoon and already getting dark when the four-star left us. “You’ve worked half day today, so take the rest of the day off,” the Admiral said to me with a loud chuckle.


“Thank you, Admiral. See you tomorrow!”


Good days were great days! They were long, but so satisfying when all went as planned, and failure was avoided.


Always say thank you


Needless to say, Petty Officer Third Class Campos got a personal thank you note on the Admiral’s letterhead the following week. I told the Admiral why we needed to send him one, and he laughed. He said, "That's why I hired you, shipmate!"


I drafted the letter to Campos. It went something like this:


Dear Petty Officer Campos,


Thank you very much for your recent assistance in helping prepare the official Navy vehicle for the arrival of Vice Admiral Johnson. Your flexibility and expertise allowed for the start of an exceptionally important visit to me.


You are the epitome of the "can-do" Sailor who makes the United States Navy the best Navy in the world. Thank you again for a job exceptionally well done, shipmate!


Respectfully,


C.E. Johnson, III


Lessons Learned


Flexibility, creativity, and innovation saved me more than once. Think out of the box. On this cold Maine day, that ability that I had learned as an aviator in the P-3 and the unquestioning help of a dedicated Sailor made the start of the day a success.


Don’t let the roadblocks get in the way. Find a way and carry on with the plan!


Always be thinking ahead.

It costs nothing to say thank you or tell someone they have done a good job. Praise when warranted is great for morale. Always recognize, praise, and thank those who help you and whose actions are integral to your success. Petty Officer Campos helped me without question or any push back. He was a team player!


It's important to be a team player. If you want to be successful, in addition to planning and thinking ahead, you have to be a team player and not a blocking diode. My next post will discuss a method that I have used to be a team player in the Navy and in my civilian profession.


Surround yourself with exceptionally talented people. Demand loyalty and delegate the hard work to them, but at every opportunity, give them all the credit for success. And say thank you!



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1 Comment


TD Smyers
TD Smyers
Aug 07, 2022

Superb example of creative problem solving and the two-way nature of loyalty! Thanks for sharing, Mark! You were really a good Loop, man!

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