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January 23, 2014

Friendly Fire

The following account is intentionally vague, even though the only person in it who might be offended is past caring.

In 1976, I re-enlisted in the USN for a second four year period. I was sent back to DINFOS (the Defense Information School) at Fort Benjamin Harrison for an advanced course in broadcast journalism prior to be assigned to an AFRTS station on an aircraft carrier.

Over the course of the next four years, I managed to get myself onto several enemies lists including, and especially the Captain's. The ship's first captain was fine, but his replacement and I did not see eye-to-eye on many issues. Foremost among the disagreements were those on censorship of the ship's newspaper. He insisted and I resisted.

The first thing that you need to understand is that, in addition to a monthly magazine, 3 24-hour radio stations, 2 television stations and the newscasts for all of them, we produced a daily 8-page newspaper. The newspaper was odd in that it wasn't really necessary. Every department on the ship got AP and UPI newsfeeds and posted them outside their admin offices for people to read.

We would take the same feeds and choose the most important stories, trim them, add photos, etc. Most people picked up a copy of the paper only for the local (shipboard) news and the feature articles. We did try to keep our integrity though, and publish a balanced selection of stories. We won Navy-wide awards for our work.

Which is why it came as something of a shock to get a memo censuring me for printing the story of Elvis Presley's death. The captain wanted me and my four men to go out and collect all the papers then republish the paper removing the story. As I remember, we eventually solved this by blacking out all references to the fact that the death was drug-related rather than republishing. It was foolishness since the same story was hanging on bulletin boards throughout the ship, including the bridge.

For the next two years we had minor skirmishes about what was and was not appropriate for the ship's newspaper. At the end of March 1979 the Three Mile Island incident occurred. The captain explained to me, in a storm of fury and froth, that it was NOT a good idea to have a story about a nuclear power plant accident on a ship that was powered by nuclear reactors.

Again, I tried to point out that the news was already out there, and suggested that the best way to handle it was by using the story and adding to it to explain why the ship's safety procedures and discipline made it unlikely, if not impossible, for something like that to happen on board. This was unacceptable to him and I ended up endearing myself to him further by going over his head and getting the okay from an admiral.

By this time, as you might guess, no one was going to mistake us for BFFs. Then came the crowning moment.

One of the things I did to try to keep our readership up was to write a column for the paper under the pen name of Charlie Noble. The subject matter was usually cool facts about maritime history or terminology. Occasionally I would have some kind of a brain-teaser or puzzle. It was one of those puzzles that put me at the top of the captain's list of people to get rid of.

The question I posed was simple. The ship anchors in the Bay of Naples and at high tide a sailor climbs down a rope ladder to a boat to get shuttled to the shore. As he climbs into the boat he notices that five rungs of the ladder are under water. He comes back to the ship at low tide. How many rungs are under water now?

About three hours after the issue was distributed, I got an envelope, addressed to Charlie Noble, containing several pages of carefully written calculations that explained why only three rungs would be under water with a cover memo saying that this solution had to appear in the next issue along with the solver's name. That solver was the captain.

I have to admit that I toyed with the idea of simply following orders but, copies of the ship's paper were distributed to other ships, in Norfolk and at the Pentagon. If I published his proof, it would have major repercussions for both the Captain and me.

This wasn't going to be pretty. I climbed the 10 flights to his office and asked for a private conversation. First he wanted to know why I was opening other people's mail. I explained the concept of "pen name". Then I told him that I wasn't going to publish his solution because it would leave him open to ridicule. He asked why.

I explained that ships float.

He hemmed and hawed then started to talk about the weight differential when people got off and on. I realized that he was trying to salvage something, but it wasn't going to work. I said that with the mass of the ship, its waterline would barely change if the entire crew left the ship.

The captain told me that I was full of it. He called for the First Lieutenant while telling me that if wrong I would be sent to the brig for disrespect. The First Lieutenant walked in the door, saw the calculations and the newspaper open to my column and winced. He knew instantly what was going on because I had run it past him and he had told me he used a similar story when he did training.

You might wonder why a ship's officer wouldn't understand basic principles, but carrier captains are usually brown shoes (aviators) rather than black shoes (ship drivers).

The problem, of course, was the embarrassment involved. The captain seemed to think that my puzzle was intended to shame him and he never seemed to get that I was just trying to keep him from losing face. To him I seemed contumacious, and disrespectful. To me he became a powerful and dangerous lackwit.