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“The Existential Boatswain’s Mate”

Volume 8 | Spring 2018

by Urban Novak

“Well thank you Mr B,” drawled Johnson, “but I’m a second class boatswain’s mate. That’s what I am.”

I had called Johnson into the admin office to tell him that I was recommending him for advancement to first class boatswain’s mate. In Vietnam all that was needed to assure promotion was a department head’s recommendation. It was assumed a sailor wouldn’t have the time to prepare for the Navy-wide advancement tests. Johnson was doing a good job running the piers and cranes for the three squadrons of patrol boats at our base and deserved to be promoted. I had expected he would be more than happy to sew an extra chevron on his sleeve, but I was wrong. Johnson didn’t want to be promoted.

“Johnson, you know how hard it is for boatswain’s mates to advance.  Here’s your chance.”

“Oh, I know that Mr B but I’m happy where I am.”

Boatswain’s mates came from and ran the deck crews where all the unskilled sailors were assigned, which meant there were always many more candidates for advancement in the boatswain’s mate rating than there were openings. In technical ratings, like electronics or radar, there were never enough candidates, so advancement was relatively easier.

“You’re going to want to be a first class petty officer some day. And then there’s the money. Why don’t I just put your name on the list.”

“If you say so, Mr. B.”

So I put Johnson’s name on the list, and three months later when the promotions came out his name was there. News of the promotions got around quickly and when I next saw Johnson I nodded toward his arm and said, “The extra chevron on your sleeve looks good, Johnson.”

“Seems a bit heavy to me,” he replied.

“Oh, you’re big enough to carry it.”

About a month and a half after that I left Vietnam for my next command.  A year or so later by the sheerest chance I ran across Johnson as I was exiting the main gate of the Subic Bay Naval Base. Johnson had only the two chevrons of a second class petty officer on his left sleeve. I returned his salute and said, “I see you’re a second class petty officer again.”

“Ahh, yes sir,” he smiled.

“What happened?”

“Oh, I got drunk one night and busted up somebody.”

I could only imagine what the busted up somebody looked like, with Johnson being as big as he was. “So they busted you back to second class boatswain’s mate.”

“I told you, Mr. B, I’m a second class boatswain’s mate. That’s what I am.”

“Well, Johnson, I’m sorry I put you through all the trouble of having to go out and bust up somebody.”

“Oh, that’s okay, Mr. B. I know you meant well.”

Johnson it seems was the rare man who knew what he was, a second class boatswain’s mate.