Civilians in Uniform
by Lawrence Farrar
The aircraft carrier rose and fell easily as it sliced south through the Philippine Sea. It was hot — damnably hot. And the thick air that hung over the sea felt as wet as the water beneath it. Seemingly unperturbed by the temperature, the ship’s new Executive Officer (XO), Commander Jack Dornin, stood behind a lectern in secondary conn, a space in the bow of the ship just below the flight deck. Flanked by the Chief Master at Arms and a legal office yeoman, Dornin presided over a preliminary hearing for sailors charged with minor offenses.
A dozen or more officers and enlisted men faced him in two ranks. Outfitted for the first time during the cruise in their rarely worn tropical whites (shorts, knee socks, and short sleeved shirts), they’d taken lots of pictures to send home. “Look like the Brits in Singapore,” a crusty bosun remarked.
One of the officers, twenty-four year old Kyle Driscoll, Lt(jg) USNR, studied the XO. Without question, Commander Dornin impressed him. Dornin looked good; his still blond hair close-cropped, his weathered face that of a mariner, his tropical whites immaculate, his aviator’s wings glistening, and his steely gray eyes exuding what Kyle took to be determination. Dornin could easily have posed for one of the recruiting posters that had helped induce Kyle to sign up for ROTC at the University of Washington. And when the XO spoke, his voice resonated with directness and self-confidence, yet was softened by markers of his Mississippi heritage. Kyle liked what he saw and heard.
Yet the image Kyle had conjured up turned out not to be as untrammeled as he would have hoped. Although Dornin had been on board for only a few weeks, disquieting scuttlebutt has begun to circulate. Stories had it Dornin could be a hard ass and, according to some people, erratic–whatever that might mean. Lt Frank McGrady, the ship’s flight surgeon, who’d served with Dornin in Oriskany said nothing and smiled beatifically whenever the XO’s name came up. But the doc’s face communicated a you’ll see kind of message.
Nothing wrong with a little discipline, if that’s all they were talking about, Kyle thought. In Kyle’s view, the previous XO had been easygoing, somewhat lax. They needed an officer who would run a tight ship, and Kyle expected Commander Dornin would likely get things squared away. Would-be critics notwithstanding, he inclined toward giving Dornin the benefit of the doubt.
Glancing at the legal yeoman, Dornin said, “What’s the next case?”
“Seaman Wayne Outlaw, sir. Missed ship’s movement in Kobe. Caught up with us in Sasebo last week before we sailed south.”
Seaman Outlaw, an empty faced blond with acne ridden skin, stepped forward.
“Well, Outlaw, what do you have to say for yourself?”
“Sir, I guess I just screwed up. This josan didn’t wake me up and . . .”
“Missing movement is serious business, sailor. You know that don’t you?”
“Yes, sir. I sure didn’t intend to . . .”
“This report tells me you’ve been in trouble more than once. Let’s see.” Pausing deliberately at each entry, Dornin ran his finger down a document in front of him. “Disrespect to a petty officer, malingering, fighting, and now missing movement–you must think you’re a real bad man. Trying to live up to your name, I suppose.”
“Well, sir, it wasn’t always my fault. I was, you know, provoked and . . .”
“Provoked? You mean things just happen to you?”
“No, sir, not exactly, but . . .”
Dornin shifted his attention to Kyle. “Are you this man’s division officer?”
“Yes, sir. Lt(jg) Driscoll, 2nd Division. Outlaw’s a good worker, but sometimes he has a short fuse and . . .”
Dornin cut him off. “I take it you’re familiar with this man’s record.”
“Yes, sir, I am.”
“Then let me ask you something, Mr. Driscoll. Was this man on authorized liberty when he missed the ship?”
“Yes, sir, he was.” Kyle experienced a flicker of unease.
“Why, might I ask, Mr. Driscoll, did you allow this man to leave the ship?”
“Sir? He was in the liberty section, and . . .”
“Mr. Driscoll, are you questioning Admiral Kivette’s instruction in this matter?”
Admiral Kivette’s instruction? What instruction? Caught off guard, Kyle said, “Sir, I’m not familiar with . . .”
“Mister, you damn well better get familiar with that instruction. I’m holding this case in abeyance. Mr. Driscoll, I want you at my cabin at 1300. You bring that instruction with you.”
“Aye aye, sir.” His stomach churning, Kyle struggled to understand what had just happened. Present at the inquiry to stand by for one of his men, Kyle had himself become the focus of the XO’s apparent ire.
Shocked–and worried–by what had transpired, Kyle hustled three decks down to the ship’s legal office to lay hands on the Seventh Fleet Commander’s instruction. It had to do, he quickly learned, with the administrative withholding of liberty for known liberty risks.
Kyle Driscoll was a hefty six footer who looked like he could have played for the Huskies. Although in keeping with military practice he kept his brown hair cut short, he still parted and combed it over. Vigorous eyebrows topped crinkly dark eyes. Remnants of childhood freckles vaguely showed themselves. He was what people referred to as nice looking. But, despite his athletic frame, he was not much of an athlete; he’d devoted a good part of his university time to playing bridge and poker and pursuing sorority girls.
Kyle had blazed no academic trails. He’d aspired to pursue a chemistry degree, but two semesters of introductory chemistry made it clear his talents must lie elsewhere. He ended up studying political science and French. He earned adequate grades, although a celestial navigation class had almost been his naval science undoing. Nonetheless, he’d managed to scrape by and qualified for a reserve commission. Why he’d sought a commission was not clear, but he supposed he wanted to prove something–to his family and himself. His uncle had gone down with the Yorktown in World War Two.
Once aboard ship, Kyle had been surprised and pleased to discover he had something of a talent for leadership. By and large, the seventy or so men in the second deck division respected him and responded well to his orders. Kyle also turned out to be a competent ship handler, whether heading into the wind for flight ops or maneuvering alongside an oiler during underway replenishment. Certainly not all the junior officers could say the same. The Gunnery Officer commended him more than once.
As a result, Kyle had begun to think about a career in the Navy. He relished shipboard life—the trill of the boatswain’s pipe, the electric excitement of General Quarters, the surge of the ship plowing through heavy seas, the lure of foreign ports, the salt spray on his face, the at sea sunsets, and the comradeship of shipmates–he relished it all. He even like the omnipresent gray—gray hull, gray bulkheads, gray overheads, gray passageways—Navy gray.
But now he confronted the summons to the XO’s quarters; it had him worried. He would need Commander Dornin’s endorsement if he was to have any chance for a regular commission.
As he strode across the hangar deck, Kyle ran into Charlie Fitzgerald, another Jg and his shipboard roommate. A lanky Bostonian headed for law school, Fitzgerald did not share Kyle’s enthusiasm for Navy life. He was the wardroom cynic.
“On your way to see the XO?” Fitzgerald said. Of course, Fitzgerald knew where he was going. Ever since word of the summons got ‘round, the junior officers had been buzzing about what it might mean.
“Yeah. Kind of a puzzler. “It seemed like a routine case. I don’t think I was disrespectful or anything,” Kyle said.
“Maybe he’s just in a bad mood. I hear he had a big blow up with the Navigator at breakfast.”
“Also, the Admin Officer says the XO’s been in a real stew for the last few days. He says his wife got a divorce back in San Diego. Final decree last week. Apparently the judge really reamed the XO in the settlement.”
“The Admin Officer talks too much if you ask me,” Kyle said.
“Or maybe he’s still got a cob up his ass about the standing lights.”
“Do you think so?” Mention of the standing lights made Kyle vaguely nervous. “I never heard any more about it after that night.”
Fitzgerald was referring to an incident two weeks before, an incident that had since been much discussed over icy San Miguels and liars’ dice in the Olongapo officers’ club.
Kyle recalled the standing lights event vividly. He had come off the mid-watch on the bridge, crawled into his rack, and fallen asleep. At 0420, the Junior Officer of the Watch shook Kyle’s shoulder and said, “The XO wants all the deck division officers in the wardroom for a meeting. Right now.”
Kyle had propped himself on an elbow and squinted through the darkness at the clock on his fold-out desk. “It’s only a little after four in the morning. What does he want us…”
“Don’t know. Just get over there.”
Kyle could conjure up no reason for such a meeting in what was still the dark of night. Had to be important. Maybe some kind of drill. He’d felt a bit apprehensive but also had experienced a kind of anticipatory rush.
When Kyle stepped into the wardroom, half a dozen officers had already arrived. Two or three more followed him in, Will Barnes still stuffing his shirt in his trousers. Half awake, uncertain of why they were there, they waited in the small lounge area.
After ten minutes or so, Commander Dornin appeared, wearing a robe, pajamas, and slippers. His attire caught their attention since all of them slept in their skivvies.
Dornin surveyed the officers who gathered around him in a semi-circle. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I was almost killed tonight.”
No one spoke. They hung back, anticipating his explanation.
“I woke up at 0400. Couldn’t get back to sleep and decided to stretch my legs. Well, when I stepped out in the passageway, I almost fell through a hatch and down a ladder. Do you know why?” He paused. “I’ll tell you why. Because the standing light next to that hatch was burned out.” At night the ship was darkened and only dim red lights affixed to the bulkheads provided below decks illumination.
“I’m not pointing any fingers, you understand.” He didn’t have to. That particular light was the responsibility of Kyle’s second division.
“Gentlemen, this sort of laxness might have been acceptable in the past. I assure you, it no longer is. We want a safe ship where a senior officer isn’t likely to break his neck because of someone’s negligence.”
“Sir, maybe the bulb had just burned out,” Ensign Hardy said.
The XO drilled Hardy with a fixed glare that no doubt made him wish he’d kept his mouth shut.
“Now,” Dornin said, “I want each of you division officers and your leading petty officer to check your assigned spaces and replace any burned out lights. Right now.”
And so, as the ship steamed south from Yokosuka, at 0430 shadowy figures carrying light bulbs scurried throughout the ship. Other than the one the XO deemed a threat to life and limb, they found no burned out bulbs. At the time, Kyle attributed the XO’s actions to concern for the integrity and safety of the ship. Kyle supposed the XO had seen it as a teaching opportunity. Others saw it differently. “Geez,” Fitzgerald said, “It’s sort of like the damn strawberries incident in the Caine Mutiny. I hope we aren’t dealing with another Quegg.”
Kyle laughed. “Yeah, right. You’ve got quite an imagination, Charlie.”
Brimming with apprehension surpassing that of his first catapult launch (as a passenger), Kyle showed up at the XO’s stateroom five minutes early.
“Tell Commander Dornin Mr. Driscoll is here,” he said to the Marine orderly standing at parade rest outside the XO’s cabin.
The lance corporal drew aside the dark green drape that covered the open hatch and stuck his head inside. “Mr. Driscoll is here, sir.”
Resuming his position outside the hatch, the Marine said, “Sir, he says to wait.”
Kyle felt awkward standing there in the passageway. Everyone knew about the summons. He just wanted to get inside and get it—whatever it was-over with. Still not exactly certain why, he expected he was about to be chewed out. He guessed it must be because he should not have permitted Outlaw to go on liberty in Kobe. If that was it, he thought, it didn’t seem right—or fair.
After what seemed an interminably long wait, the XO said, “Send him in.”
The Marine nodded, acknowledging that Kyle, too, had heard the voice, and then pulled back the curtain. Dornin sat in a swivel chair which he had pushed away from his desk. Kyle could barely make him out. A goose neck desk lamp provided the only light, and it had been redirected toward the entrance. Dornin sat in near darkness, while Kyle stood as if in a spot light. It was not a comfortable arrangement for the younger officer.
“Reporting as ordered, sir,” Kyle said, standing at attention. He clutched the neatly folded Seventh Fleet instruction in his left hand. Kyle felt himself swaying like one of the ship’s antennas in the wind. Did the XO notice?
Dornin, who sat smoking a cigarette, did not reply immediately. Two or three times he took a drag without acknowledging Kyle’s presence. Kyle had the sense he was about to be subjected to the third degree or maybe some variation of the Spanish Inquisition. His nerves danced. What was happening?
Dornin lolled back in his chair and, his voice emanating from the shadows, said, “You can stand at ease, Mr. Driscoll.” He coughed–a phlegm-laden smoker’s cough. He did not offer Kyle a chair, although one was located next to the desk. Kyle’s side-long glance traveled from the chair to the desk top–a half-munched salami sandwich, a partially consumed glass of buttermilk, an ashtray littered with dead butts, and two or three plastic pill bottles from the dispensary.
The outside temperature in those tropical climes hovered around 100; the thermometer soared higher inside the ship. Beads of perspiration glistened on Kyle’s forehead, ran, and then dripped. He felt a rivulet working its way down the small of his back. For his part, Dornin luxuriated in the cooling breeze of an electric fan.
Again a long silence. Kyle waited, his unease building.
Finally Dornin spoke. “How long do you think I’ve been in the
Navy, Mr. Driscoll?” Was it a real question? A rhetorical question? Kyle was at a loss.
“I’m not certain, sir. Perhaps twenty years?” What was the XO driving at?
“Twenty-one years, four months and three days to be exact. And how long have you been on active duty as a reservist, Mr. Driscoll? It was ROTC, wasn’t it?”
“Just under two years, sir.”
“Long enough to understand the importance of discipline and good order to the well-being and efficiency of a ship, I assume.” He sounded as solemn as the chaplain intoning the evening prayer over the ship’s 1 MC public address system, for all those who stand the lonely night watches….
“Yes, sir. I think so.”
“You think so?”
Kyle’s Adam’s apple rose and fell. “No, sir. I know so.”
“Then why, Mr. Driscoll, did you allow Seaman Outlaw, a repeat offender and known troublemaker, to go on liberty in Kobe?”
Well, Kyle thought, at least now I’ve read the instruction. “He was in the liberty section, sir. It didn’t occur to me that I should keep him on the ship. Sir, I’ve checked the instruction and, even if I’d been aware of it, I don’t believe Outlaw met the definition of a known liberty risk. He’d never been in trouble when he was on the beach. I don’t think it would have been legal if . . .”
“Not legal? Really? Tell me, Mr. Driscoll are you a lawyer? You seem to be very confident about the law.”
“No, sir. But I did attend eight weeks of the Naval Justice School in Newport.”
“Mostly civilian instructors, I expect. Probably a lot of academic theory about the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice),” Dornin said. “But here in the fleet, we have to apply the rules in a practical way, in the way they must be applied.
“No, sir. They emphasized the practical aspects of . . .”
Dornin chose not to hear him. “Perhaps you can’t understand what I’m saying. After all, I’m sure you realize you reservists are really nothing but civilians in uniform.”
Kyle’s spirits drooped like the ship’s colors on a windless day. Civilians in uniform? “But, Commander, I don’t claim to be an expert, I just thought . . .”
Dornin leaned forward into the light, gave Kyle a hard look, and said, “Tell me, Mr. Driscoll, what is it that makes you college boys think you’re so smart?” His words came coated with ill-concealed contempt.
“Sir, I don’t understand. I’m doing my best to be a capable officer. I . . . I’ve had good efficiency reports. I . . .”
“I’ve had a look at your service record. We all know the Gunnery Officer has a way with words, don’t we? Very generous. Anyway, I form my own opinions, based on personal observation, you might say.”
“Yes, sir.” Kyle’s confidence plummeted like one of the carrier’s fighters with a flameout.
“Do you really like the Navy, Mr. Driscoll?”
“Yes, sir. I was thinking of applying for a regular commission.”
“With all your heart?”
“Tell me, do you think civilian law is better than the UCMJ?”
“It’s different, but I don’t know what you are . . .” What did any of this have to do with Outlaw missing the ship?
“Oh, it’s more than different. If you’d ever thought about it, you’d realize military law is administered by men of integrity, by patriots serving their country.” Dornin extracted a lighter and lit still another cigarette, took a drag, and coughed again. “Quite often, all too often in my view, civilian law is administered by corrupt judges and money-grubbing lawyers whose only goal is to fleece honest men. Wouldn’t give you the sweat off their balls. Are you with me, Mr. Driscoll?”
Kyle had no idea how he should respond. The XO was rambling, almost incoherent. “I’m trying, sir,”
“I’m not a ring knocker, you know. But the Navy’s been damn good to me. Up from the ranks. Naval Aviation Cadet. Navy all the way.” Insufferably righteous, Dornin made it sound like the Navy embodied everything that truly counted.
Kyle stayed silent.
“I suppose you reservists try, in your own way.” Dornin stared at the overhead, as if in deep contemplation. “But you don’t feel the Navy, sense its traditions–honor the Navy–the way we professionals do.”
What in the world was this about? Was the XO experiencing some kind of emotional disturbance?
“Civilians in uniform.” He said it again. “Just yesterday I had to remind Ensign Handy about his obligation to set an example for the enlisted men. Came across the flight deck with his cover cocked to one side like . . . like some vaudeville performer. Not the way an officer wears a cap.”
Drowning in sweat, Kyle remained standing, his hands behind his back, still clinging to the instruction. The XO’s words buffeted his brain. Civilians in uniform? College boys?
“I hope I haven’t made you uncomfortable, Mr. Driscoll. I just wanted to share a few words, you might say, for your edification.” Dornin’s mood suddenly seemed to change.
I hope we understand each other better after this little chat,” Dornin said. He rose from his chair, extended his hand and, to Kyle’s utter amazement, said, “I hope we can part as friends.” Dornin’s hand was trembling.
Friends? The man was the executive officer of an aircraft carrier. Kyle was a very junior officer. Kyle accepted the handshake. It seemed he had no choice.
“You’re free to go now, Mr. Driscoll. Kyle, isn’t it?” Dornin said, his voice laced with contrived geniality.
Kyle almost expected a fatherly pat on the shoulder, but none was extended.
Once clear of the XO’s quarters, Kyle headed for the wardroom, where he knew some of the other JOs waited to find out what happened. The never-mentioned instruction still in his hand, he moved unsteadily; but his gait did not result from the rolling and pitching of the ship. Still trying to figure out what Dornin had been talking about and why he had singled Kyle out as a civilian in uniform, Kyle revisited the XO’s remarks over and over. His sense of self-worth in hazard, his faith in the Navy as an institution shaken, he found no answer; he knew only that the session had been surreal.
Dornin had ranked high in Kyle’s esteem. Never had a perception been so completely shattered, and in such a short time. Kyle decided the son of a bitch must be crazy, or at least seriously disturbed. How could the Navy permit someone like this to hold sway over hundreds of men? Perhaps Kyle might later change his mind when he was less immediately consumed by the event, but now, beset by a lethal mix of anger, disappointment, confusion, and fear, he deep-sixed any notion of trying to apply for a regular commission. His fixed and singular ambition now focused on becoming a civilian in civies, the sooner the better.
When Kyle appeared into the wardroom, Fitzpatrick, Handy, and two or three other JOs happened to be there. “How did it go?” Fitzpatrick said. They all paid keen attention.
“You’re not going to believe this,” Kyle said. “You’re just not going to believe this.”
Lawrence F. Farrar is a former career diplomat, with long service in Japan (including tours in Okinawa, Sapporo, and Tokyo). He was also posted in Germany, Norway, and Washington,DC. Several of his assignments involved working with the USMC, including 3 years as a foreign affairs advisor to the Commandant. Before joining the Foreign Service, Farrar spent 5 years on active duty in the Navy, first as a deck officer on USS KEARSARGE (CVS-33) and then as a staff officer for Commander Naval Forces Japan. His son is a Marine reserve officer, with active duty stints in Somalia and Iraq. A Minnesota resident, Farrar is the author of 30 short stories, often set in foreign countries, that have appeared in literary magazines.