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The briefing that wasn’t brief enough

October 10, 2008
By Bob Seidenstein,

My military "career" was spent at a small Navy communications command on an Army base in Germany. We were as far in the hinterlands and as low on the status ladder as it got, so a visit from a VIP would've been as likely as Mick Jagger hosting open mic night at Bluseed Studios.

But that all changed in March 1972, when we were visited by the secretary of the Navy himself, John Chaffee. He was known for making hard and bold decisions and sticking by them. I, of course, didn't know that, since I didn't give a tiddly-doo about him anywhichway, which just goes to show the arrogance of youth.

The highlight of his visit was a briefing in the communications building, which was a real big deal for the sycophants who cared about such things. I didn't, so I wasn't even aware it was about to happen until some toady came running into our spaces, bug-eyed and breathless, looking for our chief.

The briefing was about to start when they realized there was one empty seat. An empty seat for the Sec Nav's briefing? Unacceptable! So the toady was hastily dispatched to find someone to fill the seat.

But Navy regs being what they were, it couldn't be just any someone. Uh-uh. It had to be a second-class petty officer, which I just happened to be. I also happened to be the only one in view when the toady told his tale of woe to my chief, Tex Berry.

"OK, Seidenstein," Tex said, turning to me, "lay on up to the briefing."

"Aw, c'mon, Chief," I said. "Gimme a break, willya?"

"Look," he said, "you might see something interesting."

"Get real," I said. "I've been in the Navy for three years and haven't seen anything interesting at a briefing yet."

"Yeah?" he said. "Well, maybe your luck's about to change."

Of course I was going. Tex was a great chief, and in the two years I'd been in his section, he'd been very good to me. Besides, it was futile arguing - in a subtle way, he'd just ordered me to go, and I knew it. But what I didn't know was how right he was about my luck changing.

On the stage

I got to the briefing and took my seat, figuring if nothing else, once the lights went out and the overhead projector did its thing, I could catch up on my beauty rest.

A short while later, Chaffee came in and we all stood at attention and went through whatever ritual was appropriate for a visit from the secretary of the Navy. I can't remember what it was, only that it didn't include a 21-gun salute, thank God.

Then we sat, and the formal presentation began. The room went pitch-black and some sort of show came on the screen in front of the room, while behind his lectern beneath the screen, the briefer read a bunch of swell-sounding nonsense.

The briefer was an insufferable snob and a real piece of work. He was a low-ranking enlisted guy named Ralston, who was a clerk in the personnel office, a job we Morse code operators considered lower than whale poop. But he had two perfect qualifications for the job.

First, from among the 250 of us, he - and he alone - looked like a real sailor. He was tall and thin, with chiseled features, blond hair and cornflower-blue eyes. All in all, he was a pretty boy along the lines of Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue.

Second, he was one of the stalwarts in the base theater troupe. How good an actor he was? Well, let me put it this way: He wasn't going to outshine Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski. In fact, I figured if he ever was cast in "A Streetcar Named Desire," it would've been as Blanche Dubois anyway.

But it didn't matter if he couldn't ooze testosterone at will: He was a perfect briefer, since he could pronounce polysyllabic gobbledygook correctly and not sound like either a Georgia cracker or an urban thug (which were the predominant dialects of the military at the time).

On the spot

I was sitting in the back, checking out the insides of my eyelids while Ralston soliloquized, though every now and then I caught a snippet.

" establishing a powerful first-line reactive capacity against Eastern Bloc tactical units whereupon, with assistance from NATO communication nets, surveillance and reportage have been increased to and having replaced the M-227 oscilloscope with the new, transistor-powered M-228, we've found "

The rest was all, "Yadda-yadda, crappo, blahdy blah blah blah" to me. But it sure wasn't to Chaffee, because suddenly, in the middle of the blather, he yelled out, "Stop!" And he did it so commandingly, I sat up, wide awake.

"That last sentence you read," he said to Ralston. "How about reading it again."

"Yes, sir," said Ralston, and he began.

"Communication with the world-wide Navy top secret web is round-the-clock and at maximum power and security, except for times of electronic interference anomalies that -"

"That's it!" said Chaffee. "'Anomalies.' What does that mean?"

"Oh, yes," said Ralston, all alight. "Well, anomalies are things that don't make any sense. So it has to do with electronic interferences that don't make sense."

"Thanks for the definition, son," Chaffee said levelly. "But what I want to know is, first, why those interferences that don't make any sense are interfering? And second, just what are they interfering with?"

Standing there alone in the light, Ralston suddenly looked less like a man giving a briefing than one up against a wall, facing a firing squad. For the first time, his stage presence failed him.

"Uh ah sorry, sir, but I don't understand any of this," he said, shrugging helplessly. "I'm just reading it."

"OK, fair enough," said Chaffee. Then he turned to the brass. "So can one of you explain it?"

What followed was something out of "Catch 22," if not "McHale's Navy."

First there was a long silence, broken by our Executive Officer, whom we'd nicknamed Puddles, because he sweated all the small stuff.

"Um, Mr. Secretary, I believe that's the Operations Department's business, so it's Commander Greene's concern."

"No," said Commander Greene. "I think it's overseen by Special Security, so it'd be up to Lieutenant Kramer."

Kramer started to do his share of passing the buck, when Chaffee cut him off.

"Enough!" he said. "Someone explain this to me, and explain it now!"

Finally, the captain spoke.

"The Bundespost train," he said.

"The Bundespost train?" said Chaffee. "What's that?"

Of course, we all knew what the Bundespost train was. And how could we not? It was the canary-yellow electric train from the German post office that cruised by our radio shack at least 50 times a day. And therein lay the fabled electronic interference anomalies.

Because when the train came by our antenna field, it somehow knocked the living bejammers out of our teleprinter service, making us - the big, hushhush, top-secret communications command that we were - completely incommunicado with the rest of our hush-hush, top-secret buddies around the world.

I don't remember the rest of the briefing, but I sure remember what followed.

First, within a month, the word came that our command was being closed down permanently.

Then, a few weeks later, it was announced that anyone having a year or less on his hitch could get discharged whenever he wanted. I had 350 days on mine, so I suddenly found myself home free - literally.

Ironically, only a couple of weeks after that, Chaffee retired, so closing my base may have been his last major decision as secretary of the Navy.

To me, whether it was his last decision or not was irrelevant - I only knew it was his most brilliant one.



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