Too Many Chiefs ( petty officers), Too Few Sailors

In an earlier time, I was a surgical technician, holding retractors, passing instruments, and preparing and passing scalpels to surgeons. This last trade supported me intermittently through the sixties, and the seventies. It helped power me through undergraduate and graduate school. After graduate school, unable to find work as an anthropologist, I retreated to the operating room for over a year, or until I found professional employment. But not all my jobs were fulltime I did lots of short summer gigs during summertime when I did not have school.
One summer job assignment I had while in grad school, I’ll never forget. A shipyard needed a vacation replacement in their aid station. They had specified someone with trauma and Operating Room experience. They didn’t want a Registered Nurse and had specified former Navy personnel if possible. I fit the bill. It was for a two-week assignment, and I accepted quickly.
I had second thoughts the moment I entered the aid station. Standing in front of me were what, any former Navy enlistee would recognize as two senior NCO’s – probably chiefs. They were in work blues, had the signature chief petty officer slouch, with paunch, and were holding on to handleless coffee mugs. The coffee pot beside them had the characteristic look of never having been thoroughly scrubbed out.
I almost looked to see if my seabag was beside me because I had that feeling that I was reporting to a new duty station.
Now all former Navy have stories we love to tell ( as in TINS – this is no shit). But, not too many are interested in “re-upping” – you either are a lifer or not. I was not. From time to time, I had dreams of waking up back on board. Telling a story is one thing, lifelike dreams something else.
But, there were two very senior NCO’s who were going to run my enlisted ass for two weeks. I smiled and said, ” Morning Chief!” Their response: “Coffee?”
It was an interesting two weeks — lots of trauma to hands and feet, eye injuries, crushing injuries, and lacerations. Anything major was evaluated fast and sent right out to a hospital. Next time you pass a large industrial site and see that sign proclaiming “365 days without a lost-time injury” take it from me, it’s an incredible achievement.
They had very soon found out that I had never risen beyond a very junior petty officer rank and needed vast improvement. Being that the person I was standing in for had also been a chief they now had someone to order about, and yes I was relegated to swabbing the decks. Things had changed between the Korea era Navy they had served in and my OR experience. They were horrified that I did not know how to sharpen a suture needle kit. They generously provided me with a spare outfit. And, then taught me the fine art of sharpening suture needles, Intervenous needles, scalpel blades and many other skills that had gone by the boards. Disposables had replaced all of the above. Just in case you think that reusing is an excellent idea allow me to tell you that getting a shot with an incorrectly sharpened needle hurts. I found this out when they insisted that I be the subject of an inection with the very same needle I had just sharpened. A needle has an inner bore, and the wire edge from sharpening the needle needs to be removed from that or it hurts like hell when you stick someone. I was very careful after that.
During the two weeks, I learned why Pharmacists Mates were called pill rollers. It was because they could compound medications and then roll the pills on a special pill-rolling board. Want to know how how to make a suppository that would hold up under tropical heat? That was one of the items I learned. I still shudder to think about the improvised X-ray unit that they used. It was cobbled together from an old dental x-ray, and they taught me how to use it for x-rays of extremities.
At the end of the two weeks, they allowed that while training had slipped since their day, individuals like myself were salvageable. I felt I had just gotten out of the Navy, again.

The main lesson I took away with me, was little knowledge is ever totally obsolete. In their day almost everything was reusable. By my day, things had shifted, but much was still reused. Today hospital waste is an enormous problem. The two former chiefs would be disgusted, and I couldn’t blame them.

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