What You See

One of the forms of torture the US Navy inflicted on recruits was a series of swimming tests. So, of course, you’d expect the Navy to want minimum floatation abilities, right? The final test, you could not graduate from Basic Training without passing it, was a challenging one for me.

 Fully dressed, you climbed to the top of a tall diving platform and jumped ( no diving allowed) into the large pool. Once in the swimming pool, you stripped off your work dungarees and, in a practiced move, swung the sopping wet clothing over your head to make an improvised flotation device. Next, you used your gob hat ( the white sailors’ hat) to improvise flotation. After this, you had to tread water for several minutes until told your time was up, and you could swim to the edge of the pool and get out of the water.

I had to take the test three times. I was a floatation-making champ, unafraid of the leap by attempt number three. My problem was 130 lean pounds; I lacked the fat my body needed to tread water without sinking like a stone. This did not matter to the people giving the test in a typical Navy manner. Regs stated that I must tread water for the regulation time, and that was it. Unwritten regs also ensured that if there were too many failures in a recruit company, someone would suffer the consequences. So during my final test, an examiner made gestures suggesting that I tread, float on my back, tread, do a dead man’s float, and then tread again. All the while not looking directly at me. If asked, he could look the lieutenant straight in the eye and say, ” I didn’t see that, sir!”

So I wasn’t out of Boot Camp yet but had learned the important lesson that most junior officers couldn’t distinguish between what you didn’t see and what you should have been aware of. Over time I realized that many continued up the chain of command without gaining this critical skill.

If I ever expected this to be different in civilian life, I found to my sorrow, that it was the same all over. Many people do not seem capable of noting the distinction, even when the nature of their jobs obliges them.

I think it’s why we need so many caution signs, three-ring binders with procedures, and flashing warning alerts asking, ” do you really want to do this?.”

The Markets

Former petty office first class John O’Toole loved to get in little digs at me. He remembered when I was ” not the sharpest tool in the kit.” In short, he remembered when I was an addled brain sailor whose sea locker and sea bag always needed a good tossing and cleanup before inspections. Just every once in a while, he’d enjoy pointing out to friends and girlfriends that there was a time when I was not so squared away, and Bristol fashioned a lad, and he – never to be a chief petty officer- O’Toole had been instrumental in squaring me away.

But, of course, he never mentioned my carrying him back to the ship from the Blue Anchor, the time he was royally drunk when I pulled him out of the harbor when his walking on water stunt did not work, or other incidents. Such events were every day on Liberty and barely rated an idle mention.

He tended to sail into my life periodically when needing a place to crash, a bit of help with a scheme, or just when the whim took him to visit. He’d eventually become a financial advisor who kept his methodology for market analysis secret.

One day O’Toole invited me along to a presentation he was giving a private club on economic trends and how to best time investments in a Bear Market. He presented his findings and an analysis of his results to an astonished gathering of peers. But beyond a few vague comments refused to outline his methodology. Instead, he merely stated that his repeated results spoke for themselves, QED. Beyond saying that his methods derived from statistical methodology he had mastered while in the Navy, he’d say nothing further.

Of course, as a sort of protege, I knew the secret. In a small locked box in a storage box were the tools of analysis: a statistical calculator, a worn old-fashioned game spinner, a Magic Eight Ball, and an Ouija board. His methods were rooted in powerful methods developed in the Navy. In the Navy, we were called upon to file repetitious, idiotic, and time-consuming reports on the mundane events of our daily work life. So, of course, we developed ways of cheating. The clever developed ways of cheating and not getting caught. The incredibly creative never were caught and garnered excellent performance reports, commendations, and promotions.

This art was called Gundecking, and its name came to the USN from our predecessors in the Royal Navy but derived almost without doubt from the Phoenicians, Greeks, and other early Navy. It was, therefore, nearly as old as sails, rudders, and scuttlebutt ( navy gossip).

While in the Navy, O’Toole, an eager consumer of correspondence school classes, had incorporated some esoteric twists from statistics into his methodology. Watching him work the Eight Ball, spinner, and Ouija board in conjunction with a spreadsheet and calculator was a dizzying affair. I asked him if his methods were any better than those of a college graduate from Babson or some other business school, and he glared at me. ” Lou, some have little statues of Fortuna on their shelves and light joss sticks; others read the fifth word in the fourth paragraph of random books found in church book sales. Others faithfully read the Wall Street journal and religiously wear their lucky socks. It’s all VooDoo, and I mean that if you are into sacrificing black cocks at midnight. My methods are based upon tried and true techniques developed during my sojourn in the US Navy. They have survived examination by petty-minded naval officers and proven to work. What more do you want.

O’Toole did, however, maintain a sort of Naval “truth in advertising” code of ethics. He preceded each lecture with a statement that this was his best possible analysis and said he’d checked his results with associates who agreed with the methodology.

Unless there were very astute former seamen in the audience, they missed the key phases that introduced and ended a classic Sea Story:
First, his best possible analysis – ” now, this is no shit…
Second, checked his results with associates – “…and I heard if from my shipmate who was there when it happened.”

I accused O’Toole of selling his client’s phony statistical methods based on Navy cheats and telling them sea stories. He smiled at me and said, “Lou, economics is a very inexact science. Look at the statistical success rate of most predictions. It’s almost as bad as random chance. I outperform the random. Call it luck; call it whatever you will. It works.

In the years that followed, I lost track of O’Toole, but I did notice that he was right. Unfortunately, market predictions were hedged about with so many caveats that they did appear to barely beat the random effects of a Magic Eightball, game spinner, and Ouija board. It’s almost enough to drive you to apathy.

But it does gives you something to think about. How many financial wizards now have Eight Balls, spinners and Ouija boards in their drawers?

Smallest YT in the Navy?

As you may know I like to carve portraits of ships and boats. So I studiously snap photos of anything I find on the water that’s of interest.

A few years ago I visited a friend in Boston, and stopped to visit the USS Constitution. Alongside I found this. I’m not sure if I should refer to it as a mini tug or a mini tender. In any case It’s duly marked as Navy. Hmmmmmm…. an ensign’s command? Crew of one?


I have not one, but a raft of favorite quotes. But when asked to settle on one, I come back to time, and time again, it’s this one, “Luck is what you stumble upon in life. Providence is what God plans for you, and planning is how you thread your way between the two without getting crushed.” 

I often heard this bit of wisdom from first-class petty officer John O’Toole, Bosuns-mate USN. John worked hard to avoid becoming a chief petty officer and, in retirement, enjoyed telling tales of some sixteen years of a misspent Naval career. I first met John while I was in the Navy, and we became reacquainted in the years following. 

From John, I learned:

  •  the nuances of “gun decking” a report ( fixing them), 
  • how to successfully play Cheaters Monopoly, 
  • how to properly wear my sailor’s gob hat, 
  • and how to sew the thirteen buttons of my uniform pants so they could be rapidly undone if needed.

God bless you, John, where ever you may be.

Scuttlebutt Syndrome

What follows is a discussion of the newly named scuttlebutt syndrome found primarily among sailors:

Scuttlebutt is a favored term among sailors for how information can get relayed. As in,” scuttlebutt has it that mooring fees are going up next year.” Or, ” the scuttlebutt is that our next port of call in Naples got canceled.”

 For those not initiated into the watery ways of Poseidon or Neptunas Rex, the scuttlebutt was the large centrally located barrel of water on a sailing vessel that sailors could dip water from to quench thirst. Sailors would congregate and pass on news and events. The barrel is long since gone but, the term is still alive and well. Even those of us who have long since “swallowed the anchor” use the phrase with a certain reverence. Sailors are traditionalists and don’t appreciate unexpected change – unless it’s an extra tot of rum in their toddy; they love to pass on the scuttlebutt.

Scuttlebutt is not necessarily a source you should take when you visit the stockbroker, accuse your spouse of infidelity, or buy a boat. Especially buy a boat.

Perhaps something magical in seawater encourages an intrinsic change in a sailor’s sense of reality. The woman or man seems incapable of actually describing the last evening ashore in objective terms. It becomes the most raucous, magical experience of the cruise, and these days the phone provides photographic proof with blurry evidence. 

As a purely scientific experiment, ask a standardized series of questions the following day and two days after leaving port. The next day grunts and groans followed by a rush to the head are all you’ll get. But two days later, that evening transforms into a wondrous experience.

This seems to be a widespread phenomenon among Navy, Merchant Mariners, and civilian sailors and being that it is a worldwide phenomenon, we really can’t blame it on the sailor. No. They are poor victims of some toxic miasma of the sea that causes these figments to become a reality in their minds.

The only way this can spread is by waves. Waves can travel across an entire ocean in days. We do not know at this point how much exposure is needed to result in a full-blown case. We are applying for funds to study further this debilitating syndrome for which no known cure is known. We do know that taking the sailor away from the sea can make it worse.

 Our best advice currently is that parents not let their children become sailors. 

There is no known treatment. Neither Ivermcectin nor Hydrogen peroxide is beneficial. However, clinical trials of dark Caribbean rum show some promise as palliative care. Give the patient several drams, and they lose the ability to tell sea stories. This may not help the afflicted, but it offers relief for those who listen to the endless lies.

Tall Tales

“Everybody loves a juicy story with just enough naughty components that your interest is kept from beginning to end. So learning to pare and filter is important.” These were the words of wisdom imparted to me by the infamous teller of tall sea tales, Bosun’s Mate first-class John O’Toole. As everyone knows, a sea story differs from a fairy tale by two significant details: 

  1. a fairy tale starts with once upon a time – a sea story inevitably has the warning posted out front that “this is no shit.) T.I.N.S
  2. The fairy tale ends with the sweetness and light – “and they all lived happily after,” but the sea story advises you of the absolute truth of the story because you heard it yourself from someone who had been on board when it happened.

Of course, O’Toole promptly suggested that this was just the rudiments. Anyone can learn the rules in five minutes, but mastery could take a lifetime. So, I have been working tirelessly at this now for several years. And, I think I may have achieved Journeyman status. 

A few years ago I found out what happened to the masterful O’Toole. After twenty years of not making chief in the Navy, he retired and has became a successful author: Dorothy LaFlamme – specializes in bodice rippers.

I guess it’s like Jack Londen said, “You can’t wait for inspiration; you have to go after it with a club.”


“Don’t worry; it will all work out.” if you hear those words run like hell for the exit. It’s a guarantee that soon, you will be fetlock deep in the oozy brown stuff. I first learned this in the Navy. Winding up in the deep end was so frequent that whenever we heard the words “Don’t worry; it will all work out.” we automatically responded with a term suited to the situation – BOHICA – Bend Over Here It Comes Again.
Thanks to this early education, I was alert whenever I heard the magic words register on my consciousness. My lips would curl into a smile. I would whisper the magic precept of the seven p’s – Prior Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Then I would rush to the documentation to fill myself with all the knowledge I could find. True, you’d be farctate – stuffed to the gills – with data. Most of those around you will only know what was in the scanty briefing document. You, on the other hand, will dole out fascinating tidbits they need to know. You’ll be frantically researching what gives on the ground. But your peers will assume that your command of the situation is masterful.

Just remember these things:
1.) Don’t worry. It’ll all work out.” equals big trouble
2.) BOHICA – bend over here it comes again
3.) Prior Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance

Have you got that? Don’t worry; it’ll all work out!

Sails For The Constitution

This post is about the USS Constitution’s sails. But there is a bit of a story that precedes it.

My eldest son, Nick, could be a problem when he was young. There was the time, at age nine, he disappeared at the WoodenBoat Show. To Matilda and I, he was among the missing. His mother anxiously wondered if Nick had slipped into the cold Maine waters. A frantic search of the entire boat show turned up no Nick.
Then I spotted him at the very end of a long line of large yachts tied up to the pier. He was at a party for the show elites.
After spotting him from a distance onboard an absolutely to die for Baltic style schooner, I had to negotiate my way through the owner’s security detail…while Nick stood there and smiled at me. After clarifying that that boy was my son, they explained that he was a guest, and I was not. Afterward, Matilda had to reason with me until I could see the humor of the situation.

How had Nick become a guest? It was exquisite. Nick evaded his mother while I was working my booth. He set out to wander the show with a brand new dollar bill in his pocket. My son is no slouch, and he’d spent formative years listening to my friends and me discuss boats. So, Nick walked up to the owner of the said gorgeous boat, pulled out his crisp dollar bill, looks up at the owner, and said – “Mister, if I give you this dollar bill right now…will you sell me this boat?”
Ahh, the essence of the moment; cute kid, money, and the intent to close a fiscal deal at a significant advantage to oneself. How could a capitalist not admire the Moxie, and audacity of the attempt?
Result: one invitation to post-show soiree as a guest of honor.

This ploy’s success was so good that Nick continued to use it boat show after boat show. He deployed it with much success and regularity that we had to eventually forbid him from doing it because some of my friends had junker boats they’d happily sell him to laugh at me.

Nick eventually seemed to outgrow his little routine, and I began to forget about it. But one Saturday, we were in Boston to visit a friend at the shipyard. We decided to detour for a look at the USS Constitution. As we were standing there admiring the ship, I saw the then Captain, Commander Beck. I pointed him out to Nick and then saw that old gleam come into his eyes. He reached into his pocket and began walking in the direction of Commander Beck. I lost no time and grabbed my boy. I glanced over at the Captain of the Constitution. I noticed that he was gazing at the man and boy with a dollar bill in his hand. To Nick, I said, perhaps a bit too loudly – “If you embarrass me in front of the Captain of the Constitution, I’ll sell you to the Navy as a Powder Monkey.
Nick seemed to realize that he’d pushed things as far as they’d go and agreed that a frigate was more ship than he wanted anyway.
Commander Beck had recently been the first captain of the Constitution to handle her under sail in years. So on the way home, I explained to Nick why this was such a big deal.

So now the story about sails for the USS Constitution:

In 1966 I had been a very wet behind the ears enlisted man in the Navy. Sometime between Gemini recovery deployments ( the space program, remember?), the USS Wasp was in the Atlantic for war games. One night several of us enlisted were out by the smokes locker having a very illegal smoke. The topic of conversation? Would they ever put sails on the Constitution? We had exhausted favorite liberty locations, girls, and booze as topics. So, as most Navy men will do, we moved onto an irrelevant ( as in above our pay grade) matter.

In the tropics, the night sky can be incredibly dark, even while phosphorescent organisms’ glow lights the sea. So we were all taken by surprise when we first heard and then saw a match flare beyond our circle. Out of the dark came the glow of someone lighting up – not one of us. As the figure moved closer, someone saw the rank and squeaked out something akin to” Admiral on deck.” It was Admiral Outlaw, one of the senior officers in charge of the war games. He unfroze the crew with a simple ‘”relax.” We all stood looking quietly out to sea for a moment. Then he authoritatively scuttled our BS. “The Constitution is a junior command. How would you like to be the commander who took a national treasure out to sea and ran it aground? Your career would be destroyed. Naw. They’ll never put sails on her.” and with that, the Admiral turned and headed back to officers country.

So to sum this story up: keep your dollar in your pocket, and never say never.

Forms and Procedures

Just out of Boot Camp and knowing almost nothing about how the Navy worked, I sat by as sailors and petty officers senior to me decided how to explain on a log sheet their idleness. My impression of the workday was that it had been full of BS, coffee, and some very random work. It was my introduction to Gundecking. The first-class petty officer introducing me to the mysteries of fixing logs without getting caught was the erudite bosun’s mate John O’Toole. John deliberately shunned anything that might get him a rocker under his crow and transform him into a chief petty officer.
The current term derives from the Royal Navy: the Midshipmen, officers in training, would take their noon navigational sights of the sun, scurry below to the gun deck, and “fix” the position of the ship in the ocean by cheating. Gundecking became the modern Naval name for this sort of report fixing.
By the time I came along, Gundecking could be an art form in the hands of a master like O’Toole. Most Gundecking is the simple checking off of boxes on reports for maintenance or inspection. More elaborate needs could require Quiji Boards, modified game spinners, and critically the Magic 8 Ball.
Modern Gundecking (pencil whipping in the non-naval services) is complicated and compounded by the sheer bureaucratic nature of life in either the military or civilian life. In the years since I was discharged I can only imagine the absurdities introduced by computers. Everything has a checklist, report, protocol, diagnostic formula, or decision tree. Procedural paperwork can get in the way of effective performance, and you become enmeshed in meaningless BS that builds resentment. Perhaps that’s why the verb “to Gundeck” is offset by the adverb “gundeckable.”
It had to have been an officer or senior Non-commissioned Officer like O’Toole who derived this term because, as we all know – problems always move up the Chain Of Command, and shit drops down. By the time you become a senior in any organization, you should either know all the tricks or have an intuition for them. Remember, that pencils, Magic 8 ball, Quija boards, and game spinners have been around a while. If only to protect yourself (enlightened self-interest), you better figure out how gundeckable the reports and inspections in your organization can be.

Please bear in mind that the general principle dates back to Bronze Age sailors. There are thousands of years of received sophistication going on here.

A few years ago, I looked into the open drawer of my financial advisor’s desk. His Magic 8 Ball was right there. I rapidly confirmed from the Honorable Discharge displayed on the wall that he was a Navy Veteran.
Think about that next time your advisor says: “hold on. Let me check on that answer”., and opens the lower desk drawer. Here are a couple of guidelines: If he or she has any of the following on their wall: Plank Owner Certificates, certificates showing that they are Pollywogs, Shellbacks, etc., or pictures of their last ship, get out fast. Another sure warning is if they start every story with “Now, this is no shit,” – this TINS warning is especially dire, being that it’s the traditional start of any Sea Story. Of course, you should also check the premises for signs of Quija boards, spinners, and the Magic 8 Ball. Full disclosure forces me to admit that one sits on my desk at work.

Is there an actual cure for Gundecking? Probably putting less of an emphasis on forms would help. Putting a greater focus on actual performance, pride in the job, and professionalism would be critical. But, until that happens, remember your best defense is knowing or learning the angles yourself so no one would even consider Gundecking you.
I leave you with these words from the immortal petty officer first class John O’Toole: “luck is what you stumble upon in life. Providence is what God plans for you, and planning is how you thread your way between the two without getting crushed.”

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