There is an uncommon winter wind sweeping gray clouds over North Island, threatening the line with rain later in the evening. This is enough to raise the hairs on the back of my neck and arms in a biological attempt at keeping the body warm. Standing in front of me is the XO and the CMC while the Maintenance Officer stands behind the podium reading from the awards binder. The CO is out flying at the moment, probably a random bounce to keep his day quals current. Not a good deal of flying to be had when you're the CO, far too many other things going on for your name to be plastered all over the flight schedule every other day.
I found out yesterday that I was going to be one of the ones standing in this neat little line here in front of the uneven ranks of maintainers in the parking lot. This was something that was not expected given that I was told some time ago by my now former detachment Chief that I was going to be summarily declared 'Sailor of the Month.' This was something that I took in stride (as usual,) and promptly filed away in the back of active memory until someone mentioned that I needed to be standing in front a day ago. Remembering that I was supposed to act surprised and pleased as to what I was going to be getting, I feigned ignorance in the ensuing discussion of what I was supposed to be awarded with. The usual jokes about the fact that when you go to Captain's Mast you are 'awarded' punishment of various sorts went through the shop for a few minutes until the collective ADD of the maintenance department forced attention elsewhere.
I salute, carefully maintaining the balance between being snappy and smacking a lanky arm into the folder that the XO is holding in front of him at the moment. This happened once at my last squadron (embarrassingly enough when I was being promoted,) and I make an effort not to repeat the performance here. XO returns the salute hands me the folder and then steps back after we are photographed by one of the Yeomen doing the usual drill with a digital camera. Meanwhile the MO reads off of the copy in the awards folder.
"From, Commanding Officer, HSL-49. To, AT2 Yurei Gijutsuka. Subject, sailor of the month." The MO pauses and attempts to cover the side of the microphone which is picking up a good bit of the wind blowing through the parking lot in front of the squadron. He continues after giving up and just accepting the breathy static. This is enough time for certain muscles in my stomach to tense, forcing the nervous urge to run away quickly back into the forefront of consciousness. Run, fly, escape. "Congratulations on your selection of HSL-49 sailor of the month for the month of February 2001…"
"How long did it take you to write the program?" The XO asks with a curious smile.
"…selection is the result of your loyalty, selfless dedication to duty, and many hours of hard work…"
"Sir?" I ask with a slight lean forward. Flee. Run. The MO in the background and damage done to my hearing by seven years of work with these birds makes for a slight problem hearing in noisy situations.
"…selflessly volunteered to deploy as Detachment Four's Lead Electronics Technician during a time of critical undermanning…"
"The program you wrote for tracking the calibration gear?" The XO looks at me like I have a torpedo sticking out of my ass and am waving it around Wagga Wagga for the benefit of all to see. Internally I feel this foolish. "How long did it take?"
"…operational commitments during Operation Southern Watch…"
"Oh that. 'Bout an hour." I stop short and wonder what bullshit it is that Chief managed to make up this time around. Part of the warning that he gave me was just to accept whatever was said despite the fact that I may or may have not done as much. Go. Now. Escape. "Sir. Just an Excel spreadsheet with a few modifications."
"…job well done…"
"Terrific. Nice job there AT2." The XO says, signaling the end of the conversation.
"Thanks, sir." I manage another salute and watch as the XO shifts one place to the left.
"…commanding officer, HSL-49." The MO finishes, turns the page and begins again with the next recipient of whatever.
Later I am standing in front of the bird in a slight drizzle driven into a stinging rain by the wind whipped up by the rotorhead thinking of the last time the gave me something I didn't deserve. That particular time the award had been a Navy Achievement Medal, something that I was awarded for doing nothing more complex than my job. The newer of the two pilots in the cockpit is attempting to figure out how to mount a set of night vision goggles to the front of his helmet, something about which I am becoming more than a little peevish.
"Sir?" I knock and speak deferentially into the CO's office. It is minutes after quarters nearly two years ago.
"Come in." The expected reply arrives at about the same time I was thinking it would, removing the battered command ball cap from my head I smartly advance into the office. Under my left arm there is a soft blue folder bearing the Navy seal on the front, the vinyl surface quickly turning slick from the cold sweat of a nervous hand. The CO is half-standing behind his desk.
"Sir I don't know about this award today." I spit quickly.
The rain has intensified to the point where it is now soaking through the thin blue material the coveralls are made from. Cotton wicking comes to mind as the first traces of wind begin biting through the fabric and gnawing away at the front of my legs. The jacket collar is pulled up again so that the fatigue material meets with the base of the back shell of my cranial and prevents water from running down the back of my neck. This of course, does not work nearly as well as I was planning.
"Sir I don't think I deserve this."
"Excuse me AT2?" The CO gives me the look that officers give enlisted people when they're under the impression that Petty Officer so-and-so is off of his fucking rocker. "You what?"
"I don't think I deserve this NAM sir."
"You do." Sitting heavily in his chair with a sigh, the CO rubs the bridge of his nose in parental frustration. "If you didn't we wouldn't have given it to you."
"But sir." The time for figuring out how to mount a set of NVGs on your helmet is not shortly after climbing into the airplane. Enough rain is now falling that thin streams of water are dribbling across the clear lens of the goggles I am wearing. "All I did was my job."
"AT2." The CO starts and then trails off while staring at me, apparently I have managed to convey earnestly enough what I am thinking that he is now taking this seriously. "That is for a hell of a lot more than what it says there. You've done a number of other things that come to mind, however we chose to recognize you for what is there. Okay?"
"Yes sir." Finally the lieutenant figures out how to operate his equipment and begins playing with the eye relief adjustments. Enough rain has fallen that the rotorwash is kicking up the occasional sheet of mist from the flightline. Static being generated by the rotors sweeping through the air shows up as thin traces of purple-white. There are times when the humidity will get high enough that you can see the rotor arc at night as a sort of hazy disc of discharged electricity.
"Petty Officer Gijutsuka?" I stop and pivot on the thick blue pile carpeting about halfway across the CO's office to answer this new question. "You're doing a good job. Accept it."
"Yes sir." I've never felt closer to failure. Again pivoting, I walk out of the office and back downstairs to the waiting phase maintenance. The plane has been in phase for about a week, causing maintenance control to do silly back flips about needing it at the twice a day shift meetings. Back there I feel better, back in coveralls and pushing the machines toward their eventual exercise.
"C'mon fuckers." I mutter through clenched teeth after telling the pilot to release the parking brake and begin taxiing forward. Green arcs from the NVG compatible wands sweep past, round and then into the 'X' at hip level signaling stop. The back end of the bird lurches upwards, then settles again. Brakes off, crack the tailwheel and turn toward the hanger. Good. Turn the other way now; yes that's right, follow the yellow lines you can certainly see with those luminous green lenses, okay forward now lieutenant. Hand off to no one in particular. Salute. Watch the bird taxi by and brace for the expected blast of rotorwash and water just after the tailwheel passes where I am standing.
The bird rolls down the taxiway toward the helo pads, leaving me to another night on the flightline as the reluctant night shift supervisor and another round of unanswerable recrimination. Just once, I'd like to think that these things are deserved and that I do not need to feel guilty about it afterwards. At night you can see the cans at the back end of the deswirl ducts on the engines. Two black eyes with glowing red irises, staring down the doubting technician.