Saturday, April 7, 2012

Newport News Shipbuilding, 2002 (written in 2010)

I’ve been working for a research and development company for 10 years prior to this trip. With out getting into revealing classified writing, generally what we did was a “tune-up” on Navy aircraft carriers. We had just finished up on a trip to Canada (story coming) and off to Virginia. Traveling became a normal part of life for me at the time. Flying at first was frightening, but when you fly several dozen times it starts to become a way of life. A minimal amount of passengers were on board for the flight. The country had just been attacked by a bunch of cowards and traveling by plane was off this list for many. The company had split up the work crew incase one of the planes was hijacked by terrorist. The country was still in the 9-11 fear factor. This way half the crew would make it to Virginia and continue with the work at hand. Preliminary letters were written by management incase a plane went down and families needed to be notified.

First we landed in Washington to take a commuter flight to Virginia. The commuter flight consisted of a twin prop plane with seating for a tired dozen. These twin props are fun to take if you have some traveling hours behind you. The pilots obviously enjoy flying them. The take offs and in-flight banks have a roller coaster effect. Beads of sweat form on the novice travelers’ foreheads with blood stopping grips on hand rails of the seats. Most have visions of fuel pump starvation as 70-degree banks are achieved. The hope is that the pump won’t loose its prime of fuel. If it lost its prime the plane would need to land via wind current. Landings on a twin prop are interesting on windy days. The plane can and will drop 150 feet or so while approaching. The constant struggle by the pilot is evident by readjusting the planes flaps. You know when the pilot looses control when all of a sudden the plane makes a 65-degree bank straight up wards to avoid a belly flop landing. Second approaches are typically followed by extremely hard landing that shocks the spine. I always enjoy seeing the pilots exit the cockpit with a wide smiles and “enjoy your day” good byes.

It was mid-July; Virginia in July has the humidity consistency of pea soup. At 5am wake-up and exit the hotel room into a sauna atmosphere. Waiting for the always-late staff engineers newly recruited from local College and universities. Hard-nosed management would curb these late meetings with a simple private talking to. Simply catch the always-late staff engineer alone then kneel him with “keep pulling that late arrivals and your gone.” There were a couple of ‘staffers’ who no matter how many threats they received by upper management continued to exit their hotel rooms when it was convenient for them. Always followed by “off the record” talks. “listen good get your shit together earlier so you can be on time.” The standard response was always “the hotel didn’t ring me a wake up call,” followed by upper management response of “have your mother call.” “Or set your table alarm clock, your wrist watch alarm clock, cell phone alarm clock and the wake-up call by the front desk.”

Northrop Grumman Newport News Shipbuilding (NGNN) is a bit of a rough house for contractors. Most but not all workers there don’t like contractor because they feel that jobs are being taken away from them (not true). Not only were we contractors but also contractors telling them what to do. A double whammy. Normally we would work with the same shipyard that we have in the past. I have traveled to NGNN many times. This would also make the training easier having the same people year after year. Any manager out there worth their weight will tell you of the costs of training. Normally we would set up the process area (water filtration) and go straight to operations. Supervising is a tough job always looking for balance between getting the job done and not pissing every body off in the process. I worked with a fellow names Reggie who was the shift supervisor for the yard workers. The newspaper crew was the third shift. I always got a kick out of this one particular guy who would walk onboard with an arm full of newspapers apparently not expecting to perform much work. Mondays were even more interesting with the Sunday versions of local and national news. He never tried to hide it. There was always a one-hour shift overlap so that we could talk to the next shift and explain what had occurred over the last shift. Every morning we would come on shift with newspapers on the table and crossword puzzles completely done (not every one on this shift approved of this fellow and he had many run ins with people on his shift for his lack of interest in work). 3rd sift management always had a laundry list of things to do.

The Navy likes to train crews on a daily bases. Constantly over the PA system you would here “this is a drill, this is a drill” so not to panic any body followed by what was occurring around you. If your ever going to get hurt in an industrial environment you want to get hurt on a Navy base. Dozens of Sailors come flocking to the scene. Complete with every piece of equipment needed to save your ass. I must say that it is comforting to know that this amount of training goes on. On one uneventful day I was walking up the gang plank to enter the air craft carrier an alarm went off. The alarm was ear piercing in decibel level. I looked up at the entrance to the ship and seen a m-16 heading down the gang plank accompanied by a 19 year old Marine (the bullets in weapons are real and no longer rubber bullets). The Marine was yelling "DOWN DOWN DOWN," for future reference: when a Marine yells down down down; you get down (they are trained to kill and are ready and willing to protect this country). Ship yard workers(yard birds) started dropping to the ground. I took several steps back off the plank and dove behind a dumpster. I was working on the "out of site out of mind" theory. Its not that I thought that the dumpster would stop any armorer piercing bullets. A dead silence fell over the ship yard. Any one who works or lives near a shipyard will tell you that a shipyard always has noise. Clanking banging and hums of motors. This was an uneasy silence. I looked around and seen dozens of yard birds, belly first to the ground, not moving. Dust clouds were forming around their mouths and nostrils as they exhaled heavily to the ground. Every one was waiting for the familiar "this is a drill" announcement that never came. I remembered being 19 years old and not thinking properly. 19 year old Marines with fully loaded M-16's is in my top ten, "to fear", list. Several M-16 were diving for cover. The sound of a human body hitting cold steel is a dead Thug. A sound that I have never heard before yet I knew exactly what it was when I heard it started running by on board. It was bullets clanking against gun steel. Not sure of the caliber (nor could I mentioned if I knew for its classified info) of the weapon but it must be large for the gun barrel had a tripod at the end of it to hold the weight of the gun barrel up. Two Marines manned the weapon, one holding a drab green ammo can holding the bullets and the other manning the trigger. There were two of these weapons and they took  trained calculated positions aiming the barrels down at us. Approximately 60 feet apart. The only noise in the entire shipyard was the crackling of two way radios as communication between Officers and personnel started. I couldn't hear what was being said. Stress levels started to rise among the yard birds over the age of 30. The dead silence was nerve racking and frightening because all that was need was one sharp noise and all hell would have broken loose in the form of bullets flying. being young and in the military, you can't wait to fire your weapon that you have been trained to fire. Especially with currently live targets. Again there was no announcement that "this is a drill." The atmosphere was quite tense as wide eyed yard birds were looking about. M-16 were still diving for cover, I lost count after 10.
             Finally an Officer stood up after what seemed like several hours, an announced that "this is a drill." A crowd of yard birds formed at the plank ready to take the Officer for a short stroll out back to talk to. Th Officer was escorted by several Marines out of site. The comments being made by the yard birds are unmentionable to put in writing. The coast cleared and every one went back to work and milling about. I have never before or ever seen again in my 18 year career working in and around shipyards seen a drill go unannounced. Please don't do it again, ...Sir.
Creative Commons Copyright by
Dess Dermondy

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