Monday, August 4, 2014

Humor in Uniform - “QUACK” AT SEA

Unforgettable Characters I Met in the Navy – “QUACK” AT SEA

When I joined the Navy in the 1970’s, there were three “must read” books for every naval officer:

1. THE CAINE MUTINY by Herman Wouk

2. THE CRUEL SEA by Nicholas Monsarrat

3. WE JOINED THE NAVY by John Winton

I wonder whether the “must read” list has changed, because a young naval officer I met recently had not even heard of these books, leave alone reading them.

As far as I was concerned, these books had a lasting impact on me.

If you intend joining the navy, or are a young naval officer, I suggest you read these three sea novels, besides the mandatory prescribed reading, for it may help you to understand naval life better, and look at things with a sense of humour.

By the way, all the three author were Naval Officers and have based their novels on their experiences in their navy careers.

Here is a quote from “The Caine Mutiny” by Herman Wouk:

“The Navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots. If you are not an idiot, but find yourself in the Navy, you can only operate well by pretending to be one. All the shortcuts and economies and common-sense changes that your native intelligence suggests to you are mistakes. Learn to quash them. Constantly ask yourself, ‘How would I do this if I were a fool?’ Throttle down your mind to a crawl. Then you will never go wrong.”
― Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny

During my long career in the navy, I met unforgettable characters and had hilarious experiences.

Let me dig into my Humour in Uniform” archives and tell you you once such episode about a “Quack” at Sea:

A Spoof


In the Defence Services, once you join a particular service, you remain in that service – if you join the army you remain in the army, if you join the navy you remain in the navy, and if you join the air force you remain in the air force.

Yes, I have seen some air force flight cadets who get grounded being sometimes sent to the navy or army.

But, once you are commissioned as an officer, you cannot change the colour of your uniform.

The only exceptions are doctors – officers of the Army Medical Corps (AMC) – who often change the colour of their uniform like chameleons.

I have seen doctors being transferred from the Army to the Navy and vice versa and maybe it happens with Air Force Doctors too – strictly speaking there are no “air force doctors” or “navy doctors” since all doctors belong to the Army Medical Corps (AMC).

Let me tell you a story about a landlubber “pongo” doctor in Olive Green (OG) who was suddenly transferred to the navy and found himself all at sea.

This happened long back, 26 years ago, in the late 1970’s.

Our ship was not a capital ship, but a frigate.

However, she was a “top heavy” ship, since she was designated as “squadron ship”.

Sister ships of her class were commanded by a Commander, had Lieutenant Commanders as Heads of Executive, Engineering, Electrical and Supply Departments, and Lieutenants as specialist departmental officers.

However, our ship, being the “squadron ship” had a senior Captain in command, a Commander (E) and Commander (L) [squadron Engineer Officer (EO) and squadron Electrical Officer (LO)], and an extra Education Officer (Lieutenant Commander).

However, the second-in-command, the Executive Officer (XO) was a Lieutenant Commander, and this caused some friction as EO and LO outranked him, and we had a young Medical Officer who was a Surgeon Lieutenant.

One day, the young Surgeon Lieutenant was transferred out to do a PG course, and for some time there was no replacement.

A few days later, just as we were about to cast off to sea, a portly middle-aged gentleman arrived at the gangway.

He was in civilian clothes.

He proclaimed to the OOD that he was the new medical officer.

The OOD asked a sailor to take the gentleman to the sick bay, and, meanwhile, tell the stewards to get the medical officer’s cabin ship shape.

Later, when the ship was underway, the XO approached the Captain on the bridge: “Sir, the new Medical Officer has reported on board.”

“The new Doc has come? I didn’t see any appointment letter in the mail,” the Captain said.

“Sir, he has brought his appointment letter by hand – he has come from the Army.”


“Sir, he has been transferred to the Navy on promotion to Surgeon Commander rank.”

“Surgeon Commander?”

“Sir, have a look at his date of commission – he must have been quite a senior Major – I wonder why they moved him from the Army to the Navy,” the XO said.

The Captain looked at the papers and said, “Bloody hell – we have one more headache now – Commander (E), Commander (L), and now a bloody Doc who is a Commander.”

“Yes, Sir, as a squadron ship we have too many passengers – all these Commanders and a ‘Schoolie’ too,” the XO said.

“Where the hell is this new Doc?” the Captain asked.

“Sir, he is violently sea-sick.”

“Sea Sick? In this weather? The sea is hardly rough.”

“Sir, maybe he is not used to it – I think it is his first time on a ship. Shall I get him to your cabin when you go down, Sir?” the XO asked.

“No. Let him find his bearings. I’ll see him later,” the Captain said.

If you are wondering how this “pongo” Doc got posted to our ship – what had happened was this.

In his previous appointment in a Military Hospital, this army medical officer (let us call him “M”), who was more of an administrator than a doctor, was considered a pain in the arse, and his boss and colleagues wanted him out.

They repeatedly complained to the “powers-that-be” to post “M” out, but his reputation was such that no other hospital in the army wanted him.

So, when the opportunity came, the “powers-that-be” transferred him to the navy, and when he protested, they told him that there was no vacancy in the army, and if he wanted to get promoted he had to go to the navy.

So, he reluctantly came to the navy.

Unfortunately, his reputation had preceded him in navy medical circles too, so they shunted “M” off to a ship, rather than suffer him in a naval hospital.

The new ship’s medical officer “M” was extremely unhappy on board the ship.

First, he had the harrowing experience of seasickness.

Secondly, he was very piqued at the way he was being treated on board ship despite his seniority.

“M” was peeved because the other two Commanders, “E” and “L”, the two Lieutenant Commanders, the XO and the Supply Officer, and even the NO who was a mere Lieutenant, had better cabins than him, whereas he was consigned to a suffocating cabin in the Lieutenants’ Cabin Flat which reeked of the nauseating smell of FFO (Furnace Fuel Oil).

His request for a change of cabin to one of the above good cabins was denied, stating that they were marked cabins for respective appointments.

The Captain candidly told “M” that normally a young Surgeon Lieutenant was posted on board this ship as Medical Officer.

To add insult to the injury, the XO bluntly added that they would have been happier with a younger Medical Officer, but now that “M” was posted on board, “M” would have to make do with the same facilities as the earlier medical officer.

Since his family had not joined him, as he had retained accommodation in previous station, “M” had to live on board ship 24/7 even when the ship was in harbour.

His request for a cabin in the luxurious navy mess was turned down since ship’s officers were required to live on board their respective ships.

“M” was also upset that no one gave him any importance on the ship, unlike in the army where a medical officer is treated with reverence in the unit.

“M” would vent his frustrations smoking furiously throughout the day and drinking sorrowfully in the evenings.

“M” particularly hated the XO, who, despite being a rank lower, tried to boss over him (technically, the Medical Officer was subordinate to the XO).

Finally, after a long wait, “M” had his revenge.

It was December – time for the Annual Medical Examination (AME).

Earlier, this AME was quite an informal affair.

But “M”, who was a better administrator than doctor, decided to go by the book.

So “M” promulgated the AME roster giving dates for Annual Medical Examination (AME) department-wise.

On the promulgated day, the XO reported to “M” in the sickbay for his Annual Medical Examination.

“M” asked the XO to strip and lie down and then examined him with a stethoscope.

“M” then filled up a few forms.

As the XO was buttoning up his uniform, “M” gave him the forms and said matter-of-factly: “You have got Heart Murmur.”

“Heart Murmur?” the XO asked, bewildered.

“Yes. You will have to get admitted to hospital, get some tests done and undergo a detailed examination performed by the specialist,” said “M” to the XO.

“Admitted to hospital – but nothing is wrong with me – I am absolutely fit – I just won the squash championship…” the XO protested anxiously.

“Why are you getting excited? It looks like you have hypertension too!” the doctor “M”said to the XO.

“Can you please check me again?” the XO pleaded, “I don’t think anything is wrong with me. I don’t want to get admitted to hospital. I am in promotion zone – my promotion board is in a few months – and you never know – if I get admitted to hospital, those specialist guys may lower my medical category.”

“M” was happy to see that XO was getting panicky, so to drive home his point, “M”said triumphantly: “Of course, they will lower your medical category – heart murmur is a serious matter – you can even get a heart attack – your health is more important than your career – yes, for a heart condition they will permanently lower your medical category…”

The XO got so rattled and panic-stricken on hearing these words that it seemed that the XO would have an actual heart attack there and then.

On seeing the XO’s jittery condition, “M” asked him to lie down and told the Medical Assistant to ask the OOD to summon an ambulance.

And to prove that he was not being vindictive to the XO – his bête noir – and to display his sense of fairness, “M” declared that the other two officers, who had reported for Annual Medical Examination, also had Heart Murmur, and, like the XO, “M”referred them for hospitalization and further tests and examinations by the specialists.

When the OOD informed the Captain that the XO and two officers were being sent to hospital, he was livid.

“We are under sailing orders. I can’t have my XO and two of my key officers in hospital,” the Captain told “M”.

But “M” threw the book at him, and when the Captain called up higher ups to protest, the Captain was firmly told that in medical matters the decision of the medical officer would prevail.

The Captain was advised to do as his Medical Officer recommended.

Of course, if the Captain wanted, he could always speak directly to the specialist.

So, the XO and two Lieutenants were on their way in an ambulance to the naval hospital.

The XO had broken out into a sweat, panic-stricken and scared at his uncertain future – he was terrified that his medical category might be lowered and this would put an end to his dreams of becoming an Admiral, which was his whole and sole aim ever since he joined the academy as a cadet.

The two Lieutenants seemed unconcerned and tried to cheer up the XO: “Sir, don’t worry. This bugger is a quack. Nothing is wrong with us. What is the harm in getting all the tests done free of cost? We will have a nice time in hospital – we need some relaxation after all this hectic sailing – in the evenings we will enjoy in the club – and after a few days we will come back all refreshed and rejuvenated.”

In fact, the two Lieutenants were looking forward to some R&R in hospital.

But their hopes were dashed.

While the ambulance was moving towards the hospital – at the same time, phones were ringing, and their Captain was deperately talking to the Specialist and other medical powers-that-be.

When they reached the hospital for admission, they were instead told to go first to the specialist.

The specialist was a classmate of “M” during MBBS.

He knew that though “M” had passed exams, he had absolutely zero acumen to be a good doctor.

The specialist had also heard about “M” on the AMC grapevine.

The specialist smiled to himself.

“M” was truly a “doctor at sea” – literally and figuratively.

Well aware of the medical incompetence of “M”, the specialist was inclined to declare the three officers medically fit even without seeing them.

The specialist noticed that whereas the XO seemed anxious, the two Lieutenants looked unconcerned and carefree.

The specialist examined all three officers with his stethoscope.

“Nothing is wrong with you guys,” the specialist said, “take the day off – go home and relax – then come and see me first thing tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock.”

Next morning, the specialist took an ECG and declared all three officers fit.

Other officers on the ship waited till “M” went on leave and got their Annual Medical Examination (AME) done on other ships.

When “M” returned, all officers made life hell for “M” and he spent most of his time sulking in his cabin while his Medical Assistant ran the show from the sickbay.

Mercifully, “M” was transferred out to the Station Health Organization (SHO) where he could happily demonstrate his administrative skills supervising hygiene inspections and sanitation management in the cantonment.

His replacement on board ship was a young Surgeon Lieutenant who was an excellent doctor.

As they say:

All’s well that ends well

Copyright © Vikram Karve 
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1. This story is a spoof, pure fiction, just for fun and humor, no offence is meant to anyone, so take it with a pinch of salt and have a laugh. 
2All stories in this blog are a work of fiction. Events, Places, Settings and Incidents narrated in the story are a figment of my imagination. The characters do not exist and are purely imaginary. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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