Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Nobody is Indispensable – A Naval Yarn


On a prominent place on my bookshelves – proudly stands one of my “ancient” books – a novel on the most famous Naval Mutiny –  Mutiny on the Bounty 

The book is titled  CAPTAIN BLIGH AND MR. CHRISTIAN  – the author is Richard Hough  a distinguished historian  who took a new fascinating and controversial look at the Mutiny.

(The memorable 1984 Movie  THE BOUNTY  directed by Roger Donaldson and starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins is based on this book)  

In this book  the author comments: 

Captain Bligh was an excellent “Foul Weather Commander” – but – he was not as good as a “Fair Weather Commander”

Bligh was unsurpassed as a Captain in adversity – when the going was tough.

But – surprisingly – when the going was good – when things seemed to be going smoothly – he seemed “out of depth”.

During my Navy days – I too saw such hard taskmasters – tough “Sea Dogs” – who were excellent leaders in adverse circumstances and tough operational situations at sea – but – these same tough “Sea Dogs” were not that adept at peacetime soldiering ashore – pushing files in Headquarters and shore based offices.

Here is a memoir” involving one such tough “Sea Dog” Captain – the Commanding Officer of my first ship. 

This story happened 42 years ago – in the 1970’s... 

Hilarious Memories of my Wonderful Navy Days
A Fictional Spoof

The Senior Engineer was going crazy.

The Senior Engineer was going crazy because his boss  the Engineer Officer – Commander (E)  would not give the Senior Engineer any leave.

“Senior”  as the Senior Engineer Officer was affectionately called  had not gone on leave for even a single day since he joined the ship almost six months ago.

At sea  there was no leave  since the ship was sailing  and the Senior Engineer was indispensable.

In harbour  Commander (E) denied leave to the hapless Senior Engineer on the pretext that there was repair and maintenance to be done.

At sea  while the Senior Engineer slogged below decks in the heat and grime of Engine Room in his overalls  the Commander (E) would sit in spotless whites playing bridge in the wardroom along with the other “unemployed” officers like “Pusser” (the Supply Officer), “Schoolie” (the “Education” Officer) and “Quack” (the Ship’s Doctor).

In harbour  the Commander (E) made Senior’s life hell by making him do all the tough and dirty work on board ship  while Commander (E) spent most of his time ashore networking with senior officers in the Headquarters to build his career and generally having a good time.

Commander (E) was a sadist.

A “pen-pusher” landlubber self-styled Marine Engineer who had spent most his naval career pushing files in Delhi  Commander (E) was always dressed in spotless whites and never wore the customary overalls which Engineers wore on board ships.

He spent most of his time in his cabin and in the wardroom.

Some witty sailors joked that Commander (E) probably did not even know where the engine-room was located.

Commander (E) had come all the way from Delhi just to “earn” his all important “Sea ACR” – the vital performance appraisal report for his “criterion” sea appointment.

The moment one year sea-time was over  Commander (E) would be back at his comfortable desk in Delhi  and thanks to his first-rate Sea ACR  he would be wearing one more stripe on his shoulder.

And from then onwards  it would be smooth sailing  and it was just a matter of time before he became an Admiral.

Yes  once this crucial sea-time was over  he would “manage” everything.

Like all sadists  Commander (E) was a blustering braggart – a gasbag who put on an outward show of brashness  but the reality was that – deep inside  he was terribly insecure.

Commander (E) was insecure because he was professionally clueless.

In order to cover up his lack of technical knowledge  Commander (E) had made sure he was assigned a good Senior Engineer to do all the dirty work.

Commander (E) knew that all he had to do was to take charge of his of meek Senior Engineer so that everything ran smoothly.

This would ensure that Commander (E) got an excellent ACR which would clear his way for future promotions.

Now suddenly the Senior Engineer wanted a few days leave to go home for an urgent domestic commitment.

And there was this long sailing coming up.

Commander (E) dreaded sailing without the Senior Engineer  lest he be exposed if something went wrong.

In fact  Commander (E) refused to give leave to Senior in harbour too  as Commander (E) was afraid that his technical ignorance would be discovered by the Dockyard Officers.

“30 days leave...? On a frontline warship...? Are you crazy...?” bellowed Commander (E) when he saw Senior’s Leave Application.

“Sir  my sister’s marriage has been fixed. I just got a telegram yesterday.”

“But 30 days leave...?”

“Sir  I have to arrange everything. I am the only brother.”

“Bullshit. A Senior Engineer can’t be absent for a month.”

“Please, Sir. I have to be there for the marriage.”

“You just submit your leave application to me. I’ll see about what to do about it later. You go down to the Engine Room and get the ship ready for sailing. What happened to the defects on the boiler...?”

“Sir – Dockyard is working…”

“You should do it yourself – you bloody shammer.”

“Sir, but …”

“But...? What...? Don’t stand there looking lost  like a clueless clot  with your thumb in your bum  and your brain at neutral. Go and get on with your job...” the Commander (E) shouted at the Senior Engineer.

The hapless Senior Engineer got on to the job – and got the ship ready for sea.

A few days later  after they returned from the Sea Sortie  the Senior Engineer asked Commander (E) about his leave application.

“All you can think about is your leave. Have you prepared the defect list...?” Commander (E) yelled.

“Defect list...? Which defect list...?” Senior asked.

“The bloody refit defect list...”

“Sir  the refit is 6 months away.”

“So...? I want see the defect list first. Only after that will I look at your leave application.”

“Sir  it will take me at least one week to prepare the defect list.”

“So...? You do it.”

“Sir  I have to go on leave right now. My sister’s marriage is next week.”

“What do you mean you have to go on leave...? You bloody impertinent bastard. This is the bloody Navy. In the Navy  Leave is a Privilege – Leave is not a Right... Do you understand...? In any case  there is no chance of any leave for you right now. I have just come to know that there is an important sailing coming up. So just bugger off and get on with your job.”

“Sir  Please  Sir. Try to understand. How can I be missing from my sister’s wedding...?”

“That’s your problem. You should have thought about all that before you joined the Navy. That’s the problem with you dope-entry chaps – you buggers are civilians in uniform.”

“Sir, I want to see the Captain.”

“You’ll see my bloody arse. Now – you get out of here – go to the Engine Room and get on with your job...” Commander (E) thundered.

Senior Engineer did not go to the Engine Room.

He went straight to the Wardroom.

He needed to talk to someone.

He saw “Guns”  the Gunnery Officer  sitting in the Wardroom.

It was only 11 o’clock  but Guns already had a glass in his hand.

On Saturdays  the bar opened at 12 Noon  but Guns” had such a formidable fearsome personality  that no steward would dare to refuse him a drink  whatever the time of the day or night.

Just the previous evening  Guns had ordered the ship’s barber to shave off the Gangway Quartermaster’s moustache for being slack on duty.

In fact Guns” had half the moustache of the terrified Gangway Quartermaster shaved off in public near the gangway. 

Sailors were petrified of Guns  and even most officers steered clear of him.

As per his usual style  Guns” was drinking rum.

A bottle of rum  an ice box  and a jug of water were placed on the table before him.

On seeing the Senior Engineer enter the wardroom  Guns said to the Senior Engineer: 

“Come, Senior  have a drink...”  

(As I told you – the Senior Engineer Officer was affectionately called “Senior”)

Senior liked Guns.

Though Guns was a fearsome tyrant  he had somehow taken a liking to the rather docile Senior Engineer.

The steward was alert.

When Guns was around  sailors were on their toes.

He knew Senior’s drink.

A glass of beer was placed before Senior.

“Sir  today  I am thinking of having rum...” Senior stammered.

“That’s good – bloody good...!!! So you are becoming a true-blue sea-dog. Here  take the bottle  and pour some rum into your beer – don’t worry – rum and beer  no fear...!!!” Guns said.

Senior took a big gulp of beer.

Then he topped up the glass with rum.

He swirled the glass to let the beer and rum mix properly  and then he took a huge gulp of the concoction  down the hatch.

Guns looked at Senior curiously  and said: 

“Come on, Senior  get it off your chest.”

The Senior Engineer said: 

“Sir  Commander (E) is not giving me leave for my sister’s marriage...”

“I know. Commander (E) was boasting to the XO – your Commander (E) was telling the XO how he was screwing the hell out of you. Both of them are bastards. They are hand-in-glove. So you can forget about your leave...”

“Sir  but I have to go for my sister’s marriage.”

“Then skip.”


“Just pack your bags and push off.”

“Sir  you are telling me to break ship  to go Absent Without Official Leave  AWOL. I will be marked ‘Run’ – and then – I will be caught and I will be punished.”

“So what...? You take the punishment like a man. You have to decide your priorities for yourself. You decide what is more important for you – attending your sister’s marriage  or cowering before that bloody Commander (E)...”

“Sir  I am feeling scared.”

“Don’t worry. Have some more Rum – it will give you Dutch-Courage...” the Gunnery Officer Guns said  and he topped up Senior’s glass with neat rum.

Senior took a big gulp of rum. 

He felt better – a bit high – the cobwebs in his head began to clear.

The Senior Engineer kept drinking neat rum – and began feeling better and better – as the increasing amount of alcohol in his veins raised his spirits.  

After an hour or so – it was almost 12 noon. 

The Wardroom Mess Secretary  the Ship’s Communications Officer (SCO)  he arrived in the wardroom to make arrangements for the Saturday afternoon Pre-Lunch Drinks (PLD).

Suddenly  Commander (E) barged into to wardroom.

He was stunned to see his Senior Engineer sitting in the wardroom with a glass of rum in his hand – drinking away to glory.

“What the hell are you doing here...? Just go down to the engine-room right now. That’s a bloody order. And there is no liberty for you till further orders...” Commander (E) shouted at Senior in anger.

“Screw your liberty – I am going on leave...” Senior Engineer slurred drunkenly.

On hearing these defiant words from his normally docile subordinate  for a moment  Commander (E) was dumbstruck.

Then  Commander (E) recovered his wits  and he said to Senior Engineer in a threatening manner: 

“If you don’t go to the engine-room right now, I will have you arrested and locked up.”

“You go and hop...” Senior said mockingly to Commander (E). 

The Senior Engineer was in full form after drinking a copious amount of neat rum  the alcohol in his veins was making him feel braver and braver.

Seeing the situation going out of control  the SCO quietly left the wardroom.

Things were turning nasty  and the SCO did not want to be a witness to the fracas.

Besides  he had to inform the Captain immediately  because  after all  like all SCOs on ships  he was the Captain’s spy in the wardroom.

By the time the Captain came down to the wardroom  the situation had blown up  and Senior Engineer was seen menacingly moving towards Commander (E).

The Senior Engineer was waving the empty bottle of rum dangerously at Commander (E)  and Guns was trying to restrain him.

“Stop it...” the Captain shouted in his commanding voice, “What the hell is going on?”

“Sir  Commander (E) is not giving me leave for my sister’s marriage...” Senior Engineer said, looking at the Captain.

“I know...” the Captain said.

“Sir  that’s not true. I want this insubordinate officer punished...” Commander (E) said to the Captain.

“We will see about that later. First  you tell me why are you not giving your Senior Engineer leave to attend his sister’s marriage...?” the Captain asked Commander (E).

“Sir  there is a sailing programme...” Commander (E) said.

“So...? Is he indispensable...? Suppose he drops dead tomorrow  what will you do...? It will take at least a month to get a relief Senior Engineer. Are you telling me that the ship cannot sail if there is no Senior Engineer...? Just tell me  what the hell are you doing on board this ship as Engineer Officer...?” the Captain said sternly to Commander (E).

There was silence in the wardroom.

The Captain looked at Commander (E)  and said: 

“Now you listen carefully, Commander (E). I am approving one leave application today – either Senior’s  or yours. You decide who is more indispensable – you  or your Senior Engineer. Either – he goes on leave  or – you go on leave.”

A few hours later  Senior Engineer was seen crossing the ship’s gangway  with a bag on his shoulder  on his way home – on a month’s leave – to attend his sister’s marriage.

The “Technical Incompetence of Commander (E) was thoroughly exposed during the sailing. 

In fact  the Engine Room Artificers (ERAs) created false alarms from time to time  and they made sure that Commander (E) was in a tizzy.

In due course  the and Engine-Room Sailors had really put Commander (E) in a spin

The Engine-Room Sailors liked Senior Engineer  and wanted to teach Commander (E) a lesson for treating Senior so shabbily.

For the entire sailing  by creating one “defect” after another  the Engine-Room Sailors kept Commander (E) in a state of confusion, anxiety and panic  resulting in the clueless Commander (E) being frequently summoned to the bridge by the Captain – who bullshitted the hell out of the Commander (E) for the frequent “defects”. 

When Senior Engineer returned from leave  the Captain summoned him to his cabin.

“We had a lot of problems during the last sailing...” the Captain said.

“I know, Sir. My ERAs told me. But Sir  you don’t worry. I will get everything shipshape...” Senior said.

“That’s good...” the Captain said.

“May I go, Sir...?” Senior asked permission to leave.

The Captain looked at Senior Engineer for some time. 

Then  the Captain said to the Senior Engineer: 

“There is one more thing. Your Commander (E) has had a very rough time and he needs some rest. I am thinking of sending Commander (E) on long leave. Can you manage on your own...?”

“Of course – I can manage the Engine-Room Department on my own. Please send Commander (E) on long leave. Sir – nobody is indispensable...” Senior Engineer said, tongue-in-cheek.

“Yes. Nobody is indispensable...” the Captain laughed.

Copyright © Vikram Karve 
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1. This story is a fictional spoof, satire, 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.
2. This story is a work of fiction. Events, Places, Settings and Incidents narrated in the story is 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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