Choose The Lemonade

We got to San Diego and I went to North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado to check in at Patrol Squadron Forty-Eight (VP 48). I introduced myself to the personnel guy and he surprised me by saying, “You’ve got the highest test scores in the squadron.”(In boot camp, recruits are given a battery of tests that will later determine job placement.)  I was quite taken aback as I hadn’t thought of it as being a big deal. Of course, my records had been shipped to the squadron ahead of me so they knew all about me. It made me feel uncomfortable, and I knew it was going to be like the kid on the playground that’s different… everyone wants to try him on for size. We went ahead and took care of the personnel business, and the guy took me to the electronics shop and introduced my new boss, the Chief that ran the shop. Over the next few days, I was settling in and learning the things I needed to know. Then, one morning, the chief called me into his office and told me that I had been assigned to mess duty for 90 days. I couldn’t believe it! Everyone knows that only the screw-ups are assigned to mess duty or KP (kitchen police) as the Army calls it. “I don’t even eat in the mess hall. I’m married and draw $30.00 a month for “Commuted Rations” which means I buy my own groceries. My record is clean and there’s no reason for me to be penalized or punished.” The chief told me that these assignments are made by the Leading Chief, and I would have to take it up with him. I had just been handed a bag of lemons.
The Leading Chief is the senior enlisted man in the outfit. His word is law, and he has almost as much power as the Commanding Officer. In our case, the Leading Chief of VP48 was Big John Honchurak. I had only been in the squadron for a few days, but I already understood that nobody wanted a confrontation with Big John. Big John was 6’3”or 6’4” and probably weighed 220 or 230. He was lean and a tough-looking son-of-a-bitch. I went to Big John’s office to make my case. He listened carefully to what I had to say and then told me to report to the Mess Hall Monday morning. I think I was just handed another bag of lemons.
I reported to the Mess Hall Monday morning at 6:00AM as instructed. There were several of us new guys, and the first task was to give us our assignments. I watched as other guys were given different jobs in the galley (kitchen) and around the Mess Hall. Then, I was told that I would be working in the head (restroom). Again, a job for a goof off! What the hell? I didn’t get it. It’s looking like another bag of lemons.
I thought about it and decided there was no reason to pout. If that was the job they had for me then that’s what I would do. I knew I was a “working fool” and could out-work anyone so I might as well give it my best shot.
The head was large. I don’t remember exactly, but it probably had 6 or 8 stools, 3 or 4 urinals, and 3 or 4 sinks. It had just barely been cleaned for quite some time. I spent two full days scrubbing it from top to bottom. The civilian maintenance workers kept everything functioning well so it was just a matter of getting rid of the accumulated grime. All the porcelain was polished until it gleamed. The brass and stainless steel parts were shiny, and the walls and mirrors were spotless. The third morning I only had to spend an hour or so tidying up and I was done. I decided that with everything looking so good I may as well go out and have a smoke. I was leaning up against the building and enjoying my break and I looked up and saw the head cook coming toward me. The Head Cook is like the Leading Chief in that he’s got the power. This guy was a stocky Italian named Rocky, and he also looked like a guy you wouldn’t want to mess with. I figured he was going to give me hell for being out there and smoking rather than working. But, when Rocky started talking, that’s when the lemons started turning into lemonade.
Rocky told me I had done a good job and that the place probably hadn’t looked so good in years. Then he asked me if I’d like to work with the cooks and have cook’s liberty. Liberty is time off and cooks liberty was based on a duty schedule called “5-2.” I don’t remember the details, but you worked two days and then took 5 days off, and the following week, you did the just opposite. You worked 5 days with 2 days off. Rocky went on to tell me that I would start at 5:00AM and get off when everything was done in the early afternoon. He told me I would work with the cooks until it was time to serve, and then I would become a “Line Supplier” and keep the steam tables supplied in the chow line. It sounded great to me and I said so. He welcomed me to the job and said he’d see me in the morning. That was the beginning of one of the best summers I ever had.
The job was good, but the time off was wonderful. Pat and I were new to Coronado and new to California so each day was an adventure. We didn’t have any money but that didn’t keep us from going to the beach and the library and walking in downtown Coronado. A couple of times we came up with the money to ride the ferry across the bay to San Diego. We splurged and bought a Scrabble game and had tournaments that lasted all day. Pat would put on a pot of beans in the slow cooker, and we’d get wrapped up in our Scrabble game and forget everything until we smelled the beans burning. Pat was pregnant and would crave things. She particularly missed ice cream, so she made her own. Some powdered milk, sugar, and vanilla mixed in an ice tray and put in the freezer compartment fixed her right up. Sometimes she would stick popsicle sticks in the tray and make ice cream bars.
Toward the last month of Mess Duty, we were able to move from our apartment near downtown and the library to Navy housing. The Navy housing project was located on San Diego Bay near the Coronado Golf Course.  A few days after we had moved in, one of our neighbors had been transferred and was moving out. He had an inflatable life boat that he didn’t have room for, so he gave it to me. Pat and I spent a lot of time rowing around in the bay and really enjoyed it. One day we rowed down along the golf course and since the water was only about a foot deep, we saw a bunch of golf balls. We paddled around and picked up enough to fill a bucket. Later, I took them over to the Pro Shop and sold them.
After I had been on mess duty for a while, I happened to see the personnel guy from our squadron. He told me that the reason i was assigned to mess duty was that the Leading Chief figured that a person with such high test scores must be a prima donna, a panty-waist, or a sissy and wouldn’t know how to work. He was sending me to mess duty to get me straightened out. Big John’s attitude changed after he heard that I was one of the hardest working guys in the galley and had earned a job with the cook’s liberty. His change of heart was proven a couple of months later when we were surprised by the birth of our twin boys. Pat had uremic poisoning and was supposed to stay in bed, so I had to put in for emergency leave to take care of all of them. Big John had those papers pushed right through and had me out the gate in nothing flat.
If you’re handed a bag of lemons, don’t fret. Just turn them into lemonade.
Dave Thomas
August 20, 2020

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