Mt. Vernon

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Yesterday, on the 4th of July (if I get this posted in time), my super amazing girlfriend and I went to Mt. Vernon (specifically “George Washington’s Mt. Vernon”). She is a big fan of presidential historic sites, and since we were in Maryland for the week so I could retrieve some things to store in my near-mythical storage unit, we decided to take the drive on down to see George Washington’s old digs. In addition, it seemed like a vaguely patriotic thing to do on a day when most fireworks displays were otherwise cancelled.

The particular bit of George Washington myth-making that intrigues me the most is the vision of a man who only really ever wanted to be a farmer, but kept acquiescing, with great reluctance, to lead a revolutionary army or serve as President of the United States. It is the central myth of George Washington, a myth that serves to embody in a man the notion that the revolution the founding fathers fought was for the people and by the people, and not for the aggrandizement of any one person. The nice lady at the tomb made sure to call out the myth explicitly: the one thing she said that stuck was her noting that peopled called ole’ GW the “American Cincinnatus.” It is also a myth that could be true. The facts are a matter of the historical record: George Washington did fight the revolutionary war, and did resign his commission when it was done. George Washington did serve as President of the United States, and did quit after two terms despite no one forcing him to. The story you tell around those bare-bones facts is a story about his motivation for doing so, the truth of which is unknowable without being in George Washington’s head.

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Some of the vegetable gardens.

One version of the myth I toyed with as we explored the grounds of Mt. Vernon was George Washington as just a conservation farming nerd. I imagined him as willing to fulfill the duties to which he was called, but viewing those duties as a distraction from his true passions of soil improvement and crop rotation. I like to picture him meeting an ambassador for the first time, and sure, yeah, doing the whole diplomacy thing, but most desperately interested in having the ambassador send over seeds for exciting new crops. That’s a man that quits the presidency only because he just can’t get anyone in the government to get as excited as he does about manure processing.

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Greenhouse framed with some palms.

Touring Mt. Vernon makes this an easy version of George Washington to conjure. Although there is a museum, the site isn’t a presidential library or anything of that sort, and besides for the whole President thing visiting Mt. Vernon is really just a plantation tour. Like my personal vision of the man, I too am a conservation farming enthusiast, and I thoroughly enjoyed walking around and checking out some of the traditional crops they have growing there and the extensive gardens. The plaques describe Washington’s extensive efforts at growing living fences, and makes note of the garden he would personally tend as he recorded the successes and failures of different experiments. His careful forest management, innovative barn designs, and greenhouse with exotic fruits are all lauded in detail.

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As we wandered up towards the main house, which is surrounded by outbuildings, I wondered what it would have sounded like in 1798. This is my schtick at places like this; you can see the buildings easily enough, but can you really get a sense of the place? As all plantations were, Mt. Vernon was essentially a small town. It was fairly crowded on July 4th, 2020 (masks were worn and social distancing measures were in place), but there was a whole wide array of sounds the landscape was missing. What would it have sounded like with horses pulling carriages up the path? With the roaring fire in the greenhouse keeping the orange trees warm, fed by an enslaved tender? With enslaved women doing the washing in the wash house? With the enslaved blacksmith pounding away in the blacksmith shop? With an enslaved carpenter repairing the roofs on the buildings? With the enslaved cooks chopping meat in the kitchen?

The myth of George Washington as a humble farmer who just really wanted to tend to his fields works well in the 20th century, against the backdrop of the US presidency as the most powerful position in the world. Why would any one man give up so much power over the running of the entire country? But in 1797, the landscape was much different. The presidency was a small job in a new, daring, but weak nation. But at home, at Mt. Vernon, George Washington was instead the lord and master of over 500 enslaved persons, wielding over them the power of life and death. He was, as the museum tells me, one of the richest men in America. So that’s my other vision of George Washington, as a man who returns from his duties, back to Mt. Vernon, so he could finally exercise real power.

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1983 monument to the enslaved persons of Mt. Vernon.

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Slave Cemetery

Mt. Vernon confronts George Washington’s legacy of slavery, but it is in no way a reckoning. At the slave cemetery, nearby Washington’s tomb, there are two markers, one dating from 1929 and another from 1983, and archaeological efforts are ongoing. Throughout the site, there are constant references to the work that enslaved persons did. In all these references, the interpretation falls far short. They all report, I assume, facts, but fail to contextualize them in ways that speak to truth.

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Near the main house, there are bunk rooms for both enslaved men and enslaved women. “Why Bunk Rooms?,” one plaque asks, before answering that “the unusual barracks-style1 bunk rooms were useful here because most of 59 adult slaves at the Mansion House Farm were either single men, or men whose jobs required them to live apart from their families six days a week.” That is a strange and underhanded way to phrase that George Washington, in his power over these people, decided it was more important that he have a butler on-hand than to allow these men to see their families for more than one day a week.

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Punt plaque.

Down by the water, nearby a model slave house made up to look quaint and cozy, there’s another plaque describing a punt. A punt “is a flat-bottomed boat with a square-cut bow that was designed for use on small rivers or other shallow water.” At the bottom, the plaque tells a touching tale about how “Sambo Anderson, one of George Washington’s enslaved carpenters, had a punt that he probably used to cross Little Hunting Creek in order to visit River Farm, where his wife and children lived. Although Washington owned many boats, he sometimes borrowed Anderson’s small vessel. Years later, Anderson recalled that Washington always asked permission to use the boat and invariably returned it to the location where he found it.” This story tells us that George Washington was nice to the people he enslaved. He asked permission to borrow Sambo’s boat! And returned it to the same spot! The plaque doesn’t bother to delve into why Sambo was forced to live away from his family. The insidious task the plaque undertakes is to polish the sharp edges of the relationship between Sambo and George Washington. George Washington had the power to order Sambo killed at any time and for any reason. George Washington personally prevented Sambo from living his own life as he chose. If you’re George Washington, why not be nice to a fellow human being whose life you could end at any time?

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Outside of the COVID-19 era, we might have come across it sooner, but it wasn’t until we were really heading out of Mt. Vernon that we found the portion of the museum dedicated to discussing the lives of enslaved persons on Mt. Vernon. Here, the museum works to paint a picture of a man torn in his very soul about the legacy of slavery. It’s a picture I just couldn’t buy.

In the submarine force, we had these training modules, called SOBTs (Submarine On-Board Training), that detailed events that lead up to various submarine accidents. Almost invariably there was a note in there, along the lines of “and the Quartermaster thought the ship was in trouble and this was a Bad Idea, but he told no one and did nothing about it.” I always felt you didn’t get credit for that; no one cares if you thought something was a bad idea if you didn’t do anything about it. Right from the start the museum spins a similar tale about Washington. It explains that his views on slavery changed over time, and towards the end of his life he thought it was a bad idea. But he didn’t do anything about it. You don’t get credit for freeing enslaved persons after you die and don’t need them anymore. I found frustrating the line that he was “unable to extricate himself from slavery during his lifetime.” That’s not true. What is true is that he couldn’t find a way to do it, and maintain the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed.

In my head as I was imagining this post it was an eloquent analysis of the mythmaking surrounding the founding fathers, a notion buoyed by a viewing of Hamilton last night on Disney+. It’s turned into more of a screed, but one that’s necessary, I think. The museum continues to shy away from truth while reporting facts. It discusses how slavery was economically unviable, how George Washington lamented that many of the enslaved persons didn’t really earn enough to make their “upkeep” profitable. That turns slavery into a charity case: these people couldn’t survive on their own, being unable to do productive work, but good ole’ George Washington keeps them on the farm anyways so they could stay fed and clothed. Let’s ignore why they were never able to save up for a retirement on their own.

The museum details the various punishments that George Washington could employ to keep the enslaved persons under control. The direst was selling them to the West Indies, which the museum noted was tantamount to a death sentence. This was reserved for only the most pernicious troublemakers, for whom George felt there was no real remedy. This puts the onus on the enslaved persons: if only they had acted better, Washington wouldn’t have been forced to send them to their deaths. The crimes for which these men paid with their lives? Fighting for their freedom and inconveniencing George Washington.

The most galling was the museum noting that freedom for many of the people George Washington freed in his will was “bittersweet.” Washington did not really own all of the enslaved persons on his farms; many he controlled via his marriage to Martha Washington, who had inherited them via the Custis line. Since the persons enslaved by Washington and persons enslaved by the Custis’ had intermarried, in some cases only parts of some families were freed upon Washington’s death. This is what made freedom “bittersweet,” in the museum’s telling. In that telling, sure, slavery was bad, but at least it kept families together!

The museum is wrought with, at first I was going to say “contradictions” like that, but “contradictions” is not quite right. There is no way to tell the whole truth of the life of a slaveowner and make that slaveowner look anything but evil. Whatever ideals George Washington fought for, he compromised them at home. The only question we have to answer is how much can a man compromise, and still get credit for fighting? In the year 2020, we can no longer accept a moral compromise that entailed the enslavement of hundreds of people so one man could continue to live a particular lifestyle. George Washington could have freed his slaves in his lifetime, but he just couldn’t figure out a way to do it and still be the “gentleman farmer” that he, or maybe just historians, imagined himself to be. When people argue against tearing down Confederate statues on the slippery-slope principle that, before you know it, we’ll be tearing down George Washington, they think they have a pretty rock-solid argument. Instead, I think we must reevaluate these men with every new generation. While it is imperative to learn about the context in which history happened, in order to actually understand the decisions people like George Washington made, we are not bound by the moral judgements of the past. It is the right of every present generation to look back and judge these men by the standards to which we would like to uphold, and only then take the lessons from their lives to help us live ours.

1I also want to say, the plaque notes that the bunkhouse as it is shown at Mt. Vernon today is based off of barracks occupied by Continental Army troops, which they make note of I guess as a way of citing their sources, but also seems to me says something like “look, George Washington treated enslaved persons just as well as Army troops! Couldn’t have been all that bad!”

Hammonasset

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When I took this photo I initially didn’t spot my own legs on the viewfinder; my swimsuit just ended as far as I could tell.

Reading this week:

  • The Arabs: A Short History by Philip K. Hitti (1949)
  • Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
  • Make Your Bed by Admiral William H. McRaven (USN, Ret) (gift)
  • Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans (from a seminar)

This past weekend (as I’m writing this) my girlfriend and I went to Hammonasset!

When I was a wee youth, my family and I would go camping at Hammonasset nearly every summer. My dad has roots in Connecticut, and I think we generally went up to coincide with a family reunion on that side. The big draw of the place for us kids was that there are miles of biking trails (or at least, trails upon which you can bike), which must have offered a pretty nice vacation for my parents. We just went off all day, entirely failing to bother them, and just made sure to stay generally within the confines of the state park. It had been years since I had been here, and I hadn’t quite ever placed Hammonasset (when I was a kid I always wondered how the name related to pigs, and specifically pigs on some sort of asset, but the name apparently actually means “where we dig holes in the ground“) in my head geographically until I was driving to New London to meet up with some friends and spotted the sign. Turns out it is only like a half hour drive from New Haven, so since it was a sunny weekend my girlfriend and I decided to have a beach day to get out of town.

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We left fairly early, because we were afraid of the beach being at capacity and not being allowed in. We got there in plenty of time when the park was still relatively uncrowded (later in the day it got crowded to the point where I kinda no longer felt it was pandemic-appropriate, but we managed to minimize interactions I think) and started off going on some nature walks. When I was smaller I remember the park being much bigger, but it has some very lovely trails overlooking marshes and such. You could even spot, from one rather nice location, some navigational markers (pictured above), which I then got to explain in great detail to my girlfriend. Sudden realization: maybe she asked about them on purpose so I could talk about the International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities System B????? Awww she’s so sweet.

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Besides navigational markers, the park seems to be very very good for birds, with a variety of habitats and a whole mess of bird houses placed all over the park. I made sure to take several pictures. Other things I took pictures of (not included here) were some solar panels (infrastructure!!), a spiral herb garden, and my girlfriend eating a sandwich. I also took some pictures of sailboats, who appeared to be drifting but with gusto, the usual fate of sailboats in Long Island Sound:

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With our exploring done, it was time to hit the beach. We gathered up the camping chairs we had brought, took off our pants, and settled in. We mostly sat there reading our respective books, which is about the best way to spend a day on the beach if you ask me. Sunscreen was not applied as liberally as it should have, but frankly that would have been difficult in the best of times. The day was beautiful and warm even if the water was cold (we dipped our feet in and got no further) and the beach drew a rather massive crowd. I think they should have limited it a bit more, but people seemed to be at least trying to keep their distance from each other.

After a few hours, we decided we had enough sun and packed it up. We drove around the park a little, and I indulged in a bit of nostalgia, pointing out, for example, the parking lot where I used to ride my bike into flocks of birds in order to scare them, or the field where I used to fly a kite and where that day other people were flying kites. A pretty fun experience and I highly recommend.

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Navy Life Story: Sub Ride Part II

Reading this week:

  • Mimi and Toutou’s Big Adventure: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika by Giles Foden (a perfectly normal adult book, besides the name)
  • Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (I worry this is a feel-good book for white people)

One of the more exciting times came when we did Midshipmen ops. During 2/C (Second Class aka Junior) Summer, Naval Academy Midshipmen go on PROTRAMID (PROfessional TRAining MIDshipmen), which involves a lot of stuff, but includes 24 hours on a submarine. The submarine pulls into port, a whole bunch of Midshipmen board, the submarine goes underway, dives, does some typical submarine-y type operations, serves everyone pizza, and then pulls in and discharges its Midshipmen cargo with them hopefully buoyed by wonder at the submarine life. Midshipmen ops on the Montpelier started about three days after the rest of us had come aboard, so by this time I was practically an expert in all things submarine-related. The Midshipmen that came aboard where actually ROTC Midshipmen, so I didn’t know any, but we had the same rank insignia and therefore I was a friendly face. I guided them in the essentials of Midshipmen life on a submarine, such as “how to ask to go up to the bridge to look at the ocean” and “where are the bathrooms.” That was fun showing off, but I was equally glad to be rid of all the other Midshipmen, and hear the crew complain about how annoying Midshipmen ops are. “Ah but you’re different,” they told me, a Midshipman, mostly because I was sitting within earshot (to be fair to me, Midshipman ops are annoying because doing all those different activities in 24 hours is taxing on the crew, and the Mids take up a lot of space and force people out of their bunks so the Mids have a place to sleep, whereas the longer-term ride-alongs like us don’t really impose any additional requirements on the submarine except that we occasionally bother people by pushing the “test lamp” button on the Tomahawk firing panel to make all the lights light up).

I remember being most impressed by the captain of the ship, who’s name I entirely forget. One time I came up to the bridge to find the captain already there. He had both the legs and sleeves of his coveralls rolled up, and his hat on backwards, enjoying the weather and driving around his nuclear-powered warship. I remember thinking that was just so cool, him relaxed as can be in total command of his domain. This trip was also my first real glimpse of the terror a Navy captain can instill. One of our limited duties as Midshipmen onboard the submarine was to get the movie ready every night in the wardroom. This involved loading up the DVD and getting the popcorn ready. One night we finished watching the movie, and the captain said “Tomorrow we’re gonna watch Talladega Nights.” So the next night we go to set up the movie, and flip through the wardroom’s large binder of movies, but we don’t find the ballad of Ricky Bobby. We ask around, and no one’s got it. So, being the enterprising young Midshipmen we are, wanting to forge ahead and not bother Garcia (I hate that book), we simply chose another movie. Shortly before the movie was about to begin, we casually mentioned this to the XO. “Oh no,” he said, fright evident in his eyes, “that’s not good.” This initiated a flurry of activity. People were woken up. Audio-visual systems were to be rerouted. Additional potential sources of movies were hunted down. Panic commenced when none of these options were bearing fruit. Suddenly, the captain walked in! We told him that we didn’t have the movie. The captain then simply walked out. We figured we were doomed. We couldn’t find the movie! How much of an abject failure could each of us be? But then shortly thereafter the captain simply returned to the wardroom, tossed a copy of the movie on the table, and stated flatly “Man to do a man’s job,” and we watched the movie.

Other exciting things happened during our time on board. We had two swim calls, to take advantage of the Caribbean weather. These are what it sounds like, where the submarine surfaces, stops, and people can go topside and go swimming. Also during this event we had a gun shoot (on the opposite side of the ship as the swim call). The ship came up with some excuse that they needed to shoot the 50-cal they had onboard for force protection, and we got to fire it and some boxes they had wrapped in plastic bags (submarine cruises are very very much recruiting trips). In the battle of AUTEC, the boxes lost, let me tell ya. Smoking was banned on submarines in 2010, but on this trip I also made sure to smoke a cigarette or two just for the novelty of smoking underwater. I had been given the advice to bring a pack of cigs or two onboard even if you didn’t smoke, because hanging out in the smoke pit and giving a away a few cigarettes was an effective way to make friends. I also fondly remember the ship’s gas-station-style cappuccino machine; the galley was small enough that in the right spot you could sip your cappuccino and then reach over and refill your cup without getting up from you seat. Heaven, truly.

Like I said at the beginning, this trip is what convinced me to go submarines. What I liked is how small and tight-nit the ship and the crew seemed. No one seemed aloof or distant, and there were few enough people it seemed you could get to know everyone. People were friendly, or at least willing to give you their time. The crew was irreverent that seemed especially appealing to 19-year-old me. I remember one Chief yelling to another that was disembarking “DON’T FORGET MY GOAT PORN” for when he was to return to the ship. It was a short ride, and after nine days we were off, loaded onto a tugboat that came to meet us and bring us back to shore. Quite the good time.

Swim call cigars.

Navy Life Story: Sub Ride Part I

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Reading this week:

  • The Savage Wars of Peace by Max Boot
  • A Problem From Hell by Samantha Power

If you’ll allow me to briefly skip over the entirety of Plebe Year in my Navy Life Story, I’ll talk about my submarine cruise during Youngster Summer. Every summer at the Naval Academy, you have professional training. This was split up into several different blocks, and on one of those blocks you went on a Fleet Cruise, wherein you did something with the fleet, aka the Navy outside of the Naval Academy. Each summer is named after the following school year, so Plebe Summer becomes before your Plebe (Freshman) year, and Youngster Summer comes before your Youngster (Sophomore) Year. My Youngster Summer I went on a submarine cruise.

During your Youngster Summer, your options for your fleet cruise are limited to either a surface cruise, where you go on a surface ship, or a submarine cruise, where you go on a submarine. The point of this cruise is to give you a taste of what life is like for an enlisted summer. Back in the day, like 1900, you would actually do like, work, but I think these days mostly Midshipmen just sorta wander around the ship looking lost. I can’t remember if submarine cruises or surface cruises were the more popular choice (you did whatever the Academy told you, but you got to put in preferences). Anything submarines-related was generally unpopular at the Naval Academy, but the submarine cruises had the advantage of tending to be shorter. The surface cruises were all for a month, but I wound up on a submarine for a whopping 9 days. I had put in my preference to go on a submarine because I was genuinely interested in submarines, I promise.

This cruise really cemented my desire to go submarines. Usually when I tell the story, I pithily say that “I found my people; they took me in, fed me coffee, and I was quite happy.” The first step was reporting to the Naval Academy, where we stayed overnight for some processing. I was to go on the USS Montpelier, which was stationed in Norfolk. Since it was pretty close, they just drove me down there, along with some other Mids. There was to be three of us on this particular submarine. We were driven by a newly-minted Ensign, who was at the Naval Academy on temporary duty, and had no real idea what was going on. He drove us to Norfolk Naval Base, and then drove along the pier until he found a submarine, and tried to just drop us off. We objected to being dumped on the pier next to some random submarine, so he next drove us to the squadron headquarters. This went better and we checked in with squadron and eventually checked into the on-base hotel for the night. Our submarine was leaving the next morning, and we’d come on board then before departure.

Now that I am writing this I am struggling to remember anything about the first day or so of being underway on the submarine. It must have been fairly overwhelming. Honestly I’m not even sure about the hotel thing, but it seems right. I do remember two officers from the ship picking us up and taking us out to dinner, which was fairly exciting because like, here we were meeting real life officers out in the fleet doing fleet stuff. Also they bought us dinner, after one guilted the other into it, citing the fact they got paid way more than we did. The next morning we must have gone to the submarine with our stuff. We probably sat in the wardroom for a bit while doc got us our TLDs (thermo-luminescent dosimeters, aka radiation detectors) and someone briefed us on the ship and had us sign whatever paperwork we had to sign. We were assigned bunks. I do remember getting the “Iron Cross,” as that particular bunk in 9-man berthing is known. Unlike most bunks, it is half hidden behind some other bunks, leaving a relatively small hole where you can enter it. And it’s the top bunk, all of which means you have to do some particular gymnastics to get up into it. I tried to minimize the number of times I had to crawl into that thing, unusual for a Midshipman.

There frankly wasn’t a whole lot for us to do on the submarine. We were assigned crew buddies, who we were nominally supposed to shadow. I don’t remember his name, but my buddy was a firecontrolman, who stood his watches in the control room. That was convenient because it gave me a pretty good excuse to hang out in control and sit at the fire control stacks. The major advantage there is that was the easiest way to figure out where we were in the world, by looking at the chart on those stacks. This was my first time underway on a ship, and since a submarine doesn’t have windows, it’s a little disorienting figuring out where you are in the world. Over the nine days we were on the submarine, it was slated to first drive down to Cape Canaveral for some Midshipman ops (I’ll explain later), and then to AUTEC in the Caribbean to do, uh, something I guess. I tried to spend a reasonably large amount of time with my crew buddy there to learn the ins and outs of submarine stuff. I eventually figured out someone friendly on each shift I could hang out with and so that’s mostly what I did, hanging out with people on watch. Quite the life.

Please come back next week for Part II, so I can stretch this into two weeks of content. Thanks!

CelNav

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This story doesn’t really have a point, but I was asked in a conversation recently if I had ever learned to navigate by the stars, and I didn’t really get to answer, and there is a pandemic going on. The short answer is yes.

Back at the Naval Academy, I was on the sailing team and over the summer we would compete in various races with the team. That year I competed in the Marion-Bermuda Race, which runs in the years that the more famous Newport-Bermuda race doesn’t. The exciting part of this race, unlike its more famous cousin, is that it is a celestial navigation race. You got more points (or more accurately weren’t penalized) if you navigated the entire race using celestial navigation instead of GPS.

So that was pretty exciting! We got to learn how to use a sextant and stuff! I think I was officially the assistant navigator on this little journey, but firmly the celnav guy, and dove right into it. I was already firmly a Bowditch fan, so this was a lot of fun. I learned all about how celestial navigation worked, got pretty familiar with a variety of stars, and would plot sun lines by hand even though we wound up using a computer program to try to plot star shots. Before the Bermuda race we also did the Annapolis-Newport race, and although that was a GPS race we took the opportunity to practice our celnav skills and it was all pretty great! (that photo up top is of me doing navigation stuff on the sailboat)

Then came the actual race itself, which was overcast the whole time. It is pretty hard to do celestial navigation when the sky is covered in clouds. We got exactly one star shot during the trip, and we frankly weren’t sure whether to trust that more or our dead-reckoning position more. The most significant lesson I learned on that trip is you can dead-reckon your way across an ocean. The rule was that you could turn on your GPS within like, 30 miles of Bermuda, so when we thought we were within 30 miles we turned it on, discovered we were really like 50 or something out, turned it back off again, and repeated that process until we were in fact like 30 miles out. We got second in the race! Pretty good!

Anyways, flash forward about five years when I was a submarine officer and held the title of Assistant Operations Officer which, due to reasons, put me in nominal charge of navigation department. My most significant task in that role was approving the maintenance schedule, which is how I discovered that we had an annual maintenance item to check the ship’s sextant. This is how I discovered that we had a ship’s sextant. That was cool! A sextant onboard! Sextants are cool! I have no idea why we had one. I mean, presumably in was in case of emergencies, but I really cannot conceive of the scenario where a submarine would use a sextant. Like first the GPS system would have to go down, and then with all the backup and inertial navigation systems on board, and then the fact we would have to surface to use the sextant, there just isn’t any way we’d use it. I also had trouble figuring out how you would actually go about using it, even if you were on the surface. Not that anyone on board would know how. Except, you know, for me.

Since I knew how to use a sextant, navigation division decided to have a training on celestial navigation, which I would lead. I was looking forward to this, the division was looking forward to this, it was great! Until I was in the wardroom happily putting together my training PowerPoint. I didn’t usually hang out in the wardroom, almost entirely due to reasons like what happened. The squadron ops officer, who used to be our navigator, was on board for an exercise or something. He saw me putting together the Power Point, and asked what I was doing. I explained what I was doing, and then he asked why the hell I was doing that.

There’s actually a lot of use in learning celestial navigation, even if there is no conceivable reason a submarine would ever use a sextant. There’s a lot of really basic navigation concepts that you get to flex in interesting ways. And lemme tell ya I think submarine crews (maybe not navigation division itself but officers for sure) lack knowledge in basic navigation concepts. You have all these systems and computers that put a lot of it out of sight and out of mind, and so people just come to expect a magical box to give them their position and don’t think much about it, but things can go wrong and it is important to both understand what the magical box was doing and the thought behind it so you could actually rely on the magic box. Somethings the magic didn’t work right and when you run a $2 billion submarine aground people don’t really accept the excuse that “well I didn’t really question the magic box.” So there was a lot of use to it! Plus people were excited for it! No one is ever excited about training!

But the SQOPS apparently didn’t approve of celestial navigation training despite my reasoning. But that didn’t matter, he’s not in my chain of command. But then I guess he told the XO, who yelled at the current navigator, who was my boss, and who yelled at me. This was mildly annoying because the navigator APPROVED the training plan! That said I was going to be training on celestial navigation! And now he was yelling at me for trying to carry out the training plan he approved! It’s things like this that made me quit the Navy. But thankfully nav bought my “it’s really training on basic navigation concepts disguised as celestial navigation training” and so I got to do the training and play with a sextant and everyone loved it and it was a great Power Point to boot.

Sheep Shearin’

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Reading this week:

  • Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis with Michael D’Orso

This past week it was back to farm country. We were officially on summer break, so we decided to head back north for some idyllic pastoral scenes, such as the above one with fluffy sheep. But! These fluffy sheep were not to last, because the World Famous Fred DePaul was coming down to shear some sheep and I got to help out!

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Glamour shots.

Shearing sheep was the big event for the weekend. It only happens once a year, after all. Or anyway it’s supposed to happen once a year. The big drama this particular weekend is that the local newspaper had a front-page photo of Sheep Shearin’ Fred shearing a sheep that hadn’t been sheared in two years. This was dramatic because any responsible sheep farmer knows to shear their sheep every year, because it’s neither good for the sheep nor good for the wool to let the sheep go two years. Fred didn’t own the sheep, but everyone involved was worried that their good reputation would be harmed by the journalistic indiscretion. What has the world come to anyway?

Sheep shearing was scheduled to start at about 10 in the morning with the arrival of Fred. Farmer Billy, as my girlfriend’s dad is known to his legion of online fans, had prepared by rounding up the sheep. Besides being sheared, they were getting their hooves trimmed and getting deworming shots. All the lambs were getting banded and docked just so they wouldn’t feel left out.

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It is a joke that I managed to make several times that day, but with the whole world protesting so they can be allowed to get a haircut the sheep were notably unethusiastic about their all-inclusive spa day. I mean between a haircut and a mani-pedi what more could you want? But they were unenthusiastic (I know I can’t blame ’em). To shear the sheep, you flip ’em on their back or on their butt, at which point they largely go limp. Most of the time I thought they resembled toddlers who didn’t want to do something, having to either be dragged along or hiding behind their parents. But Fred and Farmer Billy are very experienced and caused them no harm. I feel like after they’ve been sheared they must have quite the spring in their step, having lost all that fuzz. At the very least they must be cooler, with summer temperatures finally starting to make a debut.

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One of the sheep reluctantly waiting her turn.

My role in the whole operation was largely moral support. I opened several gates and reluctantly bagged several bags of wool. One time I also measured out some medicine, but that was only because no one else was available. I did get kudos for grabbing the lamb of one particularly protective sheep. “Wow, you dove right in there!,” I was lauded, after heroically picking up a cute lil lamb, which we then used to lure its mom towards her inevitable haircut. Later my girlfriend took over lamb-holding duties, and she had to pose for both me and her mom as we obsessively took the cutest pictures ever. Those pictures are not included because she is the only person that reads this blog and I think she would be upset if I posted them.

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After several hours the sheep were all finished getting sheared, and were released back into the field, where they were quickly distracted from their woes by grass. If I learned anything that day it is that, as my girlfriend pointed out, sheep are very easily distracted by grass. All the little lambs had very tight rubber bands around their tails at this point and couldn’t care less when presented with some grass.

Of all the sheep, the most dramatic makeover was Emmett, the friendly ram. He was tricky because his horns had to be maneuvered around, and I had failed to realize he had ears, but here he is, in all his shorn glory:

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Overall quite the exciting day, and afterwards I lay down on the couch for quite some time out of laziness. I hope my lamb-wrangling skills managed to impress Farmer Billy.

Lying II

VOST 143

Pic also unrelated; before I was on YPs I sailed.

Reading this week:

  • Do Morals Matter? by Joseph S. Nye (this was not, as I was hoping, an analysis of how moral frameworks impacts presidential foreign policy decision-making)
  • Disasters and Development by Frederick C. Cuny
  • Famine, Conflict, and Response by Frederick C. Cuny with Richard B. Hill

It was a lie by omission, to be sure. I very purposefully didn’t tell the Engineer what I had done. Instead I frantically tried to call the divers back down and get them to sign my tagout sheet, because if they signed that then there would be no evidence that I cleared the tags improperly. I guess that’s more than just lying by omission, and I was trying to implicate others (unbeknownst to them) into my scheme. Eventually the diver came back down, because he realized he had not signed the sheet. He signed it, and we were Good to Go. Until I was discovered the next day when my Shutdown Reactor Operator reported me to the Chief of the Boat. He didn’t actually know I lied, he just thought there were double standards at play over what an officer would get in trouble for versus an enlisted sailor. But he made the right call and I never begrudged him for reporting me.

Once I was discovered to have lied, everything I thought would happen did in fact happen. I was removed from watchstanding, issued a letter of reprimand, and it affected my reputation with the crew and the chain of command. I learned lessons from all of that, but that’s not really the lesson I wanted to share with you. I learned that day why people lie.

I learned that it isn’t stupid people that lie, or lazy people, or bad officers, or bad people. I learned there isn’t anything inherently wrong with someone that lies (let’s except sociopaths and the like from this discussion). I learned that people will take the easiest path, and people lie because it is the easiest path.

That sounds disingenuous to people. People make the tough decision all the time. They take the courageous path and certainly don’t take the easy way out. But I think it is a matter of framing. We train people on integrity so as to make the thought of lying so distasteful and so unimaginable that it won’t be perceived as the easy way out. We try to make it so that to lie would be to condemn yourself to endless days of questioning your own identity and self. We punish lying severely so the consequences of lying are clear to all. But still I lied that day about the tagout violation, and I lied because the consequences of telling the truth and reporting myself seemed so unimaginably overwhelming that lying was simply the easier thing to do, and I did it.

The lesson I learned about leadership is that if one of your subordinates lies, that is a huge and immediate signal that something has gone wrong with your leadership and the system you have set up. If someone lies, they are still responsible for that lie, and that lie should be met with the appropriate consequences. But if a person lies that means that you, as a leader, have set up an environment where telling the truth is no longer the easy answer, and you need to immediately rectify that. Sometimes that is hard or impossible. The sheer nature of the submarine service means that there are huge pressures on everyone nearly all the time, and so a lot of times the only option is to make lying have even more devastating consequences.

But nonetheless analyze the rest of the situation. Why did this person feel like lying was the easy way out? Is it that when they tell the truth, it is met with such negative consequences that it doesn’t make telling the truth worth it? Have you set up bad incentives? Do you shoot the messenger so no one wants to tell you the truth and only tells you what you want to hear? Maybe instead your subordinate has been heaped with such responsibility and innumerable tasks where it is impossible to get them all done. If they’re honest that the tasks they have been assigned are impossible, is something done about that, or are they told to just get it done anyways? And if the answer is that these impossible tasks have to get done, no matter what, why wouldn’t they lie? What other choice were they left?

When a subordinate lies, look at the situation they were in and figure out why the choice they made was the easy choice to make. Expand your scope to the other people that work for you. See if they are in a similar situation, and be proactive to make telling the truth the easy and obvious answer. Training people on integrity is important, and it is important to do it regularly. But people only ever act in response to the situation and environment they are placed in. You, as a leader, don’t get to make people’s choices for them. But you are the one that creates the environment in which they make those decisions. Make sure it is an environment in which people can make the good choices you want them to make.

Lying I

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Pic unrelated; it’s back from my YP days.

Reading this week:

  • The Last Whalers by Doug Bock Clark

I came across an article about the CO of the USS Decatur getting fired for lying, so I wanted to share some thoughts on lying. I’m on a “thoughts on leadership” kinda kick with my posts on decision making, and this dovetails with my post on regrets. The other regrettable and regretted decision I considered writing about was the time I lied to cover up a tagout violation.

I now believe that the most important trait in a leader is honesty, which is a much larger concept than just not lying. Not lying is an important part of that though. Back at the Academy, and throughout my time in the fleet, we had regular training on integrity. I was going to say these training sessions were annoying, but that’s not quite the right expression. They were fine to go to, and I didn’t particularly mind going, it’s just that if you don’t lie you’ve already kind of achieved max integrity. You could achieve no higher level of integrity by like, not telling lies moreso than you already were (or uh weren’t) if you weren’t a liar. I believed myself to be a person of integrity who, when faced with a difficult choice, would make the right decision. Until I went ahead and found myself in that position and lied anyway, and learned an important leadership lesson about lying.

The story involves some nuclear reactor stuff and some work controls stuff I’ll try to avoid going into detail over in order not to bore you. This was of course back when I was on the submarine, and the ship was going to do some testing which had not been performed in Guam ever, or at least in anything resembling recent memory. This involved discharging some nuclear material from the submarine to the submarine tender which, for various reasons involving piping connections and the possibility of spewing boiling radioactive water all over the harbor if it went poorly, made people nervous.

To cope with the work and the schedule, the engineering department was split into two watch teams that would stand back-to-back 12 hour watches. I was selected to be the Engineering Duty Officer (EDO) for the day shift, and was therefore the lead guy for this whole project. I wasn’t in charge of planning it, but I was in charge of actually doing it, leading my team and all that. This evolution took what was supposed to be days and turned into weeks of preparatory work. It went from days to weeks because so many things went poorly. They mostly went poorly on the submarine tender side of things, but people’s hackles were raised. Naval Reactors was keeping a close eye on all this and so was everyone else and there were these big wigs and in and among this whole massed operation somehow check valves could still get installed backwards. My counterpart EDO on the night shift had already been replaced like twice, for relatively minor stuff that blew up only because everyone was so nervous.

So it was in this environment that I went to go clear diver’s tags one day. Diver’s tags are part of the maintenance system, and function to prohibit the operation of any equipment that could harm the SCUBA divers that would do work on the ship underwater. When you want to have divers work on the ship, you “hang” these tags, and when the work is done you “clear” them. To ensure these tags are hung properly and cleared safely, there is a system of checks where a representative for the divers will come onto the ship and authorize the tags to be cleared. They have to (back then anyways) sign out of the tags on the computer, and then physically sign on a sheet for every tag that is authorized to be cleared. So the divers came down, signed out of the tags on the computer, and I went ahead and authorized for the tags to be cleared. The mechanic went around and cleared the tags, and I checked them all, and went to go file the paperwork, at which point I realized I had fucked up big time.

The divers, you see, hadn’t signed for the individual tags. I had, at that point, committed a tagout violation by clearing tags that weren’t properly authorized to be cleared. Tagout violations are treated as a huge deal, because they are a huge deal, because the tagout system is what keeps people from being killed when they work on equipment. It has to be respected and little mistakes could easily get someone hurt. The proper answer was to go report to the Engineer and the Captain what I had done.

Then again, this wasn’t really a big deal. The diver’s tags exist to keep divers safe. If there are no divers in the water, they don’t really have a point. And the divers were not in the water, they had no intention of going in the water, and were in fact not authorized to go into the water. So really I had just made a paperwork error. And in my scenario, I knew what would happen if I reported my tagout violation. I would be relieved as EDO. I would let down the whole team, and someone else would have to take my spot. Besides having shucked my duty onto someone else, me getting fired from the EDO job would probably cause more delays, which would hurt the guys, and someone else would have to learn all the things that I had learned to do the job. And on a personal level, it would be a failure on my part and I would be reprimanded. So I lied.

This turned into like 1800 words so I split it into two parts. Come back next week for the thrilling conclusion.

Decisions II: Regret

Emory S. Land Executes Operation AJAX

US Navy again.

Having just written about decisions, and having just watched a documentary on Robert McNamara, I wanted to write a follow-up. Towards the end of the documentary the interviewer asks Bob there if he had any regrets about the war. I decided a while ago that when it came to regret in decision-making, that would have a very specific meaning for me.

If you make enough decisions clearly some of them will go poorly. But as I wrote in the last blog post, you can never know the counter-factual about your decisions. If decisions go poorly, you should look back and analyze what went wrong and how it could have gone better, in order to extract lessons learned from the event. If there was a bad outcome, you should look back and be sad about the negative consequences of the decision. But that’s not the same as regret. A lot of things become more clear in hindsight, and forces and factors will play out how they play out after your decision is made. Instead, I would reserve regret for decisions you knew you had made wrongly or poorly at the time you made them. Regret is reserved not for decisions that necessarily went poorly, but for decisions where you did not do your best in making them.

Back on the submarine, we would have critiques and a common “root cause” people tried to cite for when things went wrong is that they felt rushed, or had an “undue sense of urgency.” This usually actually translated into “it was near the end of the work day and I wanted to go home, so I rushed the work.” So our XO called us into the wardroom one day and clarified that “an undue sense of urgency” would be reserved for situations where someone was holding a gun to your head and telling you to get it done.

Flash forward a bit and we’re in the shipyard in shift work. The days in shift work are endless and we were coming up on a deadline to get out of there. I was the Reactor Control Assistant at the time, and the division was supposed to get a piece of testing done. If we didn’t get the testing done, we couldn’t leave the shipyard when we wanted, and this would have made people upset. I got relieved from my shift as Engineering Duty Officer, and was trying to help get the maintenance started per the schedule. The on-watch EDO didn’t want to do the maintenance. I pushed where I thought appropriate, but it was getting late and the the guys that were supposed to do the maintenance were coming up on 20 hours without sleep, and the maintenance was supposed to take several hours. So I gave up and went to the wardroom to work on my own qualifications.

There I found the XO. I sat down and he asked me about the maintenance my division was supposed to get started. I explained that I Just Couldn’t Get It Done. Then this man, that had explained that an “undue sense of urgency” was “someone holding a gun to your head,” he looked me straight in the eye and said to me “you know, sometimes you wish you could just take people out back and shoot them.”

The XO and I did not have the greatest relationship. This was not friendly banter. I understood that he was talking directly to me and about me. And reflecting on the gun comment, I thought I had top-cover. This was exactly the undue sense of urgency he talked about, and if things went poorly I would walk into the critique and say proudly exactly why I thought that sense of urgency was undue. So I got up, left the wardroom, and went back to the engineroom to Just Make It Happen. I cajoled the EDO, and told him the Division Chief and I would personally supervise the thing. So he relented and let us do it.

The guys were pissed. They were not happy about this. They needed sleep. They too were going to just be coming back up on watch soon. They were exhausted. But we felt like we needed to make this happen, and I felt like I had been threatened. So I “supervised” the maintenance but mostly I was standing guard to wake guys up in case the XO or the Naval Reactors rep came around the corner. My guys were falling asleep in the midst of this maintenance. This was Reactor Controls Division maintenance too, on the systems that monitor the nuclear reactor. I was myself falling asleep standing up but since I was standing I was slightly more awake than the guys.

And the whole thing went fine. We completed the maintenance. No mistakes. We reviewed and submitted the paperwork. We did our bit and after a lot of other stuff the ship left the shipyard on time (well, way delayed, but “on time” on the delayed timeline).

The decision to go ahead and push that maintenance is one of my bigger regrets.

That maintenance did not need to get done. It was going to prevent the ship from getting underway if it wasn’t completed, and a delay would have delayed other things, but no lives were in the balance here. It would have been annoying and caused a lot of headaches to get delayed, but no one would have been unsafe. But because I felt some pressure from my chain of command, I went ahead and made it happen. I set a bad precedent for my guys, and overturned every discussion we had ever had about fatigue and safety and the importance of doing reactor controls division maintenance right.

And most importantly, the whole time I knew the right answer. The right answer would have been to push back, to say, look, it’s impossible to get this done right now, my guys are too fatigued, and here’s the schedule for getting it done. It doesn’t matter what the XO said or a theoretical threat to get taken out back, I was there as an officer in the US Navy to make the right decision even when there is pressure to do the wrong thing. And I failed that test. I reflected and learned and grew from that experience, and I was young and inexperienced as a leader and decision-maker, but I don’t get that decision back. If I had just been stupid and made the wrong decision out of stupidity, I could forgive myself for that. But because I didn’t do my best in making the decision that day, I regret it. It wouldn’t be the last or the worst decision I came to regret, but it was an early one and indicative of the framework I would eventually develop.