The Sword, The Bible, and The Long Green Felt
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The Sword, The Bible, and The Long Green Felt

Punishment in the military is different. A lot has been written about it, but the feelings, textures, cadence, and poetry of it is not easy to portray.

In submarines we were fortunate that most of our sailors were highly trained, bright, and diligent. However, that did not make us immune from human weaknesses, and there were times when we had to invoke the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Since we did it so rarely, it took on significance when we did it.

Usually we tried to correct problems without leaving a paper trail, by talking, persuading, helping, threatening, or warning. Often we fought hard to avoid putting a blemish on someone's service record. Sometimes, though, we had to conduct a Captain's Mast, even though we did not want to. And sometimes we did it because we did want to do it. In these circumstances, the innate power of the situation inspired respect, even awe.

One of our sailors was a chief petty officer who had a serious drinking problem. He was typical of many sailors who worked hard and effectively while we were at sea, and who was worse than useless for the first several days after we returned to port. When we pulled into foreign ports, we learned to accept that he was going to drink too much, start fights, and be sent back to the boat to sleep it off. And he was not going to be of any use to us. When we went to sea, however, he was so productive that we tended to believe that overall he was more of an asset than a liability.

His wife also drank too much, and they drank and fought together. When we were in our home port of Key West one time, the two of them almost destroyed a picnic that had been arranged for the entire crew and their families. On another day, I got a call from the Shore Patrol, saying that the civil authorities, meaning the Key West Police Department, had arrested this particular Chief, and the trouble was too much to sweep under the rug. The only way that the SPs got the Chief out of the custody of the civil police was to promise to prosecute under the UCMJ, and provide a report of the proceedings to the police. I went down to the base brig to accept custody of the Chief. I took two large sailors with me. There were no problems, since the SPs had waited until the Chief had slept it off before they called me.

In his drunken binge, this Chief had terrorized a number of tourist groups, broken half the windows on the main business street, and forced the KWPD to use mace for the first time in their history. This guy was in deep trouble.

I performed the investigation, did some research through the UCMJ, and proceeded to orchestrate the proceedings for Captain's Mast. We brought him in to the wardroom, and carried out the trial. The skipper listened to all concerned, and levied his punishment on the spot. The Chief got a fine, in the form of forfeiture of pay, which is the traditional method. He was given a "suspended bust," which meant that if he was convicted of any other infraction in the next six months, he would be demoted automatically to Petty Officer First Class, before any new punishment would be carried out on the new charges. And he was restricted to the boat for twenty days.

I had recommended that the demotion be carried out immediately, and not suspended. I had recommended that the restriction to the boat be for thirty days. Otherwise, the punishment was what I considered to be consistent with other punishments carried out in that harbor at that period in time. The restriction to the boat was especially poignant, since we visited New Orleans for Mardi Gras during that time, and the Chief sat aboard, at a wharf at the Jax Brewery, in the French Quarter, and he could not celebrate with the rest of the crew.

The damage on the main street in Key West was quite impressive, as was the damage in the Shore Patrol headquarters, and I expected that to be the most memorable part of the whole incident. However, when I got to the wardroom for the Mast, I was struck even more strongly by the green felt tablecloth that was used only for Captain's Mast. There was a sword on the table, the skipper's official sword. Alongside that was a Bible. We brought the Chief in, and he was as impressed by it all as I was. This was one of those almost mystical experiences, that I will always remember. Hollywood has never been able to get this part right.

A few days later, his wife and came down to the boat with a .22 pistol in her purse, intending to shoot me for being the investigating officer in this whole episode. She was too drunk to shoot, and I was too young to be scared. This should probably be the one single memory that I have from this incident, but it isn't. The power of the ceremony, the rite, the tradition, and the terror of Captain's Mast is much more strongly impressed on my memory.

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