Saturday, October 24, 2009

LEAV in the USMC: My Favorite "Gunny"

In the USMC, I fixed FM radios. I was an intermediate ("I") level avionics technician, meaning I fixed the electronics, after the "O" level techs took it out of the aircraft. I forget whether "O" stood for organizational, or operational level, but hey, it was 25 years ago! I worked in a "shop" from 4:30PM-Midnight, for most of my years there. During this time, I had several supervisors, but one stood head an shoulders above the rest.

"Gunny" (Gunnery Seargent) Keenan, as I'll call him here, was the only boss that motivated me to feel good about an otherwise humdrum job. As a 22 yr. old, recently busted lance corporal, I had little to motivate me, in the last year of my "time," so this was no small feat.

A few things need to be explained: the radios we were working on were Vietnam-era, and this was '84. The warrantees on them expired in '70. We had drawers full of replacement circuit boards, and we did basic troubleshooting. The day-shift had a shop across the hall, that could repair the boards, but no-one was there on the night shift, so we wouldn't bother trying to "troubleshoot" the cicuit card. We'd just chuck 'em

One day Gunny Keenan took me aside, and we had a conversation. He brought out the parts manual, and we looked up the price of the circuit boards. They were over $3,000 each. They were very "old-style," with huge resistors, capacitors, inductors, and transistors, which were easy to remove with a soldering iron. I only had some basic classes in this, and wasn't "certified" to do it. I had cross-trained in the micro-comp shop, so I knew how to do it. I also knew that these circuit cards had about $15 worth of electronics on them, that one could buy at Radio Shack.

He gave me my first lecture on civic responsibility in the bureaucracy, explaining that our tax dollars were paying for every one of these parts, and it would be helpful to everyone, myself included, if I could pitch in to try replacing fewer circuit boards. He said "Leavitt, could I ask you to try fixing some of these circuit boards on the night shift, instead of throwing them at each other?"

I replied "But I'm not certified." He said, "skip the paperwork. I'll give you the keys to the mini-comp shop, if you need to use it." Gunny Keenan had appealed to me in a very personal way. As an established "rule breaker," I loved the idea of doing something good, and still breaking rules and regulations. He "got" me, in a way that was rare in my military experience.

He also used me as a motivational tool for others. When he gave his Friday informal "speech" to the troops one week, he singled me out. He said when he was a young enlisted man, he used to carry a stone around, just to get himself noticed. Some thought he was crazy, but since he was good at his job, it just got him noticed by the senior officers in his command. He then compared himself to me, saying "everyone from the Colonel on down knows when Leavitt takes a piss!"

I lost my Corporal stripes before I got a chance to put them on, because of a positive urinalysis. I had recently returned from the Naval Drug Rehab Center at Miramar Air Base, where "Top Gun" was filmed, and was on six months of weekly urinalysis surveillance when he gave that speech. Everyone laughed at that line, but I appreciated it as a secret acknowledgement of the resposibility he had given me. He gave me good pro-con ratings, as well.

One of the reasons that I would never re-enlist was what the USMC bureaucracy did to Gunny Keenan. The only manager that could get Chris Leavitt, among many others, to be more productive, and save taxpayer dollars, was getting screwed around because of his weight! Gunny Keenan was not very fat, but he was getting "by-the-booked" by the system. His ability to perform his job had no bearing on this. It was strictly because he was literally five pounds over the "guideline" weight.

When I saw a man of his age (he was a little younger then than I am now), and of his position destroyed, by being "forced out" before he wants to leave the USMC, I knew that it was no life for me. If the good guys get screwed with too, what would change for me, after being a "screw-up?" I wasn't exactly ready to be a "good guy," anyway, at that point in my life. However, I can honestly say Gunny Keenan made a lasting impression, 25 years later.

Semper Fidelis

Friday, October 02, 2009


In my first days with Buffy, she gave me a little scratch on my nose. I didn't freak out, and she's been giving me kisses there ever since. She loves the daddy-cat.

"Forts" and "Dirt Bombs:" From Central Park to Roosevelt Hospital!

"Central park was my back yard," I often tell my suburban-raised friends. It wasn't, technically, but I spent so much of my youth there, that I looked at it as if it was my own property. This is a story of the "forts" and "dirt-bomb" fights that were waged at the Adventure Playground, just inside the wall at Central Park West and 69th street. The playground was on the "high ground," with the land sloping downward from it's fence to the black wall that was the park's boundary with the city. The vegetation was mostly forsythia, which blossomed yellow for a few weeks every spring, and some small trees.

We used to squeeze through one particular spot in the playground fence (or just walk around, for the bigger kids), and build forts in the ground. With the slope of the land, we could put up a couple of pieces of wood, and make a shelter. There was occasionally a NYC park worker on duty at the playground, who would chase off dope-sniffers and the like, that might be hanging out in our fort. Sometimes, we chased them out on our own (what screwball wouldn't run from a bunch of kids taunting him?).

Our favorite game was throwing "dirt bombs" at each other, with one group inside the playground fence, and the other in the "fort." The kids at the fence had different dirt than we had on the slope. They had topsoil, with sand tracked into it from the playground, which didn't make good dirt bombs. We had the clay layer exposed, and we just made our fort bigger as we dug into the clay to make bombs. For a time, the playground kids started throwing clumps of grass, with big "dirt bomb" bottoms, but there wasn't enough grass around the edge of the playground for that to last long.

This was an interesting tactical challenge we had set up. The kids in the playground had the higher ground, but had no protection other than the widely-spaced iron bars of the playground. Because we were throwing uphill, they had time to dodge our "bombs." They also were limited to making wet "sandballs," if the fountain was working. Most of the dry "topsoil" dirt bombs used to break up well before reaching us through the vegetation. I fought from the playground side a few times, but I was usually in the fort. Everyone wanted to be in the fort. I used to dream about camping out there overnight, but then I remembered the aforementioned "screwballs" would outnumber me, not vice versa. This was in the mid 1970's.

I suppose that it was inevitable, but one of the kids in the playground decided that he didn't want to bother making a dirt bomb. He just picked up a big rock, and hurled it towards the fort. I chose that moment to stand up, ready to throw a good, sturdy dirt bomb, and saw it coming, just before it smashed me in the eyebrow. I went down, and started screaming "he threw a f**king rock!"

It took a minute or two, but the other kids stopped the "fight," and came over to help me. We climbed over the black stone wall, to Central Park West, and hailed a cab, who took me to Roosevelt Hospital, free of charge. I was bleeding profusely, but with the support of a group of friends, everything turned out fine (I don't remember any adults, other than the cab driver, being involved). The fact is that I was a "frequent flyer" at Roosevelt Hospital, when it came to head wounds. I think that the doctor remembered me, and calmed me down by saying it was "routine" for me.

Eventually, I outgrew playing in "the fort," and I'm sure that the NYC Parks Department has erased any trace of it, but Adventure Playground is still there, just North of the Tavern on the Green restaurant. Did I ever mention that I broke into their attic, and used to steal the "night lights" from their premises, and used them as "heat lamps" in my bedroom? Well, that's another story! Stay tuned for more "Tales From the Vendome."