I played the fool for a 1st Class Machinist’s Mate when I was in the Navy, his name was Dancing Bear. Everyone has nicknames in the Navy. Mine was ‘Dad’. I was studying the hydraulic systems on the boat, of which there are more than one, and I had decided to go to Dancing Bear for testing because if he signed you off on hydraulics then no one, I mean no one, ever questioned your knowledge of those systems. You were good as gold! I wanted that.
I studied for three or four weeks and when I felt like I was ready, I went down to lower level, and found Dancing Bear standing watch over some of the atmospheric equipment. I told him I needed a check out on hydraulics.
“Have you studied this?” he asked, “Are you ready?”
I nodded my head and handed him my paperwork. I didn’t think he could stump me. I took a seat on a stool, where I could see him and took a deep breath of the oil soaked air, oil soaked with just a hint of amine and the subtle, piquant undertones of diesel fuel.
He took the pile of paper I handed him and flipped through it to see who had signed me off on other systems.
“Hmmm,” he said to himself. “OK, I’ll start with an easy question… Why does the main hydraulic header (primary pipe) run on the starboard side of the boat and the vital hydraulic header run to port?” He checked a couple of the gauges on the equipment he was monitoring and made some notes on his clipboard, waiting for me.
My stomach dropped, I had no idea what the answer to this ‘easy question’ was. I tried to make something up about keeping the systems separate in case of collisions or damage to one side of the ship. It kinda made sense in a weird, grasping at straws kind of way.
Dancing Bear listened to me stammer for awhile. “I thought you said you’d studied this?” He tossed my stack of paper back at me and said, “Come back when you can answer the easy ones! And, don’t try and go to anybody else either because I’ll know, and I’ll negate their signature. You gotta come back down here – to me.”
I thought he sounded disappointed. I felt like I had let him down. I felt like I had let myself down. I gathered my papers and with my tail between my legs I retreated to middle level to study harder.
For three weeks, I read everything available on our hydraulic systems, I studied piping diagrams, I studied schematics. I ran my hand over every inch of hydraulic piping on the boat. I knew all the valves – what they did, how they were identified, where they were located. I asked other Machinist’s Mates and they all said the same thing.
“Whose signature are you going for?”
“I’m not going to just give you the answer then. He’d find out and I gotta work for him!” They’d point me to some obscure reference material, “Try looking here,” they’d say. And I would miss sleep reading the new material.
Finally, defeated, I went back to him. “I don’t know man,” I said. I’ve read and studied everything I could find but I just don’t know.” I waited for him to either chase me away again or give me a hint. I didn’t want the answer, just a hint.
“Gimme your papers, Dad,” he said, “I’ve been watching you chase this down. I’m impressed with your effort so I’m going to tell you the answer.
“There is no particular reason. That’s just the way it worked out. But, I’ll bet you know more about hydraulics now than almost everybody else on this boat; even the guys who work for me.”
He asked me a few more questions. The answers came easy. Then he signed me off ‘Qualified in Hydraulics’.
Dancing Bear was neither an unappreciative cad nor a spoiled brat. He was a teacher who helped me to teach myself what I needed to know. The entire crew was in on it; either because he had told them or because they had intuited it from my probing.
My self esteem rocketed that day because I had handled the situation just right, and I knew that I would be successful on this boat. My respect for my shipmates increased that day because they worked with Dancing Bear to help me help myself. My opinion of Dancing Bear jumped that day because in an environment where you have to trust every single crew member with your life on a daily basis he made sure that everyone knew they could trust me and that I could trust myself.
Well, that was different.