Storytelling Sunday: This is no sea story!
My contribution for Sian’s monthly Storytelling Sunday feature is so outlandish that some people might be tempted to refer to it as a “sea story.” As a Navy veteran, I know what a sea story is and have great appreciation for those who can tell a good one. Now, since it’s unlikely that everyone reading this will have the same understanding of what a sea story is, it’s important that we start with a common definition. Our friends at Wikipedia offer the following:
sea story (n.) – a work of fiction set largely at sea
I would expand that definition to include exploits of sailors wherever they are, at sea or on land. Storytelling ability, especially of the “sea story” variety, doesn’t depend so much on location as it does on a willingness to note the absurd and mysterious of life and then embellish it in such a way that it will be entertaining to those who hear it. All that said, it’s important to remember that this account IS NOT a sea story—this really did happen and this retelling is as accurate as possible given the many years between then and now.
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As mentioned, I am a Navy veteran, with almost 10 years service between 1969 and 1979. I was a Photographer’s Mate and, at the time of this story, I was stationed at the photo lab at Naval Air Station , Albany, Georgia, the home of the Navy’s RA5C Vigilante squadrons. The photo lab was part of the administrative structure that supported squadron operations and deployments. Our normal work hours were Monday through Friday from 0800 to 1630, but each photographer was also assigned to a 2-3 person duty section that was responsible, on a 4-section rotation, for any afterhours (evenings/weekends, etc.) photographic requirements. I don’t remember all the details now, but the duty sections were set up in such a way that one section had the “duty” for an entire weekend, so that everyone basically had three weekends out of four free.
It was a three-day weekend and I had the “duty camera,” which meant that higher-up duty personnel had my telephone number to call in the event they needed a photographer. It was rare that any of us were called out but if we were, it was usually to photograph the aftermath of a traffic accident or some similar incident.
The weekend had been quiet and, since I couldn’t go far from the telephone, I had gotten a lot done around the house. I was just settling down to relax after a day’s worth of household chores when the phone rang. The caller was the duty officer from one of the RA5C squadrons who said he needed me come in to take some photos. He said he’d give me the details when I got to the hangar, so I gathered up my gear and headed off to the squadron. My memory is vague, but I know I was in civilian clothes rather than a uniform—which probably meant shirt, slacks, and sneakers or maybe even flip-flops. I can’t even remember if it was customary for duty photographers to put on a uniform for afterhours assignments, though my intuition says I was probably on the wrong side of regulations by not being in uniform.
Anyway…when I got to the squadron, the duty officer told me they needed me to go up in a helicopter because they had been receiving complaints from nearby residents of flashing lights at night. I tried to explain to the duty officer that the camera gear I had was not sufficient to the task (think country dark night, standard external flash, probably ASA 400 film??), but he was adamant that I go. (I even tried to contact senior photo lab personnel because, not only was my camera gear inadequate to the task, I also was not flight qualified. There is no way, given the training I had, that I should have been in any of the Navy’s flying machines!) Long story short, and after a direct order to me from the duty officer, squadron personnel outfitted me in a spare flight suit, someone else’s boots, and a helmet, and off we went!
We were gone for at least a couple of hours, probably the duration of the fuel load for the helicopter, looking for any mysterious flashes of light. (Trust me when I say I, for one, was quite happy that we DIDN’T see anything.) Once back on the ground, I went to the photo lab to make a log entry about my adventure and then went home to continue an otherwise uneventful weekend.
Back at work after the long weekend, I knew it was just a matter of time before the leading petty officer and chief petty officer got around to reading the weekend logbook entries. So, I wasn’t surprised when I heard a shout something like “She did WHAT??” from the chief’s office, and I was even less surprised a minute or two later to find myself standing at attention in front of the chief’s desk trying to explain what had happened and why I did what I did.
I ended up with a good talking-to about not having flight quals, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been because my logbook entry was detailed enough that the chief knew I had tried everything I could think of to get out of this assignment. The one good thing that happened is that the chief raised enough of a ruckus with the squadron that I ended up being paid for flight status for the entire month!
The RA5C reconnaissance aircraft could be configured with flash pods to provide lighting for night photography. Some local farmers were claiming that nighttime training flights using the flash pods were scaring their cows to the point they weren’t giving milk. Other people thought the lights were from UFOs. My helicopter adventure was the squadron’s attempt to determine the source of the flashing lights. It was eventually discovered that the flashing lights were the result of a loose electrical line that was shooting off sparks that were, naturally, only visible at night.