"I only wanna know one thing, Seidenstein," yelled Tex Berry, his normally protruding eyes now bugging out of his head. "How'd you manage to fail that test three times?
"I mean, I mean," he sputtered, "It's designed to be passed by an idiot, a complete idiot - even an idiot like you!"
It was 1971, I was in the navy, and Tex Berry was a chief petty officer and my supervisor. Tex was an excellent CPO and a character to boot. He was a hardcore, but he wasn't a bully or a snob. He had the politically incorrect habit of calling everyone "boy," he never used one polite word when he could use five obscene ones instead, and if he had any sense of subtlety, no one ever saw it.
But that was fine with me. Our section ran well, he never played favorites, and he had one of the wildest senses of humor of anyone I've ever known. Plus, he had an unshakable sense of loyalty: If you did for him, he'd do for you.
And at that moment, I badly needed Tex to do for me.
Promotion in the navy was based on performance, but it was also based on tests. No matter how well you did your job, you had to pass two tests in order to gain rank. One was called The Military Qualifications. It was a short exam, based on the knowledge that every swabby was supposed to have. The material wasn't obvious but it was pretty simple.
It posed such vital questions as should you ever take off your hat when on guard duty (yes, when passing through sick bay) or what color are US Navy ships - battleship gray or haze gray? (The answer is of course haze gray. After all, why would a warship have a color named after a warship?)
The second test was one based on your specific job and it was a monster. It was huge and not only covered the work you did, but all sorts of esoteric things you never needed to know to do your job well. This was no accident - the test was meant to weed out those who weren't serious about getting promoted. If you wanted to make rank in this man's navy, you had to so some serious, long-term studying.
And even then, you might not make rank, because you competed against everyone else in your rating navy-wide for a limited number of rankings. So if you scored high but a whole bunch more people scored higher, or if the vacancies just weren't there, yo got PNA'd. This stood for Passed, Not Advanced and in everyday language it meant tough nuggies.
However, you first had to pass the Military Qualifications to be allowed to take the rating test. And that test - the simple one - was the one I'd flunked for the third time and the cause of Tex Berry's gasket-blowing outburst.
I had a good reason for failing the test (aside from being an idiot). Since it was offered once every quarter, if I'd have picked one test date and prepared a bit, I could've passed it. But I never had the choice, due to one of the captain's quirks.
Actually, the captain had more quirks than consistencies. He was a cadaverous poop without a sense of humor, people skills, leadership skills or the ability to do anything with morale but lower it. His competence was in doubt as well, since at one of his previous commands, he'd been in charge of a radio shack that caught fire, had inadequate escape routes, and killed a bunch of men as a result.
But he was also an Annapolis graduate, which guaranteed him a lifetime navy career, albeit a downwardly mobile one. This is why he ended up in charge of our ragtag outpost - in a command of losers, he was the biggest one of all.
Martinet that he was, he'd dictated that everyone had to take the Military Qualifications every time they were offered. Unfortunately, each test day coincided with my getting off the mid-watch. This meant I worked from 11 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., then had to hang around till 9 for the test to be given. At that point, I was barely able to hold onto a pencil, let alone record a correct answer. So I flunked each test. But I figured that didn't matter, since there'd be another one in another three months. Unfortunately, I figured wrong.
Suddenly, out of left field, good ole Captain Quirk declared that anyone who failed the test three times had to wait a full year to take it again. This wasn't in Navy Regs, nor had he said word one about it before he made his mandate. So in effect it was an ex post facto law - something prohibited by the Constitutionbut something A-OK in the military.
This was a huge problem for me since getting promoted wasn't just a matter of making more money and getting an extra stripe: If I got promoted, I'd spend the rest of my hitch where I was - on shore, in northern Germany, living large in the bosom of civilization. If I didn't get promoted, I'd have to spend my last two years somewhere else, some garden spot like Adak Island in the Aluetians where I could freeze my buns off, or Diego Garcia, a hellhole somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean, where I could fry them off. Or even worse, some garbage scow floating around the South China Sea.
One way out
I had only one way out, and it all lay with Tex. If he appealed to the captain on my behalf, I might be allowed to take the exam. I didn't ask him to do it, nor did I expect he would, but he did.
This was no small deal. First, going to the captain to make an exception for some low-ranked pinhead wasn't calculated to win the captain's fancy - especially since the exception was to a rule the captain himself had made.
But perhaps even worse was the toll it'd take on Tex, physically. We'd gotten the news of the captain's three strike dictum at the start of a mid-watch. So if Tex was to see the captain, he had to do it as soon as possible, namely the next day. That meant he was going to be in even worse shape pleading my case than I'd been taking the test, for two reasons. One was he couldn't get to see the captain till at least 10.
The other was mid-watches were tougher on Tex than on anyone else on the whole base. We had a hard time with them; Tex had a hellish one. Since falling asleep on watch is THE sin in the military, he never actually dozed off. But he sure nodded a lot. So he was always swilling coffee, walking around, talking to everyone, doing his level best just to get through the night.
When the mid-watch ended, I slunk out of the building without saying a word to Tex. I figured before his four-hour wait to see the captain, my face was the last thing he needed - or wanted - to see.
When I got to work that night, Tex was already at his desk, and I decided not to delay the inevitable.
"So," I said, "What's the verdict?"
"Guilty as charged," he said, straight-faced.
"Oh no," I said.
"Oh yes," he said. Then he added, "But the sentence was suspended. You can take the test."
I exhaled loudly, not even realizing I'd been holding my breath.
Of course I wanted to thank him, but wasn't quite sure how. In the uber-macho navy, being too polite was seen as a sure sign of incipient sissyhood.
Instead I blurted, "And don't worry, Chief, I'll study those tests for all I'm worth."
I knew in typical Tex style, he'd to get in the last word - and he did.
"For all you're worth?" he said. "Hell, boy, you better do a whole lot better than that!"