Saturday, December 27, 2008

MUCM James D. Thumpston, 1933-2008

Tonight, I am particularly glad to be a part of the Navy Musicians Association. Because I belong to that community of MUs, I know I'm not alone in pondering the loss and remembering the life of a friend, teacher and shipmate.
MUCM Jim Thumpston passed away a few days ago in Orlando, Florida. While "Thumper" spent much of his career in fleet bands, his greatest influence on Navy music, no doubt, came from his tours at the School of Music in the '70s and '80s. As Head of Advanced Courses, Master Chief Thumpston trained hundreds of MUs, some of whom rose to the top enlisted and officer billets in the Navy Music Program. 

Speaking today with NMA President Terry Chesson, I mentioned that Thumper achieved a fleet-wide measure of respect and admiration.

"Jim Thumpston was everybody's chief," Terry said. 

No sailor makes his or her mark alone. We are each the product of those who trained us, who showed us the ropes, who praised us lavishly when we succeeded and chewed us out mercilessly--we thought--when we fell short. Sea stories about furious reprimands from Thumper are as numerous as waves in the ocean. Yet, it is a mark of unusual respect that so many stories of being chewed out by Master Chief Thumpston conclude with these words: 

"And it was just what I needed."  

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Funeral services for MUCM James D. Thumpston are private. Messages of condolence for Jim's family may be left online at the funeral home's website by going to Newcomer Funeral Home & Cremation Services and clicking on "View messages." 

Friday, December 12, 2008

If you want a job done right...

Somebody high up, one of the chiefs, wanted acoustical tiling on the bulkhead of the rehearsal spaces. I suspected it was Master Chief J.J. Connor, whose office was on the second deck, directly above the saxophone section.

MU1 Doyle Church was in charge of the working party.

I was the working party.

"Why me?" I asked Doyle as he showed me the tools and stack of tiles.

"You're the junior man." This was true. I was the leading seaman of Navy Band San Francisco; in fact, I was the only seaman.

Doyle handed me a putty knife and pointed to a can of dark brown gunk next to a pile of acoustical tiles. I was aghast. My leading petty officer expected me to do menial work, the sort of low-skilled, high-mess labor generally performed by janitors and convicts.

And seamen.

The thought of working was intolerable. I am a Mullen, a special race put on the earth for a special purpose. Mullens do not perform manual labor. We are idea people, thinkers, not doers.

"Doyle," I said. "You'll get in trouble if I put up these tiles."

"Me? You've got it backwards; it's you who will be in trouble if you don't."

I shook my head. "You just don't understand," I sighed.

"What's to understand? A petty officer tells a seaman what to do, and the seaman does it. What have I missed?"

"The obivious," I said. "If I do this work, I'll screw it up. Royally. You'll be p.o.'d at me, sure, but still, you'll have a crappy job on your hands." I jerked a thumb at the overhead. "And Master Chief Connor will be p.o.'d, too." I thought for a second and added, "But not at me."

"Who will J.J. be p.o.'d at?"

"You," I said. "Think it over: I warn you that I'll screw up this job, but you bullheadedly go ahead and make me do it. When I'm finished, it looks like hell, and J.J. goes ballistic. Now, ask yourself: who does J.J. blame? The moron seaman who, everybody knows, can barely clean a toilet? Or the career-minded petty officer who used poor judgment in assigning a difficult task to a worthless bozo like me?"

Doyle pondered the situation.

"Prove to me that you're incompetent," he said.

"Let's see," I said, sticking the putty knife into the can of tile glue. "I guess I use this spatula thingie to get the brown gooky stuff." I yanked out the knife, catapulting globs of dark brown goo onto the bulkhead, my dungarees and the carpeting. "Then I put it on one of these white tiles."

"Be careful," Doyle said. "That's the front of the tile."

"Whoops, too late," I said, applying a generous dollop of brown, pasty glue to the wrong side of the tile, creating an object that looked like a turd on a serving platter.

"Let's put it here," I said, smooshing the nasty object against the bulkhead, waist-high at a rakish 32-degree angle to the horizon.

"That was sort of fun," I said as I reached for another tile.

"Stop," Doyle said, taking the encrusted putty knife from me. "I get it."

"What the hell is this mess?" came a gruff voice from behind. Master Chief Connor's eyes swept across Doyle and me, settling on the lone, crooked tile, which popped off the bulkhead and fell face down on the deck.

J.J. looked at the putty knife in Doyle's hand. "Church, who taught you to put up tiling?"

"Well, actually, master chief, uh,-"

"Give me that," J.J. said, taking the putty knife from Doyle and dipping it into the can. "Here's how it's done." He applied a thin layer of glue to the back of a tile like a master chef spreading goose liver jelly on French bread.

"I see," Doyle said, reaching for the tile.

"No, let me show you," J.J. said, bending down to slide the tile squarely into the lower left-hand corner of the bulkhead. "You have to start at the edge and work horizontally in rows."

I took one pace backwards.

"And don't use too much glue," J.J. continued, reaching for another tile.

I took another pace backwards.

"You can apply the glue straight to the bulkhead, if you're careful," he said. "That's how we did it back in ComNavCruDesRonLantMedPac."

At least that's what I think he said. By this time, I was sliding out the door, and Doyle wasn't far behind me.

I've always thought that my remarkably high sense of self-esteem was a morale-boosting plus for the Navy. It certainly was true in this case.

I, of course, got out of doing actual work, a skill I would later develop to magnificent proportions.

J.J. Connor got the satisfaction of passing along his hard-earned skills to a new generation of sailors.

And most important, Doyle got the right man for the job.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Call me a liar, call me a fool; just don't call me "sir."

One morning in Newport I was sitting at the admin desk, thinking about my future in the Navy and testing out various forms of address. I liked "Good morning, Warrant Officer Mullen," although "I'll get right on it, Lieutenant" had a reassuring ring. I was about to try out "Lieutenant Commander" when the phone rang.

I began the standard greeting: "Northeastern Navy Band, Petty Officer Mullen speaking. This is an unsecure--"

"Give me Chief Warrant Officer Waldron," a voice growled. "Now."

"May I ask who's calling, sir?"

It was the base captain.

I saw a blinking light on the intercom. "Mr. Waldron is on the other line, sir; would you like me to--"

"Do you understand what 'now' means? Give me Waldron. Now."

I jogged to the bandmaster's office, interrupted Mr. Waldron's call and explained the situation. He pressed a button and said into the phone, "Good morning, captain."

That was pretty much the last complete sentence I heard for a while.

"Yes, sir ... no, sir ... I--yes, sir ... right away, sir."

He hung up and said, "It's Smith again," referring to the most undependable sailor ever to wear a lyre on his shoulder. "The captain says he was drinking on the bandstand again at the 'O' Club last night."

Mr. Waldron grabbed his cover and stormed out the door.

I went back to the admin desk and resumed thinking about my future. I wasn't sure how much Lieutenant Mullen would enjoy taking the heat for every trombone player who forgot to pay for his skivvies at the Navy Exchange, every drummer whose urine contained too much of the wrong chemical, every pianist who eyed the skipper's wife a little too long at a reception.

In other words, my career as an officer would rise or fall on the behavior of people like me.

A pleasant form of address occurred to me:

"Aye, aye, Chief."