Wednesday, June 30, 2010

NBS Det Rota: Pumpkins for Sale!

Here's another discovery from an archive tape I recently unearthed from my years as a Navy journalist in Rota, Spain. This piece departs from the warfighting emphasis of stories I posted Monday and Tuesday, offering a slice of life on base.

Rota, you see, was more than a collection of service members toiling away on docks, air strips, and other gritty places. It was also a community of families. We serviced aircraft carriers and airplanes, sure. But we also had a grocery store, a movie theater, and a pizza parlor. Because of that expanded audience, the journalists of NBS Rota sought to inform and entertain everyone: sailers, spouses, kids, the whole community.

Indeed many of our stories featured aspects of Navy life you'd never see on those old "Port of Call" recruiting commercials. I reckon that for each story emerging from the spirit of "It's not just a job, it's an adventure," three or four pieces concentrated on more pedestrian matters, like preparing for Halloween. Scroll down to see what I mean. Or hang around for a while. It's time to return to where I left off yesterday.

As you'll recall, I'd made a mess of my chances to earn a position on the NBS Rota news team, and I was spending most of my time "working the boards" in the control room. It may sound like technical stuff, but actually the job was embarrassingly simple. My Navy career that first year consisted mostly of boredom: pop in the tape, set audio/video levels, and maybe update the Community Calendar. Otherwise, I spent a lot of time watching TV.

Three things kept me sane during those days. First, I was engaged, and Jenny and I wrote letters almost every day. Knowing she was waiting for me, I figured I could endure the next three years of what seemed increasingly to be a waste of my life. Additionally I found friendship at the off-base Rota Servicemen's Branch of the LDS church. The folks there, mostly military families but also some civilians connected to the base, accepted me warmly and made me feel at home. I loved them for it. My third relief was reading. I had to fill my mind with something more meaningful than television.

During those late nights in the control room, especially while those hour-long show were droning on, I'd focus my energies to cobbling together a college education. I was taking distance learning courses -- a promise I'd made to my mother -- but I also wanted to learn things that didn't seem accessible through ordinary textbooks. I had no plans of ever going to "real" college; I simply wanted to learn. My interests were eclectic: history, philosophy, politics, even quantum mechanics.

Cheesy pose from temporary duty at NAS Sigonella, Italy

The common theme was my fascination with big systems of thought and how they have changed through time, so I read Buckminster Fuller, Alvin Toffler, Jeremy Rifkin, and Fritjof Capra, to name a few, along with anyone they quoted (that I could access at the base library). I wrote long and convoluted journal entries on everything I read. My brain was bulging with tough, complex questions that inspire my writing to this day.

By this point I'd given up on becoming a broadcast journalist. I was happily engaged, I had a few friends, and I was stretching myself intellectually, despite those miserable hours in the control room. Who cared if I was stuck in a dead-end job?

The answer surprised me.

Now here's the problem: I've told this story a few times, and my memories of Rota are fairly clear. Still, I'm summarizing events that took place more than two decades ago. I can't promise that every detail is correct. Here's what I do know.

A Marine sergeant named Al Moore transferred to Rota, and right away he impressed everyone at the station. He was smart, hardworking, and creative. He balanced a passion for broadcasting that connected theory to practice with seemingly effortless confidence and charm. Before long, he was leading the Rota news team, and production quality really started to grow. I watched Sgt. Moore sweep into action and thought to myself: "I could learn a lot from that guy." Apparently, he thought so too.

It was late afternoon, and I was packing used tapes into metal shipping cases when Sgt. Moore walked in. An important person on base had just died, and Sarge wanted a story written for the evening news. I had no idea why he was telling me this stuff, dates and other facts about the newly deceased. So he made it real clear. I had a few minutes, maybe five, to bang a script together. I would write that guy's obituary and Rota Today, airing within the hour, would run it. Sarge set my deadline and left.

I could do this job, I told myself. I knew it. One thing I could always do was think and write quickly. The secret was to know the difference between "righting" and "writing." To "right" is to seek the perfect word, the ideal way of things. To "write" is to organize what you have as best you can. One imagines the perfect; the other produces the good. And while I wouldn't read this quote until years later, I knew intuitively the wisdom of Voltaire: "The perfect is the enemy of the good." I could spend a lifetime trying to craft the ideal obituary for a man who'd just died. Or I could spend five minutes and get something on the air.

Sarge returned a few minutes later. I hadn't read through my draft when he took the paper and headed to the edit suite. They ran the story with the script pretty much as I wrote it. I was proud, but a little confused too. What the hell just happened?

It wasn't long before I found out.

Once the news team wrapped up that night's production, Sarge called a meeting with the Chief. We usually had one or two E-7s managing things at the station, but this guy ran the shop, and he disliked me from the start. Maybe he saw me as weak; maybe I just annoyed him. Either way, the Chief was "Old Navy." Screw Admiral Zumwalt and his "Z-grams." The Chief had no time for mentoring or similar crap. I knew he'd cheerfully stick me in that control room for the rest of my tour. That's why that moment, watching Sarge walk to the Chief's office and close the door, really got my attention.

I could hear Sarge and the Chief through that closed door. They were arguing. Again, my memory is less than perfect; it's unlikely they were actually yelling. But clearly a Marine Sergeant and a Navy Chief were engaged in a loud and unpleasant conversation. My head still pounding from that impromptu writing exercise, I knew their altercation involved me. Then the door opened and Sarge motioned my way.

"You work for me now."

I'll return to this story tomorrow. Now's the time to share another video artifact from those Rota years. As I noted earlier, this piece is quite different from the ones I've already posted. The story, a reminder for Rota families to buy pumpkins for Halloween, was envisioned as a light-hearted feature. Most likely it was a desperate effort to fill our nightly "news hole." There was only so much hard news we could cover.

When I got the pitch to do the piece, I probably thought to myself, "I can't believe I've got to lug a camera to the commissary to videotape people buying pumpkins!" Eventually though, I decided to have some fun with the script and voice-over. What's more, I actually found folks willing to share their Great Pumpkin Search adventures with me. It was all a bit surreal, but it was important too. I needed people willing to buy the concept that I was actually asking them about their pumpkin purchases. After all, I had a deadline to meet.

Seeing this story 20 years later, I can still remember how each interview seemed to get better than the last. I returned to the edit suite with a smile, knowing this feature would work. It wasn't perfect, but it was pretty good. Maybe it's all a bit too silly, but at least the story includes faces and places that call forth memories of Rota-life back in the eighties.

[Get higher-quality playback. To see the story in its highest possible quality (given the generation loss) visit its YouTube link: - and select 480p. If the words on the lower-left are "jaggy," reload and try again. If the words are relatively smooth, you're seeing the video as it's intended.]


Jenny Wood said...

I love that pumpkin story - very fun and clever!

Andrew Wood said...

Thanks, Jen! It was a lot of fun making it - even more fun seeing it so many years later.

Oma said...

Geez, if I had a nickel for every hour I spent in that commissary, I'd be somewhere in Tahiti right now! ;-) Great story!

Andrew Wood said...

Oma, I'm so glad you're enjoying these stories. It means a lot to me.

I've gotta ask: Did we know each other in Rota? I've looked at your blogger profile but can't find a name. And while your profile pic is certainly cool, I can't see you that way.

Did we work together or were we simply on base at the same time? :-)

Jon said...

Andy, speaking of you cramming your head with all kinds of might remember a long tretise on the history and development of the armored infantry fighting vehicles that I wrote.
We played a war game called Air Cav a couple times and you had some questions - so I took advantage of my considerable empty nighttime hours as one of the few Air Force guys lost at FOSIF Rota to crank out more than anyone could ever want to know. :-)
Thanks for posting the Rota memories.

Andrew Wood said...

I remember playing Air Cav with you, Jon! It was such fun. I also remember you printing off a list of military lessons; it might have been part of your research.

Two lessons that I remember particularly well: (1) tracers point both ways, and (2) the side with the simplest uniform wins. Good times!

Oh, and remember that cool MS paint (or some variant) software you had? That was the first time I ever saw a computer that could do that stuff. You were always ahead of the curve. :-)

Lynnae said...

It's so fun to watch these!
Oh, and Oma is Sue if you didn't find out yet.

Andrew Wood said...

Oma is Sue! Ah, the mystery is solved...

Thanks for the clue, Lynnae. I was wracking my brains, making quite the racket. :-)