Friday, July 2, 2010

NBS Det Rota: Commissioning a Spanish Flagship

I'm wrapping up a week of Rota memories with this fifth upload, another story I produced in Spain as a Navy journalist. This piece doesn't feature base-life but rather illustrates one of the best parts of my job as a JO, the chance to travel around the Med in my early twenties and expand my personal horizons. As with other Rota artifacts posted this week, I'm multitasking a bit here, telling stories behind the stories I produced. Keep reading to learn more, or just scroll down for the video.

By 1988 I'd found my place at NBS Det Rota. Al Moore, a Marine who didn't mind being called "Sarge," added me to his news team and offered me the chance to broaden my grasp of electronic news gathering, especially by getting off-base. Shooting stories away from Rota, sometimes on ships or in distant ports, I enhanced my creativity and tolerance for risk. For Sarge, these stories gave our team a chance to shine by bypassing trite topics in search of actual news about how Rota was connected to the Sixth Fleet and the world beyond. Of course these trips also demonstrated Sarge's belief that the value of any story was the experience it provided its producer. Like I asked yesterday, why report on some squadron's refueling record without asking for a chance to fly the plane?

With that attitude, Sarge and I traveled often, at least when he could convince our superiors to support some occasionally wacky plans. Once, when the space shuttle was scheduled to land in its regular spot in the United States, Sarge and I drove to an air station in Móron (yes, that's its real name) 75 miles away, just in case. Sarge figured that if the shuttle were diverted to Móron for some reason -- it was an alternate landing site -- we'd get a worldwide exclusive. And, what the hell, it'd be fun to drive to Móron. I still have a cool NASA access badge because of that story. As you'd guess, the shuttle landed without incident back in the States, but that didn't stop us from producing a decent local story anyway. We made the most of what we had.

Another time, we caught a flight across the Med to produce a story about Seabees doing volunteer construction for a Moroccan orphanage. Local sensibilities dictated that we could not show up in uniform, so we traveled to the African coast "on leave" as tourists; we just happened to pack some decent video gear in our sea bags. I was 20 years old, wandering bazaars and cultivating a taste for authentic mint tea. While interviewing an official at the American Legation somewhere in Tangier's old city, I remember thinking to myself, "How did Sgt. Moore swing this?" The answer was an entrepreneurial spirit.

I saw that spirit most vividly one Friday at the end of a 12-hour day. We'd just wrapped up our nightly show when an alcohol refinery near Rota exploded. Fire trucks were racing to the scene and Sarge knew we should be there too. We bolted from the office, tossed our gear in the van, and followed the wail of sirens out of town. I can still feel every bang of that bumpy road, struggling to unpack the camera in the back of the van without getting a concussion. Arriving at the refinery, we collected footage and interviews, and were warned about an invisible bubble of explosive gasses expanding from that first blast. Supposedly we were standing in the middle of another potential fireball. We were so high on adrenaline that we didn't think twice. There was no way we'd leave until the story was done.

Around that time, I don't remember exactly when, a new Commanding Officer took over at our detachment. His name was John Hopkins, and I heard that he'd served in the enlisted ranks before putting on his officer's uniform. He drew our respect right away, though he was hardly gentle in adjusting the station to his way of doing things. He surveyed our news-gathering operation and concluded that we'd grown complacent, that we had enough personnel and resources to drastically increase our productivity. Why, he asked, were we doing a measly 15-minute news show when we could easily mount a half-hour production. And why did we tape our show? Shouldn't we do it live?

Once again, my memories of those days -- more than 20 years ago -- aren't perfect. But I think that Sarge joined the rest of us in concluding that Lt. Hopkins was asking the impossible. There just wasn't enough news to justify a half-hour show. And we could hardly meet the lieutenant's demanding timeline to change our way of doing things. It went without saying that, obviously, doing our show live was just crazy. The C.O. dismissed our complaints and ordered us to redefine our notion of "crazy." Change was coming, he said, whether we liked it or not. We decided to like it.

Lt. Hopkins wasn't overly theoretical about his command philosophy. He gave the orders and we would follow them. But he did spend some time explaining how we could rethink our approach and, more importantly, unthink our preconceived limitations. Switching from 15 minutes to a half-hour didn't require twice the work. It called for a transformation in how we worked. Often the C.O.'s advice didn't fit our experience or preferences, but that was simply an opportunity to "expand" our experience and preferences! More often than not, Lt. Hopkins pushed us to do more than we thought we could. We strained against his demands, but we got better because of them.

Almost immediately we expanded Rota Today. We improved our weather segment by drafting an aviation meteorologist to become the show's forecaster (squeezing quick visits to his office between other shoots). We redesigned our workflow to produce more short, punchy stories in less time. And we rotated through recurring human interest features, fluff-pieces like "Pet of the Week" and "Yard of the Month," to improve our coverage of Rota-life without draining time from our packed shooting schedules. Instead of producing one story every couple days, each of us might produce two per day. I remember shows so packed with local content that we had no time for AFRTS "commercials." We added other programs too, including Weekend Hot Pix, an MTV-like show for which I wrote (and, for a while, anchored -- badly).

Best of all, we learned to love going "live." Every switching screw-up and cueing-catastrophe became an opportunity to learn without the benefit of second chances. Though my mornings and afternoons were dedicated to story production, many of my evenings were focused on directing the show (and sometimes, less than gracefully, sitting in the anchor chair). Those tense but thrilling moments stay with me after all these years. "Ready two, take two. Where's the tape? Where's the [unbelievably gross and offensive expletive deleted] tape?" There's no teacher like unambiguous consequence.

Enduring the "tacking" ceremony for promotion to JO3
The second half of my Rota tour gave me chances to grow, to deal with pressure, and to become a leader in my own right. I'd already sown on my "crow," the eagle and chevron of a petty officer. Thus as newer JOs joined the team, I transformed myself from a student of broadcasting into a teacher. I knew enough to be useful, though I still had much to learn. Somehow I even managed to earn our detachment's "Sailor of the Year" award, an honor that would inspire amazed head-scratches among anyone who witnessed my early Navy years. Things had definitely changed, and not just for me. Sarge racked up a slew of richly earned rewards and got reassigned to Washington D.C. (years later, he'd become Public Affairs Chief of the Marine Corps). And new folks kept rolling in as the old crew left. All the while Rota Today continued humming right along. This was a place for good work.

Still, I knew my time at NBS Rota was coming to an end. By the end of '89 I was preparing to complete my active duty hitch and head for college, thanks to the GI Bill. I was summoned for a perfunctory "Are you sure you don't want to reenlist?" conversation, but everyone knew I was a one-term sailor. A year earlier, Jenny and I had gotten married -- we couldn't stand to be apart -- and we were now living "on the economy" in an off-base apartment. Soon we'd decide it was time to add another member to our family, with Vienna Lerough Wood joining us on December 17, 1989. There was no way that I was going to go "haze gray and underway." A second tour, surely at sea and far from my family, was out of the question. My time was up.

Gift to commemorate the completion of my Rota tour
At our station's "Hail and Farewell" ceremony, Lt. Hopkins presented me a GI Joe action figure named "Scoop," an embedded journalist in cartoonland. The lieutenant told me I earned that award, only partially in jest, because I would do anything for a shot. He never forgot when I took the station's expensive Betacam to a live-fire exercise far from the van or any kind of cover, and brought back a soaking wet machine after a sudden rainstorm. Station engineers repaired the camera, thank God, but they never let me forget my foolishness.

Lt. Hopkins also reminded me of how we first met, before Rota, when he was a public affairs officer aboard an aircraft carrier. Sarge and I had flown to the ship to do a story, and I apparently made quite an impression. The memory of me scampering across a busy flight deck, nearly getting blown overboard while trying to videotape an F-14 taking off, established my reputation as a broadcaster who loved the job -- perhaps a little too much, the lieutenant added. [Incidentally what I remember most from that shoot was that my plane, waiting for carrier flight operations to conclude, circled that damned ship so long that I barfed just as I stepped on deck. Meeting the ship's C.O., I swallowed that pile of puke and saluted smartly. I think I even smiled.]

There's more to tell about my Rota years. Someday I might add to these admittedly faulty and incomplete bits and pieces. I'll certainly edit them! But for now here's a video sample from another one of my off-base adventures. For this piece Sgt. Moore and I visited Barcelona to witness the King and Queen of Spain commissioning that country's flagship, the Príncipe de Asturias.

The complexity of this production, the two of us on separate ships during the "pass in review" ceremony, meant that Sarge and I shared camera duties. Each of us had a part in this production, but only in the edit suite would we know if our plans had paid off. Touring Barcelona was a blast too. Not only did I get a little "Sea Time" with this shoot, I also enjoyed the chance to visit one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities.

I was always grateful to "Sarge" for dreaming up these sorts of stories. Indeed much of my current wanderlust comes from memories of those journeys, the realization that you can get just about anywhere in the world with some hard work, a bit of passion, and a willingness to try new things. I also look back on advice that Lt. Hopkins offered from time to time, an axiom that both calmed and focused me as a deadline approached: "Perfection is just another 15 minutes." Sometimes, I learned, you don't get 15 more minutes. So you'd better do a decent job with the time you have. But when you do get more time -- oh, this was the great gift of my years as a Navy JO -- make the most of it. Push and push against that notion of the "perfect." Don't settle while time remains. Because the news isn't a truth you uncover; the news is what gets on the air.

[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.]


Oma said...

You write SO well, Andy! These pieces are a joy to read--it really fills in the gaps in the picture I've always had of you guys as a couple of crazy-for-each-other newlyweds all those years ago!

(and sorry about the "Oma" stuff--set that up years ago when I started my blog and have never adequately updated it!;-)

highway163 said...

Thanks so much, "Oma." It has been a pleasure thinking about those years. One day soon I want to write more richly about our branch. Knowing you - and so many other wonderful people in our LDS community back then - made it possible for me to endure some tough times. I know Jenny agrees.

I hope our paths cross again soon, in person!