Monday, June 28, 2010

NBS Det Rota: Seabee Training

Recently I dug up some old 3/4-inch tapes containing archived stories I produced as a Navy journalist back in the late eighties. This required finding a machine that could actually play tapes that had gotten mighty dusty in the two decades since I left active duty. I also needed to convert the original analog source-material into a more usable digital format (a job that called for the expert help of SJSU's Instructional Resource Center).

While these videos suffer from four generations of quality degradation -- the result of dubbing from original to copy to Micro DV to YouTube -- it's fun to see stories I produced when I was 20 or 21, enjoying a job where every day offered a new opportunity to learn something cool.

Over the next few days, I'll post a handful of those old stories. Along the way I'll share a little background on my time as a Navy Journalist between 1986 and 1990, especially those years when I was stationed in Rota Spain. My memories are less than perfect, certainly subject to error. But the lessons I received on the Iberian Peninsula remain vivid to this day.

I got to Rota after completing a respectable but unaccomplished period of "A School" training at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, Indiana. There, right after high school graduation and boot camp at "Great Mistakes" Illinois, I attended DINFOS, the all-services Defense Information School that churned out journalists (aka "public affairs specialists") who worked around the world. I followed that up with a more intense Navy-only course on shipboard journalism.

Back (L to R): Alan Black, Forrest Parrott, Darrell Ames, Scott Williams, Andrew Wood
Front (L to R): Joseph Bartlett & Scott Fleming
Problem was, I didn't shine enough to be selected for advanced training in broadcasting; sometimes I wondered if I would survive the program at all. Nonetheless the Navy assigned me to one of those vaunted broadcasting billets anyway, even though I didn't make the cut at DINFOS. That's right: without knowing anything about television, I was assigned to work for a television news show.

I arrived in Spain, as Harry Chapin would put it, "in the usual way": exhausted, clueless, and scared. It was my first international flight and naturally I forgot to pack a comb. One of the station's younger journalists picked me up the airport and deposited me in a barracks somewhere. I fell into my rack, closed my eyes -- and it was morning.

I'd overslept and had to get dragged building to building, that same journalist making sure I filled out the voluminous paperwork required to get me officially assigned to Rota. All the while, for wont of a comb, my hair stuck up in all directions. My uniform, never a high priority in my first year, looked no better. I was a mess.

Once I finally got to NBS Detachment Rota (home of a television studio, radio station, and newspaper, collectively offering news and entertainment to about 10,000 service-members and their families on base) I immediately solidified the bad impression that seemed glued to my rat's nest hair. I had no skills, no training, and no clue how to fit into this community.

They were friendly enough, but it didn't take long for the experienced journalists at Rota to take their measure of me. For a while I got to ride along on shoots, ostensibly learning the craft of video production. But I quickly established myself as a screw-up. Thus I was stuck lugging the gear and wrapping up the cables while the real journalists got to produce stories. Eventually, once it was clear that I would be useless as a broadcaster, they gave me the worst job available at the station.

They made me watch television.

Specifically, I was required to monitor the output of our close-captioned network from 6 p.m. until we went off the air at 2 a.m. My job was to insert a videotaped television show (one that had likely aired stateside two years earlier) into a player, select the proper output on the switcher, double-check the audio and video levels, and pack the previous tape back in its case. That took about one minute. I was therefore left with plenty of time alone to do absolutely nothing.

Well that's not entirely true. Sometimes I got to type an informational crawl on the on-air character generator for the Community Calendar, messages about yard sales and chances to catch the "freedom bird" back to the States. And when I managed to screw even that job up by making one too many spelling errors, my superiors added two hours to my start time, figuring I'd benefit from more hands-on supervision. Life that first year in Rota consisted solely of sleeping, late afternoon lunch/dinner, and hours of droning duty. Occasionally I'd publish a story with the base newspaper, just to keep practicing my writing skills during my off-duty time. Yet my daytime "moonlighting" only made me feel more disconnected from my colleagues.

I was miserable.

NBS Det Rota Control Room (photo courtesy of Cathy Hines)
Strangely enough though, there was a guy working those nights who had it worse than I. He was awaiting a transfer to the brig, somewhere stateside as I recall. Yet until he could go to jail, the Navy was determined to make him work. Since he was a smart guy, and he wasn't in trouble for anything all that awful, this fellow (yeah, I remember his name; I just don't want to embarrass him) was assigned to late night duty at the station. For his sins, they made him dub stories onto archive tapes and complete basic pre-production work for the next day's shows.

Turns out, he was pretty good at his job. I remember stumbling bleary-eyed from all that television-watching into the edit suite where he worked. In a dimly-lit room filled top to bottom with gadgets -- output monitors, videotape players, switchers, glowing green screens, and stacks of tapes -- this guy leaned back nonchalantly in his chair like a maestro. It was really cool watching him in his untucked dungarees transform all this equipment into a symphony, so I asked him to teach me what he knew. He was a nice guy, and I guess he appreciated the nighttime company. As a result, a dude waiting for a trip to jail become my first video production teacher.

Learning his techniques -- seeing how all those machines worked (and often did not work) together, studying how he matched audio and video in ways that weren't merely functional but were actually interesting, even persuasive -- occupied my nights. In fact I sometimes had to race back to the "boards" to switch a tape just before "taking black." That's how focused I was on practicing what he taught me. Finally, with his encouragement, I'd show my work to the news crew, and maybe I'd get a second chance at being a broadcast journalist.

The petty officer who ran Rota's news division in those days shared the station's dominant opinion about JOSA Wood, but this guy dutifully came to the edit suite to review my efforts. During those previous nights I'd spent hours making my masterpiece: a music video. Mixing and matching stock footage of airplanes and spacecraft, I produced a mashup with the Ultravox song, "Reap the Wild Wind" (again, this was the '80s). The fact that I could set an edit right on a songbeat, on one frame out of 30, gave me chills. I loved this stuff. Showing off my work, I'd tap the console with almost every cut. "See that?" The boss wasn't impressed. Actually he was annoyed by my nerviness.

Still, I'd shown some initiative, and I did produce something that conveyed elementary skill as an editor. The boss wasn't about to make any promises after watching one cheesy music video, but he said he'd give the matter some thought. Just maybe, I imagined, I might become a Navy broadcaster after all.

Tomorrow I'll return to that part of the story...

In the meantime, here's one of my favorite videos from my Rota tour. Well after that first year, I had developed some confidence as a broadcaster. I could pitch, research, interview, shoot, script, voice, edit, and produce my own packages. Later I would even direct and occasionally anchor for our nightly news show, Rota Today. But no matter how much responsibility I would earn, my favorite job was to produce stories. With each one I learned something new about military life, gaining a deep appreciation for how lucky I was to be a Navy journalist.

For this piece I got to hang out with Seabees and learn just how seriously they take their motto: "We Build, We Fight." Since World War II, the U.S. has depended on these armed, mobile construction workers to build by day and defend by night -- on islands, in jungles, any place where airstrips, fortifications, bridges, or other facilities have to get built quickly and well.

Back in the '80s (and continually, I imagine) Seabee battalions rotated through Naval Station Rota on a regular basis, and they were always up for a story to showcase their work, which was great for me. Pretty much everything Seabees do is videogenic.

This story, a piece about Seabee combat training, allowed me to produce my very own war movie. But mostly I wanted to pay tribute to a great bunch of professionals who often get overlooked in the sweep of Navy history.

[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.]

Learn More: Check out NMCB 133's history page

Special thanks to the cool folks at the SJSU IRC who made it possible to translate these videos from their original, nearly extinct format.


Jenny Wood said...

That is awesome, Andy! Some of that story I didn't even know - there's still so much to learn about you!

Oma said...

Andy, this is TOO FRIGGIN' COOL!!! Not only is the story line terrific, the sound and video quality are surprisingly good given the process necessary to transfer that old stuff to a digital format.

Most of all, tho, I LOVE hearing your voice for the narration--it takes me straight back to Rota and the best years of my life. We still have old home-recorded VHS tapes of various AFRTS programs that have your voice on them--such a treat!

Looking forward to hearing the rest of your story!!!

highway163 said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed the blast from the past! More's coming...