Back when I was in the Navy, which you will hear me say often on this blog because I was in the Navy and weird stuff happened, I saw a lot of flying fish.
I often stood duty as a “Forward Lookout,” which meant I had to stand on the signal bridge over the pilothouse, also known as ‘the bridge,’ and look forward to make sure we didn’t run into anything. It was a great place to see things because it was high up off the water and you’d get a panoramic vista of the ocean from side to side.
Shown above is the ship I was stationed on in the US Navy, called the “USS Fanning.” You can see me in this shot up there on the signal bridge. Sorry my hair is mussy, we got a lot of wind up there.
I’d see all kinds of ships and airplanes, and of course, ocean life, like porpoises, the occasional albatross, and legions of flying fish, which are so named because they kind of fly, but not really.
According to Wikipedia, the ‘Exocoetidae’ are a family of marine fish in the order Beloniforme class Actinopterygii, known colloquially as the ‘Flying Fish.’ There are apparently sixty-six different kinds, but I have no idea what kind I always saw because we didn’t have Wikipedia back then.
These little guys evolved fins that would allow them to get airborne for a few moments if they swam fast enough and then jumped out of the water, and since it’s a defense mechanism to get away from predators, we’d see them break the surface and go skimming along whenever the ship would plow through a school of them.
Those silly little exocoetidae apparently thought our ship was a predator, because they’d get startled when we suddenly showed-up, and they’d give us quite a show of skimming and shimmering.
One day when we were out in the Indian Ocean, which has very few Indians but billions of flying exocoetidae, the Navy decided to do a passive audio sonar test. We were out there with about seven other ships including an aircraft carrier, which *I think* was the USS Ranger, but it was a long time ago.
Our ship, the Fanning, had something called a sonar dome up front built into the hull, and it could listen to underwater things like submarines, whales and Jason Mamoa.
They told us they were going to do a ‘passive sonar exercise,’ during which someone on the aircraft carrier would play a popular contemporary song and pipe it into the water. The idea was that it would be something young sailors would recognize right away, and various ships were told to pace the aircraft carrier at varying distances. One ship was a half-mile from the carrier, another was a mile, and we were two miles out, with a few more farther than we were.
Our Captain decided to plug the audio feed from our underwater sonar dome into the ship’s announcement system called “The 1-MC.” I don’t know why they called it that, but it was usually used to make major announcements to the crew and it’d be heard in every nook and cranny of the ship and out on the weather decks.
He wanted the crew to hear this test and everyone to immediately shout-out the name of the song once it was recognized. The sonar team on the carrier had only said it would be “a popular rock song that’s getting a lot of radio airplay.”
All of the participating ships got lined-up and the captain, using that 1-MC thing, told us to be as quiet as possible during this exercise, but to shout-out the name of the song once it was familiar. Then he or a bridge officer would radio over to the carrier with that name, and it was important to try to identify it as soon as possible. They wanted to see how recognizable it was to each ship in those half-mile increments, so in a way it was sort of a contest but nobody won anything.
I happened to be in a watch rotation that had landed me up on that signal bridge for forward lookout duty during this thing, and there was a 1-MC speaker about five feet away, mounted on top of the ‘signal shack,’ where signalmen hung out. The signalman on duty at that time, Phil Muldoon, was standing next to me along with a few other crew members who’d drifted up to that area to take in the view.
The Captain said, “Okay crew, they’re a minute away from broadcasting this song into the water, I want everyone to shut-up as of now, but shout it out as soon as you recognize it.”
When he stopped talking we heard a kind of ‘thump’ sound as someone plugged the 1-MC into the sonar thing, and then we heard… gurgling.
It was the sound of water rushing along as the sonar dome clipped through the ocean at about 7 knots of speed. We were hearing what a sonar-man on duty would hear all the time through headphones when they’d be listening for things that we would need to know about, like soviet submarines or Aquaman.
Then, we heard something that shouldn’t be there. Buried in all that swooshing water was something with a rhythm and a beat. It was really catchy, and… mesmerizing. It was also very muddled, but we could make out something about a brick… in a wall…
Damn, if it wasn’t Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall,” which had just been released a few months earlier and sure enough, you couldn’t tune-in to your favorite rock station back in San Diego without hearing it play within fifteen minutes or so. It was widely known at the time to everyone but our captain, who struck me as strictly a Frank Sinatra kind of guy.
I leaned over the side of the signal bridge and the captain, along with the deck officer and several other crew members, were standing on the port bridge wing right under me. The captain had the receiver for the mysterious “red phone” in his hand, which is how he talked to the carrier.
Everyone started shouting to him, “It’s a band called ‘Pink Floyd,’ the song is “Another brick in the wall!” to which he replied, “EH? What? Something pink and about bricks? What the hell…?”
Standing right above his head, I cupped my hands together and said, “Sir, it’s PINK FLOYD.” He looked up and said, “Okay Rhodes, hang on…” He called over with the ship’s call-sign, then he said, “My crew tells me it’s a ‘Pink Floyd,’ and, uh…” I shouted down to him, “Another brick in the wall!” He repeated into the handset, “Something about bricks in walls.”
There was a moment of uncertain silence, then he gave a triumphant thumbs-up and announced, “We got it fellas, you guessed the right song!”
As cheers rang out I looked up with a smile that turned into astonishment, because I swear I’d never seen so many flying fish all at once. Suddenly they were everywhere, covering the surface of the water, shimmering in little pockets as they skimmed all around us. There were literally tens of thousands of them.
I glanced down at the bridge wing and the captain had gone back into the pilothouse, so he hadn’t noticed. Phil Muldoon, however, was standing next to me with his mouth open like mine was. “Dang, Rhodes, have you ever seen so many flying fish?” We were awestruck.
They dissipated after a few minutes, and I don’t think many other crew members witnessed the phenomenon, having been too busy laughing at how they’d just heard Pink Floyd as played through two miles of ocean, which was definitely the wettest version of that song I’ve ever heard, even to this day.
Later that afternoon I was in a walkway that led to the bridge, having gotten off my watch rotation about an hour earlier and, after having lunch on the ‘mess-deck,’ (that’s what they called it despite the fact that it was always kept very clean and was almost never messy), I was given a broom and told to ‘sweep all the tunnels.’
While I was in mid-sweep the Captain came through, obviously on his way up to the bridge. I paused my sweeping long enough to engage in proper military protocol which means I stood up straight, holding the broom in my left hand as I rendered a snappy salute with my right and said, “Good afternoon, Captain.” He returned the salute and grunted an indiscernible reply as he started up the ladder, but then I broke protocol and said something I really shouldn’t have said.
You see, when you’re a lower ranking enlisted person in the military and an officer walks by, it’s really against protocol to strike up a chat with them unless they engage you first. The higher ranking they are, the less proper it is to have a passing conversation unless it’s some kind of military business and you can’t access the “chain of command” at the moment.
The only thing it was proper for me to say at the moment, as I saluted, was either, “Good afternoon, sir,” or “Good afternoon, Captain.” Yeah, lot of flexibility there.
This guy was a Commander in rank, but Captain of the ship, which could get really confusing if you’re not a military type, so just go with it. His name was Gerard Dalton, but that was ‘Captain Dalton,’ to all of us, and never, EVER ‘Gerard.’
I’ll tell you exactly what would have happened if I’d said, “Hello, Gerard!” as I saluted. He would have continued on without even looking at me, grunted the same reply, and I would have gone back to work. Within 15 minutes someone in my division would approach me and say, “Rhodes, the Chief wants to see you.”
If the chief wanted to see you it usually wasn’t a good thing.
Chief Sal Castillo was a longtime Navy veteran, 28-years in service by that time, and he was my boss. I’d go find him and he’d spend at least a half-hour loudly telling me how we never address the captain by his first name, and why we don’t, and do I understand that?
“Yes sir!” I’d say, and then he’d say, “That’s yes CHIEF to you, Rhodes, I’m not a SIR!” and there would be a lot of flying spittle involved in this exchange, all on his part.
After I’d spend the next four hours of extra duty doing whatever he gave me to do, which would be something as humiliating and grueling as possible with the objective being that I would forget the captain’s name was ‘Gerard,’ I’d then go shower to get rid of all that chief spittle. If anyone ever wonders why I didn’t enlist for another term after my four-year hitch came to a close, well now you don’t need to wonder anymore.
In that walkway I really should have shut-up after “Good Afternoon, Captain…” but I have a big mouth. I also had a tiny sailor sitting on my shoulder, who had red horns and a tail, and he whispered in my ear that, “this is something the captain really needs to know, it might be important to operations!”
So I cleared my throat and said, “Uh, excuse me sir…”
He stopped at the foot of the ladder and stared me down. He didn’t say anything, he just glared and waited for me to tell him what was so important that I’d stop him mid-stride.”
“Uh, you might recall, sir, that I was on forward lookout during that sonic exercise, while the song was playing, and after you called it in to the carrier, Muldoon and I noticed a huge increase in flying fish at that moment! I mean, like thousands of them all at once, they were everywhere! More than I’d ever seen, and I’ve been a lookout for over a year!”
He paused and considered this. Then he actually asked me a question.
“What the hell was that so-called song called again, Rhodes?”
“Another brick in the wall,’ sir, it’s by a band called ‘Pink Floyd.”
And then came the moment I’ll never forget. He shrugged and turned to continue up the ladder, saying, “Well I gotta tell ya, Rhodes, if I was a flying fish I’d jump out of the water too if they suddenly started playing that crap all around me.”
I was never told the chief wanted to see me, so no one but Commander Gerard Dalton and I shared in that little joke. I got curious about him while writing this, so I looked him up, only to find that he passed away a few years ago. He never did become a Pink Floyd fan, and now we know for sure that Exocoetida aren’t either.
“I suppose I could tell my daughter she’s not really a platypus named ‘Perry,’ but she seems so happy, plus we enjoy the free eggs.”
— Merlin Mann
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