Dead in the Head

My last assignment before retiring from the Navy was as senior chaplain to the Nuke School, where highly intelligent Sailors train to become Nuclear Operators. Although my earlier assignments afforded me variety-of-mission and once-in-a-lifetime experiences, this one made me “Mayor of Sad Pandaville” and gave me the opportunity to spend each day locked in a small windowless room talking with a continuous stream of interesting personalities.

As a chaplain, it was routine for me to counsel Sailors as they transitioned from high school student to responsible adult, but at the Nuke School, this took on a whole other form. This “league of extraordinary gentlemen and ladies” with whom I spoke daily, often possessed photographic memories, could grasp complex concepts with ease and likely had achieved great academic success sans studying before joining the Navy. But what often accompanies these enviable traits are other, less helpful ones: a lack of social skills, a shortage of common sense and an overabundance of eccentricity.

When I asked a Sailor what he did for fun, he replied, “I am writing a sonata.” Another said that as soon as he got to his apartment off base each evening, he and his roommates donned their Dungeons and Dragons costumes and stayed in character until they had to return to work. One young man disclosed that when his parents wanted to punish him, they disallowed him to do math. Of course, I also helped students deal with “normal” issues such as the death of a parent, a breakup with a significant other or high stress levels. But interspersed were Sailors dealing with tragedies like “someone looked at me funny” or “somebody rearranged the stuff on my desk.” I never knew what issue was about to walk through my door, plop down in the chair and present itself.

In truth, I loved working with these incredible personalities; they were unique… like snowflakes… How could I ever forget our enthusiastic Light Saber Dancer, or those who “identified as furries” who tried to sneak into study hours wearing animal tails, or the school’s Christmas tree decorated with Pokémon cards? And I will certainly never forget the sailor who attended band practices in his pajamas with mismatched socks, and concerts wearing a bright yellow Pikachu onesie, or the guard at the front door who announced as I walked past him “Chaplain, I am so excited, my elf suit finally arrived.”

Likely there are those who will not forget me, either, like the kind Sailor who complimented me by telling me he loved to come talk to me because it was like going to see his own grandmother. (I let him live…) Or the one who said he had heard I was leaving and who told me I should write down my wisdom before I passed. (I checked my pulse after he left…)

Which brings me to this story:

One morning during our daily senior staff stand-up meeting with the Commanding Officer, I began to feel faint. Not wanting to pass out in the command suite and give them fodder for yet more “old jokes,” I walked down four flights of stairs so I could be out of sight in my office if I collapsed. Once there, I mistakenly thought it prudent to visit the “female head” or ladies room, where, with all that porcelain and tile, there can be no soft landing.

When I came to, my first thought was that someone had lost their eyeglasses. Then I realized my nose was a few inches from the floor and the spectacles were mine. Eventually I hoisted myself up on the toilet seat and, still groggy, tried to walk the 50 steps back to my office. I managed about five and passed out again between the inner and outer doors of the bathroom. Finally, a Sailor who, thankfully, had been an EMT before the Navy, found me. While she was calling for help, I lost consciousness again.

When I came to, there was a gaggle of folks watching emergency personnel readying me for transport. It was then that I realized I had broken my ankle, so I reached down and without thinking, snapped it back into place. Since my blood pressure upon being revived was only 70 over 42, they hauled me and my broken right ankle, sprained left ankle and wrist, and sliced open face from where it hit the hinge on the back of the stall door, off to the hospital for an overnight stay. It was quite an ordeal.

A few months later, a young Sailor came to see me saying he wanted to apologize for something. Then he told me that the morning I had passed out, he had been the quarterdeck supervisor responsible for the building’s entry doors and those who guarded them. He said that while he was working, a female student had tiptoed over to him, leaned forward and whispered, “The chaplain is dead in the head.” When he asked her if she was sure, she said, “I poked her and she didn’t move. I poked her again, and she still didn’t move. The chaplain is dead in the head.” Then she tiptoed away.

So I asked him what he did after she had said that and he replied, “As watch supervisor I am authorized the see that all watch-standers get lunch and that the floors get swept. I was not briefed about what I should do for a dead person, so I did nothing. I’m sorry I left you there.”

Nukes. You gotta love ‘em. They are unique. Just imagine, somewhere out in the fleet today is a Sailor who may one day tiptoe over to her supervisor and whisper, “Um, there’s a problem with the reactor” and then tiptoe away.

I will miss the crust of the earth.

Copyright © 2020

4 thoughts on “Dead in the Head

  1. How is it that you can make something traumatic that happened to you actually hysterical? “The chaplain is dead in the head.” That’s my new catch line for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Reverend Laura, I am so thankful that my sister Robin (Orton) posted a story a few days ago from your blog. I subscribed immediately and tonight I finally took the time to read every entry you have written. Thank you for the gift of being able to share in your wisdom, intelligence, insight, faith, humor, compassion and humanity. Years ago, through Robin and Marc, I was fortunate enough to meet you and your husband after hearing kind words and stories about you and the impact you have had on many… My sister included. It is obvious that among your many qualities, gifts and talents you are an accomplished writer as well. Your stories moved me from belly laughs to tears, from meditative thoughts to feelings of urgency to act/get involved/help others more. Thank you for sharing your gifts with others. I look forward to reading more. Wishing you love and laughter and peace, Hollyann Snyder Fineberg


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