Photo of USTDC courtesy of Les Duffin

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Flag Raising

I wrote earlier about pulling watch at TDC, and mentioned that raising and lowering the flag each day was part of that.

I may be a little fuzzy on the details here, but basically two enlisted people were responsible for raising the colors each morning. The two of them marched from the front steps of the building out to where the flagpole was on the far left side of the parking lot. The person junior in rank carried the folded flag, stepped up onto the small platform at the base of the flagpole, hooked the flag to the line, and waited for the signal to hoist it. The senior person stood at attention until the flag began its ascent up the pole, at which time he saluted. The signal to raise the flag came via the chief ringing the ship's bell back on the front porch...or quarterdeck...or whatever the heck it was that the Navy guys called that part of the building.

So the flag goes all the way up the pole, the line gets properly secured, and the flag raiser moves over beside the senior guy and also salutes. The chief, back on the porch blows three short blasts on a whistle and the two proud American military personnel march sharply back to the porch. Mission accomplished and everybody's happy. That's the way it's supposed to work.

As our two hypothetical troopers (squids, leathernecks, wingnuts, grunts) are marching off to the far left side of the parking lot to raise Old Glory, there are two Chinese soldiers off to their left marching over to a second flagpole on the far right side of the parking lot. They sort of criss-cross on their simultaneous journeys. I don't think the two pairs ever actually ran into each other during their criss-cross maneuver. Hard to say what sort of international incident that might have generated.

One morning I was assigned as the senior guy on the flag raising team. The junior man was a young sailor, about a yeoman second class, I think. He was a little nervous, it being his first time and all, but we reviewed the procedures and stepped off on our excursion to the pole. I stopped and snapped to attention a few feet away from the pole while the kid went ahead to hook up the flag and wait for the bell to ring.

A little digression here: The flag was to be raised at precisely 0800. That's 8:00 AM. It's also eight bells in Navy time. Of course 0400 is also eight bells, as is 1200, as is...well, never mind. Anyway, the chief always had his portable radio tuned to a local radio station that signaled the start of every hour. I have no idea why they did that, but they did. I guess it was just a Taiwan radio thing. It started at three seconds before the hour and went beep, beep, beep, BEEEEEEEEP! At that, the chief would spring into action, ringing the bell eight times, in groups of two -- dingding, dingding, dingding, dingding -- and the flags went up. Why groups of two? I don't know that either. I'm not sure if the chief knew. I guess if it was good enough for John Paul Jones, it was good enough for us.

Okay, back to the fateful morning I was discussing: There we were, all nice and military looking and standing at attention, awaiting the Chief's bell. Suddenly we heard the telltale beeping of the radio and our big moment arrived. The Chief rang the bell, I saluted, and the yeoman raised the flag. It was about halfway up the pole before anybody noticed that it was upside down.

The chief went ballistic, screaming at the yeoman to FIX THE F*****G THING, or something that sounded more or less like that, except that he kept yelling it over and over and the individual words became less distinct as he went along, plus there were a bunch of other words that I hadn't heard since basic training. I think he may even have invented a few new ones right there on the spot.

The Chinese troops already had their flag up and secured and appeared to be trying hard not to smile.

My bell-bottomed buddy hurriedly brought the flag back down and unhooked one of the clasps. Unfortunately, he sort of tugged at the other end of the line while doing it, which made the unhooked end start back up the pole. This was not covered in our pre-flag raising discussion.

I'm standing there saluting an empty flagpole and watching the yeoman hold his unattached flag in one hand while jumping up and down trying to reach the clasp that was just out of his reach. The chief is still screaming -- louder, actually -- and now the Chinese troops are clearly having a good time.

Now the chief starts yelling at me to give the lad a hand. "Get up there and help him out! FIX THE F*****G THING!"

I noticed the concrete railing around the base of the pole was a foot or two high so I said quietly, "If you stand on that thing, do you think you can jump the rest of the way?" Of course by now he was thoroughly traumatized and the chief is still yelling at him, but he managed to pull himself together enough to give it a try. Wonder of wonders, it worked on the first try!

He quickly hooked the flag to the clasp and immediately started it back up the pole...still upside down, unfortunately. Now the Chinese troops are actually laughing and I can see the chief's face turning purple. I told the kid to just pull the flag back down and keep the line going so that the flag would just loop under and then head back up the other side, this time right-side up. Nice save, I thought.

The chief blew his whistle three times -- a little louder than usual, it seemed to me -- and we headed back to the porch...uh, quarterdeck. I'm sure I saw smirks on the faces of the Chinese troops as we criss-crossed, but we were way beyond embarrassment at that point. The yeoman looked like a whipped puppy as we approached the chief, who grabbed him by the arm and steered him into his office. I saw him later that day so I guess he survived.

I've hoisted the colors dozens of times before and after that event, but that's the one I remember most.

Oh, just one short footnote: A few months later, the chief had an appointment somewhere so another chief in the building was appointed to take his place at the bell. It turned out that he had never, in all his years in the Navy, rung a ship's bell for colors. Not surprisingly, that also occurred on a day when I was assigned to colors duty. My whole tour sort of went like that.

Anyway, when the radio beeped, the chief rang the bell eight times. But he apparently didn't know that it was supposed to be done in groups of two, so he rang it more like dingdingdingdingdingdingdingding! We raised the flag without cracking up, though I'm not sure about the Chinese troops across the way.

But the Navy captain (O-6) whose office was just inside the front door of the building came STEAMING out on the porch. He and the substitute chief apparently had what diplomats call an open and frank discussion of the issues. The chief survived, but I saw him walking the hallways and mumbling to himself for a day or two.


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