Jan 2, 2017

A Strange Experience with "Mr. Smith"...

Ingalls Shipbuilding, shortly after I had left their employ
I went to work as a Systems Engineer at the Ingalls Shipbuilding Division of Litton Industries in April, 1972.  My immediate boss was a retired Army Colonel named Mickey Dodson.  Our organization's job was to analyze each system and subsystem on the new DD-963 class of destroyers and to define the maintenance processes and procedures to be used on the ship.  It included everything from the changing of light bulbs to the overhaul of the ships' gas turbines.  It was a very interesting job on a really exciting new ship production program.  We were the Maintenance Engineering Analysis department, part of the larger Logistics Analysis directorate.  Mickey's boss was the Director of Logistics, Mr. Ken Beyer, a retired Navy Captain, and a very capable leader and manager.

The shipyard had grown from a tiny regional business to an enormous industrial phenomenon in a matter of only 2-3 years.  When I arrived, it employed over 20,000 people and was still growing.  One effect of this extreme growth was that rental housing was difficult to find throughout the Mississippi gulf coast.  I finally managed to rent a small house in Biloxi, on Pinewood Drive.  It was about 36 miles from the shipyard.

A few months after I had started at the shipyard, Ken Beyer hired another former naval officer as an assistant.  To protect his privacy (if he's still living...), let's call him Bob Smith.  Bob was a Naval Academy graduate who had left the navy after his obligated service and had recently been working as a consultant for one of the "Beltway Bandit" companies in the northern Virginia area.  He had lots of contacts in the Navy Department, and his lovely wife, (let's call her Vicki), was the daughter of a prominent Vice Admiral.  Since Bob's wife was still in the D.C. area, I invited him to move in with me until he was able to find housing and move his family to the Gulf Coast.  We soon were roommates in my three-bedroom house in Biloxi.

I noticed right away that Bob consumed a considerable amount of alcohol and slept very little.  Most evenings, he would walk the half-mile or so to the public beach at the foot of Beauvoir Road, carrying his hoop net, and fish in the surf for mullet.  He never kept or cooked the fish; He just enjoyed the activity of fishing, often until long after midnight.

Most of the time, we commuted together to work and back.  We would alternate vehicles.  One morning, as I was driving to work with Bob as my passenger, he started to speak in gibberish about the Queen of England.  Something about her inability to understand modern naval maintenance.  If he could just do a briefing for the queen, he was sure that she would appreciate his profound understanding of his "Royal Maintenance" philosophy to support modern naval warfare.

I wasn't quite sure what to think, but I halfway concluded that he had been sharing some kind of bizarre joke that had escaped me.  He shortly resumed normal conversation, so I didn't give much thought to his queen discussion.  Soon we were at our shipyard building, where we proceeded to our individual offices (He had a real office; I was in a "bullpen" containing dozens of adjacent desks.).

After about an hour, Bob's secretary came to my desk expressing her concern.  She said that he had asked her to place a phone call to the Queen of England.  His voice was very shaky and when she went into his office, he was drenched with sweat and visibly trembling.  She had come to me because she knew that he and I were living together.

I immediately went down to Bob's office and paid a brief visit.  Everything his secretary had described was correct.  Bob was having some mental or physical crisis.  I knew that Bob had the highest regard for our boss, Ken Beyer.  They were both Naval Academy alumni and Ken had fought in World War II.  I went straight to Ken's office and briefed him on the situation, suggesting that it would be wise to try and get Bob to the hospital in Pascagoula, about three or four miles from the shipyard.  One of my concerns was that Bob might not want to go to the hospital.  He had wrestled at the Naval Academy and was still a large, muscular individual.  We probably would have to get outside assistance if he didn't want to go willingly.  My hope was that Ken might diplomatically convince Bob to go with a group of his friends who cared for his well being.

Ken Beyer worked his magic.  He casually "dropped by" Bob's office.  In the course of their conversation, Ken mentioned to Bob that he looked a little pale and asked if he'd been feeling OK.  Bob indicated that he'd been feeling uneasy and on edge.  Soon, Bob, flanked by two large friends, Ken and I were admitting him to the emergency room at the Singing River Hospital.  Bob was very agitated and unable to sit for more than a few seconds.  He would not allow anyone to draw blood, since he "knew it was part of a plot."  At one point, he wandered into the hospital chapel, which was only a few yards away from the emergency waiting area.  We found him tearing up the pages of a bible, saying that he knew the secret was here somewhere.  Eventually, he was admitted, placed under psychiatric supervision, and administered a sedative.  I stayed with him in his room and eventually he went to sleep.  Outside his room was a National Guard armory, and they were conducting helicopter operations on the field between the hospital and the armory.  I watched the activities for a while and eventually got a ride back to the shipyard, where my car was located.

The shipyard administration had notified Bob's wife of the situation, and soon she and her father, the  Admiral, were on their way to Pascagoula.  I met them the next morning at the Mobile airport and delivered them to their motel in Pascagoula.  The admiral had made it clear that he wanted no contact with any shipyard officials during the visit, as it was strictly a personal matter.  I was the host to both Vicki and her father during their stay.

After a few days, Bob seemed to have returned to "normal."  He was discharged but took a couple of weeks off.  He decided to take a job in the D.C. area, and eventually left the shipyard.  We stayed in touch over the ensuing years, mostly by exchanging Christmas cards.

By 1979 or '80, I was no longer employed at Ingalls, had moved to Huntsville, had become a general contractor, and was in need of some supplemental income.  I received a call one day from Jerry and Eleanor Smith.  Jerry had been one of my bosses in the shipyard after I had transferred from Ken Beyer's organization to one of the program offices.  Jerry and Eleanor had started a small consulting business near D.C. and needed some of my services.  Their timing couldn't have been better!

It seemed that the Smiths had gotten a contract with one of the larger government services companies to develop the reliability/maintainability plan on a new class of LSD (Dock Landing Ship) vessels, the LSD-41 Whidbey Island Class..  Knowing that I had experience in this area, they wondered if I was available to produce this document.  I jumped at the chance.  For the first couple of weeks, I lived in their apartment in Tyson's Corners, as they were working on a job in California.  But I needed to find a more permanent residence.  I called Bob Smith to see if he knew of any space available at a reasonable price.  He surprised me by suggesting that I move in with him.  He informed me that he and Vicky had recently gotten a divorce and that he had ended up with the house, which was located in Herndon, only a few miles from where I was working.

I arrived at Bob's house on a Sunday afternoon, having flown back from a weekend break in Huntsville.  Bob greeted me and then revealed that the house had essentially no furniture.  He had an easy chair and a small TV propped upon a folding tray table.  His mattress was on the floor.  I could sleep on the carpet rolled up in the blankets he provided.  This was meager living at its best!  I immediately called Margo and asked her to send my air mattress and sleeping bag.  I was paying very little rent, so I really didn't mind the inconvenience.

Living with my former roommate was interesting.  He had a pot-growing experiment going on in what had formerly been the dining room.  There were dozens of seedling pot plants in neat shelves under special fluorescent lights.  One day, a realtor showed up unannounced with a couple who wanted to look at the house.  As they passed through the dining room, Bob explained that he was raising tomato plants getting ready for Spring planting!

One day, after we had finished some take-out chinese food, Bob looked at me and asked, "When we were in the hospital in Pascagoula, after I had my breakdown, was I hallucinating, or were there really helicopters outside my window?"  I set his mind at ease by explaining that they were real helicopters.

Over the years, I gradually lost touch with this fascinating but self-destructive individual.  I sometimes wonder if he's still among us...

As it turned out, I successfully completed the assignment and the Navy bought off on the publication.  I later learned that Lockheed Martin Shipbuilding had attempted to produce the document and failed, as had another subcontractor.  I had gone to the Bureau of Ships early in my process to assure myself that I understood their expectations.  I then went to the operations organization to understand their desires.  I realized that each bureau was using a different math model to estimate long-term costs.  I worked with the mathematicians to reconcile their differences.  After that, selling the final product was quite routine.  It pays to deal with the "worker bees" when producing things for a client.

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