I was navigating a ship into San Diego Harbor when it happened, knocking me off balance, stopping us dead in the water.
I was in the middle of my final exam for enlisted navigator training, listening to a recording of three bearings every minute, triangulating the ship's position.
The senior chief walked into the room where two dozen of us short-haired strikers were plotting our way into port. “Turn off the tape, “ he barked.
It became unnaturally quiet.
He simultaneously asked and demanded: “Maxwell?!” his head moving as he searched from head to head.
I raised my hand, wondering what I'd done wrong now.
He announced, sharply: “CNO Barge.” I was stunned numb. I'd won the best duty in our class – or any other.
I'd just been assigned to navigate the professional boat of the head of our navy – the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., often called “Z” -- up and down the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers in Washington, D.C.
No way I could be that good. No way. I went all marsh-mellowly inside. I think I entered physical shock.
"Resume tape,” the senior chief demanded. The rest is blurry, save for some highlights.
I proceeded to chart us the absolute wrong way and enter restricted Mexican waters, creating an international incident.
I then reversed course and ran us aground on North Island. My only saving grace was that we hadn't sunk, apparently unlike my career.
The senior chief ordered me to his office, called me names a sailor usually reserves for Marines, told me he was going to get the orders rescinded.
Luckily, this was all bluster. A few weeks later, I flew in, reported for duty at the Washington Navy Yard.
Three months after joining Z's staff I got married, which took up much of my attention. It was only later that I learned that, to get sailors my age to reenlist, saving the cost of training new recruits, Z was dedicated to, in his words, “making it fun to go down to the sea in ships again.”
He loosened infamous “Mickey Mouse” rules, allowed informal dress, beards, and three inches of hair; he gave us beer gedunks – buying cans in the soda dispensers.
He talked to those of us at the bottom of the pile with respect and dignity, sending word to all sailors in memos that came to be known as “Z Grams.”
Eight months into my job, my mom committed suicide. Zumwalt sent down a note, offering his condolences, saying I was in his and his wife Mouza's prayers, and adding that I shouldn't pay attention to what the Navy said, I could take all the time I needed to deal with this.
In a second, the admiral with that funny first name went from a manager to a leader. I would have followed that man anywhere. Many would. Many did.
This weekend, on April 12, I'll be at the Bath, Maine christening of the USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), the most technologically advanced warship in history, the Zumwalt class of guided missle destroyers.
This is to say that, even as a ship, Zumwalt will be in a class of his own. He made me feel that I, at 19 the youngest member of his personal staff, so low on the totem pole I would have dug the totem pole's hole, had worth.
I've found a way to pass that Zumwalt touch to every member of the Zumwalt's crew today – and until it rusts away.
Before he left office, Z personally signed over pictures to all of his staff members. His bushy eyebrows have been the somebody watching over me the past 40 years.
Zumwalt's captain – really named James Kirk – has accepted Z's pic, and will use it as the ship's Sailor of the Month Award. You are known for what you give people.
Now I'm pushing to have Congress pass the Zero Homeless Vets Act. You see, I was either homeless or being on the verge of being so for five years, after enduring a series of heart attacks helping rebuild Louisiana after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Then the very successful HUD-VASH program helped me get a nice apartment in a fine area here in Portland, providing my security deposit and much of the rent.
It's a joint effort between the Department and Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Yet the brilliance of HUD-VASH is that it's dedicated to getting homeless vets housed and keeping them housed; my case manager comes over once a month to see how things are going.
At the least, the well-paid contractors who run and hide when the firing starts can help those who stand and fight get back on their feet.
One more thing.
It has been said that it's great to be a great man, but it's even greater to be a good man. May all of us find the good parts of ourselves steering our courses the Zumwalt way.
I say with total confidence that Elmo Russell Zumwalt Junior was the best boss I've ever had. He was a great man because he was a good man.
Fred Maxwell is a researcher, writer and author currently heading up the effort to get a Zero Homeless Vets Act passed into law to fully fund the HUD-VASH program. He may be reached at FredTheBiped@gmail.com.