In the mid 1950s in the Boston Naval Shipyard the civilian Assistant Chief of the Planning & Estimating Division ruled supremely because the Chief went deaf on the job and was content to have someone else take over while he continued to draw full pay. Apples, the nickname appended to the de-facto Chief, ruled with an iron hand. Moreover he had an instinct for patronage that rivaled that demonstrated by James Michael Curley, the three-time mayor of Boston and former governor of Massachusetts who, some say, was the model for the old Irish-American political boss described by Edwin O’Connor in his book The Last Hurrah.
In Apples’ case nothing was too small for him to cause his minions and others to become further obligated to him. For example his planners and estimators were responsible for allocating man-hours to job orders and for writing accompanying material requisitions. The documents were routinely approved by the Division’s first- or second-level supervision commensurate with costs. They were also subject to a certain degree of oversight by naval project officers.
The exceptions were the things that people coveted; for example Apples did not authorize anyone to requisition Government-issue ball-point pens. He retained that authority and kept the Division’s only supply in one of his desk drawers. Thus anyone wanting a ball-point pen had to ask Apples. He would then issue one with an air of condescension that suggested that he would expect a favor in return.
Since each ball-point pen was embossed with the title U.S. Government, whenever I needed one I walked into Apples’ office and, whether he was present or not, as a duly commissioned officer of the U.S. Government, I opened his desk drawer, took a pen without asking, and left.
There was something else about me that bugged Apples. I was in a car pool with his most trusted myrmidon, Russ MacDonald a friendly master shipwright who learned his trade among the last of the great builders of ocean-going sailing ships in Nova Scotia. Although Russ was a generation older than me we soon became buddies. Our families sometimes had dinner together. When I finished the attic in my home Russ showed me all the neat routines that only New England master carpenters seemed to practice. When he refinished the kitchen in his house I did the complicated electrical wiring.
Whenever the Shipyard Commander was pressured by politicians for gavels, cigarette boxes, or other souvenirs, made from wood taken from Old Ironsides, Apples was given a verbal order that was transmitted to the shops via Russ. Apples always included a few more of the rare coveted items for his diabolical purposes. Some of the other officers just about groveled for such favors but I never once asked Apples for anything. What really got to him was his suspicion that Russ always managed to have an extra souvenir made for me.
That’s pretty much describes how Apples and I tolerated each other, but something happened during my first year in the shipyard that, two-years later, provoked me to ask Apples for something. I had been assigned a mixed-bag of planning responsibilities. Other officers in the Division had prestigious-sounding subject matter such as the overhaul or modernization of cruisers, destroyers, etc. Mine were mostly associated with the manufacture of chain and rope and with the restoration of propellers and certain machinery. In that capacity I learned about how the Navy’s supply organizations identified materials that were not in condition for issue, where they were located, and of the funds appropriated for their restoration.
When going home from work one evening Russ mentioned in casual conversation that the yard’s boat shop was about to lay off some people. He had unknowingly informed the right guy in the right place. The very next day I quickly claimed and acquired the funds available for such work, and ordered the shipment to the Boston Naval Shipyard of all Navy boats needing restoration from wherever they were on the Gulf and East Coasts. I had set the boat shop up with a multi-year backlog! No one was laid off.
Per tradition dating from sailing-ship days a naval officer when detached from a command is provided with a chest in which to ship clothing, books, etc. Thus two years after the boat-restoration effort started I received orders to report for duty elsewhere. I was not surprised when Russ advised, “The boys in the boat shop want to make a chest for you.” But I was surprised when he added, “But there is a problem.”
Russ then explained that such chests were made from mahogany and were cedar lined. They were given only to certain shipyard commanders upon their departures and very few other high officials. Russ went on to explain that a piano hinge was needed and Apples, now the Chief of the Division in his own right, had not delegated such authority. Only he could sign a pertinent requisition. In that way, Apples could veto a proposal to give one of the coveted chests to anyone who had not cooperated with him on his terms.
I told Russ to forget it, but he persisted, “The guys in the boat shop want to make a chest for you. They would be disappointed. Besides, you are leaving. You don’t have to worry about being indebted to Apples.”
Apples was standing just outside of his office door and was engaged in telling something to a few of his supervisors. I approached with the unsigned requisition and with Russ alongside. Apples, undoubtedly forewarned by one of his toadies, broke off his monologue and suddenly acquired a look on his face that suggested a cat about to paw a ball hanging from a string.
I led off, “The guys in the boat shop want to make a chest for me and your signature is needed on this requisition for a piano hinge.”
Now as if he was swiping the ball for the first time and with a few more shots in mind Apples said, “How do you know that I am not already having a chest made for you?”
I quickly responded, “Because no one of your planners measured my width, depth and height.”
The others had hung around because they had expected some such entertainment. They broke out into knee-slapping hilarity that flustered Apples even more than my sharp retort.
Angered Apples quickly scrawled his signature, threw the signed requisition at Russ and as he quickly returned to his office growled, “Get him the damn hinge!”
One might conclude from my recollections of Apples that he and I didn’t like each other. The opposite was true. I had respect for his ability to control the rough crowd that he was in charge of and he respected my approach for taking on the bureaucracy in order to get things done. Apples had started out in the Yard as a shop laborer and deeply appreciated my concern for the workers. When Apples retired about fifteen-years afterwards I made a trip across the U.S.A. just for the purpose of attending his retirement party. He had not changed a bit and was delighted to see me.
Apples’ suspicion that Russ gave me souvenirs made from wood taken from Old Ironsides was well founded. Maybe I should say, “almost well founded.”
Russ gave me one of everything that was made for the VIPs. However, he once told me that the only other source of live oak in the shipyard was the old boat-shop floor. Sometimes when the shipyard commander asked for a large number of souvenirs, rather than pull a plank from the hull of the venerated CONSTITUTION, a plank was ripped from the boat-shop floor and replaced with Douglas fir. Thus, each time that Russ gave me something made from live oak “taken from Old Ironsides” I asked, “What part of the boat-shop floor is this from?”
Russ always responded with a slight smile and with one hand over his heart, “Your’s is really from CONSTITUTION!”
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo