My Dad was someone I never argued with. Mom, on the other hand, seemed to love a good debate. She was never loud or nasty during our verbal jousting; never ending an argument with a “just because I said so.” She’d hear me out; sometimes even seeing my point of view. However, Dad never endured more than a few seconds of my whining. Instead he’d simply shake his head and say: “You can’t put an old man’s head, on a young man’s shoulders.” Once those words left his mouth the discussion was over. If you’ve ever seen a Pug cock its head trying to understand your words, then for sure you can picture my expression when Dad would utter those words.
However, by my mid-twenties those words began to have an impact on my thinking. Things that once seemed obscure became obvious, and although it wasn’t like having a light come on all at once in my head, I found more and more things reminding me of my father's words.
As I approached my tour aboard Arleigh Burke the enlightenment with respect to alcohol was full and bright. So much so, that it was tough for me to not look back at my life as a leader and parent without feeling like a complete hypocrite. By that time I had lost a roommate to drugged driving, had another close friend paralyzed as a result of his drunk driving, lost two shipmates to alcohol facilitated events, been arrested myself for drunk driving (I pleaded guilty because there was absolutely no question about that), and knew of multiple other “six degree” alcohol fueled accidents to friends of friends.
My hypocrisy came in the sense that over the course of my life and career prior to Arleigh Burke I had only recently seen the connection between my duty to my people (and family), and my sobriety. That if I truly cared about my people, I should be able to respond to a phone call from them at any time. I realized that all those times going out as a junior officer my only guideline from my chain of command regarding my conduct was; don’t do anything stupid. And even with that broad range of acceptable behavior, I still violated that one, simple standard. In short, my willingness to drink to the point of impairment undermined my commitment to my sailors.
Once I made the connection between responsible drinking and my duty as an officer and a parent it was effortless to not drink at all. In fact, I employed a strategy I first adopted in college where on days we ran intervals (I ran collegiate track and cross country) I would mentally prepare myself prior to practice for the grind of that practice. It made those workouts so much easier. So later in my career applying that same approach to activities that included alcohol made it painless to not drink. It was amazing how uncomplicated it was to transition from a drinker to a non-drinker, and for the first time I truly felt like I understood what it meant to care about my shipmates and family.
I only asked my officers to be responsible with their drinking. It was up to them decide what that meant. I elected not to extend the same expectation to my crew because I knew that due to their age and inexperience, many would fall short, and I didn’t want alcohol to be the ship’s main focus. However, I did make them aware of my views on the subject of alcohol and duty.
It’s way too late for me to know if my young shoulders could have handled such a perspective at a greener age, but I do wish someone, somewhere along the way would have tried to put that old man’s head on my young shoulders. Knowing how I always listened to my father, I’d like to think that concept would have impacted my life and the lives of some friends in positive ways. At least now though, I’m sharing the thoughts in my head in the hope that, if not today, perhaps someday they’ll feel good on your shoulders.
Me, Dad and my brother (1972)