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Saga of James

I met many people during my 26 years in the Navy, but James (not his real name) was one of the most memorable. James was a likable, hardworking sailor, who, regrettably, was not playing with a full deck. He tried, but he just did not have what it took to make it in the Navy.

I first met James while I was stationed in Keflavik, Iceland, where I was working as an electronics technician. We worked out of an old aircraft hanger which was about five miles from the main base; that's five miles if you drove your personal vehicle around the perimeter road to get to the hanger. If you drove a military vehicle straight across the airfield, the distance was only about half a mile.

We worked shifts of one day on-duty and three days off-duty. This meant that every third day I was at work from 6:30 in the morning until 6:30 the next morning. Since we had to stay at the work site for a 24-hour period and we were isolated from the rest of the base, we had to prepare our own meals and sleep in the hanger. This was not a bad deal. Since the hanger was away from the "top brass," they seemed to forget we existed, except when we were performing our duties, so we were able to make our living spaces in the hanger more "homey."

We had a kitchen with all the amenities you would find in any kitchen; a lounge with a television and facilities for showing movies borrowed from the base movie theater; a recreation room with a game table and a pool table; a sleeping area; and various work areas. We could park our military and private vehicles inside the hanger to keep them out of the weather and there was a shop where we could drive our private vehicles inside the main building to perform routine maintenance on them.

All in all, it was not a bad place to work, but spending 24 hours every third day in the building did start to get old after a few a months, so, as usual, when sailors start to get bored, they begin looking for ways to liven up the situation. Having James around did liven things up during the slow times, but he was a liability when it came time to get the job done.

James had been the Navy for five years and was still an E-2 in rank. In a normal rate of progression, he would have been at least an E-5, but, as I said before, James was different. Since his arrival in Iceland, he had worked at numerous places. He would work at one place until the people there job tired of fixing the problems he caused and then they would farm him out to another work center. James was such a likable guy that the people he worked for would put up with his antics and try to help him make it in the Navy; they would try until the novelty of his actions wore off and they had to get on with the job.

We got James from the air rescue division, who had used him to perform odd jobs around their areas. We had an engineman, John, assigned to our work center to maintain the emergency generators at the radar sites. He also handled supply duties and maintained the facility, so when he heard that James was available, he saw a way to get a helper and volunteered to take James under his wing and teach him to be a productive sailor.

The first day James came to the hanger, we all knew this was going to be an interesting experience. James was about 25 years of age, average height, and average build, but the first thing you noticed was his facial expression. It was obvious that he had at least a mild case of Down’s syndrome. He was immediately likable; he was friendly, talkative, and as curious as a young boy. He was awed by the electronic equipment and was fascinated by about everything he saw. Now, remember this a 25-year-old, 5-year veteran of the Navy.

One of the first things James did was to show all of us a photograph of his girlfriend, who appeared to also be afflicted with Down’s. James said her parents had told her they would disown her if she continued to see him, but apparently, they were in love and they were going to get married after he made it in the Navy.

As I said before, we had to cook our meals in the hanger when we were on duty. Watching James cook was a high point of the day. To make oatmeal, he would boil a pot of water and then pour a little oatmeal into it; the result was oatmeal-flavored water. The next time he made oatmeal he would boil a little water in a pot and then fill the pot with oatmeal, resulting in an oatmeal brick. The worst part was he would always eat his concoctions and seemed to enjoy it each time. When asked why he didn't just follow the instruction on the box, James said they were not needed; he was a good cook without directions. At first, we thought he would be useful at washing dishes, but he didn't think dishes should be rinsed or dried and he broke so many of them that we forbade him from touching any dishes except for his own.

One day James was studying to take his E-3 promotion test. This is a locally administered test that was so easy that the promotion is basically an automatic procedure. Most people passed the test without having to even study for it. James asked me to him on a study question. The question asked, "What at the flaps on an aircraft used for?" James said, “I think the answer is on this page. “ On the page, it said, "The flaps on an aircraft are used for an additional lift on takeoff and for braking on landing." I showed James the sentence, but he was still puzzled. He could not find the answer in the sentence. That was the extent of his mental aptitude.

Trying to make James feel welcome, I offered to play pool with him. He said he could play and that I had better watch out for him because he was a good player. The pool table was a standard size table and we had lowered the fluorescent light fixture above the table so it was only about 3 feet from the top of the table. This concentrated light on the table in an otherwise dimly lit room. I racked the balls and James chalked up a cue. James said he wanted to break the balls, so I stood back; which as it turned out, was the best thing to do when playing with James. He placed his left hand on the table, used his right hand to line up the cue for his break shot. He pulled back on the cue and then shot the cue across the table sticking it into the sheetrock wall next to where I was standing. I immediately knew this was not going to be a normal game of pool.

James said the cue had slipped and he would try again. I stepped back again, way back. James lined up the shot, pulled the cue backward, so far back that the tip of the cue slipped out of his support hand. Then he rammed the cue forward. Since the cue was not supported by his hand, the cue shot straight up, crashing into the overhead light. All the fluorescent tubes fell onto the table and broke and the light fixture was bent and hanging sideways. James started lining up his shot again like nothing had happened. I had to stop him or he would have tried the shot again; he did not seem to understand what had happened.

The room we used for sleeping was away from the working and living spaces so it would be fairly quiet. Due to this being an old hanger, the windows were about twelve feet up from the floor. Since this was Iceland where, during the summer, the sun was up almost 24 hours a day, we had to block the light from the windows. We had nailed thin sheets of plywood over the windows and painted them the same color as the room. After being in place for a few years, the plywood was warping and had pulled the nails loose in various positions, letting light flood into the room, so the boards needed to be nailed again.

This task seemed to be a simple of enough for even James to handle. We got him a tall ladder, a hammer, and nails. We told him to nail the plywood down again and let us know when he was finished. After a while, we realized James had not reported back, so we went to find him. James was at the top of the ladder, still at the first window, and nails were all over the floor and furniture. As we watched, James would place a nail on the plywood, line up the hammer, and hit the nail with the hammer. Since the plywood was warped and springy, when he hit the nail, it would snap out of his fingers and fly across the room. James would make a sound of disgust, get another nail, and try again. As we watched, he repeated this process over and over.

Once we had to move a tall metal cabinet. James and another sailor were moving it by rocking and sliding it. As they were moving it, it started to tip toward James. The other sailor yelled for James to get out of the way. James kept saying, I’ve got it!” as it fell over atop him. Hearing the commotion, we ran to the scene. There was a large metal cabinet lying on the floor, with arms sticking out each side, and a voice coming from underneath saying “I’ve got it!” Luckily, James was not injured.

James kept saying he was going to be a painter when he got out of the Navy, so we figured maybe this was something he could do. We got the paint for him, a royal blue color, and the rest of the equipment he needed. He was instructed to paint the walls of the sleeping room. After we left, it was only a short time before James came back. He was blue, royal blue. He had tried shaking a can of paint without properly pressing the lid back on, dumping the whole can over his head. We wiped most of the paint off and quickly transported him to the emergency room. There they had to shave his head and use a naphtha-based solution to remove the paint. When James got back, he was bald, had blue color in his ears, under his nails, and in other crevasses of his body, and he was beet red from irritation caused by the paint remover and scrubbing. He was OK, but he looked silly for a few weeks.

After a few days, James went back to finish the painting of the room. He was to finish the work over a weekend, while the airfield was closed for bad weather and only a skeleton crew was required to be present in the building. Monday morning we came to work to be greeted with some new surprises.

The first thing we noticed was a putrid green sleeping room. As it turned out, James had felt there was not enough blue paint to paint all the walls, so he had looked around and found some more paint. The paint he found was a deep, bright yellow used to paint airfield equipment so it would be highly visible. James had mixed the two paints and the result was a sickly green. We tried to live with the color for a few weeks, but finally we had to repaint the walls, since being in the room, even in the dim light, was enough to make you sick.

The next surprise in James's painting job was the way he had painted. Normally, as you paint, you paint the large areas, coming close to objects on the walls, such as power outlets, and then come back later and do trimming around the objects. James had done this, but since he had mixed the two colors of paints together more than once, he had ended up with a different color each time. Therefore, each wall was a different shade of sick green and the trim around wall objects was different than the wall itself. Another problem with the painting was when he had dropped paint on an object in the room, such as a desk or a telephone; instead of cleaning the paint off the object, he had just painted the whole object. The whole room was ghastly.

Speaking of paint, since the hangar had been around for over 40 years and was out of service before we moved in, the area around it had been used as a dumping area. We decided to clean up the area around the hanger and make the area more presentable. On one side of the hanger was a pile of old paint buckets. We parked a pickup truck next to the pile of cans and told James to load them into the back of the truck.

After a while, we came back to find some of the cans in the truck bed and the rest in a pile on the ground on the other side of the truck. While loading the cans, James had worked out a system where he would pick up a can by the handle, twirl it around with his arm, and throw it toward the bed of the truck. Most of the cans went over the truck bed and landed in a pile on the other side. He had merely transferred the pile of cans from one side of the truck to the other side. Another problem was that some of the cans still had some paint in them, so as he twirled the cans and tossed them over the truck, it left multi-colored ribbons of paint over the truck.

Needless to say, we kept James away from the electronic equipment, but there were some cleaning jobs he was allowed to do. We had some test equipment on metal carts so the equipment could be moved from shop to shop. One of the cart's wheels was squeaking, so, after taking the equipment off the cart, we told James to oil the wheels. When we came back, the cart was parked in the shop with puddles of oil under each wheel. To oil the wheels, James had filled four cans with oil and put one under each wheel of the cart, and then lifted the cart out of the oil cans and sat it on the floor. Then, for weeks, everywhere the cart was pushed, it left a trail of oil, and it left an oil puddle every time it was left it in one place for a while.

I wanted James to help me carry a piece of electronic equipment to a work site. It was a large electronic chassis with handles at each end. I was at one end facing forward with my left hand on one handle. I told James to grab the other handle. James grabbed the other handle with his left hand facing backward. I said, “No James, we are going this way.” So he turned his body to face forward, while still holding the handle with his left hand, so he was twisted. I said, “No James, use the other hand.” So he turned around, but he switched the handle to the other hand. Now he was facing backward again, but using his right hand. I finally had to go around, place the proper hand on the handle, and point him in the right direction.

One time James was to strip the old wax from the tile floor of the recreation room and apply new wax. Due to his previous problems, we had someone supervise him. Everything seemed to be proceeding according to plan. James had put the stripping compound on the floor and was using a buffer to remove the wax. As it turned out, more than wax was being removed from the tile floor.

Before starting the job, James had been instructed to go to another building to get the floor wax-stripping compound. When he got there, no one was around, so he got the compound himself. The problem was he instead of getting wax stripper; he had gotten a compound used to clean metal and electronic circuits. As he buffed the floor using the compound, the tile began to disintegrate. We had to replace the entire floor.

James did not have a driver’s license and he wanted to drive. The boss finally relented said he could try to get his license and then he would determine if he would let James drive.

James would go to the hanger where we had the trucks parked and sit in one, pretending to drive. Once while he was practicing, another sailor was hiding in the back seat and wearing a Halloween mask. He rose and sat in the rear seat; saying nothing. James looked into the rearview mirror, saw the monster, gasped, and did nothing else. After a few seconds of James not moving, the sailor with the mask tried to talk to him—James was frozen in place. We had to pull him from the truck and talk to him for a long time before he came around. We did not try scaring him anymore after that.

To drive a truck on the airfield, the driver had to operate a mobile radio in the truck to get permission from the airfield control tower. To talk on the radio, one had to use proper military radio procedure. James never could get the knack of proper radio usage. When he talked on the radio it was if he was a civilian on a CB radio; ten-four good buddy, putting the hammer down, and such.

Finally, after much coaching, James went for his driver’s test. He barely passed the written test. While taking the driving portion of the test, just as he was starting ou he ground the gears, spun the tires, shot out of the parking lot, and traveled across the road into a ditch. James did not get his driver’s license.

After a while, the novelty of having James around wore thin. It was obvious he was not any help to us since he caused more problems than he solved, so, like others before us, we tried to pawn him off on someone else. The base requested we sent them a worker to help install cable television cables in barracks rooms. We sent James. We got James back the same day.

To install the cables, they were using long masonry drill bits to drill holes through room walls in the barracks. The drillers were instructed to make sure the other side of the wall was clear of objects before they drilled through a wall. James drilled into an occupant’s bowling ball in one room. He was given another chance. Iceland is well known for its sheep products, including sheepskin rugs, so most people in the barracks had at least one; some were hung on the wall as a room decoration. James drilled through a wall into a rug, spinning it around and around the bit until the rug was shredded. The installers sent James back to us and said they did not need any more help from us.

James had managed to stay in the Navy because he was such a nice guy who always tried to do his best, but it had to end sometime. One night he had an argument with his roommate in the barracks and had stabbed the roommate in the earlobe with a screwdriver while the roommate was asleep. This incident got James sent to the legal office. After a lawyer talked with James, it became obvious that James should not be in the Navy. James may have been a nice guy who always did his best, but he was not Navy material. James was not prosecuted, but he was administratively discharged from the Navy and sent home.

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