MAMA COUNTED THE STRIPES
copyright Sam Elmore


When four sailors threw me overboard from my Destroyer's deck, I was not concerned about the ship's propellers dragging me down and chopping me up. As I belly-flopped into a hundred and twenty fathoms of salt water off the coast of Greece, my biggest concern was...I can't swim!

I knew that drowning was not part of the Navy's tradition of 'wetting-down' a sailor when he was promoted to Chief Petty Officer. On some ships, wetting-down consisted of a bucket of sea water dashed in the new Chief's face. On my ship, they did it in the old-fashioned way.

In the era of my immersion (the early 1960's), Navy enlisted men (except for Chiefs) wore white cloth caps; often called 'dixie cups'. Making 'The Hat' (Chief) was the ultimate goal for many enlisted men who planned a career in the Navy. So, 'the hat' got me deep-sixed; with no complaints from me. They hauled me aboard, and the ship stood into Piraeus, Greece, for some well-earned liberty. That night, the salt-water wetting down was followed by a big bash in one of the local bistros of Piraeus.

The ship was just beginning an eight-month cruise in the Mediterranean when I made Chief. I sent my mama pictures of me in my new Chief's uniform, and told her about the whole thing (except for the all-night beer-bash). She wrote back that she was 'real tickled' about my promotion.

Prior to taking the Fleet-wide exam for Chief, I had applied for a program which would, if I was selected, result in my attaining Commissioned Officer status. (Chiefs and other Petty Officers are non-commissioned officers.)

Seven months after I made Chief, the ship received word that I had been selected for a Commission. Our Mediterranean cruise was ending, and the ship sailed for it's home port in Mayport, Florida. The Captain assembled the ship's company to witness my swearing in as a bona-fide Ensign...pay grade 0-1.

When the ship stood into Mayport harbor, the quay was jam-packed with dependents and friends welcoming their sailor's home from the sea. My nearest welcomers were in Arkansas. After the crowd had thinned out, I walked out on the pier with a pocket full of quarters and called home. It took mama and me a while to get caught up on family gossip. Then...

"Guess what, mama?", I teased.

"What?"

"I got my commission. I'm an Ensign."

"Wa'al, son, I'm jest SO proud. I knew you could do it...what's does 'in-sun' mean?"

"It's an Officer rank, Mama. I got promoted to Officer."

"You already WAS a officer. Least you claimed you was, when you sent me them pictures from Greece."

"Yes, ma'am; but now I'm a Commissioned Officer, instead of a Petty Officer."

"Wa'al, I knew you could make good, if you set your mind to it. Land sakes! When you sent them Chief pictures, there wasn't no room on your sleeve for any more stripes...how many have you got NOW?"

Ouch! I was the only one of her seven sons to serve in the Navy. The others were either Army or Marine Corps. Mama knew every collar device, shoulder patch, and chevron in the other services; but, she didn't understand the Navy's set-up, which is decidedly different.

As Chief, my Rating Badge (which she'd seen in the pictures) had three stripes under, and one over the top, with a spread-winged eagle above the top stripe. Below the elbow, I wore three long 'hash-marks'; indicating four years of service for each stripe...a pretty good 'sleeve-full'. An Ensign has one (count 'em---1) little bitty puny stripe.

"Mama", I sought to explain, "it isn't the number of stripes that counts, it's..."

"I ASKED how many you got!", she interrupted sharply.

"Well, I got one, mama; but let me expl....."

"One!", she barked; "what kind-a trouble are you into THIS time?"

(I suppose she had come to expect us boys to get into trouble when we were growing up. Perhaps her expectations were based on our demonstrated tendency to live up to them as best we could.)

"Mama, I'm not in trouble; listen a minute, okay?"

"Wa'al, go on then", she grudgingly allowed.

"When I made Chief, and sent you the pictures, I was a Petty Officer; now, I'm a Commissioned Officer. There's a big difference, you see?"

"Are you anything like they been showin' on television?"

"Hunh?"

"Like that feller Arly Burt, or what-ever-his-name-is that's on T.V. all the time."

"Yes'm. That's it exactly!", I lied; raising beseeching eyes to St. Elmo, the patron saint of sailors.

Admiral Arleigh Burke was (then) Chief of Naval Operations. Every day (or so mama complained) they would interrupt her favorite soap operas with televised coverage Admiral Burke's testimony before the Congressional Budget Committee.

"You got it, mama. I'm the same thing as Arleigh Burke, except he's an Admiral and I'm an Ensign. And, except for the number of stripes and the big money he makes, there's no difference."

"Wa'al, that's more LIKE it, son. So, you're makin' more money now, are you?"

Double ouch! As Chief, I was eligible for 'Proficiency Pay.' I was drawing the highest level of 'pro-pay'; about a hundred-and-sixty-four dollars a month, over and above base pay. With my commissioning, that ended.

"Well, no; I'm not making quite as much money as I was, but...."

"So you ARE in trouble! First you lost your stripes, and now you're makin' less money! And you claim you ain't in no trouble? Don't you lie to me!"

"N'ome....yes'm", I mumbled.

It wasn't easy to explain, so I grabbed the only out I could think of:

"Mama, I'm slap out of quarters. I gotta hang up now. I'll write you and s'plain the whole thing."

"Young man, I'm gon' be talking to your big BROTHERS about this-here mess!"

"Yes'm."

That night, during dinner in the wardroom, I related to my fellow officers the difficulty of explaining to one's mother how a promotion can result in the loss of money and stripes, all at the same once. One of the guys got so tickled he inhaled a piece of bread crust; we had to pound him on the back. They all thought my situation was absolutely hilarious. I didn't.

Two days later, I was paged for an incoming phone call on the quarter-deck. Sure enough, it was one of my big brothers, who had spent many years in the Army. Before he could get started on my case, I hurriedly explained the Commission, less money, and fewer stripes. Before I finished, he was roaring with laughter. He knew about 'pro-pay', and the difference between Non-Com and Commissioned status.

He said mama had called him in the middle of the night, carrying on about me being in all kinds of trouble. He said he'd go see mama, sit her down in a rocking chair, and 'get her squared away.'

Before he hung up, my brother opined:

"Boy, nothin' has ever come easy for you, has it?"

Naw-sir, it ain't.