When I am not writing about submarines, I am normally busy with my day job which is helping the companies I work with to better understand continuous improvement or “lean thinking”. While one is solely vocational in nature and the other is purely avocational both share the same basic roots: Continuous Learning.
As a young boy, I was always curious about the world and spent many hours pouring through the Encyclopedias my parents had bought for the children. I especially found myself drawn to technology and had a great fascination with the technology of war. I can’t think of a single popular book about World War 2 that I didn’t check out from the school library and my personal favorites were written by Samuel Elliot Morrison. Samuel was a close friend of President Roosevelt and convinced him that he would be a great asset in recording the war by being a part of it. The resulting works even with their flaws still remain a rich picture of the many campaigns that the US Navy fought during the war.
Despite my love of reading however, I was not a very good student in High School. Somewhere around 14, I discovered that the opposite sex held certain attractions that became infinitely more interesting than spending time with algebra and social studies. This new found obsession replaced much of my previous attractions and unfortunately was also reflected in the grades I achieved. I believe that I was still using continuous learning of a sort but it was not of any use in gaining entry to a college.
In fact, I think I had convinced myself that I was no longer able to spend time in school and decided that the quick solution to my concerns was to join the Navy. The Navy would provide this 17 year old boy with an income, a great adventure, and a way to marry the girl who occupied all of my day and night dreams.So I convinced Mom and Dad that it was the best path forward and in April 1972 they signed the permission slip for me to join the Navy in its delayed entry program. The immediate rewards are still somewhat personal but at the time, I was a very happy young man.
A few days after graduation, I began the next phase of my life which as it turns out was the foundation for the rest of my life in continuous learning. I entered Boot Camp and immediately discovered that not only had I not escaped the classroom, I had entered one which was 24/7. Every single part of that experience was about learning new things that would help me to become an American Bluejacket. From the importance of how you stow your gear to the criticality of understanding the regulations that governed us all, Boot Camp was an intense learning experience that was meant to prepare civilians for a new way of life.
I can still remember the lessons to this day nearly forty three years later. Navy traditions, leadership, teamwork, damage control, seamanship, physical conditioning, health care, first aid, a place for everything and everything in its place, and on and on. All of these are the roots of “lean” and continuous improvement since they demand the sailor be ready for his role in defending the nation and the sailors around him or her. By the end of Boot Camp, we were ready to join our fellow “shipmates” in a number of areas including Vietnam, aircraft carriers, supply ships, even battleships. Except that a number of us were not quite ready yet. We would receive orders to Class “A” schools where our skills would be enhanced and new knowledge would be learned.
My designated school was Machinist Mate A school in Great Lakes Illinois. Right across the street from where I had just spent the last two months. Here we learned about steam and propulsion, valves and pumps, air conditioning basics and refrigeration. All of these skills were supposed to help us become more prepared for the technology that powered the ships that defend the country and its sea lanes. This school included both classroom and practical training including operating a landlocked steam plant. I was happy for the school to come to an end but my plans of becoming a nuclear trained petty officer were not to be met. About a third of us did not pass the final screening and were about to enter a completely different path.
I have a copy of the paperwork where I volunteered for submarines and it is my signature. I don’t remember signing it. But it was among a number of pieces of paper that the classifying Petty Officer put in front of me that cold day in December 1972 after we had been out shoveling snow. When I got the orders to submarine school a few weeks later, I was shown the copy that I had signed and was reminded that it was now my duty to follow orders. My first thought was “Great… more school.” I was a bit disappointed that my addition to the fleet was being delayed once more by schools but you do what you have to do.
Submarine school was awesome. For the first time since boot camp, I really felt like something great was happening. We did classroom stuff but also a lot of interesting things like the dive trainer ( a simulated submarine dive and drive setup), the dive tower and pressure chamber testing. Now I was getting someplace. Four weeks later, I was ready to go to my first boat and the orders came in.
Dear MMFN MacPherson… on your way to the USS George Washington SSBN 598 Blue Crew, would you mind very much stopping off in Charleston SC and attend another three months worth of school at the Fleet Ballistic Training Center at our Auxiliary Package course for Auxiliary men? Thanks so much, NavPers. (or something like that, I can’t seem to find the letter they sent).
Off to school again. Consider the irony of all this education for a young man that was tired of school. I finally did get to the boat and found out that in between patrols, it was more school and more training. By the time I finished my career in 1994, I had been to over 62 Naval technical and leadership courses. Along the way, I also picked up enough classes which would lead to a Bachelor of Science Degree from Southern Illinois University (Magna Cum Laude) which probably shocked the heck out of some of my high school teachers.
The learning has never stopped. Since graduating from the Navy, I have been blessed to be able to attend dozens of courses in project management, six sigma, lean manufacturing with eight different companies (including Toyota as a supplier), communications, leadership and others.
The Navy taught me how to learn and the importance of continuing to improve. The best lesson of all was that while you may not be able to remember everything you have been taught, if you remember where to find the answers and how to use them that is the best learning of all.