October 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 6
My brush has waited since 1939 to be told. The place was the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard, the location was aboard the USS Richmond . A ship with a large crew and crowded living spaces: big guns, ammunition, mine-laying tracks, and airplane catapults had first priority. Officers had rooms, chief petty officers slept in bunks. The rest of us slept in hammocks swung eight feet above the decks in every available corner. The ship’s band, of which I was a member, lived, slept, and rehearsed in the stern gun tub.
We were anchored forward of the President’s yacht. Its presence constantly reminded us that, with luck, Franklin D. Roosevelt might pass by us before we set sail again. The gunner’s mates, on this particular day, were working on a gun. They had removed the breech block and replaced it with a boresighting telescope to test the accuracy of the sights. I was my own supervisor because the bandmaster and all other bandsmen were on annual leave.
Then it happened: ALL HANDS ON DECK, CLASS A UNIFORMS, MAN THE RAIL FOR THE COMMANDER IN CHIEF ! Normally, I would have been on deck with the band to render military honors, but I was alone. One trombone just wouldn’t do it. I peeked through the sights and found that the weapon was pointed and trained on the area about to be crossed by the Presidential party. Soon it was my pleasure to see the great man in the cross hairs, his features incredibly crisp and clear.
Then it occurred to me that even though the gun was inoperable, an alert Secret Service ought to notice where it was pointed. My commanding officer would have been as humiliated as I if anyone were to find me bore-sighting Mr. Roosevelt, so I quickly went below the decks to check the view through a porthole. Not so good. I could no longer count the whiskers.
My glimpse of FDR might have made me infamous as the man who saw our head of state through the cross hairs of the largest gun ever pointed at a man. It was my lucky day that the guard didn’t find me so occupied; it is, of course, a mortal sin for a Navy man to embarrass the commanding officer. My career would probably have ended right then.