THE OLD OAK TREE

 

By Richard Nickelson

© 2005 Richard G. Nickelson

 

 

As I made my way into the Teams I was awe-struck when I first met and talked to the men who had spent many long years in the Teams before I arrived. These men were the lifers or old timers as they were more affectionately referred to and they had been where the action was and therefore possessed all of the answers. These were also the men who wouldn’t have given us the time of day only a month earlier and now they were there to answer questions and indoctrinate us in all matters related to the Teams. By graduating from BUDS Training we had earned their acceptance but we still had much to learn and they would be the ones who would teach us.

 

One of the finest men that I met when I crossed the road that separated BUDS Training from the Team Compound was Bill Corey, a Chief Petty Officer. Bill was second in command of the Platoon to which I was assigned and he was an old salt. By “old salt” I mean that he was a lifer, a career Navy man, a man who had been in the Navy for a long time and had seen it all. Bill was a Chief Boatswains Mate and if you are unfamiliar with the Navy’s system of rating and ranking enlisted personnel, the Chief Boatswains Mate is at the top of the food chain for enlisted personnel. Also, to reach the rank of Chief Boatswains Mate, one has most assuredly done so by fighting his way from the rank of a lowly seaman, the junior rank of Navy enlisted personnel, to this coveted position. In addition, the Chief Boatswains Mate must know every aspect of shipboard life as well as how to run a ship. Basically, he knows where every bone is buried.  The Chief Boatswains Mate knows how to read and work enlisted personnel, even the most incorrigible, and is the one enlisted man aboard ship most trusted by the Captain. Although we were in the Teams, not aboard ship, this trust between the Team Captain and his Chief Boatswains Mate was still firmly entrenched.

           

More than any other man in Teams, I enjoyed every minute I spent with Chief Corey. He was a teacher par-excellence and was always there when called upon. He was not a man who took trust lightly and in order to be accepted by Chief Corey you had to earn his trust and that came at the price of hard work, honesty, and giving one hundred percent to every task, assignment, or operation you were entrusted to carry out. Bill was pure Navy and that was born out one day when he told me that the Navy was first and foremost in his life and came even before his family.

 

Chief Corey, as well as other senior enlisted men we were to learn from, taught from experience. The many lessons these men had learned, the hard way, would be passed on to us, the new arrivals. This would be no easy matter because, of the thirty-five enlisted men who graduated from BUDS Class-28, twenty-two had been assigned to training straight out of boot camp and therefore had no prior Naval experience. Although young and inexperienced, these men shared one thing in common, an eagerness to learn from the best and learn they would.

 

The importance of learning from those who had gone before and paid their dues was emphasized in a sign that was permanently posted in the UDT/SEAL Team Briefing Room. I was significantly and permanently impacted by this sign and it is as important in my life today as it was then, nearly forty years ago. The sign simply stated; “You must learn from the mistakes of others, in the Teams you will not live long enough to make them all yourself.” It literally meant that we would be the protégé’s of men who had witnessed the costly mistakes of others or had made serious mistakes and survived. Nonetheless, it meant that we were to heed well the lessons these senior Team members were to teach us.

 

The lessons we were to learn not only came from hands-on experience but from stories. I truly enjoyed listening to Chief Corey and other senior Team members reminisce about past experiences and operations they had undertaken during the years before we arrived. For me, it was a wonderful learning experience. It is true that I had read about some of the operations attributed to Naval Special Warfare but prior to the early sixties there were few books that adequately documented the exploits of the Teams. Therefore, from the stories told to us we would learn as surely as we would learn from those lessons taught during actual operations. There was an incident that had occurred several years before my arrival and though it is not one that conjures up positive mental pictures of Team bravado, it was nonetheless an interesting story.

 

In training as well as in the Teams we learned the intricacies of numerous types of explosives and experimented with various ways of removing obstacles both in the water and on land. Each member of the UDT/SEAL Teams is an expert in explosives and is well trained in all aspects of this fine art. As the story goes, a Team member, and I won’t mention his name except to say it wasn’t Chief Corey, was at his home one weekend relaxing in his yard. I will refer to this man as Ron, although this is not his real name. Ron lived in one of the suburbs of San Diego, in a home located in the country. Please remember that a good deal of San Diego County, during the sixties, was country and not nearly as congested as it is today. Anyway, the nearest neighbor happened to live approximately a quarter mile from Ron and this neighbor had been working on and off for a week trying to remove the stump of a huge oak tree that had died. He had cut the tree down and further cut what had fallen into firewood. He was now taking on the more difficult job of cutting thru the aged root system so he could remove and burn the stump.

 

Ron, who had recently moved into his home, sat in the front yard watching with interest when he heard the sound of a small explosion. He looked more closely and after the dust had settled Ron could see his neighbor slide into a hole, he had dug around the base of the tree stump, then scramble out and run a short distance and crouch down behind his pick-up truck. Several minutes passed and another small explosion occurred and this piqued even further Ron’s interest. After two more explosions Ron realized he just had to get involved. If nothing else, he should at least go over, introduce himself, and offer his expertise.

 

Ron arrived shortly after another small explosion and made his introduction. He found that the neighbor had been trying to blast through the root system of the tree using quarter sticks of dynamite. This was to be a laborious process and Ron could see very little, if any, headway being made toward removing the stump when he entered the hole to take a peek.  The two men set talking and getting to know one another when Ron dropped the bomb, excuse the pun, on his neighbor. He explained that he was a member of the Underwater Demolition Teams and an expert in the fine art of explosives. Ron went on to tell his new friend and neighbor that what he had been doing was all-wrong and that he would therefore be only too happy to offer his services, that is if his neighbor so desired. Ron’s neighbor was only too willing to accept the help, of one trained in explosives, and asked what needed to be done. Mind you, Ron’s neighbor had removed tree stumps before, using explosives, but it had always taken a good deal of time because he was very cautious and only used explosives in small amounts. He was however, open for suggestions.

 

With that Ron asked how much dynamite remained and was pleased to hear that there was nearly half of a box, or roughly thirty sticks at his disposal. Ron explained that he would rig the explosives, by running a trunk line, so all of the dynamite could be detonated at one time. The neighbor was somewhat reticent but Ron assured him that he knew what he was doing and that he should just relax and enjoy the moment. Just to be safe, and to further put his neighbors mind at ease, Ron said he would return to his home and bring back a heavy-duty tarp that could be put over the stump. This would contain any dirt and gravel that might otherwise be blown into the air. It took a little more persuading before the neighbor finally agreed and only then after Ron had recalled some of the major operations, involving explosives, that he had been assigned to while in the Teams. With the neighbor now feeling a little less apprehensive Ron returned home to pick up the tarp.

 

It wasn’t long before Ron returned and started setting the explosives that would take care of this simple matter. The neighbor stood by anxiously watching as Ron attached all of the dynamite to the trunk line then exited the hole. Both men then stretched the tarp over the tree stump and staked it to the ground. Ron was now ready to light the fuse and as the neighbor retreated to a shed, a short distance from where his pick-up truck was parked, made a final comment; “I sure hope you know what you’re doing.”  With that, Ron lit the fuse and ran to where his neighbor waited.

 

Both men now crouched beside the shed anxiously waiting for the explosion that would bring to an end this matter of “the old oak tree.” However, what was about to happen was totally unexpected. The huge explosion that followed startled Ron and nearly gave his neighbor a heart attack. There had been more than enough explosives to separate the trunk from its roots. In fact, when they first looked at the sight where the tree trunk had been just seconds before, there was nothing but a gaping hole.  They looked at each other; then their attention was quickly diverted skyward. To their surprise the huge tree trunk, which took on the appearance of an incoming missile, was now descending rapidly from the sky, still wrapped securely in Ron’s heavy-duty tarp. Next came a loud crushing sound as the tree trunk landed square on top of the pick-up truck, shattering the windows and smashing the truck as flat as a tortilla. Everything was deadly silent for the next several seconds as both men crouched there staring in disbelief at the aftermath of what had just happened. Then, Ron stood up, brushed himself off and said something to the effect; “you don’t have to thank me, you can keep the tarp, and isn’t that my wife I hear calling me home for dinner.” With that Ron could be seen running down the road toward his house and the story ended. I never was to hear what happened to the short-lived friendship, formed that day, between Ron and his neighbor. It was however an interesting story and one I enjoyed, have laughed about on numerous occasions, and have never forgotten.

 

Though this is not an example of the type of story that contains a life-enriching lesson, there would be other stories that would serve us well. From these other stories we would learn the intended lesson, a lesson that could possible save our lives as well as the lives of fellow Teammates. The one thing I do know; not all knowledge can be gained through first hand experience, much has to be acquired by means of a story. 

 

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