Can you hear the laughter?
Listen, closely ....
There it is again, seeping up through the waves, originating in the tiny confines of the chief's quarters on board the submerged USS Alexandria (SSN 757). Step inside and you'll find four chiefs near tears from laughter, begging Reginald Brown to stop as he blithely saunters around the cramped room in an exaggerated, arrogant pose with thumbs in imaginary lapels and nose held high.
He rolls into a 10 minute, off the cuff, comedic monologue, complete with imitations, puns, exaggerated gestures and impersonations. Punch line after punch line work the chiefs into a frenzy. This isn't just laughter - it's roaring laughter. Many are buckled over, but Brown, as if reading from a script, continues his presentation. It goes on and on and on. No time outs. On board Alexandria, it's known as the "Chevy Show," in honor of its host, Senior Chief Machinist Mate Reginald Jerome Brown, a.k.a. Chief of the Boat.
To his Sailors - all 120 of them - he's "the man." If they understand one thing, it's this: The COB is the man who makes things happen.
Size this person up as he does his comedic routine; take a close look. Note his uniform, pressed to perfection like the other chiefs around him; a habit formed during his 18-year naval career. Read his nametag, "Brown." If he had it his way it may read "Chevy," a nickname he earned while working as an auto mechanic before joining the Navy. Listen to him speak. Confident, outgoing; a voice that perhaps echoes the discipline he faced while being raised by a mother in the Army. Or maybe a voice that hints a sad note of loss, when he recalls memories of his brother, who was killed in Vietnam. Or is it an aching for his father, who had five heart bypasses one Christmas Eve long ago?
There's more too. See how lean he is. A contradiction to one of his favorite habits he claims to live for: Eating Wednesday night's 15 cent hot wings at the base Chief's Club, where he sometimes shows up for feasting in his gumby slippers. (Brown claims to be somewhat of a barracks rat, who happens to live in a room directly above the club.)
Estimate his height: 5 foot 8 inches; seemingly custom built for maneuvering through all those tight spaces on a sub. Even his mouth mike is telling; crackling as he talks, indicating he's in radio contact with other submariners in other parts of the 362-foot vessel.
For this person to be any more revealing he would need gills and a fin - which we could then attribute to the years - yes, years - he has spent underwater on numerous North Atlantic, South Atlantic and Mediterranean submarine deployments. Indeed, a silent study of the COB speaks volumes. But those who know Brown - and rest assured, every one on the sub knows him well - there's another story. Like one line movie reviews, they paint an even better picture of the COB.
"His standards don't waiver,"- Chief Electronics Technician John Borders.
"He's firm, strong and fair at the same time," - Machinist Mate Fireman Apprentice Luis Vega.
"He doesn't have a problem getting on the deck and cleaning with the rest of us," - MM2 Kent Warner.
"'I can't' isn't in his vocabulary; one of the best COBs I've had," - Warner.
And in the vocabulary of every submariner on Alexandria are the words "automatic," a word the COB uses every day. "'Automatic' means everyone is ready for the next move," said Brown. "I'll ask someone how everything is going and they'll usually say 'It's on automatic, COB." That's what I like to hear.
"Everyone on this sub has a job," continued Brown. "I shouldn't have to tell a person where they should be and what they should be doing. They should be on automatic. When everyone is on automatic it's like a good Swiss clock, everyone is clicking. When we close the hatch, we have no one else. No sun, no stars, just ourselves to count on. If everything is not on automatic, that's not good."
Crew members have learned their lines well:
COB: "How you doing today?"
Submariner: "Automatic, COB!"
Captain: "How's everything going with the crew COB?"
COB: "It's on automatic captain!"
The captain and the crew know what he means.
They also know what the COB means when he uses the word "roasted." It means to get a chewing. "It's my term for discipline," said Brown. "Not being on automatic torques me. If someone isn't where they're supposed to be - say, on a man overboard drill - then they're not on automatic. They get roasted."
Other chiefs acknowledge that Brown, "roasts meat daily."
But a mean nature isn't really in the guy's blood. Being nice is not necessarily a prerequisite for being a submarine chief of the boat, but with Brown it seems to be. During the ongoing "Chevy Show" we find him smiling all the time. "Off camera," as he makes his rounds through his submarine, his demeanor is usually not different. Normally, Brown will be smiling or pleasantly talking with a crew member. He claims always to have been a leader and not a follower.
"I grew up with a [bunch] of brothers," said Brown. "You had to be a leader and outgoing in a family like that." He remembers the days before he joined the Navy, when he used to hang out with his friends, who always took Brown's lead. "In my group, if I didn't do it, nobody would do it. They followed me."
They still do today. On this boat, the COB focuses energy on helping those around him. Like the new submariner, 18 years old, who just checked on board and is not adjusting to the tight quarters and living conditions. "When new guys come on board they're just children, some of them," said the COB. "We all rally around that person and pick him up. I try to instill in the younger guys good traits and improve quality of life. The new guy needs to learn how to work in this environment. If something negative is happening in a guy's life, I need to know that, because it may affect his job."
So, how does the COB keep tabs on 120 different people? He makes rounds. He appears to be everywhere and nowhere. One minute he'll be in the control room, another moment you can find him in the engine room; later he'll be on the mess decks. He also gets to the sonar room, the torpedo room, the radio room and other rooms on the sub. As Brown might say, he has more rooms than a hotel.
Another way he keeps in check with his crew? "I talk to them," answers Brown. "Not just 'Hi, how you doing? but meaningful talk."
Like long-lost buddies, Brown gets on level with whomever he's talking to, looks him in the eye and makes a genuine connection ("He knows how to make you smile," said one crew member). He may tell a sea story. One of his favorites is the moose story.
Like the comedic monologue he relayed earlier in the chief's quarters, he tells this one with just as much energy, this time in the torpedo room with a handful of gathered E-6s and E-5s. "I was topside on USS Memphis a few years ago, when I saw the craziest thing of my life," he recalled. "We were just moving along doing a few knots when I saw something alongside us in the water. I looked closer and couldn't believe my eyes: it was a big moose, swimming right alongside of us. I reported it to control and they didn't even believe me!" Quietly, everyone listening remained engrossed in his story.
Sometimes, just as quickly as he begins a conversation, he'll end it and suddenly question the well being of a crew member, asking leading questions. "I'll find out if a guy doesn't have heat in his barracks room back at the base, or if another guy has a wife who's getting ready to have a baby. These are concerns I listen to and need to know."
His listening allows him to instantly put a finger on the state of the crew, at any time. He knows how to spot subtle nuances of the crew's temperament. He knows without asking, for example, that the crew onboard Alexandria would rather go to sea than stay in port, because there, he says, they know their days are structured. He knows the biggest problem for many young submariners on his sub is lack of time management skills.
Brown says he's always treated with respect when he walks on board the sub. Of course, off the sub is a different story - especially on the basketball court. "When it comes to basketball, he has a lot of talk," said MMFN Luis Vega, referring to the COB. "He talked and talked about his game on the court, but once we finally got him on [a basketball court in Florida during a port visit] we blew him out of the box. He has no game. He was throwing more bricks than a bricklayer. We have no mercy on him."
Vega was quick to add though, that he feels Brown is a good motivator who keeps on top of things. "He's straight and always tries to improve crew morale."
Other crew members see different positives. "Our COB is a people person," said MM2 Kent Warner. He knows how to make people smile and get on your good side. He also stands up for you and sets high standards."
Some chiefs on board respect Brown's unwavering firmness. "We're transitory by nature and we need a baseline to operate from," said ETC Borders. "It's very comforting knowing that he will hold that baseline. Other COBs could waiver with the political climate set by the XO and CO. This COB doesn't."
Like a strong father he holds firm.
To those on board Alexandria, this man Brown - winner of the Dennis Sultzer Memorial Leadership Award, inspirer and leader, denier and grantor, fixer and healer - this man Brown, perhaps, is just that - a father.
Or maybe this man Brown, wannabe Jay Leno, is just someone who helps the crew smile and stay focused after 150 days underwater.
Or perhaps, this man, host of the "Chevy Show," is just a person who has found his calling as Chief of the Boat.
Now hit the lights and roll the camera; this man's ready for action.
JO1 Robert Benson
is a photojournalist assigned to All Hands.