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MSO Pittsburgh

I reported to MSO Pittsburgh as Executive Officer on June 13, 1997.  At the time, the office was located on the 11th Floor of the Koosman Building in downtown Pittsburgh.  You can’t quite see the building in the picture above but you can see we had a lot of bridges.  The bridge in the foreground is the Fort Pitt Bridge across the Monongahela River.  The First Bridge across the Allegheny River is the Fort Duquesne Bridge.   We had great difficulty in finding a place to live in Pittsburgh.  It was a very tight housing market.  There was no way that we wanted to buy anything, particularly since I had a feeling that I would only be there for two years.  We settled (and I mean settled) on a house located at 136 Crestwood Drive in Shaler Township.  The house wasn’t that small compared to our place in Manassas, but it was just configured wrong.  The kitchen sucked there was no dining room.  We only had two bathrooms.  Fortunately, we had some decent neighbors so it wasn’t all that bad.  Of course, it wasn’t all that good either.  If you’re not from Pittsburgh, you will forever be an outsider.  Oh, people will be pleasant in general, but many were quick to remind us that “you aren’t from around here.”  I don’t want to accuse anyone of xenophobia, but of all the places I have lived, I never felt one bit like I was a part of the community in Pittsburgh.

The Commanding Officer was a fellow named Commander Ernie Fink.  Ernie was really a great guy but he worried far too much about everything.  Ernie had never been an Executive Officer and frequently did my job (or at least tried real hard) for me.  I probably would have complained more if he (1) didn’t almost always to a good job, and (2) still gave me credit for doing a good job.  A perfect example was reviewing the message board.  Ernie would see something requiring action and start working on it.  Of course, at the same time, I was either working on it or assigning it out to the appropriate department head to work through any requirements.  It took a little while, but I finally got Ernie to realize that he had a whole staff who wanted to make him look good.  He still sweated everything really hard, but at least he checked with me before starting work that someone else was already doing (or should I say I checked with him to make sure he hadn’t already done the work for me).

While on the subject of Ernie Fink, I have to mention what we all called “The Fink Archives.”  Ernie had shelf after shelf in the basement of his house containing every piece of paper he had ever laid his hands on.  It seemed to stretch deep into the bowels of his basement.  The entire collection must have weighed thousands of pounds.  To this day I wonder if Ernie still maintains it.  Knowing him, he has probably cataloged and cross-referenced the whole thing and who knows, maybe even scanned it into a searchable database.  The only problem with the Fink Archives is that he didn't update it so you never knew if what he had was the current guidance unless you checked it first.  More than a couple times I had to point out that he was a version or change or two behind.  I've always thought that an outdated manual or instruction is worse than not having one at all since you may do exactly the wrong thing thinking you've got it nailed.  At this point I think it's important to mention that I had nothing but the highest respect for Commander Ernie Fink.  He truly cared about everyone at the unit and frankly was if anything too nice to some people.

One thing Ernie did very well was to make known his priorities as the Commanding Officer.  I saw my primary function as making it happen the way he wanted it to.  This was a huge paradigm change for a lot of people, particularly reservists, at Marine Safety Office Pittsburgh.  One of Ernie’s highest priorities was to cut down on barges breaking loose and subsequently striking things like bridges and other fleeted barges and in general causing a fair degree of mayhem on the rivers.  In the fall of 1997, there had been a spate of these incidents and stopping them was actually his number one priority.  So, how many people did we have looking into this?  We had a single First Class Boatswain's Mate who actually did barge fleeting as a collateral duty.  Obviously we weren't getting out to the fleets and expressing our concerns adequately.  As an aside, one problem we ran into was that until a barge broke loose, there really wasn't that much we could do.  Ernie liked to talk about “sub-standard” operators, but as I cautioned him frequently, there were no existing standards (that was my four years as a technical plan reviewer coming out).  At the same time that we had one barge inspector, we had an 18 member reserve boat team.  Even with 18 guys, they still had trouble keeping a single boat in an operating status.  I got together with the Department Heads and put out a plan to reorganize our reserve resources; including assigning eight people from the boat team to the BM1 to visit barge fleets.

I quite honestly did not expect the firestorm this set off.  I was sitting at the Burger King on Ohio River Blvd with my family on a Saturday afternoon not too long after my arrival at the unit when my cell phone rang.  It was the reserve Chief Yeoman.  She was calling to let me know that the chiefs had held a meeting and basically decided that my reorganization was unsatisfactory and that they planned on going to the CO to put an end to it.  Now I hadn't been at a field unit in six years (two at the University of Virginia and four at the Marine Safety Center).  I had always held Chief Petty Officers in somewhat high regard (and still do for that matter), but these clowns were completely out of line.  I asked if the meeting was still in progress.  When the YNC told me yes, I think I surprised her when I said I’d be to the office in 15 minutes and that I wanted everyone still in the conference room.  When we got to the office, I told my wife to wait in the van with the kids (who were 1 and 4 at the time) because this wouldn't take long.  I walked into the room (wearing shorts and a tee shirt) and was greeted by about eight of the coldest stares I’d seen in a long time.  I set the tone by asking why they made the YNC, the most junior chief, call me.  Of course I got no answer so I cut right to the chase.  I explained to them the CO’s priorities and that he had already approved the reorganization.  I told them that I had sought the advice of the department heads and they had bought into the plan.  When a couple guys mentioned quitting, I flat out told them that would be fine with me.  I told them that I’d seen that movie before and if they wanted to go, they could be my guest.  I probably went a little too far when I told them they weren't really contributing to the bottom line right now so no one was going to miss them anyway.  I finally asked if any of them had a better way to meet the CO’s priorities.  Of course there was no answer.  I told them the meeting was over and turned around and walked out.  Here’s a shocker – no one actually quit.  We started actually focusing on mission priorities and the CO was happy. 

One of the downsides to the job of Executive Officer is that you have to deal with all the personnel issues.  My first real challenge was our Boatswain's Mate Chief (BMC) .   The Chief for some reason thought that we were a small boat station that had some marine safety responsibility, not a Marine Safety Office that happened to have a couple small boats.  He was a thorn in the side of the CO from the day I got there and probably had been for some time.  He once showed me a draft retirement letter that had a note on it “break glass in the event of the need for a quick retirement.”  While he was still in my officer I had one of the MK’s bring me a hammer.  Needless to say I didn't like the guy.  I don’t ever remember him coming to me with anything other than a complaint.  I never remember him coming with any sort of proposed solutions.  He finally put in for retirement in early 1998.  I granted him the maximum amount of terminal leave even though it meant going without a BMC for almost four months.  This guy was that bad.  He was like a cancer on the unit and he needed to be cut out as quickly as possible.  A gap was an improvement over him.  For some strange reason, the CO wanted to do a departure award.  For the first time in my career, I sloughed it off on one of the Lieutenants.  I didn’t even want to read it at the ceremony, instead opting to take the phones.  I absolutely couldn't stand this guy and his departure dramatically improved the office.  In retrospect, my actions were probably a little over the top, but this was one of a very select handful of people that truly didn't deserve anything when the left the service (other than perhaps a swift kick in the butt!).  I should note that this guy easily made my list of top ten ass holes I met in the Coast Guard.

Another problem I inherited was a BM3 who was all messed up.  No names here are necessary (mostly because of the issue of medical confidentiality – personally I’d love to “out” this guy publicly), but this was a guy who had been a third class public affairs specialist in the Navy.  He had gotten out and worked for a while before deciding to join the Coast Guard.  Our first mistake was actually enlisting the guy.  He had to take a reduction to seaman and was initially assigned to a 270’ Medium Endurance Cutter.  It didn't take long for the people he worked for to realize this guy was a bum.  The thing was they were too lazy to finish the job, so they concocted a scheme to get him transferred.  What they basically did was fraudulently advance the guy to BM3.  That advancement meant he would have to transfer.  They had falsified his qualifications so bad (including naming him sailor of the quarter) that the assignment officer was willing to give him a plum assignment – the USCGC Osage in Sewickley, PA.  Why was this considered plum?  The guy was from Pittsburgh and this was like going home.  Needless to say, he was a joke on a buoy tender.  As you might recall from the Ironwood chapter, buoy tending is a tough job.  This guy wasn't up to it.  It didn't take the Officer in Charge of the cutter too long to realize his guy was a fake.  Needless to say, it started to go rough for him on the Osage.  So the guy took the easy way out; he claimed he was going to kill himself.  The Coast Guard had been through a couple high profile suicides and everyone was instructed to take even the slightest hint of suicidal tendencies very seriously.  So they whisked this guy to the psycho ward.  While he was sitting in his rubber room, he wrote page after page of pure crap about the crew of the Osage, particularly about the Officer in Charge and the Executive Petty Officer.  Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the Group Commander actually believed some of the crap.  They had to do something with the guy.  The former CO at the Marine Safety Office thought he was doing his friend, the Officer in Charge of the cutter a favor by taking the guy in.  Well, my predecessor got too close to the guy and actually started believing him and feeling bad for him.  I certainly hold no ill will toward my predecessor.  He was an absolutely wonderful guy who really cared about people. In this case, however, he probably cared a little too much.  This helped to drag the case on for over a year. I took over with the case pending.   I was determined to get this resolved quickly as possible.  From the day I met the guy, I took an instant dislike to him.  I spent way more time on the case than I ever should have.  Want to hear the kicker?  We took so long determining that he was truly a faker with the mental issues that he developed a legitimate issue with one of his feet.  We then botched some surgery and ended up giving the guy a disability retirement (for his feet, not his head).  Ugh!  Oh yeah, this guy (name withheld) also makes my top ten asshole list.

I should mention that it did all work out for Executive Petty Officer.  He went off to a construction tender, made Senior Chief and came back to the Osage as Officer in Charge.  He was one of the finest guys I have ever known in the Coast Guard.  One of my duties as Executive Officer was to administer the Mutual Assistance Program in the Pittsburgh area.  I remember when the Senior Chief sent a couple guys up to the office to get loans.  The head administrator in St. Louis called me to question why I issued these loans.  I explained that the members came with the correctly signed paperwork from the Senior Chief.  I told the guy he could call him if he wanted to further discuss that matter.  It was quickly dropped.  That’s how it goes sometimes; we’ll trust a guy with a ship, marking a dangerous channel that is transited by all sorts of hazardous cargoes and 18 lives but question him about a 300 dollar loan.

Another great personnel case was a Chief Warrant Officer who had a daughter in high school and he wanted an extension to stay through her senior year.  The thing was that he was already on an extension.  He had been warned about this when he got the first extension.  None of that meant anything to him though and he painted a picture of a guy being abused by an uncaring system.  The Assignment Officer wouldn't budge.  The CO wrote all kinds of appeals but go nowhere.  I feel lucky to this day that I was able to calm the Assignment Officer down enough so we were not sent a new CWO with no marine safety experience.  Instead we were sent a great guy who was an asset to the unit from day one.

I think I might have been able to talk the Assignment Officer into the second extension, but the guy and I had a couple run ins and frankly I didn't care if he retired or transferred or whatever.  The first one involved a minor accident with one of the Government Vehicles.  Hey, accidents do happen, but as you’d expect, there is some follow up work including submitting a few forms.  This guy didn't feel it was up to him to complete the investigation paperwork. Needless to say, I was slightly torqued about it.  The second incident involved a gas detector.  At the time, everyone was issued a portable gas detector to wear around enclosed spaces.  When the battery started to go bad, they would start to beep.  This guy, probably while intoxicated, threw his against the wall of his house to make it stop.  Normally no one would care except there was about a 200 dollar “core” value which we wouldn't be getting.  I had to almost break up a fight between this guy and the Second Class Boatswain's Mate than managed the program.  I kept the busted unit and had it mounted on a plaque for the guy’s retirement with the phrase “Safety First.”  At least everyone else thought it was funny.

Just about every guy under the rank of first class had a second job.  One of my first exchanges with our new BMC regarded this situation.  The BMC, with backup from a reserve Chief Yeoman descended on my office one Friday morning asking me if I knew about the guys with second jobs.  I told them that of course I did.  They started in on me about granting permission.  At one time, you needed permission to hold a second job.  That section of the Personnel Manual had been changed years before with a requirement to advise your command. All the guys with job had “advised” me and I pointed this out.  I thought that would do it, but in a quite loud fashion, they continued to argue with me.  The crew could quite easily hear the flow of the discussion.  After just a few minutes, I had heard enough and essentially publicly humiliated both of them.  I didn't even feel bad afterward.  I have always believed that if you are going to call me out in public, you better hope you’re right since your call out gave me the right to come right back at you.  In this case they weren't and paid the price.

My favorite guy with a second job was our yeoman.  He drove a Jaguar.  Suffice it to say he liked the finer things in life; finer than he was going to get on an E-4’s salary.  He took a second job working for a local bank as a customer service rep.  His hours were 4 to midnight.  At the time, I didn’t realize that he was sleeping in our training room most nights.  Our secretary brought it to my attention that he was having a hard time staying awake.  When I brought it up to him, he advised me that he was working about 60 hours per week and making more as a customer service rep than he did as a YN3.  We had a splendid discussion.  I was able to convince him that perhaps he needed to cut back on his hours a bit.

My best mishap report revolved around the CO.  Ernie fancied himself as a bit of a racquetball player.  Somehow he managed to challenge one of the MST’s to a game. Of course, the MST was at least 10 years younger and in far better shape.  Well, from all accounts, Ernie held his own.  Later that evening, however, he was in the emergency room with a severe hernia.  Of course, he claimed it was something else.  At first I didn't even submit the mishap report, but when the medical bill came in for over 13,000 dollars, I got a call from the MLC asking about it.  I had completed it but never sent it in.  After the call, I was forced to submit it.


We had a wonderful guy living in Pittsburgh named Max Solomon.  Max was a member of the CG Auxiliary and he just loved the Coast Guard.  He practically rebuilt a Coast Guard station in Delaware.  He would get us tickets to the annual “Traffic Club” Banquet.  I never did figure out why, but even the District Commander came.  The picture above is me in my new Dinner Dress Blue uniform getting ready to attend the banquet in 1998.  Adrianna can’t be any older than two.  I knew that I would eventually have to buy the uniform but hoped to hold off as long as possible.  I actually think it’s a pretty good looking uniform and don’t mind wearing it.

The most memorable person from Pittsburgh is a guy named Jake Thomas.  Jake was a great guy but he had no business in the Coast Guard.  He was pretty much in some sort of trouble from day one. 

 I have several fond memories of Jake.  I hosted the 1998 Coast Guard Day Picnic at my house.  Prior to the event, Jake asked if he could bring a date who went to Duquesne University even though she wasn’t quite 21.  I really didn’t care.  Well, by “going to” Duquesne, he meant she had just graduated from High School and was starting at Duquesne in the fall.  By “not quite” 21, he meant 18.  The thing was, this girl could drink.  After a while we outted her on her age and I basically told Jake it was time to go.  On the way out, they rinsed out a couple gallon milk jugs from our recycle bin and filled them with draft beer for the ride.  I’m glad they didn’t get sick since it was August and that milk jug was probably sitting in the sun for a couple days growing bacteria or who knows what.


The picture above was taken at Three Rivers Stadium during one of our morale tailgate parties.  I often ask people how many things are wrong with this picture.  Of course, the major problem is that the unit safety officer (me) is taking a picture and laughing.

Jake was an excellent artist and in fact after getting out of the Coast Guard he has embarked on a rather successful career as a commercial artist living in New York City.  He came to us from a cutter with less than two years left on his enlistment and no intention of staying in.  That was a good thing since even though I liked the guy a lot, there was no way I could ever recommend him for reenlistment.  His first “problem” was “borrowing” a Government Vehicle to go grocery shopping and having a minor accident.  It seems like there was always some minor problem with Jake.  My final bail out occurred after he wound up in the hospital after getting hurt in a bar fight.  He fabricated a story about hurting himself in a mountain biking accident and I “bought” it only because I really liked the guy.  While he was recovering at home, I visited and even took him some beer.  Like I said, I really did like the guy and didn’t want to see the Coast Guard screw up his future.

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