Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Twenty something years ago, as a newly minted Seaman Apprentice at the Naval Technical Training Center, Corry Station in Pensacola, Florida, I was strolling along the second deck catwalk overlooking the central courtyard of the 3700 Barracks Complex.

And I happened to pass a rather strange character, this in and of itself wasn't notable - Corry Station was (and still is) home of the Navy's Cryptologic and Electronic Warfare schools. By definition the CT and EW ratings are filled with some pretty odd folks, CT's especially (and nowadays the rates have been merged - so they're all CT's). The CT rate is highly classified, and requires certain aptitudes best describes as 'extreme geekitude,' If you ever wondered what happened to those awkward nerdy kids you went to high school with, a significant fraction of them ended up as CT's, and what they do for a living would probably scare the crap out of you. Most CT's spend their entire careers in dark holes buried deep inside warships or in bunker type buildings that have no windows, surrounded by computer screens and blinking lights and esoteric electronics that look remarkably like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Navy CT's make up a significant fraction of the NSA workforce. CT's are easy to spot in a crowd, they're the ones with the pasty pale skin and eyes watering from the sun, as they only come out of their holes when the supply of Top Ramen Cup-O-noodles runs low. They tend to jump at loud noises and are noticeably lacking in social graces. They are, as I've said, rather strange fellows. Now, there is a certain very small percentage of the CT community that does not toil away in the dark. Unlike their photophobic cousins they rarely come indoors, and what they do is even more highly classified than the usual CT work. They are proficient with weapons of several kinds, they are often covered in mud and grime, and can usually be found in the dark and dangerous parts of the world. And they are much stranger than the 'normal' CT's - I know, I used to be one of them.

So, as I said, passing a rather strange character at Corry Station wasn't in and of itself a notable event - except for the fact that this particular character was carrying a 4-pack of Guinness Stout. He was a large intimidating fellow, not particularly tall, but broad, and radiating an air of massive confidence. He was wearing a pair of round, wire-rimmed glasses, as if he'd punched out John Lennon and taken the rock legend's trademark from his bleeding nose. He had a kind of wild eyed intensity about him (think Billy Idol singing White Wedding), and a lot of sunburned forehead surround by a wispy halo of straw colored hair. You'd have pegged him for an Irishman at 40 paces, even without the Guinness.

Now you have to understand what it was like for us back then. A Seaman Apprentice made considerably less than $1000 per month, I made about $720 before taxes. We lived in the barracks at Corry and ate in the galley (chow hall for you non-Navy types). We went to code school for 14-16 hours a day (9 hours of school, and anywhere from 5-6 hours of remedial study on our 'own time'). It was intense. When we weren't studying, we were polishing our boots (Navy boondockers in those days), pressing uniforms, marching and drilling with our training companies, doing physical fitness, cleaning our rooms, on work detail, standing inspections - or drinking (sleep? Uh, no don't recall much of that). The base had a hell of an enlistedman's club, the best bar for a hundred miles around, and we spent a lot of time there. Mondays were quarter beer night, Tuesdays were mixed drink specials, Wednesday was hump day, Thursdays were pool contests and drink specials, and Fridays were dollar pitchers. Sometimes they changed the order, but every night was something, and the weekends were when things really got going. We drank whatever they served,and they served whatever they could get the cheapest. I remember one month when the drink special was peach schnapps, I hate peaches, hate the smell of them, but we weren't rich enough to complain - so I drank peach schnapps for a month, gah, to this day I'll cross the street to avoid peaches. I remember many nights, sitting on the floor of my barracks room counting pennies and nickels, looking for loose change so we could go to the club and get a couple of pitchers of cheap piss-water strained from a river in downtown Milwaukee (down-stream from the sewage treatment plant, no doubt).

So, as you can see, a wild-eyed Irishman with a 4xer of real, expensive, peat bog brown, thick foamy Guinness Stout would get my attention. I made some kind of squawking noise. He stopped, probably stunned that an inhabitant of nerdland would actually recognize real beer, and we struck up a conversation. And that conversation led to a lifelong friendship (it also helped that he shared that beer with me). We became inseparable friends for the rest of our time at Corry, Shawn Riley and I. Shawn was of the indoor variety of CT, and I was training to be more of the outdoor variety, but we were both tops in our respective classes and as such got our pick of orders when the time came. We both chose Rota, Spain. We were roommates in Spain, living first in the barracks and later out in town on the Spanish economy. We rented an apartment from a wonderful Spanish family and had many strange and wild adventures. After Spain, I was assigned to Iceland and Shawn went to Italy, but we kept in touch via mail (in those days there was no such thing as email or the internet, Al Gore hadn't invented it yet). Years later, after I had returned to Corry as an instructor and met the woman of my dreams, Shawn Riley flew all the way from his base in Japan to be at my wedding - and became instant friends with my wife Becky. Over the years, our careers took very divergent paths, but we always kept in touch and visited each other when we could. When Shawn was stationed in Hawaii, Becky and I flew from our home in Maine and spent three weeks exploring the islands with him. The three of us explored the beaches, cities, and nightclubs of Oahu, hiked the depths of Waimea Canyon on Kauai, and crossed the lava fields beneath erupting volcanoes on the Big Island. And years later we all ended up stationed together one last time in San Diego, where I was assigned as the Information Warfare Officer on USS Valley Forge and Shawn was assigned to the Cryptologic Support Group at the 32nd Street Naval Station. Shawn watched over my family while I was gone to Iraq, or South American, or out at sea. And when I was on land we explored Southern California together.

Two years ago I flew down from Alaska and was the guest speaker at Senior Chief Riley's retirement. And afterward we spent a week roaming San Diego and having a blast. The following summer Shawn drove 4000 miles up the Alaska-Canadian Highway in his RV and spent the summer with us. Working in my woodshop and exploring Alaska. Nowadays he lives in upstate New York, in the town where he grew up, and works at the local railroad museum. He's always lurked around Stonekettle Station and recently he's come out into the light and made a few comments as 'Beastly' (it's a long story, don't ask). Also recently he's been bitten by the Blogger bug and opened up shop here.

A couple words of warning:
- Shawn "Knuckles" Riley is loudly intolerant of fools. Act foolishly around him and he will crush you, see you driven before him, and revel in the lamentations of your women. He will.
- He's vocal, irreverent, and outspoken - I expect his blog will be the same.
- He's a damned good friend to have, especially in a fight - his forehead is considered a lethal weapon on three continents. The one thing Chuck Norris fears is Shawn Riley's headbutt-fu.
- He's an accomplished professionally trained photographer, hopefully he'll be putting up some of his work (hint hint).
- He's a carver and woodturner and makes wonderful carved bowls.
- I once saw him projectile vomit a case of Cruz Campo and a black-olive pizza straight up into the air, about four feet.
- He's a hell of a cook, Italian mothers weep in envy when they taste his tomato sauce. And he's the only guy I know who once made Kalua Pig in an oven instead of a hole on the beach - and nobody knew the difference.
- He, along with my brother, once destroyed a Volkswagen Golf with a pot of Beenie-Weenies.
- He prefers feisty, fiercely intelligent redheads and he's available.
- He's my friend and one of the very few people I can tolerate in large doses.
- He may or may not be a character in Deep Thunder - and he may or may not make appearances in the novel I'm currently writing.
- He and I occasionally break into the "he's not hiding in da stove..." routine from Bugs and Thugs. We find this hysterical, you will probably not.
- He'll probably be pissed that I pimped him here.

So there you go. He only has one post up as yet, but I expect he'll get around to more sooner rather than later. And hopefully next summer, if all goes as planned, he'll be blogging from here at Stonekettle Station. Stop by. Say hi. Bring Guinness.


  1. He's linked in. A fellow Senior Chief, Irish-Person and Jim-Friend. What's not to like?

  2. That whole, "Would I turn the oven on if my good friend were in there?" has got to be one of the most genius Loony Tunes sequences of all time.

    All. Time.

    Nice to see some appreciation for it elsewhere. Never let it be said that the entire Navy lacks sense...

  3. most genius Loony Tunes sequences of all time

    Oh yes. Indeed.

    Riley and I rarely go more than a day in each other's company without a full replay of "OK, Rabbit, where's he at, where's Rocky hidin'?" from Riley in full Irish Brogue. And me doing the "He's not hidin' in the da stove," bit in my best Bugs Bunny impression.

    People think we're insane, or have spent far, far to much time together, but it amuses us. My wife usually sighs and rolls her little eyes, but my son thinks it's hysterical.

  4. *hopes there will be a video of this at some point* ;)

  5. Jim,

    I went to psy Shawn a visit. Tried to leave him this messages:

    **knock, knock**

    **opens door and peeks inside**

    Jim said it'd be warm here and that you'd have beer.

    Site. Don't. Love. Anonymous.

    pass on my greetings (and tell him to show Anonymous some love).

  6. Nathan, thanks for going by. I'm sure Shawn will jazz up his site - he's done some pretty cool web design and database work. He'll get around to it eventually.

  7. Any Irishman that can actually spell his name right is a winner in my book.

    I'm going to go visit his site, and then find someone named Sean to tease.

  8. Gotta love a guy that shares his Guinness.

  9. All Right Rabbit, Where's Rocky, where's he hidin?

    and you know the rest is gonna follow.


Comments on this blog are moderated. Each will be reviewed before being allowed to post. This may take a while. I don't allow personal attacks, trolling, or obnoxious stupidity. If you post anonymously and hide behind an IP blocker, I'm a lot more likely to consider you a troll. Be sure to read the commenting rules before you start typing. Really.