The Wrath of Rickover
By William J. Toti, Captain, USN (Ret.)
A U.S. Naval Academy midshipman endures legendary tongue lashings and banishment to a broom closet from the Father of the Nuclear Navy.
The time was about 1900, after a series of very long days. Like the others, this day was filled with tests and interviews, hours of mental intensity interrupted by hours of mind-numbing boredom. I was a first-class midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, and this was the singular event that would determine the course of my professional life.
For the previous few hours a combination of fatigue and nervous energy had been building, and I had become riveted, torn between the awe of the moment and fear of screwing this up.
We had heard many tales about what I would soon encounter. Most of these stories were presumed to be tall tales.
For example, several different renditions of the “make me mad” story had been circulating, where Admiral Hyman Rickover dared a midshipman to do something that would anger him, purportedly to see how willing the midshipman would be to follow an order. Some midshipmen were said to have complied by clearing the admiral’s desk with a single arm sweep. Others reportedly destroyed a valued submarine model by throwing it out the window.
Then there were the various “confinement” tales of being locked up in a small space or a tiny closet for hours. This apparently was one of the admiral’s famous tests for claustrophobia, to see if the midshipman had what it would take to become a submarine officer.
The only anecdote I heard from our current round of interludes had supposedly involved a classmate of mine just a few hours earlier. As the breathless rumor went, the admiral had been berating him for a particularly poor performance in a certain course of study.
“What would your mother think if she knew you were goofing off like this?” the admiral had supposedly asked my classmate, who reportedly replied, “My mother’s dead.” The admiral’s alleged response: “Well, it’s a goddamn good thing she is, or she would die of embarrassment.”
This was how the legends usually spread. Most of them were unbelievably over-the-top. Each was uncorroborated.
The Dreaded Teetering Chair
I had been running through my potential reaction to these various scenarios when it happened. I was ushered in to see the “Kindly Old Gentleman,” the KOG of nuclear-power lore.
The year was 1979. Since the admiral was born in 1900, it was never difficult to calculate his age. The man was 79 and of almost mythical stature. It would be like standing before Halsey. Or Nimitz.
He was the nuclear Abraham Lincoln, the man who set the naval atom free.
I walked into his office, and something seemed vaguely familiar. I couldn’t quite place it, but I had witnessed this scene before. I looked around, searching for a clue of why I had this sudden bout of dreamlike familiarity.
And as my backside hit the seat of a sadistically teetering wooden chair (designed, it was said, to keep the midshipman off-balance, the first of the rumors I could now actually validate), it hit me.
The room was straight out of the holiday movie It’s a Wonderful Life. He was Mr. Potter, and I was George Bailey. He was about to offer me a job and hand me a cigar.
And then the admiral—without ever looking up—muttered the only words I would hear during Round One of “Toti versus the Admiral.”
“I can’t use a philosophy major with a 3.0 average. Get out.”
My assigned shepherd, a prospective commanding officer (PCO) student, grabbed my elbow and yanked hard enough to overcome my inertia. Suddenly, we were standing outside the admiral’s office, the visit having lasted less than 30 seconds.
As the door closed behind me, I broke through the mental fog enough to proclaim, “But I’m a physics major!”
Clearly weary of playing advocate to a bunch of wide-eyed midshipmen, he led me off to parts unknown. He pointed to a door and said, “I’ll see what I can do. Wait in here.”
My holding pen was a very small office with bare walls and dust and filled nearly to capacity by a large metal desk. After a couple of the most excruciatingly tedious hours of my life, the door opened and the same commander said, “Come.”
We retraced our steps down the now-familiar corridor into the admiral’s office, and I threw myself back onto that demon of a chair.
Admiral Rickover was gazing hard at a file, occasionally muttering to himself. I was surprised how old and frail the great man looked.
His desk was stacked high with files of various sizes. I could barely see him behind this morass. After what seemed an eternity, again without looking up, he said, “You got a C in philosophy.
That damned philosophy again!
Thus began my rant, which went something like this: “My professor was a product of Yale University and didn’t believe in grades. He would frequently say ‘I can lead you to philosophy but I can’t make you think.’ Our grade was dependent on the number of papers we submitted, rather than the quality of our work. While other students submitted four two-page papers to get an A, I submitted one very good, 60-page paper, essentially daring him to give me a C. And he did. I gambled and lost.”
I could see the rage starting to build. I think it started somewhere in his neck, but maybe it started lower than that. I couldn’t really tell, because his lower regions were obstructed by the stack of papers. By the time this passion had risen to his head, it had grown to what can only be called Rickoverian proportions.
And his eyes!
The fire in his eyes was not that of an old man. This was a young, visceral anger.
“That’s bullshit!” He stood halfway up. Spittle shot out of his mouth as he yelled. Summarizing a much longer tirade, the gist of what he screamed was: “I’ve heard a lot of bullshit in my day, but I have never, ever heard such bullshit before! I want you to know, young man, that you now hold the bullshit record! Get out of here! Get the hell out of my office!”
As we walked out, it occurred to me that I had just been cursed out by Abraham Lincoln.
And I had earnestly, simple-mindedly, stupidly, wondered what I could have said or done to earn such wrath. I also honestly began to wonder if I really had the stuff he was looking for. Would I be accepted into the program that was, at that time, the most prestigious the Navy had to offer?
Into the Closet
I followed the PCO down the hall to what I presumed would be the same office, and to my surprise, when I stared through the door, I was looking into: a closet! The closet of legend! I would now have the honor of referring to myself as one of the “closet survivors!”
“In there,” the PCO said, and then left.
I wondered about the criteria for putting malcontents in the last barren office as opposed to this closet. My Catholic upbringing provided the answer. I concluded that the office was sort of a nuclear purgatory—saved for those innocents who were guilty only of original sin, that is, those who, through no fault of their own, were simply stupid by birth.
The closet, on the other hand, was reserved for those truly despicable characters who had actively if not knowingly sinned against him, those who were actively stupid, not merely passively so. It all made sense, in a nuclear-justice sort of way.
But it wasn’t the kind of closet I had imagined when hearing that miscreants had been “banished to the closet.” In my mind, the place of banishment was a coat closet or a storage room of some sort. Instead, my current station was actually one of those janitorial closets with brooms and bad smells and a deep sink.
For almost two hours I considered my plight while pondering the intangibles of this closet. I contemplated the fine art of dust-mop construction. I remembered the many times I had been trusted with operating such equipment in my first real job (when I was still too young to drive), sweeping and mopping floors. And although I was successfully killing time, I was completely missing the point.
Maybe it was because of the boredom, or maybe a couple of stray neurons in my brain collided in a freak (fission-like) accident. But eventually I began to think.
I traced the sequence of events in my life that had led to this day. I began to recall the drive that caused me to toss off the constrained dreams of a young steel-town boy and apply for an appointment to the Academy. And, while searching for my motivation, I began to ponder my heritage.
My grandparents were immigrants who escaped from Italy to avoid the unhappy fate of a poor dirt farmer in a poor dirt land. At one point, my father’s father found employment in his new homeland by digging ditches for a living, happy to drill sewer lines through solid Ohio sandstone with nothing more than a pick ax and a hard steel shovel. My mother’s father had toiled his entire life shoveling coal and working the steel mills.
I remembered that even at a very early age I understood the travails of a hard life. And so, while still just a young boy, I made a commitment to myself that for me it would be different. And suddenly, there in that janitor’s closet, among all those mops and brooms, I had an epiphany.
So when the door finally opened, I rose from my deep sink sofa and walked into the admiral’s office with confidence. “Are you ready to tell me the truth?” he asked.
“Admiral, it doesn’t matter what grade I got in philosophy. What mattered is that I could have worked harder, but didn’t. And by not giving my best effort, I betrayed myself, and I betrayed the investment the country was placing in me.” Although I didn’t say it, I also knew I had betrayed my past.
And amazingly, for the very first time, the admiral looked at me.
The rage was gone. The fire was gone. And—it was now after 2300—all I saw was an old man with the weight of the greatest submarine force in the world on his shoulders.
“That’s right,” he said. “If you give less than you’re able to, you’ll let everyone down—me, your ship, your Navy, and your country. I can’t use people like that. I can only use people who have the courage and discipline to give all they’ve got.”
“I can be one of those people, Admiral.”
“You’d better be, or you’ll never survive my program.”
And that is how I was accepted into Admiral Rickover’s nuclear training program.
I’ve since commanded one of the submarines the admiral brought into this world. And I’ve served as commodore of a submarine squadron.
And after all these years, I’m still not sure if Admiral Rickover intended for that simple janitor’s closet to serve as his Mecca of wisdom and humility.
Was that confinement merely a sadistic ruse, as some have said, or did he really intend for those cleaning tools to be symbols of what my life might have been—tangible touchstones to our collective past?
I hear people frequently say that the admiral’s methods were trivial or petty, but I don’t believe that. I’m one of those who think there was a method to his madness.
After all, I found truth in a closet.
And in so doing, I found myself.