Wednesday, April 29, 2015

CNV 74 --The Show

Jay "Heater" Johnson
Honorary Stennis Aviator
Hangar before the stage was set
Doing a show on an active aircraft carrier
during flight training exercises is like trying to do a half time show at the Super Bowl with the stadium moving through water at 12-15 knots per hour and planes taking off and landing on the roof.  The producers had to bring in the sound equipment and the flight operations had to be suspended for the day.  To clear space for the stage and an audience on the hangar deck, the crew had move 20 or 30 planes around and stow some of them on the flight deck above.  It took them all night and most of the next morning to create our make shift theatre. Below is a short YouTube I took when they were moving airplanes out of the audience space and "clearing the stage".

Setting up the stage on Hangar deck..
The official title of the guy who set up the show and made sure all the equipment was there and accounted for was "Fun Boss". Fun Boss is mainly shore side, but flies on with the entertainers to facilitate the production with the Navy. The Fun Boss had the power to get all the help we wanted to do whatever needed to be done for the show. He said this was his 154 arrested landing on an Aircraft carrier. However, he said they are never "old hat" and he never takes them for granted. Fun Boss has a great job. The party maker. When the crew sees the Fun Boss on board they know there is a party or show in their future.

At first the plan was to keep the bay door open for the show. Although it made a beautiful back drop, it was not good for the sound and lights. Fun Boss said he would get the doors closed and so he did.

Rehearsal after they closed the hangar door
After getting such a warm welcome from the crew, we were ready to do the show for them to give back something. Every performer in the show was a consummate road-seasoned professional,  so the sound check/rehearsal was smooth and fun.  Sound checks, when done right, let the entertainers entertain themselves.  A super private exclusive performance for us who will be working the show and not able to see it from the audience.
The musical director said the Admiral wanted a specific song in the show and had placed it last.  My friend Dick Hardwick, MC and fellow comic, thought that it was not strong enough to close the show so we persuaded him to put it in the middle and end with the Ray Charles version of America sung by Billy Valentine. (There is a YouTube video of the last few minutes of that song attached below.) When the crew came up to the stage to shake hands it brought me to tears backstage. It was a powerful moment.

There I am back stage. During the show. 
My point of view on the show.
Mostly I watched the show from behind the stage... Back stage literally and figuratively. From that vantage point, I saw a different show. I saw the faces of the sailors watching what was happening on stage.  At first they were reserved in ship shape military stoicism.  Each moment made that facade melt away a little more. Dick was the glue that kept it all together and monitored the humor quotient. By the time Darwin the Jazz Monkey hit the stage the crew was ready for some monkey business.  I didn't know how it would go with the ultimate sound-man's challenge and ventriloquist nightmare in this open hangar, but it could not have been more joyous.  It was not perfect theatrical conditions, but that audience. I wanted to bottle that reaction from those sailors and fliers and take it home. My time on stage flew by.
Darwin and Me on Stage
We all came on stage at the end to sing America. Dick grabbed the Captain and I grabbed the Admiral. We got them on stage and celebrated with the entire crew. They waved lighted flashlights in the audience.  It was amazing.
We spent the better part of the next hour just meeting or shaking hands with any and all crew members who stayed around to watch the stage strike.  With plenty of sailors ready to help,  the stage, lights, and sound gear quickly vanished into anvil cases then a cargo net ready to be loaded on the equipment plane.  As if it was all a dream the Hangar bay went back to its intended purpose and soon there were planes occupying the space which had doubled briefly as our theatre. Except for the smiles on the faces of young sailors it was like it never happened at all.
Practical Monkey Joke....
We hung out in Wardroom number 3, recounting the experience to each other and our officer guides. We answered their questions and got to know them as we decompressed from the show.
The next day was again an early call and it was back to being herded around to even more things that make the ship operate.  We got a fire drill demonstration, the Focsle where the massive anchor is stowed, the machine shop for repairing the F-18 engines and anything else that the officers could think of to keep us occupied.  And soon it was late afternoon and time to leave the ship.

This meant another briefing on the procedure of the catapult take off. Some of the suggestions were: 1) Make certain your four point harness is tight. When you go from 0 to 200 in two seconds any slack in the harness will impact your shoulders like a straight arm jab from a heavy weight fighter. 2) Make certain your hands are tucked under your arms.  During the catapult there is no way to keep your hands from flying out and hitting the seat in front of you. 3) Make sure your feet are secured and tucked behind the seat. If your legs fly forward they will hit the seat in front and your shins will never be the same again.  4) Have nothing in your hands or loose around your seat.  Any loose object will become a speeding bullet traveling at 200 miles an hour.  5) Lastly make sure your goggles are strapped on tight. There were tales of goggles separating from your face during the catapult only to come snapping back sharply when you reach air speed.
Once we were strapped in and ready to assume the take off position the anxiety begins.  There is no count down.  When the plane is secure on the catapult and all the vitals have been checked, and the pilot is ready and the safety crew has given permission you literally blast off. The only thing is... you never really know when. Like someone slowly pressing on a balloon, the anticipation of the pop is sometimes more stressful than the pop itself.  That was not the case in this operation, the shot off the bow of the ship lived up to the hype.
We hear the engines strain at full speed. We get in the positions we were instructed to assume. The engines rev up a little more. Seconds seem like an eternity until there is a metallic snap. Before you can comprehend what that sound was you feel a rush upward as you are falling face forward toward the unseen deck suspended only by shoulder straps. For a moment you doubt that the straps are strong enough to hold your massive weight.  It is like being a harnessed puppet pulled from a string in the middle of your back, straight up at 200 miles an hour.
The plane levels off and we are flying.  A dampened cheer of glee comes from the passengers. I give a thumbs up to my seat mate Dick and we grin at each other like four year olds.  The best roller coaster/carnival ride the US Navy can afford.

From that moment on it was like any other plane ride back to San Diego.
But... here is my take away from the show. The moment I get back home to check my email there is already a note from Barbara Guyll thanking me for entertaining the sailors.
My question was "how did you know?"
The audience from my camera. You can see Phil taking the movie.
It seems her son is currently on the Stennis and emailed her about the show. He told her I was taking pictures with my camera from on stage at the end. (You can even see me snapping the picture in the YouTube above) She thought I might have taken a picture of her son.  I sent her this picture of the audience at the end of the show.  When she told me the area he was standing I zoomed in as much as it would stretch.
Her son is the man on the left (picture left stage right) in the white observers uniform.
Extreme close up 
Small world made smaller by instant communication.
Thank you to the men and women of the USS John C. Stennis  CNV 74 for an unbelievable experience.
As you were,


michael murakami said...

wow jay, what a great write up!

P. Grecian said...

The excitement and energy was almost palpable.


Good on ya, Jay.