HOW ABOUT MISTER SMITH, OR EVEN SIR?


“Dr. Smith, lay to the bridge.”

John, my hall mate back aft on the O3 level, cringed, and then let loose with a few epithets.  He and I had the two aft staterooms separated from the rest of “Officer’s Country” by a door.  It was colder there when it was cold, like off Korea in March, and it was hotter there when it was hot, like in the Philippines in June.  But we were mostly left alone, had an exit door aft, with a good view of the ship’s wake, when we weren’t working.

The numbering system for decks started with the Main Deck, then 2,3,4 going below or down.  Going topside or up, it was O1, O2, O3, to the uppermost deck, our bridge on the O4 level.

John cringed, because “lay to the xxx,” was used only to call enlisted personnel. “Your presence is requested to xxx”  was for officers.  Put succinctly, it was a breach of etiquette. The Navy was polite.  As coarse as the day-to-day language was, contributing to my current curse word vocabulary well into three figures, there was politeness.  I had to salute senior officers once a day on board, but only if I were covered, or wore a hat.  At sea, hats were not required, although most of us wore ball caps.  Navy men never salute uncovered.  Covers were not allowed in sick bay; they were required on the bridge.  In port, in uniform, one was always covered outside.  I learned these rules fast; I had to.

Coming aboard, one saluted twice, once aft, where the colors (flag) flew, and once to the officer of the deck, concomitantly saying, “request permission to come aboard.”  The procedure was reversed when one disembarked.  One needed an ID ready, too.  Ashore, one saluted any senior officer, holding it until the salute was returned. We called senior officers “Sir,” but on board, the executive officer was “XO,” the Captain was “Captain,” or plain “Cap’n”.  He didn’t mind.  When the Captain appeared, the first person spotting him said, “Attention on deck,” and we all jumped up.  The Captain would say “at ease,” and we would sit down.  This was formal stuff.  When the XO appeared in Sick Bay, I stood up.  It showed respect.

In correspondence with junior officers or enlisted men, we wrote, “Your attention is directed to xxx.”  To senior officers, we wrote, “Your attention is invited to xxx.” To this day, I take that and three other things with me from the Navy: short hair, my shirt buttons lined up with my pants zipper, and use of the word “Sir.”

I mention all of this, because the other day at the local pharmacy, where I get my medications, I stood inside the privacy line, painted on the floor.  Privacy is a big deal these days, except everybody knows everything about me, so I don’t really believe in it.  I may not see a prescription, but even with bad ears I hear what people are getting.  In any case, I was chided with a “Get back behind the privacy line.”

Gee, sorry that I am old, new in town, and honestly didn’t see the line, since the letters were faded.  I got half my medicines, since one was still not ready, five days after I dropped off the prescription, another problem with today’s “just in time inventory.”   I decided to return the next day.  As I left, I heard , “Thank you, Michael,” and cringed.

I don’t like strangers, especially the young, calling me by my first name, and I don’t like it when people on the phone with whom I speak ask me how I want to be called.  You call people Mr., Mrs., Dr., or Ms.  It is default.  You don’t ask, you do it, and you ought to know that.  I still call the former head of neurology where I trained “Doctor.”  He is in his 80s, and he has always been “Doctor” to me.  The past Executive Director of the Medical Society always called me “Doctor,” although we spoke on a lot of issues as friends.  It’s a sign of respect.

I don’t push the issue, but maybe it’s time to.  If you are too polite, you will be given an honor (yes, it is) to call someone people by his or her first name.  One should not put people in an uncomfortable position of asking how they want to be called, which happened with me with AARP.  How about “Mr. Smith”?  It is always in style, never wrong.

Thirty years ago, I flew over to San Diego to attend my Chief’s retirement.  I stayed in my stateroom one last time. I could have called both the Captain and the XO by their first names, for I was a civilian.  I could have called my chief by his first name, too.  But I didn’t.  I never had.  These people were “Captain,” “XO”, and “Chief”.  They were, and they always would be.

I discovered in civilian life that “Sir” is a powerful word showing respect for the office or age, but properly pronounced may be used to show distaste for the individual or task.  I learned the last to more than one lawyer’s chagrin, when he thought he was dealing with an arrogant doctor: my use of “Sir” with the appropriate tone was devastating.

“Sir, could you please step behind the privacy line?  Thank you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Smith. Good-by.”

“Mr. Smith, may I outline the benefits of our program?”

Notice the “Sir,” “please”, “Thank you,” “Mr.” and “may I”. These seven words exude politeness.

Many gun owners have told me that gun ownership will create a polite society.  I disagree.  I didn’t think the 19th century was so polite, the 20th or especially this one, while gun ownership has increased rapidly.  People must be scared of something.  Congress won’t even fund the CDC to find out why.  If we had 25,000 people dying from a new virus every year, you bet the CDC would get money.

Ironically, one of the most polite places where I worked was one where rifles were locked up, we enforced the Uniform Code of Military Justice with Captain’s Mast (non-judicial) more than courts martial, and fights were almost always with fists, even in liberty ports.   I treated a lot of STDs; I honestly can’t remember treating even a knife wound.

But please, dear reader, bear with me, for my memory is no longer good.  I might be mistaken.  But not about gun violence.

 

 

 

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