THE SUMMONS was almost always the same, and it was never exactly subtle. "You bleeping idiot," the thin but powerful voice would bellow. "Get the bleep IN HERE RIGHT NOW!"
It was not your textbook example of a crisp military order, but in the precincts of that curious military-civilian hybrid known as "Naval Reactors," this was an order not to be ignored. For this was a summons from the patriarch of the nuclear Navy, Adm. H. G. Rickover. When the Admiral beckoned, those of us assigned to Naval Reactors would quite literally run down the hallway to face our destiny before his plain gray government-issue desk in a rundown office in a shabby little annex building at the rear of the old Main Navy complex on the Mall.
The figure behind that desk didn't look particularly fearsome: a thin, wrinkled, white-haired grandfather seated in a tall brown rocking chair, often with a blanket over his knees. But if the Admiral was angry -- which he was, or pretended to be, a good portion of the time -- there was was nothing grandfatherly about him. He set high standards, impossibly high; on the frequent occasions when we failed to measure up, he could greet our failure with magisterial outbursts of scorn and sarcasm.
All the obituaries that greeted Adm. Rickover's death last week, at the age of 86, featured this facet of his character: the Navy's last angry man, a withering, relentless critic of anybody who failed to do things the way he wanted. This is in many ways a fair picture. It helps explain why so many Pentagon people -- including fair-minded folks who had the highest respect for the Admiral's achievements -- simply despised H. G. Rickover.
But those of us who had the good fortune to spend our military careers in Naval Reactors felt differently about Rickover. I worshipped the Admiral, and I think most of my colleagues did as well. We knew that this Russian emigre' was the most devoted American we would ever meet. We knew that this hot-tempered old curmudgeon was in fact an inspiring leader who found a way to get the best possible performance out of every individual in his world-wide command every day.
He led us partly by example. Everybody at Naval Reactors, or "NR," was supposed to work hard -- we came in earlier and left later than anyone else at Main Navy, and then worked Saturdays as well. But none of us worked as hard as the Admiral. When we complained about working Saturdays, he would remind us, not gently, that he worked every Sunday as well. When I arrived in 1968 as a tremulous young ensign, the Admiral had been working for one-quarter pay for some 16 years (that is, he could have retired on three-quarter pay in 1952); he continued to do so for 13 years thereafter, and only left the job then because his political enemies hounded him out.
Mostly, though, Rickover led his troops by inspiration. There was a palpable, unmistakable feeling in Naval Reactors that we were part of an historic crusade. The conversion of the fleet to nuclear power was the most important strategic initiative in the history of the U.S. Navy -- and we were the people making it happen! There was no job on earth as important or as exciting. The Admiral convinced us that was true, and with that firm conviction we gave everything we had to NR.
Shortly after the world's first atomic-powered ship, the USS Nautilus, went to sea in 1955 and sent back one of history's most famous naval messages -- "Under way on nuclear power" -- Congress held hearings to ascertain how this technological miracle had been achieved. An executive from Westinghouse testified that the firm was somewhat skeptical when Rickover had offered a contract for the construction of a nuclear engine. This was, after all, something that had never been done before.
"How did you do it?" a Congressman asked. The man from Westinghouse thought for a while. "Admiral Rickover made us do it," he answered. Exactly. By sheer force of character, he was still making us do it 20 years later when I was at NR.
By instilling in all of us this exalted feeling for the importance of our work, the Admiral implicitly -- and sometimes quite explicitly -- declared that that rest of the U.S. Navy was somehow less important. This, too, rankled among the "oil burners" -- those Navy types still steaming round the globe in oil-fired ships that we considered as outmoded as the Roman trireme.
For all his rank and stature, Rickover used few perks of office himself, and he was continually alert to see to it that his staff was not coddled. I once complained to him about the lopsided, hand-me-down government-surplus desk I had to work on. "You bleeping idiot," he shouted at me. "I learned long ago that when you give some guy a big desk and a rug on the floor and a big office with his name on the door, that's when he starts to feel important -- and that's when you don't get any work out of him any more."
Nor did Rickover bother with such niceties as rank or title. Everyone in his command, from junior ensigns to senior civilian supergrades, was addressed by last name only. After I left the Navy I maintained a correspondence with the Admiral. His letters invariably began with the salutation "Dear Reid." When my spouse and I were wed, Rickover sent us a note of congratulations. It began: "Dear Reid and Mrs. Reid."
And yet Rickover kept careful track of everybody's responsibilities, and he insisted that anyone connected with the nuclear navy be held accountable for his task. Whenever a new submarine went out for sea trials, the Admiral insisted that the president of the shipyard that built the sub be aboard when the ship submerged for the first time. This simple requirement was designed to make shipyard management think twice if it ever got a notion to cut corners in order to enhance profits. I have often wondered what might have happened with the space shuttle launch last January if the president of Morton Thiokol had been forced to go aboard when his company told NASA the shuttle was safe to launch.
Rickover, too, went out on every sub's first dive, and it was on these sea trials that the Admiral received the various gifts -- clothing, jewelry, momentos -- that caused a mini-scandal, and an official Navy Department censure, when The Washington Post exposed them in 1984.
The day that scandal surfaced in my newspaper was one of the sadder days of my life. I knew the story was right, but I knew, too, the inevitable implications were dead wrong. Adm. Rickover was as honest as anyone who ever served the United States. Why he took anything from an outfit like General Dynamics remains mysterious to me. It's absolutely clear, though, that the contractors bought nothing with these emoluments.
The Admiral gave me a gift once. On one of the rare occasions when I did something satisfactorily, he called me to his office ("Get the bleep IN HERE!" and handed me a walnut, still in its shell, as a token of thanks. My spouse, recognizing that I was deeply moved by this strange but welcome honor, had the walnut framed.
It has been on my bookshelf for years now, still causing difficult moments when visitors start wondering why somebody would frame a walnut.
I explain that this nut is like those conch shells in which you can hear the roar of the ocean. If I hold up that walnut to my ear, I can just about hear the roar of the Admiral. "You bleeping idiot, Reid! Get the bleep IN HERE RIGHT NOW!"
T R. Reid is the Denver correspondent of The Washington Post. He was assigned to Rickover's staff from 1968 to 1972.