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Unfortunate Acronyms

In the service, you learn fast that acronyms are an addictive drug for Department of Defense bureaucrats. They even have to publish thick dictionaries so everyone can sort out what means what.

The Navy’s dictionary of naval abbreviations is, of course, titled: DICTNAVAB, with the English words as a sub-title. Soon, though, everyone gets acclimated and uses abbreviations. It really does make for much more efficient talk and writing. As long as you keep your DICTNAVAB within reach.

Navy Civil Engineer Corps Collar Device

Once upon a time, I was a young Navy Lieutenant responsible for getting a lot of construction projects done properly in San Diego. One of them was for the Admiral in charge of the Naval District. His headquarters building was on the choicest Navy real estate in the city: Fleet Landing, right downtown on the water. It was a two-story, 1920’s military variation of Spanish Colonial architecture that had long needed an update.

I drew the short straw and was ordered to ‘make it so’. Retaining the exterior, we replaced everything else. In addition to the Admiral’s office, there were about fifteen other, small, one-office commands in the building. And each one was more picky and particular than the last about what they wanted. But, somehow, the details all came together and everyone was pleased. We were on schedule and within budget.

Except… the last item in every Navy project ashore is the sign. And rightly so. During construction, the list of future occupants can change a mind-boggling number of times. And, even if an occupant stays the same, the name of their organization often changes. So, signs come last.

During construction, some future occupants will fixate on the sign because they have to feel like they made at least one important decision about the work. And when there are several commands to be listed on the sign, an obsession with pecking order also comes into it.

What’s a poor builder-type guy to do when all the decision-makers outrank him? Well, early in the project he tosses the 50 possible approved sign designs into the vipers’ pit. Eventually, a bloody, tattered memo emerges with the choice agreed upon by the surviving vipers. Next, he gives them a blank list to fill in with the exact wording to be on the sign and the order in which the commands will be listed. Usually, the memo reflecting the final determination on this doesn’t emerge until a week or less before the ribbon-cutting is scheduled, and goes straight to the Sign Shop. Then, the shop does their magic. A couple hours before the ribbon parts, the sign is up and all is well. And so it was in this case.

Except… those darn acronyms can sneak up on you. The sixteen small commands in the rebuilt headquarters were each listed in their finally agreed order. Their names were shown in gold on a blue background, exactly as each one had specified. The Admiral’s Naval District HQ was listed first, of course, but in the second column of eight, half-way down, there was an amusing and bemusing  juxtaposition – a photo of which appeared in the next day’s San Diego newspaper.

It seems that the pecking order had worked out so that the Navy Maintenance Management Field Office, Pacific was listed right above the Fleet Air Group. Pacific. So, in all innocence —  but easily readable on page one, and noted by every sailor and Marine in town — were these two unfortunate acronyms:



The Sign Shop guys did a little editing that evening. They got some overtime pay and I didn’t get court-martialed. All-in-all, a good day.

Categories: 2011 Posts, About Dave Tags: ,
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  1. July 18, 2011 at 7:20 am

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