“Physics and philosophy,” I replied.
“Come back here and let me tell you about our nuclear power program.”
– – –Four months later I was sitting in a room at the Department of Naval Reactors in Crystal City, Virginia, taking tests in calculus and physics. These were followed by technical interviews with three staff engineers. This was all just a prelude to the only event of the day that mattered – my interview Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the father of the U.S. nuclear powered Navy. Rickover, a four star admiral and the longest serving flag officer in our country’s history, interviewed every applicant who aspired to serve as an officer aboard a nuclear powered vessel. His interviews were notorious and his techniques often bizarre. A candidate’s technical competence was assessed by his staff, but Rickover wanted to personally gage how a potential officer responded under stress.
“A philosophy major?”
“Yes, sir.” My double major was unusual and an obvious target for Rickover, so I planned several responses, but when he turned to look at me he immediately shifted to a new topic.
“Don’t you think your hair is too long?”
“No, sir.” I replied.
“Well, would you cut it if I let you into my Navy?”
Jumping to his feet, screaming and pounding his desk, Rickover exploded. “God damn it! If it’s too fucking long for the job, then it’s too fucking long for the interview. Get the fuck out of my office.”
The commander yelled for me to rise and we departed. The entire ordeal lasted less than 30 seconds. He led me down a hall and left me seated at a small school desk surrounded on three sides by filing cabinets. We were encouraged to bring reading material to kill time between the day’s events. My choice of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil turned out to be quite prescient. The commander returned 45 minutes later to prep me for my next session with Rickover.
“Do you know what you did wrong?” he asked.
“I contradicted myself. I said my hair wasn’t too long and then I said I would cut it.”
“Okay, let’s talk strategy.”
“Why don’t I just get a haircut?”
“The admiral didn’t tell you to get a haircut.”
“It’s only hair. If I get in it’s going to be a lot shorter, and if I don’t, it'll grow back.”
After getting my hair butchered, I headed back to my holding cell between the filing cabinets. Before I could take my seat, a woman starting calling out, “Where’s Mr. Cereola? The admiral wants to see Mr. Cereola again.” My escort appeared and we returned to Rickover’s office. This time I didn’t even get to sit down. Rickover was already on his feet and pointing his finger at me as I crossed the threshold.
“Hey! I remember you; I remember you. You look almost human now.” Rickover was clearly in a better mood.
“Thank you, sir.”
“So, how do you like your new haircut?”
“I like it a lot.”
“Tell me what you like about it?”
Rubbing the short, bristly stubble on the back of my neck I told him that it felt much cooler.
“Okay, you can go,” the admiral declared. I had just passed through the doorway on my way out when Rickover decided to have a little more fun with me. “Wait. I want you tell all my secretaries how much you like your new haircut.”
Outside Rickover’s office sat four women. At the time, I thought they were geriatrics. In hindsight, I recognize that they were probably about 50 years old, which doesn’t seem so ancient today. I stopped and addressed the ladies.
“You know, I just got this new haircut and I really like it a lot.” The women rose as group and surrounded me. They began stroking my hair and commenting on my new buzz.
“He looks so handsome,” gushed one of the secretaries. The others were making similar comments but I wasn’t processing any of it because Rickover was still yelling instructions.
“Tell them how cool it feels,” demanded Rickover.
Obligingly, I announced, “You know, it feels really cool, too.” The ladies continued praising my coiffure and tugging at my hair while the admiral asked one last question.
“Makes you want to wear a hat, doesn’t it?”
– – –
With Rickover’s final words, I knew I had passed the interview. Two hours later I was in the Navy. My new plan was to complete one four-year tour of duty, leave the service, and then use the GI bill to pay for law school. That’s not what happened. Instead, I stayed in the Navy for almost 30 years. I never became a lawyer, but I did get to command two nuclear powered submarines, the USS Ohio and the USS Alaska. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan.
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