I was recently in conversation with a flag officer from the navy. He is years younger than me but I knew he had no thoughts on his mind about his being a very senior retired officer whereas I was an Ex-L/Tel the day I was introduced to him.
I met him at a wedding a decade or so ago. A relative of the groom was a relative of mine as well. He knew that I had been in the navy. We were sitting together when he spotted the flag officer sitting some chairs away and turned immediately to me and asked me, “Do you know who that is?” I shook my head. He stood up and said , ‘Come, I’ll introduce you to someone”, got up from the chair and started off. I followed him and stopped in front of an elegant and dark man with his hairlines just starting to recede.
He raised his head, smiled at my friend and asked him how he was and in a reflexive action, turned his head slightly towards me with a mild enquiry. My companion knew the officer’s rank well and said to me, “This is Admiral ***** and continued to the officer, “He is Ashok (that’s what everyone calls me), he was also in the navy”. He did not know my rank and hesitated.
I did a 4-second calculation and thought, “Good Lord, he is 10 or 11 or even 12 ranks above me!”.
While in the navy, I had spoken to officers at the level of Sub-Lieutenants and Lieutenants fairly frequently. Moving one rank up, Lieutenant Commanders saw less of me. Commanders were almost inaccessible except when I had to go to their cabins or the bridge to show messages.
Captains, I had only seen from a distance. I am sure they did not recognize my face. I am sure the captain of I N S Amba was not aware that there was an Asokan in his ship’s company. If he indeed knew the name, could he have connected my face to my name?
When I was in FOCEF (Flag Officer Commanding, Eastern Fleet) Staff, I worked in the same building as the Admiral did but had not even once spoken to him. I am sure he was familiar with my face and would have been vaguely aware of a boy showing himself up in front of him now and then.
This being the case, imagine me standing in front of an Admiral at a distance of just one feet and actually getting introduced to him! I volunteered with hardly concealed discomfiture, “I was a Leading Tel, sir”. It was my turn for some reflexive action. I saluted him good and proper which made the onlookers far and near to look up at my face with varying degrees of wonder. I realized I was saluting someone after some 3 decades but my salute was as smart as it had been when I was a young boy and in active service.
The Admiral’s automatic response was something I did not expect at all. He shot up as would have an athlete and saluted right back as seriously as I had done seconds previously. This left me speechless and my mind, completely clouded. I realized that the Admiral was not going to sit any time soon. He bowled me over with an incredible grace,”Why don’t you sit, sir?”, got up to move a chair nearby closer to me. I fell into the chair as if I was an automaton. The Admiral perceived what was happening and with finesse, let me get over my awe.
I had never thought of forming any sort of relationship with officers, even formal ones. Here then was I, suddenly in the company of a true blue Admiral.
In the course of the next hour or so during which we had the wedding dinner and during the tête-à-tête later, it dawned on me that a L/Tel and an Admiral can be friends, true friends. It is perhaps because I never let it out of my mind that an Admiral is an Admiral and salute him every time we meet and when I take my leave. Mercifully, he has stopped saluting me back after I had requested him several times. The Admiral knows that age supersedes everything in a society, even though military ranks are present around you in an invisible form.