Every now and then, Captain Kirk orders one of his starship Enterprise crew to “take the con!” as he beams elsewhere to handle other business. It’s usually Spock, but if Spock joins him on his mission, the con passes down to Sulu or Checkov, or…who knows? In a recent movie, so many of the high level regulars were elsewhere, that the duty might have passed down to a surprised ship’s steward, as he delivered coffee to the bridge.
Just what is the “con” and what does one do with it? The expression originated on early battleships and cruisers, and dates as far back as 1840 sailing warships. These ships were built with “conning towers” – a raised platform on a ship, often armored, and usually located as high on the ship as practical, to give the conning team good visibility of the entirety of their own ship, and of ocean conditions and other vessels. The officer could “con” the vessel, i.e., command or “conduct” the operations of a ship during battle by passing orders down to the helm. The Star Trek crew assumed a lot of Naval terminology as they sailed through the stars.
I was always obsessed with airplanes. As a young boy in WWII, I collected books and pictures of the warbirds of that era. I wanted to be a pilot. One of my idols was the lead character in a movie serial, “Don Winslow of the Coast Guard.” Commander Winslow piloted a seaplane on the lookout for spies, saboteurs and other enemy agents that might be threatening America’s Pacific coast.
Some years later, I had the con for a very short time.
I never did get to pilot training, but I did get to fly – and I had the best seat in the house. I joined the Coast Guard, went to Aviation Electronic School and flew as radioman on the principle search and rescue aircraft of the day – the Grumman Albatross amphibious flying boat, military designation UF1G. The radioman’s seat was on the flight deck on a slightly raised platform directly behind the co-pilot – one looked over his shoulder, as a matter of fact.
On one SAR flight, the co-pilot had to answer a call from nature and went aft to the plane’s small head (toilet, to civilians) – smaller than a phone booth, and located in the very rear of the aircraft. As he left, the pilot turned to me and said, “Like to sit up here, Radio?” Did I! I hurried up and strapped myself in before he belayed (rescinded, to civilians) the order. After a minute or so, he spoke again, “How would you like to feel the plane?”
I can’t describe the feeling as I took the yoke and gently moved it up and down just a bit, while watching the artificial horizon gauge on the instrument panel. I had the con! Of a six ton seaplane! Over the North Atlantic!
I’d like to say that I spotted something in the ocean below, turned and banked, and roared over the object of our search – a distressed soul waving frantically from a life raft. Of course that isn’t true. Soon enough, the co-pilot finished his business, returned to claim his seat and I went back to mine. My four or five minutes at the con were over.
Chuck Thurston has published two collections of his columns and stories, available from Amazon or Indigo Sea Press. A number of reminiscences of life in a Coast Guard SAR unit are included.