By Allen C. Bevilacqua
Leatherneck Magazine, 1996
In the pantheon of Marine Corps eccentrics, “Nuts” Rummel stands alone without peer. Back in the late ’40s when he was standing sergeant of the guard watches with the Marine Barracks at the Norfolk Naval shipyard, Portsmouth, Va., “Nuts” pulled off one of the Corps’ all-time classic loonies. Solely on its own merit, it was an escapade that should guarantee “Nuts” enshrinement among the legends of the Marine Corps.
There was in those days a local tradition having to do with the daily firing of a sunset gun to accompany the lowering of the Colors at the closing of the day. Every evening at Colors, in addition to the duty field music sounding “Retreat,” a firing party from the guard of the day would fire one blank round from an old 3-inch deck gun, one of a pair that formed the saluting battery flanking the flagpole in front of Marine Barracks. Old-time residents of the community could not recall a time when it had not been so. Its execution never varied.
Each evening at the appointed time the Color Detail and the Firing Party would march to the flagpole and take their positions under the supervision of the commander of the guard. The duty field music would take his post to the rear of the color detail; the officer of the day would appear from within the Marine Barracks to stand smartly at the head of the steps leading down to the street; and the commander of the guard would count down, “Five, four, three, two, one, EXECUTE!”
BOOM! Would go one, blank, 3-inch round. Hands would come to the salute, and the duty field music would sound the lingering, melancholy notes of “Retreat” as the flag was slowly lowered. Except for the precise, clockwork movements of the color detail all else was a scene carved from marble, fading sunlight reflecting from glistening shoes, polished brass and sparkling silver. As the last notes of the salute faded away into nothingness, a hush settled upon the motionless figures silhouetted against the sun’s last rays. It was a most impressive ceremony.
And then, one moonless night in the waning hours of the mid-watch, a shadowy figure emerged from the gloom and stole silently up to the saluting battery. Carefully, ever so carefully, the mysterious figure eased open the breechblock of the No.1 gun and produced from inside his shirt a diaphragm fashioned from a bit of cardboard. The figure then stealthily inserted the device into the breach, seating it all the way forward in the chamber. Glancing furtively about to make certain he was still unobserved, the man of mystery quietly eased the breechblock shut and tripped the firing mechanism.
The click of the trigger was barely audible in the stillness of the night. To the silent figure, though, it sounded like the crack of doom on Judgment Day. He waited a moment to see whether this faint noise had attracted anyone’s attention. Confident that he remained undetected, the intruder slipped noiselessly to the muzzle of the gun and filled it from breech to muzzle with golf balls from a large paper bag. With one last precautionary look about for curious sentries, the dim figure slipped back into the shadows and anonymity.
In due time “Reveille” sounded; the barracks square reverberated to the routine of roll call and physical drill under arms. The morning chow formation marched off to the mess hall, trailed by the usual persistent stragglers, who would attempt to evade the watchful eyes of the Sergeant of the Guard and slip into line.
Another day was beginning, and the sun’s appearance above the horizon was marked by the raising of the colors, the old officer of the day was relieved by the new, and the ceremony of guard mount flashed to the roll of drums and the clarion call of bugles.
The day wore on, and the myriad tasks of a busy shipyard were tended to. In dry-docks, steel-grey ships of the line, in for overhaul and refitting, swarmed with safety-helmeted workers readying them for their return to the fleet. Across the Elizabeth River, the hull of the battleship USS Kentucky, destined not to be completed, stood. The reliefs of the guard waxed and waned; sentries were inspected, marched off and posted by meticulous Corporals of the Guard.
Eventually, as the day drew to its close, the evening color detail, immaculate in crisp, starched khaki, gleaming leather, sparkling brass and dazzling white accouterments, took position as it did each day throughout the year, fair or foul. A blank 3-inch round was loaded smartly into the chamber of the No.1 gun, and the Commander of the Guard intoned, “Five, four, three, two, one, EXECUTE!”
KABLOOM! Golf balls filled the evening sky like a meteor shower. The duty field music stood dumbstruck, the silver bugle poised at his lips silent. The Officer of the Day froze with mouth agape, his sword arrested halfway into the salute. Only the voice of the commander of the guard broke the awesome silence. “Jeezus!” he murmured, as a cloud of golf balls obscured the setting sun.
It was spectacular in the manner that only truly amazing occurrences are spectacular. Some golf balls cleared the reservation, to bounce about in adjacent residential streets. Others soared completely out of sight, to land who knows where. Most, however, in the manner of all projectiles, landed in a beaten zone, the maximum density of which lay immediately across the grass parade ground that fronted the Marine Barracks.
Specifically, they pretty much blanketed the building that stood directly downrange. This was a stately, handsome, three-story brick example of classic Georgian architecture. It’s entire first-floor front elevation was taken up by a magnificent glassed-in porch. It was the residence of the Admiral commanding the Fifth Naval District. The carnage was stupendous. With one huge crash the porch disintegrated in a shower of broken glass. Inside, golf balls with plenty of zip still in them shattered picture frames, smashed lamps and ricocheted through interior windows. A Ming Dynasty vase, prize possession of the Admiral’s lady, exploded in a spray of vermillion shards. Upstairs, the admiral, who had been present during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, wondered if it was somehow happening all over again.
If the wreckage was mind-boggling, it was nothing compared to the Admiral’s wrath. According to the Admiral’s steward, the “Old Man” thundered for 15 minutes with a broadside of profanities that could have dissolved an anvil, never once repeating himself. The steward, a seasoned Chief Petty Officer with an armful of gold hashmarks and no stranger to salty language himself, was speechless with admiration. Somebody, the admiral promised, was headed for the other Portsmouth, the one in New Hampshire that was the home of the United States Naval Prison.
Early the next morning “Nuts” Rummel found himself standing at attention before the Commanding Officer of Marine Barracks. “Sergeant Rummel,” the Colonel growled, “I know you did it. If I can ever prove it, I’m going to lock you up from now until the Commandant of the Marine Corps wears bell-bottomed trousers.” He then chased “Nuts” from the office, and, according to the Sergeant Major, the Skipper, the exec and the adjutant all laughed themselves silly.
In later years “Nuts” Rummel, by then a Sergeant Major himself, took up the game of golf, becoming a regular on the links and in the clubhouse at Camp Pendleton, Calif. When asked, he always said he first became interested in the game of golf when he was stationed at the Naval Shipyard at Portsmouth.
Was there a golf course there? No. A driving range? Not so far as he knew.
“But that’s where watching the flight of a golf ball really got me ‘way down deep.’ “Nuts” always smiled a bit when he said that.