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The Phantom

In this compelling narrative, John Shearer recounts a pivotal experience from 1962 during his service in the Navy, vividly describing his journey from a stuttering Ensign to a critical role as an air controller. Assigned the call sign “hermit,” Shearer faced an unexpected challenge when dealing with the USS Enterprise, whose call sign, “climax,” posed a significant hurdle for his stutter. The narrative climaxes with Shearer’s pivotal role in a search and rescue mission, where he overcame personal limitations to guide aircraft in locating two pilots in distress. This powerful story highlights the transformative impact of pivotal moments in one’s life, echoing the broader theme of breakthrough thinking and personal development.


The Phantom. The night that changed everything. Some years ago, I was giving a presentation to a room full of people, and at the end, we had a question and answer period. And somebody asked me, John, what was your first experience of transformation? I was doing a talk about breakthrough thinking and how it’s possible to completely change the pattern in your own life or in the life of a group or a team or even an organization. And I got so I didn’t know what to say. And I thought, well, let me think about that. And I remembered this experience from my life. I’d never told the story before, but I decided to tell it in that case, and it was so powerful, I decided, I’ll tell it now to you. It all started in 1962 when I left Roanoke College. I graduated from Roanoke College and entered Navy Officer Candidate School. So this is Ensign John J. Scherer, circa 1962. I look like I’m about 15 years old now. The thing that most people didn’t know about me at that time, all the way through high school and college, I had been a stutterer, unable to say certain sounds. Now, every stutterer has certain sounds that are difficult for them. Some stutterers stutter over the M sounds or the N sounds, or the H sounds or the S’s. My hard sounds were the attacking sounds. So when I reported to my ship, which was a USS Eaton, a destroyer, the Navy, in their infinite wisdom, made me an air controller, if you can believe that.

And the first question I had when I got to the ship is what is our call sign? I had these little tricks like that. I would do because the call sign would have been a really difficult sound for me. You need to understand that as a stutterer, a stutterer never starts a sentence without thinking about worrying about stuttering. Am I going to make it through this sentence? Am I going to make it through this sentence? Oh, thank God I made it through this sentence. It’s just a constant thought in the back of your mind. So of course, the Navy, as I said, made me an air controller. They also made me a surefire control party officer. That’s me with a Thompson submachine gun and a part of my surefire control party. One of my jobs was to go ashore with the Marines, get on a radio and call in airstrikes and naval gunfire strikes on the radio all the time. When I got to the ship, one of the first things I said was, what is our call sign? And they said, hermit. And I went, oh, I’m so glad because hermit was a word that I could say. I knew I was going to be on the radio all the time saying, this is hermit over, this is hermit over.

Well, this was the radar scope that I sat around. This is an SP four, which was a radar repeater. And I would sit there with my legs wrapped around it because, remember, I’m on a destroyer. So it’s going like this. That was one of my jobs was to sit there and airplanes would be sent to us and I would vector the airplanes, jets or helicopters, where they needed to go. So I’m right out of air control school, right out of Officer Candidate School. We’re going across the Atlantic Ocean on our way to the Mediterranean, and we’ve been sent out alongside the USS enterprise, our sister ship. So for a long time, we were the plane guard for the enterprise. That means that we were astern. We were back, oh, maybe 4000, 6000 yards astern of the enterprise. So that, among other things, the fighter planes coming in to land could use us as a reference point when they were coming over us before they got the meatball and they landed. We were also there to rescue pilots who happened to fall in the water and so forth. At one point, we were sent way far away, out in front of the enterprise and the whole fleet along what’s called the threat axis. We were doing an exercise pretending to be attacked by another US Navy group out there, farther away, and we were sent along there in what’s called the picket line, which is a euphemism for we’re going to be the first ones to get blasted, but that’s how that works.

So we were way out there, and when we got to the plane guard for the enterprise, I thought, oh no, you’ll never guess what her call sign was. The call sign for the USS enterprise was climax. Climax. You cannot imagine a harder sound for me to say. It just stuck in my throat. So always I was on the radio. Climax. This is hermit over climax. This is hermit over. Doing all these little tricks to try to be able to not stutter so that my stuttering wouldn’t go out over 150,000 square miles of airspace. Then one night I’m on watch in CIC, which is the combat center and over the sky net, this voice says hermit, this is climax himself. Over. Now this means that the captain of the USS enterprise, Captain Vincent Dubois, is on the radio. So this guy has four of these and a whole rack of these. And I have one of these and a name tag. And he, the most powerful captain of the most powerful ship in the world, is on the radio talking to Ensign John Shearer, the stutterer.

Okay. He says hermit, this is climax himself. Over. I’ve got chills right now telling this story. So I say, Roger, climax, this is Roger. Climax. This is hermit. Over. He says hermit. We just lost a Foxtrot four, which is an F-4 like a phantom jet. We just lost a Foxtrot four out your way. Last known positive position. Grid coordinates x-ray Yankee 645. Yankee 231. Whatever the grid coordinates were, I’ve forgotten them by now. He says I hereby designate you Sierra Alpha Romeo, search and rescue coordinator. Go find our boys, hermit. This is hermit. Roger. Wilco. Out. Wilco will comply. I’m on it. And then. Oh my God. I thought, oh my God. Okay. Instant Shearer. This is it at air control. At air control school, we were told we would never have to control more than three airplanes at one time. These guys are flying at, you know, at warp speed, you know, 1000 miles an hour. Sometimes when they’re out in a hustle mode trying to go out and find, find the bad guys. And so this is not really easy work to do because on the radar scope you’ll get a blip and a blip and a blip and a blip. It’s very challenging work. But three aircraft, you can kind of manage well. Enterprise launched every airplane.

She had to go find these two. There’s two guys in the water now out there. And the captain of the enterprise launches every plane. They’ve got to come find these guys and they all start calling me. Well, I called the captain and the executive officer and told them what was happening. They came down to combat. The captain says to me, Mr. Sheriff, can you do this? I’m right out of school. Can you do this now? There’s only one right answer to that question. You don’t say I’m a stutterer, captain. I can’t do this. I’m so sorry. Because nobody else was going to do it but me. So I said, yes, sir, I’ve got this. And he said, okay. He left the XO stage just to make sure everything was okay. So I get my grease pencil, put on my headphones, wrap my legs around this radar repeater, and here they come. She launches everybody hermit, this is climax two three. I got two four and two five. Request instructions. Over. I got to say something. Roger. Climax! Two three, take angels 2.5. Steer 150. Report your state over. Blah blah blah. Hermit, this is climax five one. I got five two and five four. Request instructions over. Roger. Climax five one. Take angels 3.0. Steer 158. Report your state over and this goes on for hours, hours, every plane. I had an expanding square search on the radar scope. I had to go to the ATP one Alpha, which was this big book that taught you how to do these things because I hadn’t ever done this before.

So I created this expanding square on the radar scope, and I tried to stack all these planes up. So the helicopters were down low and the propeller guys were next, and the fast movers were up here, and the really fast guys were up here because I tried to keep them from hitting each other while they’re out there looking for these two guys in the water. And after a few hours, we found the guy in the back seat didn’t make it out of the Phantom. Jet has two, two people in it. It’s got a guy in the front seat and a guy in the back seat, the pilot in the front and the radar intercept operator in the back. And what had happened, we found out later was they were in a low attack profile, low, low to the water, and they had some kind of difficulty. So when they punched out, when they ejected, the pilot goes out first and then 7/10 of a second later the Rio goes out behind him to make sure they don’t hit each other. Well, the pilot ejected and there was just enough time. We found out later for him to make it. The guy in the back seat didn’t make it. We found his seat and his helmet, a few things like that.

It was very, very tough. The captain, by this time it’s sunrise. The captain says. What do you think, Mr. Sharon? I said, well, now we’re in the right area. We know these guys are around here somewhere. Let’s keep looking. So an hour or so later, I get a call from one of the helicopters. Hermit, this is climax five, three, five. We got him, we got him, we got him. Now. The pilot was a lieutenant commander. He had 3 to 2 and a half of these very experienced pilot. And so we take off at like flank speed, going as fast as we can to try to render assistance to go down, down the axis. Everybody in CIC were all cheering and they’re slapping me on the shoulder. Way to go, Mr. Sheriff. Blah blah blah. And I’m exhausted because it’s been a really intense kind of time. I gave all the other airplanes an RTB returned to base vector. They go back to the enterprise and we’re steaming out there, and next thing you know, we’re like slowly we’re wallowing in the water. And I get a call over the one mic and the captain says, Mr. Shearer later, the bridge. Some guy up here wants to talk to you. And I’m thinking, man, I’m tired. And I thought, oh, this is the captain. I sir. I put on my piss cutter and go out on the starboard side and everybody is that’s awake is like lining the starboard rail of the ship.

We’re in the water. There’s an SH three Alpha helicopter like this hovering over the water. Swimmers in the water pull it to get this guy ready. Put him in the harness. And the captain said he wants to know who the air controller was. So there’s hundreds of guys here. So, like, I, you know, I give a wave, and I’m just so relieved and excited that we got this guy. He gets his harness on like this, and he’s he’s being lifted out of the water. And I swear he looks right at me and he salutes me. So I salute him back. He salutes me. I salute him back. And immediately I walk around to the port side. There’s nobody over there but the lookout back by the signal bags and I just started crying. And it was, it was. It was tears of joy. It was tears of excitement, like, wow, what was that? That happened? Who was that guy back there on the radio? I want to be that young. I want to be that John Shearer. Not this sniveling, stuttering, neurotic guy that hopes everything’s going to be okay and worries every time he opens his mouth. I want to be that John Shearer. So the point here is that this little guy here, 21 years old, 22 years old, was given this gift of an experience of transformation.

When I wrote about this in my book, I said at the very end that I might have helped find his Phantom, but that pilot had no way of knowing. He had also helped me find my Phantom. And I’m telling you, this is to me proof positive that when you have something so important, there were two guys in the water out there. It was not time. I remember after about an hour or so on the radar scope, I had this sudden realization that not only was I not stuttering, I hadn’t even thought about it. Why, there are two guys out there, John Shearer. There’s no time for your you-know-what. You’ve got to get over yourself, buddy. Get over yourself and get after it. So when there’s something so important to you, my good friend Ted Buffington has a great saying. It’s not mind over matter. It’s the other way around. What matters so much that you wouldn’t mind doing something that’s difficult, or even, in this case, impossible? What is it that matters so much that you won’t mind getting over yourself and getting those two guys in the water? Who are the two guys in the water for you personally, for your team, for your organization, for the mission of whatever organization you’re responsible for helping with? I am so, so glad that this little guy here had that experience. It literally changed my life.


This insightful video delves into essential survival skills for navigating today’s workplace challenges. Covering skills seven to ten, it emphasizes the importance of developing courage to face challenges (symbolized by “tigers”), mastering cross-functional teamwork, adapting to rapid change, and finding purpose beyond routine tasks. The author encourages readers to view their work as contributing to a larger purpose, urging them to quit a mundane job and discover work that aligns with personal passions and makes a meaningful impact. With a focus on personal development, organizational growth, and effective teamwork, the video provides practical advice for thriving in the dynamic modern workplace.

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