Bob Weiten knows God drives the canoe

  • Published
  • By Philip Lorenz III
Bob Weiten vividly remembers a cold day on board the USS Coronado as the 16,405 ton Austin-class amphibious transport dock vessel cut through the icy waters off the coast of Corsica on the way to Palma De Mallorca, Spain in 1972. It was a day that changed his life forever. 

"It was in the middle of the Mediterranean when I was 22 years old when I finally realized what my baptism was about," recalled Weiten, an Aerospace Testing Alliance network and data communications systems engineer who has been at Arnold Engineering Development Center since 1989. "I was in a room full of high frequency transmitters, engulfed by the noise from equipment cooling fans that was further punctuated by the sounds of the ship's operations. Impervious to all the noise, I quietly contemplated and embraced my epiphany." 

He had just finished talking to his parents and described what happened next as a "coming of age" experience. 

"All of a sudden it dawned on me what my life was about," he said. "One of the advantages of being an electronics tech back then was you had access to the HF transmitter. So, I could get a 'phone patch' all the way back home and talk to my mom and dad. I had just gotten finished talking to them and after that conversation I guess I realized what the importance of family and my life was really all about." 

He said his baptism as a Catholic was more a matter of "words, and paper and ceremony." Something about the conversation with his parents and the realization that he was truly on his own sparked a shift to fully understand what his life was really all about. 

"At that same time, too, I also asked the good Lord to help me find a woman who I could spend the rest of my days with - that's how I figure I got to Tennessee by the way," he said. 

However, there would be a few detours along the way. 

When Weiten had joined the Navy in 1968, Vietnam was in full swing and he did not want to join the Army. College was not an option - something his family could not afford. 

"It was the Vietnam era, I didn't want to sleep in a fox hole full of water," he said. "So, I decided to go into the Navy. That was when they were drafting everybody to go into the Marine Corps for Vietnam service. And it's sad, but about half of my graduating class were either killed or maimed in Vietnam." 

He had taken vocational courses in high school, including electronics. 

"I was working on TVs and stuff in high school and the old Army sergeant up there running the course, said, 'you'll never go anywhere in electronics,'" Weiten recalled. "He kind of threw down the gauntlet." 

After finishing boot camp and completing his A and B electronics schools, he reported for duty to San Diego and eventually to the shipyard in Bremerton, Wash., where his ship was still under construction. 

Weiten was what is known in Navy parlance as a 'Plank Owner,' someone who sails with a new ship as one of its initial crewmembers, a source of pride. 

"We went to Hawaii, San Francisco and San Diego and then down through the Panama Canal on our shake-down cruise," he recalled. "We went to San Diego due to the fact that the Coronado was named after Coronado Island in San Diego harbor. We had to stop there. Left San Diego and then went through the Panama Canal and ended up in Naval Operations Base Norfolk, Va. From there we did several Mediterranean and North Atlantic cruises. Once we even took a barge to Christ Church New Zealand in the middle of July - about a three-month trip." 

The Navy's impact on his life was profound. 

"Getting to see the world is a good thing - it gives you a lot of perspective on the country you're living in," he said. "But it was also the camaraderie. You go to sea with 400 guys and maybe 35 of them you don't like, so it teaches diplomacy, too." 

There were lessons in leadership and teamwork which he said served him well over the years. 

After six years in the Navy, Weiten decided to return to civilian life. After nine months working for Caterpillar as a construction electrician, he gave them a two-week notice and left. 

He felt the time was right to pursue another dream, one he shared with some of his former shipmates. 

"When I was in the Navy, my buddies and I had a little band going on board the ship," he said. "We had our equipment on board and everything - we'd go up and play on the flight deck. I played guitar, harp and a little mandolin. 

"We had planned to get a band going once we all got out," he continued. "We were going to start in Ames, Iowa." 

As often happens in life, their plans did not turn out the way they hoped. One of their shipmates had kept everyone's instruments and had no intention of returning them. The young men managed to get their equipment back and they ended up moving to Knoxville, Tenn., where one of the men lived in an inherited house with friends. 

"So, we went to Knoxville with our equipment and everything else," he said. "That's where I met my wife, Sandy. 

"The first time I met her, I had my hair down to the middle of my back, I sat down in her lap on a chaise lounge on the front porch of Bill's house and she didn't want anything to do with me," he recalled. "A few weeks later we were having a party down in the basement and I was up on stage playing my harmonica with my band buddies." 

Weiten, who had recently started a job with Sperry Corp., working on mainframe computers, got a different reception from the young lady this time around. 

"When she saw me up on stage at that party, she wanted to know who it was because I had gotten a haircut," he said, smiling. "We started dating and the first time I asked her to marry me was about six or eight months later. She was just getting started in her college career and she said no. So, I said, 'okay, I'm looking for a wife.' So we separated and went our separate ways for almost a year." 

Uncharacteristically of him, he said he started dating her again and eventually proposed to her again. This time she was receptive and they married. He enjoyed his job with Sperry and life was good. 

"I was on the very front end of computing when data was still being entered in Hollerith cards and punch cards," he said. "I started working at Sperry as a field engineer. That was 1975." 

In 1981, the company transferred Weiten to Chattanooga and a year later the couple had their first child, a son, Nicholas. Then in 1985, the young family grew by one as a daughter, Melissa was born. 

While still at Sperry, Weiten was doing contracted jobs at AEDC, fixing some computer components, never realizing that the man whose equipment he was working on would one day offer him a job. Seven years later, Sperry downsized and Weiten lost his job. 

With his severance pay dwindling, he found an intriguing ad for a job with Orbital Astronomic Observatory, Corp. (OAO), in the classified section of the local paper. 

In 1989, he came on board AEDC as an instrument technician for OAO in computing and technology. 

Bob's first impression, "There was a lot of plumbing and piping and I didn't know what it all did," he said with a laugh. 

Over time, he learned a lot and came to appreciate both the technological heritage represented at Arnold and being on the cutting edge of things, especially within his own profession. 

By 1995, he changed jobs and started as an entry level engineer in the contractor's network infrastructure engineering branch. 

He said his attitude toward work and life has remained the same over the years. An open mind, always receptive to learning new things and a spirit of teamwork will go a long way to help with the challenges everyone faces. 

"The day you quit learning is the day they put the nails in the box," he said. "And if you ever close your mind, you haven't done yourself any favors." 

Around 1990, Weiten took on a new challenge when he walked into the headquarters of Boy Scout Troop 391 in Estill Springs. He soon learned that the troop was floundering. 

"Being an old Navy guy, I looked around the room and the wall was covered with ribbons they'd won at various scouting events or the national jamboree," he said. "There was a canoe hanging from the ceiling. I couldn't let that tradition die. 

"When I realized the situation, I had to do something with it and that's when I acted," he said. "Dr. Roger Crawford, a retired Air Force officer and former UTSI professor, helped me put together a troop committee that was made up of former Eagles, some who had come from that troop. And we also brought some of the engineers who were out here on board. And they helped me get the thing going." 

That's when Weiten learned about Wood Badge, "Boot Camp" for Scout Masters. 

"It's not too much different than Navy boot camp," he said "They put you in a patrol environment that is similar to what the boys would experience. One of the first things they did was to give us a compass course to find where we were going to be bunking. And I made the traditional mistake, putting the compass too close to my belt buckle, ending up out in the middle of a swamp area somewhere, but eventually I found my Wood Badge patrol." 

Weiten said life is all about giving back. He continues to be very active in local scouting, even with no children or relatives involved. So, what does he get from scouting? 

"What I get out of it is watching these boys grow up and become young men," he said, acknowledging that he is a "free thinker" who has used some of the same mentoring techniques with his children and even some of his younger coworkers. 

Weiten is trying to get closure on his long-delayed college degree, but says the outcome of everything is in other hands. 

"God drives the canoe and that's my whole philosophy right there - let him drive the canoe, I end up where I end up because He wants me to go some place and do something," he said. "I don't know what my mission is and probably never will until the day I hopefully walk through the gates."