By lex, on July 13th, 2006
I’ve been on shore duty now for nearly a year. Before that, it’d been seven years of consecutive sea duty – nobody’s fault, I chose to stay operational as long as it made sense, so long as there was a fight to be fought that I could contribute to. I haven’t gone a year where I haven’t been to sea since the summer of 1998. But eventually I came ashore. Where, it turns out, after a while, you forget things. Things like:
How very young practically everyone is. And how very hard they work. How long the work day is.
That they don’t sell reading glasses in the ship’s store, so you’d sure as hell better bring your own.
Exactly how fresh, fresh air can be, walking the flight deck on a downwind run, before flight operations start with all of its noise, heat and chaotic order. The clarity of the sunlight at sea, far away from men, their cities, their machines and dust.
The way the ship moves and gently lifts beneath you. The quiet song of the ocean sea hissing along her lines. The way the ocean seems to change itself for you on a whim, dancing from whitecap to whitewash, gray water to green to blue, and all the infinite colors in between as the sunlight and the clouds war for dominance all the way to the infinite horizon.
The rough shouts and raw voices. The incessant teasing and prodding.
The five-times-a-day humiliation of restricted man’s muster on the hangar bay.
How many of those steeply-banked ladders you have to climb from the wardroom to the bridge (Answer: eleven).
How alone you can feel on a ship a thousand feet long, carrying 3500 souls, when you don’t know a single one of them. It doesn’t make it easier that you’re carrying an almost oppressive rank, and that you’re here to perform an inspection. Everyone is cordial and polite, but people tend not to be overly forthcoming in your presence. You are not a part of them, you are a stranger. A stranger, moreover, whose task it is to find flaw. This may conciliate good will, but does not endear camaraderie.
This sense of – it’s not quite alienation, but neither is it very far from it – of strangeness that makes you miss your family all the more. A visitor to a warship at sea is aware of a community he does not share – he is alone among thousands of friends. In such solitude, there are many moments when your thoughts turn home and you wonder what it all added up to, all the time you spent away, the many absences in the past, even the times that you were home, but not entirely. When you are alone, there is time for introspection and reflection. There is time for regret.
There is also time for PT, which was very welcome.
The FUBAR’s: I went down to the Marine FA-18 replacement squadron to borrow a set of earplugs, my humble abode being more or less under the catapults, and the ship being engaged in carrier quals, the noise itself both interminable and nigh on intolerable. Got there just in time to witness on the pilot’s landing aid television a Marine FA-18 student landing with his fuel dumps on, staying at full power in the wires, gush, gush, spew. Thought to myself: All that fuel in the landing area? Won, need the ear plugs for a while. And that this is how a new callsign is earned. Welcome aboard, “Dumps.”
I’d somehow forgotten the evening prayer. Followed five minutes after by, Taps, which I did remember.
The feeling of wanting to go up to the LSO platform, even though it wasn’t my duty day, just to see the last recovery. Just to see teamwork in action. To feel it from the outside, to share it, even if I’m not on the team any more, and never will be.
How heart-rendingly beautiful the sunset is at sea. Unless of course, you’re a CAT I nugget perched on the brink of a disqual, and tonight’s the night boy-o, make it or break it. In which case your mind is occupied with less esoteric thoughts as the sun goes down.
The sight of the hatch to flight deck control, where a hot seat pilot will wait for his jet to land, once the guy ahead is done with it. So that he can strap into it in a bustling haste, complete checklists, break down chocks and chains, taxi to the bow and finally cat off into the inky darkness, almost entirely sure that it will be OK. The way he sits there among the other hot seat pilots and the Handler and his minions and tries his best to look unconcerned, to feign a casual resignation – this is what we do. The way those there assembled look at him knowingly, aware, not unsympathetic.
The way, eventually, the casual attitude becomes real, rather than assumed.
The way all of it passes at length into things that used to be. And how quickly it happened.