By lex, on Thu – June 24, 2004
Going to sea for the first time…
In the summer of 1979 I had just finished my plebe year at the vocational school I attended. Our class had scaled Herndon Monument, a vaguely phallic tower, disturbingly slathered in grease, encircled in filthy mud (the metaphoric imagination ran wild), to exchange the plebe hat affixed to its summit for the combination cover of
an upperclass midshipman –
Having overcome this annual ritual, we were now “youngsters,” and ready for our first cruise. We had finished our first year, the hardest year, at one of the country’s most difficult and prestigious institutions of higher learning. We were assured that we were the cream of the crop. We had been through the crucible, and had begun to feel… special.
You do two cruises as a midshipman, one in your youngster summer, one in the year before you graduate, and earn your commission. They are from three to six weeks in length, plus travel time. As a senior, or “firstie” (first class midshipman), you go to sea wearing an officer’s khaki uniform, your running mate is a junior officer. You stand officer watches, including conning the ship (under instruction) and junior officer of the deck, in port and at sea. You sleep in a two-man stateroom, eat in the wardroom, and people call you “sir.” You might be perhaps 20 years old.
But during youngster year, you sail as a Sailor. You wear dungarees, chip paint, sweep passageways and stand enlisted watches. You sleep in enlisted berthing, eat in the enlisted mess and attempt to get some sense of the men you are supposed to lead in three year’s time, and the lives they live. It is your time before the mast. And it can be a real wake-up call for those who had lived a somewhat pampered life. Because before you are allowed to lead, you must demonstrate that you can follow.
You are tempted to believe that this work is beneath you. You are a Naval Academy midshipman, the cream of the crop. You are special.
I joined the USS Nicholson in Charleston, South Carolina. We had a day or two to get acclimated, time spent mostly shifting five inch gun rounds from the forward armory to the aft, saluting everything that moved, and painting anything that didn’t. And then we got underway.
The Nicholson was at that time the newest ship in the Navy. She has since been decommissioned. The Spruance class destroyers were something of an innovation, for the time. With their gas turbine engines and “advanced” sensors, they had a crew much smaller than previous destroyers of her weight and class. This meant that for major evolutions, like getting underway, everyone played a part.
I was assigned to the sonar room for my underway watches. For sea and anchor detail, I was assigned to the deck department, tending a mooring line. The day we got underway was cold and rainy, and we stood in the rain for hours, with no foul weather gear, waiting – at that level, you couldn’t know why. All you knew was that you were miserable, chilled, soaked to the bone, and very, very unhappy. You’d cast baleful looks up into the bridge, where the dry, warm officers and bridge watch were doing you could not tell what, and taking their precious time to do it.
Some Sailor was unhappy about his lot, and complained in objectionable terms to the first class boatswain’s mate in charge of the bowlines. The bos’n told the complainer to tend his damn line. The tender told the bos’n to get lost. Or words to that effect.
The bos’n put his arm around the objector’s shoulder, and escorted him to a paint locker below the foc’s’l. After a few short moments, both re-emerged – the objector’s shirt was torn, his hair stood up at one end, and his face was reddened. He walked tenderly forward, and tended his line.
That was apparently how it was in the fleet.
It was an education, to be sure.
I was truly alone for the first time in my life. Totally alone on a small, crowded ship with over 250 men, as we sailed down to the crystal blue Caribbean. One evening I sat on a capstan aft, and wrote letters home to mom and dad, and as I looked out upon the wine dark sea I felt both heroic and poetic. Dolphins danced in our wake, and flying fish flew before the bow, jumping at each trill of the bow mounted active sonar. The sun set upon a pewter horizon in which the sea and sky merged seamlessly into one, and it seemed unutterably beautiful. For the first time, but by no means the last, I saw how exquisite a sunset at sea could be, and how meagre and unsuitable was our language to describe it.
And always there was work – busy work, for the most part. Decks to clean, paint to chip, watches to stand. Often tedious, rarely exciting. A rhythm evolves.
You can get used to anything.
You spend some time in the engineering plant – in a gas turbine ship, an amazingly clean and quiet space. Totally incomprehensible. It resembles nothing at all like the wiring diagrams in your thermodynamics textbooks.
But there’s a 23 year old Sailor who didn’t go to college, never read Thoreau, and who nevertheless understands it all. He patiently tries to teach you how it works. He speaks to you like one would speak to an elderly person in a nursing home, slowly, simply. You feel patronized, and worse: You realize that you do not entirely understand.
You are beginning to learn – not about engineering. But about Sailors.
A week later we were in the Virgin Islands, in Saint Croix. We had liberty, and decided to go snorkeling, to hunt for lobsters. Evening was coming, and while the ship’s morale locker had masks and fins, it did not have flashlights. Battle lanterns, designed to light the passageways when the ship’s electrical systems had sustained battle damage, were procured for the purpose. The ship’s officers would not have approved.
We found a suitable spot. We dove amid the coral until the battle lanterns gave out, and fished our lobsters from the sea. When it was fully dark, we gathered on the beach, built a fire, lifted our beers, and swore that no finer life existed than that of a Sailor.
At sea again, we prepared for “refresher training,” or REFTRA. The order of the day was multiple general quarters drills. You’d be eating your swill in the mess, when the gong would sound. Leap to your feet, feel the ship heel over, watch your trays go clattering to the deck, see the grim resignation on the faces of the mess cranks – how would they clean this mess up and still get to their GQ stations?
Not your problem.
Up and forward starboard side – down and aft port. Made it to sonar, took my station. The 1MC announced, “missile inbound, port side – all hands brace for shock!” Being a snot-nosed midshipman, I realized that there was no actual missile coming in, and made a mockery of “bracing for shock.” Wasn’t I funny?
A bearded sonar chief grabbed me by my ear, and threw me into the passageway outside the sonar shack. I could come back when he told me to. Until then, I was cleared to make an ass of myself on someone else’s watch.
A week later we’re in Christiansted, again in the Virgin Islands. More liberty. You gradually become accustomed to the idea of austere and monastic devotion to small things on one hand, and rock star-like, communal celebration on the other.
You store up good times, and put them tenderly in your pocket for safekeeping. To bring them out and polish them admiringly during the bad times.
You’re heading home. Bridge watches now, under the tutelage of 20 year old quartermaster’s mates. Men from small towns that you’ve never hear of, in states you remember dimly from your grade school geography. From farming families, where no one went to college, and no one was expected to. Men who could fix your position to a hundred yards moving at 20 knots across the endless sea using only the stars, a stopwatch and a sextant. Men who could debate the finer points of Strauss and Engels. Men who play classical guitar to an appreciative audience in the 80 man berthing during their time off duty. Who have dreams of their own that they will tell you about, when no one else is listening. Men who would risk their lives to save yours in the midst of a flaming inferno, without hesitating for a moment to reckon the cost, to tally the odds. Men who would die for you, if they had to.
And you begin to realize that you’re not special because of who you are, the grades you got in high school or where you’re going to college. You’re special because of who you’ve been selected to lead, when your time comes.
And that, my friends, is the beginning of wisdom.