The Embark

By lex, on June 1st, 2009

I’ve already told you how the bloggers twittered their last tweets prior to getting the outbound COD brief. The young lieutenant from VRC-30 told them that the landing aboard ship would be “fairly violent,” but not nearly as bad as the cat shot the next day. That, he said, would be “more dynamic.”

A raised hand: “Define: Dynamic.”

Oh. You’ll see.

We put our flotation horse collars over our heads, zipped them up and then topped the whole rig with cranial protectors, especially designed by the Navy to fit miserably no matter the size or shape of the wearer’s noggin. My grape measures at an only just sub-hydroencephalic 7 3/8s inches, but I’m relatively certain that secretly implanted needles in the liner automatically deploy for those who can pass the cretinism test just so the cranially challenged might enjoy the same quality experience.

This sort of design work requires a special genius, but Navy is up to the task.

We bundled in to the dark confines of the C-2 Greyhound, and strapped ourselves in. The loading ramp suddenly raised and locked with a clunk, and in that darkened cabin there must have been those with second thoughts – I know I had mine – but by that time we were all restrained by a four point harness system that each of us had been taught to close, but that none of the others had been taught how to open.

Up, up into the soaring blue gloom, or so we presumed from all the sound and petulance – fury would be altogether too strong a word – of the C-2’s Allison T-56 engines. In half an hour’s time I could tell by the bumps, groans and power/prop changes that our intrepid aviators up front were maneuvering themselves out of the clouds and down the pipe for our arrested landing aboard Nimitz.

In no time at all we were in the wires, with the bloggers saying, well, you know: That wasn’t so very bad. Then the ramp dropped down and we were treated to curious, cranialled and be-goggled faces peering in and the sight of an FA-18E Super Hornet just forward of flight deck control. After a few minutes spent waiting – the civvies couldn’t have known why, and as a military veteran, I knew it was useless to even wonder – we were finally escorted out of the beast’s belly and into the belly of the beast. They always hustle the DVs off the roof as soon as they can, the better to keep anyone from getting blown over the side by a turning fighter, or wandering through a spinning prop arc, or tripping over a fuel hose/electrical cable/tie-down chain, or, well: You get the picture.

The Air Transport Officer gratefully handed us off to the PA types, who hustled us down to a media room. Guy Kawasaki – an Apple evangelist from the way back – noted with undisguised glee that the Navy used Mac workstations for their graphical work, and soon the skipper hisself came down to welcome us aboard.

The PAO folks went pretty far out on a limb embarking a bunch of tech/marketing bloggers; intelligent, opinionated and successful folks with no prior military experience, and no brief besides reporting what they observe to all and sundry in a channel no one but they control. In truth, all of the services regarding this whole blogging thing as something of an innovation – that word doesn’t carry the same context in the naval service as it does in the tech industry – a way to lose control of the message, an opportunity for any one of a number of “Aha!” moments from congressional staffers looking to sweep up a little OPM*, and the gateway to a security violation.

But just as the Navy went open kimono with the PBS miniseries “Carrier” – filmed aboard Nimitz (and available here, for those who somehow missed it on the first bout) – the Public Affairs gurus now have convinced the three- and four-star mandarins – none of whom, to my knowledge, blog, FaceBook, or FriendFind, far less tweet, and few of whom could spell “RSS” on a bet that it would be good to let these people in, that the Navy story was fundamentally a good one and that it would be better all the way around if they just turned their collective heads and coughed. So they did!

But not without a fair amount of hesitation.

So, it was down to lunch – not bad for a warship at sea, but if it was a restaurant you wouldn’t go back – and poor Mashable Jenn ended up being a bit vegan, which Navy doesn’t do vegan very well so it was a sore trial for her. Then vultures row (day), flight deck (day), tower (day/night) and vulture’s row (night). It was all a part of the, “Make them climb and descend impossibly steep ladders until their legs quiver, then put them to bed” theory of tour guidance, and as a tool for repressing any nascent tendency towards mutiny among the Silicon Valley set it worked quite well, we were that tired and even an old salt can get out of practice.

In between there were some good conversations about social media and the new “millennial” generation of sailors, each of whom has been connected to like, everyone! since he or she was out of diapers, whether that be through IM chat, SMS messaging, cell phones, land lines, Facebook and/or Myspace comments boxes and so on. Taking them out of that environment and putting them aboard ship where the bandwidth for such foolishness is constrained to practically zero in those places where policy filters are not throttling them entirely can be, to say the least, disorienting.

(At this point the old salts are shaking their heads and muttering to themselves that in their day, a sailor was happy with any day that he ended up in his own rack, with one cold meal and no really harsh floggings, but this is not that day, and just as sailors deal with the sea as they find it, so too must Navy leadership deal with sailors as they are found. More or less. If you really want to be an employer of preference, that is.)

But Navy isn’t closing the pipe because they’re grumpy old men who want to get those damned kids off the IT lawn, there just isn’t that much throughput through the shipboard routers offship to serial satellite circuits, and what goodput there is, is mostly dedicated to mission essential purposes. (Why not use ethernet connections and get the full 100mbps, you’ll ask? Good question. Has summat to do with requirements and cost, I’m told. Lex just pawn in game of life.) Also, there’s this little problem of the tension between the immediacy of social media and operational security. But we already have ways of closing the door when something “interesting” is about to happen.

Still, I think there’s some useful thinking to be done about placing blogs and social networking tools behind the router on the shipboard local area networks, and firewalling them from offboard dissemination. It’d be another path of information exchange for leadership, and a good way for like-minded souls on a city of 5000 to pass the time and share common interests.

Of course, the possibilities for abuse are ripe – we are talking about fairly young people here – but let no one doubt that there are disgruntled folks using serial vice IP channels to trash talk each other, their division chief or the entire chain-of-command. Once it’s online, at least it’s traceable, and intrusive mentoring can work wonders, while the CO gets to benefit from direct exposure to what his people really feel.

Does a carrier CO have the personal bandwidth to blog? Maybe. He has enough to go on the 1MC every night and speechify to the vast assembled, most of whom are only waiting for the Old Man to stop talking so that the Freddy vs. Jason VI re-run will start back up again on the ship’s TV. And there’s nothing that says a good PA crew couldn’t tee up a little something for the skipper to put his mark on, and go about his usual routine.

An evening with the admiral placing the carrier strike group in the national security context, and it was all I could do not to leap to attention as he came into the space. Old habits are hard to break, and I’ve an abiding respect for that old man, Tomcat RIO or no.

Midrats to ensure a good night’s sleep – no day ever being complete without four high calorie, starchy meals. We were told to expect a 0600 wake-up for a 0630 muster for breakfast, so of course the phone rang at 0610 saying muster would be at 0620. It’s all a part of the standard harassment package, get them there 10 minutes early so that they’ll maybe be on time, but for my own part I was disappointed at such a transparent ploy. I showered anyway, and showed them who was boss by declining to shave.

I’m bold that way. Not to mention retired.

After that, it was spaces and places even I’d never seen. The ship’s armory, where the bloggers got to caress an M2 “fitty”, an M4 carbine, and the M240 in 7.62 that had replaced the old M60s. There was also an old M79 40mm grenade launcher, and my personal favorite, the M-14 rifle, a nice, flat shooting, hard hitting rifle that’s accurate enough to drive nails with over the middle distance, now sadly relegated to ceremonial roles.

It is to weep.

There were also some 9mm Berettas in a locker behind me, but I will not blog of them. Momma always said that if you couldn’t blog something nice about somebody, it was better just not to blog at all.

Down to the bomb assembly areas on the fourth and fifth decks, where the light suddenly came on for some of those assembled, or maybe it was always there and it took the actual sight of those rows of low, hulking instruments of death going through the workaday industrial process of assembly brought what had always been lurking there in the background above the signal to noise ratio. That this wasn’t only about hardworking people, cool jets and loud noises.

One of the ladies asked had I ever flown in combat and had I ever had to well, you know. And what it was like. To which I replied that she didn’t know me that well, and that there are some questions we don’t even ask each other.

Lunch again, and one of those assembled asked about “the Empty Chair” there in the wardroom by the door. I started to try to explain, but found that my voice failed me. That I could not get through it with my dignity intact. Was surprised by that fact, even as I asked him to check out the placard at the table as he was leaving. That it was important.

Shortly afterward it was time to head back to Sandy Eggo. A little more apprehension – well earned – for that “dynamic” cat shot, but it was over in two shakes and a half an hour later we were home.

Well. Most of us were.

*Other People’s Money

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Lex, Naval Aviation

2 responses to “The Embark

  1. Perhaps it’s not always bad for a dignified person to lose a bit of dignity in public – and show the assembled that there are some things worth sacrificing it for.

  2. Pingback: Index – The Rest of Neptunus Lex | The Lexicans

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