Monstrous Black Can

In the great cornucopia of energy drinks that are available on the market there is one that outshines all of the rest: Monster. This elixir comes in a tall, black can and can be found well-stocked in every ship’s store throughout the United States Navy. It’s quickly replacing coffee as the go-to drink of choice for the haggard Boatswain’s Mate or Electrician’s Mate running on two hours of sleep and looking ahead at the seemingly insurmountable six-hour-long watch only thirty minutes away. But hand that same Sailor a can of Monster and watch the magic change wash over him.

As soon as he pops the tab you can smell the fruity, metallic liquid sloshing and fizzing in the can. Then he takes a hearty slug and as soon as this manna from heaven touches his lips his back straightens, his eyes light up, and the rush of energy shoots from his mouth to the very tips of his fingers and toes like a lightening bolt striking a pine tree. Moments later that aluminum can will be empty, ready to be repurposed into a receptacle for dip spit (See smokeless tobacco). But what about the Sailor? Well that Sailor will be ready to tackle the world. That very Electrician’s Mate will have so much excess energy he’ll be ready to stand watch and then go fix every motor-operated valve in the bilge of Auxiliary Machinery Room 3.

But as wonderful as this drink may be, and as tasty as it is the morning after standing the reveille watch, I’m not sure how beneficial the regular consumption of it is. Once, while finishing a final project in college, I drank three of these lovely concoctions in the span of an hour. They allowed me to finish my project but I felt as though my heart was going to explode through my chest. Also, I’ve watched friends and colleagues drink Monsters throughout the day and then tremor and jitter uncontrollably for hours. Not to mention that if you find a spare hour or two to sleep during your busy SWO day, these bad boys will nix that idea fast, quick, and in a hurry.

So, with all data available to me, I decided to ween myself off of Monsters and find another source for my caffeine (Lapsang souchong seems to work pretty well). It’s a bit rough on the midwatch but it’s manageable. At least I don’t have to worry about spontaneous cardiac arrest.

Tools of the Trade

I’m intensely interested in language; I think all writers are. We find the intricacies of them fascinating and seek to master it the way that a mason masters the use his trowel, square, and compass. We frame our message using the grammar, metre, and precise word selection to ensure that we not only convey our point but our emotions as well. We paint a picture with words in the same way that an artist would use oils on canvas.

International travel therefore provides the writer or orator, that pilgrim of language, the opportunity to learn and experiment with a foreign language. The metre, syntax, grammar, and inflection will all be alien to him. But what fun he will have! Signs in both English and the host language will provide the easiest way to decipher the mysteries of this new language; much like sign posts leading him down the road of autdidactism.

Once he’s built his confidence in comprehension of this new language, he’ll test the waters with short phrases and questions. “Sil-vous plait, je voudrais un bier.” “Oui, monsieur.” And the bartender will bring him his pint of beer. Or he’ll find himself at some pizzeria in Rome: “Scusi, signori, I would like un vino. . . and, um, one of these (He then points to the menu; pointing always works).” “Of course, signori. Uno momento.”

Eventually, mastery will come. Eventually the seeker will graduate from pidgin communication to full fluency. Which is a day of much rejoicing, as he orders off of the menu without any hesitation.

Dopo

There’s a special sensation when pulling into port for the first time. There’s an electricity in the air, a palpable excitement shared amongst the entire crew. Each new sight and smell and sound builds the excitement to a crescendo of magnificent proportions. the young seaman who the previous day had been run down, tired, exhausted from two-and-a-half months at sea with nothing to alleviate the drudgery of grinding and painting the chalks and bits but the occasional bird perched atop the hurricane bow is suddenly renewed by the bright Mediterranean sun and the promise of liberty.

And liberty, blessed liberty, that short, seemingly infinitessimal time when a Sailor can depart the ship, and then walk, run, or fly to the nearest bar and drink himself silly and attempt to arrange more carnal pastimes. Or he can immerse himself in the culture and language of whatever paradise he finds himself in. And the troubles and toils of the day job won’t follow him.

And thus it was, as it has always been, when we pulled into Bari, Italy — the crown jewel of the Puglia region of Southeast Italy — after almost sixty straight days at sea. And the crew felt that same excitement, and each deck seaman scurried about the forecastle with an extra pep in his step, and tended his lines with that much more dedication. And then, once safely moored, and all business attended to, those glorious words were announced on the 1MC: “Liberty Call, Liberty Call. Liberty Call for duty sections 1 and 2.” And then those same deck seaman raced across the brow to regain their land legs.

And my compadres and I — all four of us — set foot onto Italian soil, some for the first time. The first stop was to find a caffeteria and scratch the itch that only a capuccino could scratch. And then we wandered, as we are wont to do. There’s a special joy in getting lost in a foreign city. The hassles of leading Sailors and long bridge watches and wardroom politics seem miles away, completely unreachable, and the to-do list that stretches a cable’s length is replaced by the top notch priority of finding a good bowl of pasta and magnificent bottle of wine. Your troubles can wait until later; “dopo” in Italian.

And after sixty days at sea; sixty days of rushing; sixty days of maintaining a steady strain; the near complete lack of any kind of hurry that pervades the Italian culture is a welcome relief. Everything is dopo: paying for your coffee? Dopo. Can we have the check, please? Dopo. Signora, when do we need to check out of our hotel room? Dopo.

What a welcome relief it was. This sleepy seaside city, who’s real claim to fame is that it contains the cathedral that houses the bones of Saint Nicolaus (Yes, that Saint Nicolaus). This same seaside city which has been a crossroads for various conquering armies throughout the millenia, was a refuge from the storm of operational commitments and uniforms, where you could almost pretend you were a civilian. And like all Sailors, every now and then we all need some time in a safe port from life’s tempestuous struggles.

Where the Sky and Sea Meet

Life at sea can begin to drag at times. It seems to occur more often the longer you’re at sea. The nights drag into days and the days mix together until the only dividing line is each day’s watch. And then those blend together until you try to create your own log and  can’t remember if that particular helicopter landing, where the winds wouldn’t stay put off of the stardboard bow and the seas were so confused that the deck wouldn’t stay anything resembling steady, happened on Tuesday or Thursday three weeks ago. And so Sailors, being the crafty individuals that they are, have created their own metrics for telling the days apart. Many in the crew use burger days (The U.S. Navy serves hamburgers for lunch every Wednesday, fleetwide). And then conversations like this occur: “Hey dude, do you remember when Chief said we needed to get that fuse box squared away?” “Yeah, man, he said next burger day.”

But at least obsurd conversations like that break up a long midwatch, as does the ever popular game of “Who’d You Rather?” So far Scarlett Johanson and Fat Amy are neck and neck and factions have arisen amongst the crew over their particular favorite. And even then, games and training can only last so long, until halfway through that long midwatch you run out of things to talk about and everyone is left to their own thoughts as they struggle to remain awake and retain what sanity they have left. Those are the nights when you venture out to the bridge wing and stare up at the stars and see the brilliant studs of light puncture the inky black sky for as far as you can see. And then the watch stretches on as you transit the vast Atlantic Ocean.

Eventually, you’ll look out and see no one else for miles, and then you’ll look down at the radar scope and confirm that electronically, and it’ll dawn on you that you’re really alone out here. If something should happen it’ll be up to you and the other 199 members of the crew. As the ship rocks side to side, and the swells crash into the port beam, you call down to the Central Control Station, where the engineers control the engines and bowels of the ship, and inquire what the sea water injection temperature is. “Hey pilothouse, CCS, SWIT’s about 60 degrees.” “60 degrees, bridge aye.” Sixty degrees: That sure is cold. . . And I haven’t seen a single surface contact all night. And then the thought begins to creep in, as you stare out at the empty sea: If I go overboard, I’m probably not making it back. Ditto for if we all have to abandon ship.

And it makes you realize how important it is that we do our jobs right, and keep the ship running and afloat. You realize why all of those man overboard drills are so direly important. You see how important it is that the look outs stand a vigilant watch. And why it’s so important that you stand a vigilant watch. And then the sun breaks the horizon and shines its wondrous rays down on the sea below. And you eagerly greet it.

Kipling Friday

McAndrew’s Hymn

Lord, Thou hast made this world below the shadow of a dream, 
An', taught by time, I tak' it so---exceptin' always Steam. 
From coupler-flange to spindle-guide I see Thy Hand, O God--- 
Predestination in the stride o' yon connectin'-rod. 
John Calvin might ha' forged the same---enorrmous, certain, slow--- 
Ay, wrought it in the furnace-flame---my "Institutio." 
I cannot get my sleep to-night; old bones are hard to please; 
I'll stand the middle watch up here---alone wi' God an' these 
My engines, after ninety days o' rase an' rack an' strain 
Through all the seas of all Thy world, slam-bangin' home again. 
Slam-bang too much---they knock a wee---the crosshead-gibs are loose, 
But thirty thousand mile o' sea has gied them fair excuse.... 
Fine, clear an'dark---a full-draught breeze, wi' Ushant out o' sight, 
An' Ferguson relievin' Hay. Old girl, ye'll walk to-night! 
His wife's at Plymouth.... Seventy---One---Two---Three since he began--- 
Three turns for Mistress Ferguson... and who's to blame the man? 
There's none at any port for me, by drivin' fast or slow, 
Since Elsie Campbell went to Thee, Lord, thirty years ago. 
(The year the Sarah Sands was burned. Oh roads we used to tread, 
Fra' Maryhill to Pollokshaws--fra' Govan to Parkhead!) 
Not but that they're ceevil on the Board. Ye'll hear Sir Kenneth say: 
"Good morn, McAndrew! Back again? An' how's your bilge to-day?" 
Miscallin' technicalities but handin' me my chair 
To drink Madeira wi' three Earls---the auld Fleet Engineer 
That started as a boiler-whelp---when steam and he were low. 
I mind the time we used to serve a broken pipe wi' tow! 
Ten pound was all the pressure then---Eh! Eh!---a man wad drive; 
An' here, our workin' gauges give one hunder sixty-five! 
We're creepin' on wi' each new rig---less weight an' larger power; 
There'll be the loco-boiler next an' thirty miles an hour! 
Thirty an' more. What I ha' seen since ocean-steam began 
Leaves me na doot for the machine: but what about the man? 
The man that counts, wi' all his runs, one million mile o' sea: 
Four time the span from Earth to Moon.... How far, O Lord from thee 
That wast beside him night an' day? Ye mind my first typhoon? 
It scoughed the skipper on his way to jock wi' the saloon. 
Three feet were on the stokehold-floor---just slappin' to an' fro--- 
An' cast me on a furnace-door. I have the marks to show. 
Marks! I ha' marks o' more than burns---deep in my soul an' black, 
An' times like this, when things go smooth, my wickudness comes back. 
The sins o' four an' forty years, all up an' down the seas. 
Clack an' repeat like valves half-fed.... Forgie's our trespasses! 
Nights when I'd come on to deck to mark, wi' envy in my gaze, 
The couples kittlin' in the dark between the funnel-stays; 
Years when I raked the Ports wi' pride to fill my cup o' wrong--- 
Judge not, O Lord, my steps aside at Gay Street in Hong-Kong! 
Blot out the wastrel hours of mine in sin when I abode--- 
Jane Harrigan's an' Number Nine, The Reddick an' Grant Road! 
An' waur than all---my crownin' sin---rank blasphemy an' wild. 
I was not four and twenty then---Ye wadna judge a child? 
I'd seen the Tropics first that run---new fruit, new smells, new air--- 
How could I tell---blinf-fou wi' sun--- the Deil was lurkin' there? 
By day like playhouse-scenes the shore slid past our sleepy eyes; 
By night thos soft, lasceevious stars leered from those velvet skies, 
In port (we used no cargo-steam) I'd daunder down the streets--- 
An ijjit grinnin' in a dream---for shells an' parrakeets, 
An' walkin'-sticks o' carved bamboo an' blowfish stuffed an' dried--- 
Fillin' my bunk wi' rubbishry the Cheif put overside. 
Till, off Sambawa Head, Ye mind, I heard a land-breeze ca', 
Milk-warm wi' breath o' spice an' bloom: "McAndrew, Come awa'!" 
Firm, clear an' low---no haste, no hate---the ghostly whisper went, 
Just statin' eevidential facts beyon' all argument: 
"Your mither's god's a graspin' deil, the shadow o' yoursel', 
"Got out o' books by meenisters clean daft on Heaven an' Hell. 
"They mak' him in the Broomielaw, o' Glasgie cold an' dirt, 
"A jealous, pridefu' fetich, lad, that's only strong to hurt. 
"Ye'll not go back to Him again an' kiss His red-hot rod, 
"But come wi' Us" (Now who were They?) "an' know the Leevin' God, 
"That does not kipper souls for sport or break a life in jest, 
"But swells the ripenin' cocoanuts an' ripes the woman's breast." 
An' there it stopped: cut off: no more; that quiet, certain voice--- 
For me, six months o' twenty-four, to leave or take at choice. 
'Twas on me like a thunderclap---it racked me through an' through--- 
Temptation past the show o' speech, unnameable an' new--- 
The Sin against the Holy Ghost?... An' under all, our screw. 

That storm blew by but left behind her anchor-shiftin' swell. 
thou knowest all my heart an' mind, Thou knowest, Lord, I fell--- 
Third on the Mary Gloster then, and first that night in Hell! 
Yet was Thy Hand beneath my head, about my feet Thy Care--- 
Fra' Deli clear to Torres Strait, the trial o' despair, 
But when we touched the Barrier Reef Thy answer to my prayer!... 
We wared na run that sea by night but lay an' held our fire, 
An' I was drowsin' on the hatch---sick---sick wi' doubt an' tire: 
"Better the sight of eyes that see than wanderin' o' desire!" 
Ye mind that word? Clear as gongs---again, an' once again, 
When rippin' down through coral-trash ran out our moorin'-chain: 
An', by Thy Grace, I had the light to see my duty plain. 
Light on the engine-room---no more---bright as our carbons burn. 
I've lost it since a thousand times, but never past return! 

Obsairve! Per annum we'll have here two thousand souls aboard--- 
Think not I dare to justify myself before the Lord, 
But---average fifteen hunder souls safe-born fra' port to port--- 
I am o' service to my kind. Ye wadna blame the thought? 
Maybe they steam from Grace to Wrath---to sin by folly led--- 
It isna mine to judge their path---their lives are on my head. 
Mine at the last---when all is done it all comes back to me, 
The fault that leaves six thousand ton a log upon the sea. 
We'll tak' one stretch---three weeks an odd by ony road ye steer--- 
Fra' Cape Town east to Wellington---ye need an engineer. 
Fail there---ye've time to weld your shaft---ay, eat it, ere ye're spoke; 
Or make Kergueen under sail---three jiggers burned wi' smoke! 
An' home again---the Rio run: it's no child's play to go 
Steamin' to bell for fourteen days o' snow an' floe an' blow. 
The beergs like kelpies oversde that girn an' turn an' shift 
Whaur, grindin' like the Mills o' God, goes by the big South drift. 
(Hail, Snow and Ice that praise the Lord. I've met them at their work, 
An wished we had anither route or they another kirk.) 
Yon's strain, hard strain, o' head an' hand, for though Thy Power brings 
All skill to naught, Ye'll underatand a man must think o' things. 
Then, at the last, we'll get to port an' hoist their baggage clear--- 
The passengers, wi' gloves an' canes---an' this is what I'll hear: 
"Well, thank ye for a pleasant voyage. The tender's comin' now." 
While I go testin' follower-bolts an' watch the skipper bow. 
They've words for every one but me---shake hands wi' half the crew, 
Except the dour Scots engineer, the man they never knew. 
An' yet I like the wark for all we've dam' few pickin's here--- 
No pension, an' the most we'll earn's four hunder pound a year. 
Better myself abroad? Maybe. I'd sooner starve than sail 
Wi' such as call a snifter-rod ross.... French for nightingale. 
Commeesion on my stores? Some do; but I cannot afford 
To lie like stewards wi' patty-pans. I'm older than the Board. 
A bonus on the coal I save? Ou ay, the Scots are close, 
But when I grudge the strength Ye gave I'll grudge their food to those. 
(There's bricks that I might recommend---an' clink the firebars cruel. 
No! Welsh---Wangarti at the worst---an' damn all patent fuel!) 
Inventions? Ye must stay in port to mak' a patent pay. 
My Deeferential Valve-Gear taught me how that business lay. 
I blame no chaps wi' clearer heads for aught they make or sell. 
I found that I could not invent an' look to these as well. 
So, wrestled wi' Apollyon---Nah!---fretted like a bairn--- 
But burned the workin'-plans last run, wi' all I hoped to earn. 
Ye know how hard an Idol dies, an' what that meant to me--- 
E'en tak' it for a sacrifice acceptable to Thee.... 
Below there! Oiler! What's your wark? Ye find it runnin' hard? 
Ye needn't swill the cup wi' oil---this isn't the Cunard! 
Ye thought? Ye are not paid to think. Go, sweat that off again! 
Tck! Tck! It's deeficult to sweer nor tak' The Name in vain! 
Men, ay an' women, call me stern. Wi' these to oversee, 
Ye'll note I've little time to burn on social repartee. 
The bairns see what their elders miss; they'll hunt me to an' fro, 
Till for the sake of---well, a kiss---I tak' 'em down below. 
That minds me of our Viscount loon---Sir Kenneth's kin---the chap 
Wi' Russia leather tennis-shoon an' spar-decked yachtin'-cap. 
I showed him round last week, o'er all---an' at the last says he: 
"Mister McAndrew, Don't you think steam spoils romance at sea?" 
Damned ijjit! I'd been doon that morn to see what ailed the throws, 
Manholin', on my back---the cranks three inches off my nose. 
Romance! Those first-class passengers they like it very well, 
Printed an' bound in little books; but why don't poets tell? 
I'm sick of all their quirks an' turns---the loves an' doves they dream--- 
Lord, send a man like Robbie Burns to sing the Song o' Steam! 
To match wi' Scotia's noblest speech yon orchestra sublime 
Whaurto---uplifted like the Just---the tail-rods mark the time. 
The crank-throws give the double-bass, the feed-pump sobs an' heaves, 
An' now the main eccentrics start their quarrel on the sheaves: 
Her time, her own appointed time, the rocking link-head bides, 
Till---hear that note?---the rod's return whings glimmerin' through the guides. 
They're all awa'! True beat, full power, the clangin' chorus goes 
Clear to the tunnel where they sit, my purrin' dynamos. 
Interdependence absolute, forseen, ordained, decreed, 
To work, Ye'll note, at ony tilt an' every rate o' speed. 
Fra' Skylight-lift to furnace-bars, backed, bolted, braced an' stayed. 
An' singin' like the Mornin' Stars for joy that they are made; 
While, out o' touch o' vanity, the sweatin' thrust-block says: 
"Not unto us the praise, or man---not unto us the praise!" 
Now, a' together, hear them lift their lesson---theirs an' mine: 
"Law, Orrder, Duty an' Restraint, Obedience, Discipline!" 
Mill, forge an' try-pit taught them that when roarin' they arose, 
An' whiles I wonder if a soul was gied them wi' the blows. 
Oh for a man to weld it then, in one trip-hammer strain, 
Till even first-class passengers could tell the meanin' plain! 
But no one cares except mysel' that serve an' understand 
My seven thousand horse-power here. Eh Lord! They're grand---they're grand! 
Uplift am I? When first in store the new-made beasties stood, 
Were Ye cast down that breathed the Word declarin' all things good? 
Not so! O' that warld-liftin' joy no after-fall could vex, 
Ye've left a glimmer still to cheer the Man---the Arrtifex! 
That holds, in spite o' knock and scale, o' friction, waste an' slip, 
An' by that light---now, mark my word---we'll build the Perfect Ship. 
I'll never last to judge her lines, or take her curve---not I. 
But I ha' lived an' I ha' worked. Be thanks to Thee, Most High! 
An' I ha' done what I ha' done---judge Thou if ill or well--- 
Always Thy grace preventin' me.... 
Losh! Yon's the "Stand-by" bell. 
Pilot so soon? His flare it is. The mornin'-watch is set. 
Well, God be thanked, as I was sayin', I'm no Pelagian yet. 
Now, I'll tak' on.... 
'Morrn, Ferguson. Man, have ye ever thought 
What your good leddy costs in coal?... I'll burn 'em down to port.

Distant Shores

It’s a strange sight, to sit off the coast of a country you’ve never been to and probably won’t ever visit. At night you can distinctly make out the dark mass of land as it breaks up the almost endless sky. And the lights sit ashore, twinkling, waiting for the sun to rise. And there I sat, perched atop the rails on the port bridge wing, leaning against the life boat canister, surveying the coastline for movement of any kind. The only sounds are whine of the gas turbine engines and the whoosh of the ventilation fans. The air is static and the South American humidity so thick it feels as if I’m breathing a glass of water. And the watch drags on.

Conversation has gone stale and the drug runners don’t seem to be interested in coming out to play to tonight. No doubt they could see our ship from shore and thought better of it. Whoever thought standing a five hour midwatch, after standing the reveille watch the morning before and then working through the day, was a special kind of cruel.

But it’s in these moments, out here, all alone on the bridge wing that I can finally afford the time to be introspective. I have the freedom and the privacy to be alone (Yes, alone, finally!) with just my thoughts. Here, watching the coast roll lazily along, I can ponder life’s mysteries and breath a little easier.

But the humidity doesn’t get any easier to take. I soon retreat back to the pilothouse which is cooled by an asthmatic air conditioner. I walk through the door just in time to meet my relief. We do a quick turnover and then I lurch down the ladder and back aft to the wardroom.

I raid the gedunk drawer and pull out a couple whole grain poptarts (These are just like regular poptarts, but with a better marketing team). It’s been a long day and I just want to decompress. As I munch and munch and think over how uneventful the watch is, I feel the ship come alive beneath me. Both gas turbine engines are now online and are screaming at full grunt. I know that the bridge team have spotted a drug runner and are now giving chase.

And such is the life of a warship at sea: Long periods of boredom unexpectedly punctuated by moments of sheer terror and excitement. As for me, I cleaned up my garbage and went to bed.

Kipling Friday

The Looking-Glass

A Country Dance
“Gloriana” – Rewards and Fairies

Queen Bess was Harry’s daughter. Stand forward partners all!
In ruff and stomacher and gown
She danced King Philip down-a-down,
And left her shoe to show ‘twas true –
(The very tune I’m playing you)
In Norgem at Brickwall!

The Queen was in her chamber, and she was middling old.
Her petticoat was satin, and her stomacher was gold.
Backwards and forwards and sideways did she pass,
Making up her mind to face the cruel looking-glass.
The cruel looking-glass that will never show a lass
As comely or as kindly or as young as what she was!

Queen Bess was Harry’s daughter. Now hand your partners all!

The Queen was in her chamber, a-combing of her hair.
There came Queen Mary’s spirit and It stood behind her char,
Singing “Backwards and forwards and sideways may you pass, 
But I will stand behind you till you face the looking-glass.
The cruel looking-glass that will never show a lass
As lovely or unlucky or as lonely as I was!”

Queen Bess was Harry’s daughter. Now turn your partners all!

The Queen was in her chamber, a-weeping very sore.
There came Lord Leicester’s spirit and It scratched upon the door,
Singing “Backwards and forwards and sideways may you pass, 
But I will walk beside you till you face the looking-glass.
The cruel looking-glass that will never show a lass,
As hard and unforgiving or as wicked as you was!”

Queen Bess was Harry’s daughter. Now kiss your partners all!

The Queen was in her chamber, her sins were on her head.
She looked the spirits up and down and statelily she said: -
“Backwards and forwards and sideways though I’ve been,
Yet I am Harry’s daughter and I am England’s Queen!”
And she saw her day was over and she saw her beauty pass
In the cruel looking-glass, that can always hurt a lass
More hard than any ghost there is or any man there was!