Changes

So, you may have noticed some changes, chief amongst them being my new domain. Well, that’s because I’m repurposing this website to better suit my hobbies and interests as well as my professional development as an engineer. So, I will be focusing more on my personal projects as well as my more technically-minded hobbies. This means that I will comment less on politics and share fewer personal stories but I will be posting more regularly. I’m excited about the future and I hope you are, too.

Mama Told Johnny Not To Go Downtown

NOTE: I wrote the following a few years ago, shortly before shipping off to OCS. While a bit dated, it’s still good advice for any prospective Officer Candidates.

There’s an old running cadence (See: Jodie) in which a concerned mother warns her son not to venture into the urban population center of some unnamed city because the big, bad recruiter was hanging around. The song is reminiscent of the days of Vietnam, when you could walk down to ye olde local recruiter’s station and be on a bus headed for one of the happiest places on earth the next day (See: Parris Island, Fort Benning, Great Lakes, etcetera). Unfortunately for those still gung-ho about a military career these days, it’s no longer that easy.

With all of the talk of budget cuts and drawdowns, the military is starting to lower the amount of accessions they take on. What this means is, that yours truly has had to fight an uphill battle of sorts to get in. At present count, it’s taken three applications to Annapolis, three for a contract with Naval ROTC, and two tries with applying for direct accession (See: O C S). Luckily, I managed to snag a spot on my second try with the selection board. What has followed my selection (Called “Professional Recommendation”) has been a mountain of paperwork, a thorough investigation into my lengthy medical history, and a security clearance background check. Much to my chagrin, the Navy Medical Community has proved to be rather ornery and sticklers for tidy paperwork. I can’t say I blame them, seeing as how their approval could mean that I will be lent the keys to a pointy-nosed, fire-breathing, fighter/attack aircraft. It is not a decision to be made lightly.

I must say though, that the experience has been very much like that of wooing a woman. Just like courting a fine lass, the military has multiple hoops that a man must jump through in order to prove himself worthy. There are reams of forms and boiler plate that cover all kinds of topics ranging from your birthplace and citizenship to your education background and religious preference. All of this paperwork is then submitted to the selection board which is composed of men and women who hail from the warfare community that you are applying to join (I selected Student Naval Aviator, naturally). You see, when dealing with direct accessions in the Navy, you must apply to a specific warfare community (Surface Warfare, Submarine Service, Civil Engineering Corps, Special Operations, etcetera) and if they have an opening for you and you are qualified, they will accept you in. It’s not dissimilar from applying for a job working for General Electric or Ford.

Once you have secured a professional recommendation from the board, the real fun begins. The two major hurdles standing between the selectee and his final orders to Naval Station Newport are an extensive security background check and a visit to the wonderful world of MEPS (See: Military Entrance Processing Station). The background check is to ensure that you are a trustworthy enough individual to be allowed the supreme privilege of handling the country’s secrets. Naturally, it covers employment history, places of residence, citizenship information, and whether or not you’ve ever been a member of an organization dedicated to the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Ironically, there is a section asking about any contact you may have had with anyone of foreign disposition. The questions are run of the mill: Do you have any foreign contacts? Have you advised or supported foreign businesses? Have you ever had contact with officials of a foreign government? The answers available gave me a chuckle, though, as the respondent has the ability to answer “Yes,” “No,” or “Official Govt. Business.” Your humble author was mightily tempted to check the latter option, seeing as how he is a fan of literature of the cloak and dagger variety.

If the applicant is not yet exhausted from amount of paperwork required to apply for a security clearance, then he will undoubtedly be fatigued by the ordeal that is a standard MEPS visit. MEPS pairs the joys of paperwork with the excitement of a thorough medical examination. Contrary to popular belief, the rumors of the dreaded “oil check” are greatly exaggerated. Anyway, MEPS takes an exceedingly long time, and even more so if you have a lengthy medical history.

Once you have been blessed by Navy Medicine and whatever shadowy organization performs security background checks, you receive your Final Select letter which is the document where one signs their life away on the dotted line. And as soon as you place your John Hancock on that piece of paper, you’re property of the U.S. Navy.

So what advice do I have for those trying to make it as a Naval Officer? One, don’t ever give up hope. Two, document everything, because you never know when you might need a piece of documentation to prove something.

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.