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.

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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.

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.

Call The Shots

My day job involves hunting submarines. It’s a highly scientific process that, like most Naval Warfare requires a healthy amount of wild ass guesses and improvisation because the real world rarely conforms to the neat formulas of the classroom and laboratory. The actual tracking and prosecution of a submarine by surface and air assets requires an entire team of watchstanders to operate the SONARs and interpret the data that they provide. My job is to form all of that information into single picture of the battlespace and then determine how to maneuver the ship in order to sink the submarine or at least defend other ships in the area.

As in most leadership positions, mine is largely an exercise in communication and decision-making.  The decision-making portion can be the most aggravating at times. Communication usually takes care of itself, but the processing of the vast amounts of data coming from all of the different pieces of the puzzle can be aggravating. Often times the data is contradictory or doesn’t fit the projected models neatly. And sometimes, my adversary does something completely unpredictable that doesn’t jive tactically. This causes frustration, just as all decision-making can.

But sometimes you have to stand back, look at everything in front of you, and then trust your gut because it’s your job to make decisions. In the Anti-Submarine Warfare world that requires focusing on the information you know, trying to make logical inferences based upon your understanding of your enemy’s tactics, and then doign something; anything. Theodore Roosevelt was famous for saying: “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

This holds true in all avenues of leadership. Your people look up to you for a decision. That’s the reason you were put on this earth, to provide them direction in moments of crisis, when their ability to chart a course of action fails them. It can maddeningly difficult at times, but you have to do it, and no amount of hand-wringing or garment-wrenching will save you from it. So simply put, make the decision, break that institutional inertia, and then make course corrections as necessary afterwards in order to achieve your end goals.

Why Is STEM Education So Boring?

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve received the response of  “That’s cool; I’d be an engineer too if it weren’t for all of the science[math/drudgery/chemistry/fill in the blank],” I’d probably be driving a brand, spankin’ new Lamborghini Aventador with all of the trimmings. But usually all I get are excuses about why somebody would rather cover up the harsh truth than just admit that they weren’t passionate about science in order to pursue an education or career in it. But I do agree on one point and one point only: Unless you’re a huge nerd (I’m only a moderately-sized one), science can be a bit boring and dry. This is why I’ve always been a fan of people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, and Richard Feynman. These men had the ability (Dr. Tyson still does) to encapsulate the wonderment and awe that accompanies the pursuit of scientific discovery. Professor Tyson does an exceptional job in this video:

It’s that sense of grandeur that propels those of us who consider ourselves scientists and engineers and mathematicians to continue to explore the world and universe around us. It’s the same feeling that I get when I take things apart just to see how they work. The same feeling that I feel when I look up at the night sky, while far out to sea, and gaze upon the might Milky Way.

If we could but impart this same feeling to each and every one of our children, we’d create so much more interest in STEM education.

The Fire of a Thousand Suns

A sailor is sprayed in the face with liquid fire.

This is how it begins.

Back in April, I had to undergo an armed sentry course in order to be qualified to carry a weapon while on duty. I was also taught how to properly use the collapsible baton and OC spray. In order to be certified on the use of each, I needed to pass through the trial by fire that is being sprayed in the face with OC spray.

Now, in order to understand just how bad this is you must first understand what exactly OC spray is. “OC” stands for “Oleoresin Capsicum,” which is an oily resin derived from the fruit of hot peppers and chilis. In other words, this is what is commonly referred to as pepper spray, the same stuff that the police use in order to quell riots, brawls, lawlessness, and general ruckuses. This spray contains a high concentration of capsaicin, the chemical that makes spicy foods muy caliente. Because of that, it makes an excellent less-than-lethal weapon to be used in crowd control, subduing a violently resistant bad guy, and generally getting people to do what you want them to do. And now dear reader, you may ask “Well, just how does it do that?”

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