Saturday, November 29, 2008

Call from the Big House


"USS Nimitz, CVIC, how may I direct your call?"

Since entering the Gulf, I had been assigned to the night crew. We worked the 12-hour shift from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Our primary mission: waxing and buffing the tile covered decks in and around the carrier intelligence center or "CVIC."

Our newest responsibility, however, was answering the secure "hotline" to the ship. That should have been the responsibility of the Radiomen in the Communications Department, but they had fucked it up. Apparently, they had shown some disrespect to a big wig who had called the ship. So, now I had to answer it.

"This is White House operator number nineteen," the female voice on the other end of the secure line said. "I'm calling for the Commander of Carrier Group Seven." It must have been one or two in the morning.

"Okay," I said. "Just a moment and I'll transfer you."

According to procedure, I wrote the details of the call -- the time, the name of the caller, et cetera -- down in a log book that our officers had made for that purpose. They loved the idea that our division would control the hotline and they were equally paranoid that one of us ignorant enlisted guys would screw it up like the Radiomen had. Before that call from the White House, though, we hadn't actually received any real calls.

Nevertheless, each morning as the officers rolled into the office, the first thing each of them did was to check the log book. So, I knew my entry of "White House" in the book would cause a stir at the end of my shift.

At first, the officers thought it was a joke, then they wanted every little detail. What else could I say? The operator called, I hit "transfer," and hung up. With two exceptions, I didn't think very highly of the officers in the intelligence division.

The first -- and best -- was then-LCDR. John Segura. Among his many fine qualities, two that stood out were his treatment of enlisted men like me (e.g., he spoke to us as equals) and his willingness to teach, not just order. I always attributed his natural ability to lead from his having been assigned to a special operations unit just before his tour on the Nimitz. Whatever the reason, John Segura stood out and I'm glad to have served under him.

The other officer I remember with some fondness was then-LT. Ross Holcomb. Mr. Holcomb's dad had himself been a four-star admiral. It seemed certain that is son was destined for flag rank too, until a fateful day in July 1988. On July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes, on station in the Persian Gulf, shot down an Iranian civilian airliner killing all 290 people aboard. Mr. Holcomb was the Vincennes' Officer of the Deck. His future as a ship driver was over.

Mr. Holcomb re-trained as an intelligence officer and was eventually assigned to the Nimitz. On some nights -- after midrats -- Mr. Holcomb would take me and another guy up to the signal bridge to look at the stars. He knew a lot about the heavens and pointed out the many constellations visible to us over the Gulf. I actually found it pretty interesting, much to my own surprise.

The Nimitz remained on station in the Gulf for about three months, during which time our jets patrolled the Southern No-Fly Zone in Iraq (this was back in the days before we occupied the country in toto). During that time, the ship made three or four short port visits to Jebel Ali, United Arab Emirates. It was as hot as could possibly be. On one of these port visits, Mr. Holcomb asked me a question.

"I need someone to get in their whites and give a tour of the ship." Mr. Holcomb had just walked into CVIC, where me and the other guys on duty were sitting around watching a video. I had lucked out and didn't have to stand watch that duty day, but Mr. Holcomb sweetened the deal.

"I'll give whoever can do it some near beers," he said. I didn't know if officers generally had access to near beer or if it was just Mr. Holcomb's private reserve, but it sounded good to me. So, I went down to the berthing, put my dress uniform on, and gave Mr. Holcomb's friends an impromptu tour of the ship.

That night, Mr. Holcomb came into the office. (Though I had no official watch standing duties, I still had to sleep in the intelligence office.) He gave me three cans of the low-alcohol beer. I decided then and there that I would try to save them until the birth of my child. I wrapped them up in a paper bag -- on which I had drawn a skull and cross-bones to warn others to stay away -- and with the permission of our Chief, I stored the beers in the office refrigerator.

That was a long summer, but as June 1993 rolled around the Nimitz turned south and began its transit out of the Gulf and started our slow trip back home.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Alone at Sea

In hindsight, thinking about these old sea stories makes me laugh -- the utter absurdity of it all. At the time, however, I was very depressed.

In the wake of my failure at BUD/S, separation from my pregnant wife, being thrust into the oppressive conditions of life at sea aboard an aircraft carrier, my constant sadness was crushing.

I didn't let it show though. I shined my shoes and ironed my shirts and did what I was told to do. But like its psychic opposite, my depression permeated my consciousness, unseen by others. It left me with nothing but a desire to be alone.

On our first night of liberty in Hong Kong (after a month at sea), I followed a group of guys to an Australian bar, which was rumored to be the hot spot in town. When we got there, it was packed with squids. I took one look at all the drunken sailors already there and walked out.

After walking alone for about a mile, I found a secluded British-style pub nearly empty, where I had dinner and the best tasting draft Guinness I've ever had. Nearby, I found a high rise hotel and paid a ransom for a last minute room overlooking much of the city. The thing that caught my eye, though, was an athletic facility just across the street, with an all-weather running track and an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

I spent so much time just staring at it from my window -- how much I longed for simpler times, when my only worry each day was whether I should go running, go swimming, or do both.

From Hong Kong, we steamed south and further west to Singapore. During my time in the Center, Guru had made at least two trips to Singapore and I'd always wanted to visit. I knew that it had a large Indian population, including a "little India" section of town, replete with shops and temples. Once there, I spent most of my time in Singapore alone -- eating well, going to the movies, and doing some shopping.

One of the books I bought in Singapore was Rudyard Kipling's Kim, which I read back on the ship as we continued our journey through the Strait of Malacca, around the Indian sub-continent, and towards the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf. During that time, I day dreamed of jumping overboard and being picked up by an Indian fisherman who would bring me back to the land of my spirit.

In my loneliness, I wrote Shambhu and asked him to send me a photo of Guru. I'd wanted to meditate, but didn't have a picture of Guru to meditate on. At best, the letter would take two weeks to reach Shambhu in New York, and then another two-to-three weeks to make it back to me on the ship. In the meantime, all I could do was wait.

About six weeks into our journey (perhaps mid-March 1993), we began our transit through the Strait of Hormuz and into the Persian Gulf. Our proximity to the Iranian coast -- and that country's possession of Chinese-derived anti-ship cruise missiles -- drove the officers in the intelligence office near bat shit insane with worry.

The transit itself was beautiful though. We started our run in the pre-dawn hours and after breakfast I went up to the crow's nest to have a look-see. Partially obscured by fog, the Iranian coast floated by just four or five miles away, looking ancient, mysterious, and -- to me -- inviting. All was quiet as we slipped into the Gulf unmolested for three months of operations.

On board a modern war vessel, along with almost 6,000 other men, I felt all alone and completely powerless.

Here's a great set of photos by Hanneorla on Flickr taken in the Indian District of Singapore (from which the photo of Durga, above, was taken).

Monday, November 24, 2008

Mail Call

Mail call was infrequent that first month as we headed to Hong Kong.

We picked up a load in Hawaii, but after that it was infrequent as we headed further west over the Pacific. But when it came, people were excited. It arrived on a particular plane -- called the "COD" for carrier onboard delivery -- and many of the veteran sailors could recognize the sound and vibration of the COD's twin propellers when it landed.

Once the postal clerks sorted it all by department and division, the call would go out over the 1MC: "mail call, mail call." Those were happy words to hear.

Me and a couple of the other guys were usually sent to pick it up. The Nimitz itself was an industrial labyrinth. It took me a week or two just to feel confidant that I could make my way between our birthing, the office, and the mess decks without getting lost. So, on that first mail run, I just followed the other guys.

The mail itself was given to us in huge, unwieldy nylon bags, which made navigating the narrow passageways or "p-ways" back to the intelligence office more challenging. That's when I hit something. With the mail bag slung over my right shoulder and the bill of my Nimitz ball cap pulled down, I never saw the large metal bar protruding into the p-way. It didn't hurt too bad, but when I dropped the mail bag and put my hand under my hat, it came back covered in blood.

The ship's medical department was staffed by hospital corpsmen. There was one, maybe two, medical doctors on board, but the bulk of the work was done by the enlisted corpsmen. And when I got to medical, I was attended to by two of them: one, a more experienced petty officer, the other, a newbie -- a seaman, like me. It was clear that I needed three or four stitches just above my hairline.

"Hey, would you mind if I let him do the stitching?" The petty officer was referring to his young charge. "He needs to get qualed and I'll be here the whole time supervising."

Just like all the other enlisted rates, hospital corpsmen had to get certain qualifications before being permitted to take an advancement exam for promotion. New intelligence specialists like me, for example, might have to make a photo mosaic, among other things, before sitting for the exam. So, it made sense to me that the new corpsman would have to learn how to do stitches for real. Someone had to be his first patient.

"Sure," I said, "go ahead."

After about a half dozen shots of Novocaine in and around the wound, the young corpsman tentatively applied his first stitch, which made us both flinch -- first me, then him.

"Could you feel that?" he asked. He looked startled.

"Yeah, but just keep going."

"No, I better give you a couple more shots of Novocaine," he said.

"No, just finish the stitches." I was getting agitated. "It feels the same as the shots, so what's the difference." After he was finished, the petty officer told me to come back in three weeks or so to have the stitches removed.

Yeah, right.

Two and a half weeks later, I plucked one stitch out myself and had one of the other guys in my division remove the other three with his Leatherman. I taped them to a letter and sent them to Elaine.

The photo above is my official Nimitz photo, taken shortly before my trip to medical. The three slashes designated my rank (E-3 or Seaman, akin to a private in the Army). The crossed quill and magnifying glass designated my rate as an IS or Intelligence Specialist. I was already starting to look pretty pasty compared to my boot camp photo.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Navy Chow


It's not easy to be a vegetarian in the Navy.

I became a vegetarian in 1980, when I was 15 years old. Though it seemed to be the thing to do for those like me who were intending to tread the path of Hindu mysticism, there weren't that many of us.

In the early '80s, you couldn't get a salad at McDonald's and there was no such thing as the Souplantation. If you weren't shopping for and cooking your own food, then your vegetarian choices were few. At that time, the best option for eating out was usually the all-you-can-eat salad bar option at the Sizzler steak house.

I found the food aboard the Nimitz (in the mid-'90s) to be a throw back to those earlier times. Breakfast was fine -- always plenty of "scrambled egg product" available. Getting a good lunch or dinner, however, proved to be more challenging.

The Nimitz did have a dedicated salad bar, which was pretty well stocked for our first few weeks at sea. Once the iceberg lettuce ran out, though, a curious thing happened. The mess specialists -- the cooks -- decided to replace the lettuce with raw, white cabbage.

Admittedly, from afar, if you squint your eyes just so, a head of white cabbage looks like a head of iceberg lettuce. The similarity, however, stops there. I don't care how much industrial strength ranch dressing you pour over it, raw, white cabbage isn't a substitute for lettuce in a salad bar.

On the plus side, there was always plenty of rice. Through the 1970s and '80s, the Navy allowed Filipino nationals to enlist, but restricted their service to just a few undermanned career paths, one of which was being a cook. By the time of my deployment, the guys running the Nimitz mess decks were predominantly Filipinos who had risen through the ranks. Thus, happily, there was rice with just about every meal served. Along with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, rice was a staple for me.

One thing the Filipino supervisors could not always control was the quality of the junior enlisted personnel temporarily assigned to the mess decks to help cook the tens of thousands of meals served each and every day aboard ship. Each department was given a quota of junior enlisted men to send to the mess decks for up to three months, and very few of those sent went happily. Nobody I knew wanted to be sent to work there. Predictably, the results were sometimes horrifying.

One day I was enjoying supper with a couple of my buddies, one of whom was my immediate supervisor Greg. While I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich -- on fresh baked white bread, which was actually very good -- Greg worked on a bowl of beef stew.

"What the fuck?" Greg's face was ashen as he pulled something out of his mouth. It was a finely trimmed toe nail (from somebody's big toe, by the look of it). The rest of us laughed as Greg stormed off to raise hell with the cooks. I silently thanked my lucky stars that I was a vegetarian.

Officers had other problems to worry about. They ate better food in their private ward room, where the only enlisted men permitted were those that were there to serve and clean up after the officers. The negative effect that this class system has on the morale of the enlisted crew can't be overestimated.

BUD/S did it right. When a BUD/S class marches to the chow hall, the class members form up according to rank before going in to eat. The lowest ranking guy is at the front of the line and is the first to eat; the senior class officer is at the back of the line and is the last to eat. That way, if the class runs short of time, it's the more senior class members that will go hungry. That's "rank has its privileges" done right! (It should go without saying that officers and enlisted men at BUD/S eat the same food, under the same conditions.) The fleet Navy should follow suit.

While Greg was still having it out with the cooks over the toe nail he'd just pulled out of his mouth, I made my way back to CVIC. As I stepped through the cipher-locked front door leading into the office, I found our division officer standing there with a dark wet spot running down the front of his khaki uniform.

Pointing it out, I asked: "What happened, sir?"

"Lobster juice," he replied matter of factly. "I was cracking open a claw when the damn thing squirted all over me."

Officers lived in a different world.

Photo of ordnance men wheeling bombs through the mess deck of the Nimitz-class carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. Credit to John K. Hamilton (and hat tip to The Tension blog).

Friday, November 14, 2008

My New Home


The tide had changed.

About a week after arriving in Bremerton, Washington (in January 1993), my ship -- the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz -- got underway. It would be a six-month voyage to the Persian Gulf. (By the way, the Navy refers to the Gulf as the "Arabian Gulf," not wanting to cede anything, even nominally, to the Iranians.)

It would mean I'd miss the birth of my son.

Absent prison, it's difficult to conceive of a more oppressive occupation than serving as a junior enlisted man aboard an aircraft carrier. Here's a short list of what I -- and literally thousands of others lowly swabbies -- faced aboard the Nimitz:

● we were at the bottom of a crowded, status-conscious pecking order;

● we worked, at minimum, 12 hours on, 12 hours off, seven days a week;

● with few exceptions, the food was horrible even for carnivores (and I was a vegetarian);

● we had zero privacy;

● noise pollution -- we slept beneath the flight deck, planes launching and landing day and night;

● we had irregular hot water in the showers and stainless steel commodes;

● the fumes of jet fuel and industrial steam were ubiquitous;

● bombs were regularly wheeled through the mess deck while we ate;

● in the naval tradition, officers not only acted -- but apparently believed -- they descended from a superior race; and

● this was still largely the pre-cell phone, pre-email era and snail mail was irregular and, well, slow.

The list could go on. The bottom line, however, was that it was a stressful place to work and I couldn’t quit. It might not have been so bad had I been doing something important, but I wasn’t. Like almost all junior enlisted sailors aboard the ship, my job -- despite my fancy training as an "intelligence specialist" -- could only fairly be described as a janitor. Would anybody willingly choose to be a janitor under the conditions outlined above?

Some complicating factors were my age and the fact that my previous command had been BUD/S. At 27, I was older than most of the mid-level enlisted guys who were telling me what to do every day. And, coming from BUD/S -- where even as a student I had pride in what I was doing and was treated with a measure of respect -- it was especially hard to be thrown into the fleet Navy, where respect was to flow up the chain of command, but never down.

This turn of events would bring on a lasting sense of depression, which resulted in, among other things, the seeds of future ambition and achievement being sown within me. Germination, however, would take a while. I had three years left of active duty, and first I had to survive our six-month deployment.

The plan for the deployment was for the Nimitz to leave Bremerton, Washington and steam to San Diego to take on supplies and upload the air wing. From there, we'd head west to Hawaii for additional supplies and personnel. From Hawaii, we'd spend four weeks heading to Hong Kong, then Singapore, and on into the Gulf. Once in the Gulf, we'd spend three months supporting operations in Southern Iraq.

During our stay in the Gulf, we'd make three port visits to the United Arab Emirates for liberty. Then, on our way home, we'd visit Thailand before heading back to Hawaii, San Diego, and finally Bremerton, arriving some six months after having left.

After the deployment, Elaine and our new baby would move up to Bremerton. The ship would undergo extensive renovations in the shipyard and wouldn't put to sea again until my last year in the Navy. In all, it would be a long, painful, humiliating, but ultimately fruitful three years of service. But I'm only going to cover a few of the "highlights," or low lights as it were, over the course of the next few posts.

As you'll find -- as down as I was emotionally during the remaining three years I spent in the Navy -- in retrospect that period served an important purpose in grounding my personality somewhere between that of my old disciple life, on the one hand, and the energetic, dynamic persona which led me to pursue (unsuccessfully) life as a Navy SEAL, on the other hand.

I would later learn that Sri Aurobindo used the apparent friction between these two forces to set up his magnum opus, The Life Divine, referring to them as the "Materialist Denial" and the "Refusal of the Ascetic," respectively.

That understanding on my part, however, was still a few years off and would only come with a later spiritual reawakening.

Until then, I was "haze gray and underway."

(For only the second time in my life, I did keep a journal of sorts for the six-month duration of my deployment to the Persian Gulf. I made almost daily journal entries addressed to my then-unborn son. Those entries will make up the substance of another blog which I hope will go live in the next few weeks called: Letters from the Blue and can be found at http://www.lettersfromtheblue.blogspot.com/.)

The photo, above, shows the USS Nimitz in port Hong Kong. Photo credit here.

Looking Back

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Life Begins Anew


"I'm pregnant."

It was Elaine on the phone from San Jose. Though Hell Week was over for me, I was still in San Diego awaiting orders to a new duty station. I had another three years of active duty to serve in the Navy. Without a doubt, I would be sent out to the fleet.

In the meantime, I would get some time off for Thanksgiving (1992). I planned to meet Elaine in Santa Monica for the holiday and told her not to worry. We'd talk again then and figure out what to do. After I hung up the phone, though, I felt sure there was only one option.

Elaine and I had been together about two-and-a-half years to that point. I had originally planned on proposing to her in April 1993 -- when Class 187 was due to graduate from BUD/S. That dream -- becoming a SEAL -- was dead now, however, with my inability to withstand the cold of Hell Week.

While I was still at the BUD/S compound in Coronado, I was no longer in SEAL training. Instead, I was assigned to X-Division with all the other quitters. Unfortunately, Bob didn't make it through Hell Week either. Unlike me, Bob wasn't blessed with good running mechanics and was prone to knee problems. When he blew his knee out some time on day two of Hell Week and began to fall behind, the instructors showed no mercy. He could either keep up with the class or drop, they told him. (Mars, my first friend in the Navy from boot camp, classed-up with Class 188. As I recall, they had a brutal winter Hell Week held on San Clemente island. I don't remember the details of his experience, but Mars, too, failed to make it through.)

Being in X-Division was like being an ex-disciple around a bunch of disciples in the Center. Most of guys still in SEAL training -- but not all -- simply would not talk to you. In X-Division, you were damaged goods, pariahs from the elite SEAL community that just a few short weeks ago you were a part of. It was a shocking experience, and for some the shock was worse than it was for others. Having gone through it with the Center, though, made the experience for me a little easier -- though no more pleasant -- to deal with.

After spending Thanksgiving with Elaine, I returned to San Diego and bought an engagement ring. Shortly thereafter, Bob received his new orders to report for shore duty in Rota, Spain. As I recall, "Don" and his wife had pulled some strings for him, which no doubt benefited both the Navy and Bob. Bob's first language was Spanish and his mother owned a home in Rota. He was elated. Things would be different for me.

I was headed for the fleet. "They're going to send you to the biggest, baddest aircraft carrier in the fleet," Bob would rib me every day. And sure enough, that's exactly what "they" did. About a week after Bob received his orders to Spain, I received mine to Bremerton, Washington: then-home port for the USS Nimitz. I was going to spend my remaining three years aboard a seagoing warship. "Haze gray and underway," Bob laughed.

Thankfully, with my new orders also came another 30 days of leave. In December 1992, I flew to San Jose to stay with Elaine. As soon as we stepped into the door of her apartment, I proposed (pulling the ring box out of one of my rolled-up socks, she likes to remind me now). The plan was to get married right away, before I flew up to Washington to report to my ship. At my dad's request, Judge Robert Ahern -- a Navy vet himself -- agreed to officiate the ceremony in his chambers just before New Years.

With that, our immediate families -- including Jeevan and Nirbachita, who were both still in the Center -- gathered in San Jose on short notice. After a short, sweet, and dignified ceremony, Elaine and I were married.

Just a few nights later, I was walking alone down the cold and wet waterfront of Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in my blues toward the hulking ship that was to be my home for the next three years.