Saturday, December 6, 2008

The End in Sight



With one year left in the service, I had some thinking to do.

My original plan had been to become a Navy SEAL and complete my undergraduate degree all in one four-year enlistment period and then get out of the Navy.

As the Nimitz left dry dock and prepared for sea trials, however, not only had I not become a SEAL but neither had I completed my college degree -- I was still a few credits short. These twin failures had a devastating impact on my mood until I read a brochure from the Monterey Institute of International Studies or "MIIS."

I had known about MIIS for years. It was a small graduate school devoted to international affairs with a particularly strong emphasis on foreign language acquisition. It was founded in 1955 by former instructors of the Defense Language Institute or "DLI."

Outside foreign policy circles, MIIS was little known. Inside -- particularly inside intelligence circles -- graduates of MIIS were sometimes referred to as the "Monterey Mafia." Anecdotally, it was said that the CIA recruited more employees from MIIS each year than any other single institution of higher learning.

Whether that was true or not, my dream of becoming a spy was still alive. I wanted to go to MIIS and study Arabic. The problem, I'd thought, was that MIIS was only a graduate school and I still had not completed my bachelor's degree. As it turned out, however, MIIS had a little known "Honors" undergraduate program. Each year, a select number of students were permitted to enter the school as juniors and complete both degrees -- BA and MA -- in three years.

That became my next goal.

Among other things, I needed two letters of recommendation to support my application. For the first one, I asked the head of the Nimitz' Operations Department. To enter school the following January (1996), I'd need to have the support and permission of my chain-of-command to leave the Navy one month early. I thought getting a little "buy in" from the Operations Officer (who would be the one to sign any early out order for me) was crucial.

For the second letter, I asked my old Center roommate Trishatur. Trishatur had worked at the United Nations since graduating high school. He kindly wrote a glowing recommendation for me on U.N. letterhead, which I thought added some international flavor to my application. With that, I had to hope that I'd be accepted at MIIS and that I'd survive another year aboard the 'Shank (our not so affectionate nickname for the Nimitz, after the prison in the great movie The Shawshank Redemption).

At about that time -- January 1995 -- I was sent to FITCPAC in San Diego, California for four weeks to learn a new computer system being adopted by the ship. Among other things, it meant my first time away from my wife and son since returning from sea about a year and a half earlier. It was hard to leave, but once there I tried to make the best of it by reminding myself that I had just one more year until freedom.

After about a week and a half in San Diego, I felt the urge to meditate. Since leaving the Center five years earlier, the spiritual flame that had once been the predominate force in my life had never truly disappeared. But it was no more than a pilot light -- I was aware of its presence, but it gave no heat as it were. Or, to be true to the metaphor, there was no psychic fuel for that pilot light to ignite. From time to time, though, the inner pilot light would flicker and I would feel the desire to feed the flame.

What I did first was to look up Self-Realization Fellowship or "SRF." I had always felt close to Paramahansa Yogananda and knew that the group had a temple dedicated to the master located in San Diego. The temple had a Sunday service open to the public, so I decided to take the bus out there from the base where I was staying. The service itself was, for me, like going to church (something I never liked). It was very formulaic and by the numbers. The temple was crowded -- and I liked being around so many seekers, smelling the incense, and seeing the pictures of the other venerable yogis of the SRF line -- but it wasn't a profound experience for me.

Afterwards, I went to the San Diego Center's great vegetarian restaurant Jyoti-Bihanga. I hadn't been around disciples for quite some time and was actually a little nervous walking into the restaurant, but my presence went unnoticed and after a nice lunch I took the bus back to the base feeling a subtle sense of disquiet.

The photo above shows me as a Petty Officer Second Class (akin to an Army Sergeant), standing next to the Nimitz' Commanding Officer, then-Captain John B. Nathman. Along with the other guys there, I had been named Sailor of the Month for my department. Two things I remember about that experience. First, I was ripe. I had worked all night and had not showered or shaved before having this picture taken. I felt bad for the Captain as he leaned into me. Second, the Captain's ring finger on his left hand -- he wore both his wedding band and his Naval Academy class ring on the same finger.

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