It wasn’t just a job, but the adventure of a lifetime.
Before I rose my right hand to take the Oath of Enlistment in Jackson, Mississippi back in September, 1981, the biggest boat I’d been on was a bass boat — and then only once. But my dad — who had left home when I was two — had been in the Merchant Marine, and (in addition to getting away from the Mississippi Delta) I wanted to see what kind of life he had led. I’d never seen him since then, and only talked to him once over the phone before he drowned in Hong Kong harbor in 1974, but I still wanted to know.
Besides, at the time the Navy’s recruitment slogan was, “It’s not just a job. It’s an adventure.” It turns out that was the truest, most fact-based advertising slogan in the history of advertising.
The thing about adventures is, well, they’re not vacations, and more often than not, they involve blood, sweat, tears, and heartache, and it’s not until after the adventure’s over that one really begins to appreciate what one has endured. Adventures also teach lessons one never expected to learn. Here’s a few that I learned along the way.
The Navy’s more industrial than military
When one’s on a Navy ship, one is surrounded by technology 24/7. Belowdecks, with the exception of other people, absolutely everything one sees and touches is manufactured. This is one reason the mechanically-gifted among the crew tend to rise in qualifications, responsibilities, and rank more quickly than most. Many times on watch I’ve seen junior sailors in charge of more senior sailors. This will happen when the junior sailor is more capable and more highly qualified with the equipment and machinery.
As a direct result, the relations between crewmembers of different ranks tends to be more informal — and often less respectful — than in the other armed services. Several times I spoke to other sailors who had been soldiers or Marines, and to a man they told me that the bordering-on-disrespectful behavior of the sailors would not be tolerated in the other services. This doesn’t mean that respect isn’t enforced; instead, it’s simply not automatic. It’s more flexible, for one with a higher rank who doesn’t qualify as expected will not be given such respect.
HIV/AIDS improved the Navy
No, that’s not a typo. HIV/AIDS forced the Navy to improve, not only by convincing most sailors to steer clear of bar girls and prostitutes, but it helped put an end to the old paradigm of the drunken sailor.
On my first ship, when we hit port, it was a mad rush for the bars (and for the bar girls). Pretty much everyone drank like fish. We made bilge wine on board, too — a five-gallon can (that previously held fire-fighting foam) filled with juice (apple was best), five pounds of sugar, a bit of yeast from the mess decks, and the spout covered with a condom. After a week or so, it was good and tasty. After more than two weeks, it knocked one on one’s a**.
Why? Because we were sailors, and sailors were supposed to drink anyone else under the table (except for Australians — we couldn’t compete with them). Have you heard the old song, “What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor?” Once you listen to it, you can’t help but remember it every time you hear the melody whenever you see your kid watching Spongebob Squarepants. Anyway, what’s the first priority of a drunken sailor? He wants to get laid. The reader may rest assured that frat parties and Roman orgies had nothing on an all-male Navy crew hitting a third-world port-of-call after a month or three at sea.
But then the HIV epidemic hit. Yes, it had been an epidemic since the 1970’s, but the military — or at least the Navy — only really began taking it seriously in the mid-80’s. The Navy instituted a policy that anyone who tested positive for HIV would be automatically discharged. Thing is, up until that point, whenever we left certain ports of call, there would be a line of sailors standing outside Sick Bay. Some would be smiling sheepishly, others’ faces would be filled with fury, and some just tried to hide their faces from their shipmates.
This was the “clap line”, and for those who may not know what the ‘clap’ is, it’s gonorrhea. The first symptom is a drip from the penis, the kind that leaves stains in your underwear. It’s nasty. So those in the clap line would be waiting to receive a “short arm inspection”, which meant the Corpsman (the medic) would be shoving a six-inch metal rod up the urethra to take a sample, and if it turned out positive, one would receive medication. It’s very, very uncomfortable.
Or at least that’s what I’ve been told, because I’ve never, ever stood in a clap line or had a short-arm inspection. Honest! I mean, I am a retired sailor, and we never lie about anything ever.
With the advent of HIV/AIDS and automatic discharge, most sailors rightfully became rather paranoid. Personally, I strongly remember one day we pulled in to Mombasa, Kenya, and the local English-language newspaper had a minor headline that read, “25% of Mombasa Prostitutes Test Positive For HIV”. Suddenly the traditional sight of a drunken sailor with a bar girl on his arm became a rarity, and the clap line became a thing of the past. Sailors on liberty from the ship began to take tours or experience local cultures in ways that didn’t involve overindulging in alcohol and risking contracting HIV.
For the retired sailors who served in PacFleet who may read this, here’s a short list that you’ll recognize from a bygone time that none of us will see again: Magsaysay, Texas Street, Green Street, Bugi Street, Pattaya, and Hotel Street. Oh, and for the non-sailors out there, here’s a tip: when pulling in to overseas ports, always take a few minutes to read the local paper. It’s well worth your time.
Navy ships are relatively safe compared to civilian life
Some who read this may have heard that the flight deck of an aircraft carrier is the most dangerous place to work in the world. This is true. Consider a modern airfield. Then make that airfield only 4.5 acres in size. Then cut the area used for actual takeoff and landing to a strip about forty feet wide and 250 feet long. Then put thirty or forty men and women on the flight deck during flight ops. And then ensure that all aircraft are fueled and about half have highly-explosive ordnance on board.
And then do all that at night. In the rain and bitterly-cold wind.
Insane, right? Yes, it is…but no more insane than having two functioning nuclear reactors about 100 feet below that flight deck, where most of the people operating those reactors have only a high school education. Working in a high-pressure steam plant is deadly-serious business. If the steam pipes rupture, one gets to find out how lobsters feel just before a meal. If fuel oil catches on fire in the maze-like warren of steel compartments, if one doesn’t react as trained, one either suffocates or burns to death. I’ve seen that happen before when ten of my fellow engineers died on the USS Ranger (CV-61) on November 1st, 1983. But that’s a story for a different time.
So how the heck can I say that the Navy’s actually a safe place to work and live? I can answer in three words: attention to detail.
Remember what I said before, that the Navy’s more industrial than military? In industry, safety and proper procedure are emphasized. When procedures are followed as much as humanly possible, things tend to work as designed. The work on a flight deck has been compared to a ballet — not because they dance in silly-looking tutus, but because of just how well-choreographed the entire operation is, twenty-four seven. Down below in the engine rooms, it’s not so well-regulated, but it’s every bit as serious, paying attention to every different gage reading, every different temperature, and every different change in vibration or tone from pumps or turbines.
As a result, most smaller ships return from deployment with their whole crew safe and healthy. Larger ships — especially aircraft carriers — tend to lose one or two, sometimes more, sometimes none at all, over a six-month deployment.
But think on this: take any small town where 4,000 of the men and women are between the ages of 18 and 45. During any given six month period, how many are likely to die, whether from car crashes or disease or suicide or what have you? A dozen? More?
That’s why I say Navy ships are relatively safe. I honestly believe my sons would be safer at sea on a Navy ship than in almost any walk in civilian life.
Navy captains are some of the most underpaid people on the planet
The base pay for Navy captains (with 20 years of service) is currently just under $11,000 per month. That sounds like a lot for most of us, but think about what their counterparts in the civilian world would earn. Of course, the captain of an aircraft carrier is responsible for the safe and effective operation of 80+ high-end aircraft and two nuclear reactors, not to mention the lives of 4,000 (or more) men and women. But add to that the duties of an American diplomat (for captains must often be precisely that on every port visit overseas), and intelligence coordinator-cum-spy (for all the highly-sensitive information they must gather, coordinate, and process inport and at sea). Oh, and king, too.
Yeah, I said “king”. On a Navy ship, the one in charge of the vessel (regardless of rank) is the captain, and his or her word is law…even if it goes against the regulations listed in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. To be sure, they have oversight from admirals and Congress and the president, but when the s**t hits the fan, when there is no guidance from above and no time to ask for such guidance, it’s all on the captain. That captain is expected to do whatever he or she feels must be done (regardless of how many must die, or even if the circumstances force the captain to hazard the ship itself) to accomplish the mission or meet the challenge faced.
Try to find anyone in the civilian world who is responsible for more, but who gets paid less. I don’t think you can. Sure, you could make the case that this is true of the commander-in-chief…but in my opinion, that’s only if the president is competently performing the office.
Many sailors become citizens of the world
Mark Twain once said:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
This is mostly true. When 18 y.o kids join the Navy and go to sea, not only are they in an environment wholly unfamiliar to anything they’ve experienced before, but when they finally get a couple days off, it’s in a foreign port of call, one where people look and speak and often believe differently. After a while, most sailors begin to get a clue concerning just how false is the crap they were told growing up about “American exceptionalism”, how we Americans are special, how we’re freer than anybody else, and how we have the best of everything.
Most (though certainly not all) sailors begin to realize that despite what they’ve been told, after allowing for differences in culture and religion, people really are the same all over the world. We also find out that there are quite a few other places more modern than America’s best cities, that we’re safer walking around at night in those other cities than we are in any American city, and that in many countries, people are every bit as free as we are (and sometimes even freer, if one can grasp that freedom doesn’t begin and end with the Second Amendment).
As a result, with all the places I’ve been, I have yet to feel that I’m in a foreign nation. I’ve been lost on the back streets of Bangkok at 2 A.M., walked with Afghan Mujahedeen on the streets of Singapore (not kidding), got looks full of justified resentment from elderly Japanese men at ground zero in Nagasaki, shared a beer with Russian sailors in Hawaii, chased a wallaby into the woods in a Tasmanian forest (not far from opium poppy fields), moored at the very buoy where my dad drowned in Hong Kong harbor many years before, rode with a park ranger in Kenya who had an AK-47 on his lap in case he saw poachers, joined with local police in chasing a drug dealer in Victoria, B.C., fell in lust a few times, strolled the Gold Souk in Dubai where the gold is higher-quality than most found here stateside…the list goes on.
And along the way, I began to appreciate not just my American citizenship, but the world around me as a whole. Now I have a small house overseas where I’ll retire someday. One of the only regrets I have in this life is that my family in Mississippi, having “vegetated in one little corner of the Earth” for all their lives as Mark Twain said, never had the opportunity to become citizens of the world as I have.