Sunday, January 25, 2015
Because they're Men
An excerpt from Just Another Number
Higgins gossip functioned like an email chain letter. Its rapid pace grazed the ears of nearly everyone within days. Every crewmember had their own juicy, gossip-worthy background. When a man and woman boarded the ship together, the crew instantly assumed that they were boning. Whether they were married or single did not alter the likelihood of its truth. Enlisted members told stories about officers hooking up with seamen or each other in their Ward Room spaces on deployment and duty days. Nearly every married member aboard had cheated on their spouse or had been cheated on. The typical sob story was of the married man taking off on deployment, while his wife stayed at home, got fat, and nourished her sorrow from her absent husband by nailing his best friend who had promised to take care of her. The man deployed would also cheat, but believed that his philandering had moral justification. Deployment was considered a different dimension, where the rules on American soil didn’t apply. A common understanding was “what happens on deployment stays on deployment.”
“After all,” one of my shipmates explained to me while we were discussing his experiences overseas, “Hookers aren’t real people.”
When the man got home, he dropped his underway affairs and she dropped hers. Within a few months she’d be pregnant. They’d have their baby and they would be happily divorced by the time their child reached kindergarten. This story is simply a generalization. Not every person cheated on deployment – only the majority.
The stories that bothered me the most were of the very occasional guys who actually stayed faithful to their wives, but still got cheated on mid-deployment. These were the men who spent a hefty chunk of their sea pay on phone calls to their significant other and stayed aboard the ship when it was docked in some of the most snatch-infested stops, like Thailand or Australia. They were determined to prove their commitment, even if it meant losing their first chance in months to stand on a surface that didn’t roll with the ocean’s waves. Until my own deployment the following year, those stories were merely rumors.
“Don’t listen to ‘em, Young,” one of my superiors said while trying to comfort me after catching the gossip of my threesome. “There will always be rumors. You just have to brush them off your shoulders.”
I’d later discover how often people lie when defending themselves, but speak the truth in the whispers that pollinate gossip. Rumors were almost always true. Mine certainly were.
“Young, you really need to start keeping your private life private!” one my female shipmates advised me in a sharp tone.
Her name was Bambi. One could not stifle a giggle at the discovery of this woman having a bubbly stripper name on her birth certificate. Bambi was not overweight, but had a strong, sturdy figure. She wore no makeup and had ash blonde hair that was always pulled back. She seemed unnoticeable at first glance, but the second she opened her mouth, her dominant personality overwhelmed whatever area she infiltrated.
Bambi was one of deck’s leading overachievers and seemed to sweat work ethic. She came from white trash beginnings in a small town in Texas and enlisted to escape a psychotic ex-boyfriend. While most of the deck girls entered the Navy as teenagers, Bambi enlisted at twenty-two. She carried herself like a lioness through the African Sub-Sahara with her claws protracted. The world was both her hunting ground and an area where she was vulnerable to attack.
Bambi wasn’t eager to make friends with everyone. She had matured beyond an adolescent’s dire need to be accepted and she considered most acquaintances a waste of her time. She kept a small handful of friends and warded off any negative words uttered about them. One had to be initiated into a friendship with Bambi. Respect and trust had to be earned. Bambi saw me as a nice girl with a good heart, but as a wild, short sighted teenager on a fixed path for self-destruction. She did not consider me her friend, but was kind enough to ration warnings of my behavior, like a reprimanding big sister.
Upon overhearing about boarding the quarterdeck hung-over and with gashed knees, my threesome, my Mexico extravaganza, and my Number 5 encounter, Bambi pulled me aside.
“You need to watch the fuck out,” she said in a low tone.
We were sitting at the small and very uncomfortable plastic tables and spinning chairs that were our little lounge area in berthing. Bambi spoke barely above a whisper so that any other females in the room were out of earshot. Her eyes narrowed at mine in a glare that was more of concern than anger.
“Look, if you want to get laid, fine get laid. You’re nineteen and single. You have every right go to get fucked whenever the hell you feel like it. But quit making it obvious. Don’t enter the ship barefoot or with scraped knees still drunk from the night before. Don’t brag about the guys you fuck to Sally, Devi, or any of your other so-called friends. Do you know what people think of those girls?”
She had a point. Devi was considered barely above mentally retarded and the fact that she constantly held her mouth open like a kid on the short bus did her no justice. Sally had been known as the Jenna Jameson of the USS Higgins until she’d lured Jamie into a relationship. Everyone laughed at this because Jamie notoriously fell in love with every moist orifice in reach. He’d sworn on deployment that a few Fijian hookers had been his soul mates and was now on the verge of proposing to Sally three months into dating her. Girls like Devi, Sally, and I were predigested punch lines to anyone with a trace of wit.
“The more you hang around those bitches, the more you’re placed into their category,” Bambi continued. “Those girls will never be taken seriously on a professional level. They’ll never get a decent evaluation and I doubt their rank will ever advance. The higher ups think they’re stupid hoes and if you keep acting like them, they’ll think of you in the same light.”
I stared at her intently and focused on her cautionary words. Bambi knew what she was talking about and it amazed me how she obtained such a level-headed grasp on the USS Higgins society. The Navy world felt like a complicated mess to me. Ship social life was full of so many rules that seemed like they were written in a language that I’d never been taught to speak.
“Just remember, the Navy is just one big game,” Recruiter Randal warned me a year before. “Just play their little game and life in the Navy will be easy.”
My entire enlistment would’ve been significantly less painful if I’d followed Bambi’s lead. Instead, I caved to my natural drive to rebel against every structure that dared to cage me.
“How come we have to be so discreet about the things we do?” I asked Bambi. “I mean, how many stories have we heard about the deck guys running trains on hookers and banging the new chicks on the ship? Most of them even cheat on their wives and they don’t get shit for it!”
“Because they’re men,” she said flatly.
She rolled her eyes at her statement. I could tell that she resented this double standard even more than I did.
“I know,” she said, reading my irritation. “It’s complete bull shit. It’s hypocritical and unfair. I don’t like it anymore than you do. But, honey, that’s the way the world works. Hopefully that will change some day, but you are not going to change the world by yourself. You can’t just switch everyone’s mindset.”
She was probably right, but I was too stubborn to care.