Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Boarding the USS Higgins

An Excerpt from Just Another Number- Number 4  

“Don’t fuck any of the guys on the ship,” one of the girls on the USS Higgins warned me. “You’ll regret it. You think nobody will know, but everyone will find out. They’ll talk shit. From then on, you’ll be considered a slut. You’ll probably do it anyway, but don’t say that nobody warned you.”
           It was a bit much for my first day aboard, but there was absolute truth in every precaution I was advised to take. Every girl eventually slept with at least one of her shipmates. For me, it only took a month.
Every hint of melancholy from leaving Number 3 diminished the second my plane landed in San Diego. As the sailors from the RSO drove me to my ship, I stared out the window wide eyed at the stunning city. The air was clear and the sun was luminous. Since I was a little girl, I had always loved palm trees. Whenever I saw them, I got excited because it indicated that I was close to the beach. Nearly every single street was lined with them. I loved the green shrub hills that looked lush, but were made for the arid conditions and needed little water. I loved the prickly red and pink flowers that bloomed at their tips.
San Diego was different from Tennessee in every way. Even the Hispanic-influenced architecture clashed with my norm.  I noticed that even most of the street names were of Mexican descent. Instead of small cities with names like Soddy Daisy, Jasper, and Whitwell, there was Chula Vista, Escondido, and Rancho Cucamonga.
           “This place is amazing!” I said aloud, thrilled by my vibrant new home.
           “Welcome to San Diego,” the sailor said with a smile.
I could tell my awe was a common reaction.
           My ship was stationed on the 32nd Street Naval Base, located a few minutes from downtown and in the middle of a low-income suburb. But I was too dazzled by southern California to notice the neon colored homes packed with poverty stricken Mexican families. We were only about ten minutes from the Tijuana border. We approached the tall fenced gate that surrounded the base and I spotted several massive grey ships in the distance. The fact that the base looked like the outskirts of a prison didn’t bother me, nor did it occur to me that my life on the ship would feel like one.
           My heart was fluttering as I scurried down the pier towards my ship. I wore the official Navy dress white uniform required to check into my new command. Like all of our uniforms, it flattened my ass and concealed any hint of femininity. I hated the way the uniform looked on me, but I was too used to my frumpy, military-issued, birth control getups to be embarrassed. I clutched a package in my hand that held my service and medical record. I looked at my ship. It was what the Navy called “haze grey” with white lettering that read DDG on the left and right side. “DDG” stood for “destroyer.” I saw several guns and other contraptions set up around the decks. There were windows at the top from where the ship was operated, with several satellite-like instruments above. There was an American flag on the top of the ship as well as in the aft (back) section of the ship. I reached the ladder that took me from the pier to the ship.
           “Now, don’t forget this part,” I remembered Petty Officer Hunter instructing us in boot camp. “Your arrival to your command is the first impression you’ll make. I cannot stress enough how important that is. Don’t fuck it up.
           She glared at us as if we already had.   
           “When you reach your command, the first area you will step onto is called the quarterdeck. There will be an Officer of the Deck on watch. But before you can come aboard the quarterdeck, you must turn to the flag at the back. You will salute the flag. Hold your salute and ask ‘Permission to come aboard?’ Then turn to the Officer of the Deck. The OOD will say ‘Permission granted.’ Then and only then is when you can drop your salute and walk aboard.”
           We practiced this procedure several times in basic training.

            It was nearly dusk when I reached the Higgins. The ship appeared deserted and had a quiet and peaceful aura.
           “Permission to come aboard?” I asked, turning my stiff salute towards the flag that hung on the ship’s tail.
           I mentally pleaded that I was showing enough military bearing. Little did I know that the boys on watch were chuckling at my efforts. The Navy newbies were easy to spot. Fresh out of basic, we reeked of posttraumatic boot camp timidity. For the first week or so, ‘booters’ looked like mice in a python cage.
           “Permission granted,” said a chubby black man in his light blue utility shirt.
The Higgins had just returned from a six-month deployment on the Persian Gulf, so my crew had just spent three months in sweltering heat with few port visits, followed by brief stops in Sydney, Fiji, and Hawaii.
My crew had just begun boarding females. During deployment, there were only five enlisted women. A handful more had boarded days before me.            
I was eighteen, fresh out of Tennessee, and the thirteenth female on a ship of over three hundred males.
I looked to my right at a small shack under a flight of stairs that led to an upper level of that ship. A blonde, skinny boy with a gun around his shoulder and a bulletproof vest stood with an intercom in his hand.
           “WILL THE DUTY BOATSWAINS MATE PLEASE REPORT TO THE QUARTERDECK?” he announced, his voice echoing.
           A few minutes later, a door opened near the shack. Out came a white male who looked like he was in his late thirties. He had light brown hair, glasses, and several creases in his forehead. He had a beer gut protruding over his black belt. His blue utility shirt read “Wayne,” his last name. Our last names were all labeled on our shirts and coveralls.
           “Seaman Young,” he greeted me with the name I’d get used to responding to.
           My arrival was expected. Wayne did not smile, but his face was not cold or unwelcoming. Greeting new sailors was routine.
           “Welcome aboard,” he said.
           His voice seemed to project through his nose.
           “I’ll show you around.”
           Wayne took me all over the ship, leading me through passageways that I was certain I would get lost in. Every door was a hatch that had to be pulled open with a handle and then closed behind me. The doors were heavy and I feared getting my finger smashed in one of them. I found myself constantly taking steps through the ship’s hallways (or p-ways as they were called in the Navy.) Several hatches that I had to step through were open throughout the ship, but were closed during drills or security emergencies.
The ship had a stench that reminded me of a musty basement.
           “You’ll get used to all this,” Wayne assured me when he saw me nearly trip over one of the hatch steps. “After awhile, you won’t even smell the ship anymore.”
           The ship was cold. Every surface was rock hard. There were tons of spouts, buttons, and contraptions along the walls and ceiling. I had no idea what any of them did and hoped I wouldn’t have to memorize all of their functions.
The worst part about the ship was the stairways. The ship had several levels. To get to the different levels, we had to climb a nearly vertical ladder well. I was petrified of climbing any of them straight down.
           “Go down backwards and grip the railings,” Wayne advised me.
           After going down a few ladder wells, we entered a tiny room with a desk. I realized that everything on the ship was compact. Sea duty required a mass amount of people to function in very close proximity. The office Wayne took me to was labeled “Aft Workshop.”
           Wayne sat down in a chair while I stood. I noticed that he had an old Coke bottle full of tobacco and saliva on top of some scattered paperwork. He picked up some of the papers under the chew bottle.
           “Young,” he said in a low tone, seemingly speaking to himself.
           He looked up at me.
           “You’re in duty section two. During your duty days, you will remain on board the ship all day and all night. We normally have six duty sections, but the ship is on stand down now since we just got back from deployment. So the way it normally goes is that you work on weekdays and then on your duty days, you stay over night, stand watch, and do whatever drills the duty station is doing.”
           I remembered standing watch in boot camp. Someone had to stay awake for two hours at a time and guard our barracks.
           “But the way it’s going now,” Wayne continued, “Is that you’ll have a duty day, a half day, and an off day. Today would be your duty day. Tomorrow is a half day and the next day you have off.”
           “What kind of work will I be doing?” I asked. “Don’t I get to try out different jobs? I’m in the Seaman Apprenticeship program.”
           Wayne busted out with laughter.
           “Oh no, they got you with that shit, did they?” Wayne asked, looking cynically amused.
“That’s just some shit they pull to get you to enter the Navy undesignated. That just throws you in deck. No, no, you’re a deck Seaman. You do topside preservation. You’ll chip, prime, and paint - that’s your new life. You’ve officially been fucked over by the Navy. Get used to it.”
           I felt a pang of betrayal and regret, but still, I did not let that get me down. I escaped from Number 3 and The Box. I had four years in the Navy. I was going to get through them without making myself miserable.
           “Now, once advancement testing comes,” Wayne told me. “There are some rates that you can test for. If you score high enough, that can get you out of deck. It’s called striking out.”
           My eyes brightened. There was hope. Until then, at least I was chipping paint in San Diego.
           Wayne led me back up the ladder well, down a few p-ways, and to the top of a hatch that rested on the floor, or the “deck.” There was a white sheet of paper taped onto a pipe beside the hatch with bold black lettering typed “female berthing.”
           “Here’s where you’ll stay tonight,” Wayne told me. “Get a female to take you to breakfast on the mess decks in the morning. I’ll meet you there and we’ll get you fully checked in. Good night.”
           The racks on the ship made the racks at boot camp look like s plush bed of clouds. They were piled vertically in three, with about a foot of space in between them. There was no possible way for one to sit up in them. The beds were called “coffin racks” because they lifted up like a coffin into a storage area. This and one small locker were the only places I had to store my possessions.
           I got stuck with a top rack, which required me to climb in between two middle racks across from each other in an isle. That pissed off the middle rack occupants because my foot nearly smashed their arms. Being able to organize my things inside my rack was a struggle and climbing into bed felt like an obstacle course. The lids were heavy and were held up by a small, metal bar in the middle. If the bar was knocked back, fingers and skulls could be crushed. The worst part was trying to jump down onto the cold hard deck when I was groggy in the morning. Having to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom was something I did my best to avoid.
I quickly fell into the routine of ship life. Each morning I met, or “mustered,” with my division. Our chief, the head of deck division, was a large black man from Oakland who loved to scream.
           “GET TO WORK, SHIT BAGS!” he’d bark.
           I was constantly on edge when he was around.
           Our jobs were remedial busy work that could have been tackled by any breathing primate. We would scrub rust in one area with sandpaper or prime another space. The work left my nails filthy and my coveralls smothered in paint.            
            I talked with a few girls on the ship, though my only solid buddy was a girl named Sally. On my off time, I had the adventures I’d been missing from college life. I flirted with boys, got shitfaced, and often woke up on random couches and beds. One night, I ended up falling down on the sidewalk and scraping my knee. The next morning I entered the ship hung over in a skirt that revealed the large gash. I was dubbed a train wreck right then and there. I’d later learn that morning watches were the best times to get an eyeful of the most entertaining walks of shame.
            The crew did not fit the stereotype of the Navy sailors that I expected. The media always presented Navy men as being GI Joe’s in white. But a good sum of them were in their thirties and forties. Very few sported less than two chins, let alone the six-pack of a warrior. While standing at attention, I saw a slew of potbellies jiggling atop Navy belt buckles. I saw bald spots, acne, retro porn mustaches, and wrinkles, but to my utter disappointment, no eye candy.
I was also surprised by the racial diversity in the crew. Being from The South, I thought of Americans as primarily black and white. But there were several Mexicans and even more Filipinos in the fleet. I learned that it was common for Filipinos to join the Navy. The lifestyle suited them quite well. They didn’t have to be American citizens to enlist. They hailed from poverty, which instilled strong work ethics and gratitude for modest military living. They could happily serve twenty years, return to their homeland, and live off their retirement pay. Though it wasn’t enough for comfort in the United States, it made them quite wealthy in a Filipino economy. They were known throughout the fleet as the Filipino mafia. They often established decent rank in the military and held a camaraderie and favoritism among their people.
           I never got involved with any of the recruits from boot camp. With the strict rules, busy schedule, and little opportunity for social interaction, I didn’t see how it was possible. Boot camp romances actually blossomed all the time. It wasn’t uncommon for two recruits to lock eyes during church or the ten minutes they had to raise the flag together for colors. Drenched with the basic training blues, they clung to any relationship they could develop. Recruits often married at the base chapel during their first day of liberty. The marriages usually ended as quickly as they started. Once they left the sheltered world of basic training, dealing with their spouse under normal circumstances butchered the primarily fictitious love connection.
           Though it never happened to me, I understood it. The combination of repressed sexual desires and intimacy deprivation was treacherous. About a month into boot camp, I found my standards dropping and eyes wandering.
           Nothing about Number 4 stood out to me when I first saw him on the USS Higgins topside. I had seen him on our duty days mustering in the mornings. He was always surrounded by a couple of guys, chatting and carrying on small talk. He seemed pretty popular.
           The majority of the crew was married with children. Although nearly every sailor fucked either hookers or ship women, they hardly paid attention to the new ladies on board. They were coming home to their families and their lives outside of the Navy. The shenanigans had temporarily ceased. The men did not feel compelled to befriend the new eighteen-year-old with her boot camp chopped blonde hair.
           But Number 4 looked at me on occasion, with a subtle, slightly crooked grin.
           “He’s probably just trying to be nice,” I figured.
          He was twenty-six, with ash blonde hair that was cut short but was too long for Navy regulations, with his bangs shaggy over his forehead. His blue utility shirt was wrinkled. To any civilian, such details go unnoticed, but by Navy standards, they were signs of rebellion.

            He was tall with broad shoulders that hung heavy over his slim build. His eyes were his most intriguing physical feature. They were an intense, hazel that seemed to burn into my face like lasers. His voice had the laid back twang of an old hippie. His walk was loose and relaxed, but his eyes revealed an immense intelligence that clashed with his demeanor.

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