The US Navy taught me many things, but first and foremost I learned in a long series of lessons that safety is an illusion, and that in order to protect ourselves we must embrace that harsh fact.
At 22 years of age I was about to have my most vivid encounter with this truth, and finalize tossing off the last lines connecting me to childish innocence and naivety. But harsh truths are way better than sweet lies, even if it jades and ages us.
In April of 2002 my ship was fully built, signed off on and ready to take on her maiden voyage from the shipyard in Pascagoula, MS up to our homeport in Everett, WA. This meant we had to go through the Panama Canal to reach the Pacific Ocean, then take a sharp right hand turn and continue traveling up the long western coast.
After a seemingly long week of travel through the Gulf of Mexico we heard an announcement from the Commanding Officer or CO that we were out in front of Panama, awaiting our transit into the canal. I went out onto the weather decks and looked around. Sure enough, off to our right side or “starboard side” of the ship there was Panama City. And off the port, or the left hand side were hundreds of tankers, oilers, and cargo ships, all anchored out, waiting for the chance to finally be allowed to transit the canal. We sat for an entire day and night, with excessive use of the toilets in the heads secured, and not allowed to use showers at all. We wondered how long we were going to wait like this, especially us engineers, knowing that we had limited space in our sewage tanks. A boat full of crabby, dirty people is definitely not a great place to be.
Lucky for us the next night the CO announced that we were given the green light to begin transiting the first set of locks for the next 8 hour trip it takes to transit all 6 sets of locks; three to take ships up and over the continental divide, and then three to take them back down to sea level again. It was surreal; here we were in the middle of the night, a torrential downfall of rain making everything slippery as we began moving. All around us were bright lights, darkness, absolutely brutal humidity, and men running around like ants screaming in a language unknown to our ears, throwing lines so the little yellow mule locomotives could pull us into place and hold the entire ship fast as the water began filling the locks.
Before too long we were through the first three sets of locks and moving into Lake Gatun heading for the final set of locks. We were almost to the Pacific Ocean. Excited, I went out to visit one of my friends who was standing watch on a large 50 cal machine gun mounted to the deck of the ship.
I was struck by the poetic peacefulness of the moment. Here we were, zooming along, the lake surface was smooth as dark silk, and the full moon above us shining down, bouncing off the water’s surface like a small white stone. It was beautiful, and I was struck speechless by how lucky we were to be here. I asked my buddy how he felt, and he crashed the mood totally as he muttered “Scared shitless.”
“Why?” I asked, naively.
“Well, we’re in the middle of a third country, with pirates everywhere. And all we have to protect ourselves are 50 cal, small arms, and looking badass, since nothing else works.”
“WHAT???” I snorted, realizing in horror that he was right. We had no missiles yet, and we also had no Phalanx CIWS or close-in weapon system that all other US Navy destroyers have, which, along with our non functioning 5 inch gun on the forecastle of our ship made us one large, useless, but good-looking potential target.
“We are so fucked if anything happens out here,” he said, the fear contagiously jumping out of his voice and into my skin, making me shiver in the heat. I was struck speechless, but it was no longer a dreamy poetic silence. Now it was full of the heaviness of realizing we were even more defenseless than the USS Cole had been when she was bombed not too long before. Wow. I felt old and jaded seeing the position we were in.
“But,” he said, “If we had to, we could use EMP to black everything out for 50 miles around us.”
“Oh, really?” I said, wondering how that worked. My place was in “the hole” or main spaces with the engineers, making sure we had constant power for all the stuff he worked on. So I knew nothing about anything from the main deck up just yet.
“But,” he said “the downside to that is that everyone standing outside the ship gets microwaved, especially us,” as he nodded towards the large, bright red “Warning! Microwave danger!” stenciling just over our heads, being we were right next to the Aegis radar hot spot. So, in a nutshell, we were not safe anywhere here; not in the middle of the jungle, or outside the ship. With those thoughts I went back inside the skin of the ship to catch some sleep in my rack. I figured I was at least safe from microwaves or bullets there if anything bad went down.
The US Navy is a place fecund with many sharp realizations. I would take all of the lessons in, letting them sink into my soul, and watch as they became fine lines aging my face, turning me from a bubbly, youthful kid, into a quieter, overly-cautious and jaded soul. It’s a heavy weight but I find solace in being wise to the ways of the dark side of the world, and a soft paranoia and over-vigilance follows me to this day.
A picture of my ship with the now-installed Phalanx CIWS, also known as “sea-whizz” or “R2-D2” due to resembling the Star Wars droid.
Up forward you can see the Aegis hot spot and the place underneath where my buddy was standing watch on the 50 cal mounted there.