I have to discuss more in depth about the toxic atmosphere at the precom detachment in San Diego.
I had to cut stories and tone down a lot of things in my memoir, but I really want folks to know, with no whining, that the Navy is a tough place. Sometimes senior leadership lacks horribly from the top down (like our ship) and it is senseless but you just have to knuckle down and deal with it.
I was not a perfect sailor – but I was a very young junior sailor who was highly motivated and loved to work hard. But as junior sailors do I did get into silly trouble, and I plan to discuss that in the next blog. However, senior leadership has enough years in that they should know what they are doing and the goal at the forefront: which is to properly prepare the junior shipmates to be competant and confident sailors who will eventually replace them.
I wrote this one to paint a picture about a tough place, in a man’s world, where surprisingly enough the cruelest treatment to women sometimes comes from other women.
In May of 2001 my command was gathered in San Diego at a precommissioning detachment, waiting while our ship is being built in the shipyards in Mississippi. The tempo was beginning to pick up, and the crew size was growing meaning our little office was too small to fit all the new people before too long. It was quickly decided that we would all move down the hall to the bigger rooms that were being emptied as the previous pre-comm sailors who had occupied them moved onto their ship. A bigger crew meant we also had more senior people running around, and that meant more senior 1st classes in charge calling the shots.
The first thing the 1st classes did was muster all of us, which is the Navy’s fancy way of saying “gather around”, and one loud woman 1st class announced “We are taking over these bigger rooms for the needs of the growing command. They need cleaned. So sweepers sweepers folks and get this place cleaned from top to bottom. I wanna see nothing but assholes and elbows OK, folks? Now turn to!”
And the whole lot of us went scampering “assholes and elbows” with the standard Navy issue; short, fat brushes called “foxtails” and long, thin radiator brushes to sweep down the new rooms and we did what we thought was top to bottom; eye level to floor. The first classes came back in and looked around, and one got out a very tall ladder and went up and looked at the top of the large hanging fluorescent lights way overhead, and with one hand swept off disgusting years of dust, dander and God knows what.
“Nope. This won’t do. Redo it.”
All you could hear was groaning from everyone in the group.
“The whole thing?” Someone asked incredulously.
“Yep. ‘Cause after you knock all that off you’ll understand. That last ship was full of unsat dipshits, but our ship will be the best ship the Navy has ever seen!”
The word “unsat”, short for “unsatisfactory,” was a typical Navy euphemism employed to substitute for the word “fucked up” in decent company. Everyone knew this was going to be bad, being they lumped that particular word with an actual cussword, and then were trying to blow false morale up our asses.
We all rolled our eyes and sighed and someone asked when lunch was gonna be and was sharply corrected when one of the first classes roared “There’s gonna be no ANYTHING if I don’t see assholes and elbows! And a whole lot of clean!”
So we got back to it. This time the taller guys got on the ladders while us little guys held the ladders still, and after that disgusting mess was all over, they climbed down and we all began cleaning from there down. It was awful as the dark, thick dust was all over everything, all up in the air. I gagged a couple times along with a couple other folks, and we looked at each other wanting to barf, because now we were breathing this crap in.
After a good while longer we finished and started putting vacuums away after emptying and dusting them off for good measure as the 1st classes came back in and went over everything again with a fine tooth comb and white gloves.
“Much better. Now you understand why we have to keep such cleanliness as onboard ship you new folks will be expected to work as DCPO’s with you DC-men” they said, looking at me with a nod, still the only DC-man (damage controlman or naval firefighter) checked on board. ”You will all be expected to keep the filters and other things in your division shipshape. Ok dismissed for lunch!”
I was fine with all of this as I understood that we had to do something until 1500 or 3pm every day. But the 1st classes soon began morphing into nagging, hateful, angry people, openly resentful of having to babysit us, which was not our fault at all. This was the point where things went downhill and began souring within our little rag-tag chain-of-command, and the stress of having over-demanding and endlessly ignorant 1st classes got to a few of us.
The one 1st’ class who was more vocally in charge was a tall, rail thin gal with dark hair pulled back in a neat bun, and eyes that were blue and icy cold. She was constantly in motion; everything she did, including speaking, was done very fast; everything she did reminded me of a bird, constantly moving, pecking, flapping, running fast fast fast. And even though she laughed a lot it was the dry, lusterless laugh of someone who’d had whatever sense of humor stomped out of them like sour grapes over the length of their career.
She seemed somewhat neurotic and perfectionist, but otherwise fine and levelheaded at first. But as the command began to grow and the upcoming tests to make rank were getting closer, this 1st class soon began to show her true colors before long. It became obnoxiously apparent to us all that, as a 1st class, her goal was to do the dance to make chief, and being she was within a few years of retirement she was going to do it as fast as she could.
So she loved to take on way more than she could accomplish, and if you were in her way, God save you. She had an agenda: run the command, micromanage everything, and climb the ladder in the hopes of making chief this go around. And indeed, she created this invisible, yet palpable ladder every day in our tense work environment, and if there were rungs you could see, well, they were made up of the many heads she stepped on in her vain grab for the coveted khaki and fouled anchors she wanted so badly to wear.
And my head was one of those rungs she stepped up on. There were several times where I tried to take the initiative to get certain things done before anyone asked, and it wasn’t like it was anything huge but she would get angry and take me aside and demand that I just stay out of her way, letting her just get things done.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but later more senior folks who were good friends and knew the situation perfectly would point out to me that “that woman just did not know how to run a work center”, and it opened my eyes and set me free from the “what did I do wrong” complex I had been trapped in for a decade straight.
But back in 2001 I was at the mercy of this 1st class, and she complained when I did what I was told. She complained when I took the initiative, and she complained when I did things that needed doing without her permission. She complained when I asked her what to do, and she complained when I sat patiently, having finished a project, waiting for further instruction. It appeared I couldn’t win no matter what, and it began to drive me nuts. I was trying my damnedest to be the hardest working person I was at my deepest core, but I had this sign on my head and target on my ass no matter what.
And it was never ending.
But above all, this woman loved catching an infraction and calling the offender out loudly in front of everyone, which is actually an unacceptable practice. Sailors are suppose to be taken aside and given advice and guidance. But she did things her way.
This one morning she happened to be looking too closely at me out of the corner of her eye and she turned and called me out sharply. She held a ruler to my ears in front of everyone and yelled at me in front of everyone.
“Yep!” She said sharply. “It’s what I thought! You are unsat! These earrings are shiny steel balls and too small! You are only authorized to wear 4-6mm, matte-brushed steel ball earrings in uniform, not 2mm. Take them out immediately, Shipmate, and get the right earrings or don’t wear any!”
Turns out the earrings I was wearing and damn sure thought were regulation that I had just purchased at the Navy Exchange (NEX) were the object of her scrutiny, and she was out to stamp me into shape.
I couldn’t take it anymore and neither could my roommate Kelly. I wasn’t the only one getting the raw deal and soon it was apparent we weren’t the only folks getting tired of having to deal with it all. We all began to grow more and more angry and despondent, with a large crowd drinking heavily in our barracks every night.
Sometimes Kelly and I would get shitfaced drunk on Friday or Saturday night at one of the two bars on base to the point folks joked they could set clocks by me. We would stumble back to our room together in the wee hours, getting soaking wet when the automatic sprinklers came on, sometimes laughing or in my case when I wore my $100 leather pants, cussing loudly the whole stumble home.
That was one thing that had kicked in full gear; that we were sailors, kind of like civilized Vikings. In “A” school they groomed us for our role, telling us non-stop that this was how “shit was.” Go to sea, come back, get drunk, and all the stress and crappy-treatment goes down better. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but with the endless nit-picking we had to find some way of dealing with it. There was no way to stop it. Everyone hung out on the smoke-deck and drank, and once in a while I did too when I felt like being social.
I could ask the question, but the answer never came in the form I wanted. The 1st class insisted on singling me out in a small group of folks, and whatever her motive, it was very apparent she was deliberately screwing with me.
“Fireman Strong!” She called out to me this one day, using the formal title denoting my rank in engineering as an E-3 and below.
A bunch of us had finished cleaning and were sitting, waiting for further instruction. I put my head up in curiosity and a small trace of fear, wondering what was coming next.
“Stop what you are doing,” she demanded. “I want you to get up and go clean the smoke-deck out back now.”
I stood stunned, wondering why she was going after the one obvious nonsmoker in a group of avid smokers. Everyone looked at me with large eyes, wondering what was up.
There is this one very important unwritten rule in the Navy and that is if you don’t smoke, you don’t clean out the smoke deck ash trays. The smokers who use them do. Suddenly, everyone dropped what they were doing and I became aware of all of the eyes focused on us.
Everyone knew I didn’t smoke, in fact, they all teased me over how grossed out cigarettes made me. So when Icy One told me to go do this, double-time I told her “With all due respect, but you know I don’t smoke.”
Her blue eyes went colder and sharper as she crept closer, her anger growing and chilling the warm sunny day to a winter hell. She glowered at me with all this unrestrained animosity as she said “You are a Sailor in the US Navy! Now get your ass out there now before I write you up for insubordination! Now! Double-Time!!” Meaning: move your ass!
My feet began moving but the rest of me was frozen. This shit didn’t make sense at all.
Outside on the smoke deck, I tried to do as she demanded, shaking as I tried to shovel the cigarette butts up with a Styrofoam cup someone had abandoned out there. But the acrid burning heat of freshly stubbed out butts made me lose my stomach and it ended with me gagging and dry heaving and I almost threw up my lunch all over the smoke deck. Everyone was watching and I think folks started talking because soon there was the 1st class, shaking her head as she dismissed me and let me go.
God, I hated this senselessness, I hated this place, and I hated everything. I cried myself to sleep from loneliness and pain; I couldn’t dare trust anyone, and I was ashamed of what a pussy I was being.
What the hell was wrong with me that she came after me relentless? What was it? Was I too overly motivated? Was I being seen as that brown-noser everyone hates?
Maybe it isn’t me. Maybe I just take everything too personal, struggling to try to genuinely get along with folks instead of just backing off and keeping my space. I finally saw this and began to change myself, but it was too late. This woman had me in her sights, and no matter how much of a wallflower I was trying to be, she’d find something to call me out for.
Years from now I would finally figure this out, and I would have peace. I accepted that I had indeed failed, but only in my ability to read certain cues which would have told me what I needed to know: that some folks have a deep hate which is only satisfied by stomping the guts out of anyone they can. It was a long lonely swim through life to get to that place of understanding, but I never wanted to be left in the cold alone again. I would learn to read people and to know who was trustable and safe, and who wasn’t.
And the Navy was the tough ocean I was dropped in that taught me most of these things.