December 26, 1984
Twenty years ago today, I joined the United States Navy as an Electrician’s Mate in the Naval Nuclear Power Program. During my eleven year career in the Navy, I served aboard an aircraft carrier (USS Eisenhower, CVN-69 video) and a guided missile cruiser (USS Virginia, CGN-38). I left the Navy as an E-6 on September 25, 1995 – almost 11 years and just over “the hump”. I’m reflecting on this now because if I had stayed in I could be retiring today (technically, I think it could’ve been yesterday). When I joined, the notion of “retiring” at 38 seemed like a wild idea. Of course, this was before the dot com days.
As advertised, the Navy wasn’t just a job – it was an adventure.
It Was the Best of Times
- Traveling to places I probably never would’ve visited, like Venezuela, Turkey and Israel.
- Watching flight operations – this never got old for me.
- Watching sunrises at sea.
- Watching sunsets at sea.
- Qualifying as Load Dispatcher – the senior electrical watch on a Nimitz-class carrier.
- Serving with some great people (Ray Quevedo, Wil Hurley, Jorge Cardona, Jonathan Demaster, Jeff Grimes, Sonny Dean, Rex Vickers, and Keith Collier to name a few).
- Qualifying as Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist (ESWS), which reminded me why I joined the Navy in the first place.
- Getting my 3384 NEC, which was the culmination of over two years of rigorous academic and hands-on training in a program that supposedly had a pipeline attrition rate of ~50% (we lost people starting on day 1 of boot camp) at the time. An achievement since I only passed the NFQT (Nuclear Field Qualification Test) by 1 point when I enlisted. I was an under-achiever in high school.
- Experiencing the real thing. We went DIW (dead in the water) unintentionally and another time we struck another ship when returning to Norfolk following an otherwise uneventful, six-month Med (Mediterranean) cruise. It’s amazing how much better you do your job for the real thing when it happens and you get to do things you’ve only rehearsed a thousand times.
- Spending my 22nd birthday criss-crossing Northern Italy and then eventually finding myself in Como, which I can’t wait to visit again.
- Reading a lot. It’s amazing how much you can read when you’re stuck at sea with no television or other distractions.
- Attending & graduating US Naval Nuclear Power School – I actually enjoyed this experience despite joining the Navy to get away from school for awhile.
I study nuclear science, I love my classes
I got a crazy teacher, he wears dark glasses
Things are going great, and they’re only getting better
I’m doin’ all right, getting good grades
The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades
It Was the Worst of Times
Spending extended periods of time away from family and friends.
Painting, painting and painting did I mention painting? I hate painting.
Cleaning bilges after an extended shipyard period. Whenever I hate what I’m doing, I remember it could be worse.
Preparing for ORSE (Operational Reactor Safeguards Exam) – Months of preparation (drills, painting and cleaning) for a few days of inspection hell.
Experiencing hours of boredom standing watch – split, crit, same ol’ sh*t.
Attending boot camp at Great Lakes, IL in record cold weather – The temperature went down to -27 F, and a wind chill of -93 F was recorded (NOAA).
Living in cramped quarters (I wasn’t a submariner, so I know I shouldn’t complain) with all you own in the coffin locker beneath your rack (a telling name for a bed).
Serving on USS Virginia – I only spent one year aboard Virginia with very few enjoyable memories – except leaving her.
Tolerating four years of recruiting duty. A clear case of something that didn’t kill me and made me stronger.
The Snipe’s Lament
In commemoration of my time as a snipe, I thought I’d post a copy of The Snipe’s Lament (sometimes attributed to an unknown engineer onboard USS Higbee, DD-806 during World War II):
Now each of us from time to time, has gazed upon the sea,
And watched the warships pulling out, to keep our country free.
And most of us have read a book, or heard a lusty tale,
About the men who sail these ships, through lightning, wind, and hail.
But there’s a place within each ship that legend fails to teach,
Within the shell, deep down in Hell, where reason cannot reach.
It’s down below the waterline, it takes a living toll;
A hot, metal, living hell, that sailors call the “Hole.”
It houses engines run by steam that make the shafts go round,
A place of fire, noise, and heat that beats your spirits down.
Where boilers like a hellish heart, with blood of angry steam,
Are molded gods without remorse, and nightmares in a dream.
Whose threat that from the fire’s roar is like a living doubt,
That any minute would with scorn, escape and crush you out.
Where turbines scream like tortured souls, alone and lost in Hell,
As ordered from above somewhere, they answer every bell.
The men who keep the fires lit, and make the engines run,
Are strangers to the world of night, and rarely see the sun.
They have no time for man or God, no tolerance for fear;
Their aspect pays no living thing, the tribute of a tear.
For there’s not much that men can do, that these men haven’t done,
Beneath the decks, deep in the Hole, to make the engines run.
And every hour of every day, they keep the watch in Hell,
For if the fires ever fail, their ship’s a useless shell.
When ships converge to have a war, upon an angry sea,
The men below just grimly smile, at what their fate might be.
They’re locked below like men foredoomed, they hear no battle cry,
It’s well assumed that if they’re hit, the men below will die.
For every day’s a war down there, when gauges all read red,
Twelve hundred pounds of angry steam can kill you mighty dead.
So if you ever write their sons, or try to tell their tale,
The very words should make you hear, a fired furnace wail.
And people as a general rule, don’t hear of hardened souls,
So little is heard about the place, that sailors call the Hole.
But I can sing about this place, and try to make you see,
The hardened life of men down there, ’cause one of them is me.
I’ve seen these sweat-soaked heroes fight, in superheated air,
To keep their ship alive and right, though no one knows they’re there.
And thus they’ll fight for ages on, till warships sail no more,
Amid the boiler’s Hellish heat, and the turbine’s mighty roar.
So when you see a ship pull out, to meet a warlike foe,
Remember briefly if you can, “The men who sail below.”