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Richard Meltzer's Navy, part 2

The continuing adventures of a most unmilitary writer as he boards the USS Constellation and discovers a sprawling city at sea

Between big healthy spoonfuls of goober 'n' bran. O'Halloran asks if my stay so far has been “rewarding." “Lemme put it this way," I say. “I kind of had this idea when I accepted the assignment that it would be something like sitting in a dentist chair." - Image by Steven Vance
Between big healthy spoonfuls of goober 'n' bran. O'Halloran asks if my stay so far has been “rewarding." “Lemme put it this way," I say. “I kind of had this idea when I accepted the assignment that it would be something like sitting in a dentist chair."

A hot, crummy morn ... oh stop complaining. This is SEA DAY, the day I at last go to sea. Having endured training camp, even if just as a tourist, I am ready to drown — well, anything short of it — if that’s what it takes to get through. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but as I wheel across the Coronado Bay Bridge I can’t help but feel the horror ante increase. On land they were playing war or playing something; at sea they’ll be making it. Or playing making it — which, is still different from just playing playing it. Or whatever. Grownups will be involved this time, which makes it more serious. But like any prideful recruit fresh from graduation, I feel up for whatever they throw at me. I can swim — in a pool — and they’d have to weigh me down to make me sink.

Connie: Totally self-contained and strictly urban

From the bridge you can really see North island, from when: I’ll be flown to my carrier, at least not at an angle of approach that makes it seem as foreboding as it does from nearly anywhere across the bay. From my hotel on Broadway, for inst, it's more than just a dark strip breaking the horizon, 80,000-ton muthas floating at its brim; it’s this ominous place, this masked mainspring of manmade thunder, a different breed of thunder than emanates, usually, from Lindbergh Field. Sight, sound, mystique (Home of Mach-2 Fighter Planes ... Home of Anti-Submarine Warfare): remove the ingredient of sight and it’s just a hot, crummy drive through Coronado.

The Navy is Naval Aviation-- and don't you forget it

A Wing And A Cranial

But an easy one. For my pass at the gate, I’m not even asked for i.d. True, it’s marked “V.l.P.” — but you'd think they’d wanna certify I am the V.l.P. And though Marines with bayonets patrol points of entry, it’s almost as an afterthought that one Finally looks at my pass. Easy. Now to make my flight.

Coaxing the monster/insect

It’s Saturday, few signs of life, no one to direct me to the place where I’ll be “briefed.” Is this the right base? Maybe I’ll just go home. Finally, by map, sweat, and accident I find terminal ... hangar ... V.l.P. lounge. Four v. importants have already arrived. Private-industry sonsofguns, guests of the Admiral, in togs and luggage like they’re bound for Palm Springs. They've got press kits — “WELCOME ABOARD USS CONSTELLATION’’ — mine will have to wait till we’re at sea. Civilians have ranks as well as seamen; I busy myself perusing the list of no’s.

NO pets; live ammunition, grenades, or other explosives; inflammables; magnetrons (magnetrons?); radioactive materials; alcoholic beverages; narcotics; flash bulbs. None of which I've got. (Unless by accident I packed a magnetron.)

I'm sure that if I’d packed my flask of Lamb’s Navy Rum, an option which definitely crossed my mind, this is where they would catch it. There's a feeling in the room — well, I'm feeling — of impending security crunch, one made all the more palpable by the fact that so far. For me it’s virtually been security zilch. Except for a quick bag check at one of the training schools, one so slapdash they didn’t even check the pouch containing my interviewer’s cassette recorder, no one, as far as I can tell, has actually looked through anything. Least not while I was looking. And that biz this morning about not checking i.d., there’s gotta be some backup to that. Somebody could've MURDERED ME last night, gotten my pass, come in my place with a bagload of guns, bombs, and magnetrons. Surely, for the safety of America’s Flagship, they’ll examine my bag (if not my pocket, socks, and a-hole) to certify me safe as the Admiral’s golf pals.

So when “briefing” begins I Figure that’s it, the prelude. We'll hear classified this, no clearance for that; they'll swear us to secrecy, read us our rights and then search us. What we get instead is an explanation of equipment. A demo of the shit we’ll be wearing. “Cranials,” these huge helmeted whatsems with protuberances on three or four separate axes. Large rubber earthings to block out the sound. Lifejackets and how to pull the cords, activate auto-inflation, the dye marker and radio transmitter. Equipped — no search of nothin’ — we board a cozy C-2 transport, a cargo plane.

For the worst flight of my life. Before we even taxi, just loading, the thing jostles worse than most storms I’ve flown in. There’s no windows, none I can see from where I’m sitting, though the way we’re strapped in you can barely turn your neck. We’ll be landing “hard” on the deck of the carrier, hooked to a stop that decelerates us from 120 to zero in three seconds, so they’ve got us backwards to avoid whiplash, strapped triple tight at the shoulders and waist. With the ear-things on there’s an unpleasant sonic isolation; off, it’s so jackhammer loud you just snap 'em back on. And these murky-eyed goggles, we’re wearing goggles in case of flying particles, cargo, whatever — and the way the thing’s flying I'm taking no chances without. The flight is rocky, it’s gruesome, it's supposed to take 15 minutes, half an hour, and at 45 I am sick.

And not puke sick — bone sick. Worst-hangover-of-your-life sick. I've read about “white knuckle” flying: I look at mine and they’re grey. Or maybe everything's grey. Even if it meant losing my tape recorder, Minnesota North Stars cap, and toothpaste, I would rather (I believe) be floating in sea salt, releasing my dye, than experiencing much more of this. Smoke? steam? starts seeping through cracks in the floor and I'm thinking loud, strong, at broadcast volume so maybe they'll hear me, ditch the fucker! ditch the fucker! but they don’t seem to hear and on its own it stops.

Then — guy waves his arm — the prearranged signal — 30 seconds to thud-down. We miss it and swing 'round to try it again. THUD (is that 120'?), of compression (3 seconds?)... certainly feels like zero at this end. For all the air and sea of it it was kinda like a subway crash minus the sound. No dazzling, dramatic swoop of eagles, or even of cargo planes — just thudding strapped in backwards in the dark.

Okay. Glad to have not lost my toothpaste, I arise, deplane, my inner ear telling me of more rocking, more list, than I’d ever have bargained for. I'm not ready for this I'm not ready for this I hate it hate it shit piss goddam son-o-bitchin', and then ... bliss.

Well not yet, not immediately. But OK.

Half The Size Of Arkadelphia, Arkansas

For the first lots of seconds the greeting crew on deck don’t know what to make of this, er, stranger in their midst. The Admiral’s cronies they must know on sight, but who's me? Stares, counterstares, awkward silence, then an outstretched “five” lunges through them like a lance headed straight for my gut. The Fastest Glad-Hand in the West, the palm, digits and wrist of Ensign O’Halloran, Constellation PAO — “Call me Mick.”

I do and then he jabbers jabbers jabbers, shipboard jargon bouncing off me like dry macaroni. “Ladders” is all I pick up, ship talk for stairs. And “knee-knockers,” though I’m not sure I'm hearing it right — these things you bang into in corridors, actually closer to ankle level (Navy humor?), a means, apparently, of gauging distance and location, as in “Go three knee-knockers, hang a left.” The corridors are narrow, just enough room for two abreast.

Getting more personal, “You’re from L A. you say? Well hey. I’m up there a lot, I try to get up there as much as I can, whenever I'm on shore that is, see some hockey. I really like hockey, though I don’t know if you can really call it hockey, the L.A. Kings.” Well fuckaduck — ain’t life funny? I show him (1) my Philadelphia Flyers watch and (2) my cargo-crumpled North Stars cap. We talk Kings — “They really are awful, aren’t they?” — and his hometown team, the St. Louis Blues. He hockey-rants. I hold up my end, and I'd have to say we essentially “hit it off.” He's like this amphetaminized (i.e., supercaffeinated) Dobie Gillis, though really nothing, not even slightly, like Dwayne Hickman.

By the time we ankle-bang it to our first full stop, the TV studio, he's data-fed me a summary of the more salient of his 25 years — Central Missouri State (BA, speech communications), U.S. Marines (washed out of flight school, transferred), loves the Navy (but sea duty wrecks your social life), could imagine “getting into media in the private sector.” He’d certainly have fed me more (who needs summaries?) but his job, right — he still in fact works for the Navy — is to aid me in doing mine. Which means of course show me the ship.

Not him, though, an underling. E-4 Patrick Shelby of Encino. 22. In a kelly green T-shirt that isn’t civilian, it's Navy. Lots of different colors on ship. O'Halloran's in tan, all officers far as I can tell're in tan; nobody wearing covers, no salutes. A casual atmosphere (compared to land) in many ways — even if they’re mostly superficial. A generally casual surface.

As we take to the halls we pass hustle, bustle, nowhere where there isn’t mass movement, or mini-mass, but it’s totally efficient movement — like an anthill. I still don't have my sea legs so I lean the wrong way, bump into people, but they rarely bump into each other. We pass fast food, sailors eating burgers, stop at a candy store (“gecdunk”) for a Snickers.

Everywhere we go there are TVs, hundreds of ’em. Far more, for sure, than you'd find at IBM, General Motors. “We do up to 21 hours of broadcasts daily,” says Shelby, the we being him and his department. The needs of a ship this size are such that Public Affairs deals not only with creeps like me, outsiders — we re barely the hors d'oeuvre. The primary focus is on-ship morale, information. There's even a newspaper.

And size, god, we're talking 5000-plus, says Shelby, “sometimes as high as six,” 2500 permanently attached. He himself has been attached the last three years. “There’s 17 or 18 levels. I'm not sure which, but I've certainly been on them all.” We walk several, and each is different, totally different, different ends of each arc totally different. Faces, uniforms, jobs, attitude. Even heights and weights. Decor I dunno. I don’t even notice it, but personnel — it’s astonishing. It’s like neighborhoods in a city, you’re walking and walking and suddenly — how'd you get here?

Which is how I feel as we enter the turf of Ordnance, these big, scary beefers in red, black-lettered T-shirts that read BOMB BUILDERS. Imagine that in a punk boutique, but that's what they do, they build bombs. And carry them — backs & shoulders like elephants — to be loaded on planes.

And then this spot, another level, Shelby says, “Notice how clean it is here?” I haven't actually been thinking too much about clean, but so tar I guess it hasn't really been as sick-sick antiseptic as the barracks at NTC. This spot, though, this corridor, it’s sick-fuck antiseptic. “Marines live here, these are their quarters” — 80 are on board for security. “As you can see, they have a different standard of clean .” They'd probably shoot you if you spit.

Anyway: neighborhoods. Like in a city. A small one, perhaps, but still a city. And not a big office, not a factory. For one thing, everyone lives here. It’s not just punch in, do eight hours, punch out and go home. Most shifts are twelve on, twelve off, anyway; a higher level of integration into the nature of a day. (Half of instead of part of.) Maybe it is like a factory, as a city — Metropolis as Prophecy fulfilled. Isn't this what life is “supposed to be like” in the, ugh, Soviet Union? Or the Future, you remember that place: subterranean living or Trump Tower (take your pick) — totally self-contained. Nothing contiguous here but the sea; they need TVs to pretend there’s an outside world.

In any event, the feeling is strictly URBAN, a far cry from the training-camp farm. A card-carrying urbanite, I feel so at home I could cry.

An Airman And A Photog

According to the press release Shelby finds me, the full name of my new city is USS Constellation CV-64. Its ancestor, the three-masted, square-rigged frigate Constellation, was the first ship commissioned by U.S. Navy and, in the “undeclared naval war against France” (1798), the first to “engage, defeat and capture” an enemy vessel. The current “Connie,” as her friends call her, was commissioned on October 27, 1961, three short years before she participated, meritoriously, in “retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam.” Johnson visited her in '68, Reagan in '81.

At 85,000 tons, 1079 feet by 270, she, it, is the largest conventionally powered warship ever built by man. Conventional = nonnuclear. There are no nukes aboard. Before I left L.A. I thought I should check this, that there'd be no reactors to enhance any cancers I might be working on, and I breathed a sigh when I found out it was fossil-fueled. But standing with Shelby a level or so above flight deck, each of us with a pair of those antisound things on our ears, watching takeoffs and landings of the Connie's — and the Navy’s — principal “export,” fighter planes, I start wondering whether there might be any of that other kind of nuke aboard. I know it’s subs that have all the missiles; but maybe an old-fashioned bomb or two is down there with the red T-shirt squad. Realizing such info is no doubt classified, and considering it merely to construct a piece of conceptual sculpture (Nearness to Source of Annihilation), I drop the thought and concentrate on digging the planes.

Which really ain’t so hard — it’s fun. In a kind of idler-looking-at-nothing sort of way. You wait, they take off, you take note (if you care) of the vectors of departure, follow ’em awhile, they’re gone. Occasionally one's being readied, fueled, they'll check and find something wrong, the pilot gets out, they fold up the wings, down the hangar. With landings there’s a game you can play. They can — but usually don’t — miss on impact, miss the hook, and have to throttle up, off, try it again. So you count the attempts — all flights — when it happens consecutive. While I’m watching it’s never more than two. Nothing particularly exciting about it, mainly it's just kind of bearable in the way that watching 13-year-olds play touch football can be bearable (but the Super Bowl you need to have a bet on). If I had nothing better to do, I could probably watch it for hours. F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets — like the ones that were used in Libya.

“The main purpose of these short deployments,” says Shelby once we’re somewhere his words can be heard, “is to qualify pilots, those that need so many landings, so many flight hours, to qualify.” The Connie at this moment is less than a week into a scheduled two weeks at sea, never very far from San Diego, anywhere from just under 50 miles out to perhaps as many as 125. On the longer runs, the WESTPACS, in tandem with the rest of the Seventh Fleet, six or more months and a couple of oceans (Pacific, Indian) are consumed, and jets from the Connie's air wing will at times take off and land without a minute’s break for 48 hours. There’ve been much bigger gaps than that today. Yet even with less seemingly on the line, there's little doubt that the principal basic thrust of this here run, indeed of all life aboard ship, is to assure, in myriad possible ways, the ongoing potency of the Connie’s piece of U.S. Naval Aviation pie. The Navy is Naval Aviation — and don’t you forget it.

At hangar level we peruse the merchandise. Jets being serviced or sleeping awhile. “They look like monsters, don’t they?” says Shelby. “Yeah — or big insects,” I say. As we watch repairs I wonder aloud how these guys must feel, being airmen — not seamen — in the reigning taxonomy, and yet having no real shot at ever flying themselves. Pilots are airmen/officers; only officers (i.e., college boys) fly. “It’s a joke,” says Shelby. “It takes a college education to fly, but only a high school education to keep it operational. Does one seem less technical than the other to you?"

Turns out he’s still, technically, an airman himself, even though he’s fully attached to PAO, serving as the ship's unofficial photographer. To be official, he’d have to have a journalism (JO) rating, calling for a stretch at the Navy's journalism school in Indiana. Such has been dangled but never, he claims, credibly offered. “It's been a snowjob since day one.” Fresh from high school, an amateur photog of rock concerts, he'd been accepted by Arizona State but at the last second visited a Navy recruiter. Sure he could get into photojournalism (but the airman quota needed to be filled): “I’ve fixed airplanes, there’s a sense of achievement, I can do it as well as it takes. But it’s not what I want to be doing, either for the Navy or with my life.” In the past year, the last of his initial enlistment, he was given re-enlistment — well before the fact — as prerequisite for the three-month journalism course. If they didn’t trust him, he reasoned, why should he trust them? In less than a month, his enlistment up, he’ll rejoin the civilian populace.

“I’ve made lots of friends, seen lots of places, but it’s time I grew up, started doing something meaningful with my life. I hope I get out in time to shoot some rolls of Hands Across America—my release date is in some dispute. Or that peace march, whatever it’s called, the one that keeps getting interrupted by rain. And I even have a screenplay up my sleeve — don’t laugh—sort of an enlisted man's version of An Officer and a Gentleman.”

Pacific, Mother Of Fish

I don’t laugh; I like the kid. Admire him. At 22 he’s got the bulk of his youth still ahead, with mem’ries of Navy to flavor it. He’s been totally forthcoming with me, straightforward, the first of the lot (I would guess) who's kept nothing hid. He's shown me a ship, a city, and now he shows me the sea.

“On WESTPAC this would be reserved for officers” — we stand on a strip of ship, port or Starboard, I dun-no, adjacent to the hangar. “I’ve seen whales from here, dolphins.”

“Sharks?”

“At least their dorsals.” We're moving, the ship is, at a good clip, into the wind, enough to give the planes an added lift. I stick my face out, nice breeze, but we're tew high up to feel the spray. My legs, body are slowly getting accustomed to the rock, the sway. It’s a sunny, sunny afternoon, but the side we're on is shaded. On the other side the sea is white, here except for highlights, patches, it’s transcendently, mindbogglingly BLUE. I remember a Beach Boys album cover where the color of somebody’s shirt was actually identified — how pretentious, I thought — as “Pacific blue.” Well here 'tis! What a fucking blue! You could tell it from the kelp/sludge green of the Atlantic without a second’s thought. If they blindfolded you and dropped you in an ocean, you’d have no trouble, once you got back your sight, deciding to check the “A” or the “P.” What an ocean: pacific ... “peaceful.” It is. I hum the main theme from Victory at Sea. I am ... euphoric.

And then we see some beds. Lousy beds. The ones enlisted sleep on. Or in. In is probably more accurate than on. There's nothing above you but the next mattress up or the ceiling. Very tight, these bunks. “Berths” — Shelby corrects me. He sleeps in one (valued @ $170 a month by the Navy). There’s miles of 'em; it’s a good thing they don't berth you vertically. I’m thinking: reasons to be bitter. And then I meet Mike Campbell.

From PAO. This vivid scowl on his face, like you see in photos of Marcel Cerdan or Roberto Duran, he storms past his berth, throws track shoes in his locker, gnashes teeth, stands there with this look like you're supposed to know what he’s thinking. We don’t. Finally, peeved that he’s gotta make it verbal: “The bastards wouldn’t let me jog!” Is that right?

Campbell, 35, E-6, is the Bitterest Man in the Navy, the bitterest person (other than myself) I have met. A graduate of the U. of Maryland, where he almost played football (injured something) and his father was or is the swimming coach, he joined the Navy at 27 to frontally, forcibly muck his way into a different arena of life. “I was doing this, I was doing that, you know.’’ For the Navy what he got to do was one of these dream gigs, the kind / would even do if I was 27, 28 and they offered it to me: sportscasting. Did a daily sports report for Armed Forces Radio in Hollywood, wrote his own copy, lived in an apartment in Van Nuys the land of jogging, got occasional passes to Laker and Dodger games. Did this for the better part of two enlistments.

Then whudda they do, they look at his record. “They discover I’ve never been to sea. It’s the Navy, right, so they stick me on this horrible boat.” Six months ago. What bothers him most is not the no jogging, it’s the no radio. There’s radio, sure, but not for him. He’s gotta do it, read sports, on a nightly PAO-originated live TV newscast at 1800 (6 P.M.). “I hate looking at the camera, trying to pretend I’m at ease. I’m a serious professional, I try to be a competent journalist — but it’s TV and who the hell cares? By the way,” he asks Shelby, “did they fix the teleprompter yet?”

“I don’t know, let’s go check.”

Goddammit, they better. I am not gonna read my copy off a piece of typed paper I’m holding in front of me. Do you know how awful that would look?”

“Let’s go check.”

We do and the news isn’t good. It seems someone from electronics has been by, tried to improvise, couldn’t come up with a part in stock that would work. Had this been a longer deployment, the exact part might've been aboard in abundance, but no luck today. BUT. But reprieve. The ship in the interim has journeyed close enough to shore for its master receiver to pick up land-originated signals, and the network news has been slated in place of PAO’s.

Canceled?" — Mr. Bitter responding. “I’ve written my copy, I’ve picked out goddam slides of Leon Spinks” — there’s a Leon story, he’s bankrupt or something — “and they cancel us?! Goddammit.”

The Guys (I Love 'em)

Well, hey, I'm easy to please. Show me some tapes instead. Of a newscast. So I can see what it’s like. I’m on this assignment, remember? Oh, sure.

I really dig their reluctance to show-and-tell. To serve up hefty exemplars of what they do; who cares (I don’t right now) what the rest of this city-at-sea does a-working? The men of Connie PAO — I’ll introduce them — are, it gushingly dawns on me, my PEERS. I’m not a journalist. Am I a journalist? Maybe I’m a journalist. What’s a journalist? Same with all of them. (We all work hard and who, generally, cares?) Without doubt this is the most likable assortment of grownups in the same — pardon the pun — boat as myself that I’ve stumbled upon in 10-15 years. By which I mean it doesn’t even matter how “well” they write, photograph, read (or not) from a teleprompter or sheet. I like them as people. I’m a firm believer in adhominem, lemme just see what they’ve got.

One thing they’ve got is their newssheet. Tune and Tides, a thousand copies daily — read it and pass to a friend. “Carbomb Kills Five, Injures Six in Madrid Residential District” — story “compiled from AP and UPI.” Compiled means Jon Knutson, for instance, part-time cartoonist and host of Flashback Rock Attack on KCON Radio, reads the wire reports and, quick as a whip, paraphrases them at a word processor. Paraphrasing I’ve always respected.

And the handy, winsome Connie Television Show Guide, a biweekly 20-pager. Photos on the cover (Shelby’s) of bathing-suited Australian “foxes,” from the most recent WESTPAC stop in Perth. As we’re sitting drinking coffee, Diet Cokes, Ghostbusters blares on the studio monitor, channel 11, and a flip through the Guide reveals Oh God! You Devil as the competition on ch. 13. Followed by: Jaws II, Benny Hill. Two channels, 21 hours daily, unless more is coming in from land.

Shelby inserts a cassette of the PAO newscast from the day the shuttle blew up. Chief Waldrop, ostensible head of the department, at least of its ongoing operations in this room in lieu of Ensign O’Halloran or this bigger cheese I never get to meet, protests its preemption of Ghostbusters, which is just at the good part with all the slime. “Why would he wanna see that?" he queries. Hell, Chief, to see you! I see him read news of the shuttle. Low-key, no obnoxious facial histrionics. Razor-cut and neat as a pin, kind of like former Laker announcer Lynn Shackleford, he could pass — ’cept for the dress blues — as anchorman for virtually any city’s nonnetwork 10 P.M. news show. It would have to be a western city, though — the accent’s a giveaway.

Before joining the Navy in ’72, Paul Waldrop, now 33-34, deejayed in New Mexico and Arizona at various 10,000-watt, m.o.r./playlist type stations. Three years into his first hitch he met his wife, also Naval, at the very journalism school which has terminally eluded Shelby. When in port, he and the missus work a block apart; she does training films for Naval Aviation/North Island. His next assignment, not far off, is a public affairs staff position in D.C. with the Chief of Naval Operations. If he ever makes it to press sec for some president, he will hardly be the biggest dip, or drip, who has held the post. A very easy-going boss/manager; I wouldn't mind working for him at a 10,000-watt station in L A.

After Waldrop comes Campbell. He isn't too good. Even with the teleprompter he's a nervous wreck. A commentary on the New England Patriots' alleged coke abuse prior to (and during?) the Super Bowl. Lots of actual humor, drug puns by no means stale, it would probably play — well — as printed copy. But vocally delivered—before a camera — I can readily see what the guy's been complaining about. I turn and face him in the here and now, off tape; he looks ashen.

To cheer him up, I agree to read a few of his boxing pieces, stuff he’s had published from time to time in limited-circulation Navy pulps. His scrapbook's right there, I read one about this Navy fighter who keeps retiring and unretiring and can't quite get the hang of it either way. He’s just lost his latest comeback bid on a cut, bringing his overall record to something like 27-12. While not the work of an A.J. Liebling or a Dan Parker, the piece exudes as deep a compassion for the plight of the also-ran as boxing prose generally allows itself to do. I tell Campbell this—the compassion part — and his face gladdens. I’ve also got a hunch — something in the piece — and I ask him, “You ever read any Kerouac?”

“Only 17 of his novels.”

“How about Tristessa?'

“That's the one I never read.”

“What'd you think of Big Sur?'

“Oh-h-h, that and The Subterraneans are my favorites.”

Dr. Sax wasn't too good.”

“No, but I tell you, he's one of the reasons I'm a writer. Not to mention my leading the kind of life that led me here." We talk about Dhanna Bums, we talk Vanity of Duluoz and On the Road, somehow we get to talking Thoreau. “He’s too radical for me,” says Mike.

“That's funny. I think he’s too suburban.”

“Shit — I haven’t had a talk like this in years.”

At which point a knock on the door. As I'm closest, I open. The return of Ensign O'Halloran. Big gaudy smile, first words out of his mouth: “Hey! How's your day been?”

“Great” I say, “really great.” All magnanimity, I add: “And yours?"

“Oh, hey, wow — if it went any better I couldn't stand it.”

The World's Best Pizza

O'H is back to take me to din-din. The wardroom, officers' mess. A far cry from recruit sloptown, NTC. Roundtable seating. Cloth napkins in individual imprint-lettered compartments, so you don’t confuse your own with Lieutenant Schmuck’s. A bunch of cabbages carved, hacked and tinted to resemble a basket of flowers — compliments of some overachiever at Mess Mgmt. School. Possibly a Philippiner; every mess manager I see is that or black. Realizing this is the first time I've been in a room with only officers, this many of them, I do an ethnic check: all white, nobody black, brown, yellow, or even particularly tan. Every white person near us receives from the ensign a methodically inflected, yet unquestionably sincere, “Hey howzit going?” which when returned in kind leads to auto-variations on “Any better I couldn’t stand it” — which I now take to be his signature, known in wardrooms far and wide. A heckuva guy.

The main course tonight is pizza, that and/or lasagna and/or Italian sausage. I take all three. Broccoli w/ hard-boiled egg; salad bar; butterscotch pudding; water recycled from the sea. I know pizza, I’m no fool, and this pizza is good. The third or fourth best I think — yes—I have eaten. Certainly the best non-storebought I can remember. Good fucking meal!

As we scarf, the ensign and I talk hockey, nothing else seems as e-z a means of conversing in the Void. The Stanley Cup playoffs — “The Blues have a chance, they really do, I think they can beat Calgary, well I dunno”—the days (before his time) before goalies wore masks. Seeing a group of Marines across the room, he grows wistful. “Sometimes I miss the Marines, wish I could’ve stuck it out, what I miss, they had better discipline.’’ This, the discipline biz, is the first totally noncredible thing I’ve heard him say. I like him much better when he wavers, in fact that’s what I like him for. He could advocate anything and its polar opposite — without breaking stride — in less than seven seconds. I can imagine him a lobbyist, a spokesman for YAT (Young Americans for Tofu) or the ANSPF (Association of Newspaper Subscribers, Paid-in-Full). If I had to guess his politics, party affiliation, any of that, I would guess all.

I check his plate; so far I’ve been busy with my own. Smaller portions of basically the same as what I’ve got, but upon his salad greens sits a mound of cottage cheese, and atop that cheese: peanut butter.

Officers Are Lonely People Too

So hey, here it is SATURDAY NIGHT, time for dunno ... how about a movie? Well not the big-screen kind, nor even the screen-screen kind — whaddaya think this is, the '70s? — 21-inch cathode will have to do. Sweet Dreams, the story of Patsy Kline starring whatsername, the one Sam Shepard’s sleeping with, on the PAO VCR. An Ensign O’Halloran Special, invitation-only, at 2030 — 8:30 PM. But just for options, let’s see, on the teevee itself is a choice between Day the Earth Stood Still and Jaws III, and slightly later Meryl Streep in Plenty. “Who wants to look at Meryl,” declares a guest, “when you’ve got Jessica Lange!?” — so Sweet Dreams it is. A library copy. For officers, chiefs, and me.

And Mike Campbell, he’s still around, still fuming about something or other. Maybe he tried to jog again. He grumbles, snorts, talks through the film unfazed by ranking manjacks praying for his death, one great kiss-my-ass of a mothereffer. A great guy, a great negative presence — him and Lester Bangs would’ve been some punchout — but even just the officers, straight to the nth with no measurable irony: even their homey ness really gets to my soul.

Or their away-from-homeyness, their universal never-at-homeyness, the at-seahood per se of folks whose lives (by choice) are “in transit,” “at sea” — forever (for now) beyond the landmass-contexted blankety blah blah. It’s as if — pardon my romanticism —everything plays because nothing does ... something the sea just plain giveth, y'all. Onscreen, Ed Harris tells Jessica/Patsy his name is Charlie DICK, she cracks up and dang it if they all — we all — don’t as well, just like that chain gang in Sullivan's Travels getting off on a Goofy cartoon. He then confesses that he’s got more in mind than “bumping uglies”, and we like explode. We settle down, a roly-poly lieutenant from Wyoming (Claude Akins could play him) asks, “What, you never heard that before?” to which a bespectacled Wally Cox from the Personnel Dept, offers, “Yeah — in Wyoming!” Haw, double haw — it’s fast, furious, stoopid, and it plays.

Lookit, I’ve been in many alien social environments — who hasn't? — where all the hi-jinx just strike you as so damn corny, so yucky, that just to endure the whole thing you internally one-up it, mock it silly in your burning, cluttered skull till you end up feeling like an overheated, overwrought elitist prick. It bums you, you bum yourself. It’s so easy to fall into that. Or if you're desperately lonely you might advantageously lie to yourself, forcibly suspend disbelief, disaffection — or get drunk. Well in this setup I am not feeling that depth of lonely, maybe just catching peeks of the shared common-mammal abyss that Celine, Bukowski, Henry Miller wrote about so much, and drinking is of course not an option. I’m sure that if I’d smuggled my rum these guys could dig it — probably — but more than that I’m simply, truly enjoying this crap, having actual gosh-damn fun, feeling a part of things in disarmingly direct proportion to their innate hokeyness.

It’s the most communal fun I’ve had before a TV, in fact, since 1970, me and the Blue Oyster Cult watching Wide World of Sports, laughing, hooting, throwing objects at the screen — watching professional woodchopping from Wisconsin. True, a number of us were on acid at the time, but, hell, the shared humanity (of sitting still, together, for relentless maxi-stoopid) was cuttable with a toy knife. Y'know undeniable. And here, April ’86, 100 miles of brine from the nearest, I am gripped by a twinge of the same damn whatever-the-hey. “Camaraderie,” bathos-as-pathos, nonselfconscious lamebrain-interpersonal kneejerk hoop-de-doo.

I'm feelin' good, in on the rhythm, and when Patsy gets all bloodied in this car smackup and Chief Waldrop says, “I thought she died in a plane crash,” I shoot right in with “This is only the dress rehearsal .” 'S automatic, nothing forced, and of course it ain't funny — but it gets howls, actual howls. Wally Cox yells, “There's a sicko back there!'' Which O'Halloran, bless him, clarifies: “Finin' right in!” Charles Manson, Pee Wee Herman, Salvador Dali, King Farouk...who wouldn't fit right in? Still I feel like a million, a thousand, at least a hundred bucks.

And I really wish I and all my buddies (c'mon, it wouldn't sink us!) could right now have us a BEER. Even a light. Don’t the Brits have a daily grog ration? What's the harm of one Bud Light a night?

THUNK go the landings overhead, THUMP. All this fun, all this levity, it's time I went and did some work. All night there've been planes coming in at the same sort of rate as by day. We're just three levels down and you can't help but hear it, feel it. Like living under a freeway or watching movies at a drive-in near an airport, you get used to it (but it won't go away). Anyhow it's time I earned my keep observing the war machine by night: the rocket’s red glare; the courage of commissioned peckers landing their aircraft in the perilsome ebony blight. I reach for my jacket, nod at O'H, and he grabs for his. Doin' my job, him doin’ his — he can always replay the cassette. We reach the door, some lout says, “Where you guys goin' — to rub uglies?” Wyoming corrects: “Bump uglies.” What a swell bunch.

Outside it’s as good ’n’ cold as I reckoned it'd be. My ear-covers, on or off, make the night alternately dark ’n silent, dark ‘n roaring. Some stars but I can’t find the moon. Maybe behind a radar tower ... no, can’t locate it. Nightwind, nice, but we’re still too high to encounter spray. We go fore, we go aft. I bang into railings, stumble a few times, O'Halloran grabs me — arm, jacket — don't wanna lose that civilian.

Jets take off, quickly vanish. Others approach, headlights red/yellow/green, closer, larger, wings sway — boom — sparks on impact. Sparks are more visible than by day, a higher percentage of landings seem to be scrapped, the degree of difficulty is obviously heightened, but, honestly, the whole thing is not more dramatic. To this observer (I ain't no pilot), observing. The highlight of the whole thing is these crewmen down there directing stuff, more high-contrast against the tarmac than in sunlight, their yellow reflectors finally reflecting, dancing this massive choreography not only more functional than your average football halftime show (or the Joffrey Ballet) but more structurally interesting, more “entertaining.” But the planes, yeah, I could still watch them for hours, let's say half an hour, though I settle for 15 minutes — my ensign has been freezing enough.

What We Talk About

Where better than at sea to “go with the flow”? Giddy from the night sea air, I make haste for the first available digression, thus never learning, with absolute certainty, how Sweet Dreams turns out. Since Hollywood never lies, I trust it is somewhat in line with our knowing — spectacular flaming horrible aero-DEATH — and forsake audiovisual for mere audio. KCON, 100.5 on your FM dial. Next door to TV and a tad more impressive.

The only cable-TV public access studios I've seen have had three cameras, two or more working; the Constellation's, last time I looked, seemed to have one. One is fine, but — just for comparison. KCON Radio, on the other hand, seems far better equipped than the best-equipped airwave dive I've worked at, the admittedly underequipped KPFK (“listener sponsored”). But my new host, and latest PAO hellcat, Joe Wikowski, is not easily impressed by glib relativism. “It's really nothing," he says, pointing to the turntables, the tape decks, the console, each of them unrusty, undusty, nothing less than functional and functioning, “it can't be worth more than a million or so.” Which to me, factoring in a maximum audience of 5-6 thousand, none of whom are either listener-sponsors or consumers of advertisers' products, seems not only impressive, it seems almost excessive. But what do I know?

I quickly surmise that Joe is but the latest (and perhaps greatest) of PAO's nonself-edited fast-lips. Kind of like that guy Goose in Top Gun, but less a wise-ass for the sake of sociability, more a pure existential malcontent — like Bruce Dern in Wild Angels. At 23 or 24, he’s hardly old enough, like Mike Campbell, to be genuinely bitter; much of his dismay is the dismay of time-trapped sensitive youth. “The music today” — he shakes his head, motions toward the tape being broadcast — “the Cars, Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper. All these people care about is their wallet. Personal expression doesn't mean shit." I utter the secret password — the nineteen ... uh ... SIXTIES! — and his eyes light up, they light up the room, and suddenly we’re brothers. Hendrix, the Yardbirds, the early days of the good ol' Grateful Dead — the before-his-timers he knows are better and truer than ANYTHING now: I actually saw these people play, and he just wants to hear about it, talk about it. The eagerest student of history I’ve ever met. By the time we’ve exhausted bands, concerts, festivals, he’s on many cylinders, flying.

"And the Navy,” he opines, "what does the Navy care about personal expression? They’re so concerned with image, see, we were in port once and they wouldn't let me leave until I got a haircut — it was no longer than this.” Shorter than mine, it’s the length favored by your average stockbroker. "And a belt, I had to put on a belt, can you believe it? They just thought it wouldn’t look right for a member of the organization to look any different from anyone else. But," shifting gears, “there are a lot of misfits in the Navy, in all the services. This protected little setup attracts them. They come in for a new start, a ‘new beginning' — and then what? There's guys here, for instance, who’ll talk about women but will not talk about pussy."

We, actually he, talks a little about pussy, how it, lots of it, helped break up his marriage when he played drums for a rock lounge act in Cleveland. He then speaks of his father, a cabinetmaker, and his stepfather, a cop (or vice versa), and how neither could understand his devotion to music. How' he drummed with an on-ship pickup band at a Connie “steel beach" — barbecues and whatnot out on the flight deck — “the greatest I’ve ever felt in my life, man, communicating through music — it was better than pussy, better than getting high.”

Uh oh: territory I refuse to get into. No Hunter Thompson, no "investigative reporter,” I will not ask the cheap question "Whuddabout drugs?” On a tear, he answers it anyway. "I don’t do that shit, not anymore, it’s the one thing I joined the Navy to get away from. The partying was definitely screwing up my life. But there’s guys on ships who still like to party, even with the tests. You can see it in their faces sometimes, just back from shore, you know. I hear in fact they don’t test for acid, it’s not one of the things they check your urine for. Say, is there anything I could show you that you haven’t seen? They don’t really like me taking tours around, but... ”

"I don’t think I’ve seen anything all that digital. I thought the Navy would be digital and nothing but."

“No digital ? Hasn't anyone shown you Vultures' Row?"

“Uh, whuh..."

“Radar for the planes? Well I'll take you ...let's go."

He gets someone to man the tape deck, and we run, do not walk, down tunnels, up ladders, dashing past people in the red monochrome of the Connie by nightlight. Joe's got his mission and I huff, puff, follow him stride for stride. Pant, pant — I could be asleep by now — and then... sheer dazzlement.

The War Machine, Finally

Dials, consoles, computers, headsets; big spinning reels of multi-inch tape. Light qua light, sound qua sound, picto-images, numerals. Systems, backup systems, backups for the backups (for the backups). Monitors monitoring air speed, fuel consumption, cloud formation, cockpit fart pressure — every quantifiable datum, phantom, feasibility remotely pertinent to every fighter, transport, helicopter, you-name-it in flight. Eleventeen grids with hupteen luminous variants of your age-old “techno-naturalistic" radar-qua-radar cliché: blips, radial symmetry, amoebic geo-mystery. Skaty-eight others with sporty. New Age, “art-directed" visuals, like this great big’un with a cartoon of a racetrack with all the planes lit up counterclockwise in projected sequence of approach. Rather than duplicate (or triplicate) this particular whoozis — i.e., buy identical hardware just so you could view it from multiple stations or adjacent rooms — they’ve got a stationary camera on it, hooked up to deliver an acceptable closed-circuit facsimile to one or more (slightly smaller) mere TVs. Thus saving the Navy the combined GNPs of Italy, Belgium, and Swaziland; in a room so given to overstatement, even the cost-effectiveness is truly baroque. Total outlay cannot be less than $1,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Which is certainly more than Hollywood spends on its high tech, and even just the look of all this makes anything in Top Gun (Star Wars. War Games, 2010) seem like so much diet margarine, diet shit. Plus, natch, obviously this hardware works, has more explicit function than to thrill and chill the senses. There's this unit I'm shown, for inst, which can actually computer-land a plane whose pilot is disabled, comatose — or even dead. (Why allow a stiff to cost you your property?) Speaking of which — death — maybe it was the Air Force which snuffed terrorizes & civilians in Tripoli (losing two airmen and a U.S. warplane in the process), but it was the Navy, skippered from rooms just like this, which iced Benghazi (losing zip).

Not that the moment, the situation — right here, right now — feels particularly MILITARY. Warlike or martial. Soldierly. And even if you factored in simulated targets, which since they’re not part of the lecture I’m getting I would guess aren’t part of this night's festivities. I'm further guessing that it wouldn't make much difference. Not in the tenor of human (life-death) hustle-bustle in this most un-military of sanctums. Everything’s cool, slickly efficient, and could not conceivably be otherwise, not as long as technology such as this is its bone, marrow, nervous system, bowels, blood, muscle.

From this end at least — bracketing of course the input of “policy” — even human failure (for instance) could in the worst-case of scenarios hardly exceed the proverbial drop in the bucket. And what, pray tell, “is” the bucket? War, even WAR, especially against those quasi-pathetic underlings whom the admiral at graduation had the gall to dub “and others,” is so prefab from the micro-chip getgo that all functional now-ness, all human-protoplasmic DRAMA, has been all but obliterated for the hardware-certified victors. Even as a literal chessgame — all “cerebrum,” zero “heart” — war on this level (excepting — perhaps? — the hypothetical Big One) is something already stored in a micro-chip vault, with even heartless mindset-per-se, still a station of some human cross, relegated forever to less than the role of a pawn ... participatorially, “existentially,” speaking.

All of which is something YOU know, I know, just from going to movies, reading pulps, watching sitcoms or the news, but to be confronted with IT on its own chessboard — like wow. The union of knowing and seeing can itself be dazzling, and well yeah, I am. Dazzled.

Then, more dazzerrific still, I see some active pawns. Very active. The chief who's showing me indicates this plexiglass wall with guys on the other side scribbling numbers backwards. Well not scribbly, they're extremely neat, legible, but these cats are fast. And what a skill, imagine the Navy screening for guys who can write fast, neat, and backwards. So 09 this side it reads forwards and "you don’t have writers obstructing your sight lines. There’s more.

The reason they’ve got people doing this is machines’re no quicker. Info comes in from the fly-boys, it comes in as human-voiced sound, and to get it on a high-tech display board you’d still need persons to punch it in. So why not just have them write it? They’ve got stereo headsets to in fact receive two sets at once, two separate infos, each in a different frequency, a different — as it were — key or octave. The Navy did tests, determined that persons can actually do this, quickly and efficiently, with technology (the headsets) as only an indirect intermediary. Of course it’s all backed up, tapes record everything, it prob’ly goes onto an instant paper printout, but for instant GRAPHIC purposes, for the whole room to see, it’s been placed in the literal hands of physical persons. Persons as machines.

Poor Joe Wikowski, meantime, has got his hands full as well. The room is lousy with off-duty pilots — it’s a great show, so why not hang out? As the lowest ranking enlisted man in their midst, it is Joe's misfortune to be coffee flunky-designate. “With sugar!” “Just milk!” “Two, black!” Boorish and imperious, these blowhards are a far cry from the goodhearted lowlifes, the jus1 folks cowboys of Top Gun. This year, by recent estimate, 52% of all first-tour Navy pilots whose enlistments are up will jettison the service, most of them to work for major airlines. In 1985 the enlistment bonus of $36,000 for carrier-based fliers was insufficient to keep 47% from leaving, and the Navy wants to raise it to 48 thou. These guys — they’re running Joseph silly — are opportunist trash. A change of clothes and you’d see them for what, in spirit, they already are: golfers with condos, stewardess-fuckers with gold chains and a paunch.

When later an enlisted refers to Vultures’ Row as “The Officers’ Space,” I nod at both his ill-concealed contempt and the joke.

Victory at Pee

Sleepytime chez Connie: a “stateroom” of my own. That's what they call it (and that’s what it is). Two-thirds the size of my kitchen, slightly larger than my john, no portholes like in Mr. Roberts, but by Constellation standards one airy, roomy chamber de sleep. A pair of bunk beds, no roommate, drawers and a closet, a sink. Stateroom #031442; officers should have it so good. Or so private. Many, I'm told, have their own TVs; all but the seniorest, howev, have also got roomies.

I search the joint for remnants — has anyone left state secrets or his socks? — and, finding nothing, opt for sleep. Good mattress, clean linen, nice soothing roll to the boat. If it weren't for the light left on I'd be sleepin’ pretty. Didn't bring an alarm, maybe I should buy one of those cheap digitals you can set, but I need to be up by (J700 and all I've got is my nonsettable nondigital by the bed. Which doesn’t glow, so I’ll need the light. So I can be up, dressed, and ready for chow with either — whichever shows up first — Shelby or Ensign O'Halloran. I told them both 7:00 but am hoping for Shelby. Don’t wanna hurt O’H’s feelings, but I would like to sample an enlisted meal at sea.

The hours go fast: I sleep, wake, dream. Dreams of soggy toast (eight slices) and a cup of raspberry glop. In addition to the lulling roll there's this not-unpleasant nautical creaking and some sort of patter in the walls that since it can't be mice I take for rainfall. Twice I need a piss and use-the sink. It drains real slow, doesn't all go down, but why get dressed just to use the communal “head'' down the hall? My sole anarchic act as a guest of the Navy (aside from mental blasphemy). Hopefully some poor underling will clean up before the next civilian uses it to soak his dentures or scrotum.

At 10 to 7 by my watch, dressed, groomed, unshaven (I forgot to pack a razor), I unlock my stateroom and behold a new day, fully lit, fully back in semblance of stride. Sailors this way and that. “Sweepers!” — on the PA — “man your brooms, give us a good, clean ship.” I'm reminded, not un-nostalgically, of a summer job, high school years, cleaning up garbage on Rockaway Beach. No broom, no PA, but a pick and basket, a uniform. Same hours, even earlier (proof I could once have done same).

At 7:25, neither chap having shown, I explore thoroughly between mattress and wall, both berths, and around the outer edges between mattress and springs. Perhaps a reporter from Life or Argosy, back in the days of 'Nam, left behind a smutty magazoon, a not-yet-yellowed Ian Fleming. At 7:30 I abandon my search for journalistic Roots, decide that in ten minutes, maybe less, I will chuck the waiting and chug on over to TV Town. In the interim, why not. I’ll examine the paint on the wall. Beige, it appears, has recently, or maybe not so recently, been spray-painted over what’s this, grey? pastel blue?... and at 7:35, knock knock, a cheery knock so I know who it is: O'Halloran. Who, I will soon discover, puts peanut butter in his cereal.

Some kind of bran flakes. I skip cereal. The only cold item I have besides juice is pineapple rings, canned. Everything else is off this master list you check — type of eggs, type of meat, type of spuds — and a WAITER takes the order and SERVES YOU. A black guy. I check over/light, hash, home fries, pancakes. Ketchup and hot sauce already at your seat. I can't imagine officers feeling cheated by an A.M. grubdown like this; breakfast on a par with the finest I've gobbled. The best corned beef hash. World-class potatoes. Moderately ungreasy eggs. Pancakes stiff, machine-grilled, but gee. What more could you want — service in bed? If enlisteds ate like this, even twice a week, they would I dunno, work harder, complain less, kiss superior ass ... so it's just as well they don't. (Unless they do — where the heck was Shelby? — and I'll simply never know.)

An Officer And A Dentist

Between big healthy spoonfuls of goober 'n' bran. O'Halloran asks if my stay so far has been “rewarding." “Lemme put it this way," I say. “I kind of had this idea when I accepted the assignment that it would be something like sitting in a dentist chair, that it would be at least mildly disagreeable and I wouldn’t be able to leave. As it turns out. I'm having so much fun — let's go on record — “that I really regret having to leave so soon."

Wow, hey. A civilian who can dig it. A job well done — how many more months before he's Lieutenant/Junior Grade? — though little can he know how little, or how much, he's personally had to do with it. Before he can verbalize any, or none, of this, however, a REAL DENTIST arrives — I'm not making this up. “Head Tooth" Dave Koffler sits down to join us, and O'H autoshifts, powerdrives a hale, hearty heyhowzitgoing.

Ah! the fortuity of it all. Up to this point I have got on with officers. I've occasionally enjoyed officers. I’ve even I guess learned from officers; but no, in all truth I have not fully, openly conversed with one. Jawed with no self-edit. Shot the actual shit. Well me and Koffler — you’d have to call us soul-rappin' confreres. Right off the bat it’s like we’ve got this thing in common and that thing and ... we even used to take the same drugs. Some of ’em. Back when I partied myself (in a previous lifetime. Don't know about illegal drugs, I mean in any of his previous lifetimes. That stuff — hey — we're gents and who needs to talk it? But legal and store bought, we're talking and he says, right out of nowhere, “I bet you took morning glory seeds.” I smile, sure. And nutmeg.” Ditto.

"Nutmeg?" says O’H. who’d’ve been five or six when we were downing tins of it. "Yeah," say us in unison, it's a real seagoing drug,’’ says me. "Pirates used to take it.”

This is after it's been determined that we re both 40, both went to college in the Greater New York area (him. Columbia: me. Stony Brook out on Long Island), graduated a year apart (me, 66; him. 67. He played football, varsity defensive back, in the days (I spit in) “when Columbia was 1-and-9, 0-and-10 every year.” Right, and he knew Mark Rudd, they were in some classes and after graduation he dodged for a while” before getting down to the business of avoiding (specifically) the Army. Vietnam era. Naval OCS — “The competition was fierce. " If you didn't pan out as an officer they'd just “recycle you back to 1-A. and you’d end up dead in the infantry.” “I was 4-F,” I state sheepishly; he shoots me a grin with affection.

“You do any graduate work?” he asks.

“Yeah, ha, philosophy, for about ten minutes at Yale.”

Philosophy, how does it go — 'Hume won't and Immanuel Kant'? How’d you like New Haven?”

“It was so dull the only action w'as every Tuesday and Thursday when the new comics came out.”

“Comics! I had membership card number 37 in the Merry Marvel Marching Society! Last time I was home I looked for it, I couldn't find it. God. the comics were great back then.” “Yeah, like those early issues of Thor, Daredevil... say, are you literally Head Tooth on this boat?”

“Oh, yeah. I've got a terrific staff and everything”

And so on. Before we're through we talk wisdom teeth Columbia 60s politics, Columbia footballer Jack Kerouac, Stony Brook the freak school,” his son who wants to attend Princeton (“And live in New Jersey?” “That’s exactly what I tell him”) Dave Koffler of Ohio — I forget to catch his rank — as fine a total stranger as I ever hope to meet. (Whom for fucksure I will not see again.)

Goodbye, Sob, Goodbye

Shelby’s got an alibi, a fine one, for how come he failed to wake me up. “I didn’t sleep very well,” he explains, “thinking of Heather Locklear” (But was it about her pussy I wonder.)

All I ask to be shown this morning is the boiler room. Show me some steam. Shelby's been down there — but not often. Nobody’s ever specifically requested it. Down, down down, down — all the way down. Or so I think. But we've only reached the auxiliary boiler room, no steam, lots of air-conditioning jets, loud but fairly temperate. You wanna go further, see the main boiler room?” he asks. Naw. this is plenty. We trudge back up, a real workout, one eighth tin height of the World Trade Center. "Is there anything else?”

In my general giddiness I neglect an attraction. I will later sorely rue having missed: the fantail. Don’t know if it's even a place, a single place, lots of places or just a state of garbage possibility. All morning long, the PA seems to be announcing either “The fantail is open” or “The fantail is closed” meaning — this much I know—you’re free (or not) to dump-a the rubbish. Over the side. Fifty miles out-I think - is the cutoff. Beyond you’re allowed; within, not. Does it biodegrade by the nautical numbers?

Nor do I attend the Sunday-morning religious service of my own or anyone’s choice. For a moment I think maybe, but I’m not that big a masochist — I've seen enough institutional godhead at the USO and recruit graduation.

Basically, I just wanna stay good and giddy. By sitting with the guys until I go. In front of a TV. Watching basketball.

Or trying to. As we keep straddling the fantail limit, we also move in and out of CBS’s broadcast range, catching only snippets, here and there, of the Celtics and Atlanta, second round, NBA playoffs. At a moment of optimum clarity, Larry Bird sinks a snazzy three-pointer, prompting Waldrop to chirp, “Why don’t they just put him in the Hall of Fame?” “He's gotta retire first, Chief,” killjoys Shelby. “They should waive that rule,” replies the Chief. When reception fades, stays faded, Campbell remonstrates: “Come on. Skipper, it’s Sunday. Steer us to basketball. He then hurls a wad of paper toward the trashcan. Wide of its mark, it takes Waldrop’s slap to redirect it in. “Two points,” sighs Campbell, “and give me an assist."

A great sportsviewing team: I will surely miss them. Ships crossing in the night on, of all places, a ship. If I ever, by chance, see any of them again, it will not be here. As my time of departure draws nigh, twin duties nag at my gut. The duty, first, to my “story,” my writerly calling, as if either or both really needed the topical boost: “What about Libya?” — the first and only time I will ask the question at sea. “Khadafy had it coming” ... “What else could we do?”... “It proves our technology works" ... fine, who cares, at this stage certainly not me. But more importantly, my duty to them. I feel they need to know, since they work (but do not dine) with him, of Mick O’Halloran’s peanut butter dementia. I so inform them. Duties dispatched, I board a copter — adieu.

It’s the same deal with cranials, etc. as on the cargo plane, but fortunately this time there’s also windows too: I need, greatly, to see the Constellation — just this once — as a whole. Airborne, from a sharp angle, we all peer down as one. Two of the Admiral’s cronies snap photos. What they see and I see certainly looks like a photo: a ship (qua ship) looking like a ship (and nothing more). I straighten in my seat and forget about peering. Goodbye, Connie ... goodbye, little city ... sob sob.

A quick flight, a smooth flight, we land. An Admiral’s crony asks, “How’d you like it?” All I can think to say is “It was a gas.” In the bathroom, at the mirror, I smile broadly and hum “Victory at Sea,” stopping only when a different crony enters to shit. I didn’t shit at sea either; I wonder why that is. As I drive back to town, the heat, the murk, the land put a definite crimp in the leavings of my elation. I will never forget the Connie, the sea, but I sense that the romance has ended. ’S over and done.

Parking, however, I stand on asphalt and realize with pleasure that my body, in its own sweet way, is still rocking and reeling to the rhythms of the deep. Every breath, in or out, alters the extension of my belly and chest, in turn throwing off my weight distribution and balance, making me compensate by literally swaying, all the way down to my toes. Delighted, but land-skeptical of small favors, I wonder how long this will last.

In front of my hotel — sure enough—sits a vehicle with U.S. Government plates. Hirelings from the Pentagon, no doubt, upstairs riffling through my training camp notes, pouring shots in hotel glasses of my Lamb's Navy Rum. I’ll just wait till they return.

Two crewcuts in civilian threads emerge, pause, drive off. My heart pounding like a typewriter, I reach my room, find nothing’s been disturbed. My notes haven’t been touched, my tapes, my rum. What a world. Even in Reagan’s Germany, er. Hitler’s America, er — you know what I mean—I guess there’re still these accidents of free-dom. Of liberty and perhaps justice for etc.

So I’ve lived to tell it, and I'll live to write it, and here we are. Who could play Shelby? I for some reason wonder. Who could play Koffler? Of course — why not? — they can play themselves.

Gazing from my window. I can’t really imagine it could’ve rained. Not here, not (I strain to recall) on the deck of the Connie. So maybe it was mice after all.

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Between big healthy spoonfuls of goober 'n' bran. O'Halloran asks if my stay so far has been “rewarding." “Lemme put it this way," I say. “I kind of had this idea when I accepted the assignment that it would be something like sitting in a dentist chair." - Image by Steven Vance
Between big healthy spoonfuls of goober 'n' bran. O'Halloran asks if my stay so far has been “rewarding." “Lemme put it this way," I say. “I kind of had this idea when I accepted the assignment that it would be something like sitting in a dentist chair."

A hot, crummy morn ... oh stop complaining. This is SEA DAY, the day I at last go to sea. Having endured training camp, even if just as a tourist, I am ready to drown — well, anything short of it — if that’s what it takes to get through. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but as I wheel across the Coronado Bay Bridge I can’t help but feel the horror ante increase. On land they were playing war or playing something; at sea they’ll be making it. Or playing making it — which, is still different from just playing playing it. Or whatever. Grownups will be involved this time, which makes it more serious. But like any prideful recruit fresh from graduation, I feel up for whatever they throw at me. I can swim — in a pool — and they’d have to weigh me down to make me sink.

Connie: Totally self-contained and strictly urban

From the bridge you can really see North island, from when: I’ll be flown to my carrier, at least not at an angle of approach that makes it seem as foreboding as it does from nearly anywhere across the bay. From my hotel on Broadway, for inst, it's more than just a dark strip breaking the horizon, 80,000-ton muthas floating at its brim; it’s this ominous place, this masked mainspring of manmade thunder, a different breed of thunder than emanates, usually, from Lindbergh Field. Sight, sound, mystique (Home of Mach-2 Fighter Planes ... Home of Anti-Submarine Warfare): remove the ingredient of sight and it’s just a hot, crummy drive through Coronado.

The Navy is Naval Aviation-- and don't you forget it

A Wing And A Cranial

But an easy one. For my pass at the gate, I’m not even asked for i.d. True, it’s marked “V.l.P.” — but you'd think they’d wanna certify I am the V.l.P. And though Marines with bayonets patrol points of entry, it’s almost as an afterthought that one Finally looks at my pass. Easy. Now to make my flight.

Coaxing the monster/insect

It’s Saturday, few signs of life, no one to direct me to the place where I’ll be “briefed.” Is this the right base? Maybe I’ll just go home. Finally, by map, sweat, and accident I find terminal ... hangar ... V.l.P. lounge. Four v. importants have already arrived. Private-industry sonsofguns, guests of the Admiral, in togs and luggage like they’re bound for Palm Springs. They've got press kits — “WELCOME ABOARD USS CONSTELLATION’’ — mine will have to wait till we’re at sea. Civilians have ranks as well as seamen; I busy myself perusing the list of no’s.

NO pets; live ammunition, grenades, or other explosives; inflammables; magnetrons (magnetrons?); radioactive materials; alcoholic beverages; narcotics; flash bulbs. None of which I've got. (Unless by accident I packed a magnetron.)

I'm sure that if I’d packed my flask of Lamb’s Navy Rum, an option which definitely crossed my mind, this is where they would catch it. There's a feeling in the room — well, I'm feeling — of impending security crunch, one made all the more palpable by the fact that so far. For me it’s virtually been security zilch. Except for a quick bag check at one of the training schools, one so slapdash they didn’t even check the pouch containing my interviewer’s cassette recorder, no one, as far as I can tell, has actually looked through anything. Least not while I was looking. And that biz this morning about not checking i.d., there’s gotta be some backup to that. Somebody could've MURDERED ME last night, gotten my pass, come in my place with a bagload of guns, bombs, and magnetrons. Surely, for the safety of America’s Flagship, they’ll examine my bag (if not my pocket, socks, and a-hole) to certify me safe as the Admiral’s golf pals.

So when “briefing” begins I Figure that’s it, the prelude. We'll hear classified this, no clearance for that; they'll swear us to secrecy, read us our rights and then search us. What we get instead is an explanation of equipment. A demo of the shit we’ll be wearing. “Cranials,” these huge helmeted whatsems with protuberances on three or four separate axes. Large rubber earthings to block out the sound. Lifejackets and how to pull the cords, activate auto-inflation, the dye marker and radio transmitter. Equipped — no search of nothin’ — we board a cozy C-2 transport, a cargo plane.

For the worst flight of my life. Before we even taxi, just loading, the thing jostles worse than most storms I’ve flown in. There’s no windows, none I can see from where I’m sitting, though the way we’re strapped in you can barely turn your neck. We’ll be landing “hard” on the deck of the carrier, hooked to a stop that decelerates us from 120 to zero in three seconds, so they’ve got us backwards to avoid whiplash, strapped triple tight at the shoulders and waist. With the ear-things on there’s an unpleasant sonic isolation; off, it’s so jackhammer loud you just snap 'em back on. And these murky-eyed goggles, we’re wearing goggles in case of flying particles, cargo, whatever — and the way the thing’s flying I'm taking no chances without. The flight is rocky, it’s gruesome, it's supposed to take 15 minutes, half an hour, and at 45 I am sick.

And not puke sick — bone sick. Worst-hangover-of-your-life sick. I've read about “white knuckle” flying: I look at mine and they’re grey. Or maybe everything's grey. Even if it meant losing my tape recorder, Minnesota North Stars cap, and toothpaste, I would rather (I believe) be floating in sea salt, releasing my dye, than experiencing much more of this. Smoke? steam? starts seeping through cracks in the floor and I'm thinking loud, strong, at broadcast volume so maybe they'll hear me, ditch the fucker! ditch the fucker! but they don’t seem to hear and on its own it stops.

Then — guy waves his arm — the prearranged signal — 30 seconds to thud-down. We miss it and swing 'round to try it again. THUD (is that 120'?), of compression (3 seconds?)... certainly feels like zero at this end. For all the air and sea of it it was kinda like a subway crash minus the sound. No dazzling, dramatic swoop of eagles, or even of cargo planes — just thudding strapped in backwards in the dark.

Okay. Glad to have not lost my toothpaste, I arise, deplane, my inner ear telling me of more rocking, more list, than I’d ever have bargained for. I'm not ready for this I'm not ready for this I hate it hate it shit piss goddam son-o-bitchin', and then ... bliss.

Well not yet, not immediately. But OK.

Half The Size Of Arkadelphia, Arkansas

For the first lots of seconds the greeting crew on deck don’t know what to make of this, er, stranger in their midst. The Admiral’s cronies they must know on sight, but who's me? Stares, counterstares, awkward silence, then an outstretched “five” lunges through them like a lance headed straight for my gut. The Fastest Glad-Hand in the West, the palm, digits and wrist of Ensign O’Halloran, Constellation PAO — “Call me Mick.”

I do and then he jabbers jabbers jabbers, shipboard jargon bouncing off me like dry macaroni. “Ladders” is all I pick up, ship talk for stairs. And “knee-knockers,” though I’m not sure I'm hearing it right — these things you bang into in corridors, actually closer to ankle level (Navy humor?), a means, apparently, of gauging distance and location, as in “Go three knee-knockers, hang a left.” The corridors are narrow, just enough room for two abreast.

Getting more personal, “You’re from L A. you say? Well hey. I’m up there a lot, I try to get up there as much as I can, whenever I'm on shore that is, see some hockey. I really like hockey, though I don’t know if you can really call it hockey, the L.A. Kings.” Well fuckaduck — ain’t life funny? I show him (1) my Philadelphia Flyers watch and (2) my cargo-crumpled North Stars cap. We talk Kings — “They really are awful, aren’t they?” — and his hometown team, the St. Louis Blues. He hockey-rants. I hold up my end, and I'd have to say we essentially “hit it off.” He's like this amphetaminized (i.e., supercaffeinated) Dobie Gillis, though really nothing, not even slightly, like Dwayne Hickman.

By the time we ankle-bang it to our first full stop, the TV studio, he's data-fed me a summary of the more salient of his 25 years — Central Missouri State (BA, speech communications), U.S. Marines (washed out of flight school, transferred), loves the Navy (but sea duty wrecks your social life), could imagine “getting into media in the private sector.” He’d certainly have fed me more (who needs summaries?) but his job, right — he still in fact works for the Navy — is to aid me in doing mine. Which means of course show me the ship.

Not him, though, an underling. E-4 Patrick Shelby of Encino. 22. In a kelly green T-shirt that isn’t civilian, it's Navy. Lots of different colors on ship. O'Halloran's in tan, all officers far as I can tell're in tan; nobody wearing covers, no salutes. A casual atmosphere (compared to land) in many ways — even if they’re mostly superficial. A generally casual surface.

As we take to the halls we pass hustle, bustle, nowhere where there isn’t mass movement, or mini-mass, but it’s totally efficient movement — like an anthill. I still don't have my sea legs so I lean the wrong way, bump into people, but they rarely bump into each other. We pass fast food, sailors eating burgers, stop at a candy store (“gecdunk”) for a Snickers.

Everywhere we go there are TVs, hundreds of ’em. Far more, for sure, than you'd find at IBM, General Motors. “We do up to 21 hours of broadcasts daily,” says Shelby, the we being him and his department. The needs of a ship this size are such that Public Affairs deals not only with creeps like me, outsiders — we re barely the hors d'oeuvre. The primary focus is on-ship morale, information. There's even a newspaper.

And size, god, we're talking 5000-plus, says Shelby, “sometimes as high as six,” 2500 permanently attached. He himself has been attached the last three years. “There’s 17 or 18 levels. I'm not sure which, but I've certainly been on them all.” We walk several, and each is different, totally different, different ends of each arc totally different. Faces, uniforms, jobs, attitude. Even heights and weights. Decor I dunno. I don’t even notice it, but personnel — it’s astonishing. It’s like neighborhoods in a city, you’re walking and walking and suddenly — how'd you get here?

Which is how I feel as we enter the turf of Ordnance, these big, scary beefers in red, black-lettered T-shirts that read BOMB BUILDERS. Imagine that in a punk boutique, but that's what they do, they build bombs. And carry them — backs & shoulders like elephants — to be loaded on planes.

And then this spot, another level, Shelby says, “Notice how clean it is here?” I haven't actually been thinking too much about clean, but so tar I guess it hasn't really been as sick-sick antiseptic as the barracks at NTC. This spot, though, this corridor, it’s sick-fuck antiseptic. “Marines live here, these are their quarters” — 80 are on board for security. “As you can see, they have a different standard of clean .” They'd probably shoot you if you spit.

Anyway: neighborhoods. Like in a city. A small one, perhaps, but still a city. And not a big office, not a factory. For one thing, everyone lives here. It’s not just punch in, do eight hours, punch out and go home. Most shifts are twelve on, twelve off, anyway; a higher level of integration into the nature of a day. (Half of instead of part of.) Maybe it is like a factory, as a city — Metropolis as Prophecy fulfilled. Isn't this what life is “supposed to be like” in the, ugh, Soviet Union? Or the Future, you remember that place: subterranean living or Trump Tower (take your pick) — totally self-contained. Nothing contiguous here but the sea; they need TVs to pretend there’s an outside world.

In any event, the feeling is strictly URBAN, a far cry from the training-camp farm. A card-carrying urbanite, I feel so at home I could cry.

An Airman And A Photog

According to the press release Shelby finds me, the full name of my new city is USS Constellation CV-64. Its ancestor, the three-masted, square-rigged frigate Constellation, was the first ship commissioned by U.S. Navy and, in the “undeclared naval war against France” (1798), the first to “engage, defeat and capture” an enemy vessel. The current “Connie,” as her friends call her, was commissioned on October 27, 1961, three short years before she participated, meritoriously, in “retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam.” Johnson visited her in '68, Reagan in '81.

At 85,000 tons, 1079 feet by 270, she, it, is the largest conventionally powered warship ever built by man. Conventional = nonnuclear. There are no nukes aboard. Before I left L.A. I thought I should check this, that there'd be no reactors to enhance any cancers I might be working on, and I breathed a sigh when I found out it was fossil-fueled. But standing with Shelby a level or so above flight deck, each of us with a pair of those antisound things on our ears, watching takeoffs and landings of the Connie's — and the Navy’s — principal “export,” fighter planes, I start wondering whether there might be any of that other kind of nuke aboard. I know it’s subs that have all the missiles; but maybe an old-fashioned bomb or two is down there with the red T-shirt squad. Realizing such info is no doubt classified, and considering it merely to construct a piece of conceptual sculpture (Nearness to Source of Annihilation), I drop the thought and concentrate on digging the planes.

Which really ain’t so hard — it’s fun. In a kind of idler-looking-at-nothing sort of way. You wait, they take off, you take note (if you care) of the vectors of departure, follow ’em awhile, they’re gone. Occasionally one's being readied, fueled, they'll check and find something wrong, the pilot gets out, they fold up the wings, down the hangar. With landings there’s a game you can play. They can — but usually don’t — miss on impact, miss the hook, and have to throttle up, off, try it again. So you count the attempts — all flights — when it happens consecutive. While I’m watching it’s never more than two. Nothing particularly exciting about it, mainly it's just kind of bearable in the way that watching 13-year-olds play touch football can be bearable (but the Super Bowl you need to have a bet on). If I had nothing better to do, I could probably watch it for hours. F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets — like the ones that were used in Libya.

“The main purpose of these short deployments,” says Shelby once we’re somewhere his words can be heard, “is to qualify pilots, those that need so many landings, so many flight hours, to qualify.” The Connie at this moment is less than a week into a scheduled two weeks at sea, never very far from San Diego, anywhere from just under 50 miles out to perhaps as many as 125. On the longer runs, the WESTPACS, in tandem with the rest of the Seventh Fleet, six or more months and a couple of oceans (Pacific, Indian) are consumed, and jets from the Connie's air wing will at times take off and land without a minute’s break for 48 hours. There’ve been much bigger gaps than that today. Yet even with less seemingly on the line, there's little doubt that the principal basic thrust of this here run, indeed of all life aboard ship, is to assure, in myriad possible ways, the ongoing potency of the Connie’s piece of U.S. Naval Aviation pie. The Navy is Naval Aviation — and don’t you forget it.

At hangar level we peruse the merchandise. Jets being serviced or sleeping awhile. “They look like monsters, don’t they?” says Shelby. “Yeah — or big insects,” I say. As we watch repairs I wonder aloud how these guys must feel, being airmen — not seamen — in the reigning taxonomy, and yet having no real shot at ever flying themselves. Pilots are airmen/officers; only officers (i.e., college boys) fly. “It’s a joke,” says Shelby. “It takes a college education to fly, but only a high school education to keep it operational. Does one seem less technical than the other to you?"

Turns out he’s still, technically, an airman himself, even though he’s fully attached to PAO, serving as the ship's unofficial photographer. To be official, he’d have to have a journalism (JO) rating, calling for a stretch at the Navy's journalism school in Indiana. Such has been dangled but never, he claims, credibly offered. “It's been a snowjob since day one.” Fresh from high school, an amateur photog of rock concerts, he'd been accepted by Arizona State but at the last second visited a Navy recruiter. Sure he could get into photojournalism (but the airman quota needed to be filled): “I’ve fixed airplanes, there’s a sense of achievement, I can do it as well as it takes. But it’s not what I want to be doing, either for the Navy or with my life.” In the past year, the last of his initial enlistment, he was given re-enlistment — well before the fact — as prerequisite for the three-month journalism course. If they didn’t trust him, he reasoned, why should he trust them? In less than a month, his enlistment up, he’ll rejoin the civilian populace.

“I’ve made lots of friends, seen lots of places, but it’s time I grew up, started doing something meaningful with my life. I hope I get out in time to shoot some rolls of Hands Across America—my release date is in some dispute. Or that peace march, whatever it’s called, the one that keeps getting interrupted by rain. And I even have a screenplay up my sleeve — don’t laugh—sort of an enlisted man's version of An Officer and a Gentleman.”

Pacific, Mother Of Fish

I don’t laugh; I like the kid. Admire him. At 22 he’s got the bulk of his youth still ahead, with mem’ries of Navy to flavor it. He’s been totally forthcoming with me, straightforward, the first of the lot (I would guess) who's kept nothing hid. He's shown me a ship, a city, and now he shows me the sea.

“On WESTPAC this would be reserved for officers” — we stand on a strip of ship, port or Starboard, I dun-no, adjacent to the hangar. “I’ve seen whales from here, dolphins.”

“Sharks?”

“At least their dorsals.” We're moving, the ship is, at a good clip, into the wind, enough to give the planes an added lift. I stick my face out, nice breeze, but we're tew high up to feel the spray. My legs, body are slowly getting accustomed to the rock, the sway. It’s a sunny, sunny afternoon, but the side we're on is shaded. On the other side the sea is white, here except for highlights, patches, it’s transcendently, mindbogglingly BLUE. I remember a Beach Boys album cover where the color of somebody’s shirt was actually identified — how pretentious, I thought — as “Pacific blue.” Well here 'tis! What a fucking blue! You could tell it from the kelp/sludge green of the Atlantic without a second’s thought. If they blindfolded you and dropped you in an ocean, you’d have no trouble, once you got back your sight, deciding to check the “A” or the “P.” What an ocean: pacific ... “peaceful.” It is. I hum the main theme from Victory at Sea. I am ... euphoric.

And then we see some beds. Lousy beds. The ones enlisted sleep on. Or in. In is probably more accurate than on. There's nothing above you but the next mattress up or the ceiling. Very tight, these bunks. “Berths” — Shelby corrects me. He sleeps in one (valued @ $170 a month by the Navy). There’s miles of 'em; it’s a good thing they don't berth you vertically. I’m thinking: reasons to be bitter. And then I meet Mike Campbell.

From PAO. This vivid scowl on his face, like you see in photos of Marcel Cerdan or Roberto Duran, he storms past his berth, throws track shoes in his locker, gnashes teeth, stands there with this look like you're supposed to know what he’s thinking. We don’t. Finally, peeved that he’s gotta make it verbal: “The bastards wouldn’t let me jog!” Is that right?

Campbell, 35, E-6, is the Bitterest Man in the Navy, the bitterest person (other than myself) I have met. A graduate of the U. of Maryland, where he almost played football (injured something) and his father was or is the swimming coach, he joined the Navy at 27 to frontally, forcibly muck his way into a different arena of life. “I was doing this, I was doing that, you know.’’ For the Navy what he got to do was one of these dream gigs, the kind / would even do if I was 27, 28 and they offered it to me: sportscasting. Did a daily sports report for Armed Forces Radio in Hollywood, wrote his own copy, lived in an apartment in Van Nuys the land of jogging, got occasional passes to Laker and Dodger games. Did this for the better part of two enlistments.

Then whudda they do, they look at his record. “They discover I’ve never been to sea. It’s the Navy, right, so they stick me on this horrible boat.” Six months ago. What bothers him most is not the no jogging, it’s the no radio. There’s radio, sure, but not for him. He’s gotta do it, read sports, on a nightly PAO-originated live TV newscast at 1800 (6 P.M.). “I hate looking at the camera, trying to pretend I’m at ease. I’m a serious professional, I try to be a competent journalist — but it’s TV and who the hell cares? By the way,” he asks Shelby, “did they fix the teleprompter yet?”

“I don’t know, let’s go check.”

Goddammit, they better. I am not gonna read my copy off a piece of typed paper I’m holding in front of me. Do you know how awful that would look?”

“Let’s go check.”

We do and the news isn’t good. It seems someone from electronics has been by, tried to improvise, couldn’t come up with a part in stock that would work. Had this been a longer deployment, the exact part might've been aboard in abundance, but no luck today. BUT. But reprieve. The ship in the interim has journeyed close enough to shore for its master receiver to pick up land-originated signals, and the network news has been slated in place of PAO’s.

Canceled?" — Mr. Bitter responding. “I’ve written my copy, I’ve picked out goddam slides of Leon Spinks” — there’s a Leon story, he’s bankrupt or something — “and they cancel us?! Goddammit.”

The Guys (I Love 'em)

Well, hey, I'm easy to please. Show me some tapes instead. Of a newscast. So I can see what it’s like. I’m on this assignment, remember? Oh, sure.

I really dig their reluctance to show-and-tell. To serve up hefty exemplars of what they do; who cares (I don’t right now) what the rest of this city-at-sea does a-working? The men of Connie PAO — I’ll introduce them — are, it gushingly dawns on me, my PEERS. I’m not a journalist. Am I a journalist? Maybe I’m a journalist. What’s a journalist? Same with all of them. (We all work hard and who, generally, cares?) Without doubt this is the most likable assortment of grownups in the same — pardon the pun — boat as myself that I’ve stumbled upon in 10-15 years. By which I mean it doesn’t even matter how “well” they write, photograph, read (or not) from a teleprompter or sheet. I like them as people. I’m a firm believer in adhominem, lemme just see what they’ve got.

One thing they’ve got is their newssheet. Tune and Tides, a thousand copies daily — read it and pass to a friend. “Carbomb Kills Five, Injures Six in Madrid Residential District” — story “compiled from AP and UPI.” Compiled means Jon Knutson, for instance, part-time cartoonist and host of Flashback Rock Attack on KCON Radio, reads the wire reports and, quick as a whip, paraphrases them at a word processor. Paraphrasing I’ve always respected.

And the handy, winsome Connie Television Show Guide, a biweekly 20-pager. Photos on the cover (Shelby’s) of bathing-suited Australian “foxes,” from the most recent WESTPAC stop in Perth. As we’re sitting drinking coffee, Diet Cokes, Ghostbusters blares on the studio monitor, channel 11, and a flip through the Guide reveals Oh God! You Devil as the competition on ch. 13. Followed by: Jaws II, Benny Hill. Two channels, 21 hours daily, unless more is coming in from land.

Shelby inserts a cassette of the PAO newscast from the day the shuttle blew up. Chief Waldrop, ostensible head of the department, at least of its ongoing operations in this room in lieu of Ensign O’Halloran or this bigger cheese I never get to meet, protests its preemption of Ghostbusters, which is just at the good part with all the slime. “Why would he wanna see that?" he queries. Hell, Chief, to see you! I see him read news of the shuttle. Low-key, no obnoxious facial histrionics. Razor-cut and neat as a pin, kind of like former Laker announcer Lynn Shackleford, he could pass — ’cept for the dress blues — as anchorman for virtually any city’s nonnetwork 10 P.M. news show. It would have to be a western city, though — the accent’s a giveaway.

Before joining the Navy in ’72, Paul Waldrop, now 33-34, deejayed in New Mexico and Arizona at various 10,000-watt, m.o.r./playlist type stations. Three years into his first hitch he met his wife, also Naval, at the very journalism school which has terminally eluded Shelby. When in port, he and the missus work a block apart; she does training films for Naval Aviation/North Island. His next assignment, not far off, is a public affairs staff position in D.C. with the Chief of Naval Operations. If he ever makes it to press sec for some president, he will hardly be the biggest dip, or drip, who has held the post. A very easy-going boss/manager; I wouldn't mind working for him at a 10,000-watt station in L A.

After Waldrop comes Campbell. He isn't too good. Even with the teleprompter he's a nervous wreck. A commentary on the New England Patriots' alleged coke abuse prior to (and during?) the Super Bowl. Lots of actual humor, drug puns by no means stale, it would probably play — well — as printed copy. But vocally delivered—before a camera — I can readily see what the guy's been complaining about. I turn and face him in the here and now, off tape; he looks ashen.

To cheer him up, I agree to read a few of his boxing pieces, stuff he’s had published from time to time in limited-circulation Navy pulps. His scrapbook's right there, I read one about this Navy fighter who keeps retiring and unretiring and can't quite get the hang of it either way. He’s just lost his latest comeback bid on a cut, bringing his overall record to something like 27-12. While not the work of an A.J. Liebling or a Dan Parker, the piece exudes as deep a compassion for the plight of the also-ran as boxing prose generally allows itself to do. I tell Campbell this—the compassion part — and his face gladdens. I’ve also got a hunch — something in the piece — and I ask him, “You ever read any Kerouac?”

“Only 17 of his novels.”

“How about Tristessa?'

“That's the one I never read.”

“What'd you think of Big Sur?'

“Oh-h-h, that and The Subterraneans are my favorites.”

Dr. Sax wasn't too good.”

“No, but I tell you, he's one of the reasons I'm a writer. Not to mention my leading the kind of life that led me here." We talk about Dhanna Bums, we talk Vanity of Duluoz and On the Road, somehow we get to talking Thoreau. “He’s too radical for me,” says Mike.

“That's funny. I think he’s too suburban.”

“Shit — I haven’t had a talk like this in years.”

At which point a knock on the door. As I'm closest, I open. The return of Ensign O'Halloran. Big gaudy smile, first words out of his mouth: “Hey! How's your day been?”

“Great” I say, “really great.” All magnanimity, I add: “And yours?"

“Oh, hey, wow — if it went any better I couldn't stand it.”

The World's Best Pizza

O'H is back to take me to din-din. The wardroom, officers' mess. A far cry from recruit sloptown, NTC. Roundtable seating. Cloth napkins in individual imprint-lettered compartments, so you don’t confuse your own with Lieutenant Schmuck’s. A bunch of cabbages carved, hacked and tinted to resemble a basket of flowers — compliments of some overachiever at Mess Mgmt. School. Possibly a Philippiner; every mess manager I see is that or black. Realizing this is the first time I've been in a room with only officers, this many of them, I do an ethnic check: all white, nobody black, brown, yellow, or even particularly tan. Every white person near us receives from the ensign a methodically inflected, yet unquestionably sincere, “Hey howzit going?” which when returned in kind leads to auto-variations on “Any better I couldn’t stand it” — which I now take to be his signature, known in wardrooms far and wide. A heckuva guy.

The main course tonight is pizza, that and/or lasagna and/or Italian sausage. I take all three. Broccoli w/ hard-boiled egg; salad bar; butterscotch pudding; water recycled from the sea. I know pizza, I’m no fool, and this pizza is good. The third or fourth best I think — yes—I have eaten. Certainly the best non-storebought I can remember. Good fucking meal!

As we scarf, the ensign and I talk hockey, nothing else seems as e-z a means of conversing in the Void. The Stanley Cup playoffs — “The Blues have a chance, they really do, I think they can beat Calgary, well I dunno”—the days (before his time) before goalies wore masks. Seeing a group of Marines across the room, he grows wistful. “Sometimes I miss the Marines, wish I could’ve stuck it out, what I miss, they had better discipline.’’ This, the discipline biz, is the first totally noncredible thing I’ve heard him say. I like him much better when he wavers, in fact that’s what I like him for. He could advocate anything and its polar opposite — without breaking stride — in less than seven seconds. I can imagine him a lobbyist, a spokesman for YAT (Young Americans for Tofu) or the ANSPF (Association of Newspaper Subscribers, Paid-in-Full). If I had to guess his politics, party affiliation, any of that, I would guess all.

I check his plate; so far I’ve been busy with my own. Smaller portions of basically the same as what I’ve got, but upon his salad greens sits a mound of cottage cheese, and atop that cheese: peanut butter.

Officers Are Lonely People Too

So hey, here it is SATURDAY NIGHT, time for dunno ... how about a movie? Well not the big-screen kind, nor even the screen-screen kind — whaddaya think this is, the '70s? — 21-inch cathode will have to do. Sweet Dreams, the story of Patsy Kline starring whatsername, the one Sam Shepard’s sleeping with, on the PAO VCR. An Ensign O’Halloran Special, invitation-only, at 2030 — 8:30 PM. But just for options, let’s see, on the teevee itself is a choice between Day the Earth Stood Still and Jaws III, and slightly later Meryl Streep in Plenty. “Who wants to look at Meryl,” declares a guest, “when you’ve got Jessica Lange!?” — so Sweet Dreams it is. A library copy. For officers, chiefs, and me.

And Mike Campbell, he’s still around, still fuming about something or other. Maybe he tried to jog again. He grumbles, snorts, talks through the film unfazed by ranking manjacks praying for his death, one great kiss-my-ass of a mothereffer. A great guy, a great negative presence — him and Lester Bangs would’ve been some punchout — but even just the officers, straight to the nth with no measurable irony: even their homey ness really gets to my soul.

Or their away-from-homeyness, their universal never-at-homeyness, the at-seahood per se of folks whose lives (by choice) are “in transit,” “at sea” — forever (for now) beyond the landmass-contexted blankety blah blah. It’s as if — pardon my romanticism —everything plays because nothing does ... something the sea just plain giveth, y'all. Onscreen, Ed Harris tells Jessica/Patsy his name is Charlie DICK, she cracks up and dang it if they all — we all — don’t as well, just like that chain gang in Sullivan's Travels getting off on a Goofy cartoon. He then confesses that he’s got more in mind than “bumping uglies”, and we like explode. We settle down, a roly-poly lieutenant from Wyoming (Claude Akins could play him) asks, “What, you never heard that before?” to which a bespectacled Wally Cox from the Personnel Dept, offers, “Yeah — in Wyoming!” Haw, double haw — it’s fast, furious, stoopid, and it plays.

Lookit, I’ve been in many alien social environments — who hasn't? — where all the hi-jinx just strike you as so damn corny, so yucky, that just to endure the whole thing you internally one-up it, mock it silly in your burning, cluttered skull till you end up feeling like an overheated, overwrought elitist prick. It bums you, you bum yourself. It’s so easy to fall into that. Or if you're desperately lonely you might advantageously lie to yourself, forcibly suspend disbelief, disaffection — or get drunk. Well in this setup I am not feeling that depth of lonely, maybe just catching peeks of the shared common-mammal abyss that Celine, Bukowski, Henry Miller wrote about so much, and drinking is of course not an option. I’m sure that if I’d smuggled my rum these guys could dig it — probably — but more than that I’m simply, truly enjoying this crap, having actual gosh-damn fun, feeling a part of things in disarmingly direct proportion to their innate hokeyness.

It’s the most communal fun I’ve had before a TV, in fact, since 1970, me and the Blue Oyster Cult watching Wide World of Sports, laughing, hooting, throwing objects at the screen — watching professional woodchopping from Wisconsin. True, a number of us were on acid at the time, but, hell, the shared humanity (of sitting still, together, for relentless maxi-stoopid) was cuttable with a toy knife. Y'know undeniable. And here, April ’86, 100 miles of brine from the nearest, I am gripped by a twinge of the same damn whatever-the-hey. “Camaraderie,” bathos-as-pathos, nonselfconscious lamebrain-interpersonal kneejerk hoop-de-doo.

I'm feelin' good, in on the rhythm, and when Patsy gets all bloodied in this car smackup and Chief Waldrop says, “I thought she died in a plane crash,” I shoot right in with “This is only the dress rehearsal .” 'S automatic, nothing forced, and of course it ain't funny — but it gets howls, actual howls. Wally Cox yells, “There's a sicko back there!'' Which O'Halloran, bless him, clarifies: “Finin' right in!” Charles Manson, Pee Wee Herman, Salvador Dali, King Farouk...who wouldn't fit right in? Still I feel like a million, a thousand, at least a hundred bucks.

And I really wish I and all my buddies (c'mon, it wouldn't sink us!) could right now have us a BEER. Even a light. Don’t the Brits have a daily grog ration? What's the harm of one Bud Light a night?

THUNK go the landings overhead, THUMP. All this fun, all this levity, it's time I went and did some work. All night there've been planes coming in at the same sort of rate as by day. We're just three levels down and you can't help but hear it, feel it. Like living under a freeway or watching movies at a drive-in near an airport, you get used to it (but it won't go away). Anyhow it's time I earned my keep observing the war machine by night: the rocket’s red glare; the courage of commissioned peckers landing their aircraft in the perilsome ebony blight. I reach for my jacket, nod at O'H, and he grabs for his. Doin' my job, him doin’ his — he can always replay the cassette. We reach the door, some lout says, “Where you guys goin' — to rub uglies?” Wyoming corrects: “Bump uglies.” What a swell bunch.

Outside it’s as good ’n’ cold as I reckoned it'd be. My ear-covers, on or off, make the night alternately dark ’n silent, dark ‘n roaring. Some stars but I can’t find the moon. Maybe behind a radar tower ... no, can’t locate it. Nightwind, nice, but we’re still too high to encounter spray. We go fore, we go aft. I bang into railings, stumble a few times, O'Halloran grabs me — arm, jacket — don't wanna lose that civilian.

Jets take off, quickly vanish. Others approach, headlights red/yellow/green, closer, larger, wings sway — boom — sparks on impact. Sparks are more visible than by day, a higher percentage of landings seem to be scrapped, the degree of difficulty is obviously heightened, but, honestly, the whole thing is not more dramatic. To this observer (I ain't no pilot), observing. The highlight of the whole thing is these crewmen down there directing stuff, more high-contrast against the tarmac than in sunlight, their yellow reflectors finally reflecting, dancing this massive choreography not only more functional than your average football halftime show (or the Joffrey Ballet) but more structurally interesting, more “entertaining.” But the planes, yeah, I could still watch them for hours, let's say half an hour, though I settle for 15 minutes — my ensign has been freezing enough.

What We Talk About

Where better than at sea to “go with the flow”? Giddy from the night sea air, I make haste for the first available digression, thus never learning, with absolute certainty, how Sweet Dreams turns out. Since Hollywood never lies, I trust it is somewhat in line with our knowing — spectacular flaming horrible aero-DEATH — and forsake audiovisual for mere audio. KCON, 100.5 on your FM dial. Next door to TV and a tad more impressive.

The only cable-TV public access studios I've seen have had three cameras, two or more working; the Constellation's, last time I looked, seemed to have one. One is fine, but — just for comparison. KCON Radio, on the other hand, seems far better equipped than the best-equipped airwave dive I've worked at, the admittedly underequipped KPFK (“listener sponsored”). But my new host, and latest PAO hellcat, Joe Wikowski, is not easily impressed by glib relativism. “It's really nothing," he says, pointing to the turntables, the tape decks, the console, each of them unrusty, undusty, nothing less than functional and functioning, “it can't be worth more than a million or so.” Which to me, factoring in a maximum audience of 5-6 thousand, none of whom are either listener-sponsors or consumers of advertisers' products, seems not only impressive, it seems almost excessive. But what do I know?

I quickly surmise that Joe is but the latest (and perhaps greatest) of PAO's nonself-edited fast-lips. Kind of like that guy Goose in Top Gun, but less a wise-ass for the sake of sociability, more a pure existential malcontent — like Bruce Dern in Wild Angels. At 23 or 24, he’s hardly old enough, like Mike Campbell, to be genuinely bitter; much of his dismay is the dismay of time-trapped sensitive youth. “The music today” — he shakes his head, motions toward the tape being broadcast — “the Cars, Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper. All these people care about is their wallet. Personal expression doesn't mean shit." I utter the secret password — the nineteen ... uh ... SIXTIES! — and his eyes light up, they light up the room, and suddenly we’re brothers. Hendrix, the Yardbirds, the early days of the good ol' Grateful Dead — the before-his-timers he knows are better and truer than ANYTHING now: I actually saw these people play, and he just wants to hear about it, talk about it. The eagerest student of history I’ve ever met. By the time we’ve exhausted bands, concerts, festivals, he’s on many cylinders, flying.

"And the Navy,” he opines, "what does the Navy care about personal expression? They’re so concerned with image, see, we were in port once and they wouldn't let me leave until I got a haircut — it was no longer than this.” Shorter than mine, it’s the length favored by your average stockbroker. "And a belt, I had to put on a belt, can you believe it? They just thought it wouldn’t look right for a member of the organization to look any different from anyone else. But," shifting gears, “there are a lot of misfits in the Navy, in all the services. This protected little setup attracts them. They come in for a new start, a ‘new beginning' — and then what? There's guys here, for instance, who’ll talk about women but will not talk about pussy."

We, actually he, talks a little about pussy, how it, lots of it, helped break up his marriage when he played drums for a rock lounge act in Cleveland. He then speaks of his father, a cabinetmaker, and his stepfather, a cop (or vice versa), and how neither could understand his devotion to music. How' he drummed with an on-ship pickup band at a Connie “steel beach" — barbecues and whatnot out on the flight deck — “the greatest I’ve ever felt in my life, man, communicating through music — it was better than pussy, better than getting high.”

Uh oh: territory I refuse to get into. No Hunter Thompson, no "investigative reporter,” I will not ask the cheap question "Whuddabout drugs?” On a tear, he answers it anyway. "I don’t do that shit, not anymore, it’s the one thing I joined the Navy to get away from. The partying was definitely screwing up my life. But there’s guys on ships who still like to party, even with the tests. You can see it in their faces sometimes, just back from shore, you know. I hear in fact they don’t test for acid, it’s not one of the things they check your urine for. Say, is there anything I could show you that you haven’t seen? They don’t really like me taking tours around, but... ”

"I don’t think I’ve seen anything all that digital. I thought the Navy would be digital and nothing but."

“No digital ? Hasn't anyone shown you Vultures' Row?"

“Uh, whuh..."

“Radar for the planes? Well I'll take you ...let's go."

He gets someone to man the tape deck, and we run, do not walk, down tunnels, up ladders, dashing past people in the red monochrome of the Connie by nightlight. Joe's got his mission and I huff, puff, follow him stride for stride. Pant, pant — I could be asleep by now — and then... sheer dazzlement.

The War Machine, Finally

Dials, consoles, computers, headsets; big spinning reels of multi-inch tape. Light qua light, sound qua sound, picto-images, numerals. Systems, backup systems, backups for the backups (for the backups). Monitors monitoring air speed, fuel consumption, cloud formation, cockpit fart pressure — every quantifiable datum, phantom, feasibility remotely pertinent to every fighter, transport, helicopter, you-name-it in flight. Eleventeen grids with hupteen luminous variants of your age-old “techno-naturalistic" radar-qua-radar cliché: blips, radial symmetry, amoebic geo-mystery. Skaty-eight others with sporty. New Age, “art-directed" visuals, like this great big’un with a cartoon of a racetrack with all the planes lit up counterclockwise in projected sequence of approach. Rather than duplicate (or triplicate) this particular whoozis — i.e., buy identical hardware just so you could view it from multiple stations or adjacent rooms — they’ve got a stationary camera on it, hooked up to deliver an acceptable closed-circuit facsimile to one or more (slightly smaller) mere TVs. Thus saving the Navy the combined GNPs of Italy, Belgium, and Swaziland; in a room so given to overstatement, even the cost-effectiveness is truly baroque. Total outlay cannot be less than $1,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Which is certainly more than Hollywood spends on its high tech, and even just the look of all this makes anything in Top Gun (Star Wars. War Games, 2010) seem like so much diet margarine, diet shit. Plus, natch, obviously this hardware works, has more explicit function than to thrill and chill the senses. There's this unit I'm shown, for inst, which can actually computer-land a plane whose pilot is disabled, comatose — or even dead. (Why allow a stiff to cost you your property?) Speaking of which — death — maybe it was the Air Force which snuffed terrorizes & civilians in Tripoli (losing two airmen and a U.S. warplane in the process), but it was the Navy, skippered from rooms just like this, which iced Benghazi (losing zip).

Not that the moment, the situation — right here, right now — feels particularly MILITARY. Warlike or martial. Soldierly. And even if you factored in simulated targets, which since they’re not part of the lecture I’m getting I would guess aren’t part of this night's festivities. I'm further guessing that it wouldn't make much difference. Not in the tenor of human (life-death) hustle-bustle in this most un-military of sanctums. Everything’s cool, slickly efficient, and could not conceivably be otherwise, not as long as technology such as this is its bone, marrow, nervous system, bowels, blood, muscle.

From this end at least — bracketing of course the input of “policy” — even human failure (for instance) could in the worst-case of scenarios hardly exceed the proverbial drop in the bucket. And what, pray tell, “is” the bucket? War, even WAR, especially against those quasi-pathetic underlings whom the admiral at graduation had the gall to dub “and others,” is so prefab from the micro-chip getgo that all functional now-ness, all human-protoplasmic DRAMA, has been all but obliterated for the hardware-certified victors. Even as a literal chessgame — all “cerebrum,” zero “heart” — war on this level (excepting — perhaps? — the hypothetical Big One) is something already stored in a micro-chip vault, with even heartless mindset-per-se, still a station of some human cross, relegated forever to less than the role of a pawn ... participatorially, “existentially,” speaking.

All of which is something YOU know, I know, just from going to movies, reading pulps, watching sitcoms or the news, but to be confronted with IT on its own chessboard — like wow. The union of knowing and seeing can itself be dazzling, and well yeah, I am. Dazzled.

Then, more dazzerrific still, I see some active pawns. Very active. The chief who's showing me indicates this plexiglass wall with guys on the other side scribbling numbers backwards. Well not scribbly, they're extremely neat, legible, but these cats are fast. And what a skill, imagine the Navy screening for guys who can write fast, neat, and backwards. So 09 this side it reads forwards and "you don’t have writers obstructing your sight lines. There’s more.

The reason they’ve got people doing this is machines’re no quicker. Info comes in from the fly-boys, it comes in as human-voiced sound, and to get it on a high-tech display board you’d still need persons to punch it in. So why not just have them write it? They’ve got stereo headsets to in fact receive two sets at once, two separate infos, each in a different frequency, a different — as it were — key or octave. The Navy did tests, determined that persons can actually do this, quickly and efficiently, with technology (the headsets) as only an indirect intermediary. Of course it’s all backed up, tapes record everything, it prob’ly goes onto an instant paper printout, but for instant GRAPHIC purposes, for the whole room to see, it’s been placed in the literal hands of physical persons. Persons as machines.

Poor Joe Wikowski, meantime, has got his hands full as well. The room is lousy with off-duty pilots — it’s a great show, so why not hang out? As the lowest ranking enlisted man in their midst, it is Joe's misfortune to be coffee flunky-designate. “With sugar!” “Just milk!” “Two, black!” Boorish and imperious, these blowhards are a far cry from the goodhearted lowlifes, the jus1 folks cowboys of Top Gun. This year, by recent estimate, 52% of all first-tour Navy pilots whose enlistments are up will jettison the service, most of them to work for major airlines. In 1985 the enlistment bonus of $36,000 for carrier-based fliers was insufficient to keep 47% from leaving, and the Navy wants to raise it to 48 thou. These guys — they’re running Joseph silly — are opportunist trash. A change of clothes and you’d see them for what, in spirit, they already are: golfers with condos, stewardess-fuckers with gold chains and a paunch.

When later an enlisted refers to Vultures’ Row as “The Officers’ Space,” I nod at both his ill-concealed contempt and the joke.

Victory at Pee

Sleepytime chez Connie: a “stateroom” of my own. That's what they call it (and that’s what it is). Two-thirds the size of my kitchen, slightly larger than my john, no portholes like in Mr. Roberts, but by Constellation standards one airy, roomy chamber de sleep. A pair of bunk beds, no roommate, drawers and a closet, a sink. Stateroom #031442; officers should have it so good. Or so private. Many, I'm told, have their own TVs; all but the seniorest, howev, have also got roomies.

I search the joint for remnants — has anyone left state secrets or his socks? — and, finding nothing, opt for sleep. Good mattress, clean linen, nice soothing roll to the boat. If it weren't for the light left on I'd be sleepin’ pretty. Didn't bring an alarm, maybe I should buy one of those cheap digitals you can set, but I need to be up by (J700 and all I've got is my nonsettable nondigital by the bed. Which doesn’t glow, so I’ll need the light. So I can be up, dressed, and ready for chow with either — whichever shows up first — Shelby or Ensign O'Halloran. I told them both 7:00 but am hoping for Shelby. Don’t wanna hurt O’H’s feelings, but I would like to sample an enlisted meal at sea.

The hours go fast: I sleep, wake, dream. Dreams of soggy toast (eight slices) and a cup of raspberry glop. In addition to the lulling roll there's this not-unpleasant nautical creaking and some sort of patter in the walls that since it can't be mice I take for rainfall. Twice I need a piss and use-the sink. It drains real slow, doesn't all go down, but why get dressed just to use the communal “head'' down the hall? My sole anarchic act as a guest of the Navy (aside from mental blasphemy). Hopefully some poor underling will clean up before the next civilian uses it to soak his dentures or scrotum.

At 10 to 7 by my watch, dressed, groomed, unshaven (I forgot to pack a razor), I unlock my stateroom and behold a new day, fully lit, fully back in semblance of stride. Sailors this way and that. “Sweepers!” — on the PA — “man your brooms, give us a good, clean ship.” I'm reminded, not un-nostalgically, of a summer job, high school years, cleaning up garbage on Rockaway Beach. No broom, no PA, but a pick and basket, a uniform. Same hours, even earlier (proof I could once have done same).

At 7:25, neither chap having shown, I explore thoroughly between mattress and wall, both berths, and around the outer edges between mattress and springs. Perhaps a reporter from Life or Argosy, back in the days of 'Nam, left behind a smutty magazoon, a not-yet-yellowed Ian Fleming. At 7:30 I abandon my search for journalistic Roots, decide that in ten minutes, maybe less, I will chuck the waiting and chug on over to TV Town. In the interim, why not. I’ll examine the paint on the wall. Beige, it appears, has recently, or maybe not so recently, been spray-painted over what’s this, grey? pastel blue?... and at 7:35, knock knock, a cheery knock so I know who it is: O'Halloran. Who, I will soon discover, puts peanut butter in his cereal.

Some kind of bran flakes. I skip cereal. The only cold item I have besides juice is pineapple rings, canned. Everything else is off this master list you check — type of eggs, type of meat, type of spuds — and a WAITER takes the order and SERVES YOU. A black guy. I check over/light, hash, home fries, pancakes. Ketchup and hot sauce already at your seat. I can't imagine officers feeling cheated by an A.M. grubdown like this; breakfast on a par with the finest I've gobbled. The best corned beef hash. World-class potatoes. Moderately ungreasy eggs. Pancakes stiff, machine-grilled, but gee. What more could you want — service in bed? If enlisteds ate like this, even twice a week, they would I dunno, work harder, complain less, kiss superior ass ... so it's just as well they don't. (Unless they do — where the heck was Shelby? — and I'll simply never know.)

An Officer And A Dentist

Between big healthy spoonfuls of goober 'n' bran. O'Halloran asks if my stay so far has been “rewarding." “Lemme put it this way," I say. “I kind of had this idea when I accepted the assignment that it would be something like sitting in a dentist chair, that it would be at least mildly disagreeable and I wouldn’t be able to leave. As it turns out. I'm having so much fun — let's go on record — “that I really regret having to leave so soon."

Wow, hey. A civilian who can dig it. A job well done — how many more months before he's Lieutenant/Junior Grade? — though little can he know how little, or how much, he's personally had to do with it. Before he can verbalize any, or none, of this, however, a REAL DENTIST arrives — I'm not making this up. “Head Tooth" Dave Koffler sits down to join us, and O'H autoshifts, powerdrives a hale, hearty heyhowzitgoing.

Ah! the fortuity of it all. Up to this point I have got on with officers. I've occasionally enjoyed officers. I’ve even I guess learned from officers; but no, in all truth I have not fully, openly conversed with one. Jawed with no self-edit. Shot the actual shit. Well me and Koffler — you’d have to call us soul-rappin' confreres. Right off the bat it’s like we’ve got this thing in common and that thing and ... we even used to take the same drugs. Some of ’em. Back when I partied myself (in a previous lifetime. Don't know about illegal drugs, I mean in any of his previous lifetimes. That stuff — hey — we're gents and who needs to talk it? But legal and store bought, we're talking and he says, right out of nowhere, “I bet you took morning glory seeds.” I smile, sure. And nutmeg.” Ditto.

"Nutmeg?" says O’H. who’d’ve been five or six when we were downing tins of it. "Yeah," say us in unison, it's a real seagoing drug,’’ says me. "Pirates used to take it.”

This is after it's been determined that we re both 40, both went to college in the Greater New York area (him. Columbia: me. Stony Brook out on Long Island), graduated a year apart (me, 66; him. 67. He played football, varsity defensive back, in the days (I spit in) “when Columbia was 1-and-9, 0-and-10 every year.” Right, and he knew Mark Rudd, they were in some classes and after graduation he dodged for a while” before getting down to the business of avoiding (specifically) the Army. Vietnam era. Naval OCS — “The competition was fierce. " If you didn't pan out as an officer they'd just “recycle you back to 1-A. and you’d end up dead in the infantry.” “I was 4-F,” I state sheepishly; he shoots me a grin with affection.

“You do any graduate work?” he asks.

“Yeah, ha, philosophy, for about ten minutes at Yale.”

Philosophy, how does it go — 'Hume won't and Immanuel Kant'? How’d you like New Haven?”

“It was so dull the only action w'as every Tuesday and Thursday when the new comics came out.”

“Comics! I had membership card number 37 in the Merry Marvel Marching Society! Last time I was home I looked for it, I couldn't find it. God. the comics were great back then.” “Yeah, like those early issues of Thor, Daredevil... say, are you literally Head Tooth on this boat?”

“Oh, yeah. I've got a terrific staff and everything”

And so on. Before we're through we talk wisdom teeth Columbia 60s politics, Columbia footballer Jack Kerouac, Stony Brook the freak school,” his son who wants to attend Princeton (“And live in New Jersey?” “That’s exactly what I tell him”) Dave Koffler of Ohio — I forget to catch his rank — as fine a total stranger as I ever hope to meet. (Whom for fucksure I will not see again.)

Goodbye, Sob, Goodbye

Shelby’s got an alibi, a fine one, for how come he failed to wake me up. “I didn’t sleep very well,” he explains, “thinking of Heather Locklear” (But was it about her pussy I wonder.)

All I ask to be shown this morning is the boiler room. Show me some steam. Shelby's been down there — but not often. Nobody’s ever specifically requested it. Down, down down, down — all the way down. Or so I think. But we've only reached the auxiliary boiler room, no steam, lots of air-conditioning jets, loud but fairly temperate. You wanna go further, see the main boiler room?” he asks. Naw. this is plenty. We trudge back up, a real workout, one eighth tin height of the World Trade Center. "Is there anything else?”

In my general giddiness I neglect an attraction. I will later sorely rue having missed: the fantail. Don’t know if it's even a place, a single place, lots of places or just a state of garbage possibility. All morning long, the PA seems to be announcing either “The fantail is open” or “The fantail is closed” meaning — this much I know—you’re free (or not) to dump-a the rubbish. Over the side. Fifty miles out-I think - is the cutoff. Beyond you’re allowed; within, not. Does it biodegrade by the nautical numbers?

Nor do I attend the Sunday-morning religious service of my own or anyone’s choice. For a moment I think maybe, but I’m not that big a masochist — I've seen enough institutional godhead at the USO and recruit graduation.

Basically, I just wanna stay good and giddy. By sitting with the guys until I go. In front of a TV. Watching basketball.

Or trying to. As we keep straddling the fantail limit, we also move in and out of CBS’s broadcast range, catching only snippets, here and there, of the Celtics and Atlanta, second round, NBA playoffs. At a moment of optimum clarity, Larry Bird sinks a snazzy three-pointer, prompting Waldrop to chirp, “Why don’t they just put him in the Hall of Fame?” “He's gotta retire first, Chief,” killjoys Shelby. “They should waive that rule,” replies the Chief. When reception fades, stays faded, Campbell remonstrates: “Come on. Skipper, it’s Sunday. Steer us to basketball. He then hurls a wad of paper toward the trashcan. Wide of its mark, it takes Waldrop’s slap to redirect it in. “Two points,” sighs Campbell, “and give me an assist."

A great sportsviewing team: I will surely miss them. Ships crossing in the night on, of all places, a ship. If I ever, by chance, see any of them again, it will not be here. As my time of departure draws nigh, twin duties nag at my gut. The duty, first, to my “story,” my writerly calling, as if either or both really needed the topical boost: “What about Libya?” — the first and only time I will ask the question at sea. “Khadafy had it coming” ... “What else could we do?”... “It proves our technology works" ... fine, who cares, at this stage certainly not me. But more importantly, my duty to them. I feel they need to know, since they work (but do not dine) with him, of Mick O’Halloran’s peanut butter dementia. I so inform them. Duties dispatched, I board a copter — adieu.

It’s the same deal with cranials, etc. as on the cargo plane, but fortunately this time there’s also windows too: I need, greatly, to see the Constellation — just this once — as a whole. Airborne, from a sharp angle, we all peer down as one. Two of the Admiral’s cronies snap photos. What they see and I see certainly looks like a photo: a ship (qua ship) looking like a ship (and nothing more). I straighten in my seat and forget about peering. Goodbye, Connie ... goodbye, little city ... sob sob.

A quick flight, a smooth flight, we land. An Admiral’s crony asks, “How’d you like it?” All I can think to say is “It was a gas.” In the bathroom, at the mirror, I smile broadly and hum “Victory at Sea,” stopping only when a different crony enters to shit. I didn’t shit at sea either; I wonder why that is. As I drive back to town, the heat, the murk, the land put a definite crimp in the leavings of my elation. I will never forget the Connie, the sea, but I sense that the romance has ended. ’S over and done.

Parking, however, I stand on asphalt and realize with pleasure that my body, in its own sweet way, is still rocking and reeling to the rhythms of the deep. Every breath, in or out, alters the extension of my belly and chest, in turn throwing off my weight distribution and balance, making me compensate by literally swaying, all the way down to my toes. Delighted, but land-skeptical of small favors, I wonder how long this will last.

In front of my hotel — sure enough—sits a vehicle with U.S. Government plates. Hirelings from the Pentagon, no doubt, upstairs riffling through my training camp notes, pouring shots in hotel glasses of my Lamb's Navy Rum. I’ll just wait till they return.

Two crewcuts in civilian threads emerge, pause, drive off. My heart pounding like a typewriter, I reach my room, find nothing’s been disturbed. My notes haven’t been touched, my tapes, my rum. What a world. Even in Reagan’s Germany, er. Hitler’s America, er — you know what I mean—I guess there’re still these accidents of free-dom. Of liberty and perhaps justice for etc.

So I’ve lived to tell it, and I'll live to write it, and here we are. Who could play Shelby? I for some reason wonder. Who could play Koffler? Of course — why not? — they can play themselves.

Gazing from my window. I can’t really imagine it could’ve rained. Not here, not (I strain to recall) on the deck of the Connie. So maybe it was mice after all.

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