A story about a night at sea
"Steaming Alone and Unafraid" By Jim Campbell
Years ago I found myself sailing aboard the USS Peleliu through the South Pacific Ocean on a humanitarian mission for the United States Navy. It was the first of its kind, an Amphibious Assault Ship designed to deliver Marines and Sailors to a hostile beach had been deployed with a full complement of construction men, helicopters, doctors, nurses, and the Marine Corps Band to travel to the poorest countries in Southeast Asia to heal the sick, build up infrastructure, and promote good will. My chief responsibility onboard the ship was skillful navigation through the vastness of the sea and avoiding the thousands of islands and atolls that make up that part of the Pacific. My secondary undertaking to that was a plethora of arbitrary political debacles that are ever present on a naval vessel. Men left to themselves on a ship for months at a time can create a quagmire of intrigue that takes skillful navigation in its own right, so most of a sailor's time is taken up by many battles that lie perpendicular to the main mission. Aside from the daily maneuvering of ship life, I partook in expeditions to assist an ailing orphanage in Vietnam, to weld dumpsters together in the Marshall Islands, and rebuild a ruined village on the side of the most active volcano in the Philippines, but there is one particular night that is etched in my mind. It's the night that I truly understood what it meant to be a sailor.
"Quartermaster, how does our course look," The Officer of the Deck asked as I put the finishing touches on my calculations of the ships position.
"Well sir, according to this we seem to be way off course and heading toward one of the thousand or so islands out here," I said chewing on my pencil, trying to make sense of my 'math.'
"My God, Helm change course too..." He started to yell as the bridge of the Peleliu came to life, and hearing the commotion my boss, Quartermaster 2nd class Josh Cox, came out of our office giving me a very stern look.
"Hold on, everybody calm down!" he shook his head in disapproval, "What did I tell you about saying things to the OOD? Do the math again Campbell."
"Never mind sir," I hung my head, and turned to QM2 Cox, "In my defense, it's not like this is an exact science, I'm sure we would have been fine."
"No Campbell, it is an exact science, you just happen to be terrible at it!" I could tell he was not amused.
"Come on buckaroo, just 15 more minutes of watch then Marshall and Grieger will be here to take over. Then we can get a dozen hot wings from the Mess deck and forget all about this." I said with a smug smile. Keeping my boss on his toes was my favorite way to pass time on long uneventful navigation watches.
"I'm not eating hot wings with you, you bastard, and don't call me buckaroo. You can address me as QM2 Cox!" His tone was unyielding but I could see it in his eyes that he was only half serious, "And what if the Captain had seen the course change on his GPS screen or we hit an island? Old Ed Rhoades would have had me hung from a yardarm during your court martial. This would have never happened on the USS Ogden." He said referring to his last ship which was waiting to be sunk off the coast of San Diego.
"Of course the mighty warship Ogden, next thing you will be telling me is that the USS Ogden is what killed the dinosaurs," I laughed, "I heard that boat was so rusty you could push a paint brush through her hull."
"We did kill the dinosaurs, they were all Al Qaeda!" He lightened up and gave me a big brother punch to the arm, "Let me show you how to do it again, I think I know where you went wrong."
My mentor and I reviewed how to lay a fix on our chart using a parallel motion protractor as Quartermaster 3rd Class Marshall opened the hatch and came onto the bridge pulling his long pick through his way out of regulation afro. As he walked to us, he greeted and shook the waiting hands of everyone on the bridge, officers and enlisted alike. After his rounds, his massive figure slide quietly through the red lights to our map table.
"Big Game James, how you doing man," his huge hand dwarfed mine with a hand shake.
"Oh he's good, he almost ran the ship aground and killed us all," QM2 said flatly.
"He is exaggerating Mars, and anyway if I ran the ship aground we would all have beach front property, I would be doing you a favor."
"But what if the Captain or the Navigator would have been on the bridge? Marshall, I don't even know why you hang out with this kid." Josh smirks as he shows the OOD our actual position.
"Shit, Campbell is my white friend, every time I hang out with him my credit score goes up," Marshall laughed, " And I wouldn't worry about Old Eddy Rhoadey, He's so senile he can barely find the bridge on this gray turd, and last time I saw the Gator, he was stumbling down the hallway shirtless mumbling something about 'Strawberry Fanta'." The Officer of the Deck chuckled at that last part, but quickly turned it into a cough to avoid suspicion. The Navigator of the Peleliu was a fat jolly man that seemed blissfully unaware of his rank or stature on the ship. He would often mumble and stutter his way through missions, and whenever we actually saw him, we would yell "Gator" at him instead of saluting.
My first day on the Peleliu, QM3 Marshall had been sent to collect me at the brow of the ship, and I came aboard lugging all of my earthly belongings in two overstuffed duffle bags. He met me looking like a bewildered and half asleep giant, and I could tell he had no intention of helping me with my burden. I learned later that he was supposed to help me get accustom to the ship, and find me a place to sleep, but he did none of that, instead he looked at me with one eye and gave me the only speech that I remember word for word of the million that I have heard in my life.
"Hey what's your name man?"
"Campbell." I said.
"Well Campbell let me tell you a little secret about life, white people are crazy. They are always doing crazy shit, like they're always saying obvious shit like 'nice day we're having' yeah Mother Fucker, I know it's nice out. And this one time I was going to do my laundry and this guy was like 'Oh going to do laundry' and I'm like 'Yeah Mother Fucker, that's why I got the detergent and shit!' But anyway look over there, there are alarms and shit going off over there and what are the white people doing? They are running around over there for God's sake! But what are the Black people doing? They are way the fuck over there! So what do you think you should be doing?" He looked too me for an answer, and I said the first thing that came to my mind.
"Do what the Black people are doing?"
He smiled very pleased, "There you go, you remember that and you are going to live a long time." He smacked me on the back almost knocking me over, "And if you ever see Black people running away from something, you better run with them because there is some scary shit coming your way."
Then he strolled off down the hallway while I struggled to lug my sea bags to my berthing. I had originally took Marshall's comment as some kind of crazy joke, but it proved to be incredibly valuable advice that has saved my life on several occasions.
Marshall slapped me on the back so hard I almost fell over again, then he grinned at me "Hey Campbell, how's that skeezer of yours doing'?"
Marshall had met my girlfriend once before we left San Diego and had become instantly infatuated with her, and committed to torturing me by insulting her.
"Dammit she isn't a skeezer, a hoe, a jump off, or a mark ass trick. She is my girlfriend, and if you keep talking that way about her I will be forced to kick your ass Marshall!" I transform into my most dangerous war stance.
Marshall laughs and mocks my best boxing pose, "Campbell what do you weigh 150 pounds? I could squash you like a bug, get out of here!"
"I'm the most dangerous 150 pounds on this boat I promise you that!" I punched him hard in the arm, but it seemed to have no effect so I chalked it up as a victory and went back to studying the map.
Then QM2 Grieger came onto the bridge, and meandered over to the map table starring down everyone in his path. Even in the red lights his gaze was intense and unrelenting as he moved to where we stood. His giant head looked even redder in our lights, his puff of hair floating on a sweaty face.
"Here comes Puddles." I said to Marshall quietly. We called him 'Puddles' because no matter what the temperature of the ship, he was always sweating profusely. He would wipe the moisture off his huge head with his hand and throw it on the deck of the ship leaving nasty little puddles everywhere he went.
"Hey Cox I'm surprised you haven't let Campbell kill us yet, six whole hours and we are still on course." He said peering out of his thick glasses that made his eyes look massive and distorted. He smiled maliciously, and it reminded me of the day he had told me that I was being sent to the Peleliu's kitchen for having a 'bad attitude'.
It was soon after my arrival on the Peleliu that I developed a reputation for being difficult. It was absolutely not my intention, but while QM2 Grieger showed me too what was to be my Battle station it became evident that I was not paddling my canoe in the same direction as most. Grieger took me to the very top of the ship to a small box on the 08 level called the Signal Shelter and said, "Listen New Guy, this is where you are going to run too if you hear the Battle station alarm. We are responsible for all the signals coming from and coming to the Boat." He knew my name, but he didn't use it the first year I was on the Peleliu, "We are also responsible for operating the equipment that detects chemical, biological, or radiological attacks on the ship. That's what that thing is out there, but I'm going to let you in on a little secret. No one knows how to use the damn thing."
That confused me, "What do you mean? How do we figure out if we've been attacked by that stuff?"
"I'm glad you asked" He grinned, "Basically we are going to throw you out of the hatch and see if your skin melts and you die. If that happens then we know it's not safe to go outside."
"You're fucking with me right?" Alarm is an understatement for the way I felt.
"No son, that's your duty to the ship. You are the youngest, and you don't have any kids so you have the least to lose." He smiled gaily, "It has to be you, and I'm here to make sure that happens."
I panicked and stumbled over what my next statement was going to be, but then I noticed a very fundamental difference between my future executioner and myself.
"No I don't have one on me, why?" He said puzzlingly.
"Well I do," I pulled the switch blade out of my boot, "And I can promise you that I'm not going out into the hazardous fucking cloud of death!"
Shortly after that incident I found myself toiling for three months scrubbing pots and pans twelve hours a day, but my attitude did not improved, if anything it only served to sharpen my edge.
I snap back to the present to hear QM2 Cox say "No he did great. I was asleep until about 15 minutes ago."
"Sure, sure I bet." He slapped his hands together and twisted his smile into a wicked grin, "Well son do I have something for you! You are on trash watch tonight. The cooks are dumping all the garbage over the side of the ship and I am sending you to help them."
"What the hell, I just did that two days ago, it should be someone else's turn." I recoiled in horror at the thought of mountains of decaying garbage, and the slippery deck on the side of the ship throwing hundred pound bags of trash into the ocean.
"Listen New Guy, you're the hammer and I need you to stay focused on the nails not the Carpenter." QM2 Grieger said, very pleased with his analogy, "And if you don't help the cooks I'll know, and you will be standing in front of the Captain in the morning I promise you that."
As I left the bridge I looked back at the huge red face in the glow of the map table light, his distorted eyes gazing out at nothing. I cursed him and the entire infernal ship as I headed down the endless stairwells to the Well deck of the ship. I needed to smoke, and the Well deck is where a sailor could relax and reflect on the day's trials and tribulations. I raised myself up on my hands and slide down the handrails with the finesse of a bobsledder. It left your hands filthy, but that was the best way to get down the eight ladder wells to the Mess Decks of the ship, and eventually to the ramp that led to the Well Deck of the Peleliu. The Well Deck allowed the ship to submerge herself halfway in the water so we could deploy our troop delivery crafts, as well as our hovercraft, from the very heart of the ship. I smiled as I walked down the long ramp thinking about the time the Hovercraft suffered a huge mechanical failure and we lost it at sea. I laughed when I remembered the Captain yelling at the Officer of the Deck "What do you mean you lost the Hovercraft!"
I arrived at the Smoke pit in the Well Deck to discover it filled with disillusioned and unkempt sailors. Like most things in the Navy, the Smoke pit organization came down to job and race. Groups gathered upon themselves filled with like-minded or like-orientated mariners mingling and sharing sea stories and yelling vulgarities at each other in five different languages. I took my usual place alone at the bottom of the ramp that led to the huge door that let the cold sea in. Leaning against the grey hulk far away from the crowd at the top of the ramp, I remembered the best thing about this particular spot was that it allowed me to analyze the rabble of sailors, and pick up on dismay among the ranks. A wise man could rule the ship from that very spot because among the sailor's bitching and complaining lay the status of every aspect of the ship. All the smokers were representatives of all the departments and all the ranks of what we lovingly called 'The USS Dirty Liu'. I discovered early in my military career that those that truly controlled the madness of Navy life smoked like freight trains, and the best way to gather the mood of a command was to observe the Smoke pit.
I took in the attitude of my brothers, and leaned up against the Peleliu to feel her shudder as we increased our speed. Through the vibrations of the hull, I felt the old girl move like a lone specter through the sea. That was always the malevolence of sailing aboard a ship at sea. Nothing has ever seemed to be such a savior and a curse, something I loved and loathed so much. She became my home and my prison. She was my isolation and turmoil, but also a mistress that I could never describe to a man that has never been locked in an obsolescent struggle with a gray lady. Steaming alone and unafraid QM2 Grieger would say, we were absolutely alone out there, and each sailor aboard was alone in his own right. I discovered immediately that a man onboard a ship was as important as his contribution to the machine, that's why we called each other by an abbreviation of our job title. Every man in the Navy is steaming alone and unafraid, only validated by his function to our captor.
I threw my cigarette in a flaming coffee can, and built the nerve to escort myself to the trash room. On the Peleliu we separated our garbage by its ability to be absorbed into the sea. Bones and metal, paper and cardboard went over the side when our distance from civilization was great enough, and this night was to be one of those nights. The array of filth was kept in a signal dismal room that stunk to a degree that is hard to describe. I arrived at the arena of stench to find other unwilling trash men waiting for me. No words were spoken, the smell made all the conversation for us. We glared into each other's world weary eyes recognizing the dismay that lay within, but all made a silent acknowledgement that each was on his own. I collected myself, and looked toward the task at hand. This was an old hat for me. I grew up a twig in the valley of chainsaws back home, and I was used to being alone. I have always been sustained by a durable fire all my own.
Soon the fearless leader of our mission appeared and started barking orders at us, and pointing at the pile of waste. I grabbed a heavy bag of slimy trash and made my way to the side of the ship that was allocated for garbage throwing. The leaking bag left a grotesque trail behind me as well as sullying my coveralls and boots. The man that was to be our guardian in this dangerous endeavor, our watcher that was to let our superiors know if one of us was to fall out of the gaping hole was flirting with a woman known as Rosie the Marine Mattress. She was a kind girl who was plagued with a lust that corrupted her and all men she came into contact with. I could see it in her eyes, and could hear it in the way she spoke that her sweetness was anchored in some desperate anger brewed long ago. Our savior discussed copulation with Rosie in hush tones as I tried my best to shake the heavy wet paper bag out of the plastic wrapping on the slippery deck. I successfully released my load into the black oblivion, and soon heard the satisfying splash 75 feet below, then the smaller splashing of the fish that followed the ship to eat our leftovers, then the alarming larger splash of the sharks that consumed our ward of garbage eating fish. I shook my head, and gathered the strength to conquer another hefty bag of rubbish. I edged back to the trash room in no particular rush, but the mission compelled me as it always had, regardless of stature or honor, no matter how arbitrary, I have always been fueled by the intent of a mission. I retrieved another over filled bag of refuse, and walked back to the port hole in the side of the Peleliu to find that my guardian and the majority of my trash kinsman had vanished into the night. I lifted my charge to shake out its contents into the blackness when I slipped on the garbage juice and found myself descending into the darkness.
I felt the weight of the abyss lean upon me, its blackness pushing against my soul with a bleak enormity that corrupted the fickle flame that smoldered in my heart. I looked out onto its ugliness, and gazed into its terrible infinity. There I witnessed a gross truth beyond anything that I had found until that point. That was the Wall of Forever that most men run from. I caught a protruding piece of metal and held on for dear life as I felt Death whisper into my ear. I heard the sharks and trash fish fight below to grasp at their reigns in the battle of the food chain as I righted myself upon the slime ridden deck. At first there was the rush of panic that follows a close brush with death, and then there was the plain pulse and slow breathes of the realization that I was alive and unharmed. This was my first meeting with what would soon become an old friend on the ink black sea. This was my first true fight with the grim tenacity of Death. The abyss beckoned to me that night. It had tasted me, and wanted to consume me in my entirety, but I found that my soul had other plans. I gazed into the Face of Forever and calm washed over me. I stood with my feet planted on the edge of my floating protector, on the very razors edge of what could have been. I looked out onto the cold and perilous sea, and said the immortal words of every seafaring man since the dawn of time.
After that I needed a cigarette. I left the trash world behind to venture my way back to the Smoke pit, but instead I found Seamen Jake Walters walking gleefully toward me on the troop walkway leading to the Well Deck.
"Hey Campbell, how the hell are you!" He grinned, and then paused when he noticed my grim demeanor, "You look like you're having a case of the Mondays bud."
"I almost fell off the ship Jake," I shuddered when I said it. He laughed.
"So what, I almost fell off six times yesterday, once to catch a seagull. I almost got it." He jumped in the air demonstrating in seagull catching prowess, "Don't be a pussy, let's go smoke!" He pointed toward the starboard gun tub, and I followed him down the dark walkway on the side of the Peleliu's hull.
Seamen Walters was a member of the Deck Department on the USS Peleliu. They were known as Undesignated Seamen, but truly they were sailors without a job. They were A School drop outs, trouble makers, thieves, cheats, and law breakers and they did everything on the ship that no one else wanted to do and took enormous pride in it. The Deck Department ruled everything on the decks of the ship, and they were notorious for their cunning and brutality. Walters was the lividest among them, always laughing manically and teetering on the verge of violence. He was at the Engineering School in Great Lakes when he was forced to leave for various unscrupulous reasons I have been told. He could take the ship apart and put it back together again, but had never stepped foot in a High School. He would routinely stop while we walked around the ship to open electrical panels and flip switches vigorously, often alarming the true owners of the equipment. Everybody liked Jake, and everyone that didn't was afraid of him. He was a loud, obnoxious degenerate that was always smiling a jester's smile, but he was also a very loyal friend and a trusted advisor.
We arrived at our destination as the sun was about to come up. The starboard gun tub was located on the side of the most forward point of the ship, and we were absolutely not allowed to smoke there. We sat down on the deck with our backs against the hull, and I lit a Camel as Jake rolled a rough looking cigarette from his leather pouch leaving loose tobacco on the ground all around him. We watched the clouds roll lazy in the ocean sky as the sun began the twilight. Jake regaled me with stories of his latest acts of debauchery as I looked out silently into the cool morning. The aura of stench from my soiled blue coveralls twisted about me in the dawn air, and I thought about a nice hot shower and a comfortable bed, but I knew all that was waiting from me was the cold dank showers of my berthing and the small cramped bunk that I called home. The sun peeked over the horizon painting the sky orange, red, and pink, and I felt its growing warmth touch my face. The days at sea were always better than the long unending nights. Danger was still ever present, but at least it couldn't lurk beneath a cloak of darkness.
"I almost fell off the ship Jake," I said still reeling from it, "I don't want to sound weak, but what would have happened if I had fallen off?"
"Well you would have died, and we would have sent your family the coordinates of where you went overboard," He said coldly fiddling with the laces of his boot, "I would have probably had an omelet. A burial at sea, that's a good death."
"I would have been eaten by sharks," I said in debate, "That is not a good death. That is being eaten by toothy monsters."
"What? Sharks are awesome!" He seemed almost offended by my accusation, "They would have torn you apart before you felt a thing."
Death didn't seem to bother him at all. He lived with it every day, and even ran toward it, but Death didn't bother Seamen Jake Walters. He was a blonde haired blue eyed Fortress of Solitude. I took a gloomy drag off my cigarette, and looked back too the dawn. Walters could tell that I was in need of some sage counsel.
"Listen Jim, anytime a ship goes to sea either it comes back home or it doesn't. That's the way life is too, either you are going to make it or you're not." He took a long drag off his cigarette as some of the tobacco fell out still burning onto his coveralls, the small torches melting holes in the fabric. If he noticed it at all, he made no move to snub the tiny flames. "That's the truth of the matter and you can either spend your life running away from it or you can embrace it, but whatever you choose it's still going to get you."
Jake's wisdom reminded me of when I asked my Dad about joining the military. He said, "If you don't join it might bother you a little down the road, you will wonder what might have happened and what could have been, but you'll get over it and live your life." He paused and I could see the memories of his days in the 101st Airborne Division come flooding back to him, "If you join, I can promise that it will change you in almost every way, and you will do and see things you never thought you would experience. You will have adventures that you will remember for the rest of your life."
That was all I needed to hear. I enlisted days later. I was scared of course, but everyone is on the cusp of such a monumental life altering journey, but at the same time I wanted to run toward it. I wanted to throw myself against it just to see if I could survive. I was on the hunt for the true human experience, far from the safety of my home, and alone to match myself against whatever was in front of me. It's was odd that I only realized then that what I was looking for on those cold seas, in those endless jungles, and dusty wastelands was that Nothingness that I had seen out the port hole of the Peleliu that very night. I was hunting for that dark lady on the horizon always asking why, and never knowing where the next part of the answer would come to me. That's what I was testing myself against, how far and how hard I could push myself. My aim was to live as hard as I could until finally I could find what life was all about in the vastness of the World. I thought that maybe that's what every sailor hunts in the abyss of the Sea.
I flicked my cigarette into the ocean and looked at my scarred and filthy arms. "God I'm getting a lot of scares from this job."
"I like all of my scars," Jake smirked, "That's how I keep score."