The encounter described in the following paragraphs doesn’t define what it’s like to learn to be a fire control technician, or an FC, as much as it documents what’s accepted in the new Navy, where laxer standards not only allow for the admission of shitbaggery, but dictate that it prosper. All of what’s written really happened, but I’ve changed the name of the protagonist because he’s a nice person, and I want to protect him from ridicule.
Here we go:
The morning of Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012, marked a new day for seaman apprentice Mike Sean, and he had to be on his game.
Over the previous few weeks, ever since the class began, Mike had been slipping, faster and farther, behind. The class, Apprentice Technical Training, or ATT, is the first test all fire controlmen in the Navy endure to become an FC.
Mike’s 21 classmates were, mostly, on schedule. He had to catch up. But first, he had to run a gauntlet.
Here’s a brief history of Mike’s recent life:
So far, much of his time in the classroom had been spent drumming with his hands on his desk, humming the various cadences that drove the motley ranks of ATT students from barracks to classroom in the mornings, or injecting awkward commentary into the conversations of classmates who had reached a point in the material at which they could no longer continue, invariably much farther than Mike.
One of his afternoons went like this:
1444 – Mike stared blankly into his computer screen, cleaning his fingernails with a screwdriver.
1445 – Mike watched one of his classmates pass quickly, dragging a mop. “That is the worst swab job!” he criticized.
1447 – Mike heard a conversation about the “Star Wars” saga, and was compelled to reel around, away from his computer, to explain the deeper meaning of Luke Skywalker’s relationship with Darth Vader.
1453 – Mike talked to his equipment in an insidious German accent, as he if was playing Nazi commandant, and his equipment were Jewish dolls. And so on.
It was emblematic of Mike’s mode of operation. But he seemed blissfully unaware of the detriment his behavior was causing to his class standing and, in turn, his Navy career. His classmates were annoyed.
Monday morning, he leaned across the desk next to him – mine – blocking my view of my computer and, more importantly, Lake Michigan, and reached into the inventory of experiment equipment that littered the top shelf.
“I’m just gonna use this,” Mike said, as he pulled out an alligator clip for a multimeter test probe and brought it back to his own desk.
He fell back into his own mind, humming the theme of Skyrim, a virtual realm not unlike World of Warcraft in which he drowns himself when he escapes back to the barracks. He tried to interest me in the melody.
“Hedge, I’ve almost got it memorized,” he declared, “but there are a few words I haven’t figured out yet.”
One word he has figured out, “marivast” as he spelled it, means “forever” in The Dragon Tongue, he matter-of-factly informed me. I tried to express something less than fascination, but with little success as Mike continued on his tirade about Skyrim. He liked the game so much that he didn’t mind foregoing the privileges many of his shipmates had earned. Instead of putting together a proper application to move from Phase 1 into Phase 2 – where new sailors could dress in civilian clothing, go off the base with only one accountabilibuddy instead of two and stay out later on the weekends – Mike was content to stay in his room and play Skyrim. It was all the freedom he needed.
“I’m a nerd, and proud of it,” he explained, “motherfucking proud of it.”
And Mike’s pride was apparent even without the proclamations. He asked me one day: “Would it bother you if I talked like [Starship Enterprise] Captain Kirk all day?” It would bother me, but Mike made an attempt at it anyway.
He has a vast array of opinions on a vast array of subjects.
Mike on personal flaws: “You just have to learn to live with them. I’m a greedy, lazy motherfuck!”
Mike on presidential politics: “If we get a Republican in office, we’ll all get raises.”
Mike predicting how well he’ll do over the next few hours in class: “Team focus! Wah! I’m a ninja!”
Suddenly, back in Monday’s classroom, the class’s instructor, who’d been combing electronic student records to make sure nobody was slipping too far behind, called Mike over to the instructor’s desk.
Mike returned to his own desk a few moments later, almost in tears. The instructor had placed him on MNS, or mandatory night study, because, over the weekend, Mike did not attend any extra study sessions – “I was on duty,” he excused himself – and was no better off than he had been at the end of the previous week. He was about a day behind everyone else in the class. MNS meant Mike would have to return to the schoolhouse every night for a week and six hours each on Saturday and Sunday to catch up under the supervision of other instructors. It would cut into his Skyrim time, and he was upset.
Still, that didn’t stop him from getting farther behind in the class. He still piped into conversations with his disapproval of the Obama administration, his affection for his hometown of Philadelphia and his wonderment at how cool the command leadership is.
He usually got the cold shoulder.
Sometimes, classmates even condescended: “Mike, there’s a reason you’re so fucking far behind the rest of the class,” I said to him in the most aloof tone I could muster. “It’s because when you see someone else is having a conversation, you can’t help but chime in.”
I immediately regretted it, but I felt that someone had to say something.
Tuesday morning was no better than Monday for Mike because Tuesday mornings, for the class in room 328, meant personnel inspection. The inspections were conducted by the class’s coordinator, a strict young second class FC. He walked the ranks, stopping here and there to record a few discrepancies. But he stopped for a long time at Mike’s spot.
“Sean, huh?” FC2 quizzed ominously. “You just don’t have good luck with uniforms, do you?”
FC2 was alluding, of course, to the previous Tuesday, his first inspection of the class, when he failed Mike for wearing white socks and having sauce stains up and down the front of his blouse. This time, Mike had more food on the front of his blouse and his hair had grown out too much. The coordinator let the class go, but held Mike behind for counseling. Mike reentered the classroom a few moments later, again, almost in tears.
“He shouldn’t have failed me for two hits,” he complained to me. “I don’t like that guy.”
The instructor had no choice but to send Mike to the first floor to see the chiefs, a bunch of big, scary men with fancy collar insignia. Mike knew this did not bode well for his future as an FC. His record, which would no doubt be reviewed by the chiefs, showed no time spent at “open learning” sessions where students can go after hours to study. The chiefs would not look happily on it.
Mike hung his head, walked downstairs and returned some time later with bad news. The chiefs had told Mike they didn’t want him to be an FC, and they’d called Mike’s barracks and spoke to one of the stricter leaders there who said Mike needed to be counseled at home as well.
“I’m gonna be [undesignated] by the end of the day, I just know it,” Mike told me and a couple of other classmates who were listening. Undesignated seamen have no access to the secret security clearances and petty officer status graduated FCs enjoy. They chip paint and cast mooring lines. “All I want to be is an FC.”
Mike was watching his dream being flushed down a toilet.
The instructor wrote Mike a permission slip to be outside the building during class hours, and Mike returned to the USS Decatur, his barracks, for another tongue lashing.
But it was not as bad as Mike had imagined. He returned to class a good while later with a shaven head and a smile. He was not going to be shipped to the fleet undesignated. He just had to clean himself up and catch up to the rest of his class.
On the day of his reinspection, Mike straightened himself up, standing as tall as his short frame allowed in a uniform free of food particles. I offered to inspect Mike before he went to the class coordinator for a second chance.
“Where is your uniform dirty, normally?” I asked.
“This general area,” Mike replied, indicating a large swath of his front that makes up the path of food falling from his mouth.
“You’re good,” I said after a quick once-over.
Mike left with a new lease on his career, hoping that, with night study and a better work ethic, he could someday become an FC.
A few weeks later, Mike was set back from our class into one behind us, where other students bitched about his habits as much as we did. But he eventually did graduate, and I eventually ended up in the same barracks with Mike. One night, I was standing watch as the fire and security rover, whose job it is to rove the spaces in the barracks and sometimes wake people for whatever it is a person might need waking. Mike hadn’t made it to one of the musters he was required to as a human who still has Phase 1 liberty. I knocked on his door at about 11:30 p.m., and Mike’s roommate let me in. Mike was sleeping in a rack lost somewhere in a pile of those plastic microwavable packets of Kraft macaroni and cheese. He emerged wearing only boxers. I told him he hadn’t made his muster.
“Oh, I totally slept through that,” he replied.
Mike’s not typical, but he’s not alone.
I realize I’m nearly 1,700 words into what was ostensibly a brief description of me as an FC, and you probably don’t have any mental picture of that. Don’t worry; you’re not a deficient human. The reason there is because, as of this writing on Oct. 21, 2012, I have no clue either. Sure, I’ve graduated “A” school with semi-respectable grade point average, and have talked to a million other FCs who have seen fleet FCness and know what it’s like. But up to now, all my training has been theoretical. I fixed manufactured faults in relevant system radars that spin around atop a building here on base, and read about what it’s like to be an FC in a ship work center. And that’s it. I’m getting ready to leave Great Lakes for Dam Neck, Virginia, where I’ll learn how to maintain and operate the NATO Sea Sparrow missile system. Until I reach the fleet – a mighty Navy ship with big guns and missile systems capable of destroying entire civilizations and possibly the world – I’m not going to have that clue. I’ll write about that when it happens. For now, all that’s tangible is what I’ve seen.