The shape of the Puget Sound is often likened by Navy personnel who spend time thinking about such things to the outline of a flaccid penis superimposed over the northwestern-most part of the continental United States. The farther directly up from the water body ones perspective, the more it resembles a phallus. But the closer in one gets, the less apt this comic observation seems. Zooming in, it gains texture, complexity, life. Boating on the Sound, it’s not rare to see orcas and seals and all kinds of avian life. It teems (less and less) with salmon, despite humanity’s best efforts to rid the world of these remarkable fish. It’s crustaceans serve as a bellwether for the ocean acidification crisis. Most of the world’s people will never see it laid out before them with such intimacy as sailors who deploy from the Navy stations in Bremerton and Bangor, about halfway between Seattle, which sits just north of the Sound’s crook, and Tacoma, perched on the Sound’s terminus.
I’ve been out of the Sound on the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis more times than I can remember. Since the world wars, Bremerton, where the carrier is stationed, has been a staging point for much of the United States’s epic projection of power. (Strike groups sent from here have historically shown Southeast Asia and the Middle East the reach of American military hegemony, which is shockingly massive at larger than the 10 next-largest military powers in the world combined.) The Stennis’s 2016 deployment was part of this effort. Circling the contested Spratly Islands for nearly seven months, she thumbed America’s nose at China. But this last underway, my final in the Navy, only lasted a little less than three days.
To begin, my coworkers, jubilant at the warm weather, danced to rap music on a forward weapons platform, which juts from the side of the ship, as she navigated the Sound.
Sailors who helm the ship as officer of the deck say the transit is fraught. There’s one point where the carrier, whose flight deck is longer than three football fields, obscures all water, the bow seemingly pointing only at land before she must make an impossible sharp turn. The Stennis has never run aground, but I had never been on a Sound transit (or never having computed the physics), I’d deem it an impossible act.
The mountains were obscured by a haze from the wildfires that burned in nearby British Columbia. Radio stations and newspapers had spent the previous several days warning news consumers of the health risks posed by breathing in the toxins that flooded the air from the fires, whose intensity has been linked to climate change. But the air took on a magical quality, which to me signified the anesthetizing nature of such disasters – the frog in the pot of boiling water complex. In any case, such a broad topic didn’t matter; we had to make sure the ship could sail.
I belong to a division of fire controlmen (maybe I’ll address the inherent sexism in Navy nomenclature in a future post, but suffice the term for now). This job has nothing to do with fighting fires, a common misconception. We are essentially electronics technicians who specialize in “fire control,” a field that deals in any weapon that is more complex than a rifle, from a five-inch gun to the famous Tomahawk missiles, dozens of which the Trump administration fired at a Syrian air base early this year. My system, an aging self-defense apparatus developed by NATO nations, spans the entire ship from radars at the top of the superstructure to the launcher platforms sitting only 30 feet above the ocean surface. Our mission for this underway was determine the system could track and fire a missile at a target.
The Navy hired an aircraft (whose flight cost hundreds of thousands of dollars) to fly back and forth over the ship, testing the radars and computer systems that comprise the ship’s combat systems. I was at a computer monitor that displayed radar data and controlled its accuracy. When my radar hooked the target, I relayed the information to watch standers in the combat direction center (the blue room you see in movies that depict tactical sea warfare). During the hours-long war game, I read nearly 50 pages in Stephen King’s “It,” looking up occasionally to notify the central watch station of things like: “Track No. 801788 hooked at 30K yards, bearing 287, engageable.” And the watch stander would shoot. (The missile circuits were simulated – it’s too expensive even to test live NATO missiles anyway, which are no longer manufactured and run the Pentagon about $1.5 million apiece.)
It’s a boring job on an aircraft carrier; fire control is not a carrier’s mission. Her only reason for existence is to launch fighter planes. That’s for later when the carrier is called to the world’s destabilized places, where her aircraft will drop bombs on targets called out by ground forces, sometimes accurately.
I slept most of the rest of these three days, stood a brief maintenance watch, did some paperwork. Coming back, I discovered that a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the city’s decision to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee had ended when a 20-year-old white man rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, martyring a 32-year-old woman and injuring 19 others. If you live under a rock, the new President saw evil on both sides of the line.
Underway, we have internet feeds. We even have several daily news digests compiled by ship officers from several different publication, and these have a decent readership that includes me. Still, I have to catch up in the archives. I scanned a headline, early Sunday morning. But I heard nothing from anyone aboard about the violence, even when we had pulled in. They’ll probably talk about it at work tomorrow.
That’s what I missed on my last ride, and when I reopened my Twitter feed when we pulled in, one day early, on Sunday morning, a wave of nausea hit me. The world is still out there. As much as we think it’s healthy or romantic to escape, it’s still there, and escaping it does nothing but put you behind the story. Maybe my last ride in the military should have meant more to me than missing the weight of a current event. Several FCs who left the ship during the 2016 deployment saw it as a turning point in their lives; they demanded shipmates celebrate with them in final port calls. I still have to work on the Stennis till early September, but this was my last ride.
Maybe it’ll mean more later. Maybe I’ll write more then.