Saturday, June 19, 2010

Taking the Plunge (Reflecting on a Key Decision Twenty Years Ago)


Twenty years ago on this day, I spent the entire day at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in Atlanta. The night before, my Navy recruiter drove me to a hotel near the airport, where I had to take the ASVAB test and stay the night. Early the next morning, there was a long line of young guys waiting to board the bus to go through the physical screening for the military. I was a nervous wreck, as my biggest fear was what I had heard from my dad: "the line-up"! That's where guys have to stand in a line, drop their pants, turn their heads and cough, so that the doctors can check for a hernia (or something like that). Fortunately, that Vietnam-era practice was not in vogue to our generation of recruits. We had private screenings with the doctor, which was uncomfortable enough.

I did not expect the process to take all day. The ratio of men and women were not good, either. If memory serves, I think there were at least twenty men for every female. Its not surprising, though. The military has generally been the young man's rite of passage into "manhood" (I certainly consider my experience to be one). The day began with filling out paperwork. In fact, I had filled out so much paperwork that I unintentionally memorized my Social Security number by the end of the day. In my journal entry for this day, I wrote an unprecedented 30 pages (that record has been surpassed only a few times). What could I possibly write so much about? Well, I covered every detail of the day. Up to that point in my life, it was the longest day in my life (however, now that I've lived far beyond that day, I can say that the longest day of my life still remains the first full day in Basic Training).

This day taught me that hurry up and wait was the Standard Operating Procedure for the military. Most of the day was spent sitting in a chair, waiting to be called. Then when called, we had to hustle, hustle, hustle! We got our eyes checked, our hearing checked, our weight measured, our feet checked (no flat feet allowed!), our urine specimen delivered, our blood drawn, our fingers pressed in ink and imprinted on cards, more paperwork, and a horrendous lunch (it was our first taste of reality...that the food in the military was not going to be very good...however, that was just MEPS. The cafeterias at the Naval base in Norfolk were actually pretty good).

Once the screening portion was over, I had to call my recruiter to give him an update. Turns out he was IRATE! He had heard that one of his recruits had gotten drunk at the hotel and caused some problems but he didn't think it was me, and would've been surprised if it was me. He had already received the results of my ASVAB test and was really impressed. He claimed it was one of the highest ones he had ever seen at that recruiting station, but didn't tell me the score.

I had to meet with the career counselor, who asked me what I wanted to do in the Navy. I didn't know what there was to do, so I simply told him that I only wanted to enlist for two years. He talked me out of it, saying that if I enlist for four, I'd get a guaranteed "A" school billet and be in a better situation when reporting to the ship. I'm so glad that he sold me on a four year enlistment. When I was considering the Navy as an option, I thought 2 years wasn't so bad. If I didn't like the military, it was only two years. If I liked it, I could extend to the full four years. However, after having been in the Navy, two years assigned to Deck Department (the ghetto of the ship) would have been HELL and would feel more like four years. Instead, I got great experiences at "A" School and in La Maddalena, my choice of duty stations, a coveted "high profile" first duty assignment, and working with officers and upper enlisted ranking individuals rather than uneducated rednecks.

After being sold on a four year enlistment, I told the detailer that I wanted to work with computers. "Technical or administrative?" he asked. "Administrative," I said. He pulled out description cards for a few rating specialties: Personnelman, Ship's Storekeeper, Ship's Serviceman, Religious Program Specialist, and Yeoman. I briefly glanced at each one, but it was the word "Yeoman" that really grabbed my attention. I kept saying it in my head, liking how it sounded: "Yeoman. Yeoman. Yo! man." Yeah, that was it. Yeoman was definitely me. Next was deciding when I wanted to go to Basic Training. He wanted to ship me off the following week. Whoa! I wasn't ready for that. In fact, I asked for the last possible day to ship off, which was in May of the following year. That gave me plenty of time to prepare. I later amended that decision by moving up my ship out date by two months after my trip to the Midwest in January to visit my best friend Nicholas and my grandparents. After that solo trip by Greyhound, I knew I was ready for "the greatest adventure of my life." This was also a wise decision, because by the time I was originally set to ship off to basic training, I was leaving boot camp before the temperature got hotter.

There was just one problem, though. I told the detailer that someone said that I wasn't allowed to enlist. He asked why. It was rather embarrassing. I did not meet the MINIMUM weight requirement. In fact, I was 6 pounds underweight! It was not a big deal, he said. It just meant that he had to type a waiver. The condition was that I had to meet the minimum weight standard by the time I shipped off to basic training. As one guy told me, just eat a couple candy bars before the weigh in. I was given a sheet on how to physically prepare for basic training.

After that was taken care of, I had to wait for the official swearing in ceremony. I was still hesitant. I decided to call my dad for his advice and permission. The phone just kept ringing and ringing. My parents weren't home. I had to make a decision, because the final oath ceremony was mere minutes away and after spending all day here, I did not want to feel like I had wasted a perfectly good day for nothing. So, I took a deep breath and decided that I could handle this experience. That it would be good for me and enable me to do more traveling while my friends were in college. This was my first adult decision and is one that I am forever grateful that I made for myself.

My recruiter was happy, naturally. I was one more person on his monthly quota. When I learned that my ASVAB score was a 74, I was disappointed. That was a "C" grade in school. However, as I learned in the Navy, it is considered pretty high. Maybe not high enough to be in the Nuclear program (then again, I wasn't interested in the Nuclear program), but certainly high enough to matter, giving me greater opportunities. Once, during my time in La Maddalena, I had to review the service records of everyone in the Port Services Department, making sure that the paperwork was in the right place and that there were not pages missing. I noticed that nearly every guy in Port Services had an ASVAB score in the 30s. I was shocked. I didn't realize that the Navy allowed such low scores. However, the scoring is different than from school. Yes, the ASVAB has a 100-point maximum, but the minimum to enlist, if I remember correctly was 30.

After my experience reviewing the service records of the Port Services guys, I always made a point to check a person's ASVAB score. I generally got along with people who scored 60 or higher. I had difficulties with people who scored below 60. I see it as an "educational divide". Its the reason why I did not get along with people in Deck Department. Its a reflection of different values and interests. So, in a strange way, the ASVAB score was a pretty accurate reflection on compatability issues between other sailors and myself.

My recruiter picked me up at the MEPS Atlanta downtown to bring me home. During the car ride, he claimed that my parents would probably celebrate by taking me out to dinner. I was skeptical about it, but he kept insisting that they would. I guess to him, he saw it as a big deal and maybe other parents of people he recruited did something like that, but my parents were never big on going out to eat to celebrate key decisions like that. However, a part of me was hopeful that my parents would take me out to eat in celebration of my decision.

When I broke the news to my parents, they were happy for me, but I guess it wasn't that big a deal. We didn't go out to eat or do anything special. I was disappointed, but blamed my recruiter for putting the thought in my head when he didn't know my parents like I did. However, I don't think poorly of my recruiter. He was a cool guy. In Basic Training, many guys professed a hatred of their recruiter at some point during those eight weeks. Many wanted the opportunity to face their recruiter again and beat the shit out of them for selling them on "lies." The only thing the recruiters were wrong about with me was that they said that wake-up call was 5:30 every day. That was actually considered "sleeping in". Our days often began at 4:30 a.m. and on some days, it was 3:30 a.m.

On my second ship, the USS Simon Lake, I happened to bump into a guy who looked familiar. Turned out, he was my recruiter! I was shocked to see him in a dungaree uniform and that he was merely a first class petty officer. He was likewise shocked to see that I was already a third class petty officer (I made rank pretty quick, as I was promoted to E-4 in my 13th month in the Navy due to a deal I had made in "A" School as the result of finishing #1 in my Yeoman training class. The deal was a promotion to E-4 within my first year in the Navy if I extended my enlistment by one year). When I enlisted, because the recruiters wore a white uniform and I didn't understand the ranks yet, I had no idea what rank my recruiter was. That our paths crossed three years later, being on the same ship, is an interesting coincidence. I think I even thanked him for being honest with me because some other guys did not have a positive experience (they were promised things the Navy had no authority to deliver).

Some of you may wonder "why the Navy?" It was the only branch that I considered. I did not visit any other recruiter to compare. I did not even consider the Air Force at all. If I had to do it all over again, I might have checked out the USAF recruiter, just to hear what they had to say and to play the recruiters against each other to see which one wanted me more. All the branches had recruiting offices in the same strip mall (which they've long since vacated).

There was really no competition for me, though. My entire life, I was told a story by my dad about the circumstances surrounding my birth. I also heard him tell other people the same story. Hearing it all your life kind of creates a mythology around it and if you're familiar with the hero's journey motif, it does feel like my dad told this story all my life because it was my destiny to join the Navy and meet the people that I did, who have impacted my life in ways that I can't imagine how my life would look without them in my life.

The story my dad told me and others all my life goes something like this ... When I was born in the U.S. Navy hospital in Taipei, Taiwan, the Navy doctor tattoo'd on my rear end: "Property of U.S. Navy -- Return When 18." Of course, having never been able to see my rear end, I believed it for the longest time (until I got wise as a teenager and used mirrors to check). I can assure you that there is no such tattoo anywhere on my body. In the Navy, there is pressure on guys to live up to tradition by getting a tattoo. I did think about getting such a tattoo to make my dad's story true ... but it was only a fleeting, amusing thought.

When I enlisted, my mom said, "You listen to your dad too much." It was a joke. However, I had grown up under the Navy sign. Literally! It is my dad's "fault" for encouraging it. When he was stationed in the Philippines while I was between two and four years old (my earliest memories are from the time we lived on this South Pacific island), he was friends with a woodcarver who made a beautiful desk for him, as well as a painted family sign. Additionally, he made a nice woodcarving of individual door hangers for my brother and I, with our names on them. My brother has the USAF symbol on his name sign. For mine (which is definitely mine, as it is spelled by my parents' preferred spelling of my nickname: "Nic"), there is the Navy anchor next to my name. I have this sign hanging on one of the walls of my apartment (one of my personal treasures). My family's nickname for me was "Navy Nic." Any time the Navy made the news, it seemed like my parents pointed it out to me. So in retrospect, I have to wonder if my parents were doing the necessary work of my spirit guides to influence me towards my destiny by enlisting in the Navy. In other words, did my soul plan for a Navy experience before I was born or did my parents simply influence my decision through a lifetime of associating me with the Navy?

I'm also not sure how much of an influence the movie Top Gun played into my desire to join the Navy. That pure adrenaline rush 80s classic is credited with a boost in Navy enlistment in the late 1980s, but not everyone could be a pilot. Someone had to work the dangerous job on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. If anything, though, that movie made me want to be on an aircraft carrier. That decision was sealed in 1988 when my family visited Charleston, SC and spent the day on the USS Yorktown (a WWII era aircraft carrier). By today's CVN standard, the Yorktown is pretty dinky, but it did its job. I made sure that my last ship in the Navy was an aircraft carrier. The first three years were spent among submariners, who tried so hard to get me to volunteer for submarine duty. The best they could do was get me to ride one for three days as an enticer, but it was enough submarine experience for me. My love of the aircraft carrier could not be quenched.

Out of the three ships I served on, the USS George Washington is my personal favourite. It was the newest aircraft carrier when I was a crewmember from November 1994 through January 1996. Strange enough, while I was stationed onboard, my love of the Top Gun soundtrack increased. I loved it more as a sailor in 1995 than I did as a teenager in 1986. It was the soundtrack of my own experience onboard that great ship.

The above classic Navy recruiting poster (circa WWI or WWII, I forget which era) is one of my favourites. My sister and I laugh about the sexism apparent in that message. In the novel that I wrote based on my Navy experiences, I referenced this poster because it fit in well with the overall theme of the novel (still unpublished, for those who are wondering where they might find my novel). When I started writing it in 2000, I wanted to say everything I could possibly say about the Navy so that I'd never desire to write another Navy-themed novel or story again. Four years and seven hundred pages later, I did exhaust myself on the topic. I have no desire to write a story set in the Navy. I simply want this novel published, though, because there are no literary novels set in the Navy. Most military novels are formulaic or high-tech suspense. I'm more interested in the personal dynamics. I was in the Navy during a critical transitional time: the organization was faced with the hugely embarrassing Tailhook scandal in which an Admiral's aide was forced to walk a gauntlet of drunken and groping Naval aviators at the Las Vegas Hilton (which I had unintentionally stayed at during my church's Young Adult trip in November 1999).

The Navy also had to deal with homophobia, as one sailor was murdered for being gay in a park in Sasebo, Japan in 1992. All the while, the newly elected Democratic president intended to make good on his promise to gay supporters that he would lift the ban on gays serving in the military. So, all of these issues are present in this novel, as well as my feelings of disgust with how my fellow sailors viewed women. To this day, I find the word "cunt" as an identifying epithet used in place of "woman" or even "bitch" to be as vile and offensive as the words "nigger" and "gook." Guys used to laugh at me when I said that all I wanted was an intelligent woman. I guess for most guys, they have no use for an intelligent woman, but I can't help myself. I can only fall in love with a woman who engages my brain. The fireworks of meaningful and intelligent conversations is sexy for me. There have been ladies that I found physically attractive who lost my interest when they couldn't keep up with me intellectually. Its just what attracts me, I guess.

Based on my experiences in the Navy and seeing how many guys view women, it continues to surprise me when feminists make me out to be the misogynist villain because they don't like my opinions on certain topics. If they only knew me like the women who actually do know me over the years, they would see that I am the kind of guy they are looking for, the kind of guy who could be their best male friend or their significant other. Instead, I've had to watch over the years as guys hooked up, cheated, and disrespected women still manage to attract more than their fair share. Why don't feminists go after those type of guys? The military enlisted ranks is full of these types, but I imagine that they don't want to hear about it.

As I think back on the past twenty years and the wise decision I had made to enlist, with a four year commitment rather than a two year one, I also have to wonder if leaving the Navy has been as wise. I thought college was the pathway to a better paying career and freedom. Had I known that I would have struggled financially for the past 14 years after getting out, I might have made the Navy a career. I'm not looking forward to my 20th anniversary of my actual active duty date, especially if I'm still working where I work. My goals for getting out of the Navy were: (1) college degree; (2) career; (3) published novel; (4) marriage; and (5) children. I'm still stuck on step two. What is the point of my life since 1996? Have the trials been worth it? Had I stayed Navy, I most likely would have been stationed in San Diego and made port visits to Thailand, Hong Kong, and Australia. I would have retirement benefits to look forward to. I would have been much better off financially. Not sure if I would have been married, though. That's one area that the Navy has made me cautious and cynical about. I had seen too much of cheating and divorces among fellow sailors that marriage seems like a cheapened thing to do rather than actual commitment.

The one thing I would like more than anything else, though, is to have my Navy novel published. I sacrificed too much of life to not see it published and it would mean a lot to me to walk into a bookstore someday soon and see copies on the display table, with reviews in the major newspapers across the country as well as controversial debate about the subject matter (its about an idealistic sailor who finds himself in hot water when a gay sailor is missing at sea and whose journal reveals a secret crush on the protagonist). With all the talk about ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" once and for all, my novel would be the right piece of fiction to inspire debate on this issue (in the novel, guys who are homophobic are also sexist in their attitudes towards females, so the irony is that they don't like being treated by supposed gays the way they treat women).

The Navy is not a perfect organization, but they did give me the world. I had the best duty station assignment imaginable: three years in the remote La Maddalena, Sardinia, which is considered a prime vacation spot. Its funny hearing fellow sailors (on my Facebook) who hated living there during our time there now calling it the best years of their lives! I knew that every day that I lived there, and no one had to remind me of it. I lived each day in complete enjoyment and sometimes had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Thank you, Navy for the experience and thank you, dad for telling that story about my birth all my life. You were instrumental in launching me on my destiny as a young man. I only wish that I was as good at making career decisions in mid-life as I was a young man. Maybe it was simply beginner's luck! I'll try harder. Promise.

No comments: