1978-1981. Navy Memories I: Enlistment and training

Forty years ago, during a four year stint as a submarine diesel mechanic (among other things) I was exposed to pendulum motion. What, one might ask, does pendulum motion have to do with diesel operation? OK. So you have these cylinders (the Fairbanks Morse machines we ran had two opposing rows of twelve cylinders) that go up and down, hence reciprocating. Then there is this rocker arm assembly that connects and transfers the reciprocating action of the cylinders to rotating action of a main shaft, and it is that rotating action, inside a magnetic field that generates electricity. Still with me?

So what is the pendulum connection? Well, these cylinders are timed to fire sequentially in a way to smoothly turn the shaft, mimicking a pendulum in that the piston starts at the cylinder top (one extreme) pushes down to the bottom (opposite extreme), compression ignites the fuel, the piston is driven back to the top, passing an imaginary point in its travel called top dead center. Same as the swing of a pendulum, far to one side, midpoint, far opposite side, back to the mid point, and so forth, covering the whole range of the pendulum swing.

(It’s been forty years, mind you, so the experts can correct me if required, but that’s what I recall of the basic motion.)

So what? What does this have to do, say, with the price of tea in China? (A rather fitting analogy for another time, but demand and supply curves shift on an oscillating plane, setting the price, or as the old black preacher used to say, “da Sun do move.”)

Political “things,” movements, changes occur on a spectrum that is “pendulumatic,” i.e., from one extreme, past the middle, to the opposite extreme, back past the middle, and on and on. Social “things” move on the same pendulum, a sort of oscillation. Even businesses operate on a business cycle. It actually makes things predictable. And history can be viewed on the same alternating spectrum.

But in the political realm, you have to be careful. Entrenched interests seek to prevent the pendulum swing, to keep themselves or their party in power. But the pendulum is not just a nice thing to think about, it is actually physical law. We see a sort of contrived political alternation in the election of “opposite” parties for executive and legislative office, and correspondingly for judicial appointments. I say contrived because increasingly, in the two party system, the “opposing parties” begin to look so much alike as to become hardly indistinguishable, which basically means there is no pendulum motion at all. Ah, but as the old preacher, Rev John Jasper used to say, “da Sun do move,” and the pendulum action is in effect, sooner or later. Of course, folks ridiculed Rev. Jasper because they thought he was saying the Sun revolved around the earth in a geocentric way described by Ptolemy of Alexandria, debunked by Copernicus and Galileo long ago. Now we know that the Sun moves through the galaxy, orbiting around the center of the Milky Way. (Now that’s a poem begging to be written.)

Those on the bottom will someday swing to the top. “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.” And those at the top will eventually descend to the bottom. In an analogy, yesterday’s slave will be tomorrow’s master, a frightening consideration for some but a necessary prospect for all parties. They used to say “be careful who you step on on your way up because you might see them again when you come back down.”

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Navy Memories: Enlisting, TDY Saratoga, Nuke School, Sub School

My life was two out of sync sine waves, maybe three, maybe four, actually, and my best efforts couldn’t pull them into sync. Ups and downs constantly, between my courses and campus activities, work and service at the mosque, family obligations, and balancing part-time jobs, constantly pushing and pulling energies, thoughts in various directions.

I was working on an A&T co-op job in Reidsville, NC, Farmer’s Home Administration, an agency of the Department of Agriculture. In my third year I changed my major (yet again, after switching back and forth between electrical engineering and biology) to economics. In this coop job I worked in rural communities in Rockingham County, making loans to farmers until their crops were harvested and doing collateral checks on the land and equipment that secured their loans (it was called “chattel checks,” a throwback to slavery, perhaps), and financing large rural housing developments and rural electrification projects. One of the librarians I worked with at Greensboro Public Library (where I had graduated from page to associate) lived in Reidsville and introduced me to Mr. and Mrs. Stockton, who rented me their basement apartment.

Walking back and forth to work everyday, I passed a Navy and Air Force Recruiting office. Over time, they changed the posters in the window. When they put up a poster advertising the Navy’s Nuclear Power program it caught my eye and I went inside for a closer look. I was greeted by an Air Force recruiter who was very off-putting and stressed the standardized exam, called ASVAB. I had always done very well on standardized exams and took it very lightly when the recruiter stressed the overwhelming importance of the exam. The Navy recruiter, on the other hand, regaled me with sea stories, no doubt from his own experience on submarines, that I found quite charming.

One day I stopped by and he offered to let me take an abbreviated version of the Nuclear Power exam, a second exam after the ASVAB. It had some mathematics, some chemistry, and some physics questions. He checked my results when I finished and I had aced the thing! He asked me would I be willing to go to Greensboro to take the full Nuclear Power exam along with the ASVAB and I agreed to do it. He called me after a few days and told me my score on the ASVAB was the highest he had ever seen, plus I had qualifying scores on the Nuclear Power exam. So, he asked me, was I interested in signing up?

It was the summer and I was already registered for my classes in the fall, along with continuing work at Farmer’s Home Administration. He said I could sign up but not have to report until December. He called it the delayed enlistment program. I saw it as the solution to all my problems, balancing work, school, and life. So I signed up!

December came, I enjoyed Christmas with the family, said my farewells, and got on a plane to Orlando for Navy boot camp. I told folks at the Mosque, but I didn’t say anything to anybody at school.

Boot camp and training

Other than catching pneumonia and missing three days of training and returning to my training unit still weak from the illness, boot camp was fairly uneventful. Our sister unit had an interesting person who was headed for dental technician training. We corresponded for a couple of years and I even met her family in Hartford, but it wasn’t to be.

From Orlando I went to Great Lakes, IL for Machinist Mate A School. That was fun because on the weekends I could take the train into Chicago where I had friends and relatives, including the distant cousin my mother stayed with during her Chicago sojourn. Good food and happy times in the Windy City! The training was a self-paced study of equipment and systems in a propulsion plant where the toughest part was actually tracing pipes and systems and then drawing them from memory. It would be excellent practice for later submarine quals.

I finished ahead of schedule and had a four month delay before returning to Orlando for Nuclear Power School. I got TDY orders to an aircraft carrier in Mayport, the Saratoga, CV-60, also known as Sorry Sara. I was assigned to an auxiliary division, maintaining refrigeration and AC units, hydraulic power plants, and fire pump stations throughout the ship. Also did my share of painting out engineering spaces. I must have done something right because when it came time for my departure the Chief Engineer offered me immediate promotion to E-5 and my own shop in the propulsion plant. In retrospect, I should have taken it. There was a government shutdown and a resulting delay in getting my orders cut to Orlando but it all worked out in time.

We were in Class 8001, Section 7, some twenty of us, all machinist mates I seem to recall, the first class of FY 1980. My best buds were Max Gross and Jerry Merrill. Great guys with great heart. I lost track of Jerry after he got married but kept in touch with Max as we both ended up on fast boats out of Norfolk.

Class 8002 was the first class to admit “girl nukes,” the first females in the enlisted nuclear power program. Not an inconsiderable achievement for the US Navy. I had two buddies in 8002, Rhia Walton and Carole Davis. Rhia passed away in a motorcycle accident and I lost touch with Carole over the years. Rhia and Carole were a couple and three is a crowd, but they always made space for me, especially later in Ballston Spa. I can confess 40 years later that I was deeply in love with Rhia. Upon learning of her passing I wrote her an elegy, which I posted to a blog some years later.

Life at Nuke School was very regimented. Breakfast at 7, classes from 8 to noon, lunch, classes from 1-4, Star Trek in the barracks common area followed by Kung Fu, dinner at 6, and study hall from 7 to 10:30. Repressive would be putting it mildly. The beginning was straight forward math, physics, chemistry, basic engineering principles. But the end was electrical theory, material science, thermodynamics, reactor operations, rad/con chemistry. In the 19th week my father passed away and I went to Greensboro for a week, breaking the study routine. When I returned I had four weeks to go and, still grieving my father’s passing, I basically pushed it through to the end. My on and off again relationship with Jan and weekend moonlit night strolls down Orange Blossom Trail helped me through those last few weeks. Anyway, I made it.

But at the next stage of training, Nuclear Prototype at D1G in Ballston Spa, New York, I sort of unravelled from the stress of it all. The rotating 12-hour shifts didn’t agree with me and as soon as I got a couple days off I was on the road to Albany to spend time with an old friend and love interest. That relationship was up and down for reasons I couldn’t fathom at the time. But hey, it is what it is, as they say. About two months in I went to the officials and threw the towel in the ring. I told them I just didn’t want to do it any more. Plus our whole class was headed to the USS Carl Vinson, the newest nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. My days on the Sorry Sara convinced me I wanted nothing to do with no more aircraft carriers no more. They tried to convince me otherwise but I had already convinced myself that my mind was made up. They cut me orders to the nearest Navy base, Submarine Base Groton, in Connecticut, and sent me on my way.

Groton gave me a shit assignment checking people into the chow hall. Very boring but I worked with a cute girl from Reno whose name I can’t even recall. She was a bit of a tomboy and we spent our free weekends together smoking reefer at a house she shared with two guys in a rural area outside New London. This was before the Navy’s “Not on my watch, not on my ship, not in my Navy” zero tolerance for drugs policy. The guys were never around and I assumed they were deployed and she was house-sitting. Don’t ask, don’t tell. She had an interesting, sort of counter-culture, devil-may-care personality. “Ray, I like you because you are not constantly trying to get into my pants,” she told me. And we were both voracious readers. When the library at Connecticut College had a used book sale, we practically went crazy buying books. It’s a shame I can’t remember her name.

After a couple of months I was informed that I was getting orders to a destroyer tender, unless I wanted to volunteer for submarine duty. Submarine duty involved three more months in rotten Groton that I could spend with my new friend, otherwise immediate transfer to a tender in Norfolk. I volunteered for submarine duty. Once I started training our paths never crossed again. Maybe all it ever was was a mirage anyway.

Submarine basic training was uneventful. During follow-on auxiliary machinery training I reconnected with Jan, who by that time was in training at Ballston Spa. But we were star-crossed lovers and we knew it. I was offered orders to a diesel boat in Subic Bay, but I saw The Philippines as very far away from home and plenty others were dying to get a Subic Bay assignment. I really didn’t get it (the lure to sailors of Subic Bay) at the time and I’m glad I didn’t. Ultimately I got orders to a fast attack out of Norfolk, the Hammerhead (SSN-663).

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Some poetry from the period

End of Life Criteria (Notes from Reactor Theory class)

like a piano tune
that starts and ends,
so is life …

death cuts in:
a toneless key;
a nameless chord;
a sharp discontinuity …

judgment occurs
without a moment’s notice;
and on the second half
one regrets not doing
what should have been done …

every second is judgment –
and every opportunity
affords one yet another
to correct the incorrection –
before the final hour …
has passed.

February 1980


Thoughts about judgment day (D1G)

the hour actively approaches
while we, its victims, sit and wait,
with folded arms, trying to appear
comfortable and carefree,
and mutually exclusive.

days pass quickly, and nights,
like the blink of an eye…
nay, the pupil’s dilation…
time races to its destination
while we, in our lethargy,
approximate suspended animation.

there is no conclusion,
only the vain pleadings
for a fresh new start,
another sequel,
a couple more opportunities.

The rope by which we hang,
is long, connecting us, tethering
us to our past and future,
but its knot is sure.

June 1980

Mind is cluttered (D1G)

mind is cluttered…
fragments of thoughts uncompleted
dangling modifiers fill
the lower heavens.

thunder would quiet the
noisy confusion and clamor,
lightning would illuminate
the darkness and charge the
atmosphere with order,
raindrops would dampen
the soil and give new seeds
the chance to germinate and grow,

but there is none of neither.

deep in the inner chamber
there is completion, and order,
and noiselessness, and illumination,
and freedom from famine and drought,
if we could only find the entrance…

if we could only find the entrance,
we would enter.

June 1980


Morning glories (at D1G)

morning glories bloom along the fence.
They are the prettiest flower
in the vegetable garden.
Second is the bloom of the yellow squash.
mother used to like African violets the most.
sister likes cacti and green plants that seldom bloom.
daddy liked tobacco blossoms and jimpsom weed.
I like the vegetable flowers.

June 1980

To Towanna

A peculiar beauty,
A gentle glow,
A kindness
and a caring –

an attractiveness,
a radiance,
a heart that tends
toward sharing –

a pleasant smile,
a friendliness,
though hardship
she is bearing –

a tender kiss,
a warm caress,
her love makes
life endearing.

July 1980

As you depart (to J)

As you depart
It breaks my heart
That you would leave my life

But leave you must
And so I trust
That soon you will return

These poems I write
Reveal the plight
Of one who loved and lost

So bear with me
And soon you’ll see
This life’s a short sojourn.

July 1980

Inside me burns a fire

inside me burns a fire
consuming and refining
fueled by stone
contained and self-sustained

it’s your love I desire
to soothe and warm and please me
but now I am alone
and circumscribed by pain

tonight we shall conspire
the stars in heaven to guide us
to where our souls are one-
the goal of love to attain

September 1980


Nothing survives

nothing survives the ordeal.
friendships are forgotten,
and associations, disassociated.
‘tis a tortuous path we travel,
sharp curves and bends
that baffle the mind, only
the soul survives the ordeal.

conflicts go unresolved,
obligations, unfulfilled, and
there’s no time to stop and/or
backtrack. The moratorium
has ended and the battle is raging
for the soul’s survival

after the migration,
from the realm of nothingness
into the new reality,
the ordeal ends and
the soul finds peace




5 thoughts on “1978-1981. Navy Memories I: Enlistment and training

  1. Interesting to say the least….My minds eye always somewhat stalled stalled in bewilderment as to what was happening in the liives of you and a few others whose honor it had been to know and experience the rare potential exhibited I find solace in your journey realizing once again when you look at the essence and not the objects…the road we perceive somewhat lonely at times is the same. May your life continue to be a beacon and a testament to creations endless march to reconnect itself with the creator. I am deeply honored and take pride in your struggles. Peace Always.

    Like

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