The Navy & Me
Love Top Gun. Loved Kelly McGinnis’s seamed stockings and Tom Cruise’s derring-do. But the Navy wasn't on my radar until I received an invitation from the U.S. Navy’s Leaders To Sea program to spend two days on the USS Nimitz and Top Gun became personal. What I thought was going to be an ‘excellent adventure’ turned out to be a humbling lesson in pride and purpose, freedom and American exceptionalism.
HOW IT STARTED
At the North Island Coronado Naval Air Station, I was ushered into a briefing where a cheery Public Affairs officer offered a thrilling description of go from 125 mph to 0 in three seconds when my plane’s tail hook caught one of four cables strung across the deck of the Nimitz. Not to worry, she assured us, if the pilot missed cable number four, we would simply fly off into the wild blue yonder for take another shot at a tag. It was, after all, tough to land on something that looks like a moving postage stamp in the middle of the ocean.
No worries. Have fun.
Pumped up, decked out in earplugs, cranial protection, goggles, and a life-vest, I joined 14 others in a windowless, no-frills plane. We sat backwards, strapped in a four way harness. We flew for an hour in silence and then finally descended nose up, tail down. The plane hooked, lurched, and landed. I was hustled out onto a 4.5-acre flight deck. The roar of the Predators was not muted by my helmet, engine heat blasted my exposed skin, and I had only a moment to take it all in. Later I would stand in the biting cold and watch 23 fighter pilots take off from that deck within seconds of one another. By that time, I learned to follow orders without a second.
ONBOARD THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER
The USS Nimitz is the first in its class, a 1,092 ft long, 252 feet wide vessel that houses 6,000 personnel. There are four engines powered by two nuclear power plants. If the vessel didn’t need food and aircraft fuel she could function independently for 50 years. The USS Nimitz reaches over 18 stories high from the keel to the top mast. There are four aircraft elevators. I mention the last because there are no elevators for people. All 6,000 persons on board - including me – clambered up ladders and stairs to get where we were going: briefing rooms, bomb assembly, the hospital, the hangar bay, the mess, and tight quarters where personnel lived for months at a time. It felt like Hollywood; it was, in reality, the business of our country.
I spoke to everyone and everyone spoke back to me without ever taking their attention from their task. I was particularly taken by three young people - so young they could have been my children.
PA Moon, a theatre major in college who worked in Hollywood for a time. How could he have left that glamour for a stint in the navy? How could he not, was his answer. His creativity was satisfied but more than that he was proud to be part of something so much bigger, so much more important, than making movies. He admired his mates. He respected his superiors. He was doing good and important work.
I was impressed.
I remember the young woman who stood watch for 6 hours in a pitch black room monitoring computer screens that tracked any movement above and below the water. I asked what she did after she was done with her watch.
“I go to work.”
Watch, it seemed, was what she did for the good of the whole ship; work was what she did for the good of her department. She told me this with in a voice that held no complaint and so much pride.
I was humbled.
Finally, I sat at lunch with three young pilots. They were handsome, intelligent and personable. Nicknames like Monica and Slag and the Professor were proudly worn on the breast of their flight suits. Men and women, so young and bright they seemed to sparkle, and were entrusted with multi-million-dollar aircraft that they would use to protect us at a moment’s notice. While we lunched, the conversation turned to the fright factor of landing and take-off. With expected bravado, they accepted my congratulations and expression of awe. Then the young man - no older than my eldest son - looked me in the eye and said, “I’m always afraid when I land at night.”
I was stunned by his honesty.
I imagine there are times when everyone on the Nimitz is afraid out there in the dark, surrounded by the sea, away from family, knowing their job is to be the first defenders when our country is threatened. I doubt that young pilot understood the complexity of that simple statement.
During my stay, I slept in a small room on a thin mattress covered by scratchy sheets. I was jarred by the noise of planes landing above me, and the day crew changing places with night crew. I had eaten macaroni and cheese, toasted cheese sandwiches and chicken pot pie and breakfast burritos. The crew had 15 minutes to eat; I ate leisurely for 1/2 an hour. I ran up and down ladders, sat in dark rooms and was freely given information so complex and interesting I couldn’t possibly retain it all. I spoke to people from tiny towns and big cities. I watched the crew work with precision and pleasure and professionalism. I realized that the USS Nimitz is a model of efficiency that should be adopted by schools and politicians and businesses and individual lives: work for the good of the whole, do work that suits your abilities, respect those you work with and those you work for, understand what your objective is.
OVER TOO SOON
I've been home a long while, writing my books, telling stories that celebrate heroes that pale next to the heroism of those 6,000 people on the USS Nimitz. I celebrate and salute each and every one of them. I am so grateful for their service; I am so proud to be an American because of them.
Happy birthday to the navy and thank you to all who serve.