There is nothing in the world quite so sweet as returning home from a long deployment at sea…
This is me and the Hobbit. 2 June, 2003. The ship in the background has just come back from a seven month deployment to the Arabian Gulf. It was nominally seven months, because we’d had a two-day inport after a three week graduation exercise prior to departing, back in November. Felt like eight, fine – call it seven.
Even the Hobbit, who is as strong and determined a Navy wife as they come, had some issues with the two-day inport. We’d been working up since the late Winter of the previous year, and workups involve a lot of comings and goings, with only the promise of more to come. Pack up, say good-bye, get re-acquainted – repeat. It’s very stressful on a marriage, on a family. It takes a real hero to make it work, to keep the home fires burning. She’s that kind of gal, and the smartest thing I’ve ever done was ask her to a dance. The rest, as they say, is history.
Our turnaround schedule from the previous cruise had been fairly compressed. We’d arrived home on the 14th of September, 2001. Yes, that September. The ship needed maintenance in a big way, so we were unavailable for the first phase in the global war on terror, in Afghanistan. They’d have to do it without us. We watched it on CNN.
But the shipwrights got busy, and got us back in fine shape by December, because they knew it wasn’t over – there would be more to do. This 41-year old ship had one more fight to fight. They made her ready to go to sea. Then came the training phase. And then came cruise.
Cruises are generically six months long. The Navy used to leave ships at sea for longer periods, back in the 70′s and 80′s, but the Sailors voted on that policy with their feet, and frankly the strains of the sea show up in material conditions after much longer than that. So we had ships we couldn’t sail, even if we could have manned them. Six months became the norm.
That’s a peacetime, rotational kind of presence. If something is brewing, there’s no hesitation to leave the forces right where they are, and send for more to keep them company. So we fought phase two in Iraq, and spent seven months away from home.
You get into a kind of routine after a bit – there are no breaks, every day is a full workday. I used to say that every day is Tuesday at sea, since the weekend is a distant memory, and the next weekend is nowhere in sight. Some folks stand watches – if you’re lucky you’re on a five-section watch, which means four hours on watch, and 20 hours off. In those 20 hours you will eat, sleep and take care of the paperwork. You might write an email to your family. You may get a workout in. Four section watches are much more common. Some watch stations are so difficult to master (or simply to man) that Sailors will stand what is called “port and starboard” watches. That’s six hours on, six hours off. For as long as you are at sea. It’s brutal, especially in the living hell that is the engineering spaces aboard a conventionally powered (read: steamship boiler driven) aircraft carrier. For the flight deck crew, the 19 year olds who do the critical work of launching and recovering aircraft, they are on call whenever aircraft are flying (in the war, for 15-17 hour days) plus two hours at either end. Nineteen to twenty-one hours a day. For as long as the war lasts.
Imagine locking yourself in your workplace with your co-workers for seven months. You will work together, dine together, sleep together and try to find a shred of solitude together in the office building you work in. In the enforced proximity, the commonplace social niceties, the polite and pedestrian masks we all wear, are insufficient. After a while, the mildest tic will send you into a lather. Aboard one ship I cruised upon, our next door neighbor would wake every day at 0400 and shave in his stateroom. Now we, as pilots, would never get to sleep much before 0100, sometimes later if we’d had and ‘exciting’ night landing. It takes a while to spin down from one of those. He would make one or two scrapes on his face, and then run the faucet and rap his razor against the washbasin three times. Exactly three times. For six months. The walls being paper thin, the sound would carry, waking my roommate and me up every morning, at the exact same time. Never in my entire life have I been so close to murdering someone.
At the wardroom table, where the officers dine, there are a few customs unique to the service: one may not talk about politics, religion or (the fairer) sex. Now, the rules on politics are sometimes noted more in the breach than in the observance because, 1) what else is there to talk about? and 2) we do tend to be a fairly homogenous bunch, so the divisions found in the days of sail of the Royal Navy (from whence many of our customs derive) are less brightly demarcated than in times past. But these rules exist to prevent ineradicable breaches from forming in the mess, with months of enforced proximity left to endure.
After a few months at sea, all the daily headaches and weekly back pains of domestic life fade into a distant memory. Hearth and home become as idealized as a Norman Rockwell painting. Sleep is a luxury, the measure of your life’s worth. I used to dream of being asleep.
So when the homecoming day finally comes, the aircraft have all flown off and the flight deck lies bare and naked in the early Summer sun, the anticipation is tremendous, the excitement palpable. You still have to moor 80,000 tons of hard steel against unyielding concrete, so you must stay focused on the task at hand. And yet, as you make the final turn, and see the thronging multitude collected on the pier, it is hard to keep your heart out of your throat. In Aux Conn, where the ship is directed for the agonizing final yards and feet prior to throwing the mooring lines over, you might, with a pair of binoculars, find your very own family waiting on the pier…
They are going through their own process – you’ve been gone seven months, nothing but an email on the page, the (very) occasional phone call from a foreign port at an awkward hour. Will he have changed? Will he still love me? It has been so long…
Finally you are moored, the colors are shifted from the main mast to the after staff, the brow is lowered to the quarterdeck and permissions are piped to go ashore. First , the new fathers, those Sailors whose wives have given birth while they were at sea. Then the rest of us, in order of seniority. You go ashore, find your family, and experience the most exquisite sensation of sweetness that God has given man to ever know. It is unalloyed bliss.
At that moment, everything you have experienced is almost worth it. The moment will not last forever, but it is enough.