It’s been hot in San Diego the last couple weeks. Cargo shorts and flip flops, t-shirts only out of mere modesty. The heat only really broke last weekend. Now it’s back to what we think of as “San Diego” weather, like it’s some sort of entitlement. Warm, sunny days. Cool evenings, perfect for sleeping with the windows open, the eucalyptus breathing in through the window. Cold, misty mornings – sweater weather.
The mist burns off.
Got up this morning early to finish off some homework, threw on some rags and – knowing it would be cold downstairs in the kitchen – a pair of ugg boots to keep my feet warm. Thought a bit about the day as the coffee pot gurgled and spat. It’s quiet at 5AM. No one needs any help on the homework or wants to talk about their day. You can think, you can get things done. It’s my time.
The house began to stir after an hour or two, meaning it was my time to pack up and get moving, head south. Get to work. I threw the uggs into their corner – I don’t leave the house in those things – and wondered what to wear instead. Rooted around for a bit not finding what I was looking for before settling on the Marine desert boots I picked up last year. I’d gotten them almost as an afterthought. Suede boots, Vibram soled. Good for bogging around in dry weather, dove hunting and the like. They’re lighter, more comfortable that the steel-toed flight boots I wore for most my career.
The suede does take a stain though. When I first bought them, I wondered briefly how the Marines get the blood out.
I wore them for the first time since summer today. First day it seemed cool enough.
On the morning of the 11th of September 2001 I was in my rack aboard an aircraft carrier returning from forward deployment in the Arabian Gulf. We were only four days away from being home, having picked up about a thousand of our “Tigers” in Pearl Harbor – family and friends who’d ride the ship home with us. See their Navy at sea, watch an airshow, take some tours. See how we lived.
I’d gotten to bed a little past 0100 the night prior. Even on a carrier returning from the line, the Operations Officer’s job is a busy one. I was muddy-headed when the phone rang in my stateroom at just a little past 0520 local. My Tactical Action Officer down in CDC had been watching the news of the burning north tower when the second plane, UAL 175 from Boston flew into the south tower. “Turn on the TV, Ops,” he said. “You’re going to want to see this.”
I stared at the images there for a full five minutes, shocked, uncomprehending. The repeated clip of the second jet banking slightly before going home. Watched the perpetually blow-dried set struggle uncomfortably to find a handle on the moment. Reduced, for once, to inarticulate commonality with the rest of us.
Threw my coveralls on, called the captain on the bridge. He was seeing it too. I ran down to CDC to try to get the picture before briefing the CO more fully. Asked the ship’s intel officer to join me there, but he begged off – too busy. I could catch him on the way up to the bridge. Not long afterwards we received a chat message from PACOM. The Pentagon had been hit, alternate command centers were activating. All commercial air traffic was shut down. Stand by for orders.
Made it up to the bridge just in time to see the south tower collapse on CNN.
“This will change everything,” I said to the Captain, not quite knowing what it was that I meant. Cruise? The country? The world?
“In ways we can’t even imagine,” he replied to me. Grimly. Added: “There’s going to be a fight.”
I’d relinquished command of my Hornet squadron in the spring of 2001, taken some time off, gone to schools and joined that ship in June. It’s not easy to give up the reins of command, a man can get used to being large and in charge. It’s hard work to serve as a carrier ops officer. Long hours, high stress, you’ve never got it all entirely in one sock. It’s like fielding fly-balls at night during batting practice. There are a lot of balls in the air, none of which is allowed to drop to earth ungloved and one or two of which are always lost in the lights. It’s not particularly rewarding work – it never goes away.
But somebody’s got to do it.
Harder still to join a ship already on the line. There’s so much you’re responsible for, so much you don’t know. Who on your team can be relied upon unquestioningly, who must be supervised carefully. Who will lead, and who will follow. What buttons to push when things start going off track. There’s very little time to learn these things when the ship is on a wartime footing in the Arabian Gulf, the air wing patrolling the southern no-fly zone in Iraq, being shot at, shooting back. Your span of control is much broader than it ever has been before, even while your depth of control is necessarily shallower. One man can not know everything, he cannot be everywhere.
It can take a man out of his comfort zone.
When August of 2001 came along, the month when commanders receive their fitness reports, I thought about it long and hard: There were a dozen or so commanders on the ship, working for my captain. All of us competing among ourselves for position in the FITREP races. A good finish could mean the difference between early promotion to captain and early separation from the service. It’s up or out.
I asked the CO for a private audience.
“Captain,” I said, “I know you’re writing FITREPS and I don’t presume anything about where I might fit in, but I just thought you should know that there’s no need to waste a bullet on me. I’ve decided to retire next year. I’m hanging ‘em up. Here’s my letter.”
The CO read the letter quietly, handed it back to me, asked, “What do you want to do?”
“Oh, I guess I’ll do the airlines thing,” I told him. “Money’s not bad, work’s easy. I’ve done my bit, and I’m pretty beat down. I’m ready for a break.”
“Hold on to this letter until we’re home for a month, Lex,” the Captain replied. “We’ll get you some time off when we get home, and I think you may change your mind.”
“Yes sir,” I replied, thinking to myself, not very likely.
The Ops Coordination Meeting which ordinarily took place in the Flag War Room at 0900 was canceled. Too much going on, see you at 1000 for the Morning Flag Meeting. There were a bunch of new faces in the War Room at ten, people who ordinarily wouldn’t have attended. People who wanted to know. Who wanted to understand. A sourly grimacing chief of staff kicked them out. I remained behind.
We’d done our homework and we were ready to answer all questions put to the ship. We were closer to Hawaii, but we’d off-loaded crew there to make room for the Tigers, and most of them would have already flown home. Best to continue on to San Diego and pick up our stragglers, drop the Tigers off. We could refuel and re-arm on the way out. We’d been on deployment for six months. We could be back on the line in three weeks and a bit if we didn’t stop anywhere else along the way.
But the fact of the matter was the ship was tired. Our flight deck non-skid was worn to bare metal forward of the four wire, that’d take weeks to repair. We were trailing a shaft due to a wiped journal bearing and repairing that damage was beyond our capability – shipyard work and at least a month-long project. We had also discovered a cracked rudder pin. We could continue to operate with rudder restrictions for a while before anything failed, probably. But the rudder pin was another serious project requiring through-deck cutting and hot work, not to mention underwater diver support. It would take at least six weeks, best case. More like two months. Then there were the boiler tubes.
She was an old ship. But she was willing. She’d have gone.
No, we were finally told. Not this time. Rest a while and repair your ship. We may have need of you in time.
Enterprise, who had taken our place in the line and was already heading home, put her rudder over, returned to station and awaited further instructions. By morning she was in range of targets in Afghanistan. Carl Vinson, her intended relief, joined her on station after a high speed transit, as did Theodore Roosevelt, surged from the east coast two days after the attacks. Kitty Hawk put to sea carrying only a small detachment of her own air wing, as well as a number of quietly lethal professionals from the Army, with their own quietly professional helicopter squadrons.
While we set about our repairs, my old squadron went to war aboard Vinson. It killed me that I was not there with them. I was savagely proud that they were there.
I knew them: They were warriors, they knew how to take it to the enemy. They were good.
That retirement letter sat in a drawer in my stateroom desk for months before I thought of it again. We had repaired the ship and made her ready for training – a necessary prerequisite to fighting her again – when I chanced across it almost by accident. It felt like something someone else had written. It felt like an anachronism.
I crumpled it up, threw it away. Went back to work. There was another fight coming and we needed to be ready. Now it’s six years later and I’ve written another letter. Staff work, someone’s got to do it. But I’ve done my bit.
And I didn’t even think about the boots I’d chosen to wear this morning until I was half-way down to work.
Combat boots, I thought to myself. Today of all days.