Navy Life Story: Joining the Navy Part I

Hi, it’s 2022 when I am finally adding a picture to this. I don’t have any real, relevant pictures, but I got a DALL·E invitation, so please enjoy one result of the prompt “A teenage boy in a Hawaiian shirt at the Naval Academy watching a fighter jet fly by with a ship in the background by Winslow Homer.”

I am going to slowly trickle out my Navy Life Story. Although this blog is about reminding myself to go out and have new adventures, I figure writing down what I’ve already done is pretty important at least for my own sake and maybe for my future biographer’s when I’m rich and famous. The story starts, as most do, at the beginning, with me joining the Navy.

A question I dislike is “why do you want to join the Navy?” When applying to someplace like the Naval Academy, the question comes up a lot. The most classic answer is “I want to serve my country.” That always sounds corny to me and is so clichéd that I wonder if anyone believes you when you say it. I was very afraid not to, though. It is sort of like presidential candidates wearing a flag lapel pin: a meaningless gesture if you do it, but judged if you don’t. But what do you say that isn’t selfish? “I want a free education and a guaranteed job for five years after college that includes excellent routes for advancement, great benefits, and opportunities for travel.” That would be a pretty valid answer anywhere else but here it sounds too self-centered. The best option must lie somewhere in the middle. Neither was me though.

I went to the Naval Academy mostly out of instinct. Both my parents were in the Navy. Dad graduated from the Naval Academy in 1978 and became a Nuke SWO. He served on aircraft carriers and submarine tenders in his nuclear role, and on cruisers in his surface warfare role. His last job in the Navy and the first I actually remember was teaching at the Naval Academy. While he was stationed there we lived in the Navy apartments across the street. Mom was a dirty dirty ROTC grad, but that wasn’t her fault. Mom initially served as a conventional SWO and was the second woman to earn her warfare designation. Due to limited career opportunities as a female SWO in the 80s, she transferred to the intelligence community and then transitioned in the reserves after she had kids. Mom’s career outlasted dad’s and she finally retired while I was at the Academy. Mom and dad met when she was teaching his celestial navigation class at Surface Warfare Officer School in San Diego.

Despite the star-crossed nature of my parent’s Navy romance, I didn’t have all that much direct Navy influence growing up. Dad retired before I entered elementary school, and since mom was in the reserves that experience was her going off to drill once a month. So while technically a “Navy brat,” I spent all but the first three years of my life in Maryland and to me mom and dad were only ever a tax preparer and school teacher. Looking back, I do note some early influences, like the picture of Halsey in the hallway or the giant SWO pin mom displayed in her office. We lived near the Naval Academy and sponsored Midshipmen, so the Naval Academy always had a presence in my life, but more along the lines of “location of a convenient ATM” than “lifelong destiny.”

All of that to say that senior year in high school found me pretty directionless. The concept of a directionless 18-year-old who doesn’t know what he wants to do in his life isn’t all that original, but still. The prospect of college didn’t particularly interest me. Even though I am good at education, I am not a particularly big fan of it. At 18, however, I thought of myself as a pretty big nerd, so I applied to MIT. They rejected me. I also applied to some weird liberal arts farm commune college out west. They also rejected me. One morning though I woke up and it struck me: going to the Naval Academy might be a good idea. Instead of “real” college, I could go to (what I thought was) happy fun-time boat school for four years. So like salmon returning to the river they spawned from, I joined the Navy out of instinct.

Applying to the Naval Academy has two major steps: getting a nomination and actually applying to the Academy. To ensure an even distribution of people from the country (in the least cynical explanation), everybody at the Academy is required to get a nomination before applying. The most common source of nominations are from members of Congress. Each member of Congress has a certain number of nominations they can hand out each year to people they see fit from their district. This ensures Midshipmen come from all over. Every member of Congress has their own process for granting nominations, and for Maryland, my three options all required an application and an interview. I tried hard; I even got a haircut. My efforts, however, were all for naught, and I did not secure a congressional nomination. I can make myself feel better by pointing out that Maryland has some pretty stiff competition. People from Maryland have actually heard of the Naval Academy. States like Montana, while they have the same number of senators, also have a lower population of people who have ever heard of the Naval Academy, which can improve your chances of getting nominated. I instead got a Presidential nomination (there are also Vice Presidential nominations), which is less impressive than it sounds. To secure a Presidential nomination you have to submit a form letter detailing one of your parent’s military service. Apparently mom’s record was good enough to get me in.

Nomination in hand, the next step is actually applying. There are brands of people for whom going to the Naval Academy is a lifelong dream. I knew one of these guys. Out of my class in my high school three of us wound up going to the Naval Academy that year. The guy I’m talking about is the guy you think about when you imagine people applying to the Naval Academy, I think. Football team, popular kid, also smart, did all sorts of extra-curriculars. I watched him make friendly with anybody he thought might give him a leg up in applying. These efforts can be worth it, and he did it with the sincerity of a person with a goal who is willing to fight for it and I don’t knock him for his efforts. However, I was not that kind of person. I wound up joining the track team senior year in order to give myself some athletic credentials, but the concept of “networking” was and remains very uncomfortable for me.

As part of the application process you get interviewed by a Blue & Gold officer. A Blue & Gold officer is a Naval Academy graduate who helps guide people applying to the Academy and submits a recommendation based on their interview. My Blue & Gold officer was not very impressed with my efforts. The other two people that got accepted from my high school got phone calls from their Blue & Gold officer when they were accepted and continued to communicate with them after they were at the Academy. I talked to mine all of once, and that was during our interview. He told me the only reason he was talking to me was because I had somehow gotten a nomination. We met on a winter day in Halsey Field House on the Yard. At the time I wanted to be a pilot, and all I really remember from the interview was him asking me if I was really ready to make that kind of commitment.

The rest of my application completed (which was pretty much like any other college application, except there was a physical fitness test), I awaited the results. At this time the girl I was dating was one of those other two people I mentioned that had gotten into the Academy. I don’t know what the internal system is, but people find out in a staggered manner that they have been accepted into the Academy. Having secured congressional nominations, the other two even got phone calls from their congressman’s office with the good news. While that was nice for them, the President never called me to let me know. Winter turned to spring (if I can take a poetic bent) of my senior year and I had no firm plans for the rest of my life. Plan B at this point, if I didn’t get into the Academy, was to hitchhike to Florida, steal a sailboat, and I guess live a life of adventure/starvation in the Caribbean.