Navy Life Story: Plebe Summer Part II

I might be in this photo? I was somewhere in this group.

A large part of the Plebe Summer experience is about being disoriented. No watches were allowed during Plebe Summer and the clocks were covered up. As part of this disorientation, they didn’t even let us see where we were going on the bus when we were being driven away from Alumni Hall. Since I knew the Academy so well that didn’t exactly disorient me, but they tried. The bus ride dropped you off at Bancroft Hall, where you met your first company Cadre. “Cadre” is the term for the 1/C Midshipmen that are running Plebe Summer. Three years later, when that was my role, we were called “Detailers,” but since I had the last real Plebe Summer they were called Cadre. The Cadre escorted you up to your room where you stowed your stuff and waited until the rest of your company arrived.

I was lucky because in my room waiting was my new friend and current security question answer for “First College Roommate,” Wes. Wes was a great boon because he had gone to NAPS, the Naval Academy Preparatory School, so he knew a great many of the ropes and was the first ally I had met on an already long hard day. He showed me how I was supposed to store my stuff and we chit-chatted for the next few hours while we waited and our other two roommates, Matt and Jester, showed up.

The next event on I-Day was our swearing in. After everyone had arrived in company area, the Cadre collected us and he proceeded down to T-Court. That bag that I had tossed on the truck earlier with all of my underwear that I had just been issued? On this trip to T-Court I spotted it in one of the hallways. I wasn’t going to see it again for three days, so for the next three days I did everything, including PT, in the same pair of underwear I showed up in that day.

In T-Court, we were directed to our seats. There are 30 companies in the Brigade of Midshipmen, and I was in 26th Company. It was an excellent company, but as I found out on I-Day and as I would experience for the next four years, we always wind up in the back and we never have any idea what is going on. So in a confused state and blinded by the sea of white uniforms in front of me, I suppose I was sworn in to the US Navy. I don’t really remember.

The rest of I-Day couldn’t have been much. We went to dinner, came back to company area, and sat down to write our first Thought of the Day. The Thought of the Day was a letter you were required to write every night to your squad leader. Its purpose was to keep tabs on the mental state of each Plebe. When I was a Plebe Summer Detailer, we would all go through each Thought of the Day and flag any as “yellow” or “red” if the Plebes were having suicidal thoughts or anything that needed addressing. The only Thought of the Day I remember was the one time I tried to make a joke – and was swiftly rebuked for it (as an extended explanatory parenthesis, later in the summer we were taking muster and our Squad Leader Assistant, who’s job it was to take muster, didn’t know where one of us was. Our squad leader yelled at us and commented, sarcastically, “did he just disappear into the ether?!” Since it was at the Academy that Michelson disproved the existence of ether, I found this ironic and reported it in my thought of the day. Result: squad leader in my face hissing “that was very witty and insightful and don’t you ever fucking write anything like that again.” Such is Plebe Summer). We came together as a group and, as we were to do every night for our entire Plebe Year, sang “Blue and Gold,” finishing with a resounding “BEAT ARMY.”

Then it was lights out. On our first night, Jester was caught not quite all the way in the covers at lights out. Our Company Commander told an incredulous Jester to burrow all the way to the bottom of his rack and then back to the top. The rest of us tried not to laugh. And that was day 1 of Plebe Summer.

Navy Life Story: Plebe Summer Part I

Me in Quebec. I kept this photo on my corkboard to remind me of the olden times.

After graduating from high school, I had only a fairly short summer to enjoy before I-Day. The highlight was probably a week-long trip to Quebec organized by my former French teacher. During the trip my girlfriend and I made out in a variety of exotic Canadian locations and I mispronounced “poutine.” Then, on June 27th, it was I-Day.

I-Day stands for “Induction Day” and it is the first day at the Academy. I woke up in the morning a civilian, put on a pair of cargo shorts and my favorite Hawaiian shirt, and dad dropped me off in front of Alumni Hall at my designated time. On the way there I made sure to listen to something memorable because we would not be allowed to listen to music for the summer. I forget what song it was. When we arrived at the drop-off point, dad turned to me, shook my hand, and said “worst case, we’ll always take you back.” Thanks dad.

There are some things that happen right off the bat when you walk in for I-Day. I-Day is run by Midshipman, and as you walk in the doors there is a table with a few of them. These guys make sure you’re supposed to be there, hand you a copy of Reef Points, and tell you from then on everything you say will begin and end with “sir” or “ma’am.” They also tell you to tuck in your shirt, which I failed to do and thus that managed to be the very first thing I was yelled at for. I felt sort of special actually because, as a local, I was supposed to get interviewed by the local newspaper. That plan got derailed when, in my confusion and nervousness and embarrassment of a hastily tucked-in Hawaiian shirt I just proceeded up the stairs to begin the first day of the rest of my life.

For the first part of I-Day, you follow a path through Alumni Hall, reporting to various tables and stations. Early on you are told that your basic responses are “Sir yes sir,” “Sir no sir,” “Sir aye aye sir,” “Sir no excuse sir,” and “Sir I’ll find out sir.” Unless asked a question that required some other information, like “what is your name?,” you were to respond with one of those five things. My second major mistake on I-Day after the shirt thing was deciding that, to avoid messing that my basic responses, I would just respond to everything by nodding or shaking my head. That didn’t last long.

As you snake through Alumni Hall, you wonder more and more what you had gotten yourself into. One station was an amnesty booth with a bin where you could dump any contraband you still had on you. I didn’t get a good look into the bin, but I still can’t figure out who would show up on day one with fake IDs or drugs. That seems like a bad idea, right? I also remember hastily signing a wide variety of legal documents. I didn’t have any time to review any of them but the one that stuck out was the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” sheet; not that it mattered much to me but it was the only one I noted.

Not me, but someone in my class. Oh Peg.

It is in Alumni Hall in a temporary barber shop that they give you your military buzzcut. This only annoyed me because I had, just days before, already shaved off the long flowing locks that I had been growing out for over a year. So I walked in with a buzzcut and was flabbergasted to receive an even shorter buzzcut. They don’t joke around; they cut everyone’s hair. You also spend a large chunk of your time in Alumni Hall getting issued your uniforms. This is probably the most important part of I-Day, because ill-fitting underwear or shoes will ruin your whole Plebe Summer experience, not that it is that great to begin with. During this process you change out of your civilian attire and into a set of the Plebe Summer uniform while the rest of your newly-issued underwear and socks and t-shirts goes into a large bag which you then put on a truck.

The best part of I-Day was when they drew your blood and gave you any shots you needed. This was nice because you were allowed to sit there and relax for as long as you needed, and there were cookies. This was all done for medical reasons, but still I thought it was funny that the only relaxing part of I-Day was the bit where they literally sucked the blood out of you. The last part in Alumni Hall was when they taught you how to salute. This was a quick and dirty lesson, but then, having entered Alumni Hall as a civilian, and having been given a haircut, put into your brand-new uniform, issued a copy of Reef Points, and taught to salute, you are loaded onto a bus and driven away.

Chrysler Museum of Art

Today I went to the Chrysler Museum of Art. I am in Norfolk again attending another class at the Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy, and since I was driving down a day early anyways I figured I would stop by some of the sights.

I am a pretty quick study of art museums. I enjoy going to art museums but I don’t really have the education to appreciate most of what I see in them. So my usual style is to zip around at a pretty quick pace until I see something that catches my eye. This probably isn’t the best way to really absorb art, but at the ripe old age of 27 I’ve decided that I like what I like and I won’t make any apologies for it.

That being said, the museum had a lot that caught my eye. Like any art museum with its roots in somebody’s personal collection, the Chrysler Museum of Art has a pretty wide array of stuff. They have a large collection of glassware and glass sculptures, your standard assortment of Renaissance stuff, a modern & contemporary art section, and a selection of ancient western and non-western art.

The first section I wandered into was their glass section. They are really proud of their glass. Like, really proud. They have a whole wing of the stuff. They have all sorts of glass as well. The first part of the exhibit is selections of glass stretching back to Roman times. I am always a big fan of ancient stuff like that because I try to really put the years into perspective. More on that in a second when I talk about their Egyptian stuff. I always wonder what whatever Roman craftsman was putting the finishing touches on a glass bowl would think of to learn that 2000 years later the thing was a) not broken and b) on display in an art gallery. The glass section stretches all the way into contemporary pieces done in glass. My favorites were a vase decorated with elephants (titled “Elephant Vase”) and a sculpture of an astronomical calendar encased in a sphere.

The next section was the “non-western” ancient art. This is where that ancient feeling really comes into play, but first off, even with that being said, I’m sort of over Egyptian stuff. I mean, I like it on its own, and it blows my mind to see sculptures and think that some dude painted that 5000 years ago, but I’m tired of seeing dead people boxes. Like, okay, they’re art, but that was a dead dude man. I think I’m the crazy one here, but still. There were also examples of African sculpture in the form of a stool and ceremonial weapons, and in the western section some excellent examples of Roman vases. There were a lot of vases in this museum, now that I’m thinking about it.

Upstairs in the museum is a great deal more of the paintings. Like I said before, they have a good chunk of Renaissance art, but I’m not a big fan. I’m sure its great, and its not the art, its me, but eh. I don’t like it. In the Modern art section I found a Lichtenstein I liked with a fighter jet so that was cool. Also, and perhaps most interestingly, tucked away in the corner somewhere near the Renaissance and Modern art sections is the Norfolk Mace. Apparently, municipal maces used to a thing. The Norfolk Mace was made back in 1753 and “when held by Norfolk’s mayor at public ceremonies, [it] signified that his colonial office was an extension of the British Crown’s prestige and power.” The museum boasts that it is the only municipal mace in the US in the possession of the city for which it was commissioned, but I didn’t even know these things were a thing. I think the world could use more maces.

I rounded out my visit to the museum with a visit to their Monet, “View of Vernon,” because I knew the name and I felt like I should check it out. If you’re in town I highly recommend a visit to the Chrysler Museum of Art. Admission is free, so it is always worth the price, plus their collection is pretty great and I spent a lot of time just discovering that there was more to see. Sorry, by the way, that the pictures are terrible; I’m not really an art photographer.

Advanced Firefighting

This past week I took an Advanced Firefighting Course. This is a requirement to get a license as a 3rd Eng (maybe 3rd Mate, I forget). It is experiences like this that have me convinced that I could never go back to school.

First off, I didn’t really know what to expect out of “advanced” firefighting. On the ship we ran a lot of fire drills, and damage control is a big portion of your submarine indoctrination. Plus, in my three years on the ship I managed to get a pretty good routine down for not having to do anything: when the general alarm goes off, first wait a beat, then grab your EAB and wander up to see if anyone manned DC central. If it was unmanned, swoop in and save the day. If it was already manned, turn around and wander off to the scene. With my “wait a beat and check DC central” routine, I would find the scene chock full of Junior Officers trying to man phones and a rapid response team trying to get past the JOs so they could fight the fire. Seeing that I was obviously of no use, I would duly report to the staging area and wait out the end of the drill in comfort. To all my submarine friends out there, I recommend this technique highly.

Between the Naval Academy and nuclear power training, I got pretty well trained to absorb knowledge via an instructor reading a PowerPoint to me. The modern trend, for anybody who hasn’t been in an academic environment lately, is to encourage class participation and group exercises and get buy-in from the students, or something. I hate this sort of thing. I don’t like participating in class. I figure I’m paying your ass to teach this class, so don’t try to get me to do all the hard work. I’ll take care of my end, you take care of yours. I’m so averse to classroom participation that I also hate it when other people participate in class. I don’t mind it when people ask clarifying questions, but except for that, I vastly prefer when everyone else shuts up so we can get on with the PowerPoint.

In these classes, however, there is always at least one person who feels the need to comment on everything the instructor says. This particular class was bad because there was two. Furthermore, both these people had egos. What an environment like the Naval Academy taught me is that while it is okay to have an ego, it is best to keep quiet about it. If you are the best at something, people will figure it out all on their own, and if you aren’t the best at something, at least you didn’t embarrass yourself by trying to prove otherwise. These guys didn’t get the memo, so anytime either one made a comment in class (which they did often), the other would chime in to try to put himself on top. To top it off, however, our fearless instructor also had a bit of an ego, leading him to try to top the other two. The entire class became three dudes all trying to jockey for top spot. Meanwhile, the other three of us in the class were just trying to go home at a reasonable hour.

It was somewhat unfortunate that our instructor had a bit of an ego as well because he wasn’t as good as he thought he was. For the Advanced Firefighting class the institution got professional firefighters with some mariner experience to teach it. This sounds pretty alright, but of the two instructors we had, neither knew much about ship-specific stuff. After this week I’m confident I could fight the crap out of an apartment fire, but shipboard fire, maybe not so much. It would have been better taught by professional mariners with some firefighting experience. The most memorable part of the class was the time one of my fellow students commented he “wasn’t too good at this book learnin’,” which is, you know, fine, but prompted the instructor to ramble on for 15 minutes about the Forest Service, toilet paper, aspirin, and 9/11, the relevance of which to firefighting I had a hard time figuring out at four in the afternoon when I was trying to go home.

The only other worthwhile things to mention occurred on the day we went to the trainer and actually fought fires. First off, the only people in the world allowed to act like drill instructors are people who are, in fact, currently drill instructors. If you’re just a somewhat overweight firefighter trying to make sure everyone turns in their flash hoods, you acting like a drill instructor shoots my respect level way down. Second, the most significant thing I learned the whole week is that being a firefighter is hard and I would never want to do it. Those fire ensembles are hot, man. So yeah. Good on ya, professional firefighters, and if you’re ever on a ship with me and a fire breaks out, I’ll see you in DC central.