08 July, 2008

DV Embark IV: The Life of Privilege

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Standing outside our staterooms waiting a few seconds for the final woman in our group to finish her preparations for dinner, I finally had a moment of stillness and quickly realized I wasn't feeling so good. It was embarrassing when the sudden minor lurch of the ship actually made me stagger a little. Taking an inventory, I didn't think it was sea-sickness, but my head was certainly spinning; low blood pressure didn't help, either. Fortunately, the PAO who was herding us recognized it as dehydration. At her encouragement, I downed an entire bottle of water from my room in about fifteen seconds... which made the deck feel so much steadier!

After the excitement and frantic pace of the preceding two hours, sitting down to what felt like a leisurely dinner was a joy. The ship's XO had made a very positive impression on me when we first arrived, so as we sat down I was looking forward to talking to him. Unfortunately, something had come up and it went from him sending his apologies for being late to our receiving his regrets halfway through.

I knew enough going in to recognize that so far we had largely been living the best parts of life aboard ship--lots of time outdoors or enjoying the spacious views of the bridge and admiral's observation deck, the most exciting jobs/locations, and the most comfortable rooms (the captain's lounge, and now one of the wardrooms). Still, I had been surprised at how comfortable and enjoyable things were. The wardroom was a nice combination of the efficiencies of a cafeteria and the comfort of a mid-grade restaurant that was somehow cozy and familiar. Unlike the gray metal passageways, it was warmly decorated in wood and cloth with a display case of ship's china on one wall. Easy conversation filled the air, and it seemed a generally happy place. It was easy to forget were were on a ship.

But what really struck me was the food. The ingredients (for example, the iceberg lettuce that formed the base of the salad) were rather pedestrian, but it was obvious the kitchen had gone the extra mile in making the absolute best of what was available for our dinner. Sitting down to a place setting that included three forks and three spoons, I said a quick prayer of gratitude that I had once upon a time learned "start with the outside silverware," and with a furtive look at our host across from me, I reached for the outside fork and dug in. Maybe we were just hungry from our long and active day, but it was absolutely delicious and presented in beautiful style.

The ship's supply officer did a fine job filling role of host for the absent XO. There were various members of ship's company sprinkled strategically throughout the long table, with the supply officer being the one seated closest to me and I spent a lot of time talking to him. Three things stood out in our conversation, all of them related: how much he loved his job, how much he adored and respected his wife, and his almost fatherly attitude toward the sailors he led.

One of my fellow visitors asked the supply officer about deployments and family life after over twenty years in the Navy, which led him to laud his wife and eventually tell the story of their children: eight years ago his diminutive wife had carried triplets nearly to full term, and he spoke of her with an almost worshipful glow. It was clear that he was awed by her strength, tenacity and loyalty. As with other men we met who lovingly mentioned their wives, he obviously believed her to be a large part of his success and better than he deserved.

We also talked about the importance placed on quality of life for the younger sailors these days, an emphasis that we later found in talking to the captain came from the top. The ship had a gray pony-tailed civilian contractor whose sole responsibility was to develop entertainment materials and activities for ship's company. The supply officer commented on how different this was from when he'd started, but enthusiastically described the creative ideas the contractor had come up with and what a hit they were with the ship's crew. He also acknowledged how tough the life and work situations were for the most junior crew members, which seemed to immediately inspire him to expound with great pride upon their work and accomplishments. It was here that he left us slack-jawed with the information that the wait staff providing us with such impeccable service was composed entirely of the most junior sailors who were merely biding their time until they could join the departments they actually aspired to.

Finally having had some time to be still, we DVs became very sensitive to each little motion of the ship. About halfway through dinner, the ship made a significant change in direction. It was such a lurch that several of us looked up and exchanged glances of surprise before turning to our host to gauge his reaction. I had caught him doing a quick, sharp-eyed scan of the room while we DVs had looked at each other, but he merely smiled and blinked with angelic calm as we exclaimed at the sensations... as if he had no idea what we could possibly be reacting to.

It felt as if we had tipped just slightly in one direction, then never quite rebounded to level. Wondering how much was my imagination, I looked down at my water glass almost expecting to find it higher on one side than the other. Our host caught me in the act. With a raised eyebrow and barely-suppressed amusement he queried me, "Checking the angle of the water in your glass?"

I'm sure my face flushed, but I wasn't going to give him an inch. I leaned forward and looked him in the eye. "Don't tell me you didn't feel that," I challenged. "Doesn't matter how long you've been a sailor..." That calm, angelic innocence was on display again, but I maintained my disbelieving look. After a few seconds, his bland expression cracked as he replied with a laugh and almost sheepish grin, "Yes, I did."

In all our conversation about the ship's company and operation, the focus for the supply officer was on "his people." He spoke of them as his kids, showing a rather fatherly attitude toward them--obviously wanting them to be happy and successful, and very proud of showing them off. After commenting that he believed in general that the junior sailors on the ship had particularly great attitudes (better than he'd seen elsewhere in his career), he was asked by one of the CEOs how much he thought that came "from the top." In reply, he said that he'd served under two successive captains on STENNIS and that the ship had been "very lucky" to have two excellent captains in a row. Recognizing that he was in danger of appearing to gild the lilly, he assured us that this truly was the best command he'd been a part of. According to him, the previous captain had done a spectacular job of setting the tone, and their current captain had continued it to such a point that in his estimation the attitude and work ethic was now embedded at all levels; if the next ship's captain were to be highly negative or micromanaging, he believed it would do little damage because the culture was so firmly entrenched in nearly every aspect of the ship. I didn't know what to think of that at the time, since we as yet hadn't had much interaction with the sailors, but our experiences the next day seemed to put the proof to his assertions.

Subsequent plans for the evening included a stop at the ship's store. The Public Affairs staff warned us ahead of time that they would be closing the store to ship's company while we were in there in order to "keep us all together and help us get through as quickly as possible." There were two stores on the ship, we were assured, so we "shouldn't feel guilty." Well, too late for that. Exhausted and still suffering from a touch of dehydration, I had trouble focusing long enough to make my choices, and as each minute passed I was acutely aware that people who had very limited free time were waiting outside so that I could haul my big civilian butt around the store, pawing through the merchandise in an attempt to figure out what I wanted. I finally settled on a long-sleeved navy blue turtleneck with "USS STENNIS" embroidered on the collar, a T-shirt with the ship's seal, and a cap for my uncle. Walking back out the door in our duckling formation past the waiting sailors lining the passageway outside the store made me feel awful. Apparently I wasn't alone in that: we all hurried through, and many of my fellow DVs joined me in apologizing as we passed.

It wasn't the last time we inconvenienced everyone, and we never felt any better about it.