The alarm clock rang at the ridiculous hour of 5 a.m, but breakfast was at 6 and I had to be packed before then. I silenced it and laid back in my bed. There was a stillness in the ship I hadn't previously experienced... a sense of restfulness, though she still murmured and whispered underneath it all.
But the reason why it all felt so different was yet to hit me.
Upon pulling on my robe and opening the door of my stateroom, I was startled to see the doorway directly across from mine wide open and a sailor hard at work on something I was too sleepy to make sense of. We both stared awkwardly at each other in the hazy, reddish glow of the night-lit passageway for a moment before I pulled myself together and headed for the shower. I made quick work of it, thinking of how the ship produced its own freshwater and very cognizant of its precious value.
Returning to my room, I rushed around and managed to get ready with apparently time to spare. The alarm clock was already packed, so unsure of the time I stuck my head out the door to see if I might encounter the other two ladies of my group. It was still dim out there, but now pale light of another tint gleamed from the left end of the passageway. I almost would've missed its significance if not for the cool, damp and clean stirring of air that accompanied it. In a split second I realized I hadn't smelled air remotely that clear and sweet since I'd left shore the day before, and I responded without thinking. Following the mesmerizing light a few steps down the passageway, I turned the corner at the end and instantly spotted the hatch on my right. It led to a couple upward steps outside the compartment while blocking my forward view, but there was no doubt about it--that was sky I saw at the top!
Mounting the stairs and turning the only direction possible, I came face to face with this:
I was absolutely spellbound. The ship was barely moving, gently shouldering aside the almost placid water and raising only the barest hint of a breeze. I stood there as the ribbon of golden sunlight danced across the sleepy ocean, from the horizon right up to my feet. I felt as if I were physically expanding, reaching across the ocean and finally taking a full breath after spending hours in the claustrophobia and stuffiness of the ship's interior.
After a few moments of this exquisite joy, a little voice inside my head interrupted: "Are you sure this is where you're supposed to be right now?" I had no idea what was behind me, who might be watching me, or even where I was in relation to anything else on the ship--the view had absorbed me completely. I turned around apprehensively, only to be greeted by another spectacular sight:
Last night as I had longed to be out on the flight deck instead of trapped in my stateroom, I had been literally only steps away!
But the noise, violence and smells I'd experienced the previous day now seemed to have existed in an alternate universe. That couldn't possibly be the deck I stood on yesterday...
It was this that I had sensed from my stateroom when the alarm went off. Not a single jet engine was idling, no metal behemoths were spinning and turning on the deck. No one was hurrying, no controlled tension sizzled in the air. The only thing disturbing the bone-deep sense of peace was the sight of sailors in colorful jerseys moving slowly but deliberately around the deck. It was so quiet I could almost hear what they were saying on the other side of the ship.
Camera! The thought sizzled through my reverie. I dashed for the stairs, praying that I wouldn't find someone from the PAO waiting outside my stateroom. Camera immediately in hand, I was back on the catwalk and snapping pictures in seconds. The sun was rising fast, caressing the curves of silent planes with golden light, and the sharp edges of the island were changing by the second. I turned in a circle, afraid of missing something as morning unfolded in front of me.
After a few minutes that little voice piped up, again: "Isn't it almost 6:00? What if they're all waiting for you outside your stateroom and you're up here--not only where you're not supposed to be, but making them wait and wonder?" I decided I would make no excuses, and steeled myself for what I'd find as I reluctantly headed back down the stairs. Instead I discovered another DV, exiting her room.
"Get your camera!" I literally pulled on the arm of my aristocratic fellow visitor. I couldn't put it into words, but I knew she had to see it.
As we rounded the corner, the young petty officer from the PAO was coming down the passageway. We barely paused, women on a mission.
"Where are you going?"
"Outside! The sun is coming up and it's beautiful!" He started to protest, but I cut him off in a rush of words. "There's nobody out there. It's just a little walkway--no equipment, no way to go anywhere else, a full railing. There's no flight ops. It's just 10 steps away and it's perfectly safe." He may have protested further, but we were already gone. Besides, even a young male knows he's no match for two headstrong, fully-grown women.
Fortunately, our defiance was forgiven when he called out a few minutes later and we immediately rushed back down the stairs. I knew I'd been out of line, but I didn't regret it a bit. On my list of highlights, the time spent absorbing that beautiful view and serene flight deck was second only to standing next to the Prowler in tension. Both were indescribable.
My meager photography doesn't even begin do it justice, but here you go...
Update: Part VII