It’s a funny thing about memory: as time passes, we get a little better looking than we actually were; the water is bluer that it actually was; we took more chances than we actually did; and we tend to remember her smile rather than her frown.
I’ve been reminded of this lately on Facebook. I belong to several groups composed of hundreds of naval veterans, including a few retirees, and while I’m a stealth member, never posting anything myself, I’ve noticed that the overwhelming “mood” on these sites is one of nostalgia. As they talk about their time at sea, their recollections take on a mystical quality, and you can almost hear Bruce Springsteen singing “Glory Days” in the background.
Members get downright beside themselves describing how much they loved and miss the military life; about how much they enjoyed life at sea; about being willing to “leave tomorrow” on one more overseas deployment. They post memories about beautiful sunsets, rivaling the conclusion of the novel, “Lord Jim,” where Joseph Conrad wrote that “night fell like a benediction.”
They wax eloquent about coming ashore under the Aloha Tower in Honolulu and being greeted by lei-bearing hula girls; they tell of the night when they had the helm and steered their ship through the most violent typhoon in the history of the Pacific Ocean; and some of the more practical ones lament that “If I had just stayed on active duty for 20 years, I could be retired at half pay.” Almost to a man, they miss the camaraderie of and the social interaction with their long-lost shipmates.
As I read these postings, I think to myself, “These are the same people who, in many cases, hated every minute of their actual naval service, who counted the days and minutes until their enlistment was up, who would lie and feign sickness to keep from going to sea, and who literally ran off the brow with their discharge papers in their hand.
These are some of the same sailors who said to me, when I had the Petty Officer of the Deck watch on the quarterdeck that bright morning in Key West, ‘Goodbye, loser, I hope you enjoy the rest of your miserable life in Uncle Sam’s canoe club.’”
These are many of the exact individuals who hated their Navy ratings so much that they “retired on active duty,” never carried their own weight, and were actually a burden to their shipmates. All they did was complain about the “lack of,” including the lack of mail, of hot water, of good liberty ports, of decent chow, of regular showers, of air conditioning, of enough sleep, of fair promotion opportunity, of good officers, etc. But, now, looking back, at least in their memory, it was all Bubble Up and Rainbow Stew.
I would like to make a post on Facebook reminding many of these “dreamers” how they actually felt about going to sea – perhaps a simulation of the real thing. We had such an evolution in the Navy: it was called a “fast cruise,” where the ship stayed tied up at the pier but cut off all contact with the outside world for a few days while replicating assorted types of real-world training. In light of the adverse conditions on some civilian cruise ships lately, it strikes me that some erstwhile holiday cruisers might be interested in this simulation, too. I won’t actually post it, not wanting to interact with the Facebook “haters,” but I will present such a simulation here, from a “second person” point of view (you), just for the record.
The first thing you have to do is to commit to a period of time for the imaginary cruise to take place. Since most Navy deployments are for at least six months, except on submarines, which are for an average of four, I would suggest to the nostalgic but forgetful sailors that they sign on for that long. Then, we can begin what I will call “Lots of Ways to Simulate a Deployment Without Leaving Your Home.”
Next, you should lock all of your friends and family outside for the duration. This way, you can begin to experience the gut-wrenching loneliness that every sailor feels when away from loved ones. Your only means of communication should be with letters that your neighbors have held for at least a month. Discard four out of five of these letters to simulate misrouted or stolen mail. I can remember my ex-brother-in-law saying that he could never be a career Navy man because he couldn’t leave his family for long periods of time, implying to me that I was less than a good person because I did. When my son was 12, I had been gone nine years of his life at sea, and every day hurt.
Surround yourself with 600 people that you don’t like: people who chain smoke, take illegal drugs, snore, use curse words you’ve never heard before, fail to take baths, will steal you blind, and will take a swing at you, often when you are not looking, just because they don’t like your face. Select people from totally different backgrounds, geographic locations, races, nationalities, educational levels, sexual preferences, value systems, gender orientations, religious affiliations, etc., and attempt to assimilate … in other words, people that you have absolutely nothing in common with.
Cancel your cellphone; shut down your internet; unplug all radios and televisions to completely cut yourself off from the outside world. Arrange for the neighbor to include a month-old newspaper when they bring your mail, preferably in a foreign language. Remove all reading material from your home except for ragged, raunchy paperback novels, of indeterminant provenance, obviously written for readers with serious, unresolved psychological issues.
Remove all flammable furniture, carpet, and bedding from your home. Remove all pictures, decorations, and personal items. Paint the walls of your house gray, white, or light green. Remove all lighting except for overhead florescent bulbs. Leave them on 24/7.
Monitor all home appliances hourly, recording all vital information. For example, is it plugged in? Does the light come on when you open the door? How many seconds before steam comes out of the iron? If not used recently, attach a red tag stating: “DANGER, MAN KILLER!” Study the owner’s manual for all appliances. At regular intervals, take one apart and put it back together again. Periodically cut the power at the main circuit breaker and run around the house shouting “Fire in the Main Space” several times. Do this until you lose your voice and then restore power.
Do not flush the toilet for five days to simulate 40 people using the same commode. After that, flush daily. Lock the bathroom door twice a day for a four-hour period. At least once a month, force the commode to overflow in the bathroom. Be sure you have rubber boots. Buy a gas mask. Smear it with rancid grease and scrub the face plate with steel wool until you can no longer see through it. Wear this for two hours every fifth day, even in the bathroom. Buy 50 rolls of toilet paper and lock it all up but one roll. Lose the key. Make sure that your remaining roll stays wet. Regulate bathroom water so that it flows at a rate varying between 0 and 25 PSI and ensure that water temperature varies between 30 and 390 degrees Fahrenheit.
Work in 12-hour cycles, otherwise known as “port and starboard.” Sleep for only four hours at a time. This will ensure that your body no longer knows or cares whether it’s night or day. Forget circadian rhythms. That’s just a conspiracy theory to get the lazy out of work. Set your alarm clock to go off every 15 minutes during your first hour of sleep. This will simulate the various watch standers and night crew who bump around and wake you up at all hours of the night.
Place your bed on a rocking table to ensure that you are tossed around the remaining three hours of sleep. Place a dead animal under the table to remind you of the smell of your sleeping neighbor’s socks. Ensure that your neighbor is too big and nasty for you to challenge him about his dirty socks, much less his bathing habits. Find a clock whose alarm depicts screams, bodily noises, fire alarms, and the sound of diesel engines. Regarding your bed, cut a twin mattress in half and enclose three sides of your bed. Add a roof that prevents you from sitting in any position (10 inches is a good distance from your nose to the bottom of the surface above).
Wear only military uniforms, although nobody cares. Once a week, clean and press a dress uniform and wear it for 20 minutes, after which you change back into your regular uniform. Cut your hair weekly. Cut it shorter every time until you are bald. After one week, throw away all of your personal hygiene items (soap, shaving cream, deodorant, toothpaste, razor blades, etc.), to simulate the ship’s store running out of these essential items. Throw half of your clothing out the window to simulate it being lost or destroyed by the ship’s laundry.
Prepare your meals blindfolded, using all of the spices you can grope (or none at all) to mimic shipboard cooking. Remove the blindfold. Let the food sit long enough to acquire room temperature, then eat as fast as humanly possible. Throw away all eating utensils except spoons, which should be large enough to hold a minimum of one cup. When making sandwiches, leave the bread out for about six days or until it becomes hard or stale, whichever comes first. Use fresh milk for the first week after getting underway, and then use powered milk for the rest of your cruise. Have month-old fruits and vegetables delivered to your garage, freeze them, and cook three days after thawing them out.
At least once each week, hit both your shins until bloody with a small hammer to simulate bumping into the metal combing around the ship’s watertight doors while running to your General Quarters station. Hit yourself in the forehead at least once each month to simulate running into low hanging pipes.
Every 10 weeks simulate a liberty port in a foreign country. Go directly to the city slums, wearing your dress uniform, where you will immediately be identified as a rich, capitalistic American with lots of money and no brains who is only interested in finding girls and getting drunk. Go to the worst place you can find; order the most expensive beer they have; drink all you can in four hours; then hire a cab to take you back to the ship by the longest route possible. Tip the cabby double because you really don’t understand the value of the money. While you are at it, bump into the Captain who will write you up for being drunk in uniform.
And that wonderful homecoming you dream of, that’s so vivid in your memory, where your wife and children meet you on the pier, with arms wide-stretched, like that iconic picture you remember in Life Magazine of the newly-released Vietnam prisoner of war stepping off the plane at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines as his wife and children run down the tarmac to welcome him home … forget it. Your wife has a hair appointment, and your children have soccer practice. There’s nobody on the pier for you, buddy. “Nada.” Take the bus. The returning POW’s wife soon divorced him, anyway.
Of course, I’m writing with a great deal of overstatement and hyperbole, and my personal memories of shipboard life are overwhelmingly positive. On the other hand, I have lived long enough to realize that, whatever the experiences we have or the images we use to describe them, we all self-construct our own sense of reality. While I would caution that we must live in the present rather than the past, what’s the real harm in painting our past prettier than it actually was? After all, it’s only memories. Sail on.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby, a resident of Oak Grove, is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Write him at email@example.com or visit bennyhornsby.com.