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Published on Epiphany Now on December 2, 2012

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Discuss at the Podcast Table inside the Diner

I’ve told this story too many times. To myself, to patrons of the bars I’ve worked at, to associates, to acquaintances, to friends, and I’ve written it in many different ways as well. It’s true, and not really that interesting, but it had a large impact on who I am now. I never wanted to be a nuclear engineer, not even while I was one. That title “nuclear engineer” is really a misnomer because what I actually was was a steam plant mechanic; it just so happens that I was standing about fifteen feet from a nuclear reactor while I was mechanicing. What makes my story a bit more interesting is not that I was standing watch in the nuclear bowels of an air craft carrier just outside of the straits of Hormuz when 911 happened, but that I did not want to be there. I don’t think anybody really wanted to be there, but I went to great measures to no longer be there.

On September 11 2001 the U.S.S. Carl Vinson was prepared to pass through the straits of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf. The skin of the ship was secure and nobody was allowed outside due to the potential small arms fire. When a carrier passes through the straits, the indigenous population has a habit of popping off rounds, which can actually hit the ship. I was in my rack sleeping, and I was woken by a shipmate of mine “McCarty, McCarty…wake up man, we’re at war.”

“War!!! What the fuck are you talking about?” I got up and went into the berthing lounge, where there was a television mounted in the corner that the Captain would occasionally connect to CNN via satellite link for important news. Just as I was wiping the sleep out of my eyes, I looked up in time to see the second plane crash into the building. We could feel the ship listing as it turned around to head back out into the Arabian Sea to begin “Operation Enduring freedom.” The fact that we were launching jets off of the flight deck around the clock really didn’t change my life much. Either way my job was the same; make sure the nuclear power plant was working just fine for all of the steam that we needed to keep the war machine functioning. I had a small part to play in that, and that mainly consisted of standing watch at the main feed pumps (MFP). These pumps pumped water into the steam generator which cooled the reactor water and produced steam to power everything on the ship. There were many other watch stations for me to stand around at, but like everything else in the nuclear navy I had to first “qualify” to stand them. The MFP station just happened to be the first one I qualified for while we were at sea.

Life at sea sucked with more power than a black hole, and in fact THE bull shit black hole that services the United States was located in that power plant. It required constant heapings of bull shit to remain satiated. It’s favorite type of bull shit was bureaucratically generated. Every day at sea was a work day, except for Sundays, but even then we had to stand five hour watches. I could go on and on about why being at sea sucked so bad, and I have for a 100 or so pages in a book titled “Surrender” that I have never finished writing, so I won’t be doing that here. Suffice it to say that we ate food that had “not fit for human consumption, military and prisoner use only” stamped on the side of the boxes, we breathed what we called “boat funk” which was a mix of recycled engine room oil, nut sack jam, and farts, and you did this on an average of five hours of sleep a day (except for the boat funk part…that was 24/7)…all while being surrounded by nothing but navy fucks. It sucked.

My problem was not so much how bad it sucked (although I had a bit of a problem with that part as well), but with the fact that we were dropping bombs and firing missiles day and night at a nomadic peoples who had no idea what the fuck was going on. After 115 days at sea (which is how long I went without seeing land), we were informed by some douche bag admiral that had flown onto the boat, that between the Vinson and the Kitty Hawk we had dropped 3 million tons of ordinance. I believe it. They stored the munitions in huge storage rooms just beneath the aft galley. I would routinely be eating my not fit for human consumption non-food while the gunnies busied themselves carting bombs past me to the hanger bay. They had fun writing racial slurs on the sides of the bombs as a personal touch for the innocent people they were to destroy. Did I mention that I became a Buddhist while I was in the navy? It’s safe to state that I was a bit conflicted by my station in life.

So, one day, having had enough of this naval nonsense, a friend and I decided that we would do something about it. There are all manner of tactics that can be employed to get your ass out of the navy while at sea. Indeed, they were employed often. We heard about them through the grape vine; pissing yourself in your rack every night while refusing to bath, lodging yourself in a bilge while refusing to eat, attempting suicide by all manner imaginable, one guy even jumped off of the flight deck into the dark Arabian sea in the middle of the night (luckily for him one of the boatswain mates who’s job it was to look out into the dark sea for people such as he, spotted him before he became shark bait), but we didn’t want to harm or kill ourselves. We elected to employ what was colloquially known as a “rainbow chit.” My buddy and I wrote little notes that said “I, insert name, social, rate and rank, willingly admit to being a homosexual and because of that would like to be separated from the navy.” We turned them into ships admin and waited.

They say that one enlisted nuke costs the navy in the neighborhood of 250,000 dollars to get through the “nuclear pipeline.” It takes two years from boot camp to the fleet to create a nuke. Once on the ship it’s another couple of months before a nuke is no longer a “nub” (none useful body) and can actually contribute by standing watch and performing maintenance. The navy has a hard time filling all of their nuclear positions. Most people who are intelligent enough to become a nuke don’t, they go to college, or choose other more fulfilling career paths like panhandling or suckin’ strange wieners for smack. The point is that once you are in the nuclear program (more so once you complete it) you are not getting out of it.

So my buddy and I ended up at the Captain’s at sea cabin one night. The at sea cabin is located on level ten. Level 10 is located in the tower which is the highest structure on the flight deck. This is the Captains own personal chill pad. At any rate, me, my buddy, the Master Chief in charge of reactor department, and the Captain are all standing there in his at sea cabin staring at one another. The Captain (whom I had never seen in person in the five or so months I’d been on the carrier) looks at me and says “I’ve read your letter, and I’m here to tell you to go back to work.” So much for the “don’t ask don’t tell policy.” At that moment I looked at my buddy, and he looked at me, and we both contemplated making out with each other in front of both of them. I almost leaned in to go gay for a minute, but at the last minute decided that as much as I liked my buddy, I wasn’t going to make out with him. I wanted to say to the captain “so you mean we can continue pushin’ each other’s shit in while in the showers and you don’t care?” But I didn’t, I just hung my head and prayed to whatever would listen that nobody on the ship would find out that I was “homosexual.” People got their asses beat for those sort of proclivities.

I was pissed off at the fact that we had to follow the rules and they didn’t. “Don’t ask don’t tell” applied to the entire navy, so long as it wasn’t the nuclear one. That’s why the Captain did what he did. He was just calling our bluff. I guess he figured if we were telling the truth somebody would eventually catch us blowin’ one another and he’d kick us out then. So it was back to the engine room for my sorry ass. I had another trick up my sleeve, and as soon as we pulled into San Diego to drop off the air wing I pulled it out. We got four hours of liberty while in port, and I took advantage of my “liberty.” I grabbed a few of the civilian things that I had and fuckin’ left. The same buddy that I had turned my rainbow chit in with had actually scheduled to go on leave for two weeks while we were in San Diego. I had him pick me up, and I was enroute to his house while the boat was leaving without me to return to Bremerton Washington.

We got an ounce of herb and smoked it all. 28 days latter I walked my ass back onto the boat and turned myself in. Due to the fact that we were “at war,” at 30 days I became a deserter and could technically be put to death for my desertion. I didn’t want to test out that theory. After being gone for 28 days, the Master Chief gave me my military I.D. back and said he’d see me in two weeks. I was confused, but I didn’t argue. I walked back off of the boat and drove back to California to enjoy another two weeks off of the boat. My family was devastated. Nobody understood why I had done what I had done. While I was UA (the navy’s version of AWOL…Unauthorized Absence) the navy sent all manner of threatening letters to my family, as well as called repeatedly trying to ascertain my whereabouts. I didn’t care about the consequences. What I cared about was no longer participating in “Operation Enduring Freedom.”

To my mind, it was just senseless violence, and I didn’t understand it. I had no idea why 911 had happened, and I didn’t know who Osama Bin Laden was, or that the whole thing was really about oil. I had never heard of Peak Oil at the time, and I had no idea about fiat currency or infinite growth on a finite planet. I was 21 years old. All I wanted was to get stoned on the beach, fall in love with a woman, make love, read, write, create art and music, and maybe eventually check into a Buddhist monastery to meditate my way to Nirvana (if the whole making love thing didn’t work out). What I knew with certainty was that I was not going to participate in the madness of war any longer. I’ve heard the argument “well you willingly signed up to join the military…what did you think the military was about,” and? Yeah, I was 19 when I signed up for the military. I had been indoctrinated by my society to believe in patriotism and the flag. I was in JROTC for four years. To the people who say to me that what I did was wrong, I say too bad for you. I raised my level of consciousness to worldcentric and could no longer abide senseless killing. I did what I had to do to not abide it. The navy wasn’t done with me yet…I had a pointless and torturous crucible to go through to reach separation and receive my “other than honorable discharge.”

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