I woke from a sound sleep. My brain registered a change in the ship and woke me. Something was wrong! The always-there subtle vibration and low background hum of the ship’s heartbeat, her life, were not there. Light from the battle lantern next to my rack illuminated the bulkhead, meaning the main engines had shut down and we were on emergency power. I pressed the back of my hand against the bulkhead. It wasn’t hot. I sniffed the air. No smoke. No alarms. So far, so good. It was hot and humid, though. The small fan above my rack had shut down since it was only tied to main power. It normally moved the hot air around, giving the illusion of a cool breeze, without the coolness.
I had always slept well aboard ship. However, somewhere inside me nestled a sense, possibly my survival instinct, that woke me at the slightest change in the ship’s character. All Sailors developed this sense. You slept in a tiny closet, somewhere in the bowels of a massive hunk of metal, honeycombed with narrow, steel-floored passageways and ladderwells, with knee-knockers and head-bangers – watertight door frames – threatening to drop you like a sack of potatoes when you become complacent; complacency was deadly aboard ship. With luck, you might only be a deck or two below the main deck, and safety. If you worked and slept below the waterline, you had to ascend deck after deck before reaching fresh air. A second sense of where you were in relation to safety was essential: your brain registered that fact soon after you reported aboard your first ship. I thought the blindfold test felt ridiculous, but knowing the way out of the bowels of a darkened or smoke-filled ship could save your life.
I swung my feet around to get out of bed. A moment later, I was picking myself up from the cold, hard deck. I had forgotten I was in the top rack. Battle lanterns were not that bright. Apparently, neither was I. Always have one hand for yourself, they said, and one hand for the ship. Next time.
I stumbled over to the sink and washed my face in the cold water. I rinsed my mouth out, too, since it tasted like warm cotton fresh from the barrel of a gun and mixed with old cheese. Bleu cheese. The phone lay near at hand; I picked it up and dialed engineering. Cheng answered the way he always did:
“What?” Chief engineers got away with murder. They owned the ship, the Captain just drove it. Luckily, both the Cheng and I were prior enlisted, so I could count on a bit more info than he would give others.
“Cheng,” I said. ” Will. What’s going on?”
“We shut down the engines for some maintenance. We’ll be on standby generators for two or three hours.”
“Okay. Is the air-conditioning in the avionics lab working?” The avionics lab ran helicopter equipment around the clock; electronic equipment needed cool air to keep from overheating.
“Yeah, no problems there. I had a tech check the labs just to be sure.”
“Thanks, Commander. Goodnight.”
Click. Cheng and small talk didn’t speak to each other much.
It was too hot to go back to sleep so I decided to get a cup of coffee and go on deck. I walked down the passageway to the officer’s wardroom, the blue-tiled deck indicating officer country. I found the wardroom empty but the coffee pot full. The messcranks always kept a 48-cup coffee pot charged with fuel. Literally fuel. Somehow, some deck monkey always managed to get the aviation fuel line mixed up with the fresh water line. I don’t know how that is possible since the lines are color-coded and have nozzles completely incompatible with any other line. The fresh water line holds the memory of the fuel for quite a long time. I sipped my coffee. Yep. Fuel. It has a harsh taste that always reminded me of strychnine, or a rake being dragged across a sidewalk.
I left the wardroom and began the ascent to the flight deck. In emergencies, Sailors use the port side ladders to descend, while ascending via the starboard ladders. I always followed that rule no matter which side of the ship I was on. Good habits save lives.
The ship was rolling gently on the swell. The Tripoli’s hull was said to be round. I could believe it. I had occasionally felt a bit of queasiness in very rough seas but had never retched over the side. A friend of mine was so prone to seasickness that he spent many hours during just about any sea state sitting in a tow tractor in the middle of the cavernous hangar bay, the ship’s pivot point, therefore, less movement. I reached the hatch to the flight deck and stepped through. It was pitch black but for the starlight that twinkled among the helicopter rotor blades. The flightdeck was full of choppers so I stepped down into the greasy catwalk – a walkway whose decking gave a clear view of the sea not far below. This was the outermost part of the ship, and the darkest.
I sat on a bollard and sipped my coffee. I was in wash khaki – cotton, synthetic material would melt to the skin in a fire – so a little grease and oil wouldn’t kill me. It might piss off the Sailors in the laundry shop, though. Too bad, I thought, it’s payback; my skivvies always came back gray after the first wash at sea. The ship’s bell clanged ding-ding, ding-ding, ding: five bells, 0230. Watchstanders around the ship spoke with soft voices into their sound-powered telephones: “Bow watch. All’s well.” “Fantail. All’s well.” It was very quiet. Waves lapped softly against the hull as though they were afraid of waking the silent ship. The smell of aviation fuel and hydraulic fluid permeated the atmosphere and enveloped me like saran wrap clinging to a bowl of mom’s potato salad. I felt like I could scrape the odor off of my skin and clothing. Somewhere aft a Sailor dropped some tie-down chains. The noise rang out with a jarring clash. I looked at the bridge and could make out the faint red glow of the night lights behind the panes of blast-proof glass. Somewhere to starboard a whale vented; I heard his exhale clearly across the waves.
Then I looked at the sky.
Oh my God, I thought. What glory. What wonder. The night sky was filled, filled! from horizon to horizon with sparkling and twinkling pin points of light! Orange, and blue, and red, and white stars were sprinkled across the heavens and lit the night with the brilliance of a hundred thousand diamonds. The Milky Way spanned the infinite curve of the universe like a great splash of white thrown upon a canvas of black. I could reach out and touch Sirius. Orion with his raised club, and Lepus at his feet, dominated my vision. Auriga and Cassiopeia were brilliant in their stellar shine. Meteors flashed across the sky. Satellites with their stately motion passed among the wonders before my eyes, unable to appreciate the carpet of beauty they inhabited. I was in awe and could do nothing but sit there and smile.
Then, the ship woke. Lights came on. The low rumble of the gigantic engines reached me through thousands of tons of steel. The vibration and hum of my ship brought me back to earth. As the flightdeck lights sprang to life so the stars faded from sight. The spell was broken. I looked at the sea; it was calm but for a gentle swell. Phosphorescent organisms splashed against the hull, spattering their light across the water. Then I thought of my dad. He was on a ship like this in World War II. He had crossed these very waters. I mulled over dad for a while and wondered if he, too, had gazed into a night sky like this. Then, I got up and walked back into the womb of my ship.