Saturday, May 17, 2003

My basic plan while on the Tiger Cruise was to wander around by myself as much as possible. I spent some time with my sponsor, of course, but I figured that the best way to get a feel for the ship and the people manning her was to simply walk around at all hours of the day or night and walk through any door that didn't have a warning label on it. This allowed me to meet a fair number of the crew, and to have private talks with them.

The first person to walk up to greet me (other than my sponsor) was SH2 Gorrell.

Mr. Gorrell's job essentially is to take care of the rest of the crew (there's more than one Ship's Serviceman. He doesn't have to do it all by himself). He does this by making sure that the laundry is in working order, that the soft drink and snack machines are well stocked, the change machines in front of the vending machines have change in them, and that the Ship's Store is open on time.

"That's the one thing that can ruin morale. The Ship's Store." he said. "If it's closed for too long or if we don't have enough snacks then people start to grumble right quick!"

"Snacks? But food for the enlisted is free, AND there's four meals a day. In fact, there's always something to eat in the Enlisted Mess. They really buy snacks?"

"Can't keep them on the shelves. It's the crunchy stuff that's popular. If we run out then I hear about it, alright."

Mr. Gorrell has a lovely wife and a beautiful baby daughter waiting for him at home, and he doesn't like to be away from his family any more than anyone else.

"When I first got here it took a little while to adjust, just like everyone. But I realized that people depend on me here on the ship and I should focus on my job and do it the best that I can. It wouldn't do anyone any good if I just thought about what I was missing at home and moped around. So I try to think about everyone else on the ship before me. After all, they wish that they were home just like I was."

Mr. Gorrell seems to actually try and live up to these ideals instead of simply pay lip service to them. He was always friendly, cheerful and ready to answer my dopey questions. Besides that, he was the only member of the crew that I talked to who never said "Not that I'm bitter or anything."

Now that's good morale!

Ask anyone who's held a job in law enforcement and they'll tell you without hesitation that anyone will commit a crime. I mean anyone! The crack addict might do it more often than the ordained minister, but that's only because the addict has less to lose if caught and a more pressing need for the money.

One of the things I did know about before the cruise was the overcrowding (and it is severly overcrowded). There would be no way to safeguard my belongings unless I could keep an eye on it or it was locked up somewhere, and there wasn't any place to lock it up. Since it would be futile to try and carry all of my gear around with me all of the time I made sure that I could carry the stuff that was too valuable to lose. This meant my wallet and my digital camera. I even brought along a few ziplock plastic sandwich bags so I could take those two items into the shower with me.

I did have a pocketful of change I didn't want to be burdened with. I piled my bags on my assigned rack when I'd roam the ship, the coins in a pile next to them with a little note that said "The only thing of any value here is this change. Help yourself." When I mentioned this to my sponsor she said with confidence "It'll be gone when you get back."

Except it wasn't. No one touched it, and it looked like no one even went through my bags the entire four days that I was aboard.

This was rather a surprise to me. I talked about it to SH2 Gorrell and he had an explanation.

"So, you're in Berthing One?" he said. "That's all Combat Systems down there. People from the same section look out for one another, or at least don't try to screw each other over. Now if you were in another berthing, with people piled together who work in different areas of the ship...."

Near as I can tell, there's three factors at work here. One of them is tribalism, "Us vs Them" that we're all familiar with from our own lives (how many times have you had a job where the different shifts would backbite each other at every oppurtunity?). Another one is simple self-interest, because no one wants to make the already stressful situation on board even worse. The third reason that no one tried to find something to pilfer is undoubtably because I was a special civilian guest, and if something of mine went missing the Captain and other officers would come down like a ton of bricks on everyone.

Not that I'll stop taking my wallet and camera into the shower with me if they invite me to do this again. I used to work in law enforcement myself, after all.

Friday, May 16, 2003

One of the most anticipated part of the Tiger Cruise was the chance to shoot the ship's defensive small arms that are mounted on the rail. Every member of the crew has the chance to fire these weapons and become familiar with them, a good idea in case of an actual attack while the ship is tied up in port. Although they staged this excercise specifically for the Tigers, it isn't an unusual part of the crew's training.

But what to shoot? Aiming at a spot in the ocean and watching the water splash just isn't very helpful. A target is needed. That's where the Killer Tomato comes in. It's a really big orange balloon, shaped like a pyramid and made of a springy latex. It will take an amazing amount of damage before ripping or deflating, the springy material that it's made of closing up whenever a bullet pokes a hole in it.

That portly gentleman with the green cowboy hat and the Joker's grin is me, and I stand at 5"10". The hat adds another inch, maybe. Notice how the Tomato looms over me, taunting me with it's height and provocative orange hue. How tall would you say that is? Twelve feet?

The Tomato is weighted on the bottom by tying an empty .50 ammo can to it. It's set adrift and the ship orbits the balloon. The range and angle to the target is constantly changing, helping to train the crew in proper use of adjusting sights. AND it's a ton of fun.

The safety of the civilians on board was a major concern. No one was allowed to approach the guns unless they were wearing protective gear. After waiting my turn I armored up and tried out the M60 light machinegun.

This is a larger pic so you can see some details. Notice that little orange pyramid out there on the waves? That's the Tomato, the huge ballon that dwarfed me when I was standing in front of it. The sights were set at 300 yards, but they were of little use with the shifting range. The trick is to aim as well as you can, shoot a small burst, and watch where the bullets splash. Then you correct your aim and repeat. Eventually you manage to walk your fire onto the target. It's trickier than it sounds, but you get the hang of it quickly enough.

In the pic above you can see a spent cartridge flying out of the ejection port on the right side of the gun. Just to the right of the Tomato you can make out the splash where my rounds were falling.

After the M60 it was time for the twin M2HB.

This might look dramatic but the mount was firmly bolted to the deck and recoil was non-existant. Since the energy of the reaction was sent through the hull, the sound is transmitted through the steel and you can hear the firing guns all over the ship. Short bursts were absolutely neccessary when firing the .50, since the round is so friggin' huge and generates so much heat that the barrels can literally erode and melt under sustained fire.

All in all, a very effective method of training the crew in the use of the ship's defensive weapons. Makes me wish I was a millionaire. I'd buy a yacht and some giant balloons, collect full auto weapons, and go far out to sea every weekend to hone my skills. After a few years the mountain of spent brass that rolled overboard would poke above the waves and become a hazard to navigation.

The adult Tigers were allowed to shoot the M60 and the twin M2HB's, but the kids weren't totally ignored. Steps were set up around a single M2HB mount, and the kids donned protective armor and waited patiently for their chance to shoot the Killer Tomato.

In fact they waited in line with considerably more patience than the adult Tigers did. When their turn came they stepped up, listened to the instructions and let fly. I can't swear to it, but it seemed to me that they managed better accuracy than the adults.

I've mentioned here before that women seem to gain shooting skills faster than men, but I've never actually trained a child before. I might just have missed my calling, because there was one little girl there that really impressed me.

Her name is Kiersten Deutsch, and she did everything right the first time. She carefully oriented herself behind the gun to acheive a good sight picture and tripped off a short burst.

After checking to see the fall of the shot she corrected her aim and sent another short burst downrange. Then she corrected again. Third time was the charm and she nailed the Tomato after that. And she kept on target with all the rest of her rounds. She has the natural talents that is required of all excellent shooters: a keen eye, a steady hand and nerves of steel. If she has an interest in the shooting sports then she could possibly train herself up to be a champion.

I talked to her Daddy because Keirsten was too shy to talk to a big ol' hairy-scary guy like me. She's seven now, and she'll be eight in June of 2003. Do you guys know what that means?

We only have about ten years more before she starts to show up at the matches to kick our butts! Better get our fun in now before we get humiliated.

Below is a pic of Kiersten so we can recognize her when the dark day of her first competition arrives.

Imagine the setting for a moment. Try to put yourself there.

Above there's a darkening sky, overcast, nothing but grey clouds. Below there's the ever changing sea, water poisoned by salt stretching from horizon to horizon.

But there's a ship down there, a slim steel needle steaming north. As your get closer you can see that on the Flight Deck, the flat part of the ship all the way in the back, a battle rages.

The defender's are tenacious, desperate, fighting for their lives. The children are trapped and huddle in small spaces as far from the fighting as possible. The attackers bulk huge, in their physical prime, masters of the close-in assault and hand-to-hand combat.

Soon numbers begin to tell. The defenders fall back, barricading themselves behind doors that they brace with whatever they can find. The agressors are prepared for this, they've brought the tools they need to force the barricades. The doors begin to buckle.

It was movie night on the McFaul, and they were showing The Lord of the Ring: the Two Towers.

But you can't rush these things. First there was MidRats, Midnight Rations, the last meal of the day before lights out. On that day it was Buffalo chicken wings, potatoes au graten, fried cheese sticks and some vegetable medley that no one seemed to be interested in. Then it was time to walk down into your berthing, grab a blanket from your rack, and head on out through the Flight Deck airlock.

The screen was large enough so everyone could easily see it. People settled down. Someone passed out bags of microwaved popcorn. ("Police those colonels when you're done!" Heh. Well, it was funnier in a military setting.)

When the light had faded enough the movie was started. It's a long film, and some of the kid Tigers fell asleep in their blankets or curled up on their Daddy's lap. The clouds cleared and the stars came out when the movie was halfway through. While animated trees held council I felt the ship rolling under my back and picked out the ancient constellations. Orion the Hunter, striding across the sky with his dagger in his belt. Sirius the Dog Star, forever following his master. Ursa Major, an old friend of mine that's often helped me get oriented when I've gone camping. Jupiter, largest and most volatile of the wandering stars.

Members of the crew told me that they have movie night about once a month, weather permitting. That means that it's hardly routine, but it's common enough so that it's not considered a special event. It'll be a long time before I forget that night, though.

Thursday, May 15, 2003

Many people who have never served will ask people in the military what it’s like, wanting to know how active duty life is different from their own routine. Most of the people they ask will stop and think about it for a minute, chewing their answer over in their mind before replying with an emphatic “It sucks!”

This is not very descriptive, but it’s probably the best that they can come up with in a very short period of time. The problem is that life in the military is so different from civilian life, with so many alien pressures and stresses and concerns, that it’s virtually impossible to describe what it’s like to actually live inside military society to someone who has never experienced it before.

From May 2, 2003 through May 5 I participated in a Tiger Cruise on the USS McFaul (DDG-74). This is where a member of the crew can sponsor a friend or family member to come aboard for a few days and see how things get done. I count myself as being very fortunate to be offered this opportunity.

I’ve decided to write about my experience in a series of posts. Although many of the posts will detail the ship and it’s capabilities, my main purpose is to provide a glimpse into the unique society that exists inside a tiny steel can that is often in the middle of a very large and dangerous ocean.

I wasn’t taking notes or recording any of the conversations that I had while aboard and there was plenty for me to take in, so my recollections might be off. Any errors that are made are entirely my own fault, and both apologies and retractions are but an Email away.
Sometimes it’s important to give some background so people will understand what you’re trying to describe. With this in mind, let’s go over the numbers that describe a ship like the McFaul.

The USS McFaul (DDG-74) is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. The "G" in it's call letters (DDG-74) means that it's equipped with guided missiles, weapons that increase the range and effectiveness of the vessel far beyond the horizon. Just as a basis for comparison, if the McFaul was equipped with a helicoptor (to increase the range of her sensors) and had an unlimited amount of missile reloads she could easily take on and destroy a WWII carrier task force all by her lonesome.

To my lubber eyes the McFaul looked reasonably large but the US Navy has only one class of deep-water warships that are smaller, the Oliver Hazard Perry class of frigates, which are about 1/2 the size of the Arleigh Burke class destroyers. Surprisingly, they stuff almost the same number of people on the OHP ships. People I talked to who have served on frigates always made sure to mention how miserable the living conditions are, and I certainly believe them.

If you want a map of the passageways inside the ship (called "P-ways". Heh), take an old ladder out into your backyard and throw it down on the ground. Then take a pointy stick and scratch the outline of a ship around it. That's pretty much it, two long P-ways running down the long axis of the ship with short P-ways joining them every so often.

Except that it's not so simple. Stuff gets in the way. Bulkheads, watertight doors, equipment, compartments and structural supports all keep the cross P-ways from going all the way across. So, to keep your map accurate, take an axe to all but two of the rungs and raggedly chop them off. NOW you have a chart that will help you navigate inside the skin of the ship.

This internal layout is neccessary considering all of the equipment that has to be crammed inside, but it does make getting around a pain until you learn how to do it. For the first day or so I'd turn a corner and find a solid steel wall right in front of my nose. Then I'd have to backtrack and figure out another route. This wasn't as frustrating as it sounds. There really wasn't all that much space to walk around in, and it doesn't take long to get your bearings and memorize distinctive landmarks....uh, shipmarks.

The USS McFaul is attached to Destroyer Squadron XVIII.

The Squadron has a motto, and it’s Inimici Cavete. If my Latin hasn’t failed me then that means ”Enemies Beware”. The McFaul has her own motto, and it’s “Honor, Courage, Sacrifice”. It might just be the result of a classical education but I think I prefer the Squadron’s motto over the ship’s.

The crew likes to joke that the motto really is “Sacrifice, Sacrifice, Sacrifice”. It’s just one of the ways that they try to lighten the mood and cope with the everyday stress that life aboard ship brings.

Another way is to say “Not that I’m bitter or anything.” There were some days when this would be said every five sentences or so. Maybe that should be the motto of the ship.
The plan was for the McFaul to leave Ft. Lauderdale, FL with the invited civilians aboard (the Tigers, in Navy parlance). Four days and three nights later it would dock in Norfolk, VA.

I arrived in the dead of night and had to go through some checkpoints before I could approach the ship. Local police and sheriff deputies provided the first tier of security, serious guys who were awake and alert at 02:00 hours (2:00 AM). They actually took the time to look at my ID. Stare at the picture, then look at the face of the person holding it. Then back at the little plastic card to read all the other info.

“Ohio, huh?” they’d say after they saw my driver’s license (I’m from Columbus, OH). I was with two people in Navy uniforms, but they had their ID checked as well. Ft. Lauderdale is known as a wild and wooly party town because of the drunken college kids that spend their spring breaks down there, but I seriously doubt that anything is going to happen if local law enforcement has anything to say about it.

The second layer of security was Navy personnel on duty. More ID checks and my bags were searched. Then I was allowed to board and my ID was given the once-over yet again at the top of the gangplank. I must have looked honest, because they didn’t bother to check to see if I was who I claimed again during the rest of the cruise.

When the ship left port the next morning it was escorted out of the harbor by very fit armed men in tiny motorboats operated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

This might seem rather odd, all of these different law enforcement agencies providing physical protection for one of the US Navy’s newest and most deadly warships. But they were the guys who know the area, they have the equipment, and they’re definitely not screwing around. Eventually they're going to be replaced by agents working for the US Dept. of Homeland Security. I just hope that anything the Homeland Security guys put together is half as professional.
The last line of defense is, of course, the crew. Since many of my readers are interested in firearms and self defense I’ve decided to take a moment and mention the different small arms that are available to defend the ship. If this subject doesn’t interest you then please skip on down. There’s plenty of crunchy goodness towards the center.

Armed crew members are on deck and standing watch every time the ship enters, leaves or stays in port. They’re armed with pump action 12 guage shotguns, the excellent M14 rifle, and the M92 Beretta autoloader. There’s also a .50 M2HP twin mount, a single M2HB, and an M60 light machine gun on it’s own mount.

They wouldn’t let me fire an M14 or one of the shotguns. They also didn’t offer to stand around and watch in slack jawed amazement while I demonstrated my skill with one of the 9mm autoloaders. This was probably for the best since I would be sure to choke under the pressure and hit the magazine release by mistake when I drew the handgun, causing all to laugh with amusement and scar my very soul to the roots. BUT they did have a lapse of reason for long enough for me to try out the twin fifty and the M60. I’ll talk about that particular experience tomorrow.
The McFaul is essentially an airtight steel can, and the pressure inside of the ship is kept higher than that outside to prevent biological agents and poison gas from entering. Access to the interior of the ship is through two airlocks. Going “inside of the skin of the ship” is just like I imagined climbing into a 1950's space ship would be like, all heavy steel doors and whistling wind making ghost fingers that tug at your clothes. Even though I was bone tired from driving for the past 29 ½ hours I still thought it was too kewl for words.

There are other hatches and doors opening directly to the outside. One time I had my head up my butt and opened the wrong door. It tried to slam open, the interior pressure pushing it out, but it was prevented by the stops (sort of a steel latch designed to keep this sort of thing from happening).

Okay, I opened the wrong door. Now I had to close it. It was a bit of a struggle and I had to put the book I was carrying down on the deck so I could use both hands. When I was done and the wind noise stopped I heard someone laughing behind me.

It was one of the crew. He was very gracious abiut it when I apologized. "Happens to everyone at one time or another, Sir." he said. I didn't mind him having a laugh at my expense. Getting laughed at was the least that I deserved.

One of the airlocks is on the Flight Deck, and the other is one deck up. My sense of having been transported into an old Amazing issue was reinforced when I saw two decontamination chambers that had been set up inside of the higher lock. They even had round glass windows so the medical staff could peer in and see how their patients were doing.

Walking around inside reinforces the spaceship impression. Everything was steel plates, jutting structural supports, with wires and pipes running along the passageways for a few feet before disappearing into the bulkheads. The other detail that jumps out at you is the firefighting equipment at hand.

Just about everyone I passed in the P-way had a little roll of cloth strapped to their coveralls, gloves and a hood made of fire retardant material that they could slip on so they could get to the equipment behind a wall of flame without the flesh bubbling off of their bones.

This makes perfect sense if one considers that the McFaul has been built with the expectation that it will have to go into combat one day. If unfriendly strangers shoot at you then sometimes they will score a hit. Considering that there’s nowhere to go on the ocean, and that the fumes produced by a fire will poison the air inside the hull in seconds, then this obsession with killing the fire before it kills you and your shipmates is certainly worth the effort. In fact, I felt like I was slacking off after a day or so because I didn’t know how to fight a fire below decks. They take it that seriously.
I’ve mentioned before that the McFaul is one of the US Navy’s newest and most advanced ships, and it is. It has the capability to monitor an incredibly huge space, air and surface and deep ocean depths, and deny that space to the enemy. But that doesn’t mean that it’s all Star Trek control panels and blinking lights. In fact, most of the systems on board wouldn’t be all that unfamiliar to a seaman from 50 years ago.

The picture shows how solid state electronics are nestled up against digital equipment (the monitor screen looks funky because of all of the power cables running through the room, creating magnetic fields).

Whenever possible the designers opted for robust equipment that could take a pounding. To my civilian sensibilities it looked a bit odd, mainly because we’ve been taught by endless ads that it isn’t high tech unless it looks like it was though up by a design team that lives somewhere out of this gravity well. But there’s no denying the fact that the stuff I’m using to type these words would be useless junk long before most of the vital systems on the McFaul even noticed any undue strain.

Sometimes the old ways have a definite advantage. If a vessel took so much damage in Star Trek that the doors wouldn’t work, then Scotty would phaser a hole in the wall and yank a few wires, or they’d simply get into the next compartment through all of those comfortably roomy air ducts. The designers thought of that when they were building the McFaul, and they scattered a few tools around to help when buckled doors don’t want to cooperate. Except that it looks more like Dungeons and Dragons than Star Trek.

There’s more than 300 people in the McFaul’s crew, and that was very apparent to me when I was shown to my assigned berthing (“berthing” is the bunkroom where you sleep, and your “rack” is the bunk where you do the sleeping). First, there’s the smell.

The crew spends a significant amount of time cleaning the ship, and it was considerably cleaner and tidier than most apartments I’ve been in. But there’s still more than 300 freakin’ people living right on top of each other! I never counted each bunk in my berthing, mainly because there was always someone sleeping down there and I didn't think they'd appreciate a lubber stomping through their space, but there had to be at least 60 men living down there. All these guys shared a bathroom with two urinals, three toilets, five sinks and three shower stalls. The urinals were the source of most of the odor, which makes sense if you consider that at least 60 men would pop in at all hours of the day to use them. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t unsanitary. The waste was kept away from people. But it didn’t smell like a field of posies, either.

You can see how crowded the sleeping arrangements are by the picture below.

If you think that this looks a lot like those old movies that show Pullman sleeper trains, you’re right. It’s pretty much exactly the same, little bunks with thin mattresses and a reading light, curtains that you can draw for a semblance of privacy. In both instances it’s done to make the most efficient use of space as possible. The only real difference is that these Navy bunks have canvas straps attached under the mattress that clip to the bottom of the bunk above you. This is so you don’t get thrown out of your rack during rough weather, and the straps on the middle bunk are visible in the picture.

In the old days there was room for a little chest where each sailor kept his personal belongings. That’s a thing of the past. Now storage space is built under the mattress itself.

This is called a “coffin locker”, and it works reasonably well. The only real problem is that there’s not a great deal of space available for each person. This causes some problems so far as morale is concerned, but there really isn’t much that can be done about it.

Notice how gloomy it is down there. Oh, there were lights, and you could see your way around, but it's kept shadowed so the people off duty can get some sleep. During the evening hours the regular lights were turned off and red lamps down on the deck come on. When this happens there's pretty much only enough light to see where you're putting your feet. Lucky thing I had the SureFire flashlight I use for low-light handgun drills or else I would have fallen and broken my neck a dozen times before I got used to it.

All that red light looked really odd. Made me think of being in the Hall of the Mountain King, except without the dwarves making a racket.

So here I was, walking around this steel building and it kept moving under my feet. Very disconcerting. It took about a day for me to get used to it by pretending that I was inside a really big bus with a maniac driver who was speeding like crazy and weaving through traffic in a dangerous way. This was, strangely enough, a comfort to me.

The problem is that destroyers are such small ships. They’re eminently sea worthy, and can weather some really rough seas, but just about any wave is noticeable. I was fortunate in that the sea was very calm for the first few days until I got used to the motion. I wasn’t so fortunate when I mentioned the pitching to my sponsor. Kathryn looked at me with a profoundly pitying look, like I was a particularly dim witted ‘tard, and said “It’s really gentle, James. I don’t even feel anything.”

‘Tard I might be, but I was wise enough to know when to cut my losses and shut up after that.

We rounded Cape Hatteras on the last night I spent aboard and the sea got kind of rough. I’m very fortunate in that I’m not particularly susceptible to motion sickness and I rather enjoyed it. Or I did until I got up to move around. It wasn’t a problem while I was lying down on my rack, but it was decidedly unpleasant when I was going up or down ladders. There was an UnRep (“Underway Replenishment”) scheduled for the early morning and I didn’t want to miss it. I spent a few hours hanging around the Enlisted Mess sipping colorful and sugary faux-fruit drinks until I felt that I could handle it. Luckily I did, because if I threw up what I had been drinking it would have looked like Walt Disney had exploded in the P-way (“passageway”).

I’ve mentioned Kathryn before and I’m not above doing it again. A pic of her is below so you can put a face with the name.

I think that will take care of you for today. Late night tomorrow there will be pics of me firing the M60, the twin M2HB, and even pics of the dread monster that we were defending the ship from.

Go to bed.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

I know that I said that I'd talk about my trip on the USS McFaul, but something came up on Sunday when I got back into town.

Some yahoo in a pickup truck must have taken umbrage at my little Geo Metro. He powered me off the road and into the side of a hill.

The car rolled several times and the roof collapsed. I was lucky in that it just didn't collapse where my pointy little head happened to be.

So I've been a bit distracted over the past few days. I'll have plemty of posts (and plenty of pictures) on Thursday evening.