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Before we head up to control, I take another sip of the “not-good” coffee my husband made for me in officers’ study and I scan the weary faces of passers-by outside his stateroom. It’s clear most of us are ready to get home – those who have been stuck on this boat for the length of its patrol most of all. In the metal shelf above his desk are economically-sized compartments – each securing their contents snuggly – no – efficiently. Some are for mail, and others fit coffee cups quite nicely to help avoid spills in case of unexpected motion. I place the larger than average, cobalt blue diner mug with its yellow officer’s crest into one such compartment as we get ready to leave the room. My belly, now digesting an amalgam of “tangy” spinach, egg noodles, beef, Szechuan shrimp, and an unusually high amount of baking soda (which I won’t explain but is worth mentioning), feels uncomfortable and I start to feel drowsy. I choose to leave my coat behind with the hope that the cold air on the ship will keep me awake. I want to stay alert and present for the entire trip back to port, but between the food, the number of hours I’ve been awake, and the exhaustion from many late nights of work in the days prior, I’m seriously doubting my ability to keep up.
When we arrive in control, the captain is already up on the bridge. My husband, the XO, is now supervising the piloting and contact management parties. I take a seat on a small royal blue naugahyde cushion on what I think is a bench that probably doubles as something else tucked just aft and right of the periscopes. I watch as he slips silently out of my world and, in a single step onto the raised platform, reemerges in theirs. Some of the sailors here have been on watch continuously since I came on board, and though we visited this space earlier, it wasn’t until this moment that I began to understand what was actually happening in there. Hours and hours of micro movements, adjustments, observations, communications, measurements, and mathematical calculations happen here as long as the ship is moving. If you’ve ever seen an orchestra perform live before, I’d liken the experience to observing that for the first time – exhilarating until you’ve been in there for hours on end I imagine.
They’re all divided into groups – the piloting party, contact management party, and ship’s control party – except there are a few players walking back and forth between them, providing insights or gathering information and communicating back to their respective party. My husband stays in radio contact with the captain up on the bridge who at this point has the advantage of having his actual eyes on what’s happening outside. Conversely, everyone in control looks at the surrounding ocean through either a periscope or some other electronic display. They encounter a few frustrating communication problems until someone speaks up and suggests that the XO direct a particular course of action. He concurs, they act, and (much to their relief) SUCCESS. My husband gives the sailor a “good call” and “well done”, and the band plays on.
Directly behind me is a kid with a log book, a pen, and a calculator. I say kid because like many of the others in the room, this young man appears to be in his early twenties at most, which means I’m old enough to be his mother, and like my own three children, this kid is LEGIT good at math. This mother is not. I am fixated now on what he’s up to because he’s in a perpetual loop of hearing some numbers called out by the navigator (NAV) or the assistant navigator (ANAV), then reading the ship’s fathometer, running some calculations, and audibly calling out the distance between the bottom of the ship’s hull and the ocean floor every three minutes. Every. Three. Minutes. I’m entertained though deeply embarrassed at the thought that he’s done more math in the last half hour than I’ve likely done this entire month.
I see my husband spin around the periscope a few more times and continue to direct those things under his watch while the captain continues to check in to provide and receive information and insights from the bridge. Still, I keep focused on the fathometer operator – the NAV and his team cycling through positioning and depth over and over again. I’m no longer listening to an orchestra. Instead, I feel like I’m watching a three-legged race, except it’s not two people tied together, it’s the 14+ men in this room and the more than hundred others doing their part in their respective spaces on the ship. Each moving together in time, like a centipede and its many legs shuffling silently but hurriedly, every three minutes. EVERY. THREE. MINUTES.
We’ve made it to the Hood Canal Bridge, the pilot now on board, and the room suddenly feels busier and more cramped. I can barely keep my eyes open now, so I return to my husband’s stateroom to sleep – the shallow, tinny sounds of control still piping through the speakers near his desk and nearest my head. His warm, fuzzy blanket tucked around me, his rolled up foam mattress serving as a pillow, I’m comforted by the sound of his voice on the other end and have little trouble falling asleep. Time passes and I open my eyes just as someone calls out the time and announces, “The boat is moored. The boat is moored.” Not long after that, my husband appears, and with a long exhale, this weeks long journey (for him) is over, and we begin gathering his personal items.
When we’re done, I sit down, observing the hustle outside the stateroom door. The weapons officer (WEPS) appears, and soon the members of the opposite crew arrive. I meet their new XO for the first time and the two “number twos” exchange a few good words. The captain returns from the bridge, wet and no doubt relieved that his time in the elements is over, but most certainly on a high from the time spent atop his boat. The Chief of the Boat (COB), and his mustache, stop in to work out the details of announcing liberty over the ship’s intercom, or the 1MC, with my husband. A few minutes later, the XO announces liberty at the discretion of the department heads.
Finally, bags on backs and in hands, we make our way to the one exit available to everyone wishing to leave the boat. We see the line up ahead of anywhere between 5 and 10 men, but as we near the ladder and look up to the level above, we see at least 10 more individuals waiting to climb up. We stand by patiently until the spaces become so crowded that my husband yells up to those coming down ladder to stop so that his sailors can get off. Despite the order, 4 or 5 men make their way down ladder and one mouths off to my husband as he passes. Still stuck in line on the ladder below, my husband shouts back something like “That’s move out of the fucking way, SIR.”
I know my husband to be a lot of things, but an abuser of his “sir”-ness, never. I flash back to a moment in the Fleet Briefing Room at Pacific Fleet Headquarters when he was a young lieutenant and a captain I respect but loathe deeply threw HIS sir-ness at my then coworker for passing by without saying “Excuse me, SIR.” I smile at the thought of that young lieutenant being an XO now – tired, salty, and obviously a bit snippy. Still, it’s cramped, guys are angry, and at this point everyone NEEDS to get off this boat. More men stream down ladder when an impatient sailor yells loudly in an emphatic, drawn out cadence, “From-the-X-O, stop-coming-down-the-FUCKING-LADDER!” It takes everything I have not to laugh out loud. I wish I would have seen the name tape on this sailor – whoever he is, I am a fan. At last, guys are able to start moving and we make our ascent into the fresh air and the precipitous gray gloom of the Pacific Northwest.
My sailor, ready to hang his XO ball cap by the door in exchange for the hats of Hubs and Daddy, once again returns to our little world – all of it standing ready to embrace him warmly, fully, and wholeheartedly the moment he says, “Hey guys, I’m home…”