…took about the time it took to walk up the ramp and board the USS Makin Island at her berth in Pearl Harbor.
Now here is where I should insert swashbuckling tales of past experiences on the ocean and all of my adventures. Um…no. Embarrassing as it is to admit, all of my time in the past asea, with few exceptions, was spent occupying a three foot section of rail and feeding the fish my breakfast or lunch. Whichever I ate last.
But this was a new day and a very new adventure.
Middle daughter Pearl’s ship was returning from deployment in the Middle East when she sent word that I could join something called a “Tiger Cruise” once the ship hit a safe harbor. That would be Pearl. Harbor.
Tiger Cruises are the Navy’s way of saying thanks for loaning us your (son, daughter, father, husband, etc) and letting us send them in harm’s way. Here – you can hop on board and ride the final (safe) leg of the trip to home port with them.
So here’s my story, written as I rode the high seas. Enjoy.
Thursday, June 14 began early when I rolled out of bed at five am. Literally. My bunk, at 8 feet long and about 2-1/2 feet wide was generous in every way except height. If I’d tried sitting up, it would have been an awakening jolt, since I had less than a foot of headroom. And since I was “ground floor” or bottom bunk, I rolled right onto the deck, about a foot below my mattress.
Welcome to life on board the U.S.S. Makin Island – the newest hybrid ship in the United States Navy. For the nine days I will be answering reveille’s call each morning, reporting to duty stations, eating meals with sailors and Marines, and bedding down every night in my metal coffin as the ship makes its way across the Pacific, returning from a seven month tour of duty in the Middle East.
I’m on a Tiger Cruise, sponsored by my daughter, Pearl Green. There are 264 other Tigers on board for this cruise. Tiger Cruises began decades ago by the Navy as a way to welcome families on board ships and allow them to experience first-hand the life of military personnel at sea.
DC2(SW) Green is a Petty Officer 2nd Class (Surface Warfare) and has been with the Makin Island since before its commissioning in October 2010. She has already sailed around the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America on the Makin Island’s maiden voyage from Mississippi to home port in San Diego in the summer of 2009.
And I’m her 62-year-old mother, on board to observe both my daughter and my Navy at work.
The Makin Island is a monster of a ship, one size smaller than an aircraft carrier. At 847 feet long and 118 feet at her widest, she measures almost the length of three football fields. Standing, the ship is taller fifteen stories high.
The Makin Island is a bustling city afloat, with everything from a TV station to barber shop, to airstrip/flight deck, restaurant/mess deck and more. The 1100 sailors who run and maintain the ship are joined by a contingent of around 1700 Marines. Its mission is peacekeeping…to tour foreign ports and oceans, maintaining a presence…a position of strength, both for show and as a detriment to possible hostile action. And ready to act, if need be. (Unlike a cruise ship, this little lady comes loaded with weapons.)
First impressions were that functionality rules over aesthetics. The driving force behind the design of the ship seems to be a melding of efficiency and tradition. Electrical wires, gas lines, pipes run along walls and ceilings. There are few square doors…they are mostly oblong. And thankfully, as a concession to the many Tigers on board, the portholes leading between decks have been opened up so we can traverse the stairs with less effort. Without the Tiger mix, ranging in age from eight years old to seventy-four, personnel would disappear through holes in the floor to access the stairs.
These “stairs” are more akin to ladders on land, tilted at close to 75 degrees. “Ladders” are straight up or down, at 90 degrees. Probably 95% of the human traffic I see each day sprints up and down the stairs…at times backing up three or more deep to wait their turn.
There are several large ramps to accommodate moving large loads on carts and forklifts and elevators to move large loads from the main deck to the flight deck.
Extremely heavy loads include jets and helicopters, which ride on two enormous external elevators.
Lines form, predictably, three times a day leading into the mess deck. Breakfast was manageable – we were in early and sitting within five minutes. Lunch was a long line snaking back at least fifty people, but moved quickly and had us seated in 30 minutes. The CS/Culinary Specialist crew feeds the entire crew three times a day in a buffet line offering simple choices of main dish, sides, and drinks.
Life on board a Navy ship is built on routine…with bells and whistles announcing wake-up, meals, the hour, and musters. Drills and true emergencies can shatter this routine.
A “man overboard” announcement had all hands and Tigers scrambling to report to their respective shops for a head count.
Even though this was a drill, it was taken very seriously. Two members of the Engineering crew who were stationed elsewhere were tracked down and accounted for before a final all hands accounted for report could be filed.
I was introduced to the location and use of the EEBD/Emergency Escape Breathing Device built in to my bunk right after I stowed my personal belongings in a locker.
In the event of a gas leak or smoke I’m to don it and make my way topside. The EEBD gives me 10 minutes of oxygen to make good my escape.
It’s things like this that remind me that I’m not really on a cruise…but cruising on a military vessel. There are few comforts…other than seeing a daughter whose voice and emails have been our only contact for the past seven months. And we’re heading home. The countdown on board has begun and you can feel the excitement and see it in the smiles of crew, anticipating leave with loved ones.
By day three on the U.S.S. Makin Island everyone had slipped back into their regular routine. Today the reveille bell didn’t ring as softly, the wake-up music blared, and fewer sailors rose and dressed as urgently. It appears that reveille at this stage of deployment is more a suggestion to get moving…and some sailors use the surplus time for sleep rather than eating breakfast.
That made life for us Tigers easier with fewer crowds in the showers and bathroom, not to mention the breakfast chow line. After waiting in the long snaking lines for lunch yesterday, my daughter and I gave up on eating dinner in the mess hall, opting for some of her squirreled away stash of microwavable soup.
Once again we mustered in the Engineering Department where the First Officer gave the orders of the day. While I waited my seatmates, Pam and George Carter from Colorado, told me a bit about their experiences on board and their son. John Carter, I discovered, was the young blond sailor who was checking names off during the man overboard drill yesterday.
Pearl and I joined other Tigers and sponsors on the main deck, which had been set up as a giant show-and-tell display by many of the ship’s departments.
We wandered from the Engineering display of paraphernalia used as part of their firefighting duties over to one of the open bays where Tigers were learning how to patch a broken water pipe, but more fun, getting a chance to go hands-on with a water hose.
As luck would have it, the Carters wandered by and I got to watch Pearl walk Pamela through how to hold a fully charged fire hose while George snapped photos.
We were out on one of the massive elevators, used to lift aircraft to the flight deck…suspended perhaps a hundred feet over the Pacific Ocean under a bright blue sky. It was surreal. The ocean this far out to sea is a totally amazing shade of blue, which I’d never seen before. A pure blue, almost translucent, stretching to meet a paler blue sky with clouds far on the horizon.
After the fire hose demonstration we continued to watch Tigers, both young and old, learning how to handle firearms under the watchful eyes of Marines.
Further back on the main deck mats were laid out and a dozen sailors were practicing martial arts. I learned from Master of Arms First Class Lorenzo Garcia of Stockton that their duties include law enforcement and defense of the ship using small arms and hands-on combat.
Still full from breakfast, we grabbed fruit from the lunch line. Pearl explained that often the fruit was whatever could be obtained locally…so today we had Asian pears, mangos, grapefruit, and blueberries. At other times they had more exotic fruit such as dragonfruit, guavas, and starfruit.
While she sat handing out assignments to her crew, I worked on some videos and then headed up to Vulture’s Row to watch Flight Ops rev up the engines on some of the helicopters on the flight deck. One chopper took off and passed by the ship several times before relighting on the deck.
Every vantage point was crowded with Tigers and sponsors, enjoying another clear windy day upside. Marines in brown camouflage and sailors in blue camouflage explaining the scene below or just relaxing in the sun together…an interesting juxtaposition of peaceful family life on a warship.
Pearl finally finished her duties and caught up with me and once again we headed into the bowels of the Makin Island.
I was finding that there was a real mix of hard work and relaxation as the ship headed across the Pacific towards its homeport. While the morning muster was formal, interchanges between supervisors and the work force were friendlier, to the point of banter. Work was assigned, reports handed in, and occasionally a serious undertone would score the importance of certain assignments. The mission at this point was to make certain all duties were completed before touching home base…otherwise leave might be endangered.
Navy time is sometimes confusing.
The Tiger handout I received on boarding showed a 5K walk/run this morning at 8am…however times change daily and we didn’t check the announcements the night before, so we nearly missed the 7am gathering time to sign in along with dozens of other sponsors and Tigers.
Already on deck were a handful of Marines and sailors doing their PT (physical training). The Navy has strict weight and body fat requirements and will crack down on individuals who do not stay within required parameters.
By 8am everyone had signed in and the event began with half of the runners heading towards the bow and the other half towards the fantail. A brisk wind I’d estimate at 20-25 miles an hour slowed progress forwards but made walking to the back of the ship easy.
Events such as this one really highlight the purpose of the Tiger Cruise. Fathers with daughters, mothers with sons, generations sprinting together or ambling side by side just enjoying some time together after a long separation.
You could see the pride of Marine dads as they allowed their daughters to keep up with them…and Navy sons slowing down to let fathers keep up. Or the young boy who used the heavy wind to fly past his Marine mother.
Once back at Pearl’s station one of Pearl’s officers told her to check the news because he’d heard of a fire between Stockton and Lodi.
The Navy takes care of its own – and part of this is a system to enroll family members into their system so that the military umbrella reaches out to ensure family is safe. This means checking in on family if there are floods, fires, or over events and if necessary, making sure they are evacuated.
After a tense fifteen minutes to enroll my husband into the system (he is still back home in the Lodi area) we learned that the fire was actually 35 miles east in the foothills. A false alarm, but it was gratifying to know there was a system in place to give service members some peace of mind about their families.
The bond between the sailors in Pearl’s department is a big part of the support system that makes life bearable during extended deployments. The Makin Island left back in November, just before Thanksgiving. During the past six months former strangers have become friends and family. Everywhere I go on this ship young people step aside or offer a hand. They wait patiently when I have at times struggled with the steep descents and ascents. Chairs are pulled out in offices. My title is either Ma’am to people who don’t know me or “Mom” to the young people in Pearl’s office.
I came on board three days ago…and already I feel as if I’m home.
Sunday we began rocking and rolling as the Makin Island hit weather on the way home. Most of the time the only movement has been a gentle tilting, barely noticeable. Today it became very evident, with the tilt becoming at times a lurch.
Sunday is the only day of the week when reveille is not sounded and sailors take advantage to sleep in late (or all day). A “steel beach picnic” had been planned for the Flight Deck, but due to inclement weather it was held on the main deck. Four long lines between two buffet tables with hot dogs, hamburgers, barbequed chicken, and spare ribs and all the sides. A game of basketball went on to there rear of the deck. Music blared.
Pearl and I chose to sit in the mess, which was only slightly quieter and then decided on an early bedtime.
Reveille sounded loud and clear Monday morning and Pearl rushed through breakfast while I met a new Tiger – a retired Sacramento police lieutenant, now living in Arizona. It seems every new Tiger I meet is from another state, so it was nice to talk with someone who actually knew where Lodi was. So far I’ve met Tigers from Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Arizona, Texas, Washington, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Mississippi.
When I caught up with Pearl at her muster, she was telling her DCPOs (Damage Control Petty Officers) that there’d be extra clean up tonight unless someone confessed to trashing their working area the night before. (She and another team member had swept and cleaned up before leaving and someone had messed up overnight.)
I then got a personal grand tour of the ship; from Medical (where I got some naproxen for my hip and knee pain) and then down six decks to the Central Control System where all ship systems are monitored. This is how the Damage Control crew keeps an eye out for potential problems and monitor emergencies as they occur. They can see and control everything from the septic system to water pressure in fire mains to hot spots on board.
Then it was up five decks to the access ladders to get four decks down to the main engine room, where I got to see both the gas and diesel systems and the main drive shafts for the propellers. These are the only areas on board I’ve been that were not chilly…but comfortably warm.
Back on the main deck Pearl perked up when she learned the ship’s mess was putting out free cases of water and Diet Coke for the taking. Sailors from different departments were grabbing cases and heading down to their shops, so she grabbed two cases of water and handed me two cases of soda – the reaction down below was upbeat when the free supplies arrived.
So here we sit…with a happy crew around us awaiting their assignments for the day. We are more than halfway home at this point and I’m ready to see land myself. The thought of working on this ship for as long as these young people have – more than seven months – and for some, days without seeing the sky, is more than I can imagine. What I can imagine is the explosion of bodies once the ship hits port and the crew is heading down the ramps to family and home.
Along about Day 8 the adventure began to become old. The constant movement of the ship…the engine and ventilation noise…the bone-piercing cold and metal walls penetrated and made real what our sailors and Marines live with for months on end. This is not a fun cruise, but day to day existence in a metal hull…with each individual performing their duties as part of a whole.
It is only now that I realize the yearning for solid land and home that our service men and women have and why with each wave we pass over and every minute that passes their smiles are broader and their steps lighter.
Along with the endless duties to keep the ship in perfect working condition and shipshape, aka clean, much is done to keep spirits up. From Monday’s lobster tail dinner to Sumo wrestling to last night’s Bingo game…from the library and college classes available…there always seems to be an event or opportunity to forget for a few minutes where you are.
But only for a few minutes.
One thing I do know. I will NOT be standing between any sailors on board when the gangplank is lowered and leave begins. And not just because they deserve an unfettered leave, but also for my own safety. I foresee a stampede to dry land in the near future.
I missed reveille for the first time this morning…or so I thought. In reality Pearl and most of the other females I was bunking with had been up for an hour or more, ironing their dress whites, applying make-up and helping each other with their hair.
Today is homecoming.
All of the sailors mustered on the hanger deck in their dress whites and then marched up the ramp to the flight deck. It was time to “man the rails.” Sailors marched around the edge of the flight deck until they were spread out within arms reach of each other, totally encircling the deck. More sailors were stationed below on the catwalk and above in Vulture’s Row.
It was cold and blustery and many of the young “tars” were shivering. But everyone was breaking into smiles as we made our way through the channel and past the Naval Air Station.
We passed the U.S.S. Midway, now on display in downtown San Diego – with its Welcome Home sign. Under the Coronado Bridge and towards Naval Base San Diego, and finally we were pushed up against Pier 13 by massive tugboats.
Below hundreds of family and friends waited and cheered. Everyone broke for below deck once the formalities were over, quickly packing and grabbing bags and heading back to the hanger deck to get into one last line.
The line out the door to freedom.
Being inside we missed another Navy tradition: first hug, first kiss, and new dad. Drawings were held for the first two, with two random sailors allowed off the ship before anyone else to greet their loved ones. All new dads were next…getting first glimpses of children born while they were at sea.
Then it was time for the rest of us.
Out the hanger doors, down three flights of stairs and onto solid ground for the first time in ten days. We passed through a guard gate and all around us sailors were greeting loved ones…and beyond the crowd was Pearl’s little sister Alexis, who grabbed and hugged her tight.
All that is left is the trip home for a relaxing night together.
Tomorrow is another day. Pearl has a 24 hour duty starting early in the morning, so her true freedom does not begin until Sunday. An interesting thought – that our soldiers and sailors live apart from family and friends, treasuring moments off ship and off base so that the rest of us are protected and can lead our lives free – often totally unaware of their service and sacrifice.
Yep. It WAS an experience. And what I experienced was just a moment in time compared to what our troops experience daily.
And now for the link to Videojournalism. The story of what I did and why. Some of the resulting videos are linked above…what you may not have realized is about 95 percent of what I shot on this trip was done on a Kodak Playtouch z10. Yep – a point and shoot.
The book I’m co-authoring with Larry Nance will cover all bases/all gear from P&S through consumer and prosumer with a dash of DSLR thrown in. While I’ve used the last three, I only had a passing nod to the P&S gear.
And I will tell you that with all of the climbing up and down ladders ( I refuse to believe anything that steep is a staircase…sorry) having a camera I could shove into my pocket was a real savior.
In fact – here’s my gear kit for most of the shooting I did. One small camera bag. One Playtouch. One mini-jack lav mike. An extra battery. And two teensy tiny super-cute lens adapters (wide angle and tele). I took along a tripod but only used it once – and because the wind very nearly swept it away on the flight deck along with the camera, I returned to hand-holding the camera for security.
Shooting was a real lesson. Cameras at this level are pretty basic – fixed lens with digital zoom. So I had to zoom with my arms and legs. No manual control. Goodbye aperture control, while balance, focus. Oh wait – there was a switch topside so I could take (mountain icon) kind of infinite focus shots or (flower) close-ups. Not enough heft to help me balance it properly…I had to learn the correct way to hold it, all the while avoiding touching the touchscreen (which was very sensitive).
And my shooting style changed and along with it, my editing style. While you can tell a full story with a variety of angles and shots and you can (thanks to the mike input) do interviews with good sound, you have to think it through and plan accordingly.
My plan was to shoot a series of short nats videos to post quickly and have enough back-up video to eventually produce two more longer videos. One on the trip itself and the other on how I used the camera on the trip. And that’s where I pulled in my Canon HV30…to shoot some standups with me explaining the Playtouch and to get some shots the Playtouch couldn’t – good telephoto shots of aircraft flying by and LPACs coming and going.
By way of closing, I’d like to recognize PAO (public affairs officer) MCCS Donnie Ryan for tolerating my pleas for help and helping post videos and send postings while underway. He struggled mightily with the ship’s balky Internet until he saw success. Thank you for your efforts.