MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
February 13, 2014, Pier 14, Naval Station Norfolk, VA
Close to midnight on the eve of Valentine’s Day 2014, the minivan’s headlights swept around the pier parking lot on Naval Station Norfolk as Mere’s mom looked for an empty spot. Like drop-off day at camp, the parking lot bustled with families unloading loved ones. Young men and women piled out of cars, many unsure, some crying, a few even tipsy, like us. Contrary to the ship drivers, as aviators, we didn’t have anything to contribute to the mission until we were well under way, so it didn’t matter if we were present in mind and body when we stepped aboard. So long as we shuffled across the quarterdeck before the stroke of midnight, we’d have twelve to fifteen hours to sleep it off and get our minds in the game.
I looked out the van’s window, my head still spinning from the bottles of wine at our goodbye dinner, one of the many last hurrahs over the past few months. Most of us had been living like there was an impending apocalypse—dining at favorite restaurants, going out every night, bidding lovers and leases farewell, not worrying about the calories or cash we’d consumed at alarming rates.
“Caroline.” Mere looked back at me from the front passenger seat. “Didn’t you earn a spot to fly on?”
I nodded. After a year and a half with the squadron, my seniority entitled me to a coveted spot to fly a jet onto the boat, which would have given me a few more days ashore.
Mere’s mom looked in the rearview, chiming in, “So why are you walking on?”
“Didn’t want to miss dinner with my girls,” I said, but the truth was that walking on the boat was easier to plan. When you fly on, the Navy gives you a three-day departure window, but no firm embark date. In preparation for deployment, I’d already vacated my roommate Ashley’s house and put all my belongings and car in storage. With no spouse or kids at home, there was nothing to keep me lingering on shore.
“Hang on.” Mere drew a buzzing phone from her purse. “Hey!”
All night we’d been getting calls from friends and family, frantically saying last goodbyes. Aunts, grandparents, old boyfriends, long-lost neighbors who’d heard the little girl down the street was headed to war.
The minivan lurched to a stop, and we stepped out into the brisk night, watching the Sailors stream toward the mountain of steel looming alongside the pier. The USS George H.W. Bush, the Navy’s newest Nimitz-class aircraft carrier—a super carrier—was over a thousand feet long and rose 134 feet from the waterline to the top of the flight tower that glowed orange in the sulfur lights of the pier.
We unloaded the bags in silence until Johanna, a helicopter pilot boarding the boat with us, stopped, discovering a hidden cooler of beer. “Hey, what’s this?” she asked, her tone lightening the somber mood.
Mere’s mom shrugged. “Heard it was customary to chug a beer before walking aboard,” she said. “Figured we can’t go breaking tradition…”
We passed a few beers around and my mom chimed in, “What’s that thing you do…” She threw her hand back, gesturing. “What’s it called? Shotgunning?”
Johanna shook her head. “Pass me the car keys.”
One by one, we cut holes in the bottom of the cans, lifted the ice-cold beers to our mouths, and popped the tops. An explosion of suds and laugher followed. I wiped my chin and looked at my mom, splattered with beer. As she lowered the dripping can from her mouth, I realized her smile had turned to sobs. This was more than saying goodbye and she knew it. She’d been so strong up to this point, watching me build toward this moment. Years of training and goodbyes had brought us to this, and after a week spent packing and cleaning my house as I scrambled to get my life in order, she crumbled before my eyes.
“Mom,” I said in my most soothing voice. “It’s gonna be okay.”
I’ve never been physically affectionate, even with family and friends, and my time in the Navy certainly made me less so. Still, I knew then my mom needed me, so I stood there, hugging her tight. It was a big moment, but I couldn’t cry. As though in an emotional dive-bomb, I let the excitement and fear and sadness propel me at full speed, resisting my survival instincts to just pull out. To go back to a life that was predictable and safe.
I couldn’t help but look over Mom’s shoulder to the boat and the adventure it promised. I could think of nothing else. The Navy, if anything, prepares you for departures.
June 2005; Annapolis, MD
Annapolis, Maryland, is a too-cute-to-be-real colonial town on the Severn River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay. It is part capital city, part college town, part sailing mecca. The kind of place where officers in crisp Navy whites mingle with prepsters in pink seersucker pants in a setting that could be featured in Travel + Leisure. Gorgeous in June, but with the heat and humidity, the air practically boiled.
Induction Day at the United States Naval Academy (or I-Day, as it’s called) commenced at exactly 0600, so it was predawn when my parents pulled the car through the heavy iron gates and my journey as midshipman began. My older brother, Craig, had just finished his sophomore year at the Academy and was deployed for summer training on the other side of the world, so my send-off party was small, and the morning rapidly moved ahead with little time to cling to the moment.
“I’ve got to line up now,” I said cheerily to my parents.
“Well.” Mom pulled down her sunglasses. She was far tougher before she’d sent her babies off to war. “Good thing I’ve said this kind of goodbye before,” she said, remembering, of course, when she left Craig at the Academy two years prior. My father wasn’t as stoic, his shirt wet first with sweat, then tears. Ill-practiced at hiding his emotions, he visibly shook until someone patted him roughly on shoulder.
We turned to see Vice Admiral Rodney Rempt, the three-star admiral and the superintendent of the Naval Academy, eyes smiling out from behind salt and pepper brows. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll take care of her.”
Two big hugs and a couple of curt commands later, I crossed into the Academy wearing a coral-colored Polo and carrying a bright floral-print bag filled with the amenities we were instructed to bring and nothing more. The rest of my personal effects for the summer would be issued to me.
Along with a confused class of 1,200 other plebes, I spent the rest of I-Day passing through a labyrinth of tests, vaccinations, check-ins, and gear fittings, all at a brisk pace while the cadre screamed in our ears. As I lugged my hundred-pound gear bag up the stairs of Bancroft Hall, I felt my saggy, newly issued pants slipping off my waist. I didn’t dare drop my bag for fear I couldn’t pick it back up, and I was determined not to start out by asking for help.
“Johnson, what the heck!” the cadre behind me screamed as I felt a whoosh of cool air. “You’re mooning your entire class!”
Around six p.m. that evening, I took the oath of office. Just twenty-four hours before, I was a somewhat privileged Colorado debutante with doting parents, enjoying all the freedoms of an American eighteen-year-old. Now, I was no longer even a civilian; I’d become property of the United States Navy. After the formalities of the day, we were lined up once again and ordered to march. Hustling through the massive doors of Bancroft with the rest of my classmates, I noticed a child off to my right, pulling her mother’s sleeve. “Look, Mommy,” she said. “A girl one.”
Welcome to the United States Naval Academy.
* * *
The term plebe is derived from the ancient Roman word plebeian—a commoner, a member of the lower class. So naturally, at the Naval Academy, plebes are the bottom of the barrel, the lowest of the low on the totem pole. Commencing with I-Day, followed by six grueling weeks of Plebe Summer, all freshmen experience the unrelenting scrutiny of not only the cadre, but the resident officers, senior enlisted, and civilian staff at the Academy. Basically, everyone is waiting for you to mess up. And let me tell you, as a plebe, you will mess up. This intense scrutiny is part of an intricate system designed to make students fail. Here you have twelve hundred of the smartest, most athletic, highest-performing college freshmen—many of whom have never been bad or even average at something. The pressure cooker of Plebe Summer ensures that each midshipman will become intimately familiar with failure.
Copyright © 2019 by Caroline Johnson