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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 dad 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.
Two and a half weeks in, I no longer knew myself as Caroline, but as 093258—my alpha code for the next four years. The identity number was just one part of the conforming. To meet Navy regulations, my long blond hair had been lopped off just days before my arrival, but still I found myself reaching for it like a vestigial limb. I started to realize that in becoming a midshipman, the outgoing, fun-loving Caroline from before wasn’t much different from my thousand-plus identically dressed, pungently smelling, stressed-out classmates. Everyone was focused on survival.
As the grueling summer ground on, we ran, drilled, and silently absorbed an endless barrage of ranting. Of course, we were restricted from leaving or making phone calls, but even within the Academy walls, who we spoke to and how we spoke to them was also limited. The isolation was so severe that when my grandmother died, I didn’t even know it until Craig found me during Sunday chapel. Knowing it was one of the few places a cadre could not snipe you, he summoned me out of my pew.
“This way,” he said, leading me down underneath the chapel.
“What’s going on?” I whispered.
“Wait here,” he said and left me alone with an elaborate gilded coffin which supposedly contains the remains of John Paul Jones, the father of the US Navy and presumed pirate.
A few moments later, Craig returned with a Navy chaplain. “Caroline, I’ve got some bad news,” he said.
It was the first time I’d been addressed by my first name in four weeks. I, of course, broke down and cried when I heard the news. We weren’t overly religious, so at first I didn’t understand why Craig had invited the chaplain into this very private moment. But as the chaplain began to comfort me, I realized that in his quiet and stoic way, Craig knew I would need someone to talk to, someone more experienced in life and death and perhaps more delicate than him.
In the wake of my grandmother’s death, the rest of Plebe Summer loomed before me like a hundred-foot wall, so tall and daunting one could never imagine making it to the other side. But by focusing on climbing and not the barrier, the weeks marched forward in quick succession, and before we knew it, our company of forty strangers had transformed into a cohesive, efficient team of thirty-six. We could square our corners, recite any line from Reef Points, and run through an obstacle course with more dexterity than an American Gladiator.
I qualified as a sharpshooter on the M-16 rifle and could hand-strip and wax a floor to make it shine. But perhaps more difficult than all of this was maintaining my femininity. The Navy seeks to both toughen and homogenize. And some people at the Academy went to great lengths to homogenize me. The result was the opposite. I fought to cling to the things that made me Caroline. Small things, like the color of nail polish, the cut of my hair—even if short, the unmistakable glow of shoes made from Italian leather. These small things mattered to me. They make me happy.
Feeling like a woman makes me happy. And I had feminine examples at the Academy to look up to like Ashley, a beautiful and bubbly classmate of mine who was in my brother’s company. Driven like the rest of us, Ashley had a magnetic smile, grace, and femininity that was uncommon at the USNA. Had it not been for her father being a senior officer in the Navy, I don’t think Ashley would have been the kind of girl to wind up there. But she thrived and quickly became one of my first girlfriends at the Academy, a girl who both encouraged and inspired me to hang on to those small things that made me who I am.
But Ashley was the exception. Most people at the Academy, including midshipmen and teachers, want to force homogenization. For some, my determination to maintain my identity—even in those very small ways—became a focal point of their lives.
More times than I could count, one such person would have me stand at attention outside her dorm room in Bancroft Hall (the largest single dormitory in the world, housing the entire four-thousand-member brigade) and shout, “Midshipmen Uniform Regulations—MIDREGS Article 1106.1-1. Conspicuous: items that are obvious to the eye, attracting attention, striking, bright in color should blend with, not stand out from, a professional appearance in uniform—”
“Louder, Johnson!” Bonnie would snipe, her mouth inches from my face. Bonnie was a firstie—the civilian equivalent of a senior—who had, it seemed, decided to make me her pet project. After only a few weeks, I knew the drill. She’d make me read the Academy rulebook, MIDREGS, until I knew every word right down to the punctuation points. But in forcing me to learn the rules, she’d also taught me how to manipulate them. For instance, Bubble Bath Pink, I discovered, was a color of nail polish that abides by MIDREGS 5102.4.b. And if I wanted to wear Italian pumps instead of the Navy’s old-lady shoes, I could have the heels taken down by Navy cobblers to two and five-eighths inches. I also had a Navy tailor tuck my baggy, black uniform down to the nanometer, so it fit per regs but without the “bag of leaves bunched around your ass” effect the Navy seems to require of its female population.
“I said louder, Johnson! We’re not done yet!”
“Ma’am, yes ma’am! ‘What is conspicuous on one person may not be noticeable on another. If attention is naturally drawn to or distracted from the professional appearance, it is conspicuous…’”
This kind of harsh refinement went on until the culmination of Plebe Year—a capstone event known as Sea Trials, usually conducted mid-May. The day begins at two a.m. and continues for fourteen hours. The physical and mental challenges include: simulated emergency resupply, short offense, a Spartan relay, a combat fitness test, obstacle courses, simulations of urban terrain combat, pipe patching, fire-hose handling. There are also water events: tests on the water, in the water, underwater, aboard boats, in the mud. There is a hill assault. A two-mile run. Bridge defense and demolition, paintball and jousting. A rucksack run and simulated evacuations. Basically, for fourteen hours straight, you’re crawling through dirt, weaving through obstacle courses, doing a lot of physical training—or PT, as the military calls it. It’s not unlike what Navy SEALs might endure during their BUD/S class, albeit on a lesser scale. The reward for completing Sea Trials is a well-deserved dinner—an Academy picnic with family, classmates, Sea Trials detailers, and senior leadership.
At the end of the day, I was wearing camo fatigues, covered in dirt, absolutely spent. No makeup and my hair looked like it belonged to a dog after a mud bath. My family was there—my mom, dad, even Craig. After hellos and hugs, I gave in to my ravenous hunger and was inhaling a barbecue sandwich when Vice Admiral Rempt once again approached our family.
We rose to our feet, but he motioned us to sit.
“Sir.” He reached over and shook my dad’s hand. “I told you we’d take good care of her, and actually, she’s done a pretty good job of taking care of herself … she’s one tough girl.”
I blushed at the compliment. “Thank you,” I said, covering my mouth in case there was any barbecue in my teeth.
“Excuse me?” the admiral’s wife chimed in, a look of shock on her face. “Is that a fresh manicure?” She pointed to my fingernails, caked in mud, but the polish unmistakably pink underneath the grit.
I really started to blush. “Yes, ma’am. Painted them yesterday.”
She turned to her husband. “Only twenty-two of twenty-eight of their company completed the course today, and Caroline did it without breaking a nail!”
* * *
May 22, 2009; Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis, MD
Sweat dripped down my back and soaked my shirt, tucked into my white polyester dress skirt. Since we were forbidden to wear sunglasses onto the graduation field, I squinted into the blinding sun that caught the sea of crisp white uniforms. We, a class of 1,057 firsties, stood at attention on the sweltering field in the Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief. Four years of the grueling and transformational officer factory known as the United States Naval Academy and we’d come out on the other side.
The stadium was packed, every seat filled with family, friends, and honored guests who awaited President Obama’s arrival. It was only ten o’clock in the morning, but the air was more than hot, it was drinkable, and smelled of booze and sweat from our weeks of celebrating. Many families had saved for four years just for graduation, renting one of the beautiful, historic homes in downtown Annapolis for the week. And as it did every year, the quaint coastal town overflowed with rejoicing firsties and their families, tourists, and Sailor-preppy locals in pink pants and whale belts.
Like everyone alongside me, I’d started my journey as a plebeian, but there I stood, a graduate of one of the most prestigious and challenging universities and a commissioned officer in the United States Navy and Marine Corps. In that moment, sunblock and makeup mingling with the sweat on my forehead and streaming into my eyes, I felt like I’d climbed Everest. Step by painful step, I’d started up an uncertain path, and now I found myself looking out from the summit.
The feeling was exhilarating but fleeting. The Academy was just the start. I knew many far more difficult and dangerous mountains were out there. We all tried to downplay it, but my classmates and I also knew the specter of war was a real possibility for all of us, some of us in planes, some on boats, and some with boots on the ground—or, more accurately, the sand.
After President Obama spoke, we filed on stage one by one and shook his hand. I made my way up the ramp, grinning and gracefully balancing in the two-and-five-eighths-inch Italian heels I’d custom ordered for the occasion. The president had been uncharacteristically formal and somber in this, his first service academy graduation. As instructed, I reached for his hand, but before I could utter the mandatory phrase, my excitement got the best of me. What do I have to lose? I thought. The Academy’s not going to kick me out now.
“Sir,” I said, catching the president’s eye. I pointed to the stands where my parents, Grammy, aunts and uncles, and Craig sat watching. “Will you wave to my family?”
His tight demeanor uncoiled and he laughed in his familiar way, turning to wave at the twenty-five or so now roaring Johnsons.
“Congratulations!” He beamed.
“Thank you, Mister President, sir!”
I exited the stage and Ali clobbered me. “Caroline! We made it!” My best friend smiled.
“Can’t believe you got him to wave to your parents—you’re ridiculous! Now he’s fist-bumping people.”
We braced for the cadence of the three hip-hip hoorays led by our class president. On the last hooray, we exploded toward the sky as one, each throwing our midshipmen hats—our covers—as high as we could as the Blue Angels screamed by in their Delta formation, so low it looked like our covers might hit them. I stared up, mesmerized by the precision and power of the F/A-18s, their pattern as consistent as floor tiles. As the perfect white contrails faded into the atmosphere, I pumped my fist in their direction. “Hell yeah!”
* * *
After graduating from the Naval Academy, many new graduates rushed from the structure and stability provided by Bancroft Hall, aka Mother B, to another potentially mothering institution—marriage.
So every year, the Academy chapel became a veritable nuptial turnstile, booked from two hours post commissioning ceremony for a solid two weeks. With the clockwork precision that marks life at the Academy, ceremonies are conducted fifteen minutes apiece, with fifteen minutes in between to usher one crowd out and another in.
I personally struggled to understand how anyone who’d yet to experience the strange joy of making themselves an omelette, or even waking up alone in their own apartment, would yearn for the added dependency of a spouse as they transitioned into the unknown. I watched as the last days of USNA turned into a game of musical chairs after the music phased out. For some of my classmates, it didn’t really matter who they were dating at the time, when graduation rolled around, they scrambled to the altar to settle down.
But they weren’t all that way. The last event of my graduation week was the wedding of one of my best friends, who was very much in love. The ceremony was quick and sweet, and feeling a bit partied out from the week of festivities, I planned on dancing a little, then sneaking out. Tired as I was, the former Colorado debutante in me could never pass up the chance to get dressed up and whirl around on a shiny floor. The question was, who to dance with?
For four years, I’d been surrounded by hundreds—actually, thousands—of eligible men. Handsome and charming, smart and fit, ambitious and polite. But looking around the reception, the problem was glaringly apparent. I’d grown so close to them that they felt like brothers. Sweaty, drunken brothers at that. Like the proverb says, familiarity breeds contempt, and that was just fine with me. I walked through the doors of the ballroom with my usual guard up and my hair down.
I was dancing in a circle of friends when over by the bar, a man’s torso caught my eye. I don’t make a habit of checking out men, but the oversized chest was impossible to miss. A perfect upper body attached to stick-thin legs. Damn, I thought, inching my way over for a closer look. It’s Channing Tatum’s twin. He was wearing the dark blue jacket of a recently commissioned Marine, and the unapproachable, thousand-yard stare of a combat veteran.
The stare was what placed him for me. He was the bride’s cousin, who I’d met briefly at a house party a few years back.
“What’s your cousin’s problem?” I asked my friend as we left the party later that night. “Never seen anyone’s face so deadpan.”
“Iraq,” she huffed. “He enlisted while he was at VMI. He was in the heat of the firefight in Fallujah and many of his close friends didn’t come home.”
There at the wedding, her words circled back to me as I watched him.
I felt for him, but I couldn’t help but notice how attractive he was. Hot, I thought. But better leave him alone. Still, I couldn’t stop staring at his chiseled upper body and skinny legs. Built like a Minotaur. I smiled to myself.
A few of my classmates, also freshly minted officers, clustered at the bar, and Minotaur stood just beyond them, a beer in hand and detached look on his face. Screw it. I sauntered over, trying to keep cool, my mind spinning with what to say. He gripped a long-necked beer and pretended not to notice me heading closer.
“Having fun yet?” I asked, immediately regretting it, realizing he couldn’t hear my high-pitched voice above the crowd. I nervously tucked my hair behind my ear and tried again, louder this time. “Too early in the night for a Bud Light.”
His eyes shifted to me, squinting, but not in a friendly way.
“Thought Marines preferred hard stuff to start the night.” I carried on. “Not up for it?”
I saw the chink in his armor as he let out a short laugh. “I’ve been here, surrounded by dudes all night … and I finally meet someone from the Academy with a pair of balls.” He put his beer down and held out a hand. “It’s Caroline, right?”
“Two bourbons—neat.” Minotaur signaled the bartender, then turned to me, one muscular arm resting on the bar. “So which one of these dudes staring at me right now is your boyfriend?”
I shook my head. “None of them.”
“Gotta be exes then.”
“Nope.” We clinked glasses. I downed my bourbon and signaled for a second round, catching another grin.
“Then what’s that dude’s problem.” He nodded at my friend Ryan, a newly selected SEAL, leaning against the wall, blatantly glaring. “Looks like he wants to bash my head in.”
It was true. Whenever a new guy approached, my brothers from school instinctively fell into a combo protective/competitive mode.
“He probably does,” I said, sipping my second bourbon slowly. “Better not turn out to be a creep.”
“We’ll see.” Minotaur shrugged, knocking back his drink. “Like to dance?” He offered his hand, knowing I’d take it.
Twirling around the polished wooden surface, the room fell away. We may have been sharing the dance floor with the bride and the groom and dozens of others, but I’m not sure either of us were completely aware of those around us. We danced, silently absorbed in each other. Eventually he introduced me to his sisters and parents, but I barely noticed because right afterward he leaned in and asked, “Wanna get out of here and head somewhere downtown?”
“But your family is here.”
“As much as I love the Cupid Shuffle,” he said, “the stares from your Academy buds are burning holes in my back.”
Strolling the downtown streets alone, in the cool of the night, I could see the Minotaur’s shoulders ease back. He relaxed and with every step, opened up a little more. We talked and laughed, dropping into a few bars. He asked me if I liked cigars (which I do), and we shared one on the dock before he walked me back to the house my parents had rented.
“Come inside for one last drink?”
He gave me an uncertain look. “Your parents are in there?”
“They’re asleep. I have bourbon.”
He laughed, and stepped in. I poured glasses and we sat together on the couch, somewhat awkward now.
“Yeah, I have a mundane desk job until I go to flight school,” I told him.
He nodded. “I hear ya. I’m doing land-nav training at the Marine Corps Basic School, about an hour and a half from here.”
It was almost dawn and we both found ourselves yawning, adrenaline fatigue of a long week.
“Better go,” he said finally, pulling me to him into a tight embrace. “Hope to see ya again, buddy.” He grinned and left.
I wasn’t going to ask if he would call or if we’d see each other again. I knew no matter what, we’d likely meet in Florida, where he’d be training to become a Marine helicopter pilot, and I’d be pursuing my career as a naval flight officer.
After he left, I headed to bed and tried to divert my thoughts from this new boy, the first guy I’d met and liked—really liked—in a long time, and I had the strange feeling he felt the same way about me.
But so what? We’re in the military. Anything can happen. It was only a matter of minutes before I crashed, body and soul, into a deep sleep.
Copyright © 2019 by Caroline Johnson