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Location: Stevens Point, Wisconsin, United States

Friday, October 26, 2007

COMING HOME

The first thing you notice after months aboard ship are all the luxuries of daily life ashore, like showering without holding on and going outside to run. Looking out the window and looking in the refrigerator. I've been back a week and the delight in such things has still not worn off. I missed swimming and cycling the most. Thanks, apparently, to global warming, it's still cycling weather here in Wisconsin. Everything has its upside, even the carbon dioxide buildup in our atmosphere.

If you read any comments you've noticed a couple of cowardly self-appointed patriots have been critical of my observations of navy operations and people. I say cowardly because they hide behind pseudonyms while excoriating me for not appreciating military life and it's "sacrifices." It's amusing to read timid loudmouths like these two complain about my writing, published under my name for all to read, including the officers and crew of the USS Cole, whom I invited to do so. None of them found my opinions objectionable. Reading over my writing for the time underway it seems to me I devote about ten percent of my comments to personnel, duties, and behavior. A good deal of that is about the crewmembers who were my students, most of whom did excellent work while fulfilling all of the demands of watches, duty calls, and drills. I salute them again for their efforts and wish them well in their careers.

Most of those careers will not be in the navy. My anecdotal survey of young officers and crew revealed that fewer than half of the officers intended to continue after the years of their required first tours--even those educated at the Naval Academy--while something like eighty percent of the crew intended to leave after their initial four to six years. The reason I heard most often was that enlistment meant payment for college afterward; the very appeal you see made on the recruiting posters. So our military is filled with young people trading years of their lives for college funds, a government program to educate those who couldn't otherwise afford higher education. The Department of Defense is running a huge college scholarship program.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Confused Seas

Saturday, October 13, 2007 08:27
USS Cole - 33°16N 48°45W

It would have been fun, when I went on the bridge this morning, to watch the launch of one of the RIBs to investigate a smoke flare--fired, I presume, from the frigate John L. Hall standing off to our port at the time--except that the launch was more-than-usually slow. When the first “Warrior” proved to have a malfunctioning solenoid the number two was swung into action, slowly, and eventually sped off toward the target.

The decks were drenched and the seas confused after running through a squall earlier this morning. The sun had happily broken through, though, and it felt good on my face. I’ve decided just to excerpt my journals for the final blog entries, so that’s what you’ve been reading for this week.
...jb

Nothing Else Like It

Friday, October 12, 2007 12:26
USS Cole33°15N 041°16W

Storms that had been far off moved south overnight, bringing rain and roughening the seas. The ship has passed into mid-Atlantic time, causing me to wake an hour before reveille—again. The next time-change will be to EDT and we’ll be into U.S. waters, there to linger at sea for the sake of “qualifying” tests and drills. Air temps have risen above 70°F as the Cole wallows through swells up to eight feet. Even planting one’s feet farther apart than normal negotiating the p-ways, one’s passage still has the drunken quality caused by up becoming down within the space of a stride.

Today’s relatively unceremonious commemoration of the small-boat attack on the ship—October 12, 2000—was not memorable, though an interesting example of forced solemnity, with its attendant sentimentality and excess of piety. Playing some country song over the 1-MC seemed to elicit the greatest feeling, at least in the wardroom where I was reading at the time.

I wrote the following piece in response to the question implied by the first sentence, which came up during the discussion of Heidegger yesterday. Perhaps it will occasion some insight.

A reflection on death and life:

“I believe in life after death.” This claim conceals part of its meaning. What is concealed is the recognition that death is the end of life. In order for there to be anything “after,” what is has to end. This awareness of the necessity of a life’s ending, of its coming to a close with death, is uniquely human and carries with it concern for my life. The sense of my own life contains the realization that I must give it up at some point in its course. My life comes to an end. It is this sense of ownership which misleads us. Even if there existed some other condition, some form of existence other than life, it would not diminish the distress of giving up my life. For the conviction that my life is a possession supposes there is a distinction between my actions, my life as led, and me. But there is no such distinction. We are what we do. This life is mine only in the sense that it is completely described by my actions. Otherwise it is a finite but unknown span of days and years. So it cannot be augmented or diminished in any way by anything after it. Insofar as it must remain just the whole of whatever span it proves to be, there can be nothing else like it, or after it.

My brother Bob wrote last night about my mother’s failing condition. I wrote the following for him to read her, in case I never see her again…

I send my thoughts to you mother, to tell you how your love and support have shaped my life and made possible what I’ve made of it. More than anything your curiosity and sense of adventure encouraged me and enabled me to devote my life to search, to study, and to teaching. Your dedication and graceful service have inspired generations now, but your sense of fun and joy in experience have been just as important to me. I cherish the memories of our travels together; as I cherish the good fortune in being your son. Goodbye, mother. I love you. John.

...jb

Saturday, October 13, 2007

When Duty Calls

Thursday, October 11, 2007 08:16
USS Cole - 33°54N 031°15W

Rain at sea. Storm clusters are visible to port and starboard when I come onto the bridge wing this morning. Overnight the ship has turned onto 270° at 33°N instead of the 30° planned a few days ago. Now we have about 40° of latitude to traverse, which will bring us off the U.S. coast for the couple of days of drills that will consume Monday and Tuesday next week. When I come in off the quarterdeck after shaving—now that I’ve run out of the pressurized cream I’ve taken to finding a spot on the weatherdecks to use the electric razor—Palmer meets me in the 1 deck p-way and volunteers brightly, “Five days and counting.” It’s pleasant to find her adopting a more comradely demeanor, ever since the impromptu conversation last week about teaching careers. I’m counting the days now, too.

The short makeup session with one of my Intro students yesterday was a pleasant surprise. He’d reflected on the range of philosophers we’ve read to advance his personal thesis about the “principle questions” addressed by philosophy: the problem of death, the question of meaning, and the possibility of an afterlife. I didn’t dissuade or correct him. It was fun to watch him attempting a philosophical exercise of his own. Unfortunately our conversation was cut short by his being called to duty on his station in CWC, command and weapons control.
...jb

Sunday, October 07, 2007

RAS

Sunday, October 07, 2007 13:02
USS Cole -- 48°58 N 5°13W

On a SW course of 240° the ship this morning was some 49nm N of the island off the coast of Brittany called "L'Ouessant" or "the westerly" [map]. It lies next to the busy shipping lanes used to take maritime traffic E onto the route to the Straits of Gibraltar as well as W out into the Atlantic. Where we're headed now, enroute to another RAS--replenishment at sea--appointment for fuel to take the ship on the remaining eight day journey to Norfolk. It's remarkable that the historically significant enterprise of sailing out of sight of land can, and has, become routine. Even for me. Despite the enormous number of things that have to be done rightly and constantly monitored to sail even a heavily armored warship across the sea, it is in fact much safer--much less likely to involve accident or injury--than driving to the supermarket.
...jb

SMELLS OF YOUTH

Wednesday, October 3, 2007
USS Cole -- Portsmouth, England

The odors of fish and fuel oil. Ports smell the same the world over. It’s the first thing I notice as the tugs work the ship up to "the hard," as the British call a mooring. That smell recalls for me my first seventeen years, growing up in San Pedro--the Port of Los Angeles--and reminds me why I so enjoy the sea. Despite the indignities we’ve visited upon it and regardless of the criticisms that can be rightly leveled at human carelessness, the messy, constantly changing interfaces between humans and the oceans that we call ports are among the places in the world most charged with history and possibility.

Ever notice that the Jews never mention the sea? There they were, living right on the Mediterranean and speaking the language of the Phoenicians--legendary maritime traders from such cities as Sidon and Tyre on the coast of what is now Lebanon—and there’s not a word about it in their treasured histories. Even their creation myth mentions the ocean only as what has to be separated from the sky to make space for land. Evidently their desert heritage was too enshrined in their thinking to allow "the waters" a place, other than as a metaphor for some sort of primordial disorder: "...and darkness was upon the face of the waters," as the panel, convened by James I of England to translate Genesis, decided to phrase it.

Now those others with a heritage as desert dwellers--the adherents of Muhammad and Islam--are some of them threatened by the vast civilization that was spawned by sea-going migration and trade and intent upon threatening it in return. Despite their formidable and efficient use, a thousand years ago, of the oceans of the "center"--the Mediterranean, the Red, the Persian, the Indian--the Arab peoples have completely abandoned the seas. Standing on the bridge wing, overlooking the traffic in Portsmouth harbor, I can’t help but think the way the oceans connect us all will prevail.
...jb

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

New Port; New World

Tuesday, October 02, 2007
USS Cole – Bournemouth, Cherbourg 50°10N 001°50W

I make it to the bridge just before six bells. There’s a mammoth container ship a mile to starboard, it’s great bulk black in the foggy dawn, save for the row of lighted ports along its hull. Through the big, mounted binoculars on the wing I can make out “Evergreen” on its side; it’s making some 25kts. We’ve arrived at the mouth of the English Channel, between Bournemouth and Cherbourg. It’s exciting to read these names on the chart. I feel like arriving in home port, even though I’ve never sailed these waters. A curious atavism of heritage and language.

Awoke reasonably alert about 0530, glad for the good sleep. At the wardroom table I listen to recapitulations of the measures taken during the night with respect to many “contacts” in this crowded sea. I’m looking forward to the day. At long last, we’ve reached the end of the 19th century this semester [in my classes]. There are few things more appealing than talking about the end of absolutes and the origins of Christianity, for the historical facts are sure to undermine most of the students’ comfortable conventions. I’ve been stressing the role of philosophy, since its beginnings, in challenging social and intellectual conventions by asking questions. Unappreciated, even reviled, when they’re asked and explored, the most penetrating of these questions eventually destroy the existing world-picture and create a new language. At long last everyone learns to speak it, giving rise to a new set of conventions. And then, by chance, another philosopher comes along to ask the key question. In the middle of the 19th century, it was Darwin who filled this honorable—but rarely honored—role. The explication of his insight into evolution was more explosive even than the Copernican revolution, for it ended millennia of fantasies about god and dreams of absolute realities. Now humans live in a universe of chance, open as never before to imagination and discovery. Still, most people continue to speak the old language. Nietzsche was the first to notice the time it takes for the majority to receive the news that the world has changed. People are less modern than the times they live in.
...jb

Monday, October 01, 2007

THE CALF OF MAN

Monday, October 01, 2007

A three-quarter moon was halfway up a clear night sky to the northeast. With the lights of Belfast to starboard and slight glimmers from the Calf of Man to port, the ship slid southward through the Irish Sea. I was sorry to find we were making the passage in the dark. I’d hoped for a shot of the Isle of Man—with it’s little SW peninsula called the Calf—which I haven’t seen since 1984, when I visited from London, accompanied by Jon, and we looked up the surviving records of Abraham Bailiff’s arrival, marriage, and fatherhood in the early 19th century. One of his descendants arrived in California in time for the Gold Rush of 1849, eventually to establish a lumber business in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County and to become my great-grandfather, John Delaware.

When I happened upon a Bailiff website in 1999 and learned of a “gathering of the clan” planned for the next year near Nashville, I told my mother about it. She was eager to go. Thus, improbably, I found myself driving her and my brothers to an out-of-the-way resort for a weekend among what proved to be a large number of people to whom we seemed completely unrelated. John Delaware was the only one of four brothers to make it to the West Coast; the others migrated to places like Pennsylvania and Virginia, leaving hundreds of descendants, in sharp contrast to our tiny branch of the family tree. I don’t recommend it, but it was a memorable lesson in genealogy.

This morning we’re driving through choppy seas and thickening fog on course 197°, some fifty kilometers west of Bristol Channel, a light rain being driven onto our bows by the ship’s fifteen knots of headway. “Low visibility detail” had just been called when I arrived on the bridge. The captain was in his chair. A bit earlier at breakfast he mentioned being tired after a night during which he was called upon to make judgments about a the Cole’s transit through many “contacts,” the term for any vessel picked up on ship’s radar, especially those whose direction-of-travel is likely to intersect ours. Standing watch on the port wing the lookout was laughing at the gulls. About a dozen of them hung in the air, “hoping we’re a trawler,” I said. Each was angled into the southeast wind, reliable directional indicators every one, yet keeping pace with the ship by slight adjustments in wing-angle. Remarkable.
...jb

Point of Contention

Sunday, September 30, 2007 18:05
USS ColeAilsa Craig 55°19N 006°10W

I’ve been away from home the entire month of September. It seems far longer, as I told Jane on the phone in Edinburgh. The humor of the junior officers—even the not-so-junior—is becoming stale. I’ve no reason to be dyspeptic, though. I’ve just dined on steak and lobster—albeit the steak tough and dry, the lobster nearly tasteless— complemented by baked potato and sweet corn, and the excess protein affords me great pleasure at the moment. And I have to keep reminding myself that most of the officers aboard are in their 20s, barely past their undergrad training.

Sea and anchor proceeded slowly today, but eventually the ship was eased away from the pier of the sprawling Faslane Royal Navy Base. I watched the process for awhile, then went back below to work on student papers. I napped after lunch to catch up from last night’s fitful sleep. Once you’ve become used to the motion of the sea at night, the comparative stability of the ship when moored seems to become an unconscious irritant. Of course the long travel day in Edinburgh may have contributed.

There was a great deal of tension about the bridge when I went up before dinner, aiming to see Ailsa Craig again. The navigator, actually an ensign in training, was in some sort of conflict with the experienced bridge crew, evidently over the timing of our passage out of the Firth of Clyde and projected time for concluding the maneuver. I was focused on the enormous rock. Even at more than 20kts, the strange outcropping came up very slowly. Finally, Ailsa Craig once again some 1000 meters to port, the USS Cole slid out of Scotland’s waters into the Irish Sea. It will be nearly all of two days before we thread our way into Portsmouth harbor, since we must wait for high tide to enter the mouth of the Thames, as do most ships of significant draft (9.5 meters, in the case of the Cole). At dinner the junior officers were talking excitedly about taking a trip to see Stonehenge. One of them—the young ensign from Spooner—remembered reading the scene in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I mentioned the more ancient megaliths a little further west, but no one asked me any questions about the archeology, let alone discoveries about the construction and use of the 3500 year old site.
...jb