At twenty you decide it’s time to get away from your life. You join the Navy, with hopes to become a journalist, to travel and write stories and live an exotic life, full of adventure and success.
They—that is the recruiters—tell you all you have to do is ask them—that is, your company commanders—that you want to be a journalist. And your company commanders tell you that they—that is, whomever you meet at the base wherever you get stationed—will help you become one.
It doesn’t work like that, of course, but it’s very easy to believe the lies you’re told in the military, especially when you’re young and know nothing of the way the world works, only that living at home and working at a grocery store is not a fulfilling life. So you get away, follow the trail of lies and find yourself on the other side of the country, safe from your past and scared of your present and completely unsure what you will become.
You are 3,000 miles from home and you will get money for college when your contract is up. Two years is nothing (and it turns out that is the one truth). This will put you on your path—whatever that path might be. They tell you that since you won’t be staying in, since you can’t become the journalist you wanted to be, you need to have a chevron on your arm instead of those three diagonal stripes. You’ll make more money. You’ll get more respect. The two years will be even better. There is a need for hull technicians. It’s easy to become one. Study this book and take a test. You’ll make more money. You’ll get that chevron.
But, the thing is, you don’t care about plumbing or insulation. The book they gave you makes no sense. It’s full of diagrams, mostly cross-sections of pipes. Everyone who sees you reading the book calls you a turd chaser, and you wonder if this is why there is a shortage of hull technicians.
You fail the test.
After much comforting and reassurance, you find that this is okay. It’s okay to not make more money or gain more respect, because the two years are already going by quickly. You get transferred around the base. You stand guard of your base in your dress blues and a .38 strapped to your waist. During your middle-of-the-night watches, you take the bullets out of the gun and try to stand them on end.
You get transferred to a tugboat that guides ships from harbor to port. You make friends and the three of you sun yourselves on those long moves. You attach a paper cup to a stick and catch jellyfish.
You get transferred to another department and install a database system on a computer and track the work of others. Your superiors flirt with you and you wonder if you’re supposed to ignore or acknowledge them.
After much asking, and much paperwork, you get transferred to public relations and you write articles about shipyard workers and Navy retirees. You escort journalists and television reporters around base. You celebrate your first publication in the eight page newsletter with a bottle of Cold Duck.
This is your service—two years of asking and listening and doing. You’ve worn your uniform and saluted flags and people and have seen nothing of your world except this grungy shipyard town with its bars and tattoo parlors. You are given your papers and you pack up your uniforms and you enter the world.
More than twenty years later, on Veterans Day, you have a paid holiday. You’ve done nothing to earn it, but a day off is wasted if you sit around and do nothing. You cross things off your invisible list of household chores. You unclog the bathroom sink.
You buy a big, red plumber’s wrench. You need no books or diagrams. Unscrew this, and that part of the pipe is disconnected from that part. Look inside. If there’s nothing to keep the water from draining, repeat the process until the pipe is fully disassembled and the obstruction is found.
You find it: a gray, slimy mass. Bits of hair and skin shed and decayed and mixed with drain water. You reassemble pipes, hoping you’re doing it correctly, thinking: you could have learned this long ago. You could have done this for a living, on ships that sailed around the world, bound for exotic places.