Upon arriving in San Diego five hours later, I had to find my way up to Camp Pendleton. “Just take a cab,” you might say, as though getting a cab from an airport to anywhere in the area should be a piece of cake. I had the same thought. I tossed my sea bag in the trunk, got in the back seat, and told the driver, “Comfort Inn Suites by Camp Pendleton, please.” About an hour later, the cabbie took the Oceanside exit from the highway (whichever highway it was), and the meter read $90. Pulling up to a stop sign, he looked around and asked if I knew where the hotel was. I replied that I did not. He turned left, down a road that clearly led back to the highway. “No, not this way!” I started to say, but it was too late.
The cabbie realized his mistake once he was back on the highway, and pulled over to the side of the road. The meter read $92. Pointing at it, he told me, “Meter says $92. I’m going to have to turn around, but I’ll only charge you $92.” I figured that was fair, and told him as much. By the time we got back to the right exit, the meter read $130. By the time we found the hotel, it read $140. He turned to me and said “It’ll be $100.” I reminded him that he’d told me it was only going to be $92, he insisted that by the time we actually got to the hotel it would have been more like $100. I pointed out that it was his error, not mine, and that he’d taken me half an hour out of the way. I paid, checked in at the hotel, and quickly fell asleep in a real bed. It would be the last time I slept in a real bed for 12 days.
The next morning, I took a cab onto the base (my cabbie was a somewhat attractive, long haired surfer boy,) and waited for the Marines I was meeting up with to finish their pre-deployment formation and brief from the General. Eventually we loaded onto busses and rode from Camp Pendleton to the 32nd street Naval Base. Once there, I milled around the parking lot with the other Marines, waiting for someone to show me which ship I was supposed to board. At one point, an MP came up to me and told me he was sorry, but he was going to have to ask me to leave the area as friends and family weren’t allowed there. I pulled out my DOD badge and told him I was a ship rider. One of the Marines I was with confirmed my story, at which point the MP apologized and walked away.
Eventually I was taken to the ship and shown where I would be sleeping. As a contractor, I was told, I rated an officer’s stateroom but the ship had too many high profile guests so I was going to have to stay with the other less-important riders in “Medical Overflow.” Medical overflow, it turned out, was a relatively spacious room inside the air-locked medical section of the ship, full of double-bunks. I quickly grabbed a top bunk, and stowed my gear. I spent the rest of the morning walking the route I’d been shown on the way to my berthing, taking pictures and watching the frenzy of ship loading. I left the ship several times – for dinner, to stop by the NEX (Navy Exchange) to pick up supplies I’d forgotten to pack, and to take pictures. On one of the picture taking ventures, I was again challenged by someone who thought I wasn’t supposed to be where I was, doing what I was doing. Again I showed my ID, explained I was a ship rider, and was for the most part, left alone.
That night, I slept my first of ten nights on a barely comfortable spring/wire supported mattress on board the USS Peleliu. The next morning, the frenzy of loading the ship was joined by the frenzy of families saying goodbye to their husbands, wives, sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers. At 9am, the order came across the intercom that families must leave the ship in preparation for departure. Once again I was respectfully told to leave. Once again I received a respectful apology. After the families had all left the ship, the Navy and Marine personnel filed up to the flight deck in what seemed to be a fairly formal procession, to line the railings as the ship was slowly guided out of port by tug boats.
Also joining the ship in its departure were a pair of US Coast Guard gun boats, and at least one helicopter circling overhead. Each time another boat passed us as we headed out of the harbor, the Coast Guard gun boat would stop, turn to face the approaching vessel, and wait, guarding us from any potential attack. Eventually, we passed out of the harbor and entered the Pacific Ocean.
About that time, I went up to the wardroom (Officer’s Mess) to have lunch. As I was sitting there eating, I suddenly felt a bit dizzy – or so I thought. I quickly realized it wasn’t my head swaying, it was the ship. We were at sea, now, and the ocean waves were sufficient to rock the ship – gently, but noticeably. Later that night, an announcement came over the intercom warning of heavy swaying as the ship underwent a series of turns. True to word, a few seconds after the announcement, the ship swayed much more strongly than it had been. Despite the heavier swaying just as I was going to bed, I didn’t have any trouble sleeping that night.
The next day, and for most of the voyage, the ship rocked fairly strongly. I took some video from the flight deck, showing just how far the ship tilted from side to side, and even dipped from front to back. Throughout the entire voyage, I never got seasick.
The following ten days progressed very similar to each other. I’d wake up progressively later each day, and go to sleep progressively later. Mid-voyage, the rider sleeping opposite me began snoring, very loudly, all night. One night, I was still awake at 3am. My days were a mix of wandering the ship, working in the Joint Intelligence Center, eating in the wardroom, and talking with other contractors sharing my berthing space. Following are some highlights of the voyage.
• The flight deck. While in port, and while at sea (including during heavy rocking) I was able to walk around the flight deck, as long as flight operations were not underway. No area of the flight deck was off limits. I walked to the very edges of the ship, and looked over the edge to see the ocean passing by beneath us. I walked right up to the helicopters and harriers. I passed by dummy munitions.
• The weather deck. I didn’t find this until near the end of the voyage. The weather deck is on level O7, 4 stories above the flight deck. It is an exterior deck, going around the superstructure of the ship. From it, you can look down to the ocean on one side, and the flight deck on the other. This is the vantage point from which I was able to watch actual flight operations, as the flight deck itself was closed at those times.
• The roof. The roof is level O8, almost at the very top of the ship. I say almost, because the roof had ladders up to platforms containing various radar and other antenna. Besides being the highest accessible vantage point on the ship, it also held two mounted binoculars, which allowed me to view in greater detail some of the other ships in the fleet.
• Helicopter takeoffs and landings. From the weather deck and roof I was able to watch the various helicopters take off and land. I watched small attack choppers, transports, and large gunships.
• Harrier takeoffs and landings. Harriers are small jet fighters, capable of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL). They actually took off down the runway, as it has to be VERY cold out for them to be able to take off vertically. It had rained the night before I saw them take off, so the tiedown points all along the flight deck were filled with water. When the harriers took off, that water all sprayed out behind them, making it look like they were ejecting a great amount of smoke. The landing was equally interesting to watch. The harriers would come in slowly, sometimes off-center. If necessary, they would go *sideways* (yes, an airplane going sideways is a very odd thing to see), then straight down until they came to a bouncing stop on the deck.
• Spotting wildlife. One morning when we were still a day or two out from Hawaii, as I was watching from the flight deck, I saw what looked like a large dragonfly hovering over the water. A few seconds later it flew away from the ship, and just a moment after that I saw some sort of silvery/blue fish swimming near the surface. I grabbed my camera and tried to take a picture but wasn’t fast enough, and wasn’t able to spot any more thereafter.
• Surprisingly good food. The fare in the officer’s mess was the same as was served to the enlisted men, though supposedly higher quality. I ate steak, chicken, pasta, crab legs, baked potatoes, salad, ice cream, cake… I probably ate better the past two weeks, than I normally do at home. And for the low, low price of $8.75/day.
• Pepsi. The vending machines carried mostly Pepsi products (though they also had Coke), and the soda fountain in the Officer’s mess, which I had access to 24x7, served Pepsi. Oh, and the Officer’s mess also had a cappuccino machine that served “Freedom Vanilla Cappuccino.” Yes, really.
• Being called “sir.” I’m not sure if this was a highlight or not, but the Marines I was working with insisted on calling me either “sir,” or “Mr. Shapiro.” Weird.
Finally, ten days after we left San Diego, ten days with almost no internet access (I was barely able to check my email most of the trip), ten days of trying to sleep on an increasingly uncomfortable bunk, ten days of showering in a stall so small I was always touching one wall or the other, we arrived in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Coming into port we passed a number of Navy ships and submarines, and even a Japanese submarine (flying the Rising Sun flag, no less.)
A short walk and $40 cab ride later, I checked in at the Ohana Maile Sky Court hotel two blocks from Waikiki Beach, the only hotel I was able to find from on board the ship that had rooms available at the GSA rate. The hotel lobby, much like many other places in Waikiki, was basically outdoors. Covered, but with no doors. I went up to my room, dropped off my bags and showered, then went down to the activities desk to figure out what I was going to do for the weekend. My top goal was to go SCUBA diving – I’d never been, always wanted to go, and Hawaii was a perfect place to try. Unfortunately the dives on Friday were already sold out, so I had to wait until Saturday afternoon. Friday afternoon, I went on a 4hr bus tour of one corner of the island. Friday night, I went to a gay bar. Ordered a drink, got carded. When the bartender saw when I was born, he said “Wow!” I asked him what he meant by that, he explained, “I hope I look that good when I’m your age.” Woot!
Saturday morning after breakfast, the diving company picked me up from the hotel. The drive apologized and explained that despite telling me the night before that I’d be able to do two dives, because I was the only intro diver in the afternoon group they’d do one deep water dive that I couldn’t partake in, and one shallow water dive. They adjusted the price, slightly to compensate (basically threw in a free underwater camera.) The rest of the divers in the group were either Marines from the fleet I came across with, or marine biologists attending a conference. As we approached the first (deep water) dive site, I spotted some dolphins jumping and spinning a hundred feet or so from the ship. A minute or two later, two swam over to race the boat. By the time we got to the dive site and the Marines all got in the water, though, the dolphins were gone.
While the rest of the group was diving, I jumped in the water to snorkel for a bit, so I could get accustomed to breathing while underwater. Unfortunately the water was too dark and cloudy, and I couldn’t really see anything. Eventually everyone re-surfaced, and we headed off to the second (shallow) site.
The dive instructor got me suited up, had me get in the water, then joined me so we could go over some basic dive skills. A few minutes later we were descending towards the 40 foot deep bottom – later the instructor told me I’d managed to get down to the bottom much faster than most beginners. Woot again! While down there, I saw a whole bunch of corals (mostly LPS and plate corals), fishes, and sea urchins – the long, spiky kind that are very poisonous. Took a bunch of pictures, managed not to drown, and discovered that I breathe way too much while under water – my tank should have lasted at least twice as long as it did. Ah well, next time I’ll try to breathe less.
Saturday night, I ate at La Cucaracha, a highly rated Mexican restaurant native to Oahu. I had, without a doubt, the best Mexican food I’ve had in a long time, perhaps ever. The margaritas were only marginal, though. At least they had a good selection of tequila.
Sunday morning, I woke up at 4:30am to catch a flight home. Because it was a one-way ticket, purchased less than 21 days in advance, and needed to be changeable to adapt to the uncertain schedule of the ship, I was able to get a First Class ticket for the same price as a Coach ticket – needless to say, I chose the First Class ticket. Five hours later I was in LAX, and five hours after that I’ll be landing at Dulles (I’m writing this while en-route from LAX to IAD.)
Two strange coincidences from my trip. The cab driver who drove me from Pearl Harbor to the hotel claims he served aboard the USS Peleliu when he was in the Navy. He claims he delivered the first baby born aboard a US vessel, the child of a Taiwanese refugee the Peleliu picked up while at sea. He asked where the fleet was headed. Separately, the guy sitting next to me on the flight into LAX claims to work for Navy Air Command, yet works on contracts the US has with the Chinese Government. He seemed to know quite a bit about the types of aircraft the Peleliu carries, and also asked where the fleet was headed. That information, while not classified, is certainly sensitive. I wonder if these were just coincidences, or part of some greater scheme.
In all, I filled the 256mb memory card from my camera more than twice over, in addition to the pictures I took from my phone and from the dive camera. I read through five books, and should have brought at least one or two more with me. I came home with souvenirs from the ship (a hat and a glass mug) and from Hawaii (a shot glass, and gifts for various friends.)
This trip was my first time west of the California / Oregon / Washington coast, my first time on board a Navy vessel while at sea, my first time to Hawaii, my first time SCUBA diving, my first time offline and out of touch with my friends and family for this long, my first time being out of town for this long since 1997. This has been a trip of many firsts for me, and one I’ll always remember. As uncertain as I was before the trip, as much as I dreaded getting into something I had no idea how I was going to handle, I’m glad I volunteered for the job. It’s been a great time, and I’d love to do it again, but all the same, I’ll be glad to be home.
(written on plane, posted after I got home)