Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Back to the Sea

09 November 2011

For Those Who Came In Late...(or, what Tom has been up to since his last missive, aside from referring to himself in the third-person!)

My last post (in mid-July) detailed USNS Arctic's return from the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea to her homeport of Earle, New Jersey, and my imminent departure from T-AOE 8 after over 5 & 1/2 years service in her (from October 2005).  On 18 July I shouldered my seabag, said 'farewell' to the many Shipmates who came on-deck to wish me well, shook the hands of Captain Hartley and Chief Mate Ivey, and formally "paid off" the ship.  I wouldn't be so melodramatic as to say I wiped away a tear as I caught a last glimpse of the ship from the road as the taxi bore me away to the rail station, but it was a pretty emotional departure for me. 

I left Arctic not because of any antipathy for the ship or her crew; I'd simply been feeling somewhat restless of late, ready for new challenges.  After better than half a decade attached to the same ship, including three overseas deployments and dozens of shorter voyages, I was ready to move on.  There are plenty of ships out there...

Amtrak carried me swiftly to my home in Upstate New York, where Lucy and I enjoyed a sweet reunion after the long separation of deployment, and where I was able to spend a great deal of my accumulated shore leave star-gazing and falling ever more in love with my fascinating and very patient wife.  In fact, my leave lasted over a month and a half, into early September, at which time I packed my gear and reset my thinking into sailor-mode in preparation for a return to the sea.

It isn't quite a direct route, of course.  I drove down from NY to Virginia in my elderly Hyundai, enjoying the scenery and taking my time, and upon arrival checked into MSC's "Customer Service Unit", known colloquially amongst CivMars as "the Pool".  Essentially this facility acts as a sort of union hall, processing a Mariner's paperwork, ensuring his/her qualifications and medical records are in order and up-to-date, and then making assignments.  This can take some time--I have known CivMars to get caught in the CSU's slowly-grinding gearing and end up sitting around (literally) for weeks or even months before their name is called on the PA and they receive their orders.

I was rather more fortunate in September; from arrival at the CSU to receiving orders was slightly less than two weeks.  On September 15, therefore, I was handed a packet of official papers containing my medical record, travel documents, and "go-to" orders...to USNS Arctic!  Yes, nearly two months after leaving 'Polar Bear' permanently I was on my way back to her!

Of course, you CAN refuse orders to a particular ship, but you have to have pretty good reasons why, and it would be unwise to do it too often lest one garner a reputation as a "refusenik", upon which time your options would narrow significantly.  Having departed Arctic in good standing with Captain, officers and crew, and having no beef with the ship or her duties and schedule, I decided to accept my new/old posting in good humor, and made plans to return to duty in T-AOE 8.  For a few months, anyway.

Looking over the travel documents, I was somewhat surprised to find that I had been allotted two day's travel time--plus a considerable cash allowance--to reach a ship moored less than five miles from where I stood!  I was to learn later that Arctic had shifted her operational homeport from Earle to Norfolk back in August, and that for the foreseeable future she would sail from Virginia vice New Jersey.  But why so much money to reach a ship I could have strolled to that afternoon?  I guessed (correctly, as it turned out) that the travel time and funds were based upon an assumption that Arctic was still based in New Jersey, brought this discrepancy to the attention of the CSU clerk who'd issued me my orders, and shortly I was bereft several hundred dollars and ordered to report aboard within 24 hours.  This made more sense to me--had I accepted without question the larger travel allowance I would probably have had to pay it back sooner or later anyway!

Early the following morning, with the same bag on my shoulder, I walked down to Pier 8 in a light fall of rain.  The old, familiar hull rose above me, haze-gray with just a light streaking of running rust; Arctic welcoming me back silently in the dawn, looming in inanimate benediction over her returning son.

Showing my ID to the sleepy pier sentry, and opening my bag for inspection, I felt that old anticipation again.  In all of my boardings over three decades of seafaring there has always been this moment for me, a frission of uncertainty and excitement as I look upon a new vessel and wonder what is to come.  What will this ship be like?  What will be my role in her, and will I measure up to my new duties and responsibilities?  Looking up at my old home at sea I wondered at my emotions...why should there be this feeling when I'm simply returning aboard after a few short months away?  How much could Arctic have changed in so little time?  What could be so different?  Logically, this surge of anticipation made no sense to me.

Logic, as even Mr. Spock will acknowledge, isn't everything.

My return aboard was as much of a surprise to the watch as the orders had been to me..."Epps! You're back!" was an oft-heard refrain for several days after I checked aboard.  A notable pair of exceptions were the Captain and Chief Mate; they didn't seem at all surprised to find my name on the muster list.  Hmmm...I smell a conspiracy.  Perhaps I flatter myself overly, but a Captain can always request a valuable crewmember's return from CSU...  (Down, Ego--Down!)

Logic, be durned; over a month into my second hitch aboard T-AOE 8, and things are indeed different from my last tour of duty in her.  My new billet has a very different set of collateral duties and responsibilities--I am no longer an Unrep Helmsman but a Signalman during Underway Replenishment (UnRep) operations, and I'm gaining a new appreciation of Damage Control procedures as I spin-up as a leader on #4 Fire Party, donning bunker gear, breathing apparatus and thermal imager to track down "hot spots" in smoke-filled compartments, knowledge and skills one hopes fervently never to need. My duties have changed, bringing new challenges, and I am glad of this...to have returned to doing exactly what I had during my previous tour aboard Arctic would have been--well, BORING. And we wouldn't want that, would we?

Some things do remain the same; I have moved back into the same "cube" which I occupied for several years, and once again stand my watches on the bridge at sea and as fire and security patrol inport.  These functions haven't changed (much), and neither has the spectacle of a sunset at sea, or the vista of stars and Milky Way wheeling above the masts as the ship gently yaws on a following sea and dolphins play alongside.  I believe I can live with this.  For a few months.

Mare Est Vita Mea!

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