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Feature Story June 12, 2003
 
Gilligan's Gulf
 
Page 3 of 5
 
For the first day or so I had free rein of the ship. I asked them what the ship's role was, and every single one said without a trace of a smile: "Missile Sponge." That is, the Thach was supposed to take the first hit if the fleet was attacked.

Midway through day two I met the dickhead who should have been Edgar's focus of hate: the Executive Officer (XO). I had already become acquainted with his rambling announcements over the 1-MC (the mic that goes throughout the ship). Usually you hear around 20 words max from 1-MC announcements, because every time you get on that thing you wake everyone up. Some of the XO's announcements were so long I thought they would eventually segue into a sing-along, like Captain Hook.

While I was talking to the Master Chief (don't even try to figure out Navy ranks), XO pulled us into his office to ask what I was planning on doing a story about. Of course, I had no plan whatsoever. I might have been in the Navy, but I was still enough of a journalist to have a dependable slack ass on me. As I finally connected "The Voice" with a body, I noticed he looked Sam Elliot-ish minus the mustache. He was the fourth XO the ship had had in last 2 years. That's usually a sign a few of those guys were either corrupt or incompetent. Whatever the reason, it doesn't help morale much. In the middle of XO's talk, the Master Chief and I went off on some silly tangent. And Shithead stopped it with, "I want this conversation to stop right now." He didn't say it scoldingly, just as a statement of fact. I had never heard anyone say that before, but it worked. The Master Chief (a man with at least 20 years in the Navy) immediately looked into his lap like a child who knew he wasn't supposed to do that.

The XO went on to suggest some stories to me. The best of his ideas was a day-in-the-life story on one of their young boatswains (a guy who chips paint, and occasionally ties fancy knots) or their exciting new "12 on, 12 off" system. I had about 5 months left in Navy, and was sufficiently tired of smiling real big and saying "Yesum Masser, that's a fine idea." So I told him that I hadn't heard anything good about the "12 on, 12 off."

He didn't like that. I've noticed this about people like him. They act like nothing can stop them, but can't stand bad news. They can't get mad at you on the spot, because you're just telling the truth. But they always remember, and if you ever fuck up, then they stick it in deep, no Vaseline.

I accepted his suggestion for a "day in the life of a boatswain." Maybe the little paint-chipper could put me on to a real story. The only problem was, a-day-in-a-life stories suck. You have to get up before they get up; you go to sleep after they do. But there I was next morning, watching the boatswain paint that anchor-chain holding thing, whatever it's called, when I looked up and saw that ship heading right at us, and nobody even wondering whether it might be full of Al Qaeda suicide commandos all dressed up in their burial shrouds.

It wasn't just that nobody was taking any precautions. It was worse. Everybody actually went over to the side of the ship closest to the smuggler to get a closer look. Everybody except me, that is. I headed to the far side, making sure I had plenty of film in my camera and extra batteries, in case there was a big boom.

For the rest of my stay on the Thach, I kept asking the guys what the hell was going on when the ship got that close. None of them gave a real answer. I figure it was either because these guys come from San Diego, and don't believe there's such a place as the Gulf, or it was just part of the fatalism that comes with being on a "Missile Sponge." Whatever it was, for the only time in my six years in the Navy I sincerely felt I was in danger.

The ship that was coming at us turned out to be just an ordinary oil smuggler, an old hulk called the MV Queen. By the time I saw her, the Queen was already heading for Iranian waters. The Thach, being faster and more nimble, darted out into her path, forming the "T" that used to be the key to naval strategy. But the MV Queen's crew must not have studied naval history, because they didn't stop like they were supposed to. They just kept coming. When they were about 100 meters from ramming us, we would make a U-turn and almost biblically turn the other brow. Letting a rustbucket like the Queen ram one of America's finest multi-billion dollar pieces of steel and aluminum would not count as a win for the USN. So they kept steaming straight at us, and we kept weaving around them like a slalom skier.


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