The USS Carl Vinson rocks!

Let me start by saying that I am way too grown-up to say that something “rocks.”  Mine is a more dignified vocabulary.  Nevertheless, saying that the USS Carl Vinson rocks is the right way to start this post, because I want to discuss my visit to the USS Carl Vinson in the context of America’s youth and, in an ironic, self-referential way, my own youth.  Before I get too deep, though, let me start with a linear narrative about my day, one that I’ll make more than usually girly and detail-free to ensure that I don’t inadvertently say something that is better left unsaid about an important ship that has secrets to keep.

It was sheer dumb luck that my kids and I got to enjoy an extraordinary day aboard the Carl Vinson.  When the Navy League asked for ships’ greeters, I readily volunteered my services.  The Navy League tries to have a greeter for every ship.  The greeter’s job is to go on board, welcome the ship to the port (San Francisco, in this case), and to hand over a wonderful collection of coupons, maps, lists of free services, etc., all with the aim of making the visit as easy and enjoyable as possible for the men and women aboard the ship.  From my point of view, it’s a sinecure.  Navy League representatives gather all informational materials and coupons, bring it to the piers, and arrange clearance for us.  All we have to do is show up and be welcoming.

This year, unlike past years, I was assigned (along with a couple of other Navy League members) to a ship that was anchored in the Bay and that would not be open for visitors.  I had no assurance, therefore, that I would get on the ship.  When I got permission to bring the kids with me, we were told that it was up to the ship whether to take us on board.  I warned the kids that there was about a 50% chance we wouldn’t get on, and made alternate plans, just in case.  I was a little more optimistic when the senior Navy Leaguer assigned to visit the Carl Vinson told me that we’d be boarding with the ship’s original Captain, Richard Martin.  I still didn’t allow myself to get my (or my kids’) hopes up too high.  After all, they might have whisked Captain Martin on board, and left us standing pier-side, waving good-bye.  All I can say is that I did the Navy a disservice in assuming that it would behave so ungraciously.

Things were a bit slow in the morning, and we waited on the pier longer than expected, which was all to the good.  While my kids were restless, I got the opportunity to meet Captain Martin; his lovely and charming wife, Anne; his delightful friends; and the other Navy League people hoping to go aboard.  As I say every year around this time, Navy people are nice people:  well mannered, welcoming and so enthusiastic about all things Navy.  By the time the boat arrived to take Captain Martin, and his family and friends, to the Carl Vinson, there was no question but that we Navy League people would be going there too.

One of the things I always tell my children is that, while I haven’t done anything very interesting with my life, I’ve had the singular good fortune to know interesting people.  In this case, a mere half hour before visiting the Carl Vinson, luck smiled on me and the children, and put us in Captain Martin’s friendly orbit.  He was accorded the most splendid welcome you can imagine when he boarded the ship — and, listening to the stories he and others had to tell, I can understand why.  This is where I interrupt my linear narrative and get to the point about my own youth.

I was a child of the 1960s and 1970s and, more than that, I was a child of San Francisco and Berkeley.  I knew the drill:  the Cold War was a farce, we Americans were bullies, the Russians were people just like us, U.S. imperialism blah blah blah, yadda, yadda, yadda.  With age and experience, I’ve mercifully been blessed with some wisdom, and I’ve learned that the Cold War was not a farce, but was an existential battle between freedom and tyranny; that America was not a bully, but kept as many nations as possible on the side of liberty; and that, while the average Russian Vlad on the street might have been a person just like us, the Soviet leadership was dedicated to putting as many people as possible under the Communist yoke.

The actual facts (not the San Francisco/Berkeley filtered facts) meant that there was nothing cold about the Cold War.  Instead, it was a deadly, and perpetual, cat and mouse game.  While we, snug on our college campuses, sneered at the military, our military fought on the front lines, constantly tweaking the Soviet cat, all the while avoiding a direct confrontation.  Captain Martin, as the first captain of one of ten Nimitz class super carriers, was one of the leading-edge warriors in this fight.  The responsibilities he bore were enormous.  While we now engage our enemies on the ground, in those days, the water was a major battlefield in this covert war, and he shepherded one of our biggest weapons.

The sign reads: Beware of jet blasts, propellers and rotors

Bottom line, when it comes to the USS Carl Vinson’s intersection with my own youth:  I was an ignorant, thoughtless child, who inadvertently gave aid to the enemy simply by refusing to recognize that there was an enemy.  I was fortunate enough, though, to be protected by people who recognized the stakes in this existential war, and who put themselves on the front line.  Lucky, lucky me. And now back to today’s story….

The USS Carl Vinson isn’t a ship that exists only in a glorious Cold War past.  It remains a vital part of America’s arsenal, and its vitality is apparent from the moment one steps on board.  To start with, the ship is huge.  The total crew numbers almost 6,000 men and women (a number that includes the air wing).  Because the ship is not open to the public, we walked onto a ship churning with activity, as sailors and Marines, all of them so very young, lined up for liberty.  To the kids’ (and, yes, my) delight, since we were trailing in the wake of the ship’s top officers, hundreds of them fell silent and stood at attention as we walked by.  For a modern civilian, it’s impressive, to say the least, to witness young people showing this kind of respect to those who, by virtue of age, effort and wisdom, have achieved a high status within an organization.

In no time at all, we found ourselves in the Captain’s quarters.  A lovely and welcome repast was spread on the table in the stateroom (I think it was the stateroom), and Capt. Bruce Lindsey urged us to eat.  I’m embarrassed to say that my kids alone probably gobbled up a quarter of the food before I realized what they were doing, but I’m not surprised that they did.  Aside from the fact that they were hungry (as it took quite a while for us to board the ship), the sandwiches were delicious and the cookies were outstanding.

As we ate, Captain Lindsay gave us a brief and entertaining talk about the ship’s history:  about Carl Vinson himself, a man whose life spanned most of the 20th Century, and who deserves enormous credit for giving us a Navy in the 1930s that was able to help us win a war in the 1940s; about the ship’s missions, including its stellar humanitarian work in Haiti; and about the ship’s crew, a collection of dynamic, hard-working, deeply committed young people who work extraordinarily hard on a ship that has virtually no down-time.

Captains Lindsey & Martin, USS Carl Vinson

Captain Martin then spoke briefly about his years aboard the ship.  He’s a very humble man, despite his high accomplishments.  It says much about him that one of the things he’s most proud of is that he got the ship seaworthy 30 days early and $200,000,000 under budget.  I don’t think things like that happen anymore in today’s world.

After the Captain’s spoke, and after our Navy League representative gave a short, sweet speech welcoming the ship to our fair City, and delivering a painting of the ship coming into the Bay, all of us were offered a tour of the ship.  Yes!  Oh, yes!  But first we needed a pit stop.  Captain Lindsay was gracious enough to allow us to use the restroom (uh, sorry, Navy types:  head) in his own quarters.  My son was impressed.  When he emerged, he couldn’t contain himself:  “That’s a really captainy-y bathroom!”

From the Captain’s quarters, we headed to the bridge, from the bridge to the flight deck, from the flight deck to the Admiral’s briefing room, from the briefing room to the Com. room, and on and on.  I’m not telling what I saw in any detail, in part because I’ll get it wrong, and in part because I don’t want to say anything that I shouldn’t.  I will say, thought, that it was all fascinating and that the crew members we ran into on this tour were helpful, informative, and had such nice manners.  The ship was also in true ship shape, which is a pleasure to the eye.

Oh — about that crew.  They are young.  Just eyeballing them, my guess is that about 70% of those 6,000 crew members are 25 or under.  What amazed me was learning that the person on the bridge handling the rudder (that is, steering this vast, nuclear powered ship) is probably 19 years old.  Think about that:  three years ago, he (or she) was getting a driver’s license; now she (or he) is driving a very big ship.

It’s obvious that our Navy has a tremendous respect for young people.  It believes that they are capable.  It believes that they are intelligent.  It believes that, given the opportunity, they will act responsibly.  It doesn’t coddle them.  It doesn’t flatter them with false praise.  It demands of them their best, and they dig into themselves and discover that they can meet that demand.  These kids are America’s best and brightest because they willingly serve a harsh, but fair, task master, they grow up quickly, and they have the tools to become exemplary citizens, whatever they choose to do with their post-Navy lives.

Blue Angels, as seen from USS Carl Vinson

I want to keep this post away from politics, but I couldn’t help but contrast the young people I saw on board the USS Carl Vinson with these young people.  I’ll say no more.

All it all, it was as lovely a day as one could wish.  The weather was perfect, the people were delightful, and the ship was gorgeous (and surprisingly elegant, for such a utilitarian piece of equipment).  Speaking of my own family, I can say without hesitation that a good time was had by all!

By the way, I’m not the only one who saw a contrast between the military and Occupy Wall Street.  While I observed the two different types of young people drawn to the two different types of activities, Zombie noted that the military was, hands down, the audience favorite.

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Comments

  1. Oldflyer says

    Nice write up Book.   Navy people love showing off their ships, whether the most humble or the mightiest.
    My wife still seethes that our daughters were not afforded some of the opportunities to visit ships at sea as were the sons of fellow Officers.  Different times.
    I asked permission to fly the first woman to transition to Navy jets out to the training carrier in the back seat of our trainer for an orientation.  I was rebuffed quite strongly.  (I am not sure that she really believed that I tried.)  She went on to later serve on that same carrier as part of the ship’s company; and she also commanded a jet squadron (shore based).  Change can come with surprising swiftness.
     

  2. bizcor says

     
    What wonderful opportunity for you and your children. I have only been aboard a carrier one time and it was not for a grand tour but as part of a working party to transfer stores (groceries) from the carrier to our boat (submarine).
     
     
     
    We were in the Mediterranean Ocean and I had been watching the carrier’s activity from afar. There were several ships anchored in the bay. The carrier needed to change its position so they put jets on the flight deck with their exhaust pointing outboard then fired the jet engines in order to move the stern and reposition the ship. It was fascinating to a boy who has loved airplanes of all sizes, shapes, and descriptions ever since he can remember. .
     
     
     
    The next day the COB (Chief of the Boat) asked for volunteers to go on the stores working party and I stepped right up. You bet I would like to go over to the “bird farm”. We stood right next to those jets which the day before had looked like toys on the carrier but up close they were in fact very big. It drove home just how big that ship really was.
     
     
     
    My Navy career was only one enlistment (4 years) but to this day I still get a lump in my throat and puff up with pride when I hear “Anchors Aweigh”. Last year we went to see the Blue Angels perform and my wife witnessed for the first time an excited “boy” in a grown up’s body.
     
     
     
    Yes, those sailors are just kids. I remember giving the old guys (those in their 30’s) a hard time suggesting they had one foot in the grave. I entered the Navy at 19 and left at 24. On the way in I knew everything and when I left I knew I would never know everything. I grew more in those 4 years than I have in any other four years of my adult life. There have been many days since then that a lesson I learned while serving has helped me in some way or another.
     
     
     
    Carry on….
     

  3. NavyOne says

    I just love this. Great write-up!

    I am on various ships monthly and each time I go aboard, I can’t help but to feel a little giddy. Don’t tell anyone, pls.

  4. jj says

    Happened to be present at an interview with John Piano years ago, when he was Exec of the JFK.  After the introductory talk about the flight deck itself, and the ops thereon, including emphasis on how damn dangerous that particular couple of acres of American territory is, somebody asked him what kept him up nights about the ship.  He replied that watching high tempo launch-and-recovery ops, moving the planes around, re-spotting them while simultaneously firing them off, etc., etc. was always scary to watch, but could become positively terrifying when you spent too much time thinking about the fact that: “we’re doing it all with 18 year-old kids!”  Silence for a moment, while the audience reflected a bit on the 18 year-old kids we all knew…
     
    But then, he added, the saving grace for his poor old heart was to remember that 18 year-old kids in the Navy are kind of different than the 18 year-old kids hanging around looking for something to do on a Saturday night.

  5. Oldflyer says

    JJ, and others.   There was a time–in the sixties– when reflecting on the particular   18 year old kids we had aboard ship, and knowing that they literally held your life in their hands as you taxiied onto the cat, could give you a real stomach ache.  Good thing that all Naval Aviators know in their hearts that they are immortal.
    It was my practice as Command Duty Officer in port or at anchor, to make a final late night walk around the ship before turning in for the night.  I am sure the other CDOs did the same.  After the Zumwalt influence infected the Navy, that lonely walk often felt like walking down a dark street in a very bad part of town.  In JFK, the Captain had instituted a supplementary late night security patrol comprised of a Chief Petty Officer for each berthing deck–in addition to the normal security patrols, and fire watches which were made up of those same 18 year olds.  I had to laugh one night when I encountered one of the Chiefs in a very dark part of the ship, and he nervously asked if he could walk with me.  It was an ironic laugh, because  frankly I was very glad to have the company for a short spell.
    It  apparently is a different Navy.  Thank God.

  6. ExAFCrewDog says

    A great read. Thanks. And thank you for your Navy League service.
     
    If I may offer Anecdotes from this Ancient Airman…
     
    During the “Cold War,” there were little known live fire incidents. I was at Forbes AFB ’57 to ’61. Google this: RB-47, Forbes AFB. It wasn’t all cold.
     
    There is a great 10-part TV series (PBS of all places) titled “Carrier.” Like your real life experience, I was deeply impressed by the young age of the crew. I recommend it to everyone.

  7. says

    I don’t have any naval anecdotes to relate, as my family has tended to serve on land (i.e. Army), atlhough I did have an uncle in the Coast Guard. I did attend Fleet Week every year I lived in San Francisco during the mid-80’s. One year I toured Kitty Hawk, and got to ride the flight deck elevator. I also managed to get lost below decks. On another occasion I was touring a guided missile cruiser, and a work party had one of the launchers torn apart. When I asked the petty officer about it, he said “We can fix our stuff at sea; the damn Russians can’t do that!”

    I always thought it amusing that if you mentioned nuclear power to the average Bay Area resident, they’d go into meltdown, but whenever Enterprise sailed into the Bay with its eight reactors, not a peep was heard.

  8. says

     I’ve never been really close to a full-sized modern carrier like the Vinson or the Teddy Roosevelt. The closest I’ve been was some time on the USS Princeton, a WW2 Carrier redone as an LPH, a Landing Platform, Helicopter. Basically a troopship with helos instead of landing craft.

     Of course my service was in the Corps. I went ‘cross the Pacific on an LSD, a Landing Ship, Dock. That wasn’t so bad until they decided we were going to Viet Nam. Funny, they decided they had to put me off the boat in Okinawa because I hadn’t yet turned 18, so I stooged around there and missed the first landings at Da Nang.in February. Then I turned 18 in march and the unit I was in made the landings at Chu Lai on May the seventh, 1965 On the whole I would rather have stayed in Okinawa. There were a lot more girls with low morals there. I used to like that sort of thing. 

  9. 11B40 says

    Greetings:

    I started my career in printing as a civilian with the Navy Publications and Printing Service (NPPS) back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Having spent my military service in the infantry, there was a bit of culture shock dealing with warriors who bring a kitchen and a bunk with them on their way to work. The White Hats, the Senior Chiefs, and especially the Master Chiefs were things to behold.

    While the NPPS was an all-civilian organization, our services to the fleet included training the Navy’s Lithographers (I still have the Navy’s two training manuals in my now very dated printing library.) and inspecting the Navy’s shipboard print shops. In that latter regard, I visited several carriers when they were berthed at Alameda’s then Naval Air Station. (I know, I know, wrapping your mind around berthing at an Air Station may seem a bit oxymoronic, but its their Navy.)

    The young sailors “striking” to become Lithographers were almost always a happy and motivated bunch. While being in port probably had something important to do with that, it’s rare that anyone goes into printing on a lark. Being able to bring them into our plant and expose them to more modern and sophisticated equipment was rewarding. The chiefs and the petty officers were the cat herders and deal makers, “comshaw” being their preferred way to make the Navy work and to hunt the tiger, one must learn the ways of the tiger.

    One time, while I was doing an inspection on the USS Enterprise, the ship was ordered to put to sea almost immediately. The guys in the print shop all seemed, for some reason or other, to want me to go along. They assured me that I would appropriately accommodated befitting my civilian non-rank. I told them that it wasn’t their accommodations I was worried about but the one’s I would have to go to after our return. My sweetheart, I explained, was not one to go for that old “I’m off to sea for Lord knows how long” pitch. The outcome was a mad dash from the bowels of a very large ship up too many ladders and then back down to real dry land.

    Subsequently, the enlightened rulers of the tyrannical minorities of the San Francisco Bay area decided to get into a pissing contest with the Navy over the berthing of a recomissioned battleship within their holy of holies. Now the White Hats, if the liked you, had a way of indirectly passing along information that they probably weren’t supposed to pass along at all. The word was that the Navy was going to reward the area for its malfeasance and slowly but surely, the Bay area was denuded of its naval presence.

    It’s funny how a war or two can change people’s minds.

     

  10. Oldflyer says

    11B40; not long before retirement I got pulled into a joint staff that was to referee a large joint exercise.  The Army component were from 18th Airborne, 82nd Airborne, and 5th Special Forces.  I took a lot of grief over linen table cloths and clean sheets.  My immediate boss was a Marine Colonel, and he and the Army officers were on the verge of war at all times.  I was so glad when that assignment ended.
    Now, the sailors did not live the way you and I described; and in fact before the Navy put a tremendous effort on improving habitability in the 80s and 90s, they lived in some pretty pitiful conditions.  Their habitat  still would not pass muster with most civilians. Actually, on the  Essex class carriers in service until after Viet Nam, the junior officers might live with 18-20 to a bunk room; and of course on all ships the “facilities” are  down the passageway, and very communal.  I often wondered why women were so anxious to go to sea.

  11. Tonestaple says

    I still haven’t finished that Neptunus Lex post that I think I found here – a day in the life of an aircraft carrier – but it’s truly excellent and absolutely fascinating.  The author mentions the youth of those doing dangerous and demanding work several times, how much power is put in the hands of men barely out of their teens.  It’s marvelous that we have such men.

    Oldflyer, please explain “Zumwalt effect.”  You made it sound bad and I am in full ignorance.

  12. Oldflyer says

    Tonestaple
    Admiral Elmo Zumwalt was the Chief of Naval Operations, the ranking officer in the Navy, in the early 1970s. Oddly enough, he was appointed by Richard Nixon.   As it is phrased in Wikipedia, he set out to reduce “racism” and “sexism” in the Navy. He went about this reformation by issuing a plethora of orders, which sowed doubt and confusion throughout the ranks and put commanding officers in near untenable situations.  Mandatory encounter groups and grievance sessions in which officers and petty officers were educated on the new Navy, and the sins of the old, became the order of the day.  A general laxness was seemingly encouraged;  particular in the case of minorities.  Zumwalt may, or may not,  have achieved his goal, but what he is remembered for among career Navy people is a complete undermining of Command authority, and a dramatic breakdown in discipline throughout the fleet.
    Keep in mind that he did this at the height of the Vietnam War protests in the civilian world, as Nixon had escalated the war to bring it to a conclusion.  The Navy was already under duress from war fighting.  There were a large number of disgruntled men in the ranks.  The draft had wound down, but a great  many Sailors were in still in the Navy who had entered only to escape the Army draft. Many were openly anti-military.  It was the worst possible time to create confusion in the chain of command.
    During his tenure there were actual riots aboard ship.  In any other age they would be called mutinies.  There was a near riot during my tenure in the carrier USS John F. Kennedy, CV-67, when a Command Duty Officer was confronted one night by a hostile mob of sailors with some nebulous grievance.  Fortunately, it did not escalate  to the level that was experienced on a Pacific based carrier that actually had to return to port because of loss of control of a portion of the crew.
    So, Officers and senior non-commissioned officers often felt that we were caught in a very bad situation; and not supported at all by higher command. 
    The name Zumwalt is not revered by Navy veterans who experienced his tenure as our Leader.

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