My college roommate came to town recently and handed me a letter I’d written him years ago as I sailed west across the Pacific Ocean. It was an unhappy, sardonic letter—which probably describes every word I wrote during my two years in the navy, aside from the notes telling my parents I was fine.
My naval experience is something I rarely talk about, or much care to think about, although the places I saw, the cast of characters I met, and the quasi-captivity I thought I was enduring constitute a trove of seed corn I’ve drawn from ever since. But it isn’t pleasant to revisit immaturity. When I washed out of officers’ school, the navy sent me out to the fleet to finish my hitch. I landed on the deck force of an ammunition ship, chipped paint for a few days, and then got a desk job shuffling papers in the office of the first lieutenant, the officer in charge of the deck force.
The belly of our ship, the USS Mauna Kea, bulged with bombs and missiles, all addressed Hanoi. I hadn’t been on board long when I received a glamorous second assignment: they gave me a .45 and a clip and I stood four-hour watches at the entry to the “special weapons” hold. These were the weapons above and beyond. Only a small, elite group of crewmen could enter that hold under any circumstances, and I was to allow absolutely no one to go in alone. I understood “special weapons” to mean tactical atomic weapons, although I don’t think anyone explicitly said so. Maybe I was guarding nothing more lethal than napalm.