When I was assigned to the USS Coral Sea, an aircraft carrier, it was in the shipyards. After a Navy vessel returns from a deployment, it goes into the shipyards to have any major repairs and refitting done. This process takes one and a half to two years to complete. The first year is in dry dock and it is quite impressive to be able to walk underneath, while viewing propellers with blades the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Afterwards the ship goes out to sea to test the repairs and operational condition of the ship with exercises are called ‘Sea Trials.’ We had many of these, each lasting a couple days to those over a month. During these two years, the ship was a living hell.
We had thirty storerooms that needed to have the rust removed and be repainted. In port, the carrier was alive with shipyard workers, welders and painters, all running their air and power lines throughout the ship, like tangles of gray spaghetti. There was an ozone smell that permeated the air, which was so dark, so thick, you were sure you’d get “black lung” just from walking through it. There were also hoses pumping goo out of dingy holds buried deep inside the leviathan we inhabited. Throbbing pumps, which were placed throughout the crowded passageways, beat heart-like in the steel-clad tunnels. Knots of hoses and cable threaded like ivy, through all of the hallways and stairwells.
The sound of pumps and grinding wheels echoed from everywhere throughout the aging forty-year-old beast. Moving around the ship required lunging through the small hatches, already teaming with wires, cables, and various sizes of hose. Clothing was quickly soiled from all the dirt, grime, and oil clinging to the walls. Hoses rubbing against walls and corners ruptured from the constant wear, spraying living spaces with oil, or human waste.
During one of our many Sea Trials, we sailed off the coast of Cuba in July and had engine problems, which left us dead in the water. Normally the steel of the hull is cool to the touch, but here the water was over eighty degrees and the metal was hot, causing twenty engine crewmembers to be overcome by heat exhaustion. They were literally in a fiery hell, only able to work ten minutes at a time, leaving their stations, then resting for half an hour before going in again.
I spent most of my free time sitting in my bed, my “rack,” reading. The only reason I could sit up was that I had the top bunk, which had no top. As I sat up, my head was in amongst the pipes and wires, but I could read without a problem. This smelly, loud, cramped space was all I could call “my own.” It served as a ‘pleasant’ retreat from the real world, allowing me to escape to new adventures, without leaving the confines of my prison. This was my little piece of heaven in the middle of an ugly hell.