Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Which Way to Go --- III


Thank God, the pay and benefits got better by 1980.

We last left our blogger being told by his recruiter, as they walked out of the ASVAB test center, that he was eligible for the Navy's officer program and, moreover, someone would be waiting at the recruiting station to talk to him about this option. Our blogger, being ignorant of officer candidate school, was intrigued and excited as he headed back to the recruiting station, located at the junction of Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse, in a not-so-beautiful section of the Bronx.

I was genuinely surprised that I was a potential candidate for the Navy's officer program. It didn't take me long to figure out that given the two options in front of me, which were: 1. going into the Navy as an enlisted man, or 2. going in as an officer, that the latter would likely be far more challenging, interesting, and far more likely lead to something interesting after I completed my four year obligation. So I was primed for this officer thing, though not at all
familiar with what was going to be required of me. I was also somewhat surprised that the system kicked over the way it did, i.e. the recruiter I had been dealing with had a sure thing in taking me into the nuclear power program as an enlisted recruit so it didn't seem to me that he gained anything by pushing me up to the officer program. In fact he didn't gain anything, unless he officer recruiter in question slipped him something for his time and trouble (later, after having to go through being an officer recruiter for a year, I found that this was a common practice --- it was often the only way the enlisted recruiter got anything out pushing someone over to the officer side of the house.) There are two possibilities here:

1. The recruiter himself felt it was the right thing to do and called an officer recruiter with the particulars on me. That's not outside the realm of possibility as I later did see recruiters do that. That said, for some recruiters making their monthly goal was what concerned them, as far as the potential recruit was concerned Caveat Emptor.

2. Talking to the chief at "oh dark thirty" on the day of the ASVAB may have swayed the decision to get in touch with the officer recruiters. He did show surprise at my background and he may have told the recruiter to get in touch with the officer recruiters as this would likely happen at some point along the way anyway.

Whatever the reason, the fickle finger of fate had turned in my direction and at this point there was no reason to question why. We arrived at the recruiting station and sure enough, there are
two guys waiting to talk to me. Both of them were in dress whites, one of them an officer, a Lieutenant (LT), the other a relatively senior (a yeoman first class, or E-6 --- the military's enlisted system goes from E-1, the lowest rank, to E-9) enlisted man who was a number of years older than the LT. It was close to noon so the LT offers to buy me a hot dog for lunch and recommends we go for a walk to discuss my options.

LT basically worked on selling me on the idea that the officer program was the better option for me to take. At this point selling me on the officer program didn't take much selling; I had made my mind up about a minute after I realized that these guys wanted me. Next I'm told that I should come down to the officer recruiting office at 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan to take the officer test, which wasn't a problem as far as I was concerned given how many tests I had taken to this point. So I scheduled to go down the next day.

Taking the test the next morning wasn't at "oh dark thirty", thankfully. I found myself working through two tests, a generalized officer qualification test and one for pilots that basically tested spatial abilities. They took a total of about an hour and a half to do, and the results were determined within ten minutes of my completing them. I was good to go as far as the testing was concerned, to include being eligible for the aviation programs though I was later to find out, and it came as no surprise, that my vision had to be corrected to 20/20 which therefore meant that I couldn't be a pilot.

With having tested myself in the LT's attitude toward me became very serious, and the first thing he wants to push is my going into the officer nuclear power program. This I was very leery about doing. Admiral Rickover still ran the program and I knew enough to know that all nuclear candidates culminated their entrance process with an interview with Rickover, a man who didn't exactly have a positive reputation when it came to conducting interviews. I figured I could survive that, but I wasn't sure if I could sufficiently bone up on my physics and math prior to the other interviews and testing that happened before getting to Rickover. My problem with this was that I was never a natural when it came to physics and math, and the idea of having to bone up on both, when I was in this process vice at graduate school because I was fed up with studying, didn't hold very many positive possibilities in my mind. The LT recommended I take a two-day trip to Groton where potential candidates see the sub base there, go through the facilities, meet some nuclear-trained officers, basically get a two-day dog and pony show to try and induce them into joining the program.

The trip to Groton was interesting inasmuch as this was the first time I had ever been on a naval base, much less one dedicated to submarines. Groton at this point was pretty much the east coast's center for nuclear attack submarines. Such submarines were to be found in Norfolk and Portsmouth, NH, but nowhere near in the numbers found at Groton. I can't remember too terribly much about the visit to the base, though I do remember going through the damage control trainer used to teach submariners to deal with various types of casualties that they might see at sea. There are basically three issues of note when it comes to catastrophes at sea: explosions, fire, and flooding. This trainer taught sailors how to patch pipes that were ruptured in some way, either at the flange or due to a hole of some sort unexpectedly developing in the pipe. The experience is memorable because you're soaking wet from head to toe when it's all done, and you have some idea of how terrifying dealing with something like this must be when you're hundreds of feet below the ocean.

The Groton trip was interesting, and on some level fun, but I walked away from it telling myself that I'd never cut the things I needed to do to get into the program, especially the extra time the whole process would eat up; I wanted to get started, and the thought of having to work through extra studying to get going didn't appeal to me. So I opted for the general unrestricted line program, which in my case meant I'd be going in as a surface line officer, those daunting and glamorous few who work on surface ships - ok, a bit of hyperbole, the thing for me at this point was a four year job and an opportunity to see things I hadn't seen before; I'd get all that and more in my time ahead.

For a number of years after I made my decision I often asked myself if I had shortchanged myself on this, should I have pushed myself into the nuclear power program? There's a definite mystique and even glamour for me when it comes to submarines and the idea of harnessing nuclear power to move around the world. But I'm pretty sure I didn't have the right mindset to go into this --- I was definitely a school burn out by the time I left college and I barely had the patience to make it through the schooling at OCS, I can't imagine how I would have chaffed and likely under-performed in the nuclear power training pipeline which is, without a doubt, quite rigorous. On the whole I look at it now consider it just one of those things you look back and chalk up to one of life's roads not traveled; there are only so many choices you can make, and all you can do is make the best of those you do make.

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