Friday, March 6, 2009

A Matter of Confidence

A very short story

He arrived late to the bridge from his confidence building session. He was sweating and breathless from running up five decks of ladderwells to the pilot house where he and five other junior officers would keep lookout and issue simulated orders to the helmsmen. The seniormost of them would evaluate their performance and also be there in the even of an actual attack, enemy sighting or word to sail from the Commodore. Another of the officers was responsible for issuing orders to the quartermasters, for every simulated rudder and engine order must be accompanied by pennants to alert the moored battlegroup. The series of flags and pennants were always preceded by the 'code' pennant to distinguish the simulated alerts from genuine sailing and battle alerts. From the old roads, now endless parade boulevards, one could watch the flags dancing up and down the halyards like paper mill wheels. And yet another officer translated all the activity into coded transmissions and broadcast them over the red phone, taking care not to step on the incoming transmissions of the fleet's simulated events.

They hadn't been to sea in years and yet they hadn't been busier. No fewer than two of the junior officers would be scanning the horizon of the channel for their entire five hour watch for ships that were just as unlikely to appear as they were to leave their welded moorings. After the fuel became expensive, then rare, and then after the barges stopped coming alongside altogether, the mooring lines were replaced with chains like with the retired ships on static display downtown at the sailing museum. Then, the chains were welded to the ships and piers to better secure the ships during storms. They were required to continue training, however, for the day when the fuel would again be released. It was, they were told by their chains of command, only a matter of confidence. Were the American people simply able to muster enough confidence, to behave in the market with enough confidence, that would lower the price of fuel and the ships would sail again. As vanguards, as standard bearers, Naval Officers were expected to instill this confidence. And so they continued to stand watch. They stood more watches now than they had at sea and in foreign ports. The crew paced the top decks with rifles, they scanned the horizon, they monitored the plant status even though it hadn't been turned on in over two years. The entire fleet was perpetually in cold irons. They inspected bilges and missile and gun racks. They busted rust and kept their men swabbing decks. They remained always on the ready and they went to their confidence building sessions.

As fuel prices rose, they remembered sacrificing first in the galley and wardroom, then in their workcenters. As fuel took more of the Suppo's budget, there was less for cleaning supplies and paper and sheets for the men's racks. When it finally ran out, they were all put on indefinite duty as they could no longer drive to work. Senior officers were allowed to stay in the barracks; Lieutenants and below stayed on the ship. Their crew had grown during those days. Personnel weren't allowed to transfer any more and the Navy had continued to recruit, increased recruiting quotas in fact. And their crew had grown from 350 to well over 600. The men were hotracking, which wasn't difficult on account of all the extra watches. Every ship that was on active duty was manned this way, and every ship was on active duty. The Navy had even brought back from the retired rosters the old battleships and training dummies. When he'd first been commissioned and reported to his ship, at any given time at least half the fleet would be out to sea. Now, they all sat in the harbor. They were chain-moored three and four outboard of each other down the long row of piers.