Marcia Barton Award Winner Non-Fiction

Raphael Davis

The Projection of Power

             I will never forget the sense of awe I had when I first saw the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63).  This behemoth was a marvel of human engineering and military dominance.  “Power projection” is a term used by the Department of Defense, and it is defined as, “The ability of a nation to apply all or some of its elements of national power – political, economic, informational, or military – to rapidly and effectively deploy and sustain forces in and from multiple dispersed locations to respond to crises, to contribute to deterrence, and to enhance regional stability.”  The aircraft carrier was this concept; forged in steel and painted oppressive gray.  Before me was power incarnate, but I didn’t know at the time that the true power held within its massive hull was not military might alone.

When I entered the ship, the first thing I noticed was the smell; a unique and potent combination of the medicine-like smell of a hospital, body odor, steel, jet fuel, and depression.  The second thing I noticed was a chief bellowing at me, shouting something like, “You’re holdin’ up the line, shipmate!  Better move your ass before I move it for you.”  Chiefs run the show in the Navy.  Sure, the officers have prime legal authority, but it’s the chiefs that make sure the job gets done.  I quickly followed the rest of the sailors, herded like cattle (5,000 head!) in to the gloomy interior of the massive vessel.  The 1MC crackled with static, and a voice boomed to every compartment on the ship, “Welcome aboard shipmates, this is your Captain speaking. It is a fine Navy day and the Kitty Hawk will be underway in four hours!”

Endless blue water.  While the ship was on deployment, I would often go up to the flight deck to observe the calm, indigo depths, excited by the occasional schools of flying fish.  I often contemplated the bipolar nature of the ocean and the awesome power it possesses.  One moment the sea could be serene and blue, jovially sparkling with sunlight; the next it becomes gray and moody, and seems to threaten violence to any who disrespect it.  When the storms come, the ocean makes good on its promise, and the ship gets hammered relentlessly.  Like an enormous hand, some of the larger waves crash over ship, the massive fingers reaching fifteen to twenty feet above the flight deck.  A floating city (complete with airport) relegated to a toy at the mercy of an upset child.  On one notable occasion, one of those monster waves tore a steel catwalk from the port side of the ship, and crushed part of the steel bulkhead to which the walkway was attached.  While I was reeling due to the constant pitch and yaw of the ship, I remember thinking how desperately I wanted to be safe and sound on land again.

Most fair-weather days brought flight operations.  This was the true purpose of the Kitty Hawk, when she truly came to life.  One could not help but get a sense of exaltation as he or she witnessed a steam powered catapult launch an F/A-18C Hornet from zero to around 150 miles per hour in just under two seconds.  The resulting bang of the catapult slamming into the end of its track was absolutely deafening; it would rattle the entire ship.  One jet after another would take off and land again, like so many teeth on the gears of some monstrous machine.  The truly impressive thing was the oil that allowed the gears to turn smoothly, and indeed, the very engine that drove the machine was the combined efforts of the sailors on the boat.  Without all of their hard work, the ship and the jets might as well have been scrap metal.

From an outside observer, it might seem like a waste of resources and effort to perform as many flight operations as the Navy does on a day-to-day basis.  To some extent, I tend to agree.  But from the perspective of the shadowy beings in control, not only do these flight operations provide necessary training for pilots, but they also display a strong military presence and national interest.

It is a great game that governments play, this projection of power.  Think of it this way: imagine you were in a hostile prison run by several rival gangs.  In order to establish who is “top dog,” the gangs will usually travel in force and push others around.  They will scowl menacingly, insult and threaten their rivals, and generally make it known that they are not to be trifled with.  Powerful nations do the same thing, but on a much grander scale.  But those of us who are out there doing the job don’t even think about it.  Our biggest concern is that we finish the deployment and return to our loved ones.  That is what motivates us to do the job every day.  It is very lonely out to sea.

To boost morale, the officers on the ship would arrange events for the crew to partake in.  The types of activities tended to vary greatly.  There was the much-despised “mandatory fun days” that often involved a lot of “Navy spirit.”  One such event was the steel beach picnic: a barbeque on the flight deck that was always preceded by a ridiculously long line.  And then, of course, there were the very spectacular displays of military strength.  On one particular occasion of this type, there was an air show arranged to demonstrate the fruits of our collective labor.  We amassed on the steel beach, and we witnessed a show the likes of which most people will never see.  The jets flew by the boat at mach speeds, emitting sonic booms that pierced through the armor of my protective earphones like a sword through flesh.  Live ordinance was dropped and detonated in the ocean, only a mile or so from the ship. The shock waves that rippled from the Harpoon class anti-ship missiles raced towards us and attempted to throw us to the deck.  You might have seen something like it on television, but I tell you, seeing such unimaginable power displayed in front of you is like no other experience on this earth.  And yet, despite the amazing happenings around me, the one thing I kept wishing over and over was that I could share the moment with my fiancé.

On an extremely isolated floating city, communication home was a highly valued commodity.  Since this was a military vessel, most communication lines were used to supply tactical information regarding war fighting capabilities and future objectives.  My job in the Navy was to run the computer systems.  This meant that my co-workers and I could provide those around us with access to the rest of the world.  In some ways, this position made the members of my shop some of the most influential people on the boat.  People would go through great lengths to get that small piece of home, and we often traded our services to the highest bidders.  The cooks would spend extra time at work (and even risk administrative punishment) to make special meals and desserts for the IT department, just so that they could use our computers.  On the down low, there were even officers who would run favors for us, so that they could get elevated network access.  All in all, our lives on the boat were pretty good, especially when compared to the existences lead by most of our, shall we say, less fortunate shipmates.

My three years of service on the “Shitty-Kitty” were over before I knew it.  During the last few months I had left, I did not deploy with the ship.  Instead, I provided support for the shore-based units on our Japanese homeport.  It was early April; the sakura trees were in full bloom, and the weather was absolutely perfect.  I decided to take a trip out to Hakone, a very famous hot springs town near the base of Mount Fuji.  I wandered through the exceptionally beautiful countryside, found a particularly inviting stand of sakura trees, and decided to sit under them for a time.

As I watched the petals of the pink flowers fall into a nearby creek, and felt the sun’s charm warming my face, I started to reflect on my time in the Navy.  I began to have a deep sense of connection with the world I had known, a deep kinship with all the people I had met, and indeed, with life itself.  I am not a religious person, but on that day, I would have not hesitated to declare that there is undoubtedly a higher power at work in our lives.  I felt so small and insignificant when compared to the world I lived in.  And yet, I felt as though I was a vital part of it.  The sense of peace and tranquility of that moment filled my entire being and left me in complete rapture.  I wondered if this might have been the state of nirvana that Prince Siddhartha experienced while meditating under a similar tree.  I nearly wept with the overwhelming beauty and power of the moment.

So, after all my travels and experiences, I ask myself, what is power?  Power is the bone-rattling roar of a 215-pound warhead detonating only a mile away.  Power is the work of the men and women who drive the machinations of an eighty thousand ton aircraft carrier.  Power is their hopes and dreams for a safe return home.  Power is longing for the warm embrace and comfort of loved ones.  Power is life itself.




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