Pipe the Side

Moments of Transition


It’s over.  The horizon has been reached and the ship is at sea no more.

I will not soon know again the shifting of the deck under my feet on the featureless sea, nor the anticipatory thrill of the lines being cast off to get underway for a new horizon. I will not again hear the roar of full-throated jet engines sandblasting me with hot exhaust and debris as they shoot off of a catapult or the crashing thump of an aircraft’s wheels slamming into the flight deck’s landing area at 120 mph. I will not again soon (if ever) have to tune out the ever-present drone of ventilation and clanging of steel hatches while standing hungry in a chow line or the oddly rough comfort of wrapping up in a wool blanket in my rack at the end of a long day.

I don’t know how I feel about that rightly.

I retired from the United States Navy today (Sept. 22, 2017). I was ceremonially piped over the side at 11:00 a.m. The official discharge date is in nine days on Sept. 30, but the ceremony and all administrative business were concluded today. I simply await now the final seconds on the clock to click to completion.

My ceremony was the Military Aviation Museum in southern Virginia Beach. Somewhat by accident I began my Navy career surrounded by airplanes. I wanted to complete it again surrounded by airplanes. Due to the evolution of digital media technology, I haven’t been part of naval aviation for 15 years…but I have always considered myself an airdale first.

I have a legacy in two other museums. An EP-3E ARIES II signal intelligence aircraft flown by my first squadron, VQ-2 in Rota, Spain, from 1998 – 2000, is on display at the Navy Yard Museum in Washington, D.C. This particular aircraft was flown by VQ-2 when I was a yeoman in the administration department. I also got to work in it a little. I qualified as an Enlisted Aviation Warfare Specialist on it and our regular P-3C Orion aircraft.

The F-14D Tomcat from VF-213 on display at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola is an airframe I turned wrenches on as a green shirt (squadron maintenance Sailor) back from 2000 – 2002. Once I became a Photographer’s Mate I was in VF-213’s reconnaissance camera shop; I worked on the Tomcat’s recon cameras and even the laser targeting systems. I was a flight deck technician.

I miss all that. I always will.

Two airplanes I have a personnel relationship to are on display in museums. That is quite an unusual legacy for a Sailor who was only in naval aviation five years; who started out in in by accident as a yeoman and then became an official part of it in reconnaissance photography maintenance.

But I have a bigger legacy than that. A more important legacy.

I was a teacher for seven of the last ten years. I graduated over 3,000 students (enlisted and officer) from the various courses I taught. My own ideas, ideals, priorities, and policies are out there still, embodied to various degrees by the students I taught…students who will continue to affect the Navy. The ripple effect from the “stone” of my impact on the Navy waters continues outwards in most unusual ways.

Movers come to pack up my house on Monday, and then I spend October in various hotels and friends’ homes while I keep job hunting, hopefully get the house sold…and begin learning to relax.

I don’t feel special anymore. I don’t feel important anymore. I don’t feel worthwhile anymore. I look at my now former shipmates on those flight decks and riding those unforgiving seas and I’m jealous because…

…because like pretty much all those who have stood on the spot I stood on today, I find I hate to leave.

However, there is a precedent for this moment today.

I have, like all who retire (or at least transition out of the military) actually stood on this spot before. Once before we all, all of us, faced the transition and assimilation into a new way of life, a new culture with new rules and great unknowns. We all did it already when we signed on.

That means I can do it again. This time I’m better equipped by experience and past successes to face the moment. I may feel empty and meaningless right now, but I can (and will) change that. It’s just up to me to create the meaning and define myself again, to find a purpose that makes me feel special.

My adventuring is not done; I just have to be more creative about it now. Never again will I be guaranteed adventures just by going to work on the ship in the morning or deploying on a summer day for half a year. I may yet again stand on a pitching deck in an unforgiving sea as the ship strives to catch the horizon…but I will have to find a way to make it happen.

Still, at this moment when the pomp and ceremony are done, the crowds are gone, the goddess Luna looks down on the earth as the night swaths it…this is the moment when it becomes hard. This is the difficult moment because, now suddenly in the quiet, I have start learning to live with just…me. No great mission handed down by the president. No watches or inspections or command PT to order my day anymore; I have to do it myself now.

For something to begin, something must die. Or maybe, “pass on” is a better term here. For Nathanael to emerge anew, ‘the Chief’ must pass on into history. I don’t want to go…but it is time to go. No man or woman is indispensable. John Paul Jones retired, and the Navy went on. Admiral Farragut retired, and the Navy went on. My personal hero, Fleet Admiral Nimitz, retired…and the Navy went on. My legacy…my GREAT legacy…are the younger Sailors I leave in charge of the Navy (officers and enlisted). My influence has been, by virtue of being a teacher and even the co-founder of a Navy-wide training program, been much greater than most Sailors ever get to hope for.

It’s over with. I did. I kept my promise. Now I can just start learning to be…me. No uniform, no rank, no organization bigger than myself to define myself against. Just me defining me.

But I have to say…I have to say these past 20 years were fantastic. My shipmates were fantastic, absolutely fantastic.

And, you know what?

So was I!

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