It was June of 1996 when I arrived in Rota. The Spanish sun was bright as I stepped off the creaky military aircraft, and I realized that this day would hold a lot of firsts for me. Today, I was going to meet my ship.
This was the day for which I had been preparing for the last year; U.S. Navy boot camp in Chicago, followed by engineering common core, (a school designed to teach us young recruits about the basics of engineering, like, how to turn a valve), then a class A school in San Diego where the curriculum taught how to create machinery parts out of metal stock using a lathe and mill, and where I learned how to stick a twenty in my sock in Tijuana to pay off the crooked cops. That whirlwind of confused order was designed to prepare me for this experience, this day, when I begin to earn the title that the United States government has given me. Today when I set foot on the ship, I will earn the name Sailor.
After twelve hours of being cramped up in the suffocating small cabin of the plane, suffering through the tiny, dry in-flight meals, and two movies that I could neither see clearly through the array of heads in my line of sight, or hear through the headphones that did not fit properly on my head, I was relieved to be out in the fresh air again. But my reprise was short lived, as the airport staff soon herded us into the airport to collect our baggage. Only one bag for me, the Navy seabag, packed tight with everything that I owned in the world, except what was boxed up at my parents house in Montana. I reached down and grabbed my seabag, and hefted it up to my shoulders. As I turned around, a stocky Hispanic man with thick glasses and tight black hair wearing Navy dungarees asked me, “You fireman Buys?” he asked. “Yes”, I replied, “Fireman Recruit Buys.” A broad grin stretched out across his face as he laughed and said, “Ok, Fireman Recruit Buys, I’m Petty Officer Garcia. Welcome aboard, and follow me.”
Why was he welcoming me aboard, I wondered, I’m not on the ship yet. I brushed my trivial concerns behind me and followed him to his plain white government issue van. We had only a short drive until we stopped in a gravel parking lot in front of a long concrete pier. I hauled out my seabag and followed Petty Officer Garcia up the pier. It smelled of salt water and fuel, the breeze light on my skin. It was then that I got my first good look at the ship I would be calling home for the next few years. Haze gray paint covered the hull of the oiler named USS Platte. The ship was smaller, and less impressive than I thought it would be. Still, it was a good sized ship, approximately two football fields long. The first two thirds of the ship were dominated by seven kingposts, metal towers bearing large black hoses. The last third was split; half was the house, at the top of which was the bridge. At the aft end of the ship was a small flight deck, large enough for one helicopter.
As Petty Officer Garcia led me up the metal brow, I pulled out my military ID. At the top of the brow I reached the quarter deck. Before stepping foot on the metal deck, I faced the American Flag, stood at attention for a moment to pay respect. Then I turned to the officer of the deck, stood at attention and presented my ID. “Permission to come aboard.” I requested. “Very well.” Came the reply. I then set foot on the deck of the ship, a sailor at last. Yes, it was very well indeed.