Rota

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.