May 14, 2017

Un-Mothers Day

So, today is Mother’s Day; a holiday so widely celebrated that it’s easy to forget that there are lots of people who don’t have much to celebrate - the motherless. Statistically speaking, it should come as no surprise to anyone when they meet someone who didn’t have a great mother.  I mean, we’re all keenly aware of stories of terrible mothers - we all grew up with at least one friend who’s mother was just objectively awful.  We’ve heard the news stories and even seen countless examples in public.  And while we quickly and commonly separate fatherhood from simply fathering a child, we are far less likely to do so for mothers.  In fact, it should be no less common and no more difficult to do this for motherhood.  Fertility and suitability for child rearing have no appreciable correlation and it’s high time to stop pretending they do.  More importantly, we all need and benefit from maternalism in our lives, and for far more of us than you might think, the last place we got this from was our biological mothers.

So, on this Mother’s Day, I propose a dual alternative celebration.  First, a celebration of those who survived bad moms and second, a celebration of those mothers who didn’t give birth to those they mother - for if there are heroes to be celebrated today, those seem like the biggest heroes of all.

Bad Moms

Long before the ill-fated Mila Kunis comedy vehicle was even a sparkle in Jon Lucas’ eye, the world has endured terrible mothers.  Historical and modern allegories of these maternal disasters are plentiful, including Jocasta (mother to Oedipus), Madea (not Tyler Perry’s) and Fay Dunaway’s famous biographical turn as Joan Crawford (Mommie Dearest).  But they’re not without more modern and real-life counterparts - including Mama June (Here Comes Honey Boo Boo), Nadya Suleman (Octomom) and my personal favorite, Snooki (Jersey Shore).  The vast majority of us can agree that all of those are examples of irredeemably terrible mothers and yet, when faced with the possibility of a terrible mother closer to home (i.e. connected to us in some way) we are commonly reluctant to make similar judgments. 

So, as you might expect, I count myself in this category - I had a bad mom.  And before the clucking and and “aww”-ing commences, just hear me out.  I don’t think she was an evil person - but from adolescence on, my mother and I didn’t just have a bad relationship, we didn’t have a relationship at all. I was far from a “good” or “easy” kid. I was an atheist growing up in a religious house; a perennial outsider who had trouble locating a spot to fit in even in his own family. I had chronic ADHD back when they just called it “hyperactivity” and I was a tragically late bloomer with an expectedly paralyzing bit of depression and social anxiety to go along with it. To make matters worse, I had a little sister who was about as good as a daughter gets. She was pretty, charming, articulate, popular and widely liked by both adults and her peers.  I know parents have favorites, despite what they might claim; I was an easy second choice (out of two) and I don’t blame my mom for that.

No, what my mom did wasn’t criminal, neglectful or even morally repugnant - it just wasn’t loving… or anything close to it.  My mom tolerated me, and while that might be the best that could be expected under the circumstances, I don’t see any reason to celebrate it - today or otherwise. 

To the Survivors   

I’ve had the chance, over the years, to commiserate with others who have endured similar childhoods.  There is a fraternity in this experience; a shared guilt over not having a “traditional” maternal presence, and today is for us like Valentine’s Day for single people (and yes, I have to endure that one, too).  Growing up without this influence in your life isn’t easy - after all, there are a lot more single moms than single dads, but most people I’ve met who feel this way had a mother around, she just wasn’t doing much mothering.  This is a far more insidious and difficult challenge - because no one feels bad for someone who grew up with both parents in their house, no matter how badly it may have gone.  But there should just as much room in our hearts for those who grow up to be good people without a great mom as we have for those great moms, themselves.  This should also be a holiday for those survivors.

Survivors of bad motherhood have to find comfort in themselves in those weak moments.  They learn to be their own mothers - or even more challenging, to let others in as surrogates, and give that same vulnerability without the security of a biological imperative. As much as I celebrate the challenge of successful single motherhood, I am even more inclined to celebrate those who have accomplished some measure of well-adjusted adulthood without a loving and dedicated mother.  Many of these people go on, notwithstanding my own failures in such regard, to loving relationships and beautiful families - despite the emotional void inevitably left behind by a less-than-great mother. Today belongs to them as much as anyone.

To the Other Mothers

Fertility is never mentioned among the traits that make a great mother.  In fact, the mutual exclusivity of these concepts is as old as time, itself.  In fact, the most commonly mentioned maternal trait - selflessness, is precisely what makes surrogacy possible.  Humans have the extraordinary ability to selflessly love progeny other than our own - and I have had the great good fortune to have been mothered by some of the most amazing women.

To my little sister, who is, without question, the greatest mother I know.  Cindy has raised four of the most intelligent, respectful and well-adjusted kids I have ever even heard of from their generation, let alone met.  But that’s what she’s been up to for the past sixteen or so years.  Before that, and after my own mother had given up on me, she was the proverbial “lady of the house” hosting family events, remembering birthdays and keeping the peace among feuding relatives.  But for Cindy, there wouldn’t even be an extended family connection, and she always makes time for family members in need - almost maniacally. She also had an unwavering belief in me - something my own mother could never manage - even when I didn’t believe in myself.  If that’s not being a mom, I’m not sure what is.

To the many great loves of my past - who were there for me to celebrate my achievements with genuine pride and to carry me through my weakest moments. I have lost a great deal more love than I will ever be able to give back, but what I have gained in return is a true appreciation for the importance of a maternal figure in my life. Also, for the ability to not be swayed by the commonly held misconceptions about men who don’t have a great relationship with their mother. I can’t tell you how immediately I want to get away from someone who thinks that is cogent analysis of my personality. Trust me, if you think having a bad relationship with my mother means we won’t get along, you’re right … that we won’t get along, but it’s got nothing to do with my mother. 

To my close female friends, who are there for me without reservation or qualification.  Those who provide the maternal judgment of my personal life that helps me avoid danger and seek out a great partner.  My own mother was particularly damaging in this respect, and tried to bake in a deep shame into me that took me much longer to shake than it should have.  But without the help of those who truly wanted to see my happy for no other reason than they found me deserving and worthy, I never would have made it this far, and I’ve avoided a great number of disasters, thanks entirely to them.

To the mothers of friends and lovers, many of whom have stepped in during holidays, weddings and other special occasions to offer the kind of love that only a mother can give. I have been an adopted son over and over again - sometimes for years, sometimes for just a moment, and it is sublime each and every time.  Great mothering is, more than anything, unselfish.  

And to anyone I didn’t mention - but who loves me nevertheless, thanks to you more than anyone.  It is quintessentially maternal to toil on with the selfless love of motherhood without the slightest expectation of reciprocation.
* * *

There was a time when the shame and guilt of Mother’s Day would only allow me to scroll through the well-wishes of friends and families for their own mothers and feel sorry for myself and jealous of their happiness.  Gradually, I reached out more and more to the great mothers I knew and sent my regards, and now I can finally celebrate the day for what it means to me and those out there, like me. So, while you’re taking time to pamper and celebrate the mothers in your life, spare a thought for those who don’t have it so good - we’ve got plenty of thanks to give for the very same kind of love… that we got from someone (or someones) who wasn’t our mother, but was/were every bit our mom(s).

Happy Mothers Day.  

Jul 3, 2015

The Alarming and Sudden Exclusivity of the Rainbow

On July 2, outspoken writer Peter Moskovitz published an OpEd on entitled “Why You Should StopWaving the Rainbow Flag on Facebook: Armchair Allies Shouldn’t Co-Opt Gay Pride.”  In an acerbic critique of the widespread “co-opting” of the LGBT “victory flag”, he concluded iconically, “Allies are important to the LGBT community. They’re necessary for progress. But holding up a victory flag without acquiring the battle scars is an empty gesture at best.”  Moskovitz’s piece seemed the inevitable and most prominent feature of a movement towards exclusivity when it comes to disadvantaged or underrepresented social classes, especially regarding joining their celebrations.  I am disgusted and disappointed at this hypocrisy, and if nothing else, this era of change ought to inspire us to greater enlightenment, tolerance and selflessness.

My first critique of Moskovitz’s work was its transparent self-aggrandizement.  Hijacking a national celebration for a platform to show off one’s scars is far from the heady work I would have otherwise expected.  Moskovitz’s story seemed all too common, in fact, really, just too common.  For the precious few who haven’t already heard such a story, this was hardly the medium to insure any real communication – if those folks read at all, they definitely don’t read  And its only rebuttal (save for the ad hominem notes, above) is the real point of the recent celebration – that at some point, it’s become profoundly normal, which makes it ok to for everyone to celebrate the victory over it, because gay rights are now completely mainstream.  It doesn’t mean the problem is “solved” but it does mean that we will celebrate this and future victories nationally, like every pet project the media has us take to (i.e. disaster relief, manhunt, recognizing heroic acts and more). Did the folks in Louisiana get upset when we celebrated Katrina relief efforts?  What about when we celebrated two prison escapees being shot and captured?

Secondarily, vicarious celebration is as American as the 4th of July.  Almost daily, we gather to watch our hometown athletes perform, and speak of their accomplishments with words like “we” and “our.”  We have always yearned to include ourselves in greater things – it is, in large part, the American Way.  We join, we volunteer and we represent.  When we celebrate, we gather – not to exclude, but to include, because the measure of greatest joy ought to be your inability to contain it with only the people directly involved in it, not in the validity of those celebrating.  Moskovitz’s summertime “bah humbug” comes off cranky, at best, and resentful, at worst.  Seeing heterosexuals and lazy people celebrate somehow diminishes your joy?  Get over yourself.  We are a team culture, and every LGBT community member I’ve ever known has been one of the most inviting and accepting people I’ve ever known.  I used to think it came with the territory – perhaps we can get back there. 

My final and most important point is the staggering self-importance of Moskovitz’ “battle scar” recital.  He lists the transgressions against him like a citation for a military award, and then determines that these are the only scars worthy of flying under the world’s most tolerant flag. I say everyone with a rainbow profile picture on Facebook has got a better claim to that flag that Peter does.  At least we know how to share.  The victory of same-sex marriage is not only or even primarily a victory for LGBT rights, it is, much more so, a victory for HUMAN rights.  Each group’s success at achieving these rights and recognitions is individually valuable, but culturally essential.  It is the resulting social momentum that compels the next distressed population to finally take up proverbial arms against the oppression and let their voices be heard.  In short, the real beneficiaries of this victory may not even be known to us, yet - and for that, we should be grateful and excited.

For my part, I carry a separate but equally painful set of scars.  I, like many kids of my generation, was bullied mercilessly because I was a small kid through most of my adolescent and teenage years.  Worse yet, I hid my faith beliefs from friends and family for over 25 years, because it’s only become acceptable in the last year or less to say that you’re an atheist, and not risk public scorn and ridicule.  Because those are my realities, as much as my heterosexuality is, I cheered for the Obergefell decision.  I cheered every corporate dedication and hashtag on Twitter and I cheered the 26 MILLION people who demonstrated their support by painting the most important and public face in their lives with a bright rainbow.  To be certain, I’m not saying my scars are deeper or more painful than those suffered by the LGBT community, but they certainly aren’t any less.

Instead of heartfelt ownership, this movement feels like hipster victim bragging, and something we should leave behind with the hateful legacy of marriage exclusion.  And while I will always believe that no one should hide their true selves, for those LGBT community members, including Mr. Moskovitz, who feel that my own scars, and the equally painful scars of millions of others, don’t warrant our sharing the “rainbowed” joy of the past week, well that’s something you can keep in the closet. #LoveWins #ForEveryone

Nov 2, 2014

What A Throw

A perfect throw and a perfect catch. A perfect moment at STAPLES Center. (Originally published Dec 24, 2007)
There are very few perfect moments in a normal life. To be certain, there are very few perfect moments even in an extraordinary life. Storybook moments, where things happen just as they are supposed to, can often elude us. Good doesn't always triumph over evil, the good guy doesn't always get the girl, and sometimes the princess is just kissing a frog. As we grow older, we become accustomed to the ordinary, the near-miss, and the unjust result, and storybook moments become just that, the stuff of children's stories. And yet, once in a while, without warning, one of these startling moments happens to us, and we become believers once again. 

Athletic competition is a place these moments can often be found, both for participants and spectators. For all the other things that sports can be, they are frequently the opportunity to live vicariously through our finest athletes, and to celebrate their perfection as our own. When one considers the countless variables involved in hitting a home run, throwing a touchdown or sinking a three-point basket, especially in the face of enormous consequence, opposition and improbability - one realizes that perhaps we witness miracles more routinely than we ought to. I have had the enormous good fortune to observe many of these moments and felt the accompanying rush of seeing history made; a combination of both disbelief and the grace of knowing that there are greater things out there than just the ones we can see. As luck would have it, however, I have had comparatively few opportunities to be an active participant in such moments; my cognitive skills have always vastly exceeded their athletic counterparts. But last Tuesday, I played a part in just such a moment, and by similarly good fortune, someone was there to catch it on film. 

I found out about Tyler McKinnon from a business contact, who had previously worked with his mother. Tyler is sixteen years old, and lives in Memphis, Tennessee. He's a tall kid, six foot, six inches, lanky, and from what I hear, used to play a pretty mean game of basketball. He doesn't play anymore. Just over a year ago, Tyler complained to his mother of shoulder pain; nothing out of the ordinary for a high school basketball player. The next day he was headed into St. Jude's Children's Hospital. Tyler was diagnosed with cancer. 

He's currently in L.A. participating in a Phase II drug study. For those of you that don't know, Phase II trials involve only animals and terminal patients. He's here because he doesn't have much time left, not because there's hope for more. He's also the only participant under the age of twenty one. He's two thousand miles from home, living in a corporate apartment with his mother, with no other kids around, treating a disease that he knows will kill him. And he's a basketball fan who has never been to STAPLES Center. 

The business contact that knows Tyler also knows that I'm a cheerleader for the L.A. Clippers (a story for a different time), and he asked me if I could get a couple of tickets for him and his mother. I told him that I could, and told his story to our team director. She subsequently shared the story with representatives from the team, who set up something much better than tickets. On the Saturday before the game, we showed up at Tyler's apartment with a stocking full of Clippers gear, and that was only the start of it. The team set him up with media passes so he could be in the arena to watch warm ups: the basketball team and all the game night entertainment groups. Afterwards he was invited to the floor to take pictures. Michael Smith, Clippers TV Broadcaster came over to say "hi", and Tyler met both teams and took pictures with the Spirit dancers at center court. They set him up with seats in the VIP seating area at the top of Section 101 (if you haven't been to STAPLES Center, these are good seats). The game was exciting, as despite his waning strength, Tyler was enjoying himself well into the fourth quarter. 

One of the seminal moments for the Fan Patrol (the moniker for our merry band of professional cheerleaders), and perhaps the one we're best known for, in each game is the fourth quarter t-shirt toss. Despite the fact that we're throwing out single-sized (extra large), single-color-screened, cheap-at-best t-shirts, people in thousand-dollars seats scream for them as though they're Willy Wonka Golden Tickets. Something about getting something for free in front of 18,000 people just seems to get folks unnaturally excited. Admittedly, I've never had a very good arm for throwing anything: baseballs, footballs, Frisbees, or t-shirts. For three seasons I've been hucking rolled up t-shirts into the STAPLES crowd. And while I've had marginal success distance-wise, I've been about as accurate Rick Ankiel in the 2000 NLCS (look it up). But hope springs eternal, and every fourth quarter I still run out onto the court t-shirts in-hand, spotting deserving fans, and then missing them by at least two sections. 

On Tuesday, I had five shirts in hand, and I knew that I was going to try to throw one up to Tyler, but my arm wasn't feeling great, and I missed my first four by more than usual, two of them ending up in empty aisle-ways (much to the chagrin of surrounding fans). I ran back to center court and looked up to where Tyler was sitting, and pointed right at him. He stood and I found out later that he told his host to move aside because he was "going to catch this one." He had one arm in a sling, so it was going to have to go right to him, there wasn't going to a Randy Moss moment where I could just throw it up near him and hope for the best. I had saved a particularly tightly rolled shirt -- and jogged back to get a running start. 

To be honest, I didn't expect it to go to him, and had internally rehearsed a small speech about "trying to get it close" so all that bunk about believing you can do it has now left my future coaching lexicon. But I ran up and let it fly, making of point of sending it a little higher than I normally do. Much like I had watched one of the dancers send a half court shot towards the basket (, I paused for an impossibly long moment to watch the shirt fly. 

It spun and arced perfectly, and in my mind, I prayed quickly and quietly for a little grace, enough to give this kid a perfect moment, to feel special not because he's dying, but because, out of all these people, this t-shirt was thrown into a crazy, waving crowd and yet, was coming right for him. I watched him put his one available hand up, as it hit his palm, bounced down to his waist, where his mother (standing by his side) helped him gather up his prize. And there it was. . . the perfect throw. I pumped my fist over and over (not noticing the photographer who captured the moment) -- and for all my team spirit, forgot all about the basketball game that was at hand. It was as happy as I have been in as long as I can remember. I trotted off the court, with a huge smile on my face, nearly unable to contain my excitement. 

Ultimately, we lost the game. But it was close and exciting, almost down to the final whistle. After the game, Tyler was again invited down to the court for pictures. Many of us, including my director, were choking back tears the entire time. A few of the dancers could only muster a quick "hello" lest they lose their composure completely. Tyler finished up pictures and had a smile and a hug for everyone that stuck around to say goodbye. He and his group thanked me far too many times -- I tried my best to gracefully accept all of them on behalf of the amazing people that had made it possible. 

It struck me how happy he and his mother seemed. The impending doom had no hold on them -- they were committed to making this time, no matter how little was left, good and full of life and love. It was enough to give anyone who shared time with him, pause and a reason to reflect on their own lives -- and to appreciate all the moments they may take for granted. I assured Tyler that he was welcome anytime as my guest at STAPLES, hugged him one last time, and trotted off the court. 

I sat down in my locker and reflected on the evening. I had worried in the days leading up to that day, that although we were doing something great for this young man, it was hardly enough, when considered against what he was going through. Then I looked down at my phone saw that I had gotten two text messages. One from my coach, which reminded me what Tyler had given to us: "Thank you for bringing Tyler into our lives, I'm going home to hug my kids"; a reminder to find joy in little things every day, and not to worry how they stack up or aggregate, because you never know which will be your last. And one from the business contact who had introduced me to Tyler so many weeks before, a reminder that perfect moments are only really perfect when they are shared: "What a throw!" What a throw, indeed.

Sep 11, 2013

Five Minutes

For five minutes, we thought we were going to end the world.  I took just that long for the cold reality of the 24 intercontinental nuclear weapons we had been blithely driving around the ocean for years to set in.  This world’s peace, one we had long assumed as permanent, seemed a memory we regretted not enjoying for just five minutes longer.  Five minutes underwater.  Five minutes in the dark.  Five minutes with only our well-practiced procedures for guidance and awkward solace.  Five minutes.

September 8, 2001  

I was 27 years old, a Lieutenant on board the fleet ballistic missile submarine, USS Tennessee, and getting underway for what would be my last patrol.  The promise of shore duty and/or law school loomed on the not-too-distant horizon.  The end of a JO ("Junior Officer") tour on a submarine is about as good as it gets for sub duty.  By that time, you've learned just about everything you need to know about the boat, you're in with just about everyone on board, and you've mastered the delicate art of staying out of the way of the crap that seems to endlessly rain down from above.  The “JO” job actually has two parts:  first, you're a watchstander, and second, a division officer - so you spend six hours out of every 18 driving the ship around (or keeping the nuclear power plant from melting down), and in your "spare" time, you're in charge of a whole division of sailors.  But despite being the lesser of the two responsibilities, the division you lead is what really defines you onboard: the Electrical Assistant (EA) has Electrical Division, the Damage Control Assistant (DCA) has the A-Gang, the Assistant Weapons Officer (AWEPS) has the Missile Techs, and so on.  

I was getting underway this time with the division that I had always wanted: Radio.  Which made me the COMMO ("Communications Officer").  There were a lot of reasons I wanted the COMMO gig. First, when my dad was in the Navy, some thirty years earlier, he was a Radioman, and I think we were both secretly hoping that I'd find my way into the radio room (though we had never mentioned it). Second, one of the few things I truly enjoyed about my tour on a missile boat was the strategic communications; the complexity all of the procedures and safeguards surrounding the nuclear weapons on board.  If you've seen Crimson Tide, you know what I'm talking about.  As a mathematician, I enjoyed the puzzle-type nature of the process - all the scenarios and ways to test the rules to their edges. I had, even prior to becoming COMMO, taken to helping draft practice exercises for the wardroom, and had gotten quite crafty at it.  And at long last, for this patrol, the radio room was finally mine.  

But that was where my luck ended.  Even on September 8, this wasn’t an ordinary patrol.  The Tennessee was going to be participating in a global communications exercise (“COMEX”) just after we got underway.  And my chief had wasted no time in recalling the horror stories of previous COMEX: messages at all hours of the night; countless hours sifting through traffic that wouldn’t even apply to us and visions of a harried COMMO just trying to survive it all.  I chestily assured him that I’d be just fine.    

We got underway without incident - and as routine as it had become in the preceding two and a half years, the rush of taking the world's largest submarine to sea was still tangible.  The pending dread of spending nearly 90 days underwater suddenly dissipated with the bustle and anxiety of getting over 18,000 tons of deep-drafting warship out into the Atlantic.  Maneuvering that much metal from the docks of Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base through the intricate waterways of south Georgia and north Florida is the sort of thing which required the focused attention of every man on board.  And after we'd finally gotten the boat far enough out to safely submerge it, there was always still plenty to do.  But, since I knew that once that global COMEX started, sleep would be hard to come by, I was keen on getting as much rest as I could.  So, I snuck off to my stateroom and slept like a baby.  

Between sleep and well-practiced routine, the first 48 hours of the patrol passed quickly and uneventfully, and before I knew it I was awake and in the midst of my first global COMEX.  I settled into the grind and had internally braced myself for the three day onslaught.  But less than 24 hours after it started, and utterly without warning, it was canceled.  My chief noted, it was the first time in his 20 plus years in radio, had ever seen a global COMEX terminated before its completion.  But the surprises and firsts were just getting started. 

It was September 11, 2001, and just as I was heading back to my stateroom flush with the unexpected good fortune of the cancelled exercise, the 1MC (the ship-wide announcing circuit) began to blare "Alert One, Alert One".

* * *

By the time anyone hears about it over the 1MC, many steps have already been taken with a strategic message: its initial receipt by a radioman, its verification by a radio supervisor and the first part of it decoded to tell what kind of message it is.  It's only after all of this when the radio supervisor can call to the ship's Control Room with the recommendation that the Officer of the Deck call away "Alert One" ship-wide.  But just as the procedures for these messages are strictly controlled, so are the procedures surrounding the drills through which the crew masters them.  And the two people who always know about these drills are the Captain and the COMMO.  So, when I heard "Alert One" called away just as the COMEX was cancelled, I thought either the CO had picked a shitty time to run an exercise, or that my radiomen had screwed up the start time for one planned later in the week.  There was, of course, another possibility, but, at that time, it didn't even cross my mind.  

The cancelled exercise had kept me up for most of the previous 24 hours, and I had only stolen an hour of two of sleep in the preceding 36.  So in the middle of the ship's "afternoon" on September 11, I was already fraying around the edges.  I stormed into the Radio Room with my "What the fuck?!" face, but never got the words out of my mouth.  My chief was holding a message from the teletype (not from the laser printer like an exercise message would be) that I recognized immediately to be an actual EAM (Emergency Action Message).  After countless hundreds of exercise versions, there it was, the real thing.  The nation's nuclear machinery had slowly, impossibly, begun to turn, and I was staring at the first bit of it.  My chief noted quietly that it was the first he'd ever seen.  He needed no such assurance from me. 

A submarine is an island, in the purest sense.  There are no televisions, no newspapers and (normally) no commercial radio.  There are no windows, there are no cell phones and certainly no 24 hour news.  So, when the first Emergency Action Message that any of us had ever seen notified us simply that "a plane [had] crashed the World Trade Center" any perspective or visualization was left solely to our imaginations.  Our only real reference was the 1993 World Trade Center bombing - and although that was certainly a calamity, where six had died and over a thousand had been injured - it certainly didn't seem like the kind of thing that would warrant activating the nation's nuclear arsenal.  The few of us who did bother to guess opined that it was just a small plane, like a Cessna, that had accidentally flown into one of the iconic towers.    

The shock of the first "real" message quickly wore off, as they began to come in one after another, each with a small addition to the facts, but only a couple sentences at a time.  Soon, the "plane" become a "passenger aircraft" and soon after, it became a 767.  Not long after that, a second plane had hit the other tower, and yet another was reported having crashed into the Pentagon.  It didn't seem real, even then, and in my mind, I still imagined small planes and few casualties.  I thought of scenes on the evening news, and a few weeping widows and still wondered why they were sending this kind of news via the world’s most secure network.  The U.S. military hadn't been to below DEFCON 4 since the Bay of Pigs.  Even through the entire arms race and Cold War, we had never gotten even halfway to pulling the trigger on our missiles.  But a precious few minutes after the notices of the attacks came, we got word to set DEFCON 3, and things started to get very real very quickly, as the long unused but well oiled machinery of nuclear response had begun to turn in earnest.

* * *

There are a lot of things not to like about how the business of shooting nuclear missiles from submarine is handled.  But the security and redundancy of the process is not one of them.  The infamous launch "keys" that used to hang around the Captain's neck (and as you may have seen in Crimson Tide) were, by that time, locked in a safe in the Missile Control Center; a safe whose combination would only come, encoded, with an execution (launch) order.  Each message is decoded three times independently, once by two officers working together, once by the executive officer and once by the captain. Unless and until they all agree, no message can be acted on.  Messages are authenticated with sealed code keys that are never seen by human eyes, and replaced by the National Command Authority for each patrol.  The officers on board train on message procedures daily when on the boat, and weekly when off of it.  It is safer and more reliable than any process I have come across, or have even heard of, since.  It is designed to be mistake free, and yet to catch any and all mistakes.  It is foolproof.  But that's only from the outside.  On the inside, the process is intense and unforgiving, even during practices.  There are disagreements, arguments and angry references to the governing documents; miscommunications, misunderstandings and sometimes, misinformation.  But in the end it works.  It always works
* * *

One of the procedural steps taken by the young radio operators who sit at the terminal "stacks" in the radio room upon receiving strategic communications is to decode the first few characters.  This to let the processing officer teams know what type of message they'll be handling - since the procedures for each are slightly different.  Speed is essential to the process, and while accuracy can be assured by the processing steps, the speed at which they are performed cannot.  So the small heads up given by the radio operators is invaluable as the seconds tick away. 

I hadn't left the Control Room (the “Con”) or the attached Radio Room for anything other than eating or going to the head (bathroom) since the messages had started coming.  Many of them did not have to do with us, but still required the same diligent procedural attention as if they did.  I wandered out to the Con, where the CO was, by then, also waiting out the message barrage.  The announcing circuit from the radio room suddenly crackled to life and announced to the Con that they were in receipt of yet another valid message. This time, when they announced the code of the message, the room momentarily fell silent, it was one we all knew to be an execution order.  We were launching missiles. The number seemed to hang heavily in the air, and for a moment, the bustle of the Con was replaced by a complete and terrifying silence.  As they closed the announcement by recommending the Officer of the Deck call away "Alert One", the Captain curtly ordered me to get into Radio and find out what was going on.  It was as serious as I had ever seen him, his impenetrable joviality finally laid to waste by the gravity of the moment.  An execution at this point was premature.  We had been trained on how a nuclear attack would escalate, and knew that certain expected precursors were absent.  As I bolted (or at least whatever version of "bolting" I could muster in my then-fatigued state) into Radio, the CO got on the 1MC and spoke to the crew.

"Attention Crew Members of the USS Tennessee, this is the Captain speaking.  Over the past few hours we have been receiving messages which indicate that a number of planes have been flown into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania.  These may be attacks against the United States.  We know very little at this time. . . . We have just received what may be an execution message, which may authorize the release of nuclear weapons.  You have all trained for this, and I expect that you will remain calm and do your duty.  Stand by for further information as it becomes available."

It was difficult to ignore the Captain's announcement, even as I frantically sought to get and decode the "shooter" that had unexpectedly arrived.  I realized that I had never previously assigned a great deal of gravity to my years of training both on and off the boat.  It was a job. And although it was an important job - it was still just a job.  I had learned the procedures, the equipment and the art of it all.  I had gotten proficient and then I had gotten fast.  I sought perfection in the details of my performance, without paying any mind to exactly what it was I was doing.  Here I was, a part of the process which would launch city-destroying destructive power half a world away, and to me, it was of no greater consequence than the burger flipping I had done six or seven years earlier.  

The images of airplanes and buildings that my mind had been trying to piece together without reference were suddenly replaced with images of cities burning and laid to waste, pulled from countless comic books, post-Apocalyptic movies and historic world war footage.  I thought, for the briefest moment what it might be like to come back to a world literally on fire.  But, the paradigm they taught us over and over again while learning how to process these messages was to "get the birds in the air" if at all possible, and my mind snapped back to the task at hand.  After all, there's little use for a gun with a conscience, and that's what we were - just an extension of the gun and trigger, with no more responsibility for the shot than the internal mechanisms of the few sidearms we carried on board.  And I realized, as I placed a piece of paper that could end the world on the small desk in front of me, that I would do my part, without hesitation, just like the firing pin in the gun - and, if there was a way, any way at all, those birds would fly. 

As soon as I saw it, I knew something was wrong.  It was too short; incomplete.  But we hadn't lost communications - there was no reason for a truncated message.  I hoped against hope that the message type had simply been mistakenly decoded.  Before I could finish that thought, the Navigator bolted into the small anteroom between Radio and the Con that was used for strategic message processing just as I put the message on the desk.  His normally friendly demeanor had vanished, and he actually pushed me out of the way to see the message for himself.  Although we knew that two other officers would need to actually decode the message, we wanted to know, we needed to know what was going on.  After all, this was our area of responsibility - the NAV and I were the two people the CO and XO relied upon to know strategic communications forward and backward - and we had never had a more important moment.

In a moment, the NAV and I had decoded the message, determined it was not a "shooter" and handed it over to the two officers who would be doing the "official" processing.  A moment later we were out telling the Captain that we were not, in fact, on the brink of nuclear war, and explaining how the mistaken decoding had occurred.  He waited for the official process to catch up and confirm the conclusion we had come to, and got on the 1MC to tell the crew that although we were not going to launch nuclear weapons, that we all needed to stay ready.  In between the two announcements, the time we had all taken to contemplate the grim reality of just what type of warship we actually were, the time when "reality" took on a whole new meaning for 165 men, and the time when our many of our short lives had passed before our eyes, only five minutes had elapsed.  Five minutes.

Despite the Captain's warning, the collective relief was palpable.  I felt as though someone lifted a fifty pound weight from my shoulders, and a sense of well-being that I had previously reserved only for those joyful days when we pulled back in from sea warmed me from head to toe.  Over the next few hours, the messages kept coming, but seemed anticlimactic at best.  Before we knew it, the messages stopped, the cogs of the world's largest destruction machine ground to a halt, and we were left "steaming and dreaming", "3 knots to nowhere" for another two and a half months with just as many missiles on board as we had left with.

* * * 

A few days after, I learned that two members of the crew had to be relieved from watch after those five minutes, unable to hold themselves together.  One whose wife had given birth to their first child just a few weeks before we had gotten underway, and another who was on his very first patrol, having only joined the Navy a few months earlier.  I can only imagine what was going through their minds as I was busy ruminating on my cold adherence to procedure and imagining the end in the abstract.  They each had something very real to lose, a child and a childhood, respectively; it's little wonder they had a tougher time than I did.  Amidst a sea of steel, rubber and sweat, they had each broken down into tears.  Two men who had been extensively screened and specially selected by the Navy for this duty, both found themselves unable to do their jobs or even remain on their watch stations, when finally faced with the reality of what we all trained to do, every day we were assigned to the boat.  The next day, they returned to their watches, and in a world where normally nothing was off-limits for ridicule, not another word was said.

Over a month later, we took on an a team for a routine inspection.  They brought a bounty of items that traditionally accompanied such a visit to engender themselves to the crew for an otherwise adversarial visit: fresh fruit/vegetables, mail from home, magazines, and, this time, something extra: one VHS videotape - recorded from CNN a month before.  The tape played almost 24 hours a day for a week, in the wardroom, Chief's quarters and crew's mess.  Some watched in groups during meals, others watched alone in their limited free time.  Very little, if anything, was said.  For five minutes we had believed in hundreds of thousands of deaths, cities on fire and a world changed by nuclear war.  The death of thousands and the horrible images of diving suicides, even on our own shores, actually seemed, impossibly and terribly, a relief.  

On the tape, there was over four hours of coverage, but little mention of a call to arms, and no mention at all of the cataclysmic response that had been slowly rolled to readiness behind the scenes.  There was shock and confusion, and a shared sense of vulnerability as the fight had been brought to not only to our front door, but right into our living rooms.  But there was no mention of how a few of us might be ordered to retaliate with a force infinitely more terrifying.  Though only a month old, the footage and commentary seemed historic and disconnected.  

The world often changed while we were away at sea, but we had always been able to catch up upon our return.  This time was different.  It was months before we would even think about home, and yet we knew that the world had changed in a way we would never really be part of.  As well, we knew we had all changed in a way the rest of the world would never really understand.  Before that five minutes, I had never thought of "standing at the precipice" as an overused metaphor.  But I still do today.  Today's generations will mark their lives with a milestone, exactly where they were on 9/11.  A precious few of us will mark it differently.  165 of us couldn't show you on a map but know exactly where they were; 165 of us didn't watch it on TV but will never get the images out of our head; 165 of us only really remember five minutes of that whole day.   

One of the things I remember most clearly was noticing that as the tape of the CNN coverage was played, rewound and played again, over and over, it began to blur and distort, and the sound became muddled; almost like watching it from underwater.

Jun 6, 2010

Killing Herndon - An Open Letter to the President

Dear President Obama,

On the 12th of September, 1857, a 43-year old United States Navy Commander was given leave of his military command to captain the commercial sidewheel steamship SS Central America from Panama to New York.

You see, this famous and vital run was not the sort of trip you trusted to amateurs, and especially not when carrying nearly 600 passengers and 15 tons of gold (worth $2,000,000 back then). So it was common practice for commercial shipping companies to employ military ship captains on these treacherous and important voyages to keep their crews, cargoes and passengers safe. After all, in the 1850’s, sailing through the Caribbean wasn’t a lazy jaunt past resort islands and pleasure cruisers. No, the dangerous waters just below North America were a festering stew of bad weather, vicious piracy, and unmarked shoals - and if you were going to make passage through them, when you looked up on the command deck of the boat, you wanted to see a man in uniform, a Navy man, and if you were fortunate enough, an Annapolis man.

And so it was with the 575 souls aboard the Central America. With the sweltering heat of summer just passed, wealthy travelers and dignitaries eagerly seized the opportunity to accompany one of the largest shipments of gold ever at that point back to New York where it promised untold wealth for the men who had previously sent it from the California coast down to the west side of Panama. Passage with the famous Commander Herndon (having just a few years before completed what was then the most comprehensive exploration of the South American Amazon basin), aboard the luxurious and newly-built Central America, and in the cooling autumn breezes meant that this normally treacherous journey would be as safe, comfortable and incident-free as could be afforded at the time. But after safely reaching, stopping into and subsequently leaving Havana, things took a turn for the worse.

The Central America headed up the American coast, and as luck would have it, a hurricane had a similar trip planned. The crew struggled valiantly, but after a three-day battle with the tropical storm off the coast of South Carolina, the ship was doomed. As it began to succumb, Commander Herndon ordered the women and children to the main deck to begin evacuation. He oversaw as 153 people were loaded into lifeboats and safety, but refused to leave the deck of his ship. The last recorded sighting of him was “in full uniform, standing by the wheelhouse with his hand on the rail, hat off and in his hand and bowed in prayer as the ship gave a lurch and went down.”

Since his tragic and honorable death, the Navy has honored Commander Herndon with two ships named after him, and perhaps most famously, by erecting a 21-foot granite obelisk on the inner Yard of the Naval Academy, just steps from the beloved and world-famous Chapel, that simply bears his name in capital letters: “HERNDON”.

This monument is also the site of a seventy year old tradition at the U.S. Naval Academy, by which the Academy’s freshmen, or “plebes“ mark the completion of, what has been for most of them, the most difficult year of their lives. “Plebe Year” is a year of endless physical, mental and emotional challenges that outside of the other state and federal military academies, has no analog. It is a year of running, shouting, learning, cleaning, studying, working, and enduring. It is, if even measurably, exponentially more difficult than the freshman year of any state college or private school student. It is a sacrifice to prove worthy of brotherhood. No matter how detailed the description, it is inconceivable except to those who have lived through it, and when it is finally completed - it offers an incomparable moment of joy, pride and relief. And to reach this moment the Academy offers up to the freshman class one final challenge - a challenge they have all either seen or heard of, shortly after arriving on campus. According to tradition, the Herndon rock is covered with two hundred pounds of lard, and a blue-rimmed dixie cup (the hat the Plebes wear during their first summer) is taped to the top. The task is simple: take the dixie cup off, and replace it with a combination cover, the hat worn by midshipmen during the rest of their time on the Yard. The only tool they are given? Each other. The one and only time, upperclassmen included, that a midshipmen is ever given the opportunity to (1) wear athletic gear on the stored inner Yard and (2) set foot on the sacred lawn of the same, is for the completion of this monumental assignment.

As you might imagine, it is not easy. Is it is hot, slippery, sweaty and smelly. It is brutal and joyful, marked by moments of ecstasy (as hands reach perilously close the top) and cries of pain (as human pyramids tumble onto the throng below). It is group effort so massive that it nearly has life of its own: speaking with its own voice, in its own language, rising and falling like the chest of a heaving giant, and moving with both the strength and weakness that is composition provides. There are crews standing by with hoses to keep the beast from overheating, cannoneers a short bit away marking each 15 passing minutes in the creature’s short lifespan, and a crowd of mystified, awestruck and horrified onlookers cheering in its life and ultimate demise. It is also not safe. Sending a thousand college freshman in shorts and t-shirts to build a human pyramid on a lard-covered rock with no training and only the barest of instructions is not the sort of thing you do if bumps and bruises are of concern. But it is in those bumps, bruises, scrapes and cuts that the class is truly born. Like the year that precedes it, and the climactic actions of the man whose monument bears it, it teaches that nothing great is easy, and so long as you aspire to greatness, you can expect sacrifices (both big and small) along your way. For me, it meant scrapes down my arms and legs as I was raked down the rock’s north face, a sore neck from having a classmate literally standing on it, and innumerable bruises whose specific origins were lost in my own bliss as we reached the top.

I suspect that though he never lived to see it, that Commander Herndon would be proud to have his name endure as the seminal test of the Academy’s midshipmen; a rite of passage without compare. And I wonder what he would say to Vice Adm. Jeffrey L. Fowler, the Academy’s departing Superintendent, who nearly scrapped the entire ritual, and only ended up eviscerating it (by removing the lard) as his parting shot. I wonder how the storied Commander would look at this 1978 graduate, who after having spent a career aboard nuclear submarines in one of the world’s most dangerous and unforgiving environments, decided to punctuate his political flag-rank career by emasculating one of the Academy’s greatest traditions under the auspices of “safety”. Had Commander Herndon survived that fatal voyage in 1857, I suspect he, too, would have ended up commanding only larger and larger desks, and becoming more gentleman and politician than warrior. But I refuse to believe that he would have run so far afield of his days in command that he would demand that only purposeful and risk-free elements of officer training be retained; ignoring the value of such elements in his own development and perhaps trying to secure a place in a liberal administration who seems ever more bent on sissifying the nation’s armed services. Because I choose to believe Patton’s historic refrain that “old soldiers never die, they simply fade away.” And it makes me wonder if Mr. Fowler was ever a soldier in the first place.

Mr. Fowler’s actions may be consistent with current trends and may simply be a symptom of much larger problem, but that is no excuse and little consolation. Of the many lessons I learned at Annapolis, the most important was that the right thing to do is not always popular with subordinates, peers, superiors or even the public, but it remains the right thing to do - and as an Annapolis man, nothing less would be expected or tolerated from me. As a passenger aboard the Central America I would be counting on the very same to keep me safe, and prior to this incident, I have always felt the Academy’s legacy was similarly safe in the hands of men who walked its hallowed halls themselves. But I cannot fathom the narcissism, shameless self-interest and pomposity it requires to abandon the principal tenets of the institution that raised you in the name of political gain and the false production of one’s own legacy. There was a time that simply placing your name amongst the few men who have had the honor of leading the Academy was enough to mark the career of any officer as successful - apparently that time is passed, and now to be remembered you must change the Academy in some memorable way. It seems that no institution is safe from this Age of Entitlement.

To put it into perspective, Mr. Fowler’s actions have made me feel something I have previously never felt, and that is embarrassed to be a submariner. Of all the terrible surprises in this story, none was worse than finding out Mr. Fowler and I had both served in the same service. In fairness, the sub community has always, in its own way, held itself apart from (and even above) the rest of the fraternity of Naval officers, but I never expected that would come to this. I never expected that our pragmatism and intellectualism would become bastardized, short-sighted and downright stupid. I couldn’t have imagined that the crucible of underwater war-fighting could generate someone so foolishly paternal and mired in political correctness to the point of bald ignorance. I can only hope that the tens of thousands of men who have preceded Mr. Fowler, and the many more that will follow him in the silent service will stand up beside me and let him know that he does not speak for us, he does not represent us, and despite his service, is not welcome amongst us.

If Mr. Fowler expects to convince a group of officers specially selected for their academic aptitude that he has legitimate reasons aside from his own self-aggrandizement for his actions, he’s going to have to try harder than offering up “safety” as his primary motivation. Does he really expect any of us to buy such an argument when there are literally dozens of events on the Yard that produce larger number of small injuries, a greater risk of incident and an even less-tenuous connection to actual Fleet activity? What about varsity sports, intramural Field-ball, formal parades, Leatherneck, Pre-Airborne, Lightweight football open tryouts, running the sea wall, not canceling classes after ice storms, Army Week, March Over, pep rallies, cannoneers, the 40-year-swim, and his beloved Sea Trials (just to name a few)? Are they on the chopping block, too? Or did Jeff get pulled off the rock as a plebe before he could get to the top, and this is his way at getting back at all of us?

In the weeks since I learned of this tragedy, I’ve written and read countless comments and commentary, and I’ve been accused by a few of overreacting. After all, it’s only one ceremony, it’s not as though their tearing down the walls, right? Wrong. This one thing is indicative of what else is happening there, and just one bad enough to finally garner some media attention. It is, quite literally, the tip of the iceberg. We live in a world where the modern iterations of many storied institutions are simply shadows of their predecessors. We ought to be careful to hang on to the ones we can, even when it seems as though doing so will do little to quell the tide.

I am fiercely proud of my Academy experience. Between my degree and commission from USNA and my JD from Stanford Law School, only the former hangs on my office wall. I spent two years as Bill the Goat and believe that I am one of the most ardent and fanatical Navy Football supporters even today (for the record, I’d gladly pay thousands to put that costume on again just one more time). I have an “N” tattooed on my side and hate Notre Dame with a white hot passion that only an Annapolis man could. If given the occasion to explain how I’ve gotten so far in my own life, I never forget to mention that without the Naval Academy, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. And with that, I believe the institution is worth saving. I believe that we should rise up both as a nation of alumni, and simply as a nation and stop this nonsense, before my beloved alma mater becomes East Maryland State University.

Sir, I’ve never asked you for much, and I know you're busy but since you’ve had time to weigh in on the LeBron James free agency, I figure you’ve got time for this. Mr. President, my prescription for saving Navy:

1. Censure Jeff Fowler. Let his farewell tour of the Yard be just that. No promotion, no operational command. Give him two options: retire now with your pension, or retire now without it. The vast majority of his career is worthy of an honorable resignation - but, no matter how many stars you’ve got, unless you’re an actual war hero (e.g. John McCain), you don’t get to kick tradition in the balls and keep on moving up the Chain of Command.

2. Hand Pick the New Superintendent. Only ask him/her one question: will you put the lard back on the Rock? If the first words out of his/her mouth aren’t “Yes, absolutely”, move on.

3. Go See It. Next June (since you’re headed there anyways), take that little trip 30 miles up the road to Annapolis a week early and watch Herndon. To my knowledge, no President has ever witnessed it in person, and I know how you like being first to do things. Once you’ve seen it, write about it. And tell your successor about it. Trust me, you’ll have something to say once you see it - and you'll be glad you saved it.

In closing, let me just say that as men, we are rarely put in a position to really do something, and when we are, we often shrink from the task under the pressure from and obligation to those who got us and keep us there. I cannot imagine the pressure you are under but this is a real opportunity to effect that change you spoke about during your campaign. Of course, this one small thing will not swing the pendulum of legacy for your Presidency one way or another, but it has an air about it that I hope will make it unavoidable, and that is, it is the right thing to do. Because when it comes to killing Herndon, don’t you think that’s the sort of thing we should only do once?


Glenn H. Truitt
USNA ’97