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An Aircraft Carrier Is An Idea
They say an aircraft carrier is a floating city. There are offices, gyms, stores, and a barbershop. Some even have a Starbucks, complete with a barista who gets paid a lot more than the sailors to serve coffee only slightly better than what the Navy provides for free. In the literal sense, they’re right – an aircraft carrier is a floating city.
But cities are beacons of peace. Aircraft carriers are instruments of war.
A more appropriate metaphor is an idea. An aircraft carrier, 146,000 tons of steel and firepower, is the ultimate expression of liberty, freedom, and honor — a reminder to the entire world that we will defend those ideals, anywhere in the world, within 24 hours. It’s also the idea that young men and women can self-transcend through service. That they can leave behind their past to become more. It was the idea of an aircraft carrier that he felt as he rushed through the ship’s insides.
The haze grey metal muted all other colors. Grey walls. Grey floors. Grey ceilings. Grey hatches. The only other color was the fluorescent yellow of the lights overhead, desaturated to grey as it collided with the steel. If he wasn’t careful, the knee knockers, those metal frames every ten feet that were just the right height to take out his shins, would blend into the grey. Even the other sailors, a bouquet of red, yellow, green, and white shirts, all faded to grey in here. He hurried past it all. He wanted to run away; he was afraid to keep the Captain waiting.
Why am I being called up to the Captain’s quarters, only 90 minutes after flying from home? What could I possibly have done wrong already?
43 knee knockers later the wave of grey gave way to Navy blue tiles.
As he slowed down, he smelled himself – a mixture of jet fuel, sweat, and the lingering smell of home. The Navy blue tiles were the same color as his son’s crib. What were they doing at home right now? Does my son realize I’m not there? Does he miss me? How is my wife doing being alone with the baby for the first time? Four hours ago they had dropped him off at the hanger, and now he was already lost.
“Welcome to the ship’s tower.”
The Captain’s booming voice cut through his thoughts like a foghorn. No words came to him. He was overwhelmed by the colors – the Fruit Loop sailors’ shirts on the flight deck, the yellow sunlight mixing with the aquamarine ocean at the edge of the world. They blinded his eyes. Right in front of him stood a red, white, and blue bobblehead status of the Gipper, the ship’s namesake. And next to that was a giant smile on top of a green flight suit. What am I doing here?
“Have you ever been up here?”
He gulped. Should I admit I don’t remember? Is it better to say no, even if that is kind of a lie? He didn’t have a chance to answer.
“One day you could have all this. If you want it. More than anything you have to want this life. Not the glamor or the respect – those are great– but the responsibility at the heart of honor. The responsibility that comes with commanding one of only 11 Aircraft Carriers we have, one of only 15 in the world, and the men and women who sail her. The honor part comes from owning that responsibility to guarantee freedom. Peace through power projection. Knowing that your sailors, your family, and your country trust absolutely in your character. They trust you to defend the ideals we’ve sworn to, against all threats. To make sure that this idea of democracy – bigger than a man or institution, but the ideal – still rings true. When you’re taking this ship into danger, into a fight, you’re upholding the ideals that brought us here.
“It’s not easy. You’ll have to master your weapon. In doing so, you’ll master yourself. Where your friends are dreaming about calling it quits and slacking off on the last rep of the day, you can’t. You’ll need a monk-like devotion and a spiritual love for this job. For failing every time you get out there so that you succeed when it really matters. When you’re so attuned to your aircraft that you’re no longer looking at the instruments, but flying from the seat of your pants and your instincts are telling you what to do before the instruments could even pick up the changes you’re sensing. You’ll need to learn to trust yourself because you’ve seen God in the plane and found Truth out here at sea.
At the same time, you’ll become a leader. Not a manager, someone who can dot every i and cross every t, but a leader. You’re going to have to learn how to inspire men and women to do things they never imagined, and how to hold them accountable when they don’t meet that inspiration. It’s going to hurt and you’ll doubt yourself every step of the way, but you can never let them see you doubt. They must have absolute faith in you. As the responsibility increases, you’ll be asked to understand the world with a faith in the rules, until you discard them with the intuition of a master who understands the good we can do without them. Until one day your time will come, and you’ll know that you did good in the world.
If you can do all that – to the best of your ability – then you’ll earn the right to apply for the rarest of rare: Commanding Officer, CVN. It’s the greatest job in the world, the last vestige of the days of Master and Commander when great men and women could bend the course of history. Where kairos still mattered. It’s the culmination of a lifetime of mastery. The greatest honor I can imagine.
How does that sound to you?”
“Sir, why are you telling me all this?”
“Just answer the question.”
“It sounds great sir.”
“Good. Report here tomorrow at 0600 hours. Your training begins now.”