Sunday, December 28, 2008

My Guru and His Disciple

It's impossible for me to overstate the importance of Christopher Isherwood's spiritual memoir, My Guru and His Disciple, to my own spiritual development.

I read it in late 1998, after my reawakening and the birth of my daughter. At that point, it immediately became the third book in what I then considered to be my spiritual canon, along with Autobiography of a Yogi, and The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.

While Autobiography inspired me to look for a guru and take up the spiritual life, and The Gospel inflamed my spiritual desire to its peak, Isherwood's loving and critical look back at his own guru, his own "Center," and his own spiritual life was instrumental in my ability to critically understand my Center years and to understand them in context.

Isherwood was born in England and educated at Cambridge. In 1939, he emigrated to the United States to avoid being drafted at home. While living in Germany during the 1930s, Isherwood had fallen in love with a young German named Heinz. He couldn't bear the thought of facing Heinz on the battlefield and sought to avoid such a confrontation by seeking work in America.

When he arrived in Los Angeles, Isherwood didn't believe in God, at least not the white-haired old man ruling from a golden throne in heaven, the one praised by "crosstians" and who apparently could not stand a certain segment of His own creation known as homosexuals. Then he met his guru.

Isherwood's guru was Swami Prabhavananda, of the Ramakrishna Order. Swami Prabhavananda was, in turn, a direct disciple of Swami Brahmananda, the first president of the Ramakrishna Order and one of Sri Ramakrishna's closest disciples. A friend of Isherwood's pressed him to meet Swami Prabhavananda, so he did, though Isherwood didn't have very high expectations for the meeting.

Isherwood had just one serious question to ask the swami and if "his answer was unsatisfactory to me, there would be no point in our ever seeing each other again." "In essence it was: Can I lead a spiritual life as long as I'm having a sexual relationship with a young man?" The swami answered correctly.

"You must try to see him as the young Lord Krishna," Swami Prabhavananda said.

As Isherwood later recalled, what convinced him that he could become the swami's pupil was that the swami "hadn't shown the least shadow of distaste on hearing me admit to my homosexuality." Thus began Isherwood's 35-plus years as the swami's disciple, which is the subject of his spiritual masterwork.

My Guru and His Disciple is an antidote to the good-intentioned evil of hagiography. As put so succinctly in its Wikipedia entry, hagiography has become a pejorative term for biographies and histories written about saints and religious figures that are uncritical of their subjects or even reverential in tone. While it's understandable why a disciple might want to write only flattering things about his or her guru, to shade the truth or lie by omission is a huge disservice, particularly to later seekers who will never have the opportunity to meet the guru in person.

The result of hagiography is to turn the guru into a perfect being, someone who descended out of the clouds and crapped sandalwood. While such holy figures may inspire awe in beginners, they become totally unreachable as human beings and thus have little utility to most seekers who have progressed beyond the beginner's stage.

I'm reminded of this so often when I read the facile criticism of modern gurus -- my own included -- in which critics hold up past masters like Sri Ramakrishna or Swami Yogananda as paragons of modern ethical behaviour and then argue such moral rectitude is evidence (1) of the spiritual attainment of those past masters and (2) of the spiritual depravity of the modern guru who displays various petty human qualities like fear, insecurity, or other acts of small mindedness. If only they had a true picture of the human personalities of such past masters, then they wouldn't be so quick to judge the human frailties of the modern gurus.

That's why Isherwood's book is so refreshing. He tells it like it is -- about himself, his own guru, and his guru's spiritual organization. All three are better for it. I love, for example, the following diary entry Isherwood made:

May 22 [1974]. Swami talked about Ramakrishna and Girish Ghosh. They once had a competition to find out which of them knew the bigger number of risque words. (It was amusing to hear this corny French adjective pop up out of Swami's vocabulary.) After they had both said all the risque words they knew, Girish bowed down and told Ramakrishna, "You are my guru in this also."

What a great anecdote. It means more to me as a seeker than any recounting of Thakur spending days in samadhi or going into ecstasy. But imagine, for just a moment, what would happen if a YouTube video hit the Internet showing the "supposed" holy man -- thinking he was alone with just his intimate disciples -- sitting in his room at Dakshineswar spitting out the most vile cuss words, to the hysterical laughter of his inner circle. A public relations nightmare -- and thus the understandable inclination of the hagiographic whitewash. It's too bad.

Isherwood's book hides nothing. His intellectual rigour -- his sincerity -- was deeply moving to me at a time when I found myself trying to integrate and synthesize my own memories of disciple life, my new found spiritual life, and my burgeoning intellectual development. Isherwood showed the way.

I envy those who have yet to discover My Guru and His Disciple. How I wish I could read it again for the first time.

Drawing above is of Christopher Isherwood by Don Bachardy.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Growing Family

In December 1997, I completed my undergraduate degree, and because I had gone to school full-time over both summers, I was on track to finish my graduate degree just a few months later.

Before that final graduation from the Monterey Institute, however, I had an interesting experience at the local shopping mall. While walking behind a young couple and their five or six year old daughter, it occurred to me that having another child would be nice.

At that point (in early 1998), Elaine and I had not discussed having another child. Sean was about four at the time and until then, I had thought that one child was enough. My focus was on finishing up school and then getting a career of some kind started. Having more children had been the last thing on my mind.

And yet, that's what I was thinking as I watched that little girl walking along with her parents at the mall. Later that week, Elaine told me that she was pregnant -- the baby was due in November 1998.

The news of Elaine's pregnancy was the last blow to my long dying dream of becoming a spy. The blow fell softly though; over the previous few years, and certainly since my re-awakening, I had begun to realize that my path in life lay elsewhere.

So, with my graduation from the Monterey Institute in late May 1998, I began looking for a job with benefits that would permit us to remain living on the Monterey Peninsula. With luck, I landed a position at a local college textbook publisher as a project manager of sorts in its editorial department. It was located just a ten-minute walk from our apartment.

The pay there was abysmal -- especially considering my looming student loans -- but it provided us with health insurance, great working conditions, and the people were very nice to work with. And because I could walk back and forth to work each day, I was able to continue with the spiritual practice I had started about a year earlier. I had been secretly chanting the seed sounds, to which practice I attributed some new experiences I had been having.

In the hour or so just before waking up in the morning -- when my conscious mind began to register sensory data but would remain asleep for another hour or so if left undisturbed -- I began to feel a circular buzzing sensation in different parts of my body. One morning it was at the base of my throat, the next morning in my chest or throat or navel or groin -- the very areas I had been concentrating on while chanting each day.

The "buzzing" felt sort of like that sensation one gets when one's leg falls asleep. You know, when you adjust it and the circulation begins again? It feels like its buzzing kind of. But the sensation I felt wasn't uncomfortable at all. It was also localized in one area (sometimes two) and it seemed to be spinning very quickly. Laying in bed, I'd immediately become aware of the motion and silently observe it for the minute or so that the experience lasted.

The only other noticeable effect on my consciousness which I attributed to my chanting was a more varied dream life. Until then, I had never been very conscious of my dream life. Typically, I slept pretty hard and even those few dreams that I remembered were pretty mundane. As I've written before, I was never prone to visions.

By the time I had graduated and began working at the publishing company, however, that had changed. I was having more dreams -- often vivid ones -- and I was remembering them. Some of them I remember even now with a thrill. In one, for example, I found myself sitting in the basement meditation room of the old San Francisco Center with Guru and Swami Yogananda. In another dream, I was alone with Sri Ramakrishna in his room at Dakshineswar. We were sitting next to each other, cross-legged. How magical it was to sit with Thakur, our knees touching one another.

In late October 1998, though, with just a few weeks until our second child was due, I dreamt of a vibrant and intense little girl, with long curly hair. It was thrilling to see her. And though Elaine and I had purposefully kept ourselves in the dark about our new baby's sex, when I awoke I knew that I had dreamt of our daughter.

Erin was born about a week later.

That's Nirbachita, me and Jeevan, above, at my graduation from the Monterey Institute in May 1998.

Re-Awakening

I loved my time at the Monterey Institute.

Part of that, of course, was the loose structure of student life. In almost four years in the Navy, I shaved every weekday and not only never missed a day of work, but was never even late for a day of work. The pace of student life was just much more relaxed. As a bonus, I loved what I was studying: international trade, national security issues, economics. My mind was like a sponge in the way it soaked up information.

That summer (1996), I began studying Japanese at the Institute's summer language intensive -- five days a week of full-time Japanese immersion. I loved that, too, though the pace of instruction was brisk. From that point forward, language studies were an integral part of my coursework through the following fall and into the New Year.

I spent my second summer (1997) at the Institute just as I had my first: at the summer Japanese language intensive. As I had been doing for the past year, I memorized Kanji characters from flash cards as I walked over the hill to and from school each day. My only respite from study came at lunch time, when I got the chance to hit the gym and let my mind relax.

After working out, but before heading back to school, I usually stopped at a local deli -- Troia's Market -- for lunch. It was there, that summer, that I experienced a re-awakening.

I had just gotten my sandwich and stepped outside. As I began walking back to school, I felt a solid wall of joy permeating my consciousness. It seemed to emanate from my heart, forehead, and my surroundings at the same time.

Joy, perhaps, isn't the most precise description of what I felt that afternoon. Joy suggests happiness and what I felt that day was not mere happiness. Maybe bliss is a better word for it. In short, the flame had been re-kindled.

I've written before about how the psychic flame that had dominated my life in the Center had become like a pilot light thereafter -- always noticeable if I focused upon it, but never giving off any heat. Well, on that summer afternoon, to continue the metaphor, it was as if someone had turned up the gas. The pilot light did its job, the gas was ignited, and I felt warm.

What would this mean for my life going forward though?

My first inclination was to begin feeding the flame through meditation, and in that regard, I reverted back to the only meditation technique I'd ever known: meditating on Guru's photograph. I didn't have one though, so I dug through some old boxes until I found one of the few books by Guru that I still possessed. I flipped to the back inside pages, found Guru's picture there, and cut it out.

Then, for a few minutes before bed each night, I mentally prostrated myself before Guru and offered the burning flame of gratitude in my heart. The act was profound only in its simplicity.

I also began reacquainting myself with the spiritual classics of my youth: Swami Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi and M's The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. In fact, I ordered cassette tapes from the Vedanta Society of modern recordings of the same Bengali devotional songs once sung to and by Sri Ramakrishna himself. And on the weekends, I'd get up before dawn and meditate on the rocks at Lovers' Point in Pacific Grove. Once, I even meditated under a tree in a graveyard.

I was desperately seeking a new practice, but nothing I did was satisfactory until I began doing walking meditations. Guru had begun walking meditations in the last few years of my discipleship -- in the late 1980s or so. He'd be seated and we, the disciples, would form two lines -- boys and girls, respectively -- and then walk past him, sometimes many times, in a slow shuffle.

I don't know if the thought had occurred to me back then, but walking meditation forced the meditator to maintain some connection with the world. That innovation -- forcing the meditator to remain conscious of and be able to navigate his or her surroundings -- was significant. In terms of the ideas expressed in my post about Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, walking meditation seems to permit one to engage the properties of the right hemisphere of the brain, while still maintaining some connection with the logical, grounded left hemisphere of the brain.

In any event, at the time of my re-awakening, I wasn't in the Center and didn't have Guru to walk by. Instead, I developed my own practice and meditated upon myself as I walked to and from school each day. The technique I developed for myself turned out to be as powerful as it was simple: I began softly chanting the seed sounds or native mantras for each of the seven chakras, up and down the spine, in a circuit as I walked. (I've addressed some of these terms previously.)

I would begin at the crown of the head. Technically, some dispute whether or not the crown center is actually a chakra and I know of no seed sound for it, but Guru has suggested chanting "Supreme," his preferred term for the Divine. I always felt partial to the Indian term "Brahman" and chanted that instead. I chanted audibly, but just barely so. There was usually nobody around to hear me, but I didn't want to look like a nut.

For that first chakra, I pitched my voice low. Guru has said that the chakras are associated with the musical scale and I tried to account for this in my chanting.

Stepping up a note, I'd then focus upon my forehead and chant "Aum." Then with a higher pitch still, I'd focus on the base of my throat and chant "Ham" (with the "a" sounding like "ah"). Then on my heart center, I'd chant "Yam." Next, I'd focus on my belly button and chant "Ram." Then the groin, chanting "Vam." Finally, with a high pitched quiet voice like a pristine bell, I'd chant "Lam" while focused upon the base of my spine. Having descended the chakra ladder, I'd then climb back up, chanting each of the seed sounds again.

Like that, I'd complete two or three circuits on my morning walk to school each day. I'd then repeat the process on the way home after classes. Among other things, this new practice forced me, in a natural and spontaneous way, to incorporate the sensory world into my spiritual practice. It also had the side effect of getting me spiritually blitzed.

The final act of this synthetic movement was my weaning away from Guru's picture.

While my daily practice then consisted almost solely of chanting the seed sounds as I walked to and from school each day, for months after my re-awakening I continued to meditate upon Guru's picture each night before bed for a few minutes. The meditation consisted of nothing other than gratitude. I'd reflect upon the newly awakened flame within my heart and offer it silently to my Guru with gratitude.

As meaningful as the process was, however, looking at Guru's picture each night began to feel like a psychological crutch. It occurred to me that it was time to stand up on my own. It was with some trepidation, then, that I slid Guru's picture into a book for safekeeping after one last grateful bow.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Into Balance

I'm intrigued by the experience of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, which she presents in this video. If you haven't watched it, do take the time. It's about 20 minutes long, but you'll think about it for the rest of the day and beyond.

Dr. Bolte Taylor is a neuroanatomist who suffered from a massive stroke on the left side of her brain in 1996. Surprisingly, she found that the stroke opened her up to an entirely different -- and blissful -- experience of existence. She has since called it her "stroke of insight."

She recounts that, as a scientist, she had lived her whole life sensing the world through the left hemisphere of her brain. The left hemisphere of the brain processes sensory data in a logical, linear way. The stroke changed that for her. As a result, Dr. Bolte Taylor was forced to experience the world through the creative, intuitive right hemisphere of her brain. Her description of the experience is mystical.

What intrigued me about her talk was the idea that I was experiencing much the same journey, but in reverse. While Dr. Bolte Taylor's journey of consciousness moved from the logical left hemisphere of her brain to the intuitive right hemisphere of her brain, my journey was taking me from the intuitive right to the logical left. My years in the Center were all about the development and elevation of my right brain operations to the exclusion of the logical left (at least from a neurological point of view).

Unlike Dr. Bolte Taylor, though, the agent of change for my journey from intuitive insight to intellectual development was not the sudden physical violence of a stroke. Instead, I was moved psychologically.

Honestly, I had nowhere else to go. After nine years in the Center, I had no inclination to return to the contemplative life. And after I had spent close to three years cultivating my inner warrior only to have that dream come crashing down with my utter failure at SEAL training, intellectual development -- the left hemisphere of the brain -- seemed the only option left.

Thankfully, after three years of menial labor on the USS Nimitz, I was desperate to study and it was a great relief for me to begin classes at MIIS in January 1996. Though I was a little apprehensive that first day, I quickly settled into a routine that would sustain me for the next two and a half years.

Shortly after starting classes, my wife, two year old son, and I moved from Santa Cruz -- where we had been living with my mom -- to Monterey. From that point, I began walking back and forth to school every day.

The walk was about a mile, up one side of a hill, through the Presidio of Monterey Army Garrison, and down the other side of the hill into Monterey proper. Typically, I might have had two classes in the morning and another in the mid-afternoon. So, after my morning classes, I'd head over to the Monterey Sports Center (quite possibly the best city-run athletic center anywhere). There I began working out again in earnest, for the first time since quitting BUD/S. Twice a week I swam and three times a week I lifted weights and ran north along the Monterey coast.

On weekends, I began doing long runs out to Pebble Beach and the famous 17-Mile Drive, which always reminded me of the first time I ran there in the late 1980s with Sundar. My life was coming into balance for the first time.

As for scholastic activities, I got a job with one of the Institute's research facilities, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. CNS, as it is called, is the largest research organization in the United States devoted to tracking, reporting, and in that way preventing the spread of WMD throughout the world. For the next few years, I spent about 20 hours a week at CNS -- which is right on campus -- reviewing papers and journals for articles reporting about the trade of ballistic missiles in and around Asia.

I also began studying Japanese. My initial plan had been to study Arabic, but at some point between leaving the Navy and starting school I realized that to really perfect my language acquisition I would have to spend time living in the area of study and I didn't think Elaine -- who is Jewish -- would feel comfortable if we moved to Syria, for example. Plus, I'd always felt some affinity for Japan. Between the ages of five and 12, I had studied Judo at a traditional dojo (Santa Clara Judo Club run by Sensei Tosh Higashi).

With that, my formal journey into the logical left hemisphere of my brain began. My life entered a state of relative equilibrium that I hadn't experienced in a long time, if ever. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was building a solid intellectual foundation that was to support the reemergence of my psychic being in the very near future.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Freedom!



On November 21, 1995, I walked off the USS Nimitz for the last time.

What a feeling to stand at the head of the pier that cold morning, with my sea bag slung over my shoulder, and look back upon that awesome and horrible ship, which had been my home for the previous three years.

I didn't stand there for long though. One of my closest shipmates -- Brandon -- was released from the Navy the very same day and he was giving me a ride to the Seattle-Tacoma airport. My wife and son had moved back to California about a month earlier and were living in Santa Cruz, where we were renting a house with my mom. The Monterey Institute of International Studies had accepted my application and I was to start classes there in January.

In the meantime, I had about six weeks to relax, to grow accustomed to being a civilian, to process the many dreams -- nightmares, really -- of seeing stripes on my sleeve and being told that I was back in the Navy. It's only with hindsight that I now realize how important my military experience was to my further personal development.

What the Center provided for my psychic development, the Navy -- particularly during my first year in pursuit of SEAL-hood -- provided for my energetic or vital development. (For a refresher on the lexicon check here.) The Navy provided the structure and security necessary for me to focus upon and express my energetic persona, to let it emerge as the principal driver of my consciousness, which in turn was the only way for me to realize -- not just know or think, but realize -- both its strengths and its weaknesses.

For all their differences, it's difficult for me not to notice the striking similarities between the Center and the Navy, similarities I was constantly reminded of during my Navy tenure. For example:

* Both the Center and the Navy are top-down, authoritarian regimes;

* Both recruit and rely upon volunteers and, in turn, discourage members from leaving;

* Both demand conformity, prescribe uniforms, and impose grooming standards;

* Both emphasize physical fitness and discipline; and

* Perhaps most importantly, both provided their respective members a social security blanket -- just by joining, a member could have most of his or her basic needs met (although the Navy does a better job when it comes to providing medical care, a subject I hope to address in a future post).

My spectacular failure at BUD/S and the resulting three years I spent on the Nimitz provided two more important elements to my further development. First, my failure at BUD/S left a huge hole in my psyche. One minute my vital life force was driving the organism, the next minute I found myself a broken man aboard ship, dreams smashed, humiliated. The psychic vacuum left behind that failure became an eventual breeding ground for my further mental development. It was as if in turn, each of the members of my psyche -- first heart, then vital, then mind -- would have its respective day in the sun.

Finally, my time in the Navy stripped me of the last vestiges of my spiritual pride. Though I was no longer consciously practicing any spiritual disciplines, I carried with me into the Navy a kind of spiritual bigotry -- a sense inculcated in me during my Center years that there is a qualitative difference between a disciple (even an ex-disciple like me) and a "worldly" person. That's a crock of shit and I wouldn't have learned that lesson so convincingly had I not joined the Navy.

Disciples and sailors alike come in all stripes, good and bad, heroes and cowards. By the time I left the Navy in November 1995, that lesson had been drummed into my very bones. I looked at people as individuals and judged them, if at all, on their actions (and not upon their associations).

So it was that I found myself back in Santa Cruz a free man.

What a sweet shot of Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz, with credit here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

One Year!



The Abode of Yoga reaches the one year mark. To date -- and not counting this one -- I've written 120 posts.

I estimate that we're about 30 or so posts from the end. At the rate I've been going, that should take about three months or so. The pace, however, might slow down.

As I left the Navy -- and as I'll explain shortly -- I experienced a spiritual reawakening of sorts and had to struggle with the question of how to synthesize a mystical daily experience, an occult experience, with my new thoroughly material life. I was to find great insight in this regard from the writings of Sri Aurobindo. Translating this sythetic process in a few, snappy blog posts will be a challenge.

So, too, will be addressing some of the public challenges Guru and the Center faced in the last few years of his life -- challenges that many of my friends both inside and outside the Center would prefer not be addressed at all.

Dealing with those issues -- and for those unaware of what I'm alluding to, I'll simply have to be coy until we come to it in the story -- was a big part of my latter development and are absolutely necessary to the narrative arc of this memoir. So, I'll try to address them head-on, fearlessly, as I've tried to address all my other "issues" thus far.

Finally, let me encourage you to email me. Go to the bottom of the page, click on my profile, and there you'll find a link to my email address. Drop me a note and let me know what I've screwed up or how I can make things better. Or better yet, post a comment if you've got something you'd like to share.

Thanks for reading. And while you're waiting for the next post, take a look back now to the post that started it all one year ago: A New Beginning.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The End in Sight



With one year left in the service, I had some thinking to do.

My original plan had been to become a Navy SEAL and complete my undergraduate degree all in one four-year enlistment period and then get out of the Navy.

As the Nimitz left dry dock and prepared for sea trials, however, not only had I not become a SEAL but neither had I completed my college degree -- I was still a few credits short. These twin failures had a devastating impact on my mood until I read a brochure from the Monterey Institute of International Studies or "MIIS."

I had known about MIIS for years. It was a small graduate school devoted to international affairs with a particularly strong emphasis on foreign language acquisition. It was founded in 1955 by former instructors of the Defense Language Institute or "DLI."

Outside foreign policy circles, MIIS was little known. Inside -- particularly inside intelligence circles -- graduates of MIIS were sometimes referred to as the "Monterey Mafia." Anecdotally, it was said that the CIA recruited more employees from MIIS each year than any other single institution of higher learning.

Whether that was true or not, my dream of becoming a spy was still alive. I wanted to go to MIIS and study Arabic. The problem, I'd thought, was that MIIS was only a graduate school and I still had not completed my bachelor's degree. As it turned out, however, MIIS had a little known "Honors" undergraduate program. Each year, a select number of students were permitted to enter the school as juniors and complete both degrees -- BA and MA -- in three years.

That became my next goal.

Among other things, I needed two letters of recommendation to support my application. For the first one, I asked the head of the Nimitz' Operations Department. To enter school the following January (1996), I'd need to have the support and permission of my chain-of-command to leave the Navy one month early. I thought getting a little "buy in" from the Operations Officer (who would be the one to sign any early out order for me) was crucial.

For the second letter, I asked my old Center roommate Trishatur. Trishatur had worked at the United Nations since graduating high school. He kindly wrote a glowing recommendation for me on U.N. letterhead, which I thought added some international flavor to my application. With that, I had to hope that I'd be accepted at MIIS and that I'd survive another year aboard the 'Shank (our not so affectionate nickname for the Nimitz, after the prison in the great movie The Shawshank Redemption).

At about that time -- January 1995 -- I was sent to FITCPAC in San Diego, California for four weeks to learn a new computer system being adopted by the ship. Among other things, it meant my first time away from my wife and son since returning from sea about a year and a half earlier. It was hard to leave, but once there I tried to make the best of it by reminding myself that I had just one more year until freedom.

After about a week and a half in San Diego, I felt the urge to meditate. Since leaving the Center five years earlier, the spiritual flame that had once been the predominate force in my life had never truly disappeared. But it was no more than a pilot light -- I was aware of its presence, but it gave no heat as it were. Or, to be true to the metaphor, there was no psychic fuel for that pilot light to ignite. From time to time, though, the inner pilot light would flicker and I would feel the desire to feed the flame.

What I did first was to look up Self-Realization Fellowship or "SRF." I had always felt close to Paramahansa Yogananda and knew that the group had a temple dedicated to the master located in San Diego. The temple had a Sunday service open to the public, so I decided to take the bus out there from the base where I was staying. The service itself was, for me, like going to church (something I never liked). It was very formulaic and by the numbers. The temple was crowded -- and I liked being around so many seekers, smelling the incense, and seeing the pictures of the other venerable yogis of the SRF line -- but it wasn't a profound experience for me.

Afterwards, I went to the San Diego Center's great vegetarian restaurant Jyoti-Bihanga. I hadn't been around disciples for quite some time and was actually a little nervous walking into the restaurant, but my presence went unnoticed and after a nice lunch I took the bus back to the base feeling a subtle sense of disquiet.

The photo above shows me as a Petty Officer Second Class (akin to an Army Sergeant), standing next to the Nimitz' Commanding Officer, then-Captain John B. Nathman. Along with the other guys there, I had been named Sailor of the Month for my department. Two things I remember about that experience. First, I was ripe. I had worked all night and had not showered or shaved before having this picture taken. I felt bad for the Captain as he leaned into me. Second, the Captain's ring finger on his left hand -- he wore both his wedding band and his Naval Academy class ring on the same finger.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Home from Sea

It was 7:00 a.m. and all those in the intelligence division were gathered for morning quarters.

We had just left the Gulf to begin our six week journey home and were on our way for a few days of liberty in Thailand. Lcdr. Segura walked in to read whatever notices there were to read.

"I have a message to read from Amcross," he began. "This message is to the USS Nimitz, received 2323 zulu last night, to Seaman Kracht."

Mr. Segura looked up from the paper he was reading from with a slight smile on his face before continuing on. With mention of my name, I began listening.

"Wife Elaine requests advise birth of baby boy. Verification by Dr. Frank Zarka of O'Connor Hospital this city. Doctor states baby born 26 June 1993 at 1530 hours, 7 lbs. 15 oz., named Sean Jeffrey. Mother and child doing well."

Applause broke out from the rest of the guys. It was a nice moment and as soon as quarters broke up, I told my best friends in the division -- Scott and Mark -- to meet me in the SCIF. It was the only place where we could have some privacy. In the meantime, I headed to the Chief's refrigerator and retrieved the three ice cold near beers that Mr. Holcomb had given me a month or so earlier. Boy, did they taste good.

For about ten minutes, Scott, Mark and I toasted the birth of my new son, Sean. It would be a few weeks before I even saw a picture of Sean and I wouldn't get to hold him for another six weeks. It's sad to think about now, but at the time I was just glad that Elaine was okay and that our ship was on its way home.

First, though, we'd stop for about four days of liberty in Thailand. From there, we headed back east across the Pacific to Hawaii, San Diego, and finally back to our home port of Bremerton, Washington. Unfortunately for me, Elaine and our new baby were still down in California. I spent the next four days finding and renting an apartment for us in the small town of Port Orchard. Once that was done, I flew down to San Jose and reunited, finally, with my family.

That was a happy day. The remaining two-and-a-half years of my enlistment, however, wouldn't be quite so nice.

Shortly after Elaine, Sean and I got settled into our new apartment in Port Orchard, the Nimitz went into dry dock. Lots of the veteran guys on the ship had warned that "going into the yards" -- as it was called -- could be worse than going to sea. I found that hard to believe, but as far as esprit de corps was concerned it turned out to be true.

For about the next 14 months, everything short of the nuclear reactors powering the Nimitz was completely overhauled, inside and out.

It was a horrible existence.

The picture of Sean and me, above, was taken about eight months after my return from the Gulf. I was a relatively new petty officer third class and, judging by the dress uniform, must have been on my way to watch.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Call from the Big House


"USS Nimitz, CVIC, how may I direct your call?"

Since entering the Gulf, I had been assigned to the night crew. We worked the 12-hour shift from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Our primary mission: waxing and buffing the tile covered decks in and around the carrier intelligence center or "CVIC."

Our newest responsibility, however, was answering the secure "hotline" to the ship. That should have been the responsibility of the Radiomen in the Communications Department, but they had fucked it up. Apparently, they had shown some disrespect to a big wig who had called the ship. So, now I had to answer it.

"This is White House operator number nineteen," the female voice on the other end of the secure line said. "I'm calling for the Commander of Carrier Group Seven." It must have been one or two in the morning.

"Okay," I said. "Just a moment and I'll transfer you."

According to procedure, I wrote the details of the call -- the time, the name of the caller, et cetera -- down in a log book that our officers had made for that purpose. They loved the idea that our division would control the hotline and they were equally paranoid that one of us ignorant enlisted guys would screw it up like the Radiomen had. Before that call from the White House, though, we hadn't actually received any real calls.

Nevertheless, each morning as the officers rolled into the office, the first thing each of them did was to check the log book. So, I knew my entry of "White House" in the book would cause a stir at the end of my shift.

At first, the officers thought it was a joke, then they wanted every little detail. What else could I say? The operator called, I hit "transfer," and hung up. With two exceptions, I didn't think very highly of the officers in the intelligence division.

The first -- and best -- was then-LCDR. John Segura. Among his many fine qualities, two that stood out were his treatment of enlisted men like me (e.g., he spoke to us as equals) and his willingness to teach, not just order. I always attributed his natural ability to lead from his having been assigned to a special operations unit just before his tour on the Nimitz. Whatever the reason, John Segura stood out and I'm glad to have served under him.

The other officer I remember with some fondness was then-LT. Ross Holcomb. Mr. Holcomb's dad had himself been a four-star admiral. It seemed certain that is son was destined for flag rank too, until a fateful day in July 1988. On July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes, on station in the Persian Gulf, shot down an Iranian civilian airliner killing all 290 people aboard. Mr. Holcomb was the Vincennes' Officer of the Deck. His future as a ship driver was over.

Mr. Holcomb re-trained as an intelligence officer and was eventually assigned to the Nimitz. On some nights -- after midrats -- Mr. Holcomb would take me and another guy up to the signal bridge to look at the stars. He knew a lot about the heavens and pointed out the many constellations visible to us over the Gulf. I actually found it pretty interesting, much to my own surprise.

The Nimitz remained on station in the Gulf for about three months, during which time our jets patrolled the Southern No-Fly Zone in Iraq (this was back in the days before we occupied the country in toto). During that time, the ship made three or four short port visits to Jebel Ali, United Arab Emirates. It was as hot as could possibly be. On one of these port visits, Mr. Holcomb asked me a question.

"I need someone to get in their whites and give a tour of the ship." Mr. Holcomb had just walked into CVIC, where me and the other guys on duty were sitting around watching a video. I had lucked out and didn't have to stand watch that duty day, but Mr. Holcomb sweetened the deal.

"I'll give whoever can do it some near beers," he said. I didn't know if officers generally had access to near beer or if it was just Mr. Holcomb's private reserve, but it sounded good to me. So, I went down to the berthing, put my dress uniform on, and gave Mr. Holcomb's friends an impromptu tour of the ship.

That night, Mr. Holcomb came into the office. (Though I had no official watch standing duties, I still had to sleep in the intelligence office.) He gave me three cans of the low-alcohol beer. I decided then and there that I would try to save them until the birth of my child. I wrapped them up in a paper bag -- on which I had drawn a skull and cross-bones to warn others to stay away -- and with the permission of our Chief, I stored the beers in the office refrigerator.

That was a long summer, but as June 1993 rolled around the Nimitz turned south and began its transit out of the Gulf and started our slow trip back home.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Alone at Sea

In hindsight, thinking about these old sea stories makes me laugh -- the utter absurdity of it all. At the time, however, I was very depressed.

In the wake of my failure at BUD/S, separation from my pregnant wife, being thrust into the oppressive conditions of life at sea aboard an aircraft carrier, my constant sadness was crushing.

I didn't let it show though. I shined my shoes and ironed my shirts and did what I was told to do. But like its psychic opposite, my depression permeated my consciousness, unseen by others. It left me with nothing but a desire to be alone.

On our first night of liberty in Hong Kong (after a month at sea), I followed a group of guys to an Australian bar, which was rumored to be the hot spot in town. When we got there, it was packed with squids. I took one look at all the drunken sailors already there and walked out.

After walking alone for about a mile, I found a secluded British-style pub nearly empty, where I had dinner and the best tasting draft Guinness I've ever had. Nearby, I found a high rise hotel and paid a ransom for a last minute room overlooking much of the city. The thing that caught my eye, though, was an athletic facility just across the street, with an all-weather running track and an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

I spent so much time just staring at it from my window -- how much I longed for simpler times, when my only worry each day was whether I should go running, go swimming, or do both.

From Hong Kong, we steamed south and further west to Singapore. During my time in the Center, Guru had made at least two trips to Singapore and I'd always wanted to visit. I knew that it had a large Indian population, including a "little India" section of town, replete with shops and temples. Once there, I spent most of my time in Singapore alone -- eating well, going to the movies, and doing some shopping.

One of the books I bought in Singapore was Rudyard Kipling's Kim, which I read back on the ship as we continued our journey through the Strait of Malacca, around the Indian sub-continent, and towards the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf. During that time, I day dreamed of jumping overboard and being picked up by an Indian fisherman who would bring me back to the land of my spirit.

In my loneliness, I wrote Shambhu and asked him to send me a photo of Guru. I'd wanted to meditate, but didn't have a picture of Guru to meditate on. At best, the letter would take two weeks to reach Shambhu in New York, and then another two-to-three weeks to make it back to me on the ship. In the meantime, all I could do was wait.

About six weeks into our journey (perhaps mid-March 1993), we began our transit through the Strait of Hormuz and into the Persian Gulf. Our proximity to the Iranian coast -- and that country's possession of Chinese-derived anti-ship cruise missiles -- drove the officers in the intelligence office near bat shit insane with worry.

The transit itself was beautiful though. We started our run in the pre-dawn hours and after breakfast I went up to the crow's nest to have a look-see. Partially obscured by fog, the Iranian coast floated by just four or five miles away, looking ancient, mysterious, and -- to me -- inviting. All was quiet as we slipped into the Gulf unmolested for three months of operations.

On board a modern war vessel, along with almost 6,000 other men, I felt all alone and completely powerless.

Here's a great set of photos by Hanneorla on Flickr taken in the Indian District of Singapore (from which the photo of Durga, above, was taken).

Monday, November 24, 2008

Mail Call

Mail call was infrequent that first month as we headed to Hong Kong.

We picked up a load in Hawaii, but after that it was infrequent as we headed further west over the Pacific. But when it came, people were excited. It arrived on a particular plane -- called the "COD" for carrier onboard delivery -- and many of the veteran sailors could recognize the sound and vibration of the COD's twin propellers when it landed.

Once the postal clerks sorted it all by department and division, the call would go out over the 1MC: "mail call, mail call." Those were happy words to hear.

Me and a couple of the other guys were usually sent to pick it up. The Nimitz itself was an industrial labyrinth. It took me a week or two just to feel confidant that I could make my way between our birthing, the office, and the mess decks without getting lost. So, on that first mail run, I just followed the other guys.

The mail itself was given to us in huge, unwieldy nylon bags, which made navigating the narrow passageways or "p-ways" back to the intelligence office more challenging. That's when I hit something. With the mail bag slung over my right shoulder and the bill of my Nimitz ball cap pulled down, I never saw the large metal bar protruding into the p-way. It didn't hurt too bad, but when I dropped the mail bag and put my hand under my hat, it came back covered in blood.

The ship's medical department was staffed by hospital corpsmen. There was one, maybe two, medical doctors on board, but the bulk of the work was done by the enlisted corpsmen. And when I got to medical, I was attended to by two of them: one, a more experienced petty officer, the other, a newbie -- a seaman, like me. It was clear that I needed three or four stitches just above my hairline.

"Hey, would you mind if I let him do the stitching?" The petty officer was referring to his young charge. "He needs to get qualed and I'll be here the whole time supervising."

Just like all the other enlisted rates, hospital corpsmen had to get certain qualifications before being permitted to take an advancement exam for promotion. New intelligence specialists like me, for example, might have to make a photo mosaic, among other things, before sitting for the exam. So, it made sense to me that the new corpsman would have to learn how to do stitches for real. Someone had to be his first patient.

"Sure," I said, "go ahead."

After about a half dozen shots of Novocaine in and around the wound, the young corpsman tentatively applied his first stitch, which made us both flinch -- first me, then him.

"Could you feel that?" he asked. He looked startled.

"Yeah, but just keep going."

"No, I better give you a couple more shots of Novocaine," he said.

"No, just finish the stitches." I was getting agitated. "It feels the same as the shots, so what's the difference." After he was finished, the petty officer told me to come back in three weeks or so to have the stitches removed.

Yeah, right.

Two and a half weeks later, I plucked one stitch out myself and had one of the other guys in my division remove the other three with his Leatherman. I taped them to a letter and sent them to Elaine.

The photo above is my official Nimitz photo, taken shortly before my trip to medical. The three slashes designated my rank (E-3 or Seaman, akin to a private in the Army). The crossed quill and magnifying glass designated my rate as an IS or Intelligence Specialist. I was already starting to look pretty pasty compared to my boot camp photo.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Navy Chow


It's not easy to be a vegetarian in the Navy.

I became a vegetarian in 1980, when I was 15 years old. Though it seemed to be the thing to do for those like me who were intending to tread the path of Hindu mysticism, there weren't that many of us.

In the early '80s, you couldn't get a salad at McDonald's and there was no such thing as the Souplantation. If you weren't shopping for and cooking your own food, then your vegetarian choices were few. At that time, the best option for eating out was usually the all-you-can-eat salad bar option at the Sizzler steak house.

I found the food aboard the Nimitz (in the mid-'90s) to be a throw back to those earlier times. Breakfast was fine -- always plenty of "scrambled egg product" available. Getting a good lunch or dinner, however, proved to be more challenging.

The Nimitz did have a dedicated salad bar, which was pretty well stocked for our first few weeks at sea. Once the iceberg lettuce ran out, though, a curious thing happened. The mess specialists -- the cooks -- decided to replace the lettuce with raw, white cabbage.

Admittedly, from afar, if you squint your eyes just so, a head of white cabbage looks like a head of iceberg lettuce. The similarity, however, stops there. I don't care how much industrial strength ranch dressing you pour over it, raw, white cabbage isn't a substitute for lettuce in a salad bar.

On the plus side, there was always plenty of rice. Through the 1970s and '80s, the Navy allowed Filipino nationals to enlist, but restricted their service to just a few undermanned career paths, one of which was being a cook. By the time of my deployment, the guys running the Nimitz mess decks were predominantly Filipinos who had risen through the ranks. Thus, happily, there was rice with just about every meal served. Along with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, rice was a staple for me.

One thing the Filipino supervisors could not always control was the quality of the junior enlisted personnel temporarily assigned to the mess decks to help cook the tens of thousands of meals served each and every day aboard ship. Each department was given a quota of junior enlisted men to send to the mess decks for up to three months, and very few of those sent went happily. Nobody I knew wanted to be sent to work there. Predictably, the results were sometimes horrifying.

One day I was enjoying supper with a couple of my buddies, one of whom was my immediate supervisor Greg. While I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich -- on fresh baked white bread, which was actually very good -- Greg worked on a bowl of beef stew.

"What the fuck?" Greg's face was ashen as he pulled something out of his mouth. It was a finely trimmed toe nail (from somebody's big toe, by the look of it). The rest of us laughed as Greg stormed off to raise hell with the cooks. I silently thanked my lucky stars that I was a vegetarian.

Officers had other problems to worry about. They ate better food in their private ward room, where the only enlisted men permitted were those that were there to serve and clean up after the officers. The negative effect that this class system has on the morale of the enlisted crew can't be overestimated.

BUD/S did it right. When a BUD/S class marches to the chow hall, the class members form up according to rank before going in to eat. The lowest ranking guy is at the front of the line and is the first to eat; the senior class officer is at the back of the line and is the last to eat. That way, if the class runs short of time, it's the more senior class members that will go hungry. That's "rank has its privileges" done right! (It should go without saying that officers and enlisted men at BUD/S eat the same food, under the same conditions.) The fleet Navy should follow suit.

While Greg was still having it out with the cooks over the toe nail he'd just pulled out of his mouth, I made my way back to CVIC. As I stepped through the cipher-locked front door leading into the office, I found our division officer standing there with a dark wet spot running down the front of his khaki uniform.

Pointing it out, I asked: "What happened, sir?"

"Lobster juice," he replied matter of factly. "I was cracking open a claw when the damn thing squirted all over me."

Officers lived in a different world.

Photo of ordnance men wheeling bombs through the mess deck of the Nimitz-class carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. Credit to John K. Hamilton (and hat tip to The Tension blog).

Friday, November 14, 2008

My New Home


The tide had changed.

About a week after arriving in Bremerton, Washington (in January 1993), my ship -- the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz -- got underway. It would be a six-month voyage to the Persian Gulf. (By the way, the Navy refers to the Gulf as the "Arabian Gulf," not wanting to cede anything, even nominally, to the Iranians.)

It would mean I'd miss the birth of my son.

Absent prison, it's difficult to conceive of a more oppressive occupation than serving as a junior enlisted man aboard an aircraft carrier. Here's a short list of what I -- and literally thousands of others lowly swabbies -- faced aboard the Nimitz:

● we were at the bottom of a crowded, status-conscious pecking order;

● we worked, at minimum, 12 hours on, 12 hours off, seven days a week;

● with few exceptions, the food was horrible even for carnivores (and I was a vegetarian);

● we had zero privacy;

● noise pollution -- we slept beneath the flight deck, planes launching and landing day and night;

● we had irregular hot water in the showers and stainless steel commodes;

● the fumes of jet fuel and industrial steam were ubiquitous;

● bombs were regularly wheeled through the mess deck while we ate;

● in the naval tradition, officers not only acted -- but apparently believed -- they descended from a superior race; and

● this was still largely the pre-cell phone, pre-email era and snail mail was irregular and, well, slow.

The list could go on. The bottom line, however, was that it was a stressful place to work and I couldn’t quit. It might not have been so bad had I been doing something important, but I wasn’t. Like almost all junior enlisted sailors aboard the ship, my job -- despite my fancy training as an "intelligence specialist" -- could only fairly be described as a janitor. Would anybody willingly choose to be a janitor under the conditions outlined above?

Some complicating factors were my age and the fact that my previous command had been BUD/S. At 27, I was older than most of the mid-level enlisted guys who were telling me what to do every day. And, coming from BUD/S -- where even as a student I had pride in what I was doing and was treated with a measure of respect -- it was especially hard to be thrown into the fleet Navy, where respect was to flow up the chain of command, but never down.

This turn of events would bring on a lasting sense of depression, which resulted in, among other things, the seeds of future ambition and achievement being sown within me. Germination, however, would take a while. I had three years left of active duty, and first I had to survive our six-month deployment.

The plan for the deployment was for the Nimitz to leave Bremerton, Washington and steam to San Diego to take on supplies and upload the air wing. From there, we'd head west to Hawaii for additional supplies and personnel. From Hawaii, we'd spend four weeks heading to Hong Kong, then Singapore, and on into the Gulf. Once in the Gulf, we'd spend three months supporting operations in Southern Iraq.

During our stay in the Gulf, we'd make three port visits to the United Arab Emirates for liberty. Then, on our way home, we'd visit Thailand before heading back to Hawaii, San Diego, and finally Bremerton, arriving some six months after having left.

After the deployment, Elaine and our new baby would move up to Bremerton. The ship would undergo extensive renovations in the shipyard and wouldn't put to sea again until my last year in the Navy. In all, it would be a long, painful, humiliating, but ultimately fruitful three years of service. But I'm only going to cover a few of the "highlights," or low lights as it were, over the course of the next few posts.

As you'll find -- as down as I was emotionally during the remaining three years I spent in the Navy -- in retrospect that period served an important purpose in grounding my personality somewhere between that of my old disciple life, on the one hand, and the energetic, dynamic persona which led me to pursue (unsuccessfully) life as a Navy SEAL, on the other hand.

I would later learn that Sri Aurobindo used the apparent friction between these two forces to set up his magnum opus, The Life Divine, referring to them as the "Materialist Denial" and the "Refusal of the Ascetic," respectively.

That understanding on my part, however, was still a few years off and would only come with a later spiritual reawakening.

Until then, I was "haze gray and underway."

(For only the second time in my life, I did keep a journal of sorts for the six-month duration of my deployment to the Persian Gulf. I made almost daily journal entries addressed to my then-unborn son. Those entries will make up the substance of another blog which I hope will go live in the next few weeks called: Letters from the Blue and can be found at http://www.lettersfromtheblue.blogspot.com/.)

The photo, above, shows the USS Nimitz in port Hong Kong. Photo credit here.

Looking Back

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Life Begins Anew


"I'm pregnant."

It was Elaine on the phone from San Jose. Though Hell Week was over for me, I was still in San Diego awaiting orders to a new duty station. I had another three years of active duty to serve in the Navy. Without a doubt, I would be sent out to the fleet.

In the meantime, I would get some time off for Thanksgiving (1992). I planned to meet Elaine in Santa Monica for the holiday and told her not to worry. We'd talk again then and figure out what to do. After I hung up the phone, though, I felt sure there was only one option.

Elaine and I had been together about two-and-a-half years to that point. I had originally planned on proposing to her in April 1993 -- when Class 187 was due to graduate from BUD/S. That dream -- becoming a SEAL -- was dead now, however, with my inability to withstand the cold of Hell Week.

While I was still at the BUD/S compound in Coronado, I was no longer in SEAL training. Instead, I was assigned to X-Division with all the other quitters. Unfortunately, Bob didn't make it through Hell Week either. Unlike me, Bob wasn't blessed with good running mechanics and was prone to knee problems. When he blew his knee out some time on day two of Hell Week and began to fall behind, the instructors showed no mercy. He could either keep up with the class or drop, they told him. (Mars, my first friend in the Navy from boot camp, classed-up with Class 188. As I recall, they had a brutal winter Hell Week held on San Clemente island. I don't remember the details of his experience, but Mars, too, failed to make it through.)

Being in X-Division was like being an ex-disciple around a bunch of disciples in the Center. Most of guys still in SEAL training -- but not all -- simply would not talk to you. In X-Division, you were damaged goods, pariahs from the elite SEAL community that just a few short weeks ago you were a part of. It was a shocking experience, and for some the shock was worse than it was for others. Having gone through it with the Center, though, made the experience for me a little easier -- though no more pleasant -- to deal with.

After spending Thanksgiving with Elaine, I returned to San Diego and bought an engagement ring. Shortly thereafter, Bob received his new orders to report for shore duty in Rota, Spain. As I recall, "Don" and his wife had pulled some strings for him, which no doubt benefited both the Navy and Bob. Bob's first language was Spanish and his mother owned a home in Rota. He was elated. Things would be different for me.

I was headed for the fleet. "They're going to send you to the biggest, baddest aircraft carrier in the fleet," Bob would rib me every day. And sure enough, that's exactly what "they" did. About a week after Bob received his orders to Spain, I received mine to Bremerton, Washington: then-home port for the USS Nimitz. I was going to spend my remaining three years aboard a seagoing warship. "Haze gray and underway," Bob laughed.

Thankfully, with my new orders also came another 30 days of leave. In December 1992, I flew to San Jose to stay with Elaine. As soon as we stepped into the door of her apartment, I proposed (pulling the ring box out of one of my rolled-up socks, she likes to remind me now). The plan was to get married right away, before I flew up to Washington to report to my ship. At my dad's request, Judge Robert Ahern -- a Navy vet himself -- agreed to officiate the ceremony in his chambers just before New Years.

With that, our immediate families -- including Jeevan and Nirbachita, who were both still in the Center -- gathered in San Jose on short notice. After a short, sweet, and dignified ceremony, Elaine and I were married.

Just a few nights later, I was walking alone down the cold and wet waterfront of Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in my blues toward the hulking ship that was to be my home for the next three years.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Quitter

I quit.

I quit at the "Steel Pier" on the first night of Hell Week.

Sailors have filthy mouths. I can attest to that. In the Special Warfare community, however, there's no dirtier word than "quitter." Like everything else in the Navy, there's an official term for what I did: Drop on Request or DOR. But have no doubt, I was a quitter.

Class 187's Hell Week started in early November 1992 with a pizza party and video on Sunday afternoon. By majority vote, the class chose to watch Point Break with Patrick Swayze. Horrible movie, but it didn't much matter -- it was hard to concentrate on the movie knowing that in just a few hours Hell Week would kick off.

It must have been around 7 p.m. or so when the party ended and we were moved to the beach. A couple large military tents had been constructed right on the beach, complete with cots for the 60 or so guys still left in Class 187.

We all laid back on the cots fully clothed and the instructors ordered us to go to sleep. A few hours later -- around 9 p.m. -- those of us who were finally beginning to doze off were awakened by all manner of loud noises, including shouting and automatic weapons fire. At BUD/S, this tradition is called "Break Out." If you want to see it for yourselves, check it out here.

From the tents, we were shepherded a few hundred yards over to the "demo pit" by instructors shouting through bull horns, more automatic weapons fire, and small explosions. The demo pit was a large hole dug deep into the sand, partially filled with water. Once there, we were told to "drop on down" and start doing push-ups in the water.

The water was cold and tasted nasty. A BUD/S graduate, whom I had met earlier in training and who was still taking some kind of advanced medical course before reporting to his SEAL team, stood over me firing an M-60, Rambo-style. He was firing blanks, but the spent casings raining down on me were still hot. We must have been at the demo pit for about an hour before the instructors told us to run down to the ocean and get wet.

That's when surf torture began.

Surf torture is straightforward. The class lies down in the incoming surf until the instructors give the word to "recover." It's meant to lower the students' body temperatures. Oftentimes, before Hell Week, surf torture is used punitively -- to punish a class for some real or imagined fuck up.

Class 187, however, pretty much had its shit together, thanks to our two fine class leaders. For that reason, we really didn't get the treatment very often before Hell Week. During Hell Week, though, surf torture -- particularly for "winter" Hell Weeks like ours, when the water temperature dips into the low 60s in November -- was simply meant to weed out the weak.

For us that night, it went on for a while and at least once we were lined up -- shivering uncontrollably -- to be inspected by a staff physician. He said we could withstand more. So, back in we went. It was brutal, but I still had some juice in the tank when we were told to recover and get our boats. We then jogged the boats over to the bay side of the base to some metal causeways jutting out into the San Diego Bay.

The Steel Pier.

The Steel Pier evolution was surf torture with a purely mental twist. The students were told to repeatedly jump into the cold, dark bay and tread water, each time removing an article of clothing before jumping in again.

The first time we all jumped in, we were fully clothed. As we treaded water, the instructors told us to take off our boots, tie them together, and then sling them around our necks. It wasn't easy to do with fingers already getting numb. Not surprisingly, one poor bastard lost hold of his boot. It sank.

"Dive down and get it!" shouted one of the instructors with derision. The rest of us were going to have to keep treading water until the boot was recovered. I have no idea how that guy found the boot in that inky black water, but he did and we were told to get out and lie down on the pier. We looked like fish, the way we were all flopping around with cold on the deck.

While we laid there, the doctor walked up and down the pier looking for signs of hypothermia. There were also two instructors with garden hoses, spraying us down. I remember the water from the hoses feeling warmer than the night air. One instructor, speaking through a bull horn, told us that there were warm doughnuts and blankets available for anyone who'd had enough. Nice of him to offer.

With the doctor's blessing, the instructors told us to take off our green tops and get back in the bay. We treaded water again for five or 10 minutes and then got out. Rinse, repeat. Eventually, we were down to just our underwear. That's when I began to crack.

I jumped in with everyone else, but as I treaded water, I looked up at the clear night sky and stared at a bright star overhead. I began wishing I were somewhere else. I was aware of a faint disappointment creeping into my consciousness as I considered that all my hard work would come to naught if I gave up now. The cold, however, had sapped my will to go on. I just didn't give a fuck anymore.

The instructors got us out again. The doctor took his time looking us over -- it couldn't go on much longer -- and then the instructors ordered us back in. I balked, ever so slightly and told Bob -- my swim buddy for Hell Week -- that I didn't want to get back in. Bob was still game, though, and he physically moved me to the edge and we jumped back in together.

Once out of the water and back on the pier again, the evolution appeared to be over. I heard one of the instructors haggling with the doctor for just one more minute in the drink. Apparently, I hadn't been the only one to hesitate before jumping back in the bay the last time. The instructors smelled weakness.

The doctor relented. The instructors ordered us back in the water and that was it. There was no way I was getting back in. To Bob's dismay, I turned around and walked towards the instructors and quit. Needless to say, perhaps, but there were no doughnuts.

As I recall, about a half dozen guys quit at the Steel Pier. While the rest of Class 187 was still lying on the deck in their underwear, flopping and twitching and getting hosed down, we quitters were lined up in front of the bell and told to ring it three times and then request to "DOR" (Drop on Request).

This was another BUD/S tradition: "Chiming the Hog."

As we chimed the hog (which is pictured above), our now former classmates sang "Hit the Road Jack!" with gusto, at the instructors' request.

Here's a great written account of Class 183's Hell Week. Class 183 graduated when Bob and I were still in Fourth Phase. All the instructors named in this account were still there when Class 187 classed up.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Class 187

Bob loved his hair.

That's what I remember most about our class-up party. The class-up party is a BUD/S tradition. On the weekend before your class starts First Phase, there's a kegger on the beach which is open to the BUD/S instructors.

The one mainstay of the class-up party is the haircut. The classmates take turns shaving each others' heads. I didn't mind, but Bob was not very excited about it. He had no choice though. It was the beginning of what would be a tumultuous five weeks culminating in our own personal Super Bowl: Hell Week.

Before I continue, though, a caveat. These posts aren't meant to be an in-depth source of information about BUD/S per se. This is a memoir about my personal experiences and development. BUD/S was a significant part of that, but if you want to know the ins and outs of BUD/S, there are now lots of other sources available. The best is probably the video series done by the Discovery Channel: Navy SEALS: BUDS Class 234. It's also available on YouTube -- here's the first segment which will give you a good taste of the start of First Phase.

Aside from its culmination in Hell Week, the most significant difference between Fourth Phase and First Phase is that after classing up, you actually have to start performing. That is, just about every week in First Phase you're required to meet certain standards, which included various timed standards for runs, the obstacle course, a two-mile ocean swim, life saving, a 50-meter underwater swim, and drown proofing. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

While still in Fourth Phase, a second officer joined the class. He was a full lieutenant from the fleet and at first blush didn't look the part. He was very lanky and -- relative to most of the officers who go through BUD/S as ensigns -- he was a little older. But he had his shit together and despite all the "attention" the instructors gave him, he ended up being a great class leader.

For the most part, I enjoyed First Phase because the class was spirited, I was in a good boat crew, and I had a good swim buddy. All BUD/S classes are divided into boat crews by height. Since I was short in height, I was assigned to the last boat crew, commonly called the "Smurfs." Being a Smurf had its disadvantages and its advantages. We couldn't row worth shit, so when it came to paddling races, we never won (winning races at BUD/S oftentimes means getting to finish early and rest while the rest of the class continues to get hammered).

On the bright side, though, we were all about the same height which gave us a distinct advantage during log PT. Compared to the other boat crews -- which had wider height distributions -- it was easier for us to hold the log over our heads for longer periods. As a result, we repeatedly won log PT challenges and got to bail out early. As the instructors always said, "it paid to be a winner."

As for swim buddies, BUD/S students are matched up based on timed swims in Fourth Phase. Unfortunately, we were timed swimming without fins. I was fast without fins, but found swimming with the stiff duck feet fins provided at BUD/S a little hard to get used to. As a result, I swam slower and was assigned a different swim buddy, which turned out to be great.

My new swim buddy was named Wong. He was an enlisted man in the Singapore army. We had three Singaporeans in Class 187: Mr. Ang, who was an officer, Wong, and another enlisted guy. They all stuck together, naturally, and were always squared away.

In the week before Hell Week was to start, we had to do a two nautical mile ocean swim. Before the swim, two students were designated to check the water temperature, to determine whether or not we got to wear our wetsuit tops (if the water was cold enough, we'd wear rubber). They were given a thermometer and headed for the surf. The water was cold, though, so they didn't feel like going out very far. In fact, they stood in about knee-deep water and let the thermometer hang down into the surf. I remember watching them and getting agitated.

The thermometer was in the water when the surf rolled in, but out of the water as the surf receded. Naturally, when the instructors checked the temperature it measured "TW" or "toasty warm." No rubber, we were told. Wong looked at me seriously as we geared-up on the beach and said, "Don't worry, if we fail, we fail together."

We didn't fail, but it was cold! With just a few hundred yards to go, Wong and I would take a few strokes and look up. We were heading for the beach. We'd then take another few strokes and look up. We were heading straight out to sea (rather than parallel to the shore). We were getting punchy. Once back on the beach, we saw Mr. Ang pulled out of the water unconscious -- the tough bastard had hyped out.

After some time in a hot tub, however, Mr. Ang recovered and Class 187 was ready for Hell Week. As I recall, we started First Phase with about 80 guys. As we approached Hell Week, we were down to 60-something.

I felt pretty confidant though. How much colder could I actually get?

Bob and I ready for First Phase -- cockiness meter in the red.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Games Begin

I had been training so hard for so long that I thought the day would never come -- that something would prevent me from going to BUD/S.

I had worried that perhaps I'd injure myself, or that the doctors at boot camp would find some kind of disqualifying physical defect, or there'd be some kind of bureaucratic SNAFU with my paperwork.

Something, I'd thought, would get in my way. But after almost a month of vacation back in San Jose with Elaine after graduating from intelligence training, Bob called me at home.

Bob had gone to Florida to see his family after graduation. He'd bought a truck there and then drove west to pick me up. The next day, I loaded my sea bag into Bob's new truck and we headed south from San Jose on an eight hour drive to San Diego and Naval Amphibious Base Coronado.

The only part of that long drive that I remember is getting our first glimpse of the Coronado Bay Bridge, which spans the San Diego Bay, linking San Diego proper with Coronado. Bob put AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" in the tape deck and turned up the volume. Nothing was going to stop us -- we'd made it, at long last, to BUD/S.

I found it difficult to sleep that first night, but by the end of the next day, which we spent checking in, getting gear, and surveying the base, I began to relax. All I wanted to do was to begin training.

BUD/S is organized into three phases of training, each of which lasts about two months. First Phase is the physical conditioning phase. Second Phase is dive training. Third Phase is land warfare training. At all times, there are three full classes in training, one in each phase.

You could determine how far along in training a class was by their apparel. When I arrived at BUD/S -- in August 1992 -- students in First Phase wore utility green uniforms (like these), with white t-shirts and green helmets. Second Phase students -- who had made it through "Hell Week" and were learning to be combat divers -- wore the same utility green uniforms, but also wore the coveted green t-shirt, signifying successful completion of Hell Week. They also wore blue helmets.

Third Phase students wore camouflage uniforms, had red helmets, and also wore their K-Bars on their sides. Generally, because much of the Third Phase land warfare training takes place on San Clemente Island, you didn't see third phasers very often. But when you did, there was an aura about them, or seemed to be to us newbies. They were so close to graduation and moving on to the Teams.

(After BUD/S, there are still a lot of qualifications a new graduate must meet before earning his long sought Trident.)

When Bob and I arrived, however, we had just missed classing up with Class 186, so we were slated for Class 187, which wouldn't class-up for another six or seven weeks. In the meantime, along with the other 40 or 50 guys already checked in -- with more arriving every day -- Bob and I began Fourth Phase. Fourth Phase was just physical training -- basically a holding phase until First Phase began.

Typically, I got up around 4:30 a.m. or so, got dressed, and mustered with the class in the common area of our beach front dorms. We'd then jog over together to the "grinder" -- a black top exercise area near the BUD/S instructors' offices -- where we'd sweep, take out trash, and do other chores. Then we'd all jog to the chow hall on the other side of the base. After a quick breakfast, we'd go to the first evolution of the day (perhaps a PT and soft-sand run).

Then it was back to the chow hall for lunch and the second evolution of the day (maybe the obstacle course). Usually, we'd be done for the day around 4:30 p.m. or so and we'd be free until the next morning (unless we had duty, which was relatively infrequent). Once I had settled in, I found Fourth Phase relatively easy and, oftentimes, fun.

In Fourth Phase, for example, we did much of our swimming in the "combat training tank" -- that is, the pool. I remember one morning the instructor announced that we'd be swimming 5 x 800 meters (4000 meters total). As I swam with the other guys in the fast lane, I remember thinking to myself: "I'm getting paid to do this!"

I felt lucky to be there and especially lucky with Class 187. For the first few weeks I was there, the class had just one officer, a young, red-headed ensign with a ballsy story of how he'd made it to BUD/S.

The ensign was a graduate of VMI, the Virginia Military Institute. Along with The Citadel, VMI is considered to be the finest institution of military instruction available. So esteemed is the course of instruction that its graduates can take an officer's commission in any branch of the U.S. military. Our ensign wanted to take his commission in the Navy and become a SEAL.

The Navy, in its infinite wisdom though, had other ideas and told the ensign that there were no Special Warfare slots available. If he wanted a commission in the Navy, the he'd have to choose another career path, like becoming a submariner or a ship driver. The ensign said "no thanks," turned down the officer's commission, and enlisted just like the rest of us.

As an enlisted man, he volunteered for SEAL training at boot camp, passed the screening test, and was sent to hospital corpsman school for advanced training. Then someone noticed that the ensign was a VMI graduate and wised up. After graduating from corpsman school, the ensign was sent to Officer Candidate's School or OCS, where he earned his deserved commission. Then he was sent to BUD/S.

It was our great good fortune to have him. It's hard on group morale when your leader is wanting in any respect. Thankfully, the fledgling Class 187 didn't have that problem.

The picture above was taken just after Bob and I had arrived at BUD/S. I never saw those blocks used in training and they weren't as heavy as they may appear.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Navy Intelligence

The Navy base at Dam Neck was home not just to the intelligence training school, but also to a more innocuous sounding command named Naval Special Warfare Development Group (NAVSPECWARDEVGRU or "DevGru" for short).

To those who followed such things, DevGru was known to be the official name of SEAL Team Six, the most elite SEAL unit, then tasked with anti-terrorism and hostage rescue duties, among other things. Operators within DevGru referred to other SEAL units as "junior varsity." Everyday, as we marched to and from our classes, we heard a steady stream of weapons fire emanating from the DevGru compound, which was located on a remote and restricted section on the other side of the base.

Then, one day, one of the DevGru "varsity" squad decided that he was going to start leading our lame PT sessions. I'll call this guy "Don."

Don, it turned out, was married to one of our instructors at intelligence school. She had suggested that he get involved and, she told him, there were some SEAL candidates in the group. And, after the first PT session with him, Don asked all the guys hoping to go to BUD/S after intelligence training to stick around a minute.

Whatever one's preconceived notion might be about what a warrior should look like, Don did not fit the bill. He appeared to be in his mid-30s, with large blue eyes and soft features. He was clean shaven, but his brown hair fell past his collar, reflecting the relaxed grooming standards that applied to his unit. While obviously fit -- with the cannon thighs typical of career frogmen -- Don did not have the physique of a triathlete. In short, he looked like normal guy.

As a member of DevGru, Don had the keys to castle, or in this case, the base's Olympic-size swimming pool. He told us -- me, Mars, Bob, and a fourth chap -- that if we were interested, he'd open the pool up very early in the mornings and work out with us before class. As I later wrote my dad, it was kind of like going to flight school to be a fighter pilot and having Maverick volunteer to be your tutor.

Except this wasn't Hollywood and Don wasn't an actor. He'd been a SEAL since he was 18. Before joining the ranks of DevGru, Don had been assigned to one of the remaining UDT platoons, and then SEAL Team Two. He'd seen combat and he'd killed people. But you'd never pick him out of a crowd. He had no tattoos and kept no SEAL team stickers on his car. Don was a calm, cool, silent professional. Most people thought he sold surf boards for a living.

Bob and I ate the silent professional attitude up. For me, it was easy. I'd always been taciturn, a trait I picked up from my dad. Plus, I was older and had already accomplished a lot physically. I didn't feel any need to prove myself to anyone (except myself), so it was easy for me to remain low profile and not attract attention to myself.

As for Bob, he was just 21 or so at the time. I wasn't sure what accounted for his seeming maturity. But if anything, Bob was more composed and security conscious than I was. Maybe it was because as a Seabee he had made friends with a SEAL unit and had imbibed some of their good habits. Whatever it was, Bob -- a fluent Spanish speaker -- was great raw material for a covert operator.

I only saw Don in uniform once. His daughter's school was having a career day in rural Virginia and he asked me and a couple of the other guys to come along to help him. He dressed me up in a Ghillie suit and one of the other guys in a diving rig. We were the props in his presentation to the kids.

On our drive back to the base, we stopped for lunch at a small store that served sandwiches. A couple of the other customers asked why I was wearing camouflage on my face. "We're Navy SEALs," Don replied.

Of course, I wasn't a Navy SEAL, but it was nice of Don to say so. It felt like my goal was closer than ever. He treated us -- his proteges -- as peers, even though we were the furthest from it. There's no better tool in a mentor's belt than that.

As a result of all this attention, not to mention the monster physical shape we were getting into, both Bob and I felt a tremendous amount of physical and energetic self-confidence. As we would joke to ourselves, "the cockiness meter was in the red."

One night, near the end of our 16 weeks in Dam Neck, Bob and I decided against going out in Virginia Beach and instead headed over to the Enlisted Club on base. The E-Club, like most everything else on the base, was adjacent to the beach. And sometime after 11 p.m. and a few beers, I decided that it was a nice night for a swim.

Bob didn't like the idea -- and he certainly wasn't going to get in the surf with me -- but he knew that I found it hard to resist the warm gulf-stream, especially during the hot, east coast summer nights. So, while I stripped off my clothes and waded into the surf, Bob stood on the beach smoking a cigarette. Unfortunately, that's what the base police saw as their SUV crept along the darkened beach.

After sundown, the beach was off-limits. When the cops saw Bob's cigarette, they put their spot light on him and used their loud speaker to tell Bob to remain where he was. I was in the surf zone -- butt naked -- some 20 or 30 yards off shore, but I heard the loud speaker and saw the spot light.

The cops had no idea I was in the water and Bob, I was sure, wouldn't tell them. It was dark and would be impossible for them to see me as I got into my combat swimmer stroke and began powering out to sea.

I figured I'd go out a few hundred yards and then loiter until the beach cleared. My plan had only one flaw: a new intelligence trainee who had followed me and Bob out of the E-Club. He was plastered and when the cops approached Bob, this kid panicked and ratted me out.

The kid wasn't being malicious, he was just completely drunk and seemingly worried that I'd be in some kind of trouble out in the dark waters. "Come on in, man," he yelled to me with a slurred voice from the water's edge. "We're busted!"

Paying attention to the kid for the first time, the cops swept their spot light on him and then out into the surf zone towards me. I dipped under and swam 10 or 15 yards to the side, sure that I wouldn't be seen. This seemed to cause the kid to panic and scream more. I guess when he lost sight of me he thought I was drowning. That's when I noticed Bob walking up to the water's edge. He yelled out to me to come in.

For a second, I entertained the idea of just swimming south a mile or so, which would have taken me clear of the base. It would be an easy swim in the warm night water. But then Bob yelled out again. "Come on in, Joe. The cops won't charge us."

I headed for shore.

As I emerged from the surf stark naked, I realized that I had two options: act embarrassed or be bold. I chose to be bold. I jogged straight up to the high water mark -- my junk flapping in the offshore breeze -- to where the two uniformed base police officers were standing with Bob and our young, drunken shipmate.

"Good evening, officers," I said with a smirk.

It seemed that both officers were simultaneously ready to laugh and uncomfortable standing so close to a naked man, as I kept direct eye contact with them and acted as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

"The beach is closed at night," one of them said to me. "So get your clothes and get out of here." He didn't have to tell us twice.

Like boot camp, my four months in Dam Neck were chock full of low level adventures and shenanigans too numerous to mention. The bottom line, though, was that Bob and I -- and Mars -- all graduated, were given the title "Intelligence Specialist," and ordered to report to Basic Underwater Demolition training in Coronado, California.

I've had numerous mentors throughout my life and I've tried to pay tribute to them throughout the blog, but no one gave more of his time and physical energy to trying to help me achieve a goal than "Don."

I'll always be grateful to him and his wife. Thanks D & T!