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!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

In The Navy

Boot camp was a shock. As my recruiter foretold, I very quickly began to wonder whether I had made a huge mistake.

It started in January 1992 with a long day of processing in Oakland, California, followed by an evening flight to Orlando, Florida, and more long hours of processing. By the time I had been assigned to boot camp company 66 and finally climbed into my new bed (in an open hall with 80 or so others), it was almost sun up.

Our instructors came in shortly thereafter, banging garbage cans and shouting. Thus began a long, long week of haircuts, shots, bad food, more paperwork, folding clothes, and lots of marching. Then the weekly cycle started all over again.

Slowly, though, I got my sea legs. Key was meeting my good friend Marshall, who quickly became "Mars" to me. Mars stood out from the other guys in our company -- that is, he looked physically fit. No wonder. It turned out that Mars wanted to be a Navy SEAL, too. Not only that, but he was also slated to attend intelligence training school just as I was.

Mars was also a graduate of Florida State, with a degree in finance. We became fast friends and soon were spending the little free time we had -- usually after "lights out" -- doing as many sit-ups and push-ups as possible. And when our chance to volunteer for SEAL training came up, we both smoked the screening test (which was a 500 yard swim, push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, and a mile-and-a-half run).

As a result, Mars and I were then permitted to join other successful SEAL candidates for early morning workouts (usually starting at 4 a.m.) before our regular boot camp day began. At these early morning sessions, we were working out with two SEALs on base; until then, I was actually getting out of shape at boot camp. Our new schedule made for brutally long days.

Like anyone who joins the military and is later inclined to write about the experience, boot camp provides enough material for an entire book. For our purpose here, though, it's enough to say that after eight weeks in Orlando, I graduated from boot camp and was given two weeks leave before I was to report to intelligence training school. Thankfully, Elaine was able to come out to see my graduation from boot camp (where I received special recognition as that training cycle's "Iron Man").

Once back in California, Elaine and I spent a wonderful two weeks together. In April 1992, with leave over, though, I flew back East and reported to Naval Station, Dam Neck, Virginia. It would be my home for the next 16 weeks. At Navy intelligence training school, I would receive more personal freedom, but also face more of a mental challenge than I had faced at boot camp.

Students stayed in cubicle-like rooms arranged on an open floor of a multi-floor building on the base of Dam Neck. It was about a quarter mile away from the intelligence training center and each morning all the students attending would muster in the parking lot, form up by class, and march over to school.

The weekdays were work like. Upon arrival, I was assigned to a new class that was forming up. We then had classes all day, starting with typing lessons those first few weeks. After class, on most days, we were free. A few days a week, though, we were required -- as a class -- to work out together. In Navy-speak, it was called "PT" or physical training.

On our first day of group PT, Mars (who had just arrived) and I assembled out in an empty parking lot near our dorm building, along with the other students from our class. No one looked terribly happy to be there, and while Mars and I were itching to work out as usual, we would have preferred to do our own thing.

The group exercises were led by a more senior student and, as expected, weren't particularly challenging. So, I began to take stock of the others in our class. Most were just going through the motions and a few -- sensing correctly that the student leading the exercises had no real authority -- openly sat around joking and shooting the shit. There was one guy, though, who was different.

He was positioned behind and to my left. The first thing that I noticed about him was his attire. Unlike the rest of us "booters" -- who were wearing the boot camp issued PT outfit -- this guy was wearing dark blue running shorts and a "blue and gold" t-shirt. Blue and golds were issued to folks in the Navy dive communities (divers, EOD, and SEALs).

The second thing I noticed about the guy working out behind me was his look. He was a serious person. That much was obvious. He had intent brown eyes and longish -- at least compared to the rest of us -- brown hair. He also performed the exercises like Mars and I did: with precision and focus.

After the calisthenics, we were to do a two-mile run, taking a paved path to the southern end of the base, then out onto the base's private beach, where we would run back north, eventually ending back at our dorm building.

I didn't know the route that first time, so I hung back a little, just behind the leaders. Once we hit the beach, though, I put the hammer down and soon found myself running north on the hard packed sand by myself. Not knowing exactly where to turn off the beach, I eased the pace up just slightly and was surprised when the guy in the blue and gold t-shirt overtook me without a word.

I matched him stride for stride for the remaining quarter-mile, as we both silently pushed the pace, each of us trying to drop the other. But it was a draw. As we stretched later, Bob introduced himself to me.

Bob was not a SEAL, he said, but he wanted to be. He had worked as a Seabee and had served in Gulf War I. But, he had never received any advanced technical training and thus had decided to re-enlist for the opportunity to attend intelligence training school and, hopefully, become a SEAL.

Bob was to become a lifelong friend and the closest friend I made in the Navy.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Rememberance

A couple of nights ago, I watched Rob Reiner's great film The Princess Bride on TV with my 15 year old son.

We'd, of course, seen it before. But it's one of those rare films that's just as fun to watch a second (and third) time. It also brings back fond memories for me. The first time that I saw The Princess Bride was at Guru's house, perhaps 20 years ago.

When I think of my fondest memories of Guru, I don't think of my own best meditations or times when Guru showed me special attention. Instead, I remember the more intimate and human interactions that I had with my master.

I remember, for example, going for a run one Saturday morning in New York. No sooner had I begun when Databir pulled up alongside me in his car. Guru was sitting in the front seat, and he motioned for me to get in.

Soon, we were heading over the 59th Street Bridge into Manhattan. I don't remember who we were waiting for (or for what reason), but Databir parked near the United Nations and we all waited in the car for 20 or 30 minutes.

At one point, Guru said that he was thirsty. I noticed a hot dog vendor on a nearby corner, and with the emergency cash stashed in my running shorts, I bought two sodas: one regular, one diet. Once back in Databir's car, I asked Guru which he'd prefer (diet), opened the can, and inserted a straw, leaving just a bit of the straw wrapper on the end of the straw that Guru would put his mouth onto (to keep it sanitary, as I had seen the Annam Brahma girls do so often).

The transaction was matter-of-fact, but beautiful in its simplicity. And that's what I loved about it. No false piety or reverential awe. Just a simple act of service -- the kind of unconditional favor one would do for any friend.

Once our mission in Manhattan was over, Databir drove us all back to Queens. I spent the rest of that Saturday hanging out at Guru's house, leaving in the early evening with just enough time to rush home, shower, and head to Progress-Promise for that night's function.

Those are the things about Guru that I remember most fondly. Not his trances, not his many and varied achievements, nor even the things he said (to me or others). In this, I'm reminded of what Swami Vivekananda said to Sri Ramakrishna once.

Thakur asked Naren why he kept coming to Dakshineswar if he didn't agree with the things that Thakur said.

"I come here to see you," Naren replied, "not to listen to you."

That's why the memory of sitting with Guru in his living room watching TV is so sweet for me. It wasn't about what was on, whether The Princess Bride, endless rounds of the U.S. Open Tennis Championships, or re-runs of The Honeymooners. It was about seeing Guru in an informal setting.

As my son and I watched Inigo Montoya defeat the six-fingered man the other night, I realized that I can watch The Princess Bride anytime, but I'll never again have those carefree days of my youth at the feet of my master.

I'll always remember and cherish them.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Berkeley

In the fall of 1991, I got word that Guru was going to give a concert on the campus of U.C. Berkeley.

By then I had dropped out of my final semester of junior college and had moved out of my dad's and step-mom's house in Morgan Hill and into a one-bedroom apartment with Elaine in San Jose. My training was going well and I had just a few short months until I was to ship off to Navy boot camp.

It had been almost two years since I'd seen Guru last, and with the prospect of four years in the Navy ahead of me, I wasn't sure when I'd get another chance. So, I decided to make the hour-and-a-half drive north to the concert.

As I recall, there was some concern inside the Center that anti-cult protesters might disrupt the concert because U.C. Berkeley was Sumati's base of operations. I must have heard that information from either my brother or my sister, both of whom were still in the Center. And for all I knew, perhaps Sumati's presence in Berkeley was the very reason Guru was having the concert there -- going right to the belly of the beast, as it were. I don't know.

In any event, except for the noticeable (to me anyway) presence of more disciple guards than usual, the concert went off without a hitch.

Beforehand, I was greeted warmly by a few disciples, who asked me if I was a Navy SEAL yet (no, I wasn't even in the Navy yet). I also had a long conversation with a very prominent disciple that I've yet to mention: Nirvik.

There's no doubt that Nirvik deserves his own post, and probably his own book. (I hope some disciple will take up that work in earnest.) But I know very little about him and I suspect that's exactly how Nirvik prefers it.

In a nutshell, though, Nirvik and his late wife Ila, were among the first San Francisco disciples. They had some past connection with Hawaii, as was apparent from their flowered shirts, ever-present flip-flops, and hang loose attitude. Nirvik was one of the early big wave surfers there and had old home movies to prove it. (To this day, I regret having missed the function when those movies were shown. Someone should get those online.)

Nirvik was Guru's favorite masseuse. During Celebrations, he spent hours at Guru's feet. And when he'd finally get up, he wouldn't get even a minute to himself before a few disciples would be lined up to have the pressure points in their hands manipulated by Nirvik (in part, I'd always thought, because they also wanted to be touched by the hands that had just touched Guru). There was no pretense with Nirvik. He was the most unassuming, low profile veteran disciple in the Center.

In light of my last trip to New York, I was nervous about how I'd be received. I needn't have been. As I walked into the foyer of the U.C. Berkeley hall for Guru's concert, I saw Nirvik sitting there, Buddha-like, smiling at me.

Nirvik's warm and welcoming words to me were just what I needed.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Delayed Entry Program

The Navy recruiter in Gilroy, California was happy for another body.

He quickly arranged for me to spend two days up in Oakland. On day one, I would take the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Test or "ASVAB." On day two, I would take a physical, sign up for a specialty, and be sworn into the Navy (though I wouldn't necessarily go to boot camp right away).

Shortly before going, I sprung the idea on Elaine for the first time. I'm not entirely sure why I had kept the idea of joining the Navy to myself, but at least in part it was because I felt that if I didn't say it aloud, then I wasn't really committed. In any event, Elaine was naturally surprised, but took my disclosure in stride.

On the appointed day, the recruiter gave me a ride up to Oakland and dropped me off for testing and processing. Though I didn't get my scores immediately, I knew by the end of day one that I had nailed the ASVAB. I then went back to the shabby hotel the Navy put me and the other many recruits for the night.

That's when I panicked. I was in a crappy hotel room with some guys I'd never met in a bad part of Oakland (which is saying something) and I started having second thoughts. It must have been 9:00 p.m. or so when I called Elaine and asked her to come pick me up. A couple of hours later, we were driving back to her place.

I knew that the recruiter was going to go ape, so I decided that I simply wasn't going to take his calls. And that's what I did for the next few weeks -- he called repeatedly. Initially, I had figured that that was about as close to the military as I'd ever get. Instead of feeling relieved, though, I felt at a loss.

With the dream of being a Navy SEAL gone, I had no plan. I felt adrift.

Then one day some weeks later, I stepped out of my dad's house and began jogging down the hill. Inexplicably, as I thought of being a Navy SEAL, I experienced a powerful thrill combined with a sense of assuredness about going forward with my original plan. When I got back to the house, I called the recruiter.

With my good ASVAB score, I qualified for any technical training the Navy offered. I chose a four-month intelligence training course and was told that I would be required to report to boot camp in eight months (it was then the summer of 1991).

Boot camp would be in Orlando, Florida. That would take two months and it was at boot camp that I would have to volunteer for SEAL training and pass an initial physical screening test. After boot camp, I'd be sent to Virginia for four months of intelligence training. Then -- assuming that I passed the SEAL screening test at boot camp -- I'd be sent to Coronado, California for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL school (or simply "BUD/S").

I had eight months left as a civilian and I was determined to use that time as wisely as possible to maximize my chances of success in the ordeal to come.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Plan Develops

By the end of the summer (1990), I'd had my fill of the front desk duties at the YMCA and all the members' dirty towels. So, I enrolled in the Y's lifeguard certification course.

The Y was a small community and I had already become friends with the other guards, and I had been swimming a lot on my own, so the course, while challenging, was also fun. Shortly after passing it, I began taking on lifeguard hours and lessening my front desk role.

Then, after the new year (1991), Elaine and I flew to Houston, where her parents live. While the suburbs of Houston leave a lot to be desired, Elaine's parents lived in a nice, tree-lined neighborhood, and in a nice sized house (where I was given my own room).

Elaine's mother had been a stay-at-home mom and her father was an engineer. They were very hospitable and we all got along quite well. Elaine and I stayed at least a week and about halfway through our trip, I had a Eureka moment.

Elaine's mom took us to a large bookstore, where I eventually drifted over to the history and politics section. As I browsed the titles, which began transitioning to military affairs, I saw the cover of a paperback book that stopped me in my tracks.

The book: SEALs In Action, by Kevin Dockery.

It was as if all the things I had been doing in the last year -- all the seemingly unconnected thoughts and dreams I'd been having about my future -- all collapsed into a singularity at the moment I saw that book's cover. (And like such a collapse, the resulting energetic explosion was to be immense.)

I've already discussed, for example, how even before leaving the Center, I had struck upon the idea of becoming a spy of some sort. Then, after leaving the Center, my dad set up an informational interview for me with his old partner from the police department, who had gone on to the FBI and was then the acting special agent-in-charge or "SAC" of the Bureau's San Francisco office. Among other things, the SAC told me that I needed a degree, probably an advanced one (in accounting, law, or a foreign language), and that many agents also had military experience.

After that, I'd made it a point to take a tour of FBI Headquarters when Elaine and I were in Washington, D.C. The agent giving the tour said that approximately 70% of agents had military experience.

So, I had been swimming, running, lifting weights, and going to school with the idea of getting into the intelligence field when I came across Kevin Dockery's book in that Houston bookstore with Elaine and her mom. The cover photo drew me in immediately: warriors emerging from the deep to "hurt somebody's feelings." Real life action -- that's what I craved.

SEALs In Action was published before widespread knowledge of Navy SEALs existed in the public domain. But I had known from my own readings that the SEALs were the U.S. Navy's special forces component and underwent near mythic training to achieve their fearsome status within military circles. What I hadn't known, however, were the precise requirements to become a SEAL. Dockery's book laid them out precisely.

As I quickly consumed SEALs In Action in my upstairs room at Elaine's parents' home, I realized that at 25 years of age, I was still under the age cut-off (then 27). Also, I felt confident that I could already meet or surpass many of the individual, entry-level physical fitness standards: swimming, running, push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, swimming 50 yards underwater. I could do all those things. As I lay back on the bed I was both excited and scared.

I realized then and there that I had found my path forward. The enormity of that realization scared the shit out of me.

I knew just where the Navy recruiting office was, too -- just a short drive from school. Within just a few days after returning to California from Texas, I walked in and told the recruiter I wanted to be a Navy SEAL.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A Visit to New York

For the remainder of the spring and summer of 1990, I continued my general education studies at Gavilan Junior College, working at the YMCA, and best of all, seeing Elaine.

At the time, Elaine lived with a couple of girlfriends in Fremont and we spent an increasing amount of time together. From the start of our relationship, I was quite open with Elaine about my background in the Center, and my lack of experience in other matters.

So, when Elaine suggested that we take a trip back East to Washington, D.C. and Boston to see her old George Washington University roommates, I suggested we also make a detour through Queens to have dinner with some old Center friends. Elaine was all for it.

My idea -- strikingly naive as I think about it now -- was that Elaine and I would fly into JFK, rent a car, and drive into Greenwich. From there, we could drive into Queens for dinner, and then drive up to Boston the next day. So, I called my old roommate Trishatur and asked him if he'd like to meet for dinner, perhaps in Jackson Heights for some choice Indian food. Trishatur was enthusiastic and agreed to invite some of the other guys.

With that, Elaine and I made our plans. The first leg of the journey was to D.C. and it was fun. We tripped around the city with Elaine's college roommates and saw their old dormitory building -- it was both inspiring and a little intimidating to know that Elaine and her friends, all the same age as me, had completed their university studies years before (while I was just getting started at junior college).

The second leg of our trip started auspiciously, I'd thought, but quickly devolved into frustration. As Elaine and I stepped out of baggage claim at JFK, the first person I saw was an old customer from the Smile of the Beyond. Our eyes locked and we shared a few words. Elaine and I laughed -- it appeared to her as if I was well known in the Big Apple.

It was mid-afternoon by the time we had checked into our hotel in Greenwich. I called Trishatur straightaway to nail down our plans and that's when he gave me the bad news.

"Somehow Guru heard about the dinner. He said that you're welcome to come to a public meditation, but we're not supposed to meet you for dinner."

Until that moment, I had never felt really angry with Guru. Even years before, when Guru had warned me (unfairly, I had thought) to be "careful" around Jayanti, I hadn't actually felt raw anger, but rather frustration and hurt feelings. But when I hung up the phone with Trishatur, I was really pissed off at Guru personally.

I don't know why I was so mad. I had known that if Guru got wind of the dinner, he'd frown upon it. The reason for my anger, however, wasn't really important. Rather it was the effect that that anger had on my development that was important. Suddenly, in that hotel room in Greenwich, I realized that at some level I still had emotional bonds to the Center.

While I didn't want to follow the rules and had left the Center, I still craved some of the support structure the Center provided. If I was truly going to be my own man, though, then those ties would have to be severed. It occurred to me that Guru, like a mother bird, was pecking at me and preventing me from coming anywhere near the nest again.

My response to Guru's rebuff -- my anger -- severed those ties.

As Elaine and I made our way with north through Connecticut the next day, my anger was gone, and that, too, was a revelation for me. Being angry with someone didn't necessarily mean that you hated that person.

It's a healthy emotion and one that any strong relationship can withstand.

Photo credit here.