Being at sea was always a time for me to figure out my sober self, workout and read, because at sea, there was no alcohol and, most importantly, no cell service. Thus, if you wanted music or porn, you had to download it all before setting sail. This weird predicament, having a finite amount of music and porn on the ship, at a certain point caused devices to be traded like baseball cards. Some people were happy to give theirs away, expressing how good their tastes were for the unmentionables. These people were typically the saltiest they had been in for a while. But after being on a ship long enough, working with and getting to know the same people to the point that the taboo boundaries of the workplace begin to dissolve, the idea of normal began to change; it became something that one would never have foreseen before leaving. One time, after getting off a twelve-hour watch, I came down into the common area of my berthing (the sleeping area) to find a crowd of people watching and commentating on amateur porn. Someone had hooked up their hard drive to the TV, and people of all ranks had piled in. One guy, my OS1, commented, “Look how small his balls are!” Which was met quickly with, “No, that’s average,” accompanied by a mumble of agreement. I agreed too.
With the way that relationships between coworkers on the ship had become, there was never a hitch in conversation. Illegal activity that we regularly partook in was spliced into conversation and, honestly, valued. We had all heard the mundane stories of everyone’s lives—high school football victories and fishing with Peepaw. One of my friends would regale us on a long watch with his tales of prostitutes around the world while he would use the ship’s computers to email his wife. Another buddy of mine talked about how he had unwillingly become the biggest mushroom dealer in Norfolk. His friend from New York would just keep mailing him a pound of mushrooms every week. It was no surprise to anyone, except for maybe the family members of the sailors, that the bonds made out at sea and the lack of boundaries with so many people at once would spill over into the real world when we hit land. In Haifa, Israel, the second port on our deployment, 90 percent of the men on my ship had become Eskimo brothers between two very busy prostitutes. A gaggle of junior officers illegally bussed to Tel Aviv, which was at high risk of Isis bombings—we were initially supposed to go to Belgium, but they had just experienced a terrorist attack—almost all of them getting blackout drunk. And when standing pier watch, my friends and I would compete to see who could draw their pistol the fastest. We would stand in a small circle facing each other, someone would start a countdown, then we’d draw.
Sometimes it seemed that we were so distant from reality, that achieving “normalcy” became an issue, even if it wasn’t a conscious act. I’d say it is abnormal to be on a ship and live in a barren environment anyways—the one environment that Bear Grylls couldn’t survive in—eating pudding because it’s the only thing that hasn’t gone bad, to do a job that gives us mattress discounts one day a year. But normalcy was different for everyone, everyone had their own touchstone. I had a girlfriend on the ship, several people on the ship were in relationships too and normalcy was being able to do relationship things—hang out, kiss, fuck, things that one couldn’t do openly. This forced people to sneak off into the cracks and crevices of the ship, literally. I worked topside of the ship, which meant I had access to the spaces outside. My girlfriend and I would go under the paint punt, a 10-foot, aluminum fishing boat used to travel the waterline of the ship, that, when titled against a bulkhead, gave a decent amount of headspace. My best friend’s girlfriend worked in a radar room, a closet dedicated to the safety of our ship, where they got to be alone.
There’s no such thing as normal. There are only institutions with values that the majority of us cling to. And these values help us judge the world around us. I’ve worked several jobs after I had gotten out of the military, weird jobs even, all with different values. And now I’m a student. There have been difficult moments in every place I’ve been. The moral boosters, the things that make you not question your position in life as much, that I had been given as a barista at Starbucks or the concerts that I’ve been to at Vassar, may or may not compare to a drone strike highlight tape with AC/DC playing in the background.