Monday, September 15, 2014


You’ll find few soft things on a U.S. Navy ship. The outside of the ship tells you little, other than its sheer size, which causes vertigo as you stand at the edge of the pier and look up to the towering antennas, and the color—which is gray. There are varying shades of gray. Gunmetal gray, deck gray, light gray, dark gray. But they’re all gray and it is a hard color. When you step onboard, you begin to duck—if you’re a fast learner. The tight oval holes of the hatchways sneak up on you in an obvious way. The tops of these ovals hang down from the oppressive ceiling, lower than you expect. Short people, who have never had the need to duck for anything in their lives, will start ducking. It becomes a reflex. Unfortunately, it’s not a reflex you lose once off the ship. Sometimes years later, you can still identify a sailor by his duck-walk. He will duck at the slightest provocation. A low ceiling? Duck. A ceiling fan hung a bit far down? Duck. A doorway that isn’t at least three feet higher than the head? DUCK.

But it’s not just the ducking. A sailor develops a sort of high-stepping shamble. It might sound contradictory, but once you try it, you’ll find it is possible, and quite valuable on a ship. Hatchways have a rim, and that rim will ensure you learn to pull your knees up as you make your way through the ship. The steel rim has an edge—a hard, sharp, unbelievably painful edge. When your shin makes contact with this rim, you will invent new curse words just to increase the variety in your blue-streak. Learning to pick your feet up while you duck is vital to your well-being. As a beginner, you may get a few bloody noses when your face inadvertently connects with a knee, but that's a price you pay for wanting a life at sea. So you start to walk in a kind of Hitleresque goose-stepping march with your shoulders hunched and your chin tucked to your chest.

During your head-ducking-goose-stepping routine, you notice the deck. It is gray, with spots of dingy brown from drips of coffee and dirty boots. The rest of your surroundings are white. Not a bright, clean white. A yellowed, sad, creamy off-white you can tell just isn’t the right color. What it isn’t the right color for, you’re never quite sure—but it’s not the right color. When you dare to pick your head up for a brief moment, a ladder materializes before you. The ladder is metal, and gray—a sort of dull, gleaming gray. It looks unstable. Nevertheless, it insists you climb it. The first step shows it’s steeper and narrower than it looks. It is unstable. But you quickly forget the rickety sway in the loud din that envelopes you with the first contact. The horrible noise rivals the sound a toddler can make with a few spoons and some pots and pans. It is loud and metallic and booming. It only bothers you for the first few ladders, however. After that, your hearing is gone and it doesn’t matter.

When you reach the next deck, you can’t resist the urge to keep climbing. You goose-step-duck around the ladderwell to the foot of the next noise-maker and continue up. As you climb, you notice a difference. The odor of paint and oil and grease and bodies lessens. The air feels cooler against your skin, which is damp with sweat from climbing these infernal ladders.

After eons, you reach the last of the ladders. This ladderwell is pitch black, not gray. Like the moment in the early morning just before dawn when the moon drops and the night closes around you, the void smothers you in a vacuum of color and light. You catch your breath. The alcove somehow both mutes and heightens the rumble of metal as you climb the last ladder. You reach the hatchway and pull the bar to unlock the door. You’re desperate to plunge through the doorway. But this is the sneakiest hatch of all. Its rim is even higher than the others. It thrusts up from the top of the ladder, counting on you to maintain your body’s reflexive movement and step only as high as the last step. As you crack the hatch, bright light streams in, preventing folly and saving your shins—sometimes.

The deck here is gray, of course. The few pieces of equipment and rooms for storage are gray. But when you look up, the cool breeze caresses you and it’s a clear blue sky. The blue eases a burden up those many ladders, one you never realized you carried.


  1. Marvelous detail, exactly like it is! I could feel what you were feeling.

  2. Thank you, Jim! What a wonderful compliment. :)