Still, it was the Navy, so I had lots of time at sea. My job was that of an OS, or an Operations Specialist. People in my rating specialized in several shipbound warfare areas; undersea warfare, anti-aircraft warfare, surface warfare, and a couple of other areas, too. Being that our eyes had to be open to all sorts of “pictures,” meant that we had to work in an area where we could “see” (through radar and not through windows) everything around us. That space was called Combat Information Center, CIC, or simply “Combat.” We Operations Specialists didn’t work there alone, but shared the space with other ratings such as those of Fire Controlmen, Electronic Warfare Specialists, and an occasional Sonar Technician or two.
We kept a constant eye on the picture, of course, but diminished contacts (what we called the blips on the radar pictures) meant more time to daydream, snack, and talk. We watchstanders learned about each other’s educations, families, favorite foods, what we’d do after we pulled back into our homeport, and what we wanted to do at liberty ports, too.
What roused me the most was the talk of music. It was my opinion that one could learn a lot about someone depending on the music that moved him or her. Sailors (and all other service members) are brave souls, but I had a lot of admiration for the ones who could actually belt out a few bars of their favorite tunes. I’d do it too, depending on how amused or how delirious with exhaustion I might be, which happened a lot as I stood many, many hours of watch.
One sailor, an FC2 (Fire Controlman Second Class Petty Officer), mentioned a song that was popular right before we went out to sea for that pre-deployment training exercise. It was called “Back At One,” and it was by a musician by the name of Brian McKnight. He asked us if we’d seen the video for it yet. Most of us had not. He then proceeded to describe it in detail. In the video, the protagonist is singing the solemn, bittersweet tune as he rides in a car with other people. The FC2 was a natural storyteller, though, so I knew that there was more to the video. With his details, I made the connection that the people riding in the car together were from different walks of life, and would probably not ride along with each other during any other day. The FC2 nodded and smiled at me. He then got to the “climax” of his story, and the video. The singer and everyone else in the car were dead - perished in a plane crash. The rest of the video featured flashbacks of the flight and what the passengers did for their remaining time. The protagonist gets on an airphone to call his lady love and tell her how much he loves her. She was devastated, of course.
After hearing about the video, the sweet song haunted me just a bit more. I thanked the FC2 for his story and went on to thinking of other things. The next day, while eating supper on the mess decks, I heard the commanding officer come over the 1MC (the general announcing system). Apparently, there had been a passenger airline crash near the area where our ship had been sailing and we were to cease our Middle Eastern Force exercises to go on site to assist the Coast Guard with their search and rescue efforts. I felt the ship turn and then quickly speed up to its maximum speed of 30 knots. After finishing my meal, I hit my rack. The severity of the situation kept me awake for a while, but eventually I fell asleep. I woke up five minutes before my alarm was supposed to go off and I swear that I felt the ocean talking to me. In many voices it said, “Look at me! I am here! Please look at me,” the voices begged. Chilled, I showered and went up to Combat.
Combat was full of people that were usually only there during drills and other training scenarios. Speakers that were usually quiet erupted with different voices coming from different vessels, as well as different land-based stations. A watch supervisor told me that for the time being, we were under the command of the Coast Guard. That was okay by us, though, as we wanted to do what we could to help. Our ship did spanning square searches in order to find debris. We found plenty of that. Hours later, the search status changed from a search and rescue one, to a search and recovery (SAR) one. I sat on a desk by the radios and kept the log books that recorded the information that I heard. The most chilling thing I learned was how debris - human and synthetic - were measured; by weight.
We remained tasked to the SAR area for as long as we could, but left a few days after as we had to resume our pre-deployment training exercises. A few days after the training, we pulled into San Francisco for liberty. Before we could leave the ship for some fun liberty, a representative from the airline came to our ship and spoke on the 1MC (1 main circuit, the public address system aboard a Navy vessel) to thank us for our assistance during the SAR efforts. The words rang hollow to me, though, or maybe it was just the way his voice bounced off the steel bulkheads in the passageways of our ship. It was an awful thing, I thought. Was that representative privy to the information spoken on the radios in the search area? Did he know that our ship’s lookouts kept spotting seat cushions, even as we sped away from the SAR area?
Did he hear about the child’s red shoe that was found floating in the water?
But I’d heard the reports. I’d heard the anguish of the ocean in my heart. And thanks to a late hour combat conversation, I would forever have a sad song playing in my memory of the most heartbreaking service event I’d ever been witness to.
Original Photo Credit: Flickr