Where Were You?

 

I'm taking English 111 and was assigned to wirte a personal narrative essay. I was going to write about this anyway but here goes... (I know formatting sucks, but whatever.) 

Where were you on 9-11? 

It’s going to be one of those questions. Like “Where were you when Kennedy was shot” or “Where were you when the bombs were dropped?” They’ll ask with a glare in their eyes, just waiting to pounce and chastise me if I had ever forgotten. It’s going to be one of those questions – “Where were you on September 11th?” 

I was aboard the USS Enterprise, underway in the Indian Ocean. But this fact alone cannot convey the feelings that were felt, help people comprehend why I felt that way, and will never answer the question the way it was meant to be answered. 

I had been assigned to the USS Enterprise in 1998 as a Nuclear Qualified Electronics Technician (ET). Qualifying ‘Senior In Rate’ for a Nuke ET means you’ve qualified as a Reactor Operator, which was our primary reason for being onboard - to make sure the reactors run safely, smoothly, and reliably. This qualification was regarded as a major accomplishment and took the better of two years for most, qualifying no less than five other watch-stations along the way. I had taken it a step further and qualified Reactor Technician (RT). I had overall responsibility for the reactor plants and their reactor operators. I wandered from plant to plant answering only to the Watch Officers. By the time I had qualified Reactor Technician, I had become a first class petty officer. When not on watch, I was the Work Center Supervisor and acting Lead Petty Officer for 2-plant. I dictated watch-bills, maintenance schedules, and liberty for the entire work center. Not one of my peers had gone this far. No one questioned my expertise. No one challenged my authority. I was living the life, I was on top of the world, I was a god among men. 

All that came to a screeching halt. 

I had been brought up on charges before. The first Captain’s Mast I was going to was for drawing a picture and copying it on a government copier. Charges were dropped at the Executive Officer’s Interview – while I was crying like a little baby. The second time I was put up on charges, they was dropped long before that. Some girl was walking through our berthing without yelling “female on deck!” so I proceeded to educate her on the finer points of male berthing – in my skivvies. She claimed sexual harassment. Whatever, I didn’t even flinch at the report. The third time I was up for Captain’s Mast, I was a veteran. The charge was insubordination – back talking a Watch Officer – I had been given an order as Reactor Operator I felt violated Reactor Safety. I said “No,” it escalated, he had me relieved. 

The peculiarity of this Captain’s Mast was not in the case itself, or its outcome – dismissed (I have friends in high places). What was interesting was how I was treated during the whole ordeal and how it put me in my place for September 11th. Whereas most people who are brought up on charges are immediately disqualified, put on a working party while waiting, and forced to re-qualify after Mast, I was never stripped of my qualifications. I was never put on a working party. I was only to be put on the watch-bill as a Phone Talker until Mast was over. I was still responsible for 2-plant but was not allowed to sign anything. I was now their bitch – a fully-capable, qualified, and neutered lap-dog ready to do their bidding to stay out of trouble. For four out of the seven months we were on deployment, I was a Phone Talker. 

I woke up on that September morning and felt the heat of the bulkhead pressing me back down in my rack. We were seven days deep in a ten day trip to Cape Town, South Africa and it was hot – real hot in the Indian Ocean. I was feeling good, even relieved as I got dressed and made my way to the head. After Cape Town, we were around the horn of Africa and on our way home. Despite our watch-bill being five and dimes, I was happy to go to watch, too. The seven to twelve was the beginning of a new day – a fresh start, always welcome in this monotonous haze grey painted world. 

It was a quick turnover and I was happy to see my Watch Team. Both Reactor Operators were friends of mine. The Watch Officer was my favorite, a former enlisted Electrician that was fun, charismatic, and always had a good story to tell. The Throttleman was a new guy we were breaking in. The watch was going along smoothly. 

I was taking my nine o’clock logs when the phone rang. The watch officer had an uncharacteristic serious look on his face – almost disbelief as he hung up the phone. 

“What’s up, sir?” I asked, growing concerned. 

“Apparently, a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center,” he turned to look at me, “Phone Talker, goes see what’s going on.” The watch station erupted in talk as I headed out the hatch to find the nearest television. 

The entire ship seemed to buzz as I cut my way to the First Class lounge. The TV was on when I walked in, displaying the smoking inferno of the North Tower. I called down to the plant to confirm the news to the Watch Officer. Halfway through the report I was horrified to watch the second plane hit the South Tower. Tingles went up the back of my neck. This was not an accident. I ran back to the plant. The ship listed as it turned. We knew our liberty port was now cancelled. 

For the rest of the watch, I was the intermediate for getting news on what was going on, running between various TVs and the plant. It wasn’t but a few minutes after the Pentagon had been hit when the Engine Order Telegraph came up with a new bell. We had all been staring and talking to each other about what just happened and what was going to happen next, but the Telegraph had our attention now. Each change of numbers gave another chime until the Engine Order Telegraph read the bridge’s desired speed, our anticipation growing with each chime. 

“All Ahead Flank, zero, zero, zero,” the Throttleman announced. 

“What is Zero, Zero, Zero?” I blurted. For the Throttleman to repeat what he saw, as he was trained, and as he had done so many times before, it was nothing. For me, on the otherhand, a Reactor Technician and Lead Petty Officer, to question the never-before-seen order, was quite another, and drew and uproar of confusion from everyone. 

The phone rang, and the Watch Officer snatched it before I could answer. “One Watch Officer,” he answered. He listened. We listened. The order came. “Reactor Operator, Coordinate with the Throttleman to answer All-Ahead Flank to 100% Reactor Power. Disregard Main Engine limitations.” 

“Holy Shit,” I thought. To fully appreciate this, one must understand how much power is involved with 100% reactor power. A typical Ahead flank bell draws not even enough Reactor Power to be concerned about. A high Ahead Flank Bell is usually never reached due to some other Main Engine limitation being reached first, such as temperature or pressure. But to disregard all Main Engine limitations – potentially breaking stuff (limitations are made for a reason) – and giving it everything you could possibly could meant we were doing something I had never heard of being done before, something dangerous, something fast. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. A silence came over everyone in the plant as their focus changed from what was for lunch or who they beat in Madden to the readiness of their plant. The intent look and feel from the watchstanders was something I’ll never forget as all our differences were erased and we came together, united, to fulfill a common mission. 

Never before and never again had I felt so much pride in the Big E. Never before and never again had I been so proud to serve aboard her.