In the fall of 1982 I answered an ad for teachers that appeared in the San Diego Union classifieds. The job involved going to sea on deployed U.S. Navy ships and instructing in reading, basic English, and math. I was not a teacher, but the position did not require a credential. At that time, a bachelor’s degree and enough college credits in the specific subject areas you were going to teach were the only requirements, k seemed to be an unusual opportunity. I was single and not on any career path, but was instead toiling at one of a number of odd jobs I’d had since coming to San Diego in 1978. I enjoyed traveling and I had not yet been to the Orient. Then, too, there was the opportunity to resolve a personal riddle that had been lurking in my consciousness and
springing forward from time to time to nag me — namely, that at least twice in my life to that point I had been very close to going to naval officer candidate school.
I come from a seagoing family. Our heritage is nautical. My father’s side of the family were ship’s chandlers in Cuxhaven, Germany, for many years. My grandfather ran away from home at fourteen and circled the globe three times in the merchant marine. He served with the U.S. Navy in the First World War. In the next war both my father and uncle were navy men. And as for me, my sights had once been set on the Naval Academy, but toward the end of the application process, with the door wide open to me, I abruptly shut it on myself and went off to college in New England instead. I never fully resolved why I had so suddenly changed my mind. So now I found myself with an opportunity to see what navy life was like.
That much I knew. What I didn’t know was that I had just signed on with a traveling circus, as bizarre a group of teachers as Hollywood could create, and a life as a civilian at sea in the navy’s world — a stranger in a strange land. My colleagues, I was to discover, included misfits, maniacs, overgrown children, and the sexually demented. I found out that the program I taught in was a refuge for teachers who had been exiled from the public education system for any number of reasons: homosexuality, politics, personal conflicts. Not that all of them were of this mold. There were some excellent and dedicated teachers as well, brilliant men, in a couple of cases, who were stifled by the restraints of the traditional system and found haven within the unstructured educational program that paradoxically existed within the tightly ordered and highly structured military system. In the navy’s seagoing education program there was an anonymity of sorts, freedom to be both teacher and administrator while running the program on your ship, and few questions about your past. I had joined a little-known elite, a group known as the “Foreign Legion of Academia.’’ I would spend much of the next three years at sea, teaching basic education courses to the sailors of the Pacific Fleet, exploring modern Asia, and following the often strange adventures of my fellow teachers.
There is a story they tell about one of us. I first heard it not 1 long after I began teaching aboard ship. The story itself had taken on the quality of a legend, and by the time I heard it I could find no one who could absolutely confirm that it was entirely true. All agreed, though, that it had basis in fact. It goes like this: a young teacher was aboard a navy ship that had pulled into Phattya Beach, Thailand, for five days of liberty. He left the ship and went ashore. As a civilian he was not required to stand watch or be a part of duty sections. His time was his own. He got on a train (the Thai railway system is excellent) and headed north into the Golden Triangle, where he walked off into the small villages of the exotic jungle. He was never heard from again. The assumption was not foul play; instead it was learned from some other teachers that he had intended all along to jump ship somewhere, and he was now living, like Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz, in the heart of darkness in the Thai jungle.
Another such story, this one completely verified, told of a teacher who had just finished teaching a cycle of courses on a ship that was on local operations off San Diego. Another instructor onboard that ship had contacted the school and reported that the man showed signs of being mentally unstable, and he recommended that the man not be rehired. But there were a lot of ships requesting teachers and there was a shortage, so the man was sent out again. He was assigned to a ship that was leaving the Thirty-second Street Naval Station for a WESTPAC deployment, which usually meant six or seven months at sea. On the night before the ship was to leave, he brought his personal belongings aboard and then left to go out on the town. Two weeks later the ship sent a message back to the school from Pearl Harbor. The teacher had never come back aboard and the ship had left San Diego without him. His belongings were still on the ship, and the command wanted to know what they should do with them. Efforts were made to locate the man, but he had disappeared. Some six months later the school offices received a message from the hospital at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, The man was in their psychiatric ward. He had been brought in, incoherent, by the air force police, who had gotten him from Philippine police in Angeles City, just outside the gate. They had picked him up in a local bar, where he’d passed out on the floor. Aside from some money, the only thing in his wallet was a card identifying him as a teacher in the naval education program. He’d gone berserk when he was turned over to the military police, and thus he had been put into a strait jacket and brought to the psychiatric ward. The school immediately sent an airline ticket to him at the hospital, expecting that he would show up at the offices for his belongings and perhaps with some sort of explanation. He did use the ticket to fly to the States, but after landing in Los Angeles he vanished once again.
The navy began offering seagoing education in the mid-Sixties, when Harvard University introduced a program of courses on film that were to be shown at sea on submarines. The program failed, apparently due to the fact that there was no instructor present for contact and questions. The navy then decided to switch courses over to the surface vessels, and San Diego State University won the contract for the Pacific. In those days an instructor flew out from San Diego, and then by whatever means possible he was transferred to the ship that was offering the course. He spent a few days setting up the course and giving initial exams and instructions. The teacher then left the ship, leaving the work to be done in the manner of a correspondence course, with one of the sailors on the ship acting as a monitor. At the end of the course the teacher would fly back out to the ship, to whatever ocean it happened to be on, to give the final exam and collect the paperwork. This system too, proved to be unsatisfactory for the students, and the expense to the navy of flying the instructors back and forth and putting them up along the way did not make for a cost-effective program. So the navy changed the program in order to permit the teachers to remain deployed with the ships for the duration of whatever courses were being run. In 1969 Chapman College of Orange County took over the contract from San Diego State and began to coordinate the three major programs: PACE (Program for Afloat College Education), functional skills (the basic and remedial courses), and the vocational program, which offered training in everything from data processing to. welding.
The navy’s overseeing body for the program was the Naval Education and Training Support Center. Like all of its brethren military/governmental bureaucracies, it was large and unwieldy. It was a machine programmed to deal with military personnel and government-service civilian workers. But the teachers in the education afloat program were neither; we were information in one language being fed into a machine that spoke only a different language. Clerks and personnel people overseas were often unfamiliar with our status, and the results were sometimes frustrating. Teachers were left stranded overseas because transportation had not been properly arranged. There was confusion and debate over our eligibility to use military facilities overseas, such as exchanges and officer quarters. In one almost comical case, an instructor who was ashore on the naval base at Yokosuka, Japan, was hit by a truck. He was taken to the base hospital, but once there it was discovered that he was not military, or even government service, and the staff was confused. (Teachers in the program are not covered by any government insurance.) Unsure of his status, and perhaps concerned about liability, the hospital released him, even though he was still dazed and in a state bordering on amnesia. He wandered off. His ship left Yokosuka without him. His shipmates subsequently discovered that he was missing, and they reported the fact to the school. Program coordinators at the office in San Diego became concerned. They contacted the navy, and after some bumbling around, a message went out to authorities at Yokosuka instructing them to look for the man. He was found, still aimlessly wandering the base, and was returned to the hospital until he was well enough to be flown back to the States.
It was the summer of 1983, nearly a year after I’d first seen the ad in the Union, before I reported to my first ship to begin teaching. I was to discover that such delays were a part of the system. There would be months of work, then months of unemployment. The contract for the sea-going courses had been taken over by Central Texas College, a small junior college in Kileen, Texas, near the huge army base at Fort Hood. The navy put the program up for bids each year or two, and they had been grabbing the lowest bidder at each new contract opening. Thus the more reputable and larger schools were unable to match the low bids put in by smaller institutions that often specialized in programs for the military. The colleges had to cut costs in order to put in low bids, and the first things to get cut were instructors’ salaries and materials. For example, on my first cruise I received $550 for each of the four courses I taught, each of which demanded forty-five hours of classroom time. When Central Texas College lost the contract to City Colleges of Chicago at the end of 1983, the same course paid only $500. Despite the effects on the quality of the education, the navy continues to accept the lowest bidder. Capable instructors became more difficult to get, and the courses themselves, streamlined and strapped by austerity, became more difficult to teach.
My first ship was the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, which was tied up at North Island. When I joined her she was conducting local operations off California, training and workups in preparation for a WESTPAC deployment. The ship’s schedule was one of helloes and goodbys; we put out to sea for a week or so, then pulled back in for a few days. Then it was back to sea for a couple of weeks, back to San Diego for a couple, out again for a week, back for a couple of days. It went on like that for months.
I’d heard stories about the various types of spaces I might be forced to use for a classroom: the library, the chapel, the crew’s lounge, the mess decks. On the carrier, though, this was not a problem; the ship was big enough to have its own classrooms. Compared to the smaller ships, I had it easy in that regard. The noise factor on the ship was the biggest problem. Jets were landing on top of my classroom.
Not long after I reported aboard, a chief petty officer whom I nodded to in the passageway stopped me. “Are you a friggin’ homo?” he asked.
“The last one of you teachers we had on here was a friggin’ homo. We don’t need that shit out here.”
It was my first encounter with a not uncommon view of our program. I was still pondering that meeting when two of my colleagues came aboard the ship to begin classes of their own. After meeting them I began to wonder myself about what I had gotten involved in. One of them was an elderly German. His brother had flown with Hitler’s Luftwaffe, and he did little to conceal his own Nazi leanings. He hated Jews, speaking openly and bitterly of the few that taught in our program. Orientals and Filipinos, of whom there were a number among the ship’s crew, fared little better by him. As a teacher, he was something less than professional.
“If dey show up for my class at all, I gif dem de B. If dey do zum verk, I gif dem de A. Look, I don’t vant dem to fuck me over. If I gif dem de bad grade, dey tell ze rest zat I am de asshole. Dey don’t zign up vor my class unt I get fired, maybe. Zo, I gif dem all de gut grade. Dey are happy unt I keep verking.”
The other teacher was an economics professor from a small college in California. A demure man of about .forty, he confirmed questions I’d had about him one day when we were in our stateroom. He revealed to me that he was homosexual. He was disappointed to learn that I was not (“Totally straight? What a shame!”), but for some reason he began to talk about his adventures. He told me that he’d already found two other homosexuals, one an officer, on this ship, and he knew from experience that on a ship this size there were many more. Despite my convictions about remaining unprejudiced, I found myself avoiding being seen with him too often. The military is often a narrow-minded system, and guilt by association is a rule rather than an exception.
I found in time that there were quite a few sexually unorthodox men in the program. The homosexuals were truly a surprise, because by putting themselves under the watchful eye of the navy, they subjected themselves to a scrutiny that did not exist in the world ashore. The navy had little tolerance for homosexuality, and it had been stepping up efforts to eliminate these people from the ranks. Yet it was not, and is not, rare. In the world of men without women on the combat vessels, there are those who will seek out each other despite the dangers.
As for the heterosexuals, one word summed up the attraction for them: Subic. Subic is a catchall name for the area just outside the naval base the United States maintains in the Philippines. It includes the town of Olongapo, Subic City, and the barrio between them. It is well known to sailors of both the Pacific and Atlantic fleets. It is an adult Disneyland, a porno theme park where every sexual fantasy imaginable can be lived out for a few pesos. Most of the men are just lonely and horny sailors, but lost souls, deviants, and men in the throes of a midlife crisis could also find solace and an ego boost there. For some men, the seediness and squalor was an aphrodisiac.
“When I first started teaching in this program,” another teacher said to me, “I thought everyone was in it for the same reasons I was. You know, to educate the sailors, to give them another chance to better themselves, all that. Then I found out that a hell of a lot of these guys are in this so that they can come to Subic and get laid up, down, and sideways. There are a lot of sexually bizarre people working here.”
My first time in Subic, I ran into the old Nazi. I had not seen him for about four months. Here he was. pushing eighty, with a wife back home, walking arm in arm with two Filipino girls, neither of whom could have been more than fifteen.
“Zis is great, no?” he said to me. “Here I can get two girls for maybe twenty dollars. You vant one of dem tomorrow?”
The other instructor who’d been aboard with me, the homosexual economics teacher, was eventually caught by the Naval Investigation Service. He was quietly dismissed from the program.
In the Sea of Japan, off Korea, I spent my lunch hours playing chess with Paul, a PACE instructor who’d been with the program for years. He once told me about his first assignment. He was sent to a very remote army post in Alaska to replace a teacher who’d been unable to finish the course. Only when he got there did Paul find out the details. The base was completely isolated. In the winter the wind howled, the snow blew, and the only way to get between Quonset huts and buildings was via eerie ice tunnels. Soldiers at the base told stories of men gone berserk from the isolation, hiding in the ice tunnels with fire axes — polar serial killers. Paul learned that the teacher he was replacing had cracked under the strain of it and had to be flown out. There was nothing to do there but get blind drunk, which they all did every night. Just before Raul got there, they’d had a party. The base commander and several of his lieutenants, drunk, had gone out in one of the Sno Cats or some such vehicle and rolled it. They were all killed. But the next night their buddies threw another party, consoled by the thought that, oh well, at least the previous night had seen a good party.
I stayed with the aircraft carrier through the WESTPAC deployment. I came to know the sea life, the monotony, the deprivation, and the beauty, danger, and serenity of the ocean. We saw the Orient. After Pearl Harbor came the Philippines, then Pusan, Korea, and Hong Kong. After months in the Indian Ocean, we made port in Perth, Australia. Teaching kept me busy all day and for two hours at night. I ran as many courses as I could — four was the maximum allowed at one time — to keep away boredom. On many ships there was resentment toward instructors because they would only run a class or two a day, leaving them with huge amounts of free time. The navy men had precious little free time, and they were sometimes bitterly envious. I worked eight to ten hours a day, teaching my four functional skills classes, more for my own sanity than their opinion.
Typically I would be up at five or 5:30 in the morning so that I could run on the flight deck before the ship began morning flight operations. I began teaching at 7:30. The classroom, a space that held about twenty desks, was little more than functional. Paneling had been put in to lessen the austere atmosphere of the pipes, wiring, and ducts, and there was a large, noisy air conditioner, but no other amenities.
Math was the first class of the day. It covered basic whole numbers and fractions, and progressed up to elementary algebra and geometry. In the second half of the morning I taught an English class. Most of the students who came to me had trouble putting together a decent paragraph, let alone a composition, and there was an epidemic of poor spelling, so I made them write and rewrite. I had forty-five hours spread over about three weeks to try to get them to a point where they could write somewhat effectively.
After lunch I taught a reading class. I kept the class flexible, with a lot of variation, because I had discovered that the worst thing I could do to a student who was already in a system that runs his entire life — as the military did — was to try to force him to read. I worked as much as I could with the students who had serious reading problems. A few were reading at the college level, but most were reading with eighth- or ninth-grade competence. Sometimes the problems were too deeply rooted, and the materials I had to work with did not reach down to a low-enough reading level. Some students needed to go back to the very beginning, back to phonetics, and learn how to read all over again. Others I thought might be dyslexic, and in these cases there was little I could do. I had had no experience with dyslexia. The military made no provisions for such people, either; there was always something they could do without having to read much.
When the afternoon class was over, I went to the ship’s gym for an hour or two to work out. Then I spent a couple of hours reading or preparing for the next day’s classes. After that I held my night course, a basic writing class for petty officers. The class was over at ten or 10:30, and I was usually in my bunk by eleven. This was the routine, six or seven days a week. The effect of that intense a schedule was to make time pass virtually unnoticed. I would suddenly realize, after what seemed to be only a few days, that three weeks had passed and it was time to end a cycle of courses and begin another cycle. New faces came in and took the seats, new voices called out answers.
The capitalization drill read: the taj mahal is a marble masoleum in india. One of the students asked me what masoleum meant, and I realized that most of them probably didn’t know. I put the question to the class, and after pondering it for a moment, one of the students said, “Yeah, like those Arabs and those guys in I-ran. They’re all masoleums.”
Once another instructor, who was teaching a college American history course onboard, showed me an exam he'd just given. The question was, “Explain Manifest Destiny.” The answer he'd gotten read, “Manifest Destiny is the paper that the truck driver looks at to see where his freight is going.”
I found students with third- and fourth-grade reading levels. There were twenty-year-old young men who could not put together a simple sentence. I found men who could not subtract: division was Greek to them. On the Enterprise we found a man who could not read or write at all, save a scrawl that passed for his signature. He said that his recruiter had taken the entrance exam for him. The navy was forced to run an education program because of both the failure of the public education system and the nature of many of the men that enlisted. Some of them came to me because they wanted help; they had recognized their own problem and saw a chance to help themselves. Others were sent by the navy. Most at least tried to do the work; some were rocks, and there was little I could do to teach them. I tried as hard as I could to make them understand that learning to read and write would only help them later in life. There came a point with some of them where you just had to give up on them. Some of them would remain ignorant until they died.
I was sitting in a bar in Waikiki one day with several other instructors. Tom, who was on his way back to the States after completing an assignment, was telling us all about his problem. He’d contracted a nasty dose of venereal disease in the Philippines, and now he was supposed to be heading back home to his wife. Jerry, the senior member of the group and a sort of legend because of his wild sexual adventures with the hookers in every port in Asia, was offering advice.
“Whatever you do,” Jerry said, “don’t bring it home. I’m telling you. They can forgive almost anything, but they won't forgive you the clap.”
“I told her I’d be home this week.” “Well, tell her you can’t get a MAC flight. Better yet — yeah, this will work. Tell her that another instructor got sick and you've got to finish up his classes. Tell her it will be another couple of weeks.”
“Then what?” Tom asked.
“Then you fly back to the P.I.” “Back to the Philippines?”
“Listen. You fly back to P.I. Go up to Angeles City to one of the little pharmacies on the main drag. They can sell you pills and stuff for the clap that you can’t get in the States. You know, it’s not FDA approved and all that.”
“You mean it works, so the doctors here won’t let it out on the market.” “Whatever. You can get stuff there that will knock it out of you. Done it myself, and I’ve had every kind of clap there is, just about.”
“You know how much it’s gonna cost me to fly back to the P.I.?”
“It’s your life, man, Maybe it’s Black Clap. Maybe they’ll have to send you to Terminal Island.”
We all got a big laugh out of that. “Terminal Island” was a legend left over from the Vietnam era. Soldiers and sailors in Vietnam and Thailand were picking up vicious Asian strains of venereal disease, some incurable. It was said that those who got the worst one of all, known as the Black Clap, could not ever go back to the States, because the government feared an epidemic at home if they brought it in. So these unfortunates were sent to Terminal Island, a small desolate island in the South China Sea where they would live out their lives as lepers.
I saw for myself that the legend was still very much alive. On one visit to Subic, fully one-fifth of the crew of the ship came down with at least some form of venereal disease. I was part of a practical joke that was played on one poor eighteen-year-old kid. We had him convinced that the ship was going to stop at Terminal Island to discharge anyone who had picked up the Black Clap. I heard that a couple of navy corpsmen had one sailor so convinced that he was being sent there, that he had his seabag packed. He was in tears until they let him in on the truth.
A few years ago on the East Coast, one of our instructors was killed. The navy was testing the ship’s close-in weapons system, a rapid-fire twenty-millimeter cannon that throws up a wall of lead against incoming Exocet-type missiles. They fired a drone missile toward the ship, and the system, known as Phalanx, did its job and shot down the drone. But when the drone hit the water it skipped up like a flat stone, rising from the dead, and crashed into the side of the ship. The only casualty was the civilian teacher. He'd been in his stateroom at the time, adjacent to the spot where the drone hit. The navy doesn’t use drones for that test anymore; instead, they tow the targets behind a jet fighter.
Who would live this life? Who would work in such a program? The majority of the teachers are older men, retired teachers, military men, businessmen. They have pensions or some sort of retirement plan to back them up. Some of them, though, are the men who gave this Foreign Legion its name. They are young and middle-age men who thrive on the rootlessness of the job. Refuge from whatever has befallen them in life on land is provided by steaming away to Asia on a ship. The navy takes care of them. They are fed, they have a place to sleep, their laundry is done for them. When they make port there are plenty of women who will, for a price, pretend to be the wife that is the only thing missing from this wandering way of life. y are men without roots or ties, or with roots and ties they would rather forget. In the Legion, none of that matters. The sea is home, the navy is caretaker, and the liberty ports are the pleasures of life.
Some of these men become so attached to a ship that they literally live there. One teacher who’d been an administrator in a San Diego County school district for fifteen years came to the program after a broken marriage and a failed attempt at a business left him adrift. He took an assignment on a ship out of Long Beach. At last count he’d been with the ship for more than two years, and he keeps no permanent residence on shore.
Another instructor, Jim, told me about a man who’d been aboard a ship with him. The man had finished teaching one course and word had gotten around that he was “strange,” so no one signed up for the next course he was supposed to teach. He retreated to his bunk, pulled the curtain, and there he remained, week after week, reading. He rose only to eat. Jim finally confronted him and told him that he was silly to stay on when he wasn’t teaching and thus not making any money. The man looked up over his book and said, “The Lord will tell me when it’s.time to leave this ship.’’ Jim stayed away from him. The command never questioned him; he was a teacher and they assumed that he was teaching. Weeks passed and Jim finally finished his assignment and left the ship. Months later, after the ship had returned to San Diego, Jim took his wife down to the ship to show her where he’d lived and taught during the months at sea. When he opened the door to his old stateroom, there was his old roommate, still in his bunk reading, still not working.
After I returned from the seven-month WESTPAC cruise, I told myself that I wasn’t going to go out again. I’d spent a year on that ship, and enough was enough.
My friend Tim, also an instructor, told me that the urge to go back to sea would eventually hit me. “Happened to me,’’ he said. “I said the same thing when I got back last time. After a while you start getting this uneasy feeling, and you’re not sure what it is. Then you’re down at the beach or the harbor and it really gets you. That’s it. You go back out. Some people have the sea in their blood. My family has it. I think yours does, too. You’ll see. It will come.’’
I lived in Carlsbad for six months, teaching a few courses at Thirty-second Street Naval Station whenever they came up, getting restless, trying to sort out a jumble of feelings over going to sea or finding a “real” job. The longing Tim had spoken of came to me. From the second floor of the condo I was living in, I could look out to sea at the navy ships operating off the coast. On a clear day you could see them steaming back and forth past San Clemente Island. From time to time the distant thunder of their guns would shake the walls and rattle the windows: I had still not resolved the question of my future; more than that, I could not shake the desire to go back to sea. It was calling.
In March of 1985 I flew to Pearl Harbor and boarded a fast frigate that was heading for the Philippines and the vast open water to the west of that — the Indian Ocean. I stayed with that ship for three months. It was a good assignment, the kind that makes you say, yeah, this isn’t so bad. I blended in well with the officers, with whom I shared meals and quarters, and I made some friends. I was the only civilian aboard, and yet I was treated as if I were one of them. Things had gone smoothly. I’d run two full cycles of classes and the results of the testing had been good. The program had been a success.
On May 25 I climbed down a ladder on the port side of the frigate and into a waiting speedboat. We were in the Maldive Islands, a little-known Islamic republic in the Indian Ocean. I detached from the ship there. The speedboat pulled away and I waved to friends and former students who were standing at the rail. As the ship became distant I felt the longing again, and I cursed the fact that it hadn't even let me get back to the States before rising up again. Two days later I was at Lindbergh Field.
Not long ago the school called me again. The coordinator told me they had a cruiser that would be perfect for me. I could go out there, stay indefinitely, make some money. It was a good ship, he assured me, with decent living conditions. I might even get my own stateroom; more likely I’d have to share it with only one or two other people.
I felt the longing. Just once more, it said. It was the lure of the sea, and it was searching for me. I saw those fiery Indian Ocean sunsets, peaceful nights on the bridge under a sky full of stars, new liberty ports, travel, new friendships, the sea life. It was pulling hard.
But then I saw something else. It was a vision of an older man, lonely, rootless, wandering the streets of a place that was now familiar to him but was not, and could never be, his home. He had merely adopted it. The man in the vision turned around, and I saw that he had my face.