A metal giant floated before me the night of Dec. 13. I stood at the harbor, heaved my backpack onto my shoulder and kept my eyes on the 950,000-ton ship that would be my hotel for the next four days.
The USS Nimitz towered over crowds of civilians, casting shadows in the night over my new family. After weaving through fellow travelers and Navy sailors, climbing a flight of aluminum stairs and crossing over onto the aircraft carrier, the Shipps found themselves on a ship.
We were in the bowels of the great vessel, standing in the middle of what could’ve passed as an enormous empty warehouse, but really was the hangar deck vacant of aircraft.
Chief Warrant Officer Rob Shipp, my brother-in-law, looked at our name tags with our room numbers on them, and like a broken compass he turned a few times and settled on a direction that led toward the front of the ship.
After 17 years on a submarine, Rob was new to aircraft carriers. They had many more hallways than a cramped underwater tube. Since he had only been on his deployment on the Nimitz for two months, he was about as good as any of us would have been at finding our rooms.
After winding through the tight hallways with royal blue floors, and ascending and descending flights of outrageously steep stairs, we finally asked for help from a sailor trying to maneuver through the crowd of Shipp family members going the opposite direction.
With his guidance, we found our rooms, which resembled a miniature high school locker room with metal sinks and three bunk beds. Each bed had a tired-looking mattress equipped with stiff sheets and a signal wool blanket that I knew would serve no purpose on the cold ship.
The Nimitz and her crew were on the last leg of a nine-month deployment where they patrolled the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. When the ship got back to Hawaii, I’m sure the poor sailors were ready to walk the plank when crowds of moms, dads and crying children took over their ship to embark on a Tiger Cruise up to the homeport in Everett, Wash.
The cruise was a time for the family, who sends so much support toward their ocean soldiers, to experience the gallant work their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, or moms and dads do.
The next morning, with a few honks from the deep foghorn, the ship took us away from land and brought us out to the middle of the vast ocean.
Throngs of camera-holding “Tigers” stood on the flight deck and were blasted by the noise of F-18 jets dancing in the air during an air show just for us.
For the seven members of the Shipp clan, the challenge of the trip was to be smarter than the ship and not get lost. A feat we often failed at.
However, the place we always knew we could find was the Ward Room, which was the fancy Navy way of saying the cafeteria that flowed with chocolate milk and ice cream, much to the pleasure of my two tween-age nephews.
For reasons unbeknownst to my civilian brain, Rob was one of the chosen ones who got to drive the ship.
Often, those of the Shipp family who hadn’t been conquered by the labyrinth of stairways on the way up would show up at the bridge during his shift. We’d sit in the captain’s chair, touch and point at important-looking beeping things, and watch the 8- to 10-foot swells push the flight deck up and down over the ocean.
The hangar was equipped with a basketball court, a big movie screen playing reruns of the American classic TV show “Duck Dynasty,” and a myriad of chains and ropes to trip on.
The Shipp family made itself known during the dodgeball tournament in which each able bodied member fought to the bitter end against sailors who could have crushed Popeye in an arm-wrestling tournament.
When the Nimitz finally pulled up to port in Everett, the sturdiness of the land under my feet made me nauseated.
Since then, the sea legs have worn off and the theme song of “Top Gun” is slowly unsticking itself from my head. I hope I’ll never forget the experience … just in case I ever get the notion to join the Navy.
However, for those who have faced the challenge of life on the ocean in the name of freedom, I salute you. Thanks for making Americans look good.