Saturday, June 27, 2015

Tiki, Travels, and Taking a Job

Last Saturday, I graduated from the US Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, NY with a degree in Marine Engineering and Shipyard Management, as well as an Engineering Officer's License for ships of any size.The Saturday commencement was a capstone to three days of event, and late nights spent wishing farewells, rather than studying for a test. My greatest personal accomplishment was winning the Seabulk Tanker prize, earning a pair of binoculars and my name on a plaque in the Marine Transportation building, or Bowditch Hall.  

In addition to the pomp and circumstance, I had to make logistics happen to "leave no trace" upon my departure, asides from my name in Bowditch Hall. Since I had my own room for the last half of Senior Year at the Academy, I never felt that I had too much "stuff". Because Washington, DC, my home, is within driving distance of Kings Point, NY, I kept items that my farther-traveling classmates left behind: things like home accessories, Academy gym gear, class notes, and textbooks. This past week, I have been going through the plastic tubs to determine what I actually ought to keep with me for the future, what will stay at home, and what can be sent to Goodwill. The weekend came as a conclusion to this routine, and Mom treated me to lunch at a restaurant in the local Chinatown known as "Eat First". I couldn't help but notice the drink menu. It was a near facsimile of a 1960's tiki menu I had saved on my computer. Many of the drink names evoked a particular island, Oriental destination, or means of getting there: "Lava Mountain" for Hawaii, "Singapore Sling", "Mai Tai" for Polynesia, and "Navy Grog" are a few of the example.  That was a throwback, as well as an appetizer for my future career.

During my Sea Year at the Academy, I had the fortune to visit a handful of island ports: Saipan, Guam and Hawaii, all associated with the United States. Saipan was where I had spent considerable time among the locals, and got to try the local cuisine.
As for the Orient, I visited a small town in Korea, where the gastronomical specialty was meat roasted on a stick, accompanied by kimchee.  This was pretty similar to the Philippine-inspired dishes found in Saipan consisting of roast meat with rice or noodles. Indigenous dishes consisted of fish and roots. Of course, a proper tiki menu could be found at the major resorts that catered to tourists, most of whom traveled five hours by air from Japan and Taiwan. To better appeal to American tastes, tiki restaurants often used Chinese food to supplement a Polynesian menu. Tiki torches and lei are much more appealing to tourists than acknowledging the realities of working-class life in the Marianas.

"Eat First" in DC is not the only Chinese restaurant with an inclination for tropical drinks. The more upscale Elena's near Kings Point, NY does this as well, and I am sure that many other Asian restaurants keep a tropical theme, as well.  You can order a tropical drink and fantasize about the tranquility of tropical islands and the exoticism of the Orient. Sailors young and old have been, or will go, to these far-flung locales.
The difference between today and Tiki's heyday fifty years ago is the ease of travel by airplane, and the resorts that cater to travelers' material pleasures. So-called exotic islands are no longer the sole domain of sailors on merchant ships and the Navy's Seventh Fleet, or Marines who stormed the beaches during World War Two. The mystique is less mystifying.


Monday, June 15, 2015

Finished With Engines (Part II of II)

     Once you get through the first license test, you know what to expect. With anxieties lowered, all you need to focus on in the material. And if you do not feel confident in the performance of your test, never look back once the test is over. I invoked this principle several times when classmates asked me about specific questions on exams that were already done. Triple-check your work: Transpositions of answers can sink an otherwise stellar performance. If you think you failed, count the number of questions you have no idea about (100% wrong), then add those questions you guessed between two choices (66% wrong), and figure out how many you are uncertain about (33% wrong). Add these up, with the proper proportions. When the final results came out, I was surprised by how accurate my metric served me. Call it Sawatzki’s Rule. 

     Monday was dedicated to Diesel engines, the primary mode of propulsion of merchant ships. The easiest subject was Safety, which I studied for. This was advantageous, as I finished first and had plenty of time to study for the next test, Generals. The toughest exam was Generals, and Electrical was an unexpected blessing. The final two exams were on Steam propulsion, which is present on older vessels, as well as in niche applications such as liquid gas carriers and nuclear ships. The class expected to do well, as much of our classroom instruction focused on elements of steam systems, from turbine design to thermodynamics.  

     On the final test, I did a full triple-check. This was the end, and there was no need to rush. Most engineering midshipmen pass all tests on the first round, but sometimes it is quite arbitrary who fails a single test. I bided my time by packing my belongings to take home. Lunch was catered from Chipotle, which was enjoyed by all. We were told to report to Wiley Hall at 2pm for the results to be posted, but there was a bit of a delay. During the meanwhile, classmates talked with nervous anticipation, never making plans for next week (so as to avoid a ‘jinx’). Results were posted just a few minutes before 4pm. 85% passed all seven tests the first time, and another 10% had one test to remediate in the next week. My parents had traveled from DC for the bell-ringing ceremony, so the stakes were raised on me passing the first time. Which I did: a low of 79 on Generals, and a high of 100 on Safety. 

     My mood was a bit subdued, in solidarity with those who were retaking their tests on the following Wednesday. But for those who were truly uncertain about their results, a passing result was cause for immense celebration. To me, ringing the bell was an effort in maintaining old traditions, tethered by my parents’ wish of a solemn event, despite efforts of the Academy’s administration to formalize, and tame, the occasion.
     After the bell was rung, and the tassel removed for the sake of peace-and-quiet, the local park was filled with gleeful seniors who earned their stripe. After sunset, the convoy filled the local firemens’ outfit. I had a fine dinner with my family in Roslyn, but upon the advice of my company officer, a 1977 graduate, I made sure to spend time afterwards with my Kings Point family of classmates. With the significant number of seniors beginning their travel on the next day, the celebrations ended fairly early, to the pleasure of the “townies” in Great Neck.  

Thursday, June 11, 2015

All Boilers Firing (Part I of II)

The final trimester started in March with General Dempsey’s visit to the Academy, followed by St. Patrick’s Day and a celebration for 100 nights before graduation, all in the same week. License preparation books had been issued at the start of the year, and had been referenced on occasion to study for tests in other practical engineering courses.  But for now, the spiral-bound books, 1000 pages in total, sat on the shelf, as license exams were safely 75 days away. There were exact reasons why the festivities were packed into one week: Capstone and License Prep.

For senior-class engineers, Capstone in the third trimester is the culmination of a year’s worth of research, calculations and reports. Third trimester gives the opportunity to finish up on tasks left incomplete before Spring Break, as well as preparation of a presentation to industry specialists. We finished on April 9th, and, with known intentions, the pace of License Prep picked up to fill the void.

The challenging part of License Prep was weekly tests. As engineers, you would aim to score an ‘A’ on Monday each week. That meant an exemption from the Wednesday test, so you had a full two extra days to study ahead for the next section of material. As we got acclimated to the material, the pages of studying each week increased from 40, to 60, to 80, and then 110 pages per week. Over the course of these 9 weeks, I took a day off for a high school reunion, and then a Saturday evening in the final week. Almost every waking hour was committed to productive use in the classroom, in the books, playing sports, eating, or it was mourned as lost. Midshipmen you never knew as studious were found in the library. As I had a private room, I took advantage of the sunlight and turned a dresser beneath the windowsill into a desk.     

As I mention in my last post, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is the only federal academy whose graduates must take these tests. In exchange, from the 1940’s to 2012, graduates received the equivalent of a warfare pin two years before junior officers from other academies. While graduates of the other academies had a relatively easy semester academically, and were now on “Post Graduation leave”, we were hunched over those license preparation books in our rooms, the library, or in the outdoor sun.  Saturdays were happy study days, as you’d feel as if you were prudent, and always hoped to get far ahead enough to enjoy the evening off-campus.

 Our license prep coordinator then prescribed a dose of rest and relaxation during Memorial Day Weekend, which started on Thursday evening after final exams. That was favorable news that I and a number of classmates took with a grain of salt. It was Fleet Week in New York. Haze gray ships were in the harbor, and Blue Angels were flying over the South Shore of Long Island. A question arose about saluting graduates of the same class, who happened to have an earlier commissioning ceremony. A bit of research uncovered that, in a change from days of old, Naval Academy graduates now share the same official commissioning date as NROTC graduates from other colleges.  

That rest and relaxation was anticipation for “self-disciplined 12-hour days” of studying. During the following week, I read through those three spiral-bound books again. I then read old notes, took practice tests, and read good textbooks on pertinent subjects: electric motors, diesel engines, and refrigeration. I even took a look at the sea projects I completed while sailing the world as a cadet. A strange mood enshrouded the senior class. We knew that the underclassmen were enjoying the sunlit evenings and neon nights with weekend passes, but we had a mission to pass these license tests that were 6-5-4-3 days away.  I never “talk shop” in the dining hall, but that was most of what I heard this week. To break the heavy mood, I’d ensure that I sat with a “deckie” major for meals, since we had no tests in common, and therefore had to talk of more pleasant things.

Eventually, it was Sunday night. I confided that I did the best I could with time I had to study, and said a prayer. License Week is when regrets come to hit, if you have blown away time. I prepared the materials I needed for the test ahead of time; placing calculator, ID, pencils, eraser, and a straight-edge in a Ziploc bag. In the morning, I gave fifteen cents to the Amphitrite Fountain, an age-old tradition. Someone had loaded the fountain with rubber duckies, each bearing the message “Good Luck”. That was a pleasant touch. We flocked under the Truxton Archade, and savored the moment, since one should not start a test in fear. We were about to cross a bridge that each graduating class has crossed, and complete the transition from midshipman to mariner. It was 7:45am on June 1st, and we were ready to win this final game.