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.

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