(from Chapter 2)
“Ensign, your mission here is simple: stand by to stand by.”
Lieutenant Ragis said this as though he had had a great deal of practice. He wore a slight absent smile and folded his hands primly in front of him, sitting straight behind his desk and peering shyly ahead through thin glasses. Wes listened in mild stupefaction as his new OIC thumbed through his orders and continued speaking with only occasional glances at him:
“You see, the flight schools on both coasts are backed up indefinitely. Why that is is hard to justify, but in part it’s a simple numbers game. We could sort out all the contributing factors retroactively and determine what should have been done, but the facts are these.” He paused and waved his pen, as though he were ordering the facts into formation. “When you entered ROTC—mid-eighties, right?—the military was building up to unprecedented levels. Reagan was talking about a six hundred ship navy, for God’s sake. And the manpower was there to do it. And everyone wanted to fly. I’d be willing to bet you and your whole high school football team saw Top Gun the summer after you graduated, didn’t you?”
Wes winced and tried to think of a good answer, but the lieutenant kept talking anyway.
“Regardless, you’ve done well enough that you’ve actually gotten into flight school. Not that brownshoes are the only ones with this problem. Subs have recently gotten popular, and even the good old surface navy is jam full—I bet you had buddies with eye problems or who were business majors who were disappointed to find out they had to go to supply school.
“The bottom line, as they say, is that the navy you’re actually being commissioned into isn’t the one the planners were planning when you started. We can’t even decide who the enemy is anymore, and the past year has been nothing but budget cuts, budget cuts, and more budget cuts. The army has even started letting people who got a full ride through college go because they can’t find billets for them. We haven’t gotten that far yet, though I’d guess we might in a few years.
“But to get back to you. For the time being, you’re stashed. You and a couple of dozen other potential aviators, but we have surface guys in and out of here too. The ships usually find a place for them sooner than flight school does for you. Of course, your commitment doesn’t start running out until you actually start school, so your lives are more or less on hold until you get in. That’s why they’re trying to open up more billets. But meanwhile, we’re going to see what we can do to keep up your professional training—send you out to the firing range, arrange some base visits, maybe even run you through comms school—but you’re more or less on your own for a little while. Enjoy it. There are worse things that could happen to you than being stuck in southern California with a decent paycheck and a lot of free time.”
The lieutenant leaned forward and gave him a brief smile, at once placating and ingratiating and conspiratorial, but it did not last long. More than anything else he looked relieved to have finished his speech and to be done with Wes. He seemed mildly uncomfortable. At first Wes had the strange sense that this unease had something to do with his Institute background, but later he noticed that the lieutenant acted the same way toward all of the men under his nominal command. He had given Wes a brief history of his own career. From Connecticut, he had gone through ROTC at Georgetown, surface warfare officer’s school, then three and a half years on a destroyer out of San Diego. What he did not say was that something had gone wrong on that sea tour, something significant enough to earn him as his first shore duty this plum assignment: Commander of the Temporary Personnel Unit. The papers on his desk all had to do with his ongoing efforts to have some mysterious letter of reprimand removed from his record and to effect a permanent transfer to naval intelligence, where he could sit at a computer and analyze data and maybe garner an assignment to an embassy alongside the Mediterranean. If he didn’t succeed he was going to get out, move to the Napa Valley, and start a vineyard. But Wes would not learn all this until later, after the “professional training” generally failed to materialize and he began to wonder what the OIC did with all his time.
At least that first day Ragis had established an agenda for the day following, an orientation session in which the yeomen would lead newly reporting offi cers through a few hours worth of paperwork before showing them around the building and the base. “So tomorrow should be fun. Maybe you’ll get to meet the warrant, who’s sort of my acting XO around here.” He grimaced. “A truly charming man.” Then he opened the door for Wes, only to see another junior officer waiting outside. The lieutenant invited him in, and as Wes walked down the hall he heard Ragis’ voice trilling faintly. Ensign, your mission here is simple…
After that week the lieutenant began assembling all new arrivals on Friday mornings when he would give the speech just once so as to better conserve his time.