Whistles. I’m tired of whistles. A Boatswain’s whistle sounds at reveille, when the captain speaks and for sweepers. It’s a tradition to call sweepers two times a day, but it doesn’t mean anything anymore. The whistles are a lengthy high-pitched series of notes. They are inescapable, coming from speakers in every dingy nook and passage. They even sound on the flight deck, drowning out the jet engines. I stop work when they sound; they are mind consuming. I suppose that is the point, but they make me feel like ramming my head at any jutting bits of steel I see. It reminds me how trapped I am. At least I’m paid to be trapped. That makes this different from jail. That, and I don’t get my own cell.
During his last three months in the Navy, Caleb Nelson wrote. A lot. The above passage is from a series of letters he sent to his mother during his last three months of service detailing the encounters, responsibilities and musings of a low-ranking aviation electrician ready to leave it all behind.
Nelson is tall and lanky, with bright blue eyes and a quiet disposition. He grew up in Dorchester, the son of a plumber and teacher, both natives of New York who moved to Boston to raise their children. Nelson was home schooled for much of his youth, but received recruiting materials from the navy in the mail the summer before his senior year. He says he was “enamored” by the video showing jets flying off the carriers and liked the idea of “seeing action.”
This unassuming 25 year old doesn’t seem like the type to enlist, but the UMass Boston senior--who is double majoring in English and Philosophy and Public Policy with a concentration in Professional Writing--shipped off to the Navy a month after graduating high school and spent four years working on F-18 jets. He always knew he wanted to go to college eventually and saw the Navy as a way to finance his education, but a small mistake he made while readying one of the jets for take-off reminded Nelson that he was much more interested in academics than spending his days on a carrier.
“Launching that jet and almost killing the pilot, that threw me for a loop. I was like, ‘man, I am not good at this,’” he says jokingly. Although he lost his plane captain license and was demoted to jet maintenance, he remained in the Navy.
I painted intakes today, spraying white gloss in them. I can feel the paint balling in the back of my throat like mucus I can’t swallow. I hate painting intakes. It is cramped in there, and after a few squirts from my gun the air becomes a white mist masking the exit. The paint is so thin it seeps through my respirator, and I can almost feel the chemicals attacking my nervous system. The warning label says “known in California to cause permanent brain and nervous system damage in cases of frequent exposure.” I wonder how California knows. I’m sticky from it. My jersey clings to my arms and I feel the sweat building up around the edges of my goggles and respirator. A trickle of it rolls into my eye and I blink until it stops stinging. The heat in each breath seems to grow in intensity.
Nelson often found being in the Navy difficult, but credits the experience with helping him decide what he wanted to do with his life. “I was on watch one night and the CO and four crewmen crashed during a flight down to Texas to get supplies. The whole thing incinerated and they all died. That was the first time I was like ‘you know, I should be a journalist. I know something no one else knows.’ It’s kind of fucked up actually, I felt like I wanted to tell people.”
Eventually Nelson’s contract was up and he left the Navy. He took advantage of leftover leave days and spent the summer in Virginia Beach.
On June 4th we pulled into Norfolk Virginia, and I went on terminal leave for the last month of my Navy contract. We dropped 53 bombs on Iraq. That’s the only figure I remember. We left with a “job well done” from our admiral. Five thousand people, including me and not including all the other support people who provided us with supplies and information from the shore, spent eight months of their lives so 53 bombs could drop and destroy things that would have been used to destroy other things—hopefully. It’s all preventative.
When he began at UMass Boston that Fall, Nelson wanted to “do something other than just go to classes” so he started writing for the newspaper, The Mass Media. The desire to be a journalist only intensified and Nelson was elected editor-in-chief last semester. “There’s no way I would have been able to be editor-in-chief of the school newspaper right now if I had gone to college right out of high school, first of all because I wouldn’t have known what I wanted to do, but I also wouldn’t have the drive or the experience to understand when something is not such a big deal. Also, it set me up financially so I could pay for school and not have to worry about anything. I’m glad I went to the military and I’m glad I went to college” says Nelson.
He is adamant that without the GI Bill he would not have been able to help finance his education. “I think the benefits are so much better now than they used to be. They really set you up. Mentally decompressing from such a strict environment where you’re forced to do exactly what people tell you…I think its really hard to transfer those skills into the real world. I think college is so important for anyone who’s been in the military. College really gives you an idea about how to be self-motivated” he says.
In addition to being a full-time student and editor, Nelson has several side projects in the works. He is a self-professed lover of stories and has been compiling the recollections of his grandfather for over three years. The sound bytes go on his website grandad.us and he continually works on editing the stories and finding time to record more. Nelson has also been working with SIM, the Student Immigrant Movement, to gather stories and interviews from students at UMass Boston about their experiences seeking citizenship and financial aid.
Nelson hopes to be a professional journalist someday, but admits that he is better suited to one-on-one interactions than the invasive techniques that news journalists must enact in order to “get the story.” While he often seems quiet and reserved, Nelson’s perceptiveness and talent for prose translates into an ability to take every situation--even if it is a few stagnant years spent in the Navy--and turn it into fodder for a great story.