Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Machines of the Future

The Machines of the Future By David Eric Renner
There I stood, seabag in one hand, nervous as hell and awed by the sheer size of the M. S. Patriot. She was about nine hundred feet of solid blue hull, a full eleven stories towering above the dock, with twenty two life boats strung around her main deck halfway up, very impressive. This blue monster floated there in stark contrast to the low profile killing machines I knew: submarines, where to float or sink was an option. My short military career had ended bitterly, leaving me without the skills I had signed up to learn and a poisonous level of disillusionment about the world in general. It was here amidst the dock workers and tourists I was about to embark on the most crucial job of my life, though I couldn’t have known that at the time.
As a submariner I was a radioman, a task equivalent to programming fourteen VCR’s at the same time, with the added weight of one of those machines potentially telling me to relay to the Captain missile coordinates for one of our nuclear payloads. As an ex-member of society, this had a heavy impact on my conscience, tearing me up from the inside out. There was a silver lining to my cloud of gloom and potential doom, though, as emphasized by Jane Bybee, psychology professor at Suffolk University during an interview for the ABC news article “Is guilt good for you?,” by John Stossel. She points out that “One of the markers of a psychopath is that the person doesn't experience guilt at all. Serial killer Ted Bundy, for example, said he felt no guilt after killing 28 people.” (Stossel) Twenty eight people is one thing, but I was a vital link in the conduit for several hundred thousand potential deaths, maybe more. While Ted Bundy had the courtesy to kill those people himself, at least my guilt says one decent thing about me; that I am still human. Consequences carrying such gravity are simply not a common thing in the civilian world. I wasn’t the only one with doubts in the service, the military just has a way of sounding right, no matter what. If there was anything I had learned in the navy, it was that if you did something with enough confidence, and the targeted organization was big and loose enough, you almost always got away with it. For the most part, that’s how the military deals with the public. That was why I was nervous: I was signed on for deck crew, and there was absolutely no way I was chipping paint for five months. However, it was my tentative foot in the door, and given enough bravado, I intended to grace the engines department and discover an entirely new and fascinating realm of mechanics, irrevocably changing my life and setting me on the path of engineering.
I was a civilian now, irritated by the lack of discipline and focus of my supposed peers. Regardless if I liked those traits or not, they certainly provided a certain “greasing of the cogs” and made life simple and smooth in the navy. All I knew was that I despised the civilian unskilled working realm and hated the military even more. My feelings were not completely unfounded, as painstakingly demonstrated by Barbara Ehrenriech in her misadventures through the blue collar working world. “Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her own brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.” (Ehrenriech) Of this I had fist hand experience in Hawaii, where the rich are really rich and the poor live to serve them. That all changed when I stepped aboard the cruise liner, the M.S. Patriot.
Once I had waltzed my way into the engine room, I felt something I had never felt before; I was enjoying my job! In the military a task is written in stone, the procedures set down as if they were sacred texts, reverently practiced by sharply uniformed monks with bad mustaches. On the other hand, our ship, the Patriot, was in a state of disarray and turmoil. The previous owners, Norwegian Cruises, had run her in pristine condition with a full engines crew of thirty plus. When ownership changed hands, her crew stole most of the tools and slacked off on maintenance, creating the ideal chaotic environment for me to get a crash course in wrenching and rigging. An opportunity like this would never have occurred had I set sail on any other ship. Here I found what I was good at: problem solving and learning, particularly when it came to machines. It was that element of chaos the navy lacked, for obvious reasons, that galvanized my approach to trouble shooting and work ethics.
While discipline and focus have their merits, something must be said for relaxing on the beach at three in the afternoon on a workday. This is a phenomenon that simply does not occur on the service side, not if your Command has anything to say about it. Since we were essentially doing figure eights around the Hawaiian islands with a load of tourists, port call came often. On good days, we would complete our tasks and be in the surf by early afternoon. At night there was the cool ocean air to accompany the sight of lava flowing into the ocean at a thousand yards off shore, or the stars above the bay. There are more factors than stars and lava that promote, or disrupt, the satisfaction of a workplace. Lynn Franco, director of the consumer research center for the New York Conference Board points out “The interest in the work, the people you work with -- that kind of thing may help compensate for wages.” (Anderson) The first biweekly paycheck aboard the cruise liner was worth nearly a months pay of a third class petty officer, my old rank. In naval dry dock: the act of putting a submarine on blocks for extensive maintenance, my lot was to keep company with a bunch of ornery, smelly men, speaking such abominations as to peel the paint off a nuclear burrito the length of a football field. I remember feeling my life draining away in utter worthlessness while standing watch, staring at two sixty foot high doors holding back the entire sea. You can’t tell the ocean to stop and show identification, you can only ask nicely, and it is likely she won’t listen.
Throughout the spring and summer aboard the Patriot I absorbed more mechanical knowledge than in my entire life prior. I developed a connection to machinery, a deeper “grokking of,” to borrow a term from Robert A. Hienlien and his Martian, Valentine Michael Smith (Hienlien). Here was something that felt right, not a waste of time or boring repetition of mind numbing activity, such as standing watch against unstoppable forces. Paranoid as George Orwell may be, he brought up a very good point in his dark novel, 1984, under the “Theory and practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emanuel Goldstein,” illustrating very succinctly what I felt my entire military career: “War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.” (Orwell) I had no future there and felt it with every fiber of my being. But when it came to machines and the things they could do, all that potential whirring and clicking away, I saw emancipation for myself and for anyone else involved. This was something that I could pour my entire being into, and receive more from it in terms of satisfaction and enjoyment than invested. Mechanics and engineering were to become my future that summer, a future that is gaining in clarification and brilliance every day.

Works Cited
Anderson, Porter; Job Satisfaction: Oxymoron? CNN News Interview with Lynn Franco. 24 Oct. 2000
Ehrenreich, Barbara; Nickel and Dimed. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001.
Hienlien, Robert A.; Stranger in a Strange Land. New York: Ace Books, 1961
Orwell, George; 1984. Public Domain: Copyright Expired
Stossel, John; Is Guilt Good for You? ABC News Interview with Jane Bybee. 17 Jan. 2004


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