Bobby Hauge's voice comes chipped and strained through the rickety cassette player that his wife Bonnie has borrowed from another Navy wife who lives down the street. Whistles and bells from her husband's ship, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier on station in the Arabian Sea, sound intermittently in the background.
"I'm lonely and 5,999 other fellas on this boat are lonely for home, familiar faces, friends, lovers. But I chose to live this life for a while and I'm stuck here livin' it," Hauge's voice says.
"I got no choice, but here I am trying to defend my dignity for being out here and it doesn't really help a whole lot. In fact, it's damn hard to even justify it in my own eyes."
At 23, Hauge is a young sailor adrift in today's Navy.
He is a long way from Bonnie, from his home town of Culpeper, Va., and his decision three years ago to join up, hoping to see the world and learn a trade, maybe make a little something of himself after all. Now, he says, it's hard enough getting through each day; he can't wait to get out of the Navy in March.
Tired of drudge work and endless orders, 18-hour days and salaries that make them hard-pressed even to take a friend to the movies, Hague and many of the other 89,000 sailors stationed aboard ships and at shore commands here are doing their time grudgingly and leaving the Navy in droves.
Two-thirds of all first-term sailors get out when their four-year hitch is over, according to Navy statistics, figures that have changed little in the last five years.
For middle managers, the traditional salty dog petty officers who make the Navy work, the picture is worse. The retention rate for sailors serving their second hitch has dropped from 77 percent in 1971 to 53 percent this year, leaving the Navy with a critical shortage of about 20,000 petty officers.
The lack of qualified manpower "is rapidly approaching a crisis," said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Thomas B. Hayward in a memo to the Secretary of Defense and the joint chiefs of staff earlier this year.
In April, the oiler Uss Canisteo was left tied to her Norfolk pier when her skipper reported her unsafe for sea duty because of a lack of qualified personnel to keep the ship afloat and functional.
Earlier this month, Atlantic fleet commanders proposed a new "triad" concept in which sailors from two frigates would be pooled to make a third frigate combat ready -- a move likely to increase the uncertainty in crewmen's lives.
Although two bills to increase pay and benefits for military personnel are now in Congress, many sailors say it is too little, too late.
Nowhere is the Navy's dilemma more evident than here at the largest naval base in the country, where the effects of low pay, long separations at sea, racism and sagging morale have reached unprecedented proportions.
When the Navy Times asked sailors in a recent survey to pick the worst duty station in the service, the easy winner was Norfolk. "Too military. Too many people, ships and everything else," one respondent was quoted as saying. "It stinks.The base is cluttered and dirty," said another.
The days of World War II when patriotism was in the air in Norfolk are gone. Gone, too, is the Vietnam era when the threat of the draft pushed thousands of college-educated young men into temporary service.
The retention rate in the Atlantic fleet, headquartered in Norfolk, is 39 percent for first-termers, slightly lower than the Navywide rate.
Among other factors, the recession has seen to it that the Navy gets the leftovers -- the jobless, the poor and the uneducated, the young and the unskilled.
"We're getting a lot of guys the Army would have taken in the days of the draft," says one ship commander. "Now we're getting them because they believe the Navy will be easier on them."
"We're keeping the ship afloat, but the numbers are deceptive," says Cmdr. Thomas Sheridan of the USS Claude V. Ricketts, a 37-year-old destroyer whose home port is Norfolk and the first ship in the Persian Gulf following the taking of American hostages in Iran.
"The people we have aren't the right people. We have a lot of recruits and young guys, and a 56 percent turnover of men each year. Every month people are coming and going . . .We just hope they can do it all.
"The Navy is training them to do jobs that men of their levels were never intended to do. They put in longer hours and get less done. I get guys that leterally can hardly read or write," Sheridan said.
Commanding officers like Sheridan, a Naval Academy graduate with a master's degree in systems analysis and 17 years of service, also complain of young men who take drugs but not orders, of sailors deserting, of racial tensions aboard ship. The spit and polish long have been forgotten.
Sailors say it's not easy living amid battle gray and missile launchers. Beds are stacked to the ceiling like file cabinets, tables bolted to the deck. bTheir world is narrow corridors and steep ladders, a floating fortress where you have to step up to walk through doors and duck to miss pipes.
"Most people wouldn't put their dogs in a place like this," says Steve Coker, 27, an internal communications man.
Down below, James Payne, a 20-year-old air traffic controller who formerly worked on a shrimp boat in Steinhatchee, Fla., sits on the Ricketts' mess deck, doing nothing.
"I must have the worst attitude on this ship," Payne says, rubbing his hairless chin. "I don't agree with anything the Navy does.
"My old man raised me to think. If they tell me to do something and I have a way to do it better, just because I've been in the Navy only two years and they've been in 20, they think I don't know. . . and I couldn't because the Navy's been doing it that way for so long it's got to be right."
To Sheridan, men like Payne are far too plentiful in the Navy today. They bitch, whine and moan. They are soft, Sheridan says.
During Vietnam, when he commanded a swift boat that patrolled the coast of South Vietnam, Sheridan said, "the Navy got a lot of sharp guys who just didn't want to be drafted into foxholes."
Yet, even trained sailors may find their skills put to poor use, which breeds more frustration. One Navy journalist who already had attended broadcasting school and earned a Federal Communications Commission license says he was sidetracked as a radioman for two years.
"I told them I wanted to be in radio and they made me a telephone operator for all intents and purposes," he says.
For some, the answer to the anger or boredom of Navy life is drugs.
"I can't afford to have any guys on ship that are high on anything. If I catch one I'm going to take six pounds of him," says Sheridan. Urine tests and locker searches are regular occurences.
But the men shrug it off, slyly. "It gets a little hectic when you're out there at general quarters (battle stations) all day and into the night," says one seaman. "You need a little something to cool you out, if you know what I mean."
Most frequently the drug is marijuana. "All you do," explains the seaman, "is put the pot in a pipe, inhale and blow out through a rag. You keep a cigar or a cigarette lit and it's cool."
Sailors caught with drugs usually go before their commanding officer at "captain's mast" for nonjudicial punishment. A bust can mean heavy fines, witholding of pay, extra duty, restrictions and a reduction in rate.
Crimes are frequent aboard ship, although no accurate statistics are kept. Robberies are common, usually involving drugs, money or small valuables. Stabbings are not rare. Sometimes, says one machinist's mate, sailors who don't want to leave port will try sabotage. For this reason, the giant gears that move the ship are kept padlocked at all times.
For blacks, there is the added pressure -- real or imagined -- of racism. Unlike the army, where blacks comprise a disproportionately high percentage of the enlisted ranks, blacks make up less than 10 percent of the Navy's enlisted personnel. Until 1942, the only blacks in the Navy were stewards. Today, 2.3 percent of all naval officers are black.
"Don't let nobody tell you different -- this here's a white man's Navy," says one veteran black sailor, standing among the superheated pipes and wind-tunnel ventilators that cool the Ricketts' boiler compartments to about 110 degrees when the ship is under way. "You feel like the white guys are only tolerating you because they have to."
Despite all the hassles and stress, there are sailors who like the Navy life.
Photographers Mate 2nd class skip Holmes, 24, of Richardson, Tex., has been in for five years. he's flown over secret locations in Iceland and taken underwater pictures in the Bahamas. Next year, if all goes well, he'll be taking a Navy-paid filmmaking course at the University of Southern California.
"I like what I'm doing," he says. "I'm sort of like a fat cat. I have a pretty good IQ the obstacles don't seem that hard to me. I do good work and a lot of politicking. The Navy's been good to me."
Journalist 1st class JoAnne Waldrop, 24, also joined up five years ago and is now one of about 31,000 women in the Navy.
"I was working in a factory in Philadelphia, polarizing remote-control units in Zenith color TVs. I wanted to get into television, but that wasn't really what I had in mind."
Unable to affor college, she decided to let the Navy teach her. Now she produces a videotape news magazine sent to all Atlantic ships and some overseas. She does feature and news stories, writing editing, researching, announcing and anchoring.
But she expects this to be her last hitch. "In the Navy," she says, "if you want to do the creative work, you can't go any higher in rank than I've already gone. If I go any higher I'll only be pushing paperwork." She wants to move on into a better-paying civilian job.
Though sailors like Holmes and Waldrop are relatively satisfied, their shore assignments are less arduous than shipboard life. Along the piers at the huge base here, the talk is tougher and the problems more pronounced.
Sheridan and his executive officer, Paul Donaldson, a 16-year veteran, say they are seeing a new breed of recruit and, for the most part, they don't like it.
"A much higher percentage of guys we get today never had to do anything in their lives to completion," says the commanding officer."They never had to accomplish anything, never succeeded at anything. If they wanted to quit school, they quit . . . They're baffled that they have to take orders and that there's no talking their way out of it. They're learning that all the things mom let them get away with at home won't work here."
Donaldson agrees. "That is the first time in these guys' lives that they're required to wear special clothes, to shave, to be shomewhere at a special time. They just can't take it."
For hundreds of years, young men have joined the Navy to see the world, visit foreign lands and taste exotic cultures, and today's sailors say they've seen things they couldn't have imagined down on the farm. But they never imagined the hardship, either -- the loneliness and boredom of weeks and months without seeing land or families.
In the Persian Gulf, the Ricketts' crew maintained battle stations for 72 straight days. They were gone for seven months.
"We were sitting out there with our guns cocked, waiting for the balloon to pop," says Sheridan, his eyes widening. "The majority of the crew was six hours on (watch) and six off, it was exhausting. The men put in up to 120 hours a week."
Even liberty, usually the high point of every cruise, was a reminder of how far the crew was from home.
The Ricketts' last liberty port was Karachi, Pakistan. There, says one sailor, they learned about poverty. "You got off the ship and went down the road and there were all these dead animals living there and you couldn't eat in any of the restaurants without getting sick.
"You could get anything there you wanted, though, for a Frisbee or a football . . ."