Six laps around the deck of the cruiser USS Ticonderoga make a mile if the runner doesn't cut in front of the Mark 26 missile launcher on the bow. The steel and 30-knot winds can be hard on the body, but most days after 4 p.m. a dozen or more sailors pound out the tension of shipboard life while dozens more repair to the workout room below.
Life aboard the Ticonderoga, the Navy's newest and most technologically advanced cruiser, is a cycle of routine and ritual, of four-hour watches that flow into eight-hour workdays, of drills and tests and sudden wake-up calls.
It is a closed world with its own language of "deck apes" and "skivvy fliers," its intricate class relationships and unending gossip and rumors.
But the Ticonderoga is also a world of bewildering technological sophistication, where officers hold masters degrees in physics or electrical engineering and experienced enlisted men talk with their superiors in the relaxed tones of scientific colleagues.
To fight boredom and keep men in the Navy, the brass has turned the ship into something like a highly structured college. Almost everyone is studying technical manuals, teaching what he knows to the next man down and preparing for a promotion exam.
Seaman Bob Brennan signed up for six years when he enlisted from his Long Island, N.Y., home town.
"I didn't tell no one," Brennan recalls. "I called up from boot camp and said, 'Guess what, Ma? You won't be seeing me for a while.' "
Brennan spent his first 18 months in the Navy in school, learning to maintain the complex gas turbine engines that power the Ticonderoga. He could have signed up for fewer years, but he wouldn't have been guaranteed the training.
"I didn't join the Navy to paint decks," Brennan said, as he watched the wake foam away from the fantail. "I'm here to get an education."
A world away from the wind and noise at the stern of the ship is the Combat Information Center (CIC), the windowless sanctum that is the heart of the Ticonderoga and the key to what makes this a revolutionary ship for the Navy. Painted black and radiating blue with its video screens and radar consoles, the hushed room glows day and night like a giant aquarium and looks like the ultimate video war game for grown-up combatants.
This war room is the Navy's best answer to skeptics who say surface ships are obsolete in the post-Falkland Islands war era of devastatingly accurate sea-skimming missiles. During a battle, this is where the captain and perhaps the admiral of an entire battle fleet would sit, decks below the bridge and its windows, staring instead at three sea-blue screens.
On those screens the captain can "see" every ship, plane or submarine that is approaching and, by manipulating controls, can determine quickly who is friend or foe, how fast they are coming and when they will arrive. From here he can order the ship's missile launchers to fire automatically at anything that comes too close.
The Aegis radar and computer weapon system controlled from this room costs about $350 million, or about as much as the structure of the 9,600-ton ship itself, and has been under development for 20 years. The Navy, planning to buy 23 more ships like the Ticonderoga and to put Aegis on a new class of destroyers as well, believes this system will help the United States control the seas.
"There were some skeptics who thought because of the complexity of the system, sailors could not manage it," says Lt. Cmdr. James L. McLane. "And that's b-------."
Commissioned in January and now preparing for its first mission to the Mediterranean, the Ticonderoga stretches 563 feet and is loaded with more weapons than any previous cruiser. It can carry 88 nuclear or conventional missiles costing $300,000 or more apiece, two 5-inch guns and the Phalanx, which fires 3,000 rounds per minute and which the crew has fondly dubbed "R2D2" for its shape and robot-like movements. There is considerable pride in being the first crew on the first cruiser of a new line. Sailors wear baseball-style caps saying, "Ticonderoga: First and Formidable." When the ship first set sail the crew hoisted a banner that said, "Stand By, Admiral Gorshkov, Aegis is at sea."
The ship also is home to a one-bookcase library, a menu review board that makes sure meals reflect the crew's various ethnic tastes, a human relations council to look into similar questions beyond the galley, a number of posters warning that "Ivan" may be listening, a ship store that sells tape decks and Ticonderoga T-shirts, a career counselor with a tattoo of a horse on his forearm and dozens of radios, closed-circuit televisions, stereos and cassette players.
And there is respect for the skipper, Capt. Roland G. Guilbault, who is considered tough, humorous and a good sailor as commander of 354 men.
"When I came in in 1959, we had one television in the wardroom," Guilbault says. "Today, to offer that to a young guy, it's no longer acceptable. He'll say, 'The hell with you.' "
Day begins on the Ticonderoga at 6 a.m., when an announcer on the public address system solemnly intones, "Reveille, reveille." (There is no bugler, but the ship boasts an enthusiastic country-rock band that the crew tolerates cheerfully during Sunday barbecues and other functions.)
Sailors who have escaped the early morning watch fall out of their triple-stacked bunks and head for the chow line, where sailors who rose hours earlier ladle breakfast into plastic trays. The galley feeds each seaman for $3.52 per day, and the food is ample and surprisingly good.
By 7:30 or 8 a.m. the sailors have mustered on deck, feet on the line, hands clasped behind the back, to hear their orders for the day. "I don't care what you were doing last night," a noncommissioned officer tells his men as they smirk and jab each other. "I want you here on time and shaved."
One day recently the routine was disrupted when Seaman Louis Norton of Beaufort, S.C., was discovered to have slipped overboard. He was the Ticonderoga's first casualty, and none of its $350 million technology could recover him.
When Norton, 19, missed 11:30 a.m. muster , the captain ordered a thorough search and then turned the ship around.
The Ticonderoga headed for the spot it had occupied shortly after Norton was last seen, 11 miles off Cape Hatteras. Soon other sailors were coming forward saying they had heard Norton talk about going home, about his talents as a long-distance swimmer, about the friends he knew in fishing boats off the Cape.
"Nineteen-year-olds do some dumb things sometimes," Guilbault said. "It's a terrible long way to swim."
By early afternoon, wild rumors and ghoulish jokes were sweeping the ship.
"He's probably lying on the beach right now, one way or another," one sailor said. Someone scrawled, "Where is Norton?" in grease pencil across a radar console, and others fantasized about the six-packs he would buy that night.
At about 3 p.m., the Ticonderoga received a discouraging message from the USS Nassau, which had joined the search. The water was warmer than 80 degrees and "survival time in water would be on the order of several days," the message said. "However, probability of shark attack is quite high . . . ."
The Ticonderoga searched into the night, lights sweeping the whitecaps, its radar useless in the hunt for one man in the waves. Guilbault, who had never lost a man overboard while commanding a ship, sat on the bridge as lieutenants and seamen murmured and repeated bearings and speeds.
At 10:30, Atlantic fleet headquarters in Norfolk ordered the ship to leave the search to the Coast Guard and proceed south. Norton has not been found.
"For the older guys, this wouldn't have much effect, but the younger guys it might start thinking," Navy Counselor 1st Class Bobby Winsett, one of the ship's old-timers, said that day.
"When you get out to sea for a month at a time, a lot of things can start going through your mind. If you have a family or a sweetheart and you're not getting any letters, you can start imagining things. The best thing to do is just keep busy--write letters, take courses, study."
Seaman Clinton Booker of Duckriver, Tenn., says he has no trouble keeping busy. "I've done a lot of the painting on this ship," he says, pointing proudly to the masses of gray all around. "I don't mind. When you're painting and working, the time goes by."
Booker, a deck hand, is black, like many of the deck hands and unlike any of the commissioned officers on board. He had never seen the ocean when he signed up, he says. He wanted an education and he wanted to see the world.
Now Booker is studying to join the engineering department. The odds are against him, since most enlisted deck hands never make it into a specialty. If he does win the promotion, Booker says, he will have to reenlist for three or four more years.
"I don't mind," he says. "I want to get my schooling. The Navy, it ain't bad compared to what I was doing--yard work, construction, grocery shelving, cutting hay and tobacco.
"It's kind of like an escape. Right now, it's kind of hard to get work out there anyway. And some of the places we're going, it would cost you $2,000 a week to go. This way I can go now, and later on I can tell my children I've been to this place, and to that place."