The summer of 2008: They'll be talking about it for years to come.
It's the summer they went to sea.
Fifteen teens from West Lincoln High School – all members of Karl Jordan's Naval Junior ROTC class – spent a week aboard a Navy ship cruising about 100 miles off the Virginia coast.
Play time it wasn't. No sunbathing, shuffleboard or sleeping late. The young cadets were there to learn how a ship operates and to get a feel for life at sea.
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Every waking moment they were on the go.
At first, ship and sea felt strange. But it didn't take long to get in tune with both.
I recently visited the ROTC classroom at West Lincoln and sat down with Kacie Cox, 15; Jennifer Nieto, 16; Rico Foxwell, 18; Daniel Kirby, 16; and Katherine Sanders, 16.
This is the third summer Jordan has taken a group of students to the Norfolk Naval Base for a real ocean experience.
He came to West Lincoln High in 2003 after a 23-year career in the Navy. At 51, Jordan looks like he's still into Navy-style physical conditioning. He's trim and tan and full of energy.
He told me about growing up in southern New Jersey where he learned how to row a boat at age 10. In high school, he got a job with a commercial fishing crew and really connected with the sea.
After high school, he moved to Los Angeles and started working at a printing company. A job, Jordan said, “that was going nowhere.”
He couldn't get the sea out of his system.
At age 23, he joined the Navy and began working as an enlisted quartermaster or ship's navigator. Jordan ended his career as an officer with the rank of lieutenant commander.
Teaching ROTC science was a way to stay connected with the sea.
Aboard USS Ponce
The Navy was good to him, Jordan said.
But he's not a recruiter trying to sell the Navy or any other branch of the military to his students.
ROTC is about such things as discipline and teamwork and citizenship.
“It's not just Navy stuff,” Jordan said. “We do life.”
Getting outside the classroom is an important part of the program.
Before Jordan's students boarded the big ship in Norfolk, they spent two days learning how to sail small dinghies around the Chesapeake Bay. That was just a warm-up.
Next stop: the 568-foot-long USS Ponce.
Commissioned in 1971, the ship has a crew of about 300 and its usual mission is transporting Marines.
Most of Jordan's students had never been on a ship before and were a little apprehensive at first.
It looked like a place where you could easily get lost.
Sleeping quarters were small, but they got along OK. Until 4:30 a.m. – wakeup time.
The hours zipped by, students told me. Something to do almost every minute. From observing how things worked in the ship's combat room to watching helicopters come and go on the flight deck; from strapping on ear protection while 5-caliber guns boomed away to chatting with male and female crewmembers who weren't much older than the students.
Cadets got to steer the ship and take part in a man-overboard drill. And they learned Navy talk – how you say “head” instead of “bathroom” and refer to going up and down stairs as going up and down the ladders. Just ask Rico Foxwell – he lost ten pounds navigating them.
No storms upset the sea. On calm water, students watched dolphins gliding alongside the Ponce – hurrying to get in front of the ship so they could ride the wake.
Sometimes, they caught sight of whales.
Daniel Kirby found a certain spot on deck – he pointed it out to me in a photograph – where perfect conditions created a sort of natural air conditioning. He often cooled off there, soaking in the vastness of the ocean.
After sundown, he could still feel the presence.
“It was just me and the sea ,” Daniel said. “And absolutely nothing.”
‘I miss it'
Ocean breeze still blows in the students' memories of the cruise.
“I didn't want to leave,” Kacie Cox told me. “I miss it.”
One thing that made the experience so meaningful for her was talking with a female doctor aboard ship. “I want to be a doctor in the Navy,” Kacie said. “She told me so much I needed to know.”
Daniel Kirby said contact with ship's crew members helped him and the other teens get a better appreciation of what people in the military do.
A week at sea also taught them how to make the most of every minute. I hope that lesson blows like a fresh wind in their minds for a lifetime.