Friday, July 11, 2014

Burning Desires

When I first arrived and discovered the intellectual caliber of some of my classmates, I projected that I would be learning how to become more tolerant of stupidity. That projection was incorrect.

This week was the Basic Firefighting course. The three days in which we went over the firefighting textbook were mostly unexceptional, except to note the near illiteracy of our anonymous textbook author (all our textbooks are Piney Point exclusive materials written by instructors) and the frustratingly patronizing attitude of the instructor, who seemed to think that he was teaching third graders inherently excited by FIREFIGHTERS! and frightened off by a solid understanding of the mechanics, prevention, and procedures of fire, safety, and firefighting. The first instructor here that I had to seriously ask myself if he really did know his shit. Turns out he did, he just fell into the trap of simplifying everything to the point of being incorrect.

I have yet to hear anyone state the opinion that women are actual people entitled to their own opinions, as opposed to objects which attach to men for the purposes of protection and sex. Of course, I haven't said anything either out of equal parts cowardice and exhaustion, but it really does seem to be the general opinion that (and these are actual quotes), "no woman is smart enough to work in an engine room", "women are too weak to work" and "women are too emotional to trust on board the ship". This is evidence, of course, of my sheltered upbringing that allowed me to think that no one really thinks that shit nowadays.

Some of the objectification of women is doubtlessly the sexless sausage party that we are stuck in, lacking even the minimal amount of private spaces that would enable solo fulfillment of certain urges. I am told that no group of third monthers can rightly be considered to be well adjusted, and the groups I have seen go through bear that out. The rest of it appears to be a genuine obsession with the idea of masculinity far deeper than MTV and Jersey Shore ideals of "macho". I was asked during a conversation about the ancient Spartans if I, a known repository of assorted trivia, knew anything cool about the Spartans. I mentioned that they ritualistically raped their wives, a practice generally agreed to be completely awesome and manly, if a bit kinky. I went on to mention that they did this mostly because they had most of their sex with other men, because homosexuality as understood in modernity was not a concept which existed in antiquity (or really, before the early-modern period). After a bit of debate ("not true"; "is too"; "nuh-uh"; "here, let me pull it up on wikipedia") it was the general consensus of the stupid people in a class that has been idolizing the Spartans to the point of incorporating them into our marching cadences that Spartans are "faggots" and that even the much loved movie 300 was no longer allowed to be quoted, watched, or admired any more. "In Yemen", went a related testimonial, "we kill faggots". "Why," I responded, with more curiosity than temperance, "are you so afraid of gay people?" "I am not afraid of faggots, because I can kill them before they come rape me." Of course, fellow sheltered people are free to believe, as I would have a few months ago, that I was either inventing these conversations for the sake of attention on the internet or that I was taking the actions of one extreme person out of context, but for all that there may be silent non-morons in the crowd at Piney Point, the most extreme and unrepentant sexism and homophobia is the voiced consensus.

Humorously, as I write this I am overhearing a conversation from one of the men who recently came back from his first ship, is complaining about an out of the closet homosexual on his journey and how much it bothered him when he objectified men on the television is the exact same way I have heard this complainer objectify women on the common area television. His interlocutor responded that you just have to "smack those faggots until they figure out that that shit just aint acceptable".

Racism, interestingly, is highly vocalized but never acted on in my sight. Work groups, leadership, bunks, and the mess hall are all effortlessly integrated, excepting only the small clusters of men who prefer speaking Spanish. These unconsciously integrated clusters are not a result of the sort of colorblindness that the progressives in college would sometimes champion, since a perennial topic of conversation is just how profoundly true all racial stereotypes are, but rather a completely unconcious acceptance that the man in front of you, for all that he may posses a race, is firstly a man, comrade, and coworker. "How many police officers does it take to screw in a light bulb? None, they just beat the room for being black."

After three days of applied sociology combined with textbook study of firefighting, it came time to apply these skills. I used all the main types of fire extinguishers to extinguish small fires of the appropriate types and properly put on and put away an assortment of fire gear. Then we put on full gear, including breathing masks, and went through a pitch black maze hunting for "survivors" to rescue. We sat inside a confined steel box, set the wall on fire, and stood there as the smoke filled the room and the ambient temperature rose to 500 degrees (a third of the rated maximum of the suits). Finally, they set a model engine on fire in a steel engine room for us to put out. Taking our air masks off in either of the latter situations was strictly prohibited, but the punishment was not demerits or expulsion. Rather, any exposed skin would immediately burn, causing a sharp instinctual intake of breath in superheated air. I assumed that this would result in cooked lungs, but was informed instead that your airways would be destroyed before they could convey the air into your lungs and instead you would suffocate as your skin, mouth, and throat began to ignite. And fires in a real engine room can be much larger and hotter than these simulated fires. In any case, I put the fire out too efficiently to entertain notions of extreme environment experimentation.

At the end of it, a lot of the crew was very pumped, thinking the experience was awesome (despite complaining about the heat, stress, and effort required just to carry the equipment around) and that they had accomplished something (despite the fact that these were artificial propane fires that did not go out when sprayed, only extinguishing when the man controlling the simulation decided we had performed the fire dance to his satisfaction). Expecting far worse, I had begun a calming technique I had read about in which you try to see the world not for the labels you put on things (i.e., fire, engine, room, etc.) but rather as mere physical objects with as little perception applied to the sensing as possible. As a result, it was impossible for me not to note the artificiality of the training room. The heat stress was not perceptibly worse than mowing lawns on a hot Texas summer day thanks to the very efficient entry suits, and while the equipment was heavy, I was standing around holding heavy equipment before walking into the room. With all that, I found it hard to get quite as elated as the rest of the group.

There is a branch of casual stoicism that says one must trade joy at the up times in life to be able to deal with pain in the down side. I have always thought that this was a bullshit philosophy, and that a properly disciplined mind could have both joy on the ups and calm on the downs. I still believe that, though I chalk up today's stillness to the same techniques that will help two weeks from now when I return to galley.

In any case, fire training is probably the most practical course we have had, since only rarely must one survive in a lifeboat, but engine fires are not uncommon at all.

And, before stepping out, here is another perspective on the anthropology of Piney Point Penitentiary.

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