Monday, August 4, 2014

The Bullshit of Piney Point, and How Little it Matters

Piney Point is just a place. A whole bunch of buildings carefully designed to be neither attractive nor ugly in which no one (or no one in the UA program) is allowed to form any connection with or personal affinity over. Even after all this time I have no sense of place in this utterly sterile facility. Most of the people are anonymous strangers cycling rapidly and irregularly through to keep any of the background faces from becoming anything more than background. I can only say that I know the ten people in my class, maybe a third of the class immediately behind mine, and a handful of "important" people, mostly administrators and instructors.

It is in this environment that we are given a whole lot of instructions and restrictions, but very little guidance. Trainees get the core function of Piney Point accomplished quite well as a general rule, we make it to class, study, and become certified in an assortment of things. But for everything else, from the institution of a boot camp lifestyle to the various work details around the base, we are expected first to simply know what is wanted of us, then to know how it should be accomplished, then to juggle it with all the competing expectations. Oversight is minimal, so if we do the wrong thing we are often completely unaware of it, causing problems both when the mistake is caught and in the interim when the mistaken solution crowds out other possible solutions and unrelated priorities. Rules are changed weekly, nothing is announced earlier than the day before it happens, there are no communication channels between us and the hands that move us from place to place, and the entire program reeks of patchwork upon patchwork with the original purposes and motivations for each patch obscuring the others and completely covering up what was once a well designed regimen.

What is worse is that the administrators, the people who have absolute power over my career, only intermittently care, and then only about the things directly visible to them in their administrative capacities. It is said that years and years ago when the program first began in the 1950's, it was run by a former Navy Marine drill instructor who firmly believed in a program that broke men down and then built them back up better than before. This fabled drill instructor was universally hailed as one of the best men that those who met him ever met, tough, fair, and competent. Those who replaced him are salarymen who may have once been fine seamen but are now out for nothing more than a steady income. The trainees are no one's priority, so the easy part of the boot camp program, the breaking down, remains in place while the much harder building back up has fallen by the wayside. And with a recent spate of lawsuit threats (or perhaps actual lawsuits-- we don't get much information down here in the trenches), even that breaking down section has started to be stripped away starting with class 789, though I am not qualified to say what Piney Point is left with in the absence of even that.

It is from this combination of distracted administrators desiring a micro level of control without the micro level of oversight necessary to understand what controls are necessary that makes this place a seething swamp of bullshit. It is a purposelessly unpleasant dystopia endured for vague promises of future riches delivered by distant others.

But none of that really matters. "Hell is other people", but those other people can't do anything to hurt you if you don't let them. Nothing they have made me do put me at any risk of losing a limb, and most of the tasks I have been asked to do were tasks that needed to be done in some form or fashion at some point. The notion of something being a waste of time exists only in my head, as does the concept of unfairness. None of the bullshit matters because none of it lasts. I have just traded three months of my life for the beginning of a career, and I think I am right to be offended by some of the crap they have used those three months for, but it doesn't actually matter if I am right or not, if I am offended or not, because they are going to uphold their end of the bargain and this phase of life will just end without consequence or lingering effects.

If you are looking at going to the UA program at Piney Point, the only thing you need to know is the thing they tell you over and over again in the first week; keep your head down, your nose clean, and your mouth shut. If you walk out of here and the administrators don't know your name, you win a fantastic new life. It isn't free because nothing is free, but the price is one that I have been able to afford, and maybe you can, too.


  1. Jeb,
    You asked for some advice so here it is. When you head off to a ship as an apprentice keep you eyes and ears open and your mouth shut. Beware of sea lawyers as more often than not they do nothing but cause trouble. A lot of what you will be doing for the next 90 (or so days) is not all that different than what you've been doing. This is particularly true during your galley stint. While in the Engine Room and on Deck it will be cleaning, chipping & painting, and being a general all around helper. If you're lucky you might get some overtime. Let's face you will be cheap labor.

    When you get back to Piney Point for Phase 3 you will commit to whatever department you plan to make a career. The time will go relatively fast. The SIU will give you a "B" Book and send you off on you first real job as a Wiper or DEU (Deck Engine Utility). The assignments are almost always for 4 months. Before you leave look up online (USCG website) or ask someone there what will be required to upgrade to Firemen/Oiler. If you are sent off as a DEU all the time might not count as engine room time for upgrading. Find out! Check the paper to get an idea when the courses are offered. Get the application in early. Learn the material, not just the answers to the practice tests. It is very important to upgrade asap for more jobs to be available to you. After that first job you are on your own and all other jobs are gotten through the local SIU Hall. Learn that process! If you live close to a hiring hall it won't be too bad but either way the jobs that will come your way (at least initially) will be ones the more senior "A" books pass on. Unless you are married money should be secondary as you want time in the union for seniority and time so you can upgrade. If you decide you want to hawsepiper towards a license do it as soon as you can and leave the SIU. If you decide to stay in the SIU start saving now for retirement because the retirement benefits from the SIU are not that good.

    Just my 2 cents.

    1. Thanks a lot. I will definitely need to remember about that DEU maybe not counting for oiler time. I certainly have been told not to expect anything but shit jobs and shit money until maybe fourth phase and maybe not even then.

      Funny you should mention retirement benefits because I just had a union education class with one of the administrator ladies who was selling up the retirement benefits, but got surprisingly hostile when I started asking where the fund details and payouts were officially recorded. The whole class was a bit taken aback by the sudden change in demeanor, so I was starting to suspect something like that.

      2 cents from you, priceless to me. Thanks.

  2. Jeb,
    I should have added this regarding DEU time. It counts but not necessarily 100% since your time can conceivably split between deck and engine time. Whereas Wiper is an engine rate and time is credited 100%. Things may have changed but those were the rules in the past. That is why I say ask someone there who knows for sure.

  3. Oh yes and about the Retirement, You can read about the Plans on the SIU website. Go to the Member Benefits tab and then Seafarers Benefits Plans.

  4. Lastly, if you haven't dome it yet take a look at the schools course catalog regarding classes and upgrading.

  5. Anxious to here about your plans moving forward. Are you in a waiting mode to learn about shipping out? Look forward to next blog. JB

  6. I went to Piney Point in 1978-79, I was a kid who left high school early and wandered around accomplishing much of anything until I went there. They gave me a sense of discipline, and a feeling of belonging to something. I got my GED there. That was 36 years ago, I now sail with an unlimited masters license, and over the early portion of my career I went back to Piney Point numerous times. All in all, the place is as good as you make it.