They’re Not Handcuffs, They’re Zip Ties

As Antonio, trying to stay out of the sun during a boarding scenario

I’m ready to get off this boat. It’s underway day number ten out of twelve, which I know isn’t a lot compared to my brethren who have been deployed on a ship before, but I never have. Also, this isn’t a naval ship. It’s a civilian salvage tug that is now used primarily in support of naval exercises. It’s a powerful mother, but it’s small. The engine room is loud and adjacent to berthing, which is small, and cramped. Also, there isn’t a gym on board. When I came on board I asked the Master of the ship if there was a gym and he said, “Well, my name is Jim.” Okay, then. The second day out at sea, I woke up early, went to the bow, and did a series of bodyweight lunges and squats, interspersed with a half hour of running in place. The next day I could barely walk. My calves were torn up, from running in place and doing so on steel. So now I’m complaining. Okay, I guess I never stopped.

Luckily, I have time to write. The boarding exercises we are supporting are long—six hours at a time—and after the first couple hours, boring. But besides two days in a row of two boarding exercises a piece, we’ve either had one a day, or none, which leaves a lot of time to do other things. I’ve been alternating between writing, reading and using the wifi to browse the internet. For writing, there are two dining rooms adjacent to the galley, both of which have televisions that play 24/7. If I’m lucky, nobody will be in the galley and I will mute the television and write. When that’s too loud, I go to the bridge. When that’s too loud, or the seas are too rough, I go out on the fantail, but the ocean breeze, humidity, and difference in temperature from the inside messed up the tracking pad of my Macbook somehow, probably due to condensation. My computer is softer than soft serve ice cream. Vanilla, chocolate, or twist, doesn’t matter the flavor.

When I get off the boat, this is what I want to do:

I want to go running. I’ve had my share of injuries over the years and especially over the past year and I miss it. I have spent the last two months back on my feet, battling between the normal aches and pains that come with the tendons, muscles, and bones readjusting to the impact of running, and was just starting to feel on the right side of normal before I had to go on the boat. I’d like at least a handful of months of uninterrupted running, where the point is necessarily racing but staying healthy on my feet.

I want a beer. Nuff said. Not a lot of beer, just one, maybe two. Nothing wrong with that. I mean, yesterday was Independence Day, after all. Hastag America.

I want grass, too. The green stuff, I mean! I mean, the stuff that grows out of the ground! I mean, grass like the kind you walk on and run on and, when you were younger, and your legs were stronger and more supple, you would slip off your shoes and run barefooted on, perhaps in a race with your friends, or in a game of ultimate Frisbee. I mean,  you know what I mean.

Yesterday was the last naval boarding exercise for my stay here. After a day as an observer, I was lucky enough to be a crew member again, on the bridge again. Same role: chief’s mate. Same name: Antonio. Only this time, the gloves were off. We were encouraged to escalate force against the Americans. We were to have (simulated) weapons and drugs on board, and when they found them, we were to resist.

Okay, my man, I am ready for this.

Maverick was back. So was Liberator and Grade School. Only this time they told us their actual names. First names, at least. My friend and fellow crew member Sanjay was here again, played by a different real crew member this time, and this time he was outside behind the bridge smoking a cigarette. When the Americans came on board, I led them to believe that I was the Captain of the ship. When they asked me my name, I asked them theirs, and they told me, so I told them mine. So far, so good. Maverick and Grade School had me stand near the front of the bridge and look forward as they assessed the situation. Then they tried to cuff me.

There wasn’t anywhere for me to go. I said I wanted to talk to Sanjay and tried to turn around. They told me to face forward again. I asked why they were cuffing me, and they said they found weapons on board, which I knew, as Colin, they weren’t supposed to tell me. I said that Sanjay–that rat bastard– brought weapons on board, and if they just let me talk to him…they began to cuff me. I tried to resist, but Maverick and Grade School are both 200 pounds and look like they lift. When I told them, man, you are strong, you must eat the goat meat, Maverick said, no, only spinach and chicken. I made a note, as Colin, about this diet specialty. After they cuffed my right hand, they asked for my left. I refused and again tried to turn around, asking for Sanjay, but I couldn’t budge. They forced my left hand around and cuffed me. With both hands behind me, and with little leverage to move, I stopped resisting. And to think that, before I came on board, I thought I was becoming strong, with an inkling of a six pack and a weekly outing of pullups and bench press. Among my missing ingredients: spinach and chicken.

I stood for a while like this, with my hands behind my back, facing forward. I tried talking to Maverick, and this time, unlike last, he and his boarding team were more willing to engage in casual conversation. He asked me about my family. I said I had one wife and five children. He said he had a wife and children, too. It was only when I tried to ask him operational security questions that he deflected. His ship is not the USS Mahan, but I pretended like it was.

“You are the Mahan?” I asked.

“What? Who told you that?”

“Yesterday the Americans tell us this. I know this about you,” I said. Nobody told me this, but he didn’t know that. I was trying to trip him up.

“That’s not—we’re not the Mahan.”

“What are you then?”

“We’re Americans.”

“Okay, my man.”

Instead of asking him how many people he had on board, I told him. I said, with no small amount of certitude, that they had 1,000 people. He said they had much less, but wouldn’t give me a number. I said he had 1,000 guns, too. Like the FDR once said chicken in every pot? You Americans have gun for every person. He again deflected. Then he started to ask me about the guns we had on board. As Colin, as an observer, Maverick was doing well. And I answered the questions about the guns. I told him Sanjay must have did it.

Maverick was surprised. “Sanjay? Really?”

“Yeah, my man, I know this,” I said.

“Why do you think it was Sanjay.”

“Because he has the sex with my wife, so from then on, I don’t trust him.”

“I thought you said Sanjay was your friend.”

“He is. He is oldest friend I have, but still. I don’t trust him.”

“How do I know you didn’t bring the weapons on board?”

“No, no, no, no, no. This is not for me. I have the plans for the future.”

“Plans? What kind of plans?”

I turned slightly to face Maverick. He let me. “You’ve head of Uber?” I asked.

“I’ve heard of it, yeah.”

“Well, I will have company called. ‘Guber.” G-U-B-E-R.”

Maverick laughed.

“And also this: I will give my customers free Goobers, like the candy. This is my business plan. So I cannot bring weapons and do this.”

“A lot of money to start your own company. You could make that money with weapons. Or drugs. And we found those on board, too.”

It was a smart rebuttal, but now he had told me that they found not only weapons, but drugs, too. He wasn’t supposed to tell me any of this.

“Yeah, but weapons and drugs are dangerous,” I told him. “And my future plan is safe. I am not the dangerous man.”

Maverick took this all in. I was looking forward again. “So it was Sanjay?” he asked, after a bit.

“Yes, Sanjay, I said.”

After a while, a new guy came in, who went by the name of Ralph. Some of the Americans also called him, “Wreck It,” like the movie. He told me that he was transporting me outside, where Sanjay and the Captain were. He asked me if there would be any problems.

“Yeah,” I said.“The problem is Sanjay.”

Ralph didn’t respond.

He lead me in the cuffs outside and I didn’t say anything as we approached. As soon as I got close to Sanjay, who was facing the corner, I tried to make a run for it.

“Sanjay!” I yelled. “You bring the weapons?!” I tried to lunge for him, and kicked at the air while I did so. I barely moved. Ralph was even larger than either Maverick or Grade School. With barely any effort on his part, he continued to lead me towards the port side of the ship. As soon as he did, he had me sit on the ground in the shade, still with my hands behind my back. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t move.

And that was pretty much it, at least for a while. I tried to talk to Sanjay and they yelled at me for doing so. I asked them what were they going to do about it? They didn’t do much. Eventually, though I got tired of talking to Sanjay, so I stopped. They moved all of us to the walkway in front of the bridge. By that time, I had regained some energy. Sanjay was around the corner, close enough for me to yell at for bringing weapons on board or for his old transgression of having sex with my wife. The Americans told us to stop talking to each other, so I said, okay my man, I will yell instead. They then separated Sanjay and I to where he couldn’t hear me even if I yelled. The day was starting to get long. The exercise had been going on for at least three hours and I had either run out of things to say or people to say them to. This was not only for the sake of the exercise or for Antonio, but for the sake of me, Colin. I was hot and bored and trying to make the time go by.

There was one kid who couldn’t have been older than twenty. He was part of the control team, an extra set of personnel they brought on board. The control team had on dark blue coveralls and black bulletproof vests and even though they had white lettering that said,” U.S. Navy,” I started to call them, “C.I.A,” especially the kid standing closest to me. But no matter what he wouldn’t respond.

“Hey, CIA,” I said.


“CIA, my man.”


“You don’t know how to talk or you’re not allowed to?”


Towards the end of the exercise, however, CIA loosened up, or someone told him that he was allowed to engage with us. By that point, I had stood up. Wreck It and CIA looked at me as if they were going to tell me to sit down, but I explained that I needed to stretch my legs. This was true for both Antonio and Colin. The scenario had been going for about three hours at that point. About thirty minutes later, I tried talking to CIA again.

“Hey CIA,” I said, softer this time.

He looked at me. That was something.

“You’ve heard of the Pink Floyd? Famous music band.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“They have this song, ‘We are all in the fishbowl.’ You know this?”

“I think so,” he said.

“Well, look around, my man. Water everywhere. You look up, sky everywhere. It’s like we are in the fish bowl, too.”

“Okay,” he said.

“So what I am saying is, that you and me are in this together.”

CIA smirked. I smirked, too, either in or out of character, I wasn’t sure. In an attempt to go into character, I had built a world of small absurdities that I stacked on top of one another. This was both to keep me engaged in the scenario and to keep them engaged as well. And the more engaged they were in the conversation, they more information I could possibly get out of them, or the more I could make it seem like I had befriended them, and there guard down, exploit the situation by extracting information from them. Also, let’s be honest here, it was fun.

At the end of the exercise, I took off my cuffs and my neon yellow vest and walked inside. I needed out of the sun. After we debriefed the boarding crew on how they performed and they took their RHIB back to their ship, I spent the rest of the day in the galley or in my rack, alternating between reading, writing, watching tv shows I had downloaded on my iTunes, shooting the shit with other people, and watching Captain America on FX, which we got through satellite television. It was nice to have the time off because of the time spent working. I thought about what I could have done differently and the ways I could have resisted better, but that was my last chance to do so.

That was our last exercise, and next year for active duty, I will be performing a different job, probably on land and not at sea. That’s what I wanted, right? Yes. And I’ll be happy when I get back to land. It will be a little sad to see of them go, but it will be time.

Boarding team getting ready to leave

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