As You Were Cover

The Ladder Climb

by Tenley Lozano

The river was shallow, so Murray was keeping them at a depth of fifteen feet and a heading of 020 degrees as he was instructed on the boat. His job was to maintain their depth and heading so that the hydrographic survey tool that Lewis was holding could measure and record the depth of the river bottom.

Boatswain Mate Third Class Paul Murray had just graduated from Underwater Demolition School when he volunteered for the newly formed unit, knowing they would be immediately deployed to Vietnam. He respected the men at the Underwater Demolition Team and saw the importance of their missions of river recon and scouting to destroy bunkers and structures that the Viet Cong could use to ambush American soldiers.

Murray had gotten into trouble with the law for drinking when he was in high school. He joined the Navy more to expunge his record of criminal activity than out of patriotic duty. He was surprised to find out how much he enjoyed diving;  underwater no one could yell at you or tell you how much of a fuck-up you were.

The needles on his depth gauge and compass on his SCUBA rig were right where they’d been the last time he’d checked it three seconds ago. Murray looked to his left and could barely make out the dark outline of his dive buddy through the muddy brown water of the Song Ong Doc even though he was less than two feet away. He reached down and touched the rope that was tied around his waist, linking the two of them together and was calmed by the knowledge that Lewis was right next to him. He was the newest member of UDT-13 so he’d been paired with one of the most experienced divers for this mission.

Equipment Operator First Class Mike Lewis had volunteered for this deployment from UDT-21 but everybody called him “Tobacco.” The only time you’d find him without a dip in his mouth was when he’d replaced it with a diving regulator.

Murray focused on the gauges, trusting Lewis to count his fin kicks, measuring the distance from where they had splashed from the swift boat to the designated point upriver where they would turn around. Murray felt two tugs on the buddy line at his waist, a signal from Lewis that they were at the halfway mark to the turn-around. He answered back with the same two tugs, to let his buddy know that the message was received.

Five kicks later, an invisible force threw Murray upwards and sideways into Lewis. Murray’s head slammed backward into his steel double tanks and the brown of the river abruptly went black.

***

Your right boot slips and where the ladder rung should be is only water. Adrenaline spikes through your body as your arms automatically clench onto the sides of the ladder and your whole body braces for a fall. The weight of your helmet is off-balance and you are thrown forward, chin bouncing off of your breastplate. Pain spikes through your head. You mutter, “Fucking hell!” to yourself. You feel a trickle of blood drip from the new cut on your chin and onto your white cotton shirt inside the rubber and cloth drysuit. Your gloved grip on the sides of the ladder is strained. Muster all of your strength to lift that weighted boot back up to the next rung. This is the task that washes out the most dive candidates: climb to the top of the twelve foot ladder in full dive gear in a controlled manner.

You’re wearing leather Deep Sea Boots with lead-plated soles and brass toe-caps, each weighing 21 pounds. Your feet are so small that you have to wear your leather combat boots inside the diving boots. You can’t feel the end of the boot; your actual toes barely reach over each rung as you shift your weight from left foot to right.  A memory of your childhood: clomping around the living room in your father’s giant work boots stained with dust and dirt from construction sites. The thought embarrasses you. You worry that your instructors and classmates see you as a child playing dress up.

The rope attached to your waist leads up to your dive tender, a colleague who stands above the tank, trying to take some of your weight and guide you up the ladder. Through the comms unit in your diving helmet you hear, “Everything ok down there, Trukken? The tender just took a lot of strain on your line.”

You answer back clearly and loudly, forcing a confidence into your voice that you don’t feel, “Red diver, Ok!” You can’t let them know how much you want to give up, how hopeless you feel at this moment. You have to prove them all wrong; you have to prove that a 125-pound woman is strong enough to do this job.

Remember the woman in the Dive School class that started right before yours. Picture her in full dive gear standing at the bottom of the wet pot, unable to climb the twelve-foot ladder. Imagine yourself in her position as they drain the water from the tank. Feel their hands remove the dive equipment from your body for the last time so you can climb out unencumbered. Instructor Murray is waiting at the top of the ladder shaking his head, telling the other instructors, “I knew she couldn’t hack it.” Remember when you started Dive School two months ago, when he told you that you’d always be too small and too weak to be a good diver. He told the whole class that he wouldn’t graduate anyone that he wouldn’t trust to be his own dive buddy, to haul his ass out of the water when the shit hit the fan, and then he looked straight at you. Embrace the embarrassment of being rescued by men from a training tank and the shame of proving them right. Now lock those feelings away in a dark box in the back of your mind, never to be opened again.

This is your philosophy for surviving in the military: be persistent and keep a positive attitude; no one wants a whiny woman around. It is a doctrine born of personal experience and speculation. Being a female officer in the military is a constant balance between fraternizing with enlisted men and being an aloof bitch.

You know Instructor Murray is above the tank watching and listening, waiting for you to show weakness. You know that he pays closer attention to you, the only woman in the class, than any of the other students. After two years in the Navy, you are used to being the only woman in a group of men, knowing that your failure will be representative of all women’s abilities and that your success will be seen as an anomaly.

Instructor Murray sees each misstep that you make, each time you fall behind on a group run, each and every time you do one less pushup than the men next to you. He hears from other divers that you have been training in the gym every morning before class at weightlifting until you can squat more than you weigh, deadlift twice your bodyweight, and leg press three-hundred pounds. He knows you are desperate not to fail. You have spent every day of Dive School learning from this man without asking yourself why he is such a hardass. Why he has higher standards than the other instructors. Why he doesn’t talk about his time as a diver in Vietnam. You see him as just one more asshole standing in the way of your goals. You resolve to make it through this damned exercise and out of the tank on your own power. You will not give him anything else to criticize you about.

Your forearms burn with the effort of gripping the sides of the ladder. You imagine eating spinach out of a can and channeling the strength of Popeye to complete the ladder climb.  Your right quadricep is taxed and shaking as you pull your five-foot-two-inch frame up another few inches. Your left foot searches for the next rung as you cling to the ladder. You hear the voices of your friends and family as you struggle.

“I don’t understand why you want to be a Navy Diver, Sue, but I support you,” your mother said.

“The only person who can truly judge you is yourself,” said your best friend in the military, Elizabeth, who hopes to be the first female Commanding Officer of a Navy ship.

“You’re crazy, Sue! Why would any woman want to go through that?” said your best friend back home, Mary, a married woman with two small children.

You’re breathing heavily, the air in your helmet tastes stale, and your viewport is fogged with condensation from your own sweat and breath so you reach your left hand down to your waist, feel the belt with lead weights, then your air hose and you turn a knob counter-clockwise a fraction of an inch. Fresh air blows across your sweaty face and you breathe deeply as you pause to catch your breath. Your drysuit slowly begins to balloon out as it fills with air and you turn the knob clockwise to slow the flow of air before the suit’s lobster-claw gloves pop off of your hands. Your dive tender tightened leather straps around your wrists before you splashed to try to keep the gloves tight, but you feel them slipping off of your small hands.

“Red diver, Topside, the clock is ticking,” the comms man reminds you in a deep, crackling voice from within your helmet.

You shake your head inside of the brass helmet and get back to work saying aloud, “Topside, Red Diver, understand.”

One foot then the other moves mechanically up. You feel like crying as your arms are barely able to reach the next rung up, restricted by the breastplate that is wider than your shoulders.  You do not cry. Crying is a sign of weakness. Crying would prove to these men that you can’t hack it.

You hear a memory of Instructor Murray’s voice, “If you can’t handle the pressure of diving in a controlled environment, how can I trust you in a No Shitter situation with your dive buddy’s life on the line?”

You continue upward at a painfully slow pace.

As your helmet breaks the surface of the water, you feel its weight heavy upon your shoulders, like Atlas carrying the celestial spheres on his back. Every step upward, out of the cool water and into the warm and humid air, you lose buoyancy.  Soon the full burden of fifty-six pounds of the brass and copper helmet and breastplate are stacked upon your shoulders but you have done it. Triumphant, you smile through the glass window of your helmet at Instructor Murray. He does not look impressed. His inscrutable face stares back at you, lips pressed together, the tips of his mustache downturned with what you have come to know as his usual expression.

Your dive tender helps you shuffle across the deck, one agonizing step at a time, to the bench where you sit. Once you are seated and your helmet is removed with help from your tender, Murray will tell you if you have passed the test or not.

Compose your face. Hide your emotions. Be sure that he can’t tell what you are thinking. Don’t fidget. Don’t show how anxious you are. Instead, think about how strong, smart, and hardworking you are. Know that whatever he tells you right now, you have the weekend to rest.

“That was ugly, Trukken,” Instructor Murray tells you in a raspy voice while he shakes his head, arms crossed over his chest. “I need to know that you can safely complete this task, not stumble and bleed all over my equipment. I expect you to redo the ladder climb test on Monday. You’d better clean it up, or pack your bags.”

Clench your fists, but don’t change your facial expression.  Let no sign of weakness show. “Yes, Chief,” you answer with a firm voice. You have two days to figure out how to get up and out of that tank quickly and cleanly.

Tomorrow the sun will be out and snow will begin to fall on the grass outside of your barracks. A bribe of beer and pizza will bring your two closest classmates, Adam and Jimmy, back to the now-empty tank to help you practice. Strap on the belt with lead blocks totaling half of your bodyweight and tie the tending line to your waist with a bowline knot. Place the breastplate over your shoulders, cushioning the metal with a wool sock on each side so your collarbones won’t bruise too badly. Proceed to climb the ladder again and again until your legs and arms are shaking with exhaustion and you no longer feel like failure is plausible. There is always the possibility of failure. Be glad that no one can hear your thoughts because they would think you have multiple personality disorder:

You can do this, Sue!  You are amazingly strong! 

Who are you kidding? Just give up; this is a pointless exercise. No one really expects you to be able to do this anyway. Let’s just quit and go take a long bath. Quitting is so much easier.

Shut up! You are going to get this! You are not a failure, Sue. 

Your collarbone is bruised from where the breastplate rests on it. When you get back to the barracks to take a shower, you cling to the handrail just to make it up a flight of stairs. Your legs are no longer answering properly to the commands you give them. Your arms are so spent that they are no longer capable of being lifted over your shoulders and you have to lower your head just to wash your hair, taking breaks to let your arms rest limp at your sides. Your body feels abused, but you learned something valuable today: a new technique that allows you to twist your body to the side of the ladder and climb up with slightly less difficulty and less fumbling of the too-large boots you wear.

Celebrate your successful training session by spending the evening at your favorite pizza joint with your classmates. If you can, only have one beer. If you can’t, buy a round for all the guys and enjoy the company. When they ask how you feel about Monday, tell them you’re ready to kick ass. Be confident.  Sometimes you need to lie to yourself.

Sunday morning, go to the gym to train with the senior divers. There are a few that give you weightlifting tips. It’s 0800 and the gym is nearly empty, since most of the guys are sleeping off hangovers at this hour. Ask a diver that you trust what happened to Murray in Vietnam to make him such a tough instructor. He sits down across from you on the worn out weightlifting bench with the stuffing coming out at the ends, takes a sip from his water bottle and begins to tell you a story that you would never have imagined…

***

The water rose up into the air fifteen feet, brown with mud from the river bottom. The crew of the swift boat saw the explosion from around a bend in the river where they were waiting for the divers to return. The coxswain grabbed the throttle and woke the engine from its quiet idle with a roar. He yelled for the other two patrol craft boats to do the same. The Frogmen were in the water, and they were in danger.

“I knew this recon mission was fucked from the beginning!”  Boatswains Mate First Class James Meecham yelled to himself, none of his crew being able to hear over the scream of twin diesel engines as they revved up to max speed. Muddy brown water churned into froth behind the boat as they sped downriver to pick up the divers. He couldn’t hear the bullets whiz by as he approached the turn in the river, but he saw as they hit the water near his boat’s aluminum hull.

The Viet Cong weren’t supposed to be here today, intel had told them, but you never knew where they’d show up. He drew back on the throttle to round the bend, and one of the men on the bow pointed to the two divers in the water a hundred yards ahead. He swung the fifty-foot boat around, angling it between the divers and shore, and slowed to pick them up, ready to bring her back up to top speed and head upriver. His gunners were lighting up the heavy vegetation on the shoreline with the .50 caliber guns that were mounted on the stern deck and right behind the wheelhouse. They aimed at anything that moved or had the ominous glint of a muzzle flash.

As his swift boat made the rescue, the men on the second swift boat provided cover fire. The third swift boat had stayed upriver around the bend and clear of the kill-zone. Their coxswain had pushed the bow ashore on the riverbank.

The men had jumped off the stern of the boat and into the shallow water and mud, sinking knee deep in the mixture before trudging up to the shoreline. The mud was like quicksand, pulling at their boots as they scanned the tree-line, alert and nervous. They had no idea what size force they would be fighting and hoped the rescue went quickly so the other teams could get boots on the ground and encircle the Viet Cong. They hoped they could draw the enemy away from the divers in the water.

***

Lewis shook his head to clear the stars from it. He saw the water in front of him begin to spray upward, as if there was a school of baitfish jumping out of it. The stark realization hit him that those weren’t fish, they were bullets. The Viet Cong were shooting at him from shore. His vision snapped into a clarity and focus that he would later relish as he spun to his right, looking for Murray. His dive buddy was floating face down an arm’s reach away. The force of the explosion had activated the CO2 canisters on both of their life vests, the buoyancy pulling them upward to the surface of the river water.

Lewis could feel his heart pumping hard as he gulped down air and muddy water and reached for the unconscious Murray. He grabbed Murray by the hand and pulled his body toward him and down, flipping his dive buddy in one movement. This was his first mission diving with Murray; he wouldn’t forgive himself if anything happened to the kid. The regulator was out of Murray’s mouth, and Lewis slapped him across the face in an attempt to wake him up. Murray didn’t respond, but at least he was breathing. Breathing was good. He would worry about how badly he was injured once they were out of the water.

Lewis couldn’t hear a damn thing except for a high-pitched ringing, but knew the swift boat must be coming. He just had to get Murray away from shore and into the middle of the river, where they couldn’t shoot him. The water in front of them was still alive with the froth of the enemy bullets that were striking it. He leaned back into his tanks, tilting Murray into his lap as he grabbed the kid by the shoulder strap on his life vest harness and swam backwards with all his might. He stared at the dark blood dripping from the back of Murray’s head into the dirty water. He felt his lungs burning and his legs straining, but he kept kicking until he saw the familiar grey of the boat’s hull appear in his peripheral vision.

***

Murray woke up on the swift boat with bullet casings lying on the deck all around him. He’d been stripped out of his SCUBA gear and it was lying in a muddy puddle with his M-16 next to it. The broken box of the hydrographic equipment was still tied to Lewis’s gear. The divers usually turned in the readouts from the machine after every dive so the cartographers could extrapolate the data and make maps of the area so the higher ups could plan missions for the SEALs and the other riverine craft. The data from the dive was ruined, and the squints would be pissed off. They had no idea what it was like out here, safe at their desks on base.

As soon as Lewis saw that Murray was alert, he put out his right hand, grabbed him by the forearm and helped him sit up.  Lewis said with a relieved smile, “Nice job, kid. You do that every time it gets rough? Just pass out and make your buddy carry you?”

“What the hell happened?” he asked, still shaken and dizzy.

Lewis replied nonchalantly, “Well, the rest of the team just finished clearing the area and they found a ditch with a bamboo frame full of D-cell batteries fitted in series with a pair of wires leading into the water. Looks like that was the power source to the mine that went off when we were in the water. We’re lucky there was a bit of a current today that carried our bubbles downstream and fucked with their timing or we would have been blown to muddy bits.”

The coxswain added, “You owe him one, Murray. Tobacco swam you right from the kill-zone to where we could pick you guys up. You’d have a few more holes right now if he wasn’t so quick.”

Murray looked down at the pile of his muddy dive gear and picked up his dive mask. The underwater explosion had caused a spider-web of cracks across the glass window. He peered through the broken glass and muttered, “I owe him one, alright.”

 

***

I stare through the window in my dive helmet at the ladder directly in front of me and give myself one last mental pep talk: no one is more prepared than you. Dominate that ladder!

I scrunch my face into a determined scowl, and reach around the back of the ladder with my right arm and link my elbow around the side. My right hip, shoulder, and elbow are tight against the ladder. The topside tender standing dry above the tank gives me some slack on the line attached to my waist the way we practiced. I start my ascent with a well-placed right foot, one rung up. Next is my left foot, pigeon-toed so that I can shove it on the next rung without missing. Misplace a foot now and you’re done for! This is your last chance at becoming a Dive Officer.

I will make it up this ladder, one step at a time. I will show Murray that I am strong and competent. Or at least I won’t give him a reason to kick me out.

Right foot. Left foot. Grab the ladder with left hand, hook the right arm around the side one step higher. Repeat. No stopping this time. No taking breaks. Ignore those screaming muscles; you can rest when you reach the top of the ladder. The climb takes an eternity, and it is my fastest yet.

My faceplate breaks the surface of the water and I almost forget myself and let out a yip of joy. I stifle a grin as I look at my head instructor’s face for approval. Chief Murray is as stoic as ever, his bushy mustache in a straight line over pinched lips, displaying no emotion. He directs my tender to sit me down and remove my dive helmet.

Once I’m free of the heavy helmet and no longer breathing compressed air, Murray walks over to where I am seated.

“I heard how much you trained this weekend, Trukken. It shows. Good work. It won’t be an accident if you make it through here and graduate,” he says to me without the trace of a smile on his face.

“Thanks, Chief!” I smile with relief, unable to control my facial muscles into an expression more fitting of officer with military bearing. I don’t care who sees me grinning; I’ve done it!  I’ve completed the Ladder Climb and passed with Chief Murray’s high standards. I stick out my small, gloved hand, expecting a congratulatory handshake from Instructor Murray.  He looks at my outstretched hand and squints, looking amused, as if I’m his pet dog that just learned a new trick, but didn’t get it quite right.

Murray tells me, “I’ll shake your hand if you graduate. Not a minute before.”

When I graduate, Chief. Not if!” I reply, still smiling. Chief Murray has higher passing standards than all of the other instructors for a good reason, but he’s still an asshole.

With the ladder climb complete, I’m one step closer to graduating from Dive School and becoming the first female Dive Officer in the United States Navy.