Hitting Unpause: One Sailor Waits No Longer

The following interview was conducted December 1, 2008, part of a series of discussions called “44,” with people of varied background about their reactions to the 2008 election of Barack Obama. This interview is with Jeremy Gordon, at the time a student at Rutgers University, and a former member of the United States Navy, who served with the author in Norfolk, Virginia from 2005–2006.

I started out studying political science, and I hated it. I’ll finish it. I’ve have about six credits to go for the last year. I’m almost there so I night as well complete it.

Your first semester was in the spring of 2006, at Rutgers?

It’s about what I thought it’s be like. It’s a commuter campus, with about 10,000 students on campus. But almost all of them commute, so there’s really not much campus life. It’s mostly a professional school. Just a great place for anything involving a master’s of science, which is probably why I got involved in math. Just because their humanity department isn’t very good, and their science department is very good. So I guess that’s where the action is.

With the math I’m the only white guy, with Chinese and Indian kids that have been doing this stuff since they were ten years old. And they’d much, much more adapt at it than myself. Much, much more training, and I feel kind of like a visitor. You know, because I’ve over from the social sciences now learning all this advanced math. I have no intention of staying there, of being an advanced mathematician. It’s like I’ve come to learn strange ways and soon I’ll just leave and go my way. I’ve done okay. I’ve been able to hang in there, and have had had to work twice as hard.

With your classes in economics have you been able to gain an informed perspective of why the current downtrends exist? What will you do with it?

Why things are as they are—that’s the big question. Every single discipline you take allows you to approach life from a certain angle. History has to look at everything as a series of events. Anthropology mixes history with a generic perspective. Chemistry has you approach everything as a science issue. Economists can’t help but look through their perspective, and I think everyone feels their way of approaching a problem is most accurate. And everybody’s right to a certain extent. What I liked most about econ if that you have to learn from every discipline, and the diversity gives you a very broad understanding of issues. Which I don’t think I wouldn’t get from the narrower political science field.

But where is this going to take me? Who really knows. The way the job market is right now, don’t even try getting a job unless you’re an engineer—a chemical engineer. If not you’re probably not going to get much. The classes I’m taking now, like advanced analysis courses, could help me get a job when the economy picks up. Jumping into the job market right now with just an MBA would be a bad idea.

Have you taken any field trips, if you know what I mean, down to Wall Street? What have you seen?

You’re not going to see very much on Wall Street. The bull’s out there, outside the building, how’s that? But really, people aren’t changing their lifestyles all that much. Restaurants are still full. Houses still cost way too much. And I really don’t think that is going to change a whole lot in the next several months or few years. It you weren’t watching the news you wouldn’t know anything is happening.

A lot of people lost quite a bit, but they also made a lot in the last few years. The ones who really took a bath were like the one in Virginia. The Virginia Beach housing market was going crazy back in 2004, 2005. Buying homes they couldn’t afford on the assumption these homes would continue to increase in value by 20% or 30% every year. And that’s just not the way it works. I saw people buying houses with high interest loans in these high hopes and they probably lost everything. Those are the guys that got hurt.

The financial sector, a lot of lower-level people are yet going to lose their jobs, but that’s been going on for years. The financial sector’s been contracting ever since the dot.com burst of 2000. But what’s interesting is that the financial sector, as it gets smaller with fewer jobs, the remaining jobs are just going to be paying more. Just as much salary, just going to fewer people now.

What are the high points of your Naval career?

I think the day I joined was always one, and it was all down hill after that. I did use my dress blues this last year for Halloween. I went to the Village but there were other sailors I really didn’t get hit on, wearing my uniform. I thought I would. I do still fit in it. I’ve gotten a little fatter, so I did have to squeeze into it. We ended up just going to a sake bar.

What about some of the countries you’ve been to, the foreign experiences?

What, you mean like Greece? I forget that you didn’t go on the first deployment with us, right? I mean, it was okay. Nothing you can’t do on your own. It’s not like a hundred years ago, to be in the Navy. Travel today is cheap. Anybody can go anywhere and it’s really not big a deal. I guess being in the Navy and pulling into a port in the 1930’s would be like, “Oh, God, most people just don’t get to go to a place like this!” Now a days who cares? You can take Jet Blue over there.

What is Navy life really like? Is it like the commercials?

I can tell you what is was really like for me. What it’s like for everyone else depends on where you get stationed. Everything is luck of the draw. Maybe you ended up in a good place, or in a place not so good. But either way there’s not much you can do about it.

How was it for me? Oh come on, do you really have to do that? And I talking to you or talking to history or who am I talking to here?

Both.

The place I ended up at, Norfolk, it was a waste of time. It was a wasted two years, I guess. The first year I think you grow up. You grow up very fast. And you kind of put your life in perspective. And then you just wait. Wait to do anything. Wait to leave, wait to go to a bar, when in port. You learn pretty fast: You tell yourself, you know “I know what I need to know, can’t I just go now?” No, you can’t. And that’s the most frustrating part. You know what you want to do, you know what you have to do, and you can’t.

Do you mean in the service, or also outside it, after it?

No, you just wanted to get on with your life. But you still have to mop the deck the next day. There is no getting on with your life. You wait. You can’t produce anything. You can’t make anything of yourself.

                           USS Elrod pulling into port, 2006. Author is fourth from the left.

Especially when you were there, on the Elrod. The more work you did, the more you would accomplish most they were after you. So the trick became to do as little as possible. That’s not really a good lesson for life… But we’ve talked for half an hour and I don’t think you’ve mentioned Barack Obama yet.

Getting to that, promise. Did you find the transition hard, switching off institutionalized mindset?

No, it really wasn’t hard. I think if you never really, authentically, transitioned into the Navy it is not very hard to transition out. Others were just more sold on it than I was. I never really bought into the lifestyle all that much. Especially after the Iraq war started. Then I just zoned out.

It’s almost impossible to remember now, that after 9/11 I thought joining could do some good. It became like a joke in my life. But my God. So I’ll have you know I haven’t done any good for anybody. That’s my new mission in life: to never do any good again.

You know, when September 11th happened, as people started to join the military, it was a noble thing to do. A legitimate war was going to be fought, or so we thought. It had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. We were going to invade Afghanistan, and we were going to unseat the Taliban, and we we were going to kick their ass. That was the whole point. And it just didn’t turn out that way. We ended up getting bogged down.

I had an interesting perspective during that March in 2003. When the war started I was working the wardroom at the time, so I got to see the officers first hand. Well, they were watching the bombings live on CNN—how we had a camera in Baghdad I don’t know—and they showed one particularity spectacular explosion, and I remember one of the officers screaming, “Yeah, that what you get for flying a plane into one of our buildings!”

That idiot. Are you serious? There were supposed to be leaders of the American military and you think the Iraqis flew planes into the World Trade Center? And it kind of demonstrated the appalling level of ignorance of what was really going on. It was very disheartening. And that’s probably why it turned out so poorly, because people like that are all over the place. In the military, in government, in the country in general.

You might have been the first person I talked to that was actually in New York on 9/11.

I was in Queens. I of course got stuck there for several days after the bridges were closed and I couldn’t leave. I was actually supposed to leave that day and go home. I was staying with my grandparents.

What I remember was that September 11, 2001 was actually election day. Bloomberg was running for his first term. It was going to be a close election; nobody was sure who was going to win. Afterwards Giuliani became a hero and later Bloomberg was easily elected.

But that election day, after the Twin Towers had been struck and had fallen down, my grandparents left home to vote like nothing had happened. They went, they voted, and came back. At the same time they were closing on their house, and later they drove to the lawyers house, again like nothing happened. Like it was an ordinary day. The lawyers called the house were I was, and said, “Are they nuts? All the roads are closed! They can’t get here.” On this crazy day, the worst since Pearl Harbor—especially in New York… But to my grandparents it was like nothing. I guess if you lived through the Great Depression and World War II it might be another day. I’ll never forget how for them it was an almost ordinary day—life goes on, no matter what.

You wanted to join because of it. I remember thinking at the same time, for some reason in the moment, “I hope I don’t get drafted” and the idea came to me over the next few days. Was there a shift in your mind?

Honestly I don’t remember. I got a card in the mail that asked if I wanted to join the Navy, and I thought, “That seems like something you’d do right now. I could do that.” And I did. Obviously is September 11th had never happened we wouldn’t be speaking. They really kicked up military recruiting campaigns big time in the months afterwards, because they knew they could get thousands of recruits. And they did. I guess in a way they exploited it, but that’s their job. I can’t blame them, it’s what they do.

It’s all kind of scary though, because that would mean I also might not be at Rutgers, and I kind of like where I am now. Had I not gone through will all of that, what are the chances I could end up at this spot right here?

Did you follow the ’08 election?

Yeah, I did. I voted for Hillary in the primaries though. And that’s I guess a lot because of Bill Clinton. He was pragmatic, he was about getting things done. He wasn’t an ideologue. And he’d come at things with a certain perspective. It was just about what worked—and things worked! And you have to him credit for that. The first President Bush too. We had twelve years of two very capable people in the White House.

Having seen Obama through the campaigns, I really came to like the way he spoke, the way he carried himself. He was competent. Which is something George W. Bush never was. Obama is at least willing to listen. I mean, I guess, I’ve never spoken to him. But very calm, very relaxed. When I saw that I thought, ‘Wow, look at that guy.’ And McCain was on meltdown mode by the third debate. He looked awful, and I almost felt bad for him up there. He looked almost embarrassed by the end, and I felt kind of bad for him. He’s probably one of the most distinguished senators, and it wasn’t coming through in the campaign. I thought he would do better, and would be able to work away from the Bush policy, more than the wider Republican party. Because the Republican party has been such an embarrassment the last ten years. I thought he might be able to bring it back to its more traditionally conservative roots because he wouldn’t abandon the social conservative debate. Before that I probably would have voted for him. But it shows this was a real bad time for the Republican party, because this is essentially a conservative nation. This is a country where conservatives outnumber liberals in a fairly substantial number.

There are a lot of reasons for it. Obama ran a great campaign. There’s no doubt about that, and McCain wasn’t McCain. He wasn’t himself, not wanting to isolate the social conservative vote. He was trying for women and conservatives at the same time with Sarah Palin, and it didn’t work. He could have picked someone like Chuck Hagel or Joseph Lieberman. He could have picked someone that disagreed with him on the war that was socially conservative. He could have picked someone that agreed with him on the war that was socially liberal. But he ended up going with the most boring choice imaginable. The choice was exciting because it was so boring.

                           Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin introduced by Sen. John McCain as his running mate,
                           August 29, 2008

Even my father, who never talks politics, took notice. “Did you see who McCain picked?” he asked me. “Check this out!” And we started talking about Sarah Palin. We never talk politics, and I saw that if my completely apolitical father us making fun of John McCain’s choice for vice-president then he’s definitely in trouble.

What do you think of the election?

You know, I like to be in bed by nine-thirty, so staying up for the results isn’t my things. I can’t stay up that late, it’s not who I am.

But there really was no excitement. I just thought, okay, maybe things can get back to normal. These last eight years have been so embarrassing, when as an American you see what we’ve been doing. But there are people that just don’t care. There are people in the country so isolated that what people think in France of England doesn’t mean anything to them. Because they think they are immune to world opinion. They’ve retained the World War II era mentality that America is the strongest power and no one can hurt us. For a very long time that was the case and George W. Bush had that mentality. We’re number one.

What are your expectations, what would you like to see with Obama?

I’d like to get back international respect.

***For more oral history interviews concerning the 2008 election of Barack Obama, click here:

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