By Donnie Carmichael
I have always loved and still do love Pascha. My year basically revolves around it. And even when it is Paschatide, I want to relive Pascha more and more, every Sunday and everyday. Every year through college I was at my home parish with my family, my ”˜Church family”, all its familiarity and usual festivities. At the end of college I joined the Navy. The Navy is not necessarily conducive to taking time off. So my first Pascha in the navy came around and I couldn’t go back to Holy Trinity in Springfield, Vermont. I was blessed to spend Pascha at Holy Ascension in Charleston, South Carolina. My sister came to be with me for the weekend. Even though I missed home, it was a wonderful celebration with new (and some already very familiar) family and traditions. But I thought, “next year I’ll be home, just one year away is good.”
Next year came along. After fifteen months of classroom and simulator training for the Submarine Force, I had just gotten to my boat as a fresh ensign the first week of Lent. I was certain I would be home for Pascha that year, because it was a new construction submarine still being built, that wasn’t scheduled to go out for sea trials until August. After a few weeks of being there, my boss told me, “you’re going to ride another submarine for a month to get qualified [required experience to supervise the nuclear power plant and drive the submarine].” It turns out that sub was leaving port on Holy Monday. I didn’t really know what to think and I couldn’t say no. I was in the Navy and you don’t really have a choice about these things. I really didn’t know how to comprehend missing Pascha or being underway on a submarine for the first time, let alone both at the same time. So I packed my sea bag and “luckily” I had the Department of Religious Education Holy Week and Pascha books, the Reader’s Service, a Bible, and the lectionary calendar. I figured I’d just have to read the services and maybe there will be some other Orthodox on the submarine. But I still thought that, “this will be just one year. God wants me to learn something. I’ll be home next year.” I told my parents and they were just as sad that we wouldn’t be together again. My dad sent me a card (unexpectedly) with the icon of the Resurrection/Descent into Hades on the front. On the inside it said, “Dear Donnie, Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen! You’re forever at my right hand at Pascha. Love Dad.” I cried.
The first time on a submarine is overwhelming for a number of reasons. 18-hour days, strange watch rotation, figuring out the sleep and meal schedule, ramping-up on submarine etiquette, all sorts of strange words/phrases, acronyms, acronyms within acronyms, flipping countless pages of a qualification standards with even more countless signature blocks for knowledge factors and practical factors, learning forward from aft and port from starboard. On top of all that, it was Holy Week and I just wanted to go home or at least read through a service in my rack. Well I didn’t get through many of the service books. But Holy Saturday lunch-time came. We had kielbasa. How wonderful I thought. God is looking out for me, something familiar. At lunch the captain said “all the ensigns are watching a movie with me tonight.” He’s the captain, so we watched a movie with him. In between lunch and the movie, I checked my email. My mom sent me one – “we sung about Jonah and the whale yesterday and we all thought of you and our prayers are with you!” My response was “I’m no Jonah, and I’m pretty sure living conditions are better than a whale. Thank you for your prayers.” Most movies underneath the sea start at 2000 (8:00 pm for you non-nautical folk). I don’t remember what the movie was but I gradually started to feel the joy one experiences at Pascha, hundreds of feet beneath the sea. It was about 2130/9:30pm. I thought how wonderful this is, to know that it is the Day of Resurrection, without having attended a service, seen the inside of a Church, or lit a candle. Even though it’s not midnight local time, Pascha is already being celebrated somewhere in the world. The movie ended and I went to my rack read through the Matins Service and the Paschal Hours singing the melodies I knew in my head. Next year I’ll be home I thought.
Well next year came along. We had a very busy winter and spring to get ready for a mini 3-month deployment in May. As anyone with military experience knows, the schedule kept changing. And changing. And changing. I wasn’t too worried because I had an experience of missing Pascha under my belt and I was confident that everything would work out for me being home. The beginning of April came and things weren’t looking so good. We had our pre-deployment over-seas certification during Holy Week and no one could miss that. But we were supposed to let the certification/inspection team off on Holy Friday in Florida and then transit back to our home-port in Groton, Connecticut to arrive on Bright Monday. Great! I’ll just ask for leave and miss three days of underway transit. This will work. I’ll be home.
Denied. Leave denied. Couldn’t miss the underway transit. Here we go again. Two years in a row. How? Why? I did this once already. Where am I going to get the strength to do this again? As Holy Week and our overseas certification progressed, all I could think about more and more was why am I missing Pascha again? I did a little better than last year with regard to reading the service books but not much. All of a sudden though it was Holy Saturday night. I got in my rack, got my Pascha book and readers service, and iPod with the Paschal music on it, and it was Pascha, the joy was there! Having the music really made a difference and helped bring the peace and joy of Pascha to me.
I woke up for watch a few hours later and went to breakfast. A good friend of mine, Joe, happened to be riding my submarine to qualify. Joe wasn’t Orthodox but he had come to Church with me a couple of times. He was at breakfast too and I greeted him with Christ is Risen! And he responded with “Indeed!” There were hard-boiled eggs for breakfast that morning on the table and my mom had given me Cadbury mini-eggs to take and share. We surfaced off the coast of Florida to drop off the inspection team. I was in the bridge and brought up my cell phone. Cell phones don’t work far from land. But I guess the wind was blowing in the right direction that day (which I know has nothing to do with signal strength) because I have enough reception to call home for about 5-10 minutes talk to my dad and say “Christ is Risen!” What a difference hearing and saying those words makes! How wonderful I thought. I’ll be home for Pasch next year. I’m not Jonah, surely God wouldn’t have me spend three years “in the belly of the whale.”
As with most things in the military and life the only constant is change. I was originally going to leave my boat in November of 2010. Well that changed to July of 2011. It ended up working out anyway because that was the end of my obligation and the plan was to return to civilian life. The scuttlebutt (gossip) on the boat was that we were going to do an ICEX. ICEX, short for ice exercise, is when the boat goes to the Arctic, plays war games with friendly submarines, tries new things, and surfaces through the ice. During ICEX 2011, the two boats going were even supposed to surface at the North Pole. This was really exciting, to go under the ice cap, drive a submarine, and surface. The crew underwent countless hours of practicing in simulators and training in classrooms to prepare. This was going to be awesome except; I was going to miss Pascha again. Why I thought? This once and a lifetime opportunity wasn’t worth it. Why did I get extended, why another year without Pascha? I can’t do this again. Many family and Orthodox friends tried to console me. I could only respond with “if you’re not part of the greatest story ever told [the life of Jesus] then there’s no point in having any other stories.” Only a mother, my mother could offer a story that provided comfort. “An old man was very sick in the hospital and about to die,” she told me. “His family came to visit him and when they arrived at his room they saw no Icons. They asked the man if they should go get some. He said ”˜no that’s ok. I have Christ in my heart.’”
We left for ICEX at the end of February. We surfaced through the ice about half a dozen times, played war games, and even hosted some dignitaries and a news crew. It was a wonderful experience, something I’ll never forget. When it came time for Holy Week, I once again had my service books, Bible, and a lot more liturgical music on my iPod. I made it through reading more service books that year. Towards the end of the week I noticed on the plan of the week (a Microsoft outlook calendar) that there was training for officers on Pascha/Easter Sunday morning at 0100/1:00am. We’ve never had training on a Sunday and we’ve never had training on the mid-watch (0000-0600). This has got to be an electronic typo or scheduling error. I ignored it. But then the printed plan of the day (POD) came out on Saturday and the training was scheduled still at 0100 on Sunday morning. Maybe nobody noticed it, it was blindly copied and pasted, or it had to have been such a typo that it couldn’t be true. I asked the “powers that be” about the typo/scheduling glitch. I was told the training was happening, and make sure everyone else knows to be there.
I still didn’t know what to think. After dinner on Holy Saturday, I knew I needed some sleep. I can’t remember when I started reading Nocturns/Matins/Liturgy but I know some of it was before and some after this poorly scheduled training session. We had the training session, no one was really awake, to say participation was poor at best is an exaggeration, but we held out for the whole hour. I was frustrated. No one else in the room (I imagine) knew the “real reason” we should be up this hour – celebrating the saving Pascha of our Lord. We finished, and a few of us junior officers went to our stateroom to do what junior officers can be pretty good at – complain. I wasn’t angry yet, just really frustrated. I had some Cadbury eggs and I shared them with my dear friends Timmy, Will and Garth. I tried to teach them “Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!” and explain the Liturgical and celebratory events of this “chosen and Holy Day” and although they were receptive, they didn’t quite understand. To fully understand, or begin to understand, that Christ is Risen, you have to experience Paschal Liturgy. We parted ways to our racks for the remainder of the night; I finished the Pascha service and went to sleep filled with the Joy of the Resurrection.
There is always an hour blocked out on Sunday mornings on the POD for Catholic and Protestant Lay Services. I had the morning watch (0600-1200) and at our pre-watch supervisor brief we told everyone that if you have someone on watch who wants to go to (or you want to go) to services on Easter Sunday we’ll get you a relief so you can go. We coordinated with those who wanted to go and there were no hiccups.
On watch, there are certain training evolutions or drills that you perform to stay proficient. The captain gives in his “night orders” what specific evolutions or topics he wants you to cover and sometimes gives direction as to how many per watch. So we, the watch supervisors, decided to run a training evolution during the one hour Sunday service block as we had many to complete that morning. This training evolution would only affect those on watch and since there was no one on watch who still wanted to go to lay services, this was no problem. We commenced the training evolution/drill (which was a mini-fire drill), and shortly after announcing the evolution on the 1MC (ship-wide PA/speaker systems), the “powers that be” comes screaming into the control room.
“What are you doing!?! It’s Easter Morning during services and you choose to do what? Cancel it now!” I got so angry, so angry. I wanted to strangle him and start shouting back. All these thoughts ran through my head, “what about the people in the wardroom [i.e. me] that celebrate starting at midnight? You don’t think we thought of people wanting to go to services this morning?” Oh I was angry and want to grab him by the neck. Really. But I didn’t, nor did I say anything. I just stood there silently, staring him down. By this point the training exercise was over so cancelling it didn’t matter. He stormed off and I stood there silently and probably as angry and as frustrated as I had ever been. But how could I be angry on Pascha? So many lessons learned from years before both above and beneath the sea. I tried to let these feelings of anger go, but I couldn’t. All day long I fought this frustration and anger by saying/singing “Christ is Risen” in my head. But it was no easy task. As the weeks went on the feelings of anger and frustration subsided but for a long time I probably won’t forget just how angry I let myself get on Pascha.
Before I knew it, we were back in Groton, Connecticut. My discharge date, July 31 2011 came fairly quickly, and as happy as could be I took my DD-214 (Navy discharge paperwork) in hand and was gleaming looking at SUBASE Groton in the rear view mirror for the last time. Freedom! No more underway, no more duty, no more Navy nonsense. I still miss the friends I’ve made and keep in touch with them. But I won’t miss being underway or stuck on the boat in-port for important life events like weddings, graduations, birthdays, name days, funerals, Feast Days, and Paschas.
When I got home to New Hampshire my Dad and I went to visit Fr Sergious, a monk priest and long-time family friend serving at Holy Resurrection Church in Berlin, for lunch during the Nativity Feast. I told him of some of my experiences on the submarine, why I wanted to leave the Navy, and about missing Pascha. He told me “well, God is with us!” How simple and how beautiful! I had heard those words probably at least one hundred times over the years. But now it made sense or at least I understood it in a new light. Five years in the Navy, four years at a service academy, and 18 years before that just to learn that God is with us. Always, everywhere, no matter what. I understood why I had been on a submarine for Pascha. All the experiences were suddenly worth it.