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This article was published on October 23, 2021

How the original iPod got me through the war

Happy birthday old friend

How the original iPod got me through the war
Tristan Greene
Story by

Tristan Greene

Editor, Neural by TNW

Tristan covers human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, Spiderman, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: He/hi Tristan covers human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, Spiderman, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: He/him

I carried a Sig Sauer on my hip and an iPod in my pocket, but I was only authorized to use the pistol while on watch.

It was March 2003. The second gen iPod had already launched, but most of us were still rocking the first gens because that’s what they sold at the Navy Exchange back home and on the ship.

My position, that night, was as a gate guard. The squadron I worked in was stationed aboard the USS Nimitz and we were enjoying our last night in Pearl Harbor before we left for the Persian Gulf.

My fellow guards and I were tasked with verifying the identity of everyone headed toward the ship, ensuring good order and discipline, and checking everyone’s bags. Necessarily, we got to look at everything that thousands of sailors had purchased at the last minute before we shoved off.

And, from where I was standing, it’s clear we must have bought out the island’s entire iPod supply. It seemed like every third person who walked through the gate had an iPod in their hands. I’ll never forget seeing so many white wires hanging beneath sailors‘ chins that night.

The next day we steamed towards the Gulf to join the war. The USS Nimitz and its crew would conduct more than 6,500 combat missions before it saw US shores again.

an image of the USS Nimitz and a sailor from 2003
20 years ago, there were thousands of people on that ship rocking iPods.

I was working out in one of the ship’s gyms a few months after we arrived in the Persian Gulf when I noticed almost everyone in the room had the same iconic white earbuds in. It made me feel like I was still connected to the technology zeitgeist happening back home.

A few of the older chiefs and career officers still had their “deployment headphones,” usually some ultra-expensive high-end studio headphones they’d connect to a portable CD player. We’d watch them swap out CDs after about 45 minutes or an hour like Luddites from a world long gone. It seemed barbaric.

Life on a ship is tough. And when you live with 6,000 other people it means you don’t get to blast your music. Back in 2003 there were no streaming stations and you sure weren’t downloading MP3s on the ship’s network. And that meant if you were deployed at sea for 8 months straight, as we were, you listened to whatever music you brought with you for that entire time.

I felt sorry for those old-timers with a dozen CDs taking up precious space in their berthing areas. My first gen iPod held about 700 or so songs (Apple said 1,000 but I listened to a lot of underground hip hop and lo-fi beats at the time so my mileage varied). And it was small enough that I could get away with keeping it in my pocket while I was in uniform.

The first thing I did when I got off watch that night back in Pearl Harbor was turn on my iPod and put in my earbuds. And the last thing I did before setting foot back on American soil, when we finally came home, was take them out.

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