“I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.” _John Fitzgerald Kennedy, PT-109 Commander, WWII; President of the United States
In the pre-dawn hours of Oct 3, 1977 I arrived at the Recruit Depot of Naval Training Center, San Diego, California. I had signed my life away the previous afternoon at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), Phoenix, Arizona. And despite the very attractive female Marine Sergeant at the MEPS, I did not on-the-spot decide to opt for the Marine Corps.
Marched as a gaggle – that would be rectified very shortly – to get haircuts, none of us really knew what was happening. Then lined up for clothing issue, and medical checks and barracks assignment. Nothing was fast enough, efficient enough nor military enough for the Recruiting Company Commanders that day. After a full day, we were assigned our bunks. And at O-dark Thirty, 0330 or 3:30AM, the loudest bang from a metal trash can thrown down the center of the barracks woke everybody. Welcome to Boot Camp, ladies.
Forty years later, I have been retired seven and a half years. I can look back on the best and most challenging times of my life: two periods on Active Duty from 1977 through 1980, and 1987 through 2000, and two periods in the Reserve, 1987 till I opted for Active Duty again; and from 2000 through 2010 when I retired. Eight years assigned to sea duty – most of which spent going to sea. Pacific, Atlantic, Mediterranean , Red Sea, and Caribbean deployments. Panama and Suez canal, Equator and Date Line crossings.
There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea. Joseph Conrad
In February 1992, at age 32, my personal life in shambles ( an estranged wife with mental illness, and crushing debt were the big issues), I received orders to the USS TEXAS (CGN-39), a nuclear powered guided missile cruiser homeported in Alameda, California – across the bay from San Francisco. I drove out from Florida by myself. Arriving at the bottom of the brow, I was ready and excited to begin my first period of “sea duty”. I was reporting as one of three technicians, supporting the communications and RF surveillance systems – which I had just spent half a year learning. Looking back today, the electronics and the computer control – running octal code! – were less complex than the average electronic toy today. But in 1992, few people owned a personal computer, and maybe the well-heeled might have a “car phone” — bulky device, with bag, battery and a cigarette lighter socket charger.
The duties I was assigned – as the newbie out of school – were general. I was already being called “grandpa” since I was nearly six or seven years older than the senior tech in our workcenter. As the new guy, I was put in a harness to go aloft. (The harness came with a “ball-buster”, so-called because of the mechanical brake used as a safety line for ascending and descending the mast — if you disconnected without thinking, a few pounds of metal would swing away and crash into your groin! )
For a guy that wasn’t all that fond of heights – I had been rappelling mountains in Virginia to end that timidity climbing a hundred feet up above the water pierside was my “welcome”. Of course, the lamp at the top of the mast, attached to our TACINTEL antenna had no need to be changed. But the gentle sway was calming, and height never troubled me after that. I spent a lot of time over the course of several years greasing fittings, cleaning away salt buildup, sanding and painting equipment. Since each communications shop : the CT and EW (electronic warfare or ELINT guys) were in my division; the Radiomen and the Combat Systems groups also had things to maintain aloft. The primary time to do these chores were in port for extended periods as we would have the rotating and radiating (radars especially) for our ship and neighboring ships “tagged out”. Nobody wanted to be sterilized or cooked (think of a microwave oven) from RF energy.
Between performance tests, maintenance, cleaning, and cross-training as an operator in our own center, we had training in security force ( rapid reaction team), firefighting, damage control and other collateral jobs. Because of the nature of the job, most of the crew knew us only as “spooks”, and Maintenance (CTMs) were not above getting strange looks from the hot and sweaty Engineering (Snipes) crew. You see, in a couple of our workspaces, the air conditioning (chilled water) system were overly efficient. Large, heat-generating equipment had been replaced with newer systems that were much less power consuming. The now much colder workcenter made it necessary for the techs to wear our winter coats or “foul weather jackets”; we might forget to remove them when we went to the Mess Deck to get some coffee. Some sweaty, greasy shipmates were a little irritated at some “topsiders” easy living.
Working behind the “Green Door” with its OZ Division sign (“Oh-Zee” meant we were part of the Operations Department) required special access and security protocols. We would get asked from time to time what we were doing. We would come up with all sorts of stories. “Actually, I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you” was our running joke. In the days when email and Internet were toddlers, when the AFRTS broadcast was still received and rebroadcast in the evening through the ship’s entertainment system, we might get sports scores or news before the rest of the ship.
While the underway schedule was tedious and I would sometimes spend up to eighteen hours working, cleaning, training or on watch, it was peaceful. All the noise at sea – equipment, machinery, buffers, alarms, announcing systems were less unnerving than the sudden “silence” – an equipment casualty occurring at that moment – followed by an alarm and a all-ship announcement through our 1MC intercom. I really felt at home on the TEXAS. Compared with the stress of the home I had left back in Florida, I was in a long-term relationship. That ship and crew were my family. I set out to learn everything I could about the ship as part of the Enlisted Surface Warfare qualification and earn my silver Surface Warfare pin.
It was a shame that the ship’s schedule was a few months deployment s, before it was to go into the shipyard for a couple of years in order to replace the nuclear fuel and receive upgraded systems. My first underway period occurred in the late Spring of that year, and it was not long afterward that I was able to add Panama and Ecuador to foreign places I had visited. Transiting the Panama Canal was one of the highlights of my Navy career. And becoming a member of the honored Shellbacks – first, as pollywogs, we had to be properly indoctrinated in a raucous smelly, greasy, traditional welcome. And being hosed down with salt water in the pre-dawn of the equatorial waters near the Galapagos Islands, is a memory I cherish. My years of spanish from school, living in southern Arizona, traveling in Mexico, paid huge dividends in Central and South America. Where some Panamanians or Ecuadorians were bemused or put off by American Sailors, I was able to share jokes, catch deals on local crafts, negotiate fantastic deals on a hotel room for shipmates and even trade wits with a streetwise New York-born kid visiting relatives.
On our return to Alameda, a segment of the crew was able to take change of station, house-hunting leave for our pending move to Bremerton, Washington. In June, I was soon after to realize, that the weather was perfect though temporary. For the remaining 11 months until the following June, it was cloudy, misty, rainy, snowy or sleeting. Prior to going into dry dock, the TEXAS made a trip across the Puget Sound for Esquimalt , British Columbia, Canada. Killer whales in a pod accompanied us for part of the trip. Between maintenance assignments and duty rotation, I was briefly able to take in the view outside the skin of the ship. The view of the Olympic Range (the Olympic peninsula is the large portion of the state west of Seattle) to the south is amazing – when the fog or mist lifts long enough to see the snowy mountains. The Canadian naval base is next to Victoria, a city that looks every bit as if it was lifted out of England and deposited there. For the couple of days that we were visiting, I had my first experience with craft beer. My present infatuation with micro-breweries, got started there.
I still think about going back to hike in British Columbia, visit the tea shops and markets, and maybe enjoy scones and english marmalade.
In the coming year, the ship, now in dry dock, was cut open, all the decks were covered with plywood, giant tarps hung over the side of the ship while sandblasting away the paint, barnacles, and growth of many years at sea.
With my equipment shutdown or removed for maintenance, I was left to clean, to document maintenance – I worked fairly closely with the Maintenance Material Management System or (3M) Coordinator by that time. For a couple of months I was assigned off the ship to help coordinate the maintenance of the Bachelor Officers Quarters which at the time was being transitioned to a civilian who had been running large hotels. Officers had it pretty cushy. Enlisted sailors in base quarters in Bremerton didn’t have it too rough either. At the time the Navy made its decision to halt the refueling and scrap the TEXAS, I had moved off base to renting a home not far from the shoreline. Seattle was visible across the bay.
I was enjoying the little town of Manchester. Then my estranged wife showed up, long enough to take most of my valued possessions and several firearms. And leave with her boyfriend. I was ready to transfer to my next ship, a destroyer in Norfolk, Virginia, the USS PETERSON (DD-969).
Ships are known to the men who go to sea in them as “she”. Temperamental, attractive, frustrating, consuming, difficult, requiring a lot of commitment and hard work. And romantic. All at the same time. But like a woman you are with, you can be successfully only in one relationship at a time — and a ship is jealous for your time.
I’ve had many occasions, at work, driving cross-country, at various public events to meet people who are veterans or on Active Duty with one or another branch of the military. Driving around San Diego, I am saddened by the number of homeless on the streets. As a veteran, I know that there is a substantial percentage of these men and women – or imply through the hand-lettered signs that they are down-on-their-luck veterans. Many unfortunately are, but may also be in an untenable position due to alcohol or drug-addiction. Yet I admit, I am more drawn into conversations when encountering squids, jarheads, ground pounders or zoomies working in shops, service industries, Costco, or government offices mutually recognizing a military connection. And whether it is initiated by a ballcap, t-shirt or window sticker, we can converse about shared life experience.
There is something instantly bonding about men ( and women) who share the common experience of military service. Yesterday, I was enjoying a little rest on my homeward commute at my little bastion of like-minded libertarians, and got interested in a conversation one of the guys was having about an exchange with a cop. Turned out this cop was practiced – but not in a good way – of embellishing some prior Navy experience. As it happened, my acquaintance, like most of those who have had some years in the military was correcting this cop’s recounting of his service by providing some firsthand expertise in the details (occupation codes known as NECs or MOS in other services, training specifics, locations) that this storyteller had fudged– as would have I in the same exchange.
There is nothing more disingenuous than a person misrepresenting military service. “Stolen Valor” is the term many may be familiar. Most of the perpetrators are playing on the sympathies of the public, trying to obtain benefits not owed, or wooing the gullible. While there have been several court cases deciding that ’embellishment for the purposes of misleading public opinion’ – politicians, editors, bureaucrats, teachers have not been worthy of punishment, there have been equally social media shaming of these con artists who were bringing discredit to those who serve or served honorably.
Yet it was the exchange of sea stories with my shipmate which brought back great memories for us both. Both of us entered the Navy a year apart in the 1970s. He was a fellow technician, working with computer systems aboard ship before the Navy combined the ratings, Many times, the Navy consolidated skills that had their own individual occupations with others, as was the case with my own rating after my retirement. Regardless of the fool trying to boast about details of service that other “salty” Sailors – ones with years of sea duty and military experience – could immediately call his bluff, my conversation yesterday was refreshing in bringing the memories back to the surface.
In those days, there were traditions and customs, regulations and deckplate leadership. When some Sailors who were otherwise experts in their trade, had a little too much to drink on the prior night’s liberty, their shipmate including the supervisor would look ot for them. As Mess Deck Master at Arms, a temporary assignment aboard ship, the ability to encourage the crew, curry favor, or even to mentor and train some junior sailor were all part of my experience. There is nothing that someone with sea duty, can really describe to a civilian about life at sea – noise, drinking water with a little trace jet fuel (JP5) in the lines, the drills, the boredom, and port visits that another military member doesn’t instantly know what you are talking about.
In the steamy opening week of August, I have been daydreaming of exotic hikes. Bloggers have been posting about hikes in Nepal, or Kyrgyzstan, or Zion National Park in what I’ve read this week. My thoughts run to a vacation in Kauai, my wife and I last took in 2013.
Waimea Canyon, the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”, was spectacular.
Continuing to go through my mother’s papers, I have a number of letters that stir old memories of my days in the Navy. You, my readers and someday my adult children will get additional understanding how little things can chart the course of your life in ways you cannot fathom.
Whenever I read or see a reference to the Boy Scouts of America, I recall a chance meeting and conversation that had a bearing on me. (Forgive my nautical puns.) On a Greyhound bus ride in 1974, an old ( I was 14- everyone over the age of 30 was older) gentleman, and I started chatting. With the discovery today of his letter to my mother and me, I know him as J. Harold Williams. At the time, I had been in scouting for four years, starting when we lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and continuing when Mom and family moved to Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
In his correspondence he asked how my last advancement to Scout First Class had gone – I had been selected since our bus ride. From a Google search today, I realize how interesting that encounter had been. “Chief” Williams, at that time, was national Boy Scout Executive Emeritus, and the founder of scouting in Rhode Island during the 1920’s and 1930’s. (We discussed scouting and stamp collecting among other things). I might still have an book on Scouting he gave me that day.
Guest speaker will be J. Harold Williams, U.S. Scout executive emeritus, who will “tell the story of the Scouting trail” from 1910 to 1965. Described as an “eye-witness to history” In the Scouting movement. Mr. Williams will relate personal experiences including the movement’s birth, and it” progress over the last 55 years. Started at Age 12 Mr. Williams has been active in Boy Scouting in Rhode, Island where he first began Scouting as a boy at the age of 12, and was the first Scout in the United States to come up through the ranks to become a professional Scout leader. He was Scout executive of the Narragansett council in Providence, R. 1., for 45 years, after which he was elected to the position of Scout Executive Emeritus and now spends his time speaking throughout the country on the Boy Scout movement. He has been honored by universities, newspapers, civic organizations and veteran groups and holds honorary degrees of Doctor of Education from Rhode Island college. Master of Arts from Brown university and the Achievement award from the University of Rhode Island. — the Bridgeport Post, March 23, 1965 (edited for clarity)
And I recall, he was the one who started me in stamp collecting. My Aunt June worked at the United Nations, and had been sending postcards to me from all over the globe. Till Chief Williams, I did little with these stamped postcards except dream of traveling. Untouched for thirty years, I still have albums of stamps stuck away.
On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.
Looking through old photo albums, when they were actually processed and printed on
paper, I spent part of Saturday rewinding about 90 years of my family’s history through some dusty albums that were in my garage storage bins for several years.
Old photos encourage me. Even seeing my father looking so athletic and proud with his young son dispels memories of the many years he was crippled by illness. My dad was a brilliant, funny and an athletic man. I spent many years of my youth thinking of many negatives: when dad read something in the Wall Street Journal that said that glow-in-the-dark balls were unsafe, I was marched back to the toy store to get my change back. When we went on road trips I was drilled on my multiplication tables. Later when my mom and he were divorced, and dad took me out on his weekend visit, we would go to nice restaurants, but he always ordered the cheap meals and we filled up on the free rolls and butter.
Only later as an adult, I remembered that he would drive across the country from his job to attend my middle school and high school graduations. He took a teaching job near our home so he could spend time with me. At that time he was still trying to get half his body to respond after a stroke – and dealing with people who would equate debilitation with stupidity. Far from it – even in that condition. He graduated near the top of his class in high school and in college as an aerospace engineer but also played sports. He probably was motivated to excel as my grandfather’s occupations seemed to change as jobs came and went. Instead, he worked in missile propulsion and development in the early years. (Which likely helped me to get the jobs I held that involved trust.) My father died 28 years ago while I was in the service. I did not find out for two years.
My mother was a good-looking woman; as sharp mentally as attractive outwardly. And it must have been quite the catch for my father. When my maternal grandparents emigrated from Ireland at the end of WWII, she had to contend with Seniors in high school making fun of her accent. In New Jersey they did not have much else to poke fun at. She had graduated at the top of her nursing class at Mount Sinai Hospital, and as an R.N. worked with infants, intensive care, emergency treatment, and supervision. Looking back at my teen years, it no longer seems odd that she pursued a dream to become an english literature scholar and college teacher in middle age. She became a nurse for the career opportunity that would always be useful and financially secure. But her passion was elsewhere.
Mom’s aged photos showed several beaus – a soldier who looks like he only just lost out to my dad; and some guys who might have been doctors, attorneys or business people. Among her circle of friends included a Nobel laureate. But the family photos bear witness to the changes that time, health, and fortunes – waxing and waning produced.
After deciding to marry again, she later learned that her second husband was attracted to children. That divorce sealed her future as a bitter woman, more inclined to spend her savings on old horses, rescue dogs, cats and a burro. You see, I have a sister, an adoptee, whom I have rarely spoken with in forty years. Robin never forgave her mother for divorcing my father and subjecting her to abuse. We went separate ways after I initially joined the Navy – and she was the one who suffered at the hands of my mother’s second husband. After thirty years, we last spent any time together in the few months after my mother’s passing six years ago.
I chose to go into the Navy as much for the adventure, the training – which has become the means I earn a living, and for several veterans’ benefits, as I did to make a clean break from the family. That’s actually the ironic part, as I returned after my first enlistment to the same city, Tucson, to attend the University of Arizona. My father, still living at the time, moved to Tucson, and I spent time with him and with my mother – still my most ardent cheerleaders for my success.
I can only speak for myself, but I realized around the age of 39, that all of life’s successes mean less than how you handle failure. Raised with a concept of the spiritual, but never seeing God, I was continually trying not to be the sum of my upbringing and family. But after twenty years of a changed life, I recognize suffering allowed me to treasure the family I have now. I realize that there is a God that cares for us, but does not force us to engage with him; most of the world is suffering at the hands of people. For the goodness and love to have any impact, overcoming self-centered attitudes, misgivings about our childhood, misgivings about our marriages or children or jobs or finances or health have to be overcome. Some people blame God for being on the sidelines. Others have no room for God. Still others have god in their schedules but not in their driver’s seat.
And that is why I can look at these photo albums of people and places that shaped my life with contentment. I appreciate family history but I am not bound by the people my parents became nor am I limited by my own shortcomings. I trust in my heavenly Father and Lord. And the future does not hold any fear for me.