Friday, March 24, 2006

I Was a Sailor Once
(Original author unknown, and this author extensively modified the original to his own experiences.)


I miss standing on the bridge wing at sunrise with salt spray in the air and clean, brisk ocean winds whipping in from the four quarters of the globe - - the ship beneath me feeling like a living thing as her engines drove her swiftly through the sea, the vibrations of her engines pulsing in my legs.

I miss the sounds of the Navy - the piercing trill of the boatswain’s pipe, the clangor of the ship's bell on the quarterdeck, the harsh squawk of the 1MC, and the strong language and laughter of sailors at work.

I miss Navy vessels -- nervous darting destroyers, plodding fleet auxiliaries and amphibs, sleek, silent submarines and steady, solid aircraft carriers.

I often think of the proud names of Navy ships: Midway, Lexington, Saratoga, Coral Sea, Antietam, Valley Forge, Yorktown - - memorials of great battles won and tribulations overcome, or the lean angular names of Navy "tin-cans" and escorts --Barney, Dahlgren, Mullinix, McCloy, Damato, Leftwich, Mills - - mementos of heroes who went before us, and a wide range of ships and submarines - - San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles, St. Paul, Chicago - - named for our cities.

I miss the underway replenishments which were, at the same time, thrilling and fearful events as officer-of-the-deck. You brought your ship alongside within 100 yards another, usually of much larger size, battling the hydrodynamics of attraction between two ships in such close proximity, and maintaining station as lines came across connecting you to another vessel, while maintaining 12 knots the entire time you were there, and you hoped that no sudden emergencies would call for a quick disconnect, and you practiced what to do if such happened the whole time you were at it. Helicopters would be flying back and forth delivering stores and mail, and excitement would be subdued yet palpable, as your ship was reinvigorated for her continuing time at sea. Then would come the final tempo of a break-away song as the ships disconnected and went their own way, distinctive to each ship, chosen to instill pride and aplomb, blaring through the topside speakers as we pulled away from the replenishment ship after refueling or receiving stores at sea.

I miss liberty call and the new scents of a foreign port, the adventures to be found, the excitement they held, and how much they made me miss home.

I even miss the never ending paperwork, PMS, PQS, fitreps, evals, messages, and on and on; sometimes the ship seemed to float more on paper than it did on water.

There were the “all hands” working parties as the ship prepared for underway, filling her with the multitude of supplies, both mundane and crucial, that made independent life at sea possible. I miss the surge of adventure in my heart when the word was passed: "Now set the special sea and anchor detail - all hands to quarters for leaving port," and I miss the infectious thrill of sighting home again, with the waving hands of welcome from family and friends waiting pier side.

I miss Sailors, officers and enlisted men from all parts of the land, farms of the Midwest, small towns of New England, from the cities, the mountains and the prairies, from all walks of life. I trusted and depended on them as they trusted and depended on me - for professional competence, for comradeship, for strength and courage. In a word, they were "shipmates"; then and forever.

The work was hard and sometimes dangerous; the going rough at times; the parting from loved ones painful, but the companionship of robust Navy laughter, the "all for one and one for all" philosophy of the sea was ever present.

I miss the serenity of the sea after a day of hard ship's work, as flying fish flitted across the wave tops and sunset gave way to night, and in warmer climes the bio-luminescent trail left behind as the ship made her way to wherever she was going, or departing port at high speed to find dolphins effortlessly riding the ship's bow wake as we headed out to sea.

I miss the feel of the Navy in darkness - the masthead and range lights, the red and green navigation lights and stern light, the pulsating phosphorescence of radar repeaters - they cut through the dusk and joined with the mirror of stars overhead. And I miss drifting off to sleep lulled by the myriad noises large and small that told me that the ship was alive and well, and that my shipmates on watch would keep me safe.

I miss quiet mid-watches with the aroma of strong coffee, the lifeblood of the Navy, permeating everywhere from coffee pots rarely scoured. Quiet, save for the thrumming and vibration of the equipment permeating the ship, red lights only to maintain night vision, and a night sky the likes of which is nary to be seen by anyone ashore.

And then I miss hectic watches when the exacting minuet of haze-gray shapes racing at flank speed kept all hands on a razor edge of alertness, reading signals sent aloft as signal flags to yardarms for orders and acknowledgements, signals read and understood, finding the course to station, “Make it so”, and executing smartly.

I miss the engineroom, the smell of oil and fuel, the heat, humidity, and noise; where the snipes worked as a special breed, sustaining the heart and nearly all the other essential organs of the ship, providing speed, power, air, and water to those who otherwise take these things for granter. Snipes, first to arrive, last to leave, and usually only appreciated and understood by fellow snipes.

I miss the sudden electricity of "General quarters, general quarters, all hands man your battle stations," followed by the hurried clamor of running feet on ladders and the resounding thump of watertight doors as the ship transformed herself in a few brief seconds from a peaceful workplace to a weapon of war -- ready for anything.

I miss the traditions of the Navy: 12 O' Clock reports; Crossing the Line; Colors; the respect conferred to the wardroom and chief's mess; the use of the ship's bell to announce arrivals and departures, and so much more.

I recall the proud names of Navy heroes: Halsey, Nimitz, Perry, Farragut, John Paul Jones, Burke, and Hopper. A Sailor could find much in the Navy: comrades-in-arms, pride in self and country, mastery of the seaman's trade; an adolescent could find adulthood.

In years to come, when sailors are home from the sea, they will still remember with fondness and respect the ocean in all its moods – the impossible shimmering mirror calm and the storm-tossed green water surging over the bow. And then there will come again a faint whiff of stack gas, a faint echo of engine and rudder orders, a vision of the bright bunting of signal flags snapping at the yardarm, a refrain of hearty laughter in the wardroom and chief's quarters and
mess decks.

Gone ashore for good they will grow wistful about their Navy days, when the seas belonged to them and a new port of call was ever over the horizon.

Remembering this, they will stand taller and say, "I WAS A SAILOR ONCE."


Blogger : Joseph j7uy5 said...

You miss the paperwork?

Actually, that is a emotionally-evocative piece, nicely done, but what got my attention was the part about missing the paperwork. If I recall correctly, you are now a high school teacher. You'd think there would be plenty of paperwork with that.

I understand that you might miss the adventure. But parenthood will bring plenty of that, too.

10:47 PM  
Blogger James said...

Joseph, Yeah, I know it's odd, but indeed the paperwork is something I do sort of miss. There was regularity and consistency to THAT paperwork, I pretty much knew what to expect and when, and you simply needed to have the right form to fill out. Indeed, teaching high school comes with a plethora of paperwork, but it's rarely very consistent and the whys of some of it leave you scratching your head at time. Now that said, I'm sure I'd be complaining about the paperwork were I back in the fleet as it can be overwhelming, but on the whole it at least made some sort of sense.

As for adventure, I have no doubts at this point about what will come with a new daughter. My general sense is that my definition of adventure and what it encompasses will soon be changing, and I'm just hoping I'm up to it.

7:36 AM  
Blogger : Joseph j7uy5 said...

I remember well the apprehension I had when my son was born. There are so many things to fear, but in particular I worried that there might be things that I did not have the knowledge or stamina to handle. But now, I really beleive that there is a little biological switch somewhere in the brain, than gets turned on when you become a parent. It gives you a whole new level of competency.

12:05 PM  

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