I spent the weekend locked in a hotel room with Hunter S. Thompson and Vincent Van Gogh.
Ok, so it wasn’t really Hunter or Vincent but you know for an opening line that’s pretty damn good and it’s more than a bit accurate. My shipmates Brian Keene and Daniel Blumenthal who I served with onboard the USS Austin (LPD-4) from 1985 to 1989, those are my dates of service. Brian’s and Danny’s vary slightly, have both been tortured, like myself, by our time of service on Her and in the US Navy and each one could be compared in their own right to Hunter or Vincent. Brian paints with words and Danny writes with paint.
Where was I? Oh, yeah, in 1988 Brian and Danny left the Her and I followed in 1989, we all went our separate ways in this world without really thinking where we were going. Typical mentality of our youthful ignorance. We made our way and didn’t get killed or incarcerated for life in a penal system of our respective states. Then, almost 2 years ago we got together in through an act of God and the assistance of Paul McCann in Virginia Beach, Virginia to relive the glory days of the mid to late 1980’s. It was a very painful time for us all. Old wounds that we thought were healed were reopened and the rotten, pus laden emotional flesh was exposed to the midnight sun of the Brotherhood of Service. It hurt like hell! We screamed, we laughed, we cried and we rejoiced. We tore through Virginia Beach that night like an uncontrollable, category 5 hurricane. When it was all over we went our separate ways. Few goodbyes were passed along between us. Instead we exchanged emails, facebook pages, web addresses and cell phone numbers.
We stayed in touch. We talked not just about our experience onboard Her but our lives afterwards. We shared with each other our innermost secrets of loves won and lost. Of pain swallowed like a bitter pill and the vengeance of our wrath on the world when we couldn’t digest anymore. And through these sharing’s we healed. Our infected, scabbed over wounds had new fresh growth of healthy tissue. Scar tissue, new, pink, flexible and strong.
So this reunion for us three was a bit different, old friends who didn’t show up left us with a feeling of disappointment and loss. New friends were a blessing for us and gave us all another layer of perspective in the history of Her. We added to their own perspectives with our stories creating a richer and more vibrant history for Her. But, at the end of the night, lying in the hotel room with just the sounds of my fellow shipmates shallow breathing and their almost whisper like voices as they cry out to their dreams it took me back to those long, cold and lonely nights on the ship when I would lay in my rack and listen to those same night sounds. The only difference now was that there was no deep thrumming of Her engines, no sounds of the ocean being pushed out of the way by Her as she sliced Her way through whatever body of water we happened to be in like a dull knife through 3 day old bread.
I suppose this is where I tell you a little about Her. Some history perhaps and maybe even a physical description? Maybe…
She was conceived in February of 1963 in New York Naval Shipyard, Brooklyn, New York but was not born until June of 1964 and in February of 1965 she was officially welcomed into United States Naval Service. The name she was given was the USS Austin (LPD-4) and she was the first in her class. The Austin Class. She was named after Stephen F. Austin and her home city was Austin, Texas. She had two huge hearts in her belly that controlled the steam turbines that pushed her almost 17,000 tons of weight through the water and an uncontrollable speed of 21 knots. She sat 23 feet below the water line and she was almost 570 feet long. At any given time she had onboard her a little over 1300 sailors and marines that loved her for her all she was worth. She was murdered on September 27, 2006. She was 41 years old. (Date of Commission to Decommission)
And she was a beauty. A large, clumsy, gray, fickle beast that would take all you could give and then ask for more. She demanded everything from you and gave nothing back but a sense of safety and occasionally a comforting nights rest. We paid tribute to her with the blood we spilled on her, for her and by her. When she got upset and refused to work we paid her tribute and stroked her ego until she was placated and decided she would allow us to ride on her through the oceans of the world. We spent countless hours making her look as pretty as we could but in the hierarchy of Naval Warships she would always be the 5th or 6th runner up in an ugly pageant and she knew it. We knew it too but didn’t care. She was OURS! We fought the Cru/Des sailors over her, the Carrier sailors over her and even the Bubbleheads over her. And through every fight, whether won or lost we had the USMC backing us up and we always returned to seek Her approval.
Enlisted men assigned to her whether straight from boot camp or as a second or third command left as better and stronger men. Officers came to her only to see their careers get chewed up and spat out on the rocky shoals of life. Marines came onboard seeking just a taxi cab ride but ended up giving their lives for her.
She was the mistress none of us was looking for but all of us fell in love with and in the end when our love was not reciprocated we abandoned her. Some with tears of sadness, some with whoops of joy and others with the taste of bitterness and failure in their mouths. The point is we all LEFT HER! She knew we would. She knew she could never become as attached to us as we were to Her.
People look at me funny when I describe Her and my love for her and the time I spent on her. Sailors don’t though, they understand. She was a living, fuel oil eating, steam spitting, overweight bitch of a ship and she deserved as much respect and honor as any Battleship or Carrier in the fleet. She helped out with the Space program in the 1960’s, and carried dead Marines from Beirut in 1983 to their final resting places in Arlington. She served America honorably and faithfully as did the sailors and marines that served on her.
The demons of our youth were exorcized 2 years ago and this weekend I think we all realized how important that was. We also realized that we don’t need to be around each other and just tell the same old Sea-Stories from our time onboard Her. We all have lived our lives and made our way in this world. We have families of our own that we fight for daily and work to perform. Are we all happy? No we are not. But we all have a bond that was forged in the depths of a Warship and that bond has been hardened through not just the trials and tribulations of life alone but our collective shared experiences over the course of time. Our journey to Manhood started onboard Her and continues to this day. I thank God I have had this opportunity to serve with these men. I hope they all know how much they mean to me.
God Bless Us.
Have a great week.