So I thought I had lain to rest my Navy Demons and I thought that most of the incidents from the mid to late 1980’s had vanished in the fog of the past. They didn’t. Well, that’s not being completely accurate. Most of what happened back then onboard my ship, the world record for an all time low morale on a military vessel or base, the extremely high suicide rate, the constant harassment of the JAG, the lack of trust of any new shipmates, the unbalanced ratio of sea time to shore time. It was all fodder for the insanity that became known as the Crew and Delinquents of the USS Austin, is nothing but memories shrouded in a vale of disbelief.
You may be asking yourself right about now “What the heck is Skip talking about now?” well, I’ll tell you my Dear Reader, last week I spoke of the slaying of demons from an era before cell phones, personal computers, instant gratification of any and all desires, a time where mail order meant mail order and people ran around in neon clothes. The heady days of the 1980’s. Crazy times for everyone, Reagan was in the White House, Hunter S. Thompson was writing for Playboy and yelling at Colorado State Troopers, satellite navigation systems were still classified top secret by the US Government, Castro was our enemy and so were the Soviets and Chinese.
Almost all of that has changed, except Castro and the Chinese.
But you know the one thing that was lost? The one thing that I forgot about and it took going to Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey to bring back from the dark recesses of my mind. Something that I have written about without realizing I was writing about it.
Yes, that is what was made so blatantly apparent to me onboard the USS New Jersey.
Let’s see if I can paint a picture for you…
By now you should know that I was in the company of two former shipmate and we had been bonding and creating all sorts of havoc wherever it was we went. Social graces and polite conversation had literally left screaming and on fire when even just two of us were in a room. Tobacco was smoked, whiskey flowed and farm animals were scared. We played off of each other’s energy like a well lubricated piston engine in the Indianapolis 500. We held nothing back from each other and expected the same in return. But things did not really hit home with any of us until we all stepped foot onboard the ship that held our reunion.
The USS New Jersey.
The USS New Jersey is not battle ready nor will she ever be again. She sits almost welded to the pier she is berthed at and it is doubtful her boilers will ever create steam again. But that did not stop the docents from trying to recreate the sights and sounds of a real live, breathing war machine. Those tricks of sound and light had no effect on us. We knew deep down in our souls that she was slumbering and will lie in that dormant state until she is nothing but rust at the bottom of a body of water.
What got to us? What broke through all barriers and grabbed us by our testicles? Simple, it was a question.
“Having flashbacks Novak?” Brian asked me as we walked past one of the 16 inch gun turrets on the Battleship New Jersey.
“Yeah, I am. I even have goose bumps. Look at my arms dude.” I replied “What about you?”
“Nope, I put to rest all that shit a long time ago.” Was Brian’s response.
“What about you Danny?” to which we got no answer. Danny just walked forward to the forecastle of the ship, ignoring us and lost in his own thoughts of the past that brought us all together.
“You know what gets me B?” I say
“The smell. I can smell the fuel oil, the haze gray paint, the staleness of the bedding, the spray and wipe used to get rid of the grease. It’s the smell of things that are tugging at my guts like an umbilical cord.” I say
Brian grew quiet and walked past me up to where Danny was standing. I stopped and took in the sights, sounds and smells. I gaze up from the rotting teak decks and see Brian and Danny standing by the Starboard anchor chain with a look of longing in their eyes. We all felt it. We all knew our youth had slipped past us while we were making our way in the world. Working brain dead zombies all of us, while all of our youthful angst slowly faded to black as the pressures of starting a family, a business, a life got in the way.
No more saber rattling for us…
We made a pact. We were going to go UA from the reunion if things did not take an upbeat turn for us. Fortunately for us it took a downturn. As soon as the opportunity presented itself to us we made our way to the Quarterdeck and hit the bricks. Funny thing is we picked up a straggler on our way. SN Jude Coleman. Who is now apparently a Leutenent Commander and stationed in Hawaii. One of life’s mysteries I suppose.
Oh, for those of you who have never served in the military, UA means Unauthorized Absence.
The four of us walked the half a mile to the ferry landing and stood around waiting for the ferry to take us from Camden, New Jersey back to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Our conversation had its ebbs and flows and while I don’t remember most of what we were discussing I know that most of it dealt with catching up on what we had been doing for the last 20 years. Most of it was just plain filler. Life’s filler.
The ferry arrived, we boarded in silence, found some seats and did some people watching. Text messages were sent to loved ones and not so loved ones.
Once we arrived in Philadelphia proper we disembarked and headed for the Taxi Stand. I don't know why or how but we changed our minds. We decided to walk back to the hotel. And on that walk is where all the distant memories that had been held back by the Dam of Time started to flood in through the slough gates. Memories of foreign cities and liberty calls, lost memories of nights spent in smoke filled bars with shipmates, memories of bombs going off in a USO with the bodies of Marines and Sailors alike burning like so many pieces of cord wood on a chilly autumns night, memories of laughter at our own expense, memories of bartering and dickering with the “Hey-Joes” over the price of a coat or a pair of earrings for a loved one back home. Memories of long lines at phone booths and pockets full of foreign coins, memories of over inflated exchange rates, memories of great food and great times with guys you would even to this day take a bullet for.
That is what the mile and a half walk back to the hotel brought me along with some conversation and bonding that would never have happened inside a taxi cab. A conversation that will one day be lost in my memory banks as just another day. But the imprint of those few hours spent walking, talking, laughing and just re-living our youth in countries like Egypt, Italy, France, Israel, England, Germany and Jamaica is a gift I don’t think we were prepared for. Nostalgia is a pain in the ass and it crept up on us like our middle age. I don’t know if Jude, Danny or Brian felt it the way I did. I don’t know if they think of that walk and talk the way I do. I don’t know.
The disappointment I felt when shipmates I was hoping to see, to talk to, to relive old times with in cities that may not have meaning to most people, quickly faded as we walked along the cobbled streets where Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the rest of our founding fathers tread. Our footfalls and voices blended into a mixture of poetic music that cast magical spells and transported us back to a time when the aches and pains of middle age were nothing but a warning by higher ranking men we served with. A time when we held in our hands the future of America with all the promises of riches and fame that had been spoon fed to us as children of the 1970’s. We were young again. We were invincible. WE WERE!
We got back to the hotel and I tried to hang on to that magical tapestry of youth that had presented itself like a lost Christmas gift but it slipped away like so many other things in life. It left behind only the fond memories and the feeling of connectivity that is rarely passed between people in this day and age of electronic communication. I am happy to have had the opportunity to walk with these men and to talk with them; they all mean something to me and also represent a time in my past before all the mistakes I have made caught up with me. It almost feels as if I have cheated death again.
Well, I am going to wrap this blog up and get it posted. I hope you all have a great week. I also hope that next week I have something else to write about besides the Navy.
Have a great week.