Saturday, February 26, 2011

A break and a sea story

SAN DIEGO – Recently, these columns have been somewhat formulaic, and there were some people and things back home, who and which I wanted to mention.

But now I want a break and tell a sea story, which, by the way, can never happen again.

In the autumn of 1979, I was required to leave my Brigadoon, actually Texas A&M after almost four years. I was a single lieutenant commander, the senior Naval officer in the Marine-oriented NROTC unit, and an associate professor. The Aggies love the military and accordingly, held me in high esteem.

But duty called. I came to the Southwest corner for a month’s course in tactics before reporting to Amphibious Squadron Five as the staff current operations officer.

Joining the squadron was no mean feat. I flew to Los Angeles, boarded a Military Airlift Command chartered airliner departing that afternoon. At midnight, we stopped in Anchorage, Alaska where a young woman on her way to join her husband in the Philippines traversed from the aircraft to the terminal and back in short shorts and a halter top in 25-degree temperature.

After a snack, we re-boarded for our trek to Fukyoka, Japan; Okinawa; and finally Clark Air Force Base on Luzon: 26 hours with about three hours of sunlight. After a 60-mile bus ride without air-conditioning (the equivalent of a three-hour sauna) from Clark to Subic Bay, I lazed for a day before taking a 14-hour flight to Melbourne, Australia, where I caught a six-hour flight to Hobart, Tasmania.

Needless to say, I was beat. I reported aboard the flagship, U.S.S. Tripoli and was told the squadron would get underway the next morning. As much as I wanted to visit Hobart, I remained aboard and hit my rack (that’s Navy for going to sleep).

The next morning, the ships got underway. I began the process of relieving Lt. Cmdr. Conrad Borman. We spent a week in Sydney, Australia and another in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea on our voyage north.

Two days after standing out of Port Moresby, we celebrated “Crossing the Line.”

For centuries, crossing the equator has been a sailor’s concoction of initiation, high jinks, hazing, and a break from the tedium of life at sea. Those who have crossed the equator before are initiated “shellbacks.” For those making such a passage for the first time, they are reviled as “pollywogs.” Although I had been at sea for nearly a decade, I remained a pollywog, until that day.

Normally, being a pollywog is a group thing. But the flagship had crossed the line on its way to Australia, and almost 2,000 pollywogs had magically become shellbacks and were anxious to initiate the new pollywogs when the ship re-crossed the equator. The new pollywogs consisted of 100 brand new enlisted Marines, and one Navy lieutenant commander.

Guess who got the most attention.

But Conrad promised he would look after me during the day-long initiation. For about three hours, he held to that promise, escorting me through donning my uniform inside out, limiting my weird breakfast concoction, ensuring the shillelaghs (Irish clubs, but made out of fire hose for the Navy ceremony) weren’t wielded with too much enthusiasm, and limiting my time “kissing the bosun’s belly” where a shellback rubbed the pollywog’s face into his very large, greased belly.

As I started my 40-yard crawl through the garbage chute, Conrad Borman was called to decrypt an incoming top-secret message. Although spent, I crawled through the yuk fast, anxious to get to the cargo net, where I would be hoisted with four or five of the Marine pollywogs and washed off with a fire hose spray, ending the ordeal.

But the shellbacks had other ideas for this inverse khaki clad officer. They rerouted me back to the start. I went through the route three more times before Conrad returned for my rescue.

Today’s Navy is not a raucous as it was then. Political correctness and women at sea have down graded such rough-housing frolic to wimpdom. There is no question, today’s Navy is much more capable and efficient, but I wouldn’t fit in.

And today’s sailors won’t have much of a sea story when they “cross the line."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Way up in the Rocky Mountains

way up in the Wasatch mountains,
where snow covered the Mormon pretense
one hundred, fifty years or so ago;
passages to the west were few
except in the warm months;
only the hardy would climb so high
with mules, packs, jerky, coffee
to mine the silver,
hunt the plentiful game
in the cold deep white of the mountain.

now the heights are a playground,
cleared groomed slopes skied down after
rides up the mechanized chair
where hunters and miners
persevered in the hard months,
now playtime in the rockies
for the masses.
the old town street running up and down
the hill called Main
was general store, haberdashery,
gin mill, assayer,
probably a red light house or two,
amidst the good, lord abiding citizens;
pizza joints butted against
boutiques, fashion salons,
restaurants with high cost haute cuisine;
only the Empress theater and saloons
bear some resemblance to their former selves:
instead of grimy miners
swigging down the swill,
home brew out of pails,
rot gut whiskey.
now movie stars,
dressed to the nines
sipping wine
at the festival of cinema
named after an outlaw;
town and tourist drunks
drinking the trendy micro brews
Still, in the quiet after a late winter storm,
there are tracks
of rabbit, mountain goat, even elk,
if one dares to climb so high.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A different place in the Southwest corner

This column was published in The Lebanon Democrat January 24.

SAN DIEGO – Last Thursday, my family went to a place greatly different from anything in Tennessee I know about.

This place where we went is good, but in some ways, it is bad, even sad. My visit rerouted today’s column.

I was going to write about Lebanon places, which no longer exist, or I was going to write about my lifelong friend Sharry Hagar who is challenged with health issues and hopefully succeeding. I have put those thoughts aside for later.

My daughter Sarah and I went to the Navy Medical Center, Southwest Region to get her a new dependent ID card and ensure she was covered on our healthcare program. To keep us both straight, Maureen joined the cavalcade.

We parked the two cars and walked to the modern complex downhill from the old hospital buildings. The medical center is in Florida Canyon, adjacent to Balboa Park and the Zoo.

Inside the “Personnel Services Detachment” (PSD), Maureen waited while Sarah and I went into the cubicle with three positions for processing, sitting at the end position. Soon a young man took the middle position. When he arose to leave, he drug one foot stiffly as he exited.

I hope he was completing rehabilitation from a disability while in Iraq or Afghanistan. The fact he was in administrative processing suggested he was on his way to recovery.

Sarah received her ID, and we moved to the next task. This time, Maureen accompanied Sarah into a cubicle while I sat in the waiting room. An attractive young woman sat down with one of those new-fangled combo portable crib-car seat contraptions. I admired the baby’s knit cap with bear ears on top and asked the mother if she was the knitter. The woman proudly gave credit to her own mother.

Looking at the tiny baby, I asked his age. She told me he was into his third day. The father rejoined them, and they disappeared into another cubicle: young adventurers serving our country in troubling times but encouragingly normal.

Paged by my wife, I went to our cubicle. Looking back, I watched a young man enter with difficulty. He was in a wheel chair with both legs missing from the knees down, obviously from military action. . He broke my heart.

I wanted to walk over and thank him and say something encouraging, but I just couldn’t think of anything encouraging to say. While I pondered, he received his needed information and left.

We decided to lunch at the cafeteria, walking through the plaza surrounded by the six main buildings. We saw almost a dozen casualties from military action walking about the plaza. Most had prosthetics for both legs, some with just one. Others were walking on crutches.

Maureen noted how she didn’t mind being routed to civilian dermatologists because the department here was overworked from attending to the wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan. There was a lump in her throat.

San Diego’s Naval medical center is one of a few treating severe military casualties. The old hospital buildings, originally planned for destruction, have been renovated and are a rehabilitation center for hundreds of severe casualties from our conflicts.

There has been an incredible outpouring of volunteers and ad hoc non-profit organizations who are dedicated to helping these young veterans and their families to return to civilian life with as much normality as possible. The efforts have been, for the most part, successful and heart warming.

I am sure the people in Lebanon would respond with as much support as those in the Southwest corner. But the travesties of military conflict are in my face, unavoidable here.

With every young man and woman I passed in the complex last week, I cried inside. It occurred to me I spent over twenty-one years of active duty with the possibility of being like these young men staring at me. I was luckier.

It does not seem fair because it isn’t fair. It is life, and now a life much more difficult for them. I wish I had an answer for them, but there is no answer as long as terrorism and domination are the goal of idiots, locally and internationally.

So for the past few days, the Southwest corner with its beautiful sunny January isn’t quite as beautiful for me.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

I was a sailor

I was a sailor
when the boatswainmates
swept down and triced up
and the decks were spotless
and first division stood
at the ready on the forecastle to
cast away all lines
and the sleek greyhound visaged lady
got underway,
no tugs,
and no bow thrusters
like they, the pansies are required to use
no sir:
we ruled the seas
standing proud in quarters standing out,
no manning the rails for show,
we did it like it was supposed to be
and the bow cut through the channel like
it owned the sea
and the trough slid up the side
only feet under the gunwale
and the stern wash was white with foam
and we were underway
rocking and rolling.

I was a sailor
back when being a sailor
was tantamount to
being a man;
there weren't no great number
of automatic controls back then,
not one hell of a lot of video games
or graphics to read:
you turned the valves and the steam hissed;
you cleaned the boiler plates on the lower level
with the blowers blasting air in your face
for relief from the hot wet heat;
inserting the plates and firing it up
hoping it wouldn't smoke white
blow your ass
off the naval station
to kingdom come;
and the boilers would rumble
and groan and croak
and spew their smoke out the stack
and build up steam
until there weren't no smoke
and the boiler tenders
down in the bowels
knew they would be
getting underway
we lined up the feed pumps
and kicked off the auxiliaries
and went on ship's power,
dropping our umbilical cords from the pier
like the doctor cuts the cord
on the newborn:
separating us from mother earth,
sending us to the bounding main;
when we turned the nozzles of steam
onto the turbines of the main engine
and watched the tree trunk sized shaft
turning slowly;
the engine room wheezed and coughed
and made us feel like we
were in a jungle of sweltering pumps and motors
while the distilling plants gurgled with
Rube Goldberg smugness,
making you wonder if
they would really make
good water

I was a sailor
back when we manned the big guns,
not standing apart, aloof, with computer controls
in the air conditioned spaces
but inside those big guns,
metal death traps where
we stood alongside the breech
when the firing shook our brains, our guts, our souls
and we loved the thrill of it all
and the brass kicked out the aft end
and the hot case man with his asbestos gloves
smacked them out onto the rolling deck:
no automatic, manless machine of death
back then.

I was a sailor
back when we didn't know
what the hell politically correct meant,
back when they meant
what they said when they said,
"if the navy wanted you to have a wife,
they would have issued you one."
Navy was a way of life,
living on board, locker in a club
just outside the main gate
with civvies,
you could go down to sailor town
drink beer and cheap whiskey
enough to make the woman look
pretty enough to pay
for the night so
you could get back in time
for quarters at 0700
unless there was a fight.

I was a sailor back then
when men were men
sailors were sailors
then was then.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Old is Almost a State of Mind

SAN DIEGO – Age is a relative thing whether it’s in the Southwest corner or back home in Lebanon.

This past week I turned 67. I am not sure why the event seemed so much more cataclysmic than 65 or 66, but “67” just sounds older.

Before the first line of W.B. Yeats’ famous poem, “Sailing to Byzantium” was unfortunately stolen by Hollywood and used as the title for the violent movie “No Country for Old Men,” the poem addressed aging.

I like the poem but had thought little of it in the past few years. I revisited a quote from the poem courtesy of National Public Radio last Thursday. The beginning of the second verse goes, “An aged man is but a paltry thing / A tattered coat upon a stick.” I can identify with that whether my coat is tattered or not and even though my stick is a pretty thick, bald stick.

The NPR program “All Things Considered,” discussed productivity of the aging, dwelling on creative folks. The discussion was generated by “Lastingness: the Art of Old Age” by Nicholas Delbanco. Delbanco’s book discusses late productivity, citing examples of artists Claude Monet and Georgia O’Keefe and the composer Giuseppe Verdi, among others. Yeats himself wrote up to his final days when he died in France at 74.
Consequently, I decided I was into lastingness.

* * *

When I told my father, half-way to 97, I felt old at 67, he laughed, “You’re not old yet.”

He’s right, of course. I am fortunate to be in good heath. I can do most things I have done all of my life, but I do them slower with a lot more creaks, crackles and grunts than there used to be. I also have found it takes me a lot longer to do anything.

For example, I used to rise and be out of the house in 15 minutes to play golf. I arrived at the course and immediately went to the first tee. Now it takes me an hour or more to wake up, stretch, take pills, and check to make sure I am taking all that I need. Once at the course, I must stretch again, have a cup of coffee, hit a small bucket of range balls, practice chipping and putting before teeing off. It takes almost a full work day to golf.

* * *

For those of us who grew up in Lebanon from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s, I am the second oldest of my high school class (LHS and CHMA). This doesn’t seem quite fair as Gayle Marks Bryne, the only person older from the 1962 class remains lovely and young looking.

So I’m going for “lastingness.”

I am even working on relating to the young. My youngest daughter Sarah and I will soon attend a San Diego State basketball game. The Aztecs have the longest winning streak in the country (20) and are ranked number six in the country. Sarah became interested in college basketball when I took her and her mother to a Vandy game two years ago when we were home for Christmas.

Sarah is buying a guest ticket, and we will sit in the student section. I plan on keeping my shirt on, not painting my body or face, and wearing my ear plugs. I don’t intend to act that young.

* * *

I seem to think about this growing old thing more than most. I am not sure why I am so wrapped up about aging. In fact, I find as I get older, I am less sure about a lot of things.

So I’m going for “lastingness.” And why not?

On my birthday, I received several cards and a number of emails wishing me well. I finagled two dinners and a golf game out of the occasion. Sarah made her grandmother’s boiled custard to celebrate the day.

On my birthday eve, I received a phone call from my parents who sang “Happy Birthday” to me. The next morning, my computer displayed an internet video of my grandson, courtesy of my older daughter Blythe, singing that song to me. Neither version was exactly on key.

But they were the two sweetest songs I have heard in a long, long time.
Right then, I decided there are a lot of good things about lastingness.