Tom's Corner

Discovering Today
Tom Irons

Chapter 5
Navy Days

        An icy wind drove frozen snow crystals under my collar and slashed my unprotected cheeks that night in early April 1965 as I descended from the bus, tired and travel-worn. Snarling, screaming, banshees dashed about the group of dejected, hung over, and already homesick young men (who were possibly Americas’ future naval leaders.) I had never heard some of the foul names that were spit at us, but I soon came to learn them. The U.S. Navy was, back then, a truly foul-mouthed organization.

        The banshees quickly lined us up and double-timed us into a nearby barracks. Designed like the letter H, these and other barracks, standing row on row, were leftovers from the WWII era described so vividly in Studs Terkel’s …The Good War. All the months I slept in them, I was never allowed to forget the alleged ‘fact’ that, “One of these death-traps can burn up in 30 seconds.” Looking at the dried and faded wood walls, I never really questioned the claim.

        Nearing midnight, long after taps, we new recruits had to stumble and find our way about in the semi-darkened sleeping compartments while boys who had arrived earlier that day did their best to get a night’s sleep. When I first stepped into the building I was physically struck by a collage of pungent odors: halitosis from every form of lung-filtered, aerated alcohol imaginable, poor diets, absent dental care and upset stomachs, methane from nervous bowels, body odor, and the ever present toilet smells drenched in Pinesol-type disinfectants.

        Picture the thirty young men that had just descended from the bus, scared and scrambling to secure and use one of a dozen sinks in the shadows cast by the night lights. It was an unfamiliar place; a navy ‘head.’ Red lights created semi-dark, and cast eerie color tones on faces, adding odd shadows and a macabre ambience to the scene.

        As I stood in front of the sink I had claimed, I saw in the mirror affixed to the wall, a sight like I’d never experienced before: behind me stood a young man with wild, strangely lit, darting eyes, and medium-length brown hair projecting from his head in clumps. It glistened strangely. His voice raised to a high pitch and cracked from time to time, as he raced from man to man. I’m not sure what he was seeking— maybe a friendly face, a smile, or encouragement? It didn’t take long for me to understand the situation.

        Seeing me eyeing him in the mirror, he stepped up to my shoulder and cackled like one of the chickens from our farm. Then he announced in that high, irregular pitch, “I’ve put Vaseline and sand on my head! They won’t be able to cut my hair! It will break their clippers!”

        The question passed through my mind, drugs or insanity? I shook my head, wanting to end this incomprehensible exchange and quickly turned back to brushing my teeth. Wind rattled the old windowpanes as I hastily sought out the bunk that had been assigned to me on arrival.

        I lay on the thin, swaybacked mattress and pulled the rough woolen blanket up under my chin. I thought back just twelve hours before, as I stood in the Cincinnati Navy recruiting station, with my raised right hand swearing an allegiance to the United States Navy. I agreed to a six-year commitment: four of which would be spent on active duty, the remaining two as a reservist. I was excited to have finally reached this stage in my life but I was not without misgivings, too. Had I known at that point just how many years of my life I would end up giving the navy, I might not have found it in myself to sleep that night, but with thoughts of adventure, danger, and one special girl I’d left in Blanchester swirling around in my head, I soon drifted off.

        I was brought out of my glorious deep sleep in a manner I’d soon come to expect (but never get used to). The roving guard on duty would take a Coke bottle and run it around and around the inside of a thirty-gallon, corrugated steel trashcan with as much vigor as he could muster— right on the stroke of 0430. Welcome to the United States Naval Recruit Training Center, Great Lakes, Illinois: boot camp for short.

        In the following days uniforms were issued, we received our standard navy haircut, and dozens of shots were administered. They even gave our company a shot to make us sick. After this particular shot was administered we were herded into a room and made to sit on the floor while a navy doctor gave a speech in which he thanked us for our, “Voluntary participation in this important medical program.” Weeks went by and our company started to get sick with fever, chills, spontaneous nosebleeds, dizziness and headaches. It became increasingly apparent that we were guinea pigs for something dangerous. Rumor had it that two of the company actually died, and a third received a medical discharge when he could no longer participate in the training.

        Part of the program required taking our blood. This was done daily for a couple of weeks, then as time passed the frequency was reduced. As graduation approached, twelve weeks later, it was taken only once a week. Luckily, I had gotten over having the spontaneous, gushing nosebleeds, and what the company fondly referred to as ‘green-puking headaches.’ Many of the company were experiencing these on graduation day. I would suffer from sinusitis for many years to come.

        Looking back, boot camp is a blur of physical exercise, little sleep, bland food, marching, and classes where one could not possible remain awake. Yet falling asleep would result in extra marching, extra duty, or extra pushups. Thirteen long weeks after that cold, snowy, and disheartening arrival night I graduated with orders to the Naval Schools Command located right across the road.

Fire Control Technician-A School
Phase I
United States Naval Training Center
Great Lakes, Illinois

        Every man in the navy is given a rating: corpsman (medic), radioman, electronics technician, radar man, etc. Sometimes one’s rate is actually the one he requested before or after joining up. Near the end of boot camp my company received individual counseling on what our ratings would be once we reached the fleet. The term ‘counseling’ was a joke, since most of us were simply told what we were destined to be for the remainder of our enlistment. I remember sitting down across from a first class petty officer, thinking I already knew what I was destined for. I had enlisted as a hospital corpsman recruit, the same as Doug. This was my stated preference when I filled out the enlistment papers. With the Vietnam military action growing every day, I felt sure the Navy and Marine Corps could use another corpsman. The navy, however, had different plans for me. As the first class petty officer put it, “We’ve filled our quota for corpsmen this month. Since you scored high on your GCT/ARI (General Classification Test and Arithmetic Test) and mechanics, you’re going to Phase-I of FT-A school.” He was referring to three of the tests we had taken the first week of boot camp.

        “Oh no, I’d much rather be a corpsman,” came my naive response.

        “Yeah, and I’d much rather be in southern California. Count yourself lucky. At least you’re gettin’ a school. Most of this company is headed straight to the fleet.”

        Recalling my challenge with schooling, going straight to the fleet didn’t sound like a bad idea to me. “What’s FT-A school?” I asked with controlled bitterness.

        “Its Fire Control Technician school, basic electronics, that sort of thing. You won’t be fighting fires; you’ll be working on gun mounts or missiles. Mostly its electronics,” came the surprising answer. “Look, you’re getting a real good deal here. Check it out in your Bluejacket’s Manual.

        Resigned to my fate, and more than a little interested in what I’d be doing once I actually reached the fleet, I picked up the piece of paper and read what the petty officer had written: “FT-A School, G. Lakes, Ill.”

        Placing my white hat on my head, I stood up and left the office. Returning to my bunk I reached for my Bluejackets’ Manual— frequently referred to as the navy bible. Turning to the ‘Duties Of Ratings’ on page C-618 I started to read:

“Fire Control Technician (FT)
Operate and perform upkeep, major repair, and overhaul of
fire-control systems and their components,
including fire-control radar.”

        Somehow I wanted more. “Fire-control systems” seemed a pretty vague term. However, I soon found that my orders were highly thought of by the other men in my company. I also discovered, as the day drew to a close, that I was the only one assigned to FT-A School from the 88-man company.


        The completion of boot camp allowed recruits a much needed break from their new life. For me, it meant a few days in which I could return home to Blanchester: something I’d been looking forward to for thirteen long weeks. Just prior to departing for the navy I had spent some quality time with Sandy Carter. I’d met Sandy somewhere around 1959 while joining the neighborhood kids in a game of hide and seek. Sandy and her sister Shirley were visiting their grandparents and, as kids did back then, had simply joined the group. I was immediately smitten by Sandy’s soft brown eyes, long gorgeous legs, shapely figure, and her long brown hair.

        For four years Sandy and I had been what she must have regarded as ‘pen pals,’ and what I remember viewing as ‘almost’ going together. She definitely never led me on or tried to misrepresent her intentions. In fact, she was always very clear that she did not consider me possible boyfriend material (much to my chagrin and against loud protestations).

        Imagine my surprise when I returned from Ohio State University, after flunking out the second semester, and received a phone call from her. A call from her was truly a first. The icing on the cake was to be told that she was living just one block north of Mom’s house with her grandparents, the Cherry’s. Her grandmother wanted me to take Sandy to the high school, help her get enrolled and sort of smooth her way into the system.

        Woo hoo! You betya! After learning that Sandy’s parents had thrown her out of the house and she had left with few clothes and no money, it was only natural that I take her shopping and buy some dresses and other much-needed clothes for school and her new life.

        I was in seventh heaven. Finally, I was dating the girl of my dreams! Sandy had a way of smiling with her eyes that made my heart want to burst forth in song. We shared a few tentative kisses, held hands a little, and sat close in the car as I squired her about. It was true love as far as I was concerned. Granted, I had other flames and infatuations throughout high school: Carol Berwanger, Ruth Pickerel, Lola Stacy, and Susie Eltzroth. Through them all, I had kept up the letters to Sandy— along with hopes that one day she would see my worth, my potential, and my ability to care for and love her. In the two short weeks before enlistment I became convinced that we were destined to walk down the isle. Still, I had found the time to date Susie Eltzroth a little.

        The night before I left for the navy Sandy and I drove out to the Dairy Point. We sat in the car enjoying ice cream treats and talking. Even with the handholding and chaste kisses, Sandy maintained her position that we weren’t really destined to be together forever. Each and every protest I voiced she would fend off. I tried chocolate kisses, whipped cream kisses, sharing my maraschino cherry— all to no avail. Each rejection just made me more certain she was the girl for me.

        So, I rambled on until I found myself speaking of marriage— after I’d found my stride in the navy, attained some rank, and had a viable income. Then I’d come back to Blanchester and woo her, win her, and wed her.

        “We’ll see.” She said, smiling her dizzying Mona Lisa smile.
        Those two words made my heart take flight like eagles, maybe even like the intercontinental missiles I had heard of for the past ten years. Oh, how happy I was! Elation was never so…. well….. elating.

        At the beginning of boot camp I wrote to Sandy every week, maybe more. I poured out my heart, opening my soul to let her see all of me. I expect it was a lot of drivel, but it was honest drivel and it was mine. Each day at mail call I waited hungrily for a missive from her. Not one letter did I receive. Not one word, ever again.

        At the end of boot camp we graduates were allowed two weeks of leave. I elected to return home. I don’t remember just how long I remained in the house with Mother before I could escape. I do remember it seemed an eternity. Once out of the house I made a dash for the Cherry residence. Mrs. Cherry answered my knock. Bless her heart, she was sympathetic to my pain when she told me Sandy had run away with her stepbrother the day after she graduated from high school. They had run off to get married. It was this relationship that had precipitated Sandy moving to Blan in the first place.

        Standing there in the door, in her faded housedress, ringing her long, thin fingers, Mrs. Cherry shed tears of sorrow, probably both for me and for Sandy. “Florida, I think, is where they’re headed.” She murmured in a soft southern accent while shaking her head. “I begged her not to but she jus’ went anyway. I’m sorry, Tommy, I really am but I couldn’ keep ‘er. Lord knows I wanted to.”

        Walking back to the house I felt stunned, dizzy, and almost sick to my stomach. I was humiliated and mortified. Talk about being caught totally flatfooted. Wasn’t the term jilted? I believed that if anyone ever found out about this, I’d be laughed out of — a fool of fools.

        It would take forty years for me to divulge this story. Forty years of personal, internal disgrace and pain that has been revealed in a few short paragraphs for what it was: a young man’s dream for a future that wasn’t meant to be. I have to admit that I must have known or sensed that there were problems, because I had kept all my thoughts and feelings to myself. Other than Mother knowing I was sweet on Sandy, no one knew the depth of my desire to wed her. I never even shared Sandy’s existence with my boot camp buddies.

FT-A School
Phase I

From The Bluejackets’ Manual-
“At an “A” school, the students are taught the basic knowledges [sic] and skills
needed to prepare them for a specific rate in pay grade E-4 or E-5. Students for
these schools come either directly from recruit training or from duty in the fleet. There
are Class A schools for about 55 of the approximately 60 different ratings.”

        The school curriculum was divided into two modalities: the theoretical and the practical. We would spend one or two weeks studying the theory of each subject, then have a week of practical, hands-on time to learn how it really worked. There were always gaps between book knowledge and practical experience which one instructor referred to as the “truth-to-reality factor.”

        Every Friday morning held a test for us. Those who failed to get better than 72% were assigned to ‘Dilbert Study,’ an additional two hours of classroom work from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. starting that Friday night, and continuing Monday through Thursday. Some of the men in my class never got off Dilbert duty. At the beginning of school it was considered embarrassing to have to attend this, but as the weeks went by, most of the class had attended it at least once. It was something I never got nailed for I kept a high 80 to low 90 running average and I ended up second or third in the class standings. This high average made me a prime candidate for Phase II.

        I enjoyed Phase I. At least, I liked the idea of gaining technical training. I even had a bit of a knack for it, and became intrigued with the idea of advancing rapidly up through the ranks. Having education to one’s credit could advance you rapidly in the navy. The school Command pushed the idea of more and better schooling and it hit a nerve with me. I was convinced I couldn’t find a life as a civilian. Even if I tried to at some future date, that endeavor would be enhanced by having a plethora of navy schools to my credit.

        With this frame of mind, I easily chose to extend my initial four-year active enlistment, (after having served only one year) to receive two additional school postings: FT-A Phase II, which would immediately follow on the heels of Phase-I and, a ‘C’ school of my choice to follow. ‘C’ schools were designed to make a person knowledgeable on specific weapon components. Each of us willing to extend our active duty obligation were given the opportunity of requesting which ‘C’ school we wanted to attend. Of course, our preferences were not guarantees— we just had to hope our wants would match the navy’s needs.

Phase 2

        Phase-II, A school was more of the same: math, electronics, weapons system components, missiles, guns, and telemetry. All this for eight hours a day, five days a week (and five evenings for those scoring Dilbert). When my class reached the subject of microwave transmission and reception, we found ourselves learning television theory. We were pleased to finally get into something we all could relate to from civilian life. TV repair suddenly appeared as a lucrative way to make a living once we were free of navy shackles. Our spirits were somewhat dampened when our instructor announced that there had just been a change of curriculum due to an ‘incident.’ It may have been only embarrassing for the school administration but it was downright detrimental to a few students and their navy careers.

        An advanced class, studying the transmission and reception of microwaves used with a TV camera and receiver, had been left unsupervised for a few minutes. One of the students rose to a dare and dropped his pants in front of a transmitting camera. It got a good laugh and the daredevil may even have won a few dollars off his classmates. Things were all buttoned up and back where they belonged by the time the instructor returned. However, the housewife who had been flipping through the channels of her TV looking for her favorite soap that afternoon didn’t settle down quite so quickly. She lived nearby in navy housing and she was a navy wife. She knew what she was seeing waved about on her screen and guessed from whence in came: Schools Command. Needless to say, she was incensed (although not quite as mad as a few senior instructors and other staff).

        It didn’t take them long to determine the guilty parties and it certainly didn’t take the guilty ones anytime to pack their duffel bags and head for the fleet. School was over and done for them, although they were still obligated to serve the extra active time they had agreed to.

        Phases I and II totaled fifty weeks of school. Another 32-weeks awaited me in Damneck, Virginia on the East coast near Norfolk. I had listed my preference as ‘Terrier, Tartar Missile Test School’ and surprisingly received orders to attend it.

FT-C School

From The Bluejackets’ Manual:
“ Class C.- Some “C” schools differ from the A and B schools in that they
teach a particular skill or technique which, in general, is not related to a
specific rating. …. Other C schools, however, give instructions in specific
equipment or tasks related to a specific rating.”

        It was April 1966 when I reported for duty at the Damneck Schools Command, Damneck, Virginia. The base was positioned right on the Atlantic coast, and had miles of private beach where navy students spent their off hours during the summer months. So did the daughters and wives of military officers— particularly those women whose husbands were out to sea.

        There’s a powerful energy that man receives from communion with the sea, and it was that summer when I first experienced the draw, the energy, the deep visceral connection: I was overpowered. I spent long April hours in contemplation, watching the horizon, breathing in the sharp sea smells, listening to the crash of the waves and the piercing call of the seagulls as they wheeled and soared above my head, feeling the grit of sand as it ran through my fingers.

        Contemplation almost always leads to daydreams, and daydreams are where I give birth to much of the creativity in my life. It’s easy to look back over my early years and recognize that I was an artist even then. I just didn’t know it. If someone had told me I was an artist just waiting to happen, I would have laughed or taken offense. No, I firmly believed in the value of work—not just as a value but as a necessity. I never would have seen how I could ever become an artist and earn a living.

        Those days, spent hunkered down just below the ridge of a sand dune in a bowl I’d hollowed out of the sand, were spent listening to the cool April wind whistle and coo. I’d daydream there in my sand-womb, out of the wind and let the soft rumble of curling waves lull me into a peaceful sleep. When afternoon shadows began to steal across the golden sands, I’d awaken and find the spring sun had baked me like a foil-wrapped potato on charcoal embers.

        During the month of April I was in a holding pattern, circling like a Piper Cub waiting for permission to land. My Test Equipment class did not start until May, and few of my classmates had reported for duty. Little actual work was expected of me, and I’d already learned the wisdom of the expression, “Out of sight-out of mind.” By not being part of a class yet, I wasn’t on any official duty list or work roster, so no one expected me to take part in any major tasks. The freedom of the beach called and everyday I answered, “Yes, I’ll be there.”

        I watched the sea gulls strut and preen themselves on the beach, screech their caustic warnings, or flap their way into flight. I played with the little fiddler crabs, and marveled at their fearlessness as they waved their mismatched claws at me. I must have seemed a tremendous monster to them, yet they’d rush headlong toward me and snap their only defense— daring me to come within their reach. I marveled at the small humped backs of what, for a few days, I took to be sharks. Later a young girl informed me that they were, “Only porpoises.” In my state of awe, I could not understand how anyone could describe porpoise and use the word, ‘only,’ implying a comparison to sharks, and finding them wanting.

        The ocean smells of salt, seaweed, and decay, blended to create an incense so heady and powerful I felt almost stoned like a druggie on marijuana, or a young sailor drinking good Kentucky bourbon for the first time. For a young man raised on a farm in southern Ohio, these feelings, this environment, and the excitement of becoming my own person, shone like a newly minted penny.

        This was my first extended experience of the ocean, yet here I was beginning a naval career. I’d never been on a ship or on a large body of water. I marveled at how storms hundreds of miles to the south and east could cause the water at Damneck to rise up in dark, angry waves, which pounded down from great heights, flattening and scouring the sand. I could sense the energy of that storm surf through the bottoms of my bare feet, and I experienced awe.

        The oceans of the world are not nature but they are nature’s manifestation. Here, on this deserted beach-scape I first began to realize the power, beauty, and attraction nature held in store for those willing to look into Her eyes. Here, amid the shifting, moaning sand dunes I first started down the road to Pantheism; I just didn’t know it at the time.

        With May came female sun worshipers and the last stragglers of my Test Equipment class. It was time to buckle down and study, hit the books, and prepare for my navy life to actually start. Immediately upon the formation and commencement of our class, we were informed that we could choose what shift our class would meet: normal days- 0800 to 1500, or the graveyard shift- midnight to 0700. We were granted a day to discuss this among ourselves, then a democratic vote would be taken and the results would be final. I spent those 24-hours lobbying long and hard. There were a few classmates who were adamant that ‘days’ would be superior to ‘nights.’ I didn’t waste time on those. Instead I ran a quick personal poll, determined I only needed to sway three or four fence-sitters my way and the real results would follow.

        Across the red and white-checkered tablecloth at the NCO club, I magnanimously sprang for drinks that evening during happy hour. A shot of liquor or a beer (can or draft) was 10-cents and I shamelessly plied the chosen few with alcohol while we wolfed down cheap pizza. I painted a picture of lazy days spent on the beach, mingling with beautiful navy daughters, hours spent frolicking in the waves, tanning in the sun, and lining up dates for the evenings long before the day shift was free to compete with us. Never again would we, lucky dogs that we were, have this golden opportunity; girls by the dozens flocking to our private beach. “We don’t even have to worry about transportation,” I stressed. “The beach is a cheap date. Except for sodas and hot dogs, there won’t even be any costs to consider.” I pleaded and cajoled and bought another round.

        Amazingly, the vote went my way. For the first and only time in my life, I had swayed an election. It wasn’t the first or last time I had chosen a path and affected the way my life would progress though. We did spend many lazy, sunny, sandy, horny, hours on the beach surrounded with beautiful, frolicking, and friendly girls. And we let the girls drive us into nearby Virginia Beach to dance the evenings away.

On the beach at Damneck, VA.
Aug. 1966

        Consequently, I, personally, didn’t retain as much knowledge on Missile Test Equipment as the navy would have expected or liked. I was dedicated to learning as much as I needed to avoid having to attend the horrid tradition of ‘Dilbert.’ I perfected the skill of cramming before the test. I’d milk the brains of the truly gifted in my class for key points known as ‘horses.’ Horses were questions, facts, data, constants, or anything that you would see throughout the duration of the course. The idea was that once you memorized this horse, you could ride it to graduation. And I prayed a lot. It all seemed to work for me and I managed to keep my head above the waves, my attention on the beach, and my body off Dilbert duty.

        We would get released from class no later than 0700, and frequently it would be as early as 0330. This happened on the nights when our instructor could no longer lecture or stay focused on the lesson plan. I’d head for the mess hall if it was after 0600 where I’d load up on eggs, fried potatoes, pancakes, ham, bacon, and coffee. Then it was out the door, back to the barracks where I’d don my swimsuit and sun glasses, grab the suntan lotion, book and towel, and head for the beach. I had a favorite area where I’d spread my towel and sleep until about 0900, when base security would open the gates to dependents. The rest of the day was spent swimming, tossing the football, learning to surf, reading, or doing whatever presented itself.

        As evening approached, we usually went into town to dance and carouse— always keeping a watchful eye on each other and the clock. The last possible bus returning to the base that would arrive before our midnight class began departed downtown at 2315. This gave us approximately fifteen minutes after debarking to shower, don our uniform, and hit the mess hall for our ‘midrats’ or midnight rations. Basically, this was our breakfast meal consisting of eggs-to-order, bacon or ham, pancakes, fried potatoes and the traditional coffee. Those men having a midrats card were not supposed to eat the 0600 breakfast, but I discovered I could flash my selective service card and gain admittance. It was chancy but a good way of saving money on food.

        I met a lot of girls and the days were good. I spent an inordinate amount of time on the beach and very little time sleeping. I was young and healthy, active and well fed. I was in a young man’s heaven, without cares possibly for the last time in my life. The beauty of it all was this: I realized and appreciated my situation. I reveled in my good fortune.

        Those sweet summer days are long past; many names have faded from my memory but all the faces remain. I recall a fifteen “almost-sixteen” -year-old who loved to throw the football, and could in fact almost out throw me. Her mother had died recently and she had trouble relating to both her older and younger sister. I always smile when I think back to the nursing student from Fort Thomas, Kentucky— Patty, I think her name was. She was with a group of girls that descended on our beach like an Arizona dust devil. Screeches and yells, action and flurry, a true maelstrom surrounded this bevy of beauties. Following behind was their chaperone in the company of an old navy salt. This chief petty officer had seen the world and knew, in Gordon Lightfoot’s lyrics, “the pleasures of the harbor.”

        My classmates and I paused what we were doing and watched this odd entourage. The young ladies tripped and skipped across the sand to the water’s edge. The old CPO marched up to our little group and calmly announced, “I need six able-bodied seamen. Now, who’s interested?”

        Terry Solomon risked a tentative, “What for?”
        What for! To squire those six skirts around, and leave me and their overseer some peace and quiet!” Incredulous that he had to explain the situation, the chief shook his head in disbelief. Trying another tack on what were (obviously) not yet deep-water sailors, he lowered his voice and used both arms in a gathering motion to pull us closer together. “Look, I discovered the bevy of little chicks wandering around Virginia Beach, just clucking and pecking.” He went on to explain that they’d just hit town from, “….someplace in Kentucky,” were on a school break, were seeing the ocean for the first time, and wanted to ‘meet some boys’.

        “Mine is the boss of the troop. She’s nearest to my age, but you all are just right for them young ones. All you got to do is each of you pick out your favorite.”

        And so we did. I was drawn to the one who was off by herself just standing and gazing toward the horizon. She smiled at me as I approached, then dipped her head. Her long brunette hair fell across her round and serene face. When she spoke, I felt like I’d been hit with a hundred pounds of feathers. Her speech held no edges, it was all smooth and rounded; soft R’s that ran on and on fading into the distance. We talked, and for once I spoke as little as possible because I thrilled to hear her voice. She had a cadence I had never experienced before. I was drawn nearer, not wanting to miss a single word. I was drawn nearer still by her perfume. There was a flowery, healthy, young-girl odor about her that weakened the connective tissue in my knees. Walking became a problem.

        I led her south along the beach, walking, talking, and learning about each other as if we were the only two people in the world. By the time we reached the barbed wire marking the end of the base, we were holding hands.

        That night found us in town where the fourteen of us sat around a big circular table sharing a spaghetti dinner. We laughed, posed, and argued just like a real family. After the meal, by mutual agreement and without discussion, Patty and I made our way down to the water’s edge. We shared our dreams and hopes of the future, and not surprisingly discovered they were quite similar in nature. We marveled at the magnitude of the full moon as it rose in an orange majesty from Neptune’s depths.

        We were pulled from this magical moment by the sound of a radio blasting out Nowhere To Run, by Martha and The Vandellas. The music was coming from a car radio in one of the beachfront parking lots provided by the city. As we approached the car, we saw it belonged to the CPO. He and ‘the boss’ were sitting on the hood of the car watching as all of her wards came trudging through the soft, deep sand— navy beaus beside them.

        I found myself on the sand-dusted pavement dancing wildly to songs like Sweet Pea by Tommy Roe and Eight Days A Week by The Beatles. It was Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte by Patti Page that slowed the pace and brought that special young woman into my arms. There in that parking lot, with the light of the full moon painting diamonds in her musky hair, I was swept away by feelings of tenderness and joy.

        All good things must come to an end, and so did that warm and gentle evening. Much too soon, the chaperone was gathering her chicks and announcing it was time for them to head for the motel room. They had to start the long drive back early the next morning. Patty and I, by mutual consent, faded into the shadows a few steps away from the others. In the words of Tommy Roe;

“I finally got to whisper sweet words in her ear,
convinced that we oughta get away from there,
we took a little walk, I held her close to me.”

        We shared sweet words of goodbye and then one tentative kiss that lingered just long enough to say that we had both enjoyed our time together and that it was indeed special. Goodbye, Sweet Pea.

        In the ensuing months we exchanged a few gentle and caring missives but the day soon came when a letter went unanswered and I, knowing the situation, wisely let Patty slide into obscurity.

        Terrier and Tartar Missile Test Equipment school drew to an end that September. It also provided another education for me: the surprising overnight transition of Virginia Beach. On Labor Day it had been a vibrant town, bursting at the city limits, a town teeming with people, young and old. Parties sprang up spontaneously. Dancing, drinking, and debauchery ruled the day and the night. Then, the day after Labor Day the beach stood deserted, stores boarded up, and the majority of the bars, restaurants, and curio shops were closed. Signs announced: Reopening May 1 next year. I was staggered by the difference just one day made in our capitalistic world.

October 1966, Port Hueneme, California

        Once again I found myself alone with the ocean and the freedom that can only be found in solitude. I’d bring my books, those that weren’t classified, to the hollowed out depression in the sand dune and study the day away. The young women of summer had ceased to frequent the beach once September’s cool breezes began to whip the sand across the open areas. I expect those days of being alone were good for me. I was no longer distracted by the lure of desirable females, and could focus on finishing the course of study with satisfactory grades. I also was able to start to see the cycles of nature, the importance of seasonal changes, and the need for growth in one’s life.

        Disembarking from the rear of the taxi, I handed an Abe Lincoln to the driver and said, “Keep the change.” I stood on the dock and gazed up at the monstrous ship berthed before me. “AV-1” was painted in big block letters up at the point of the bow. I was standing in front of the USS Norton Sound AVM-1, an old converted seaplane tender now used as an experimental weapons testing platform. Slinging my duffel bag up on my shoulder, I approached the gangway.

        “Just leave your bag there on the dock. The messenger will haul it up.” This came from the gruff and gravelly voice of the Junior Officer of the Day (JOOD in navy speak). I looked up to see a short heavyset Chief Petty Officer ordering a seaman in dress blues to descend the gangway.

        Reaching the top of the swaying shifting ladder, I snapped a salute smartly toward the aft end of the ship where I knew the ensign should be. Then I turned and directed a salute to the Junior Officer Of the Deck and intoned loudly, “Request permission to come aboard, sir!”

        “Permission granted!” came the gruff reply. Little did I know that this was the first of literally hundreds of times I would enact this very scene in the ensuing years.

        Within a few days Fred Kier and Don Jacobs, both students from Damneck, had reported for duty. Don had attended a ‘C’ school on the AN-SPG-55 radar while Fred and I were studying Missile Test Equipment. We were all surprised to discover that neither of the systems we had studied so long and hard were to be found on the Sound.

        In terms of duty assignment Don drew the ace; Fred and I were saddled with what we saw as a joker. The telemetry station was a focal point of the weapons department. It was where all test data was recorded and its workspace was a large room filled with many and varied pieces of electronic equipment. The men assigned to work in telemetry were considered to be somehow smarter, luckier, and more important than the rest of the division. When it was announced that Don would be absorbed by the telemetry crew, and that Fred and I would be working on a radar system, Fred and I commiserated with each other and Don strutted like a peacock in a yard full of hens. It wouldn’t take long for Fred and me to see the tables turn. Things are not always what they first appear to be, and surface impressions can be drastically different from the foundations. When Don started bemoaning the fact that he was working for, “An impossible taskmaster, an idiot of profound magnitude, a….a…a Dilbert!” we just lifted our glasses of beer and smiled at him. We agreed with his assessment of the telemetry supervisor, and we had discovered that our duties offered far more freedom and interesting twists than we had first suspected.

        Our little radar director was manually operated and required us to spend much of our workday outside (‘topside’ in navy terminology) on the large fantail. The radar was set on top of a small steel building toward the starboard side of the ship. This room housed the missile launcher control panel and transmitter for the radar above.

        Fred and I were charged with the task of “operating, testing, maintaining and repairing” the radar, transmitter, and launcher control panel. But first we had to educate ourselves on the system. That was when we were informed that actual operational publications had not yet been written. Luckily for us, there were some preliminary Operational Pamphlets that included basic design and theory. Error-ridden as these early OP’s were, they provided a place for us to start in our learning process.

        As the days and weeks progressed I found that I enjoyed navy life. It was thrilling for me to watch the mooring lines being castoff and see the piers slide by as the big, clumsy ship wallowed down the narrow channel toward the ocean. I found it inspiring, romantic, and exciting to actually be at sea. The funny thing about it was that I had to be careful not to outwardly show that I enjoyed it. Had I done so, I would have been mocked. I had already learned not to let on that I enjoyed or appreciated any aspect of navy life. Not yet having learned the term for, or the implication of, the way men act in groups, I was nevertheless experiencing it first hand.

        My assigned berthing quarters were one deck below the fantail and as far aft as possible. Our bunks consisted of thin mattresses laid atop pieces of cloth strung tightly to a steel tube frame with nylon line, and those bunks would gently rock me to sleep when at sea. I would have easily enjoyed spending more days and nights at sea than we did, but I only mentioned this when I was trying to bait one of the married crew members.

        The Norton Sound was considered ‘preferred duty’ because it did not spend very much time at sea. Being an experimental site, we usually had civilian engineers and technicians aboard observing and running tests. These men needed to commute between the ship and their companies with ease. Also, they did not find being at sea overnight desirable. Thus, we would go out to the missile range in the mornings and return to port in the afternoon on the days that we had to. Just as frequently, we remained tied up at the pier for days at a time.

        Months rolled by and I began to lose the ‘new guy’ feeling. I came to realize that I could do the work assigned me and fend for myself within the navy structure. Food, a place to live, a clothing allowance, travel, and even an education were all provided. Plus a bit of pay. I didn’t have to really even think for myself— just do as I was told. How much better could life get? Well, maybe a little better if I were to make E-5 pay grade and perhaps get a bit more schooling under my belt. Better, I thought, if I just had someone to share life with. And if that someone were female, it would be all I’d need to actually be the grown up I’d been striving to become for years.

        In April of 1967 I re-enlisted under a program known as STAR: Selective Training and Retention. By doing this, I was given the guarantee of FT-B school following my tour on the Norton Sound and automatic advancement to E-5 pay grade as soon as I had served the required time as an E-4. I was also given a lump-sum cash incentive of $5,000 which I split between a car and a credit union savings account.

        The car was a 1965 Austin-Healy Sprite. It was a two-seater convertible painted British Racing car green, a four-cylinder, with a floor shift. I loved it. The price of $1150 concerned me, but I had much assurance from friends that it was fair.

        Suddenly I found myself with money, wheels, guaranteed further education, and a greater monthly income— all by simply committing myself for six-more years of servitude to the US Navy. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

        The next brilliant idea came to me while talking to Susan Eltzroth one evening on the phone. I had been trying to convince her to come to California and live with me, but she considered that idea out of the question. She was making noises about dating other guys and I suddenly asked her if she wanted to get married. It came from out of the blue and leaped out of my mouth before I realized what I’d actually said. Her affirmative answer surprised me even more. And so the die was cast. How often does life take a surprising left turn.

        With relative ease, I got permission for leave in June. I was still a golden boy in the eyes of my division officers due to my re-upping in the STAR program. Susan and I made our plans to wed. I flew home, and after a flurry of chores (blood tests, marriage license, meeting with the Methodist minister, etc) we were bound together.

        I asked my brother, Fred, to stand as my best man since Doug was still serving in Vietnam. Susan asked my sister, Frances, to be her matron of honor. Just minutes before the ceremony began, Fred and I were marking time before approaching the dais and he asked me if I was sure I really wanted to go through with the marriage. “There’s still time for you to back out, you know.” Although this was offered as a jest, I would have given anything at that moment if I could have backed out. Yet, my pride would not let that happen. I felt it would have been dishonorable to Susan, and much too embarrassing for myself, to run from the altar like a frightened rabbit trying to evade a hungry fox. Had I been able to see what the future held for us, I might have willingly played the role of a hare that warm June day.

        The marriage got off to a rocky start and it never really found smooth ground. Neither Susan nor I were actually happy with our choice of partners. She saw me as demanding, bossy, controlling, unbending, and a cheapskate (just to mention a few highlights). I saw her as scatterbrained, financially irresponsible, helpless, and manipulative— like a little girl needing a Daddy. Both of us were naive, innocent, and inexperienced in the matters of sex, sensuality, and intimacy. Instead of drawing us closer and helping to create a bond between us, our deficiencies created an ever-enlarging wedge between us.

        In 1966 most sailors were males and they tended to follow the roles of their fathers. They held a universal concept of women’s roles in men’s lives, maintained agreements (spoken and unspoken) on the need for personal space, and subscribed to a ‘no hugging’ dictate. After a while I’d experienced a lifetime dose of the ‘don’t be a wimp’ male energy and caveman club-swinging mentality. In the almost nine years that I spent in the military, only once did another man hug me. It happened spontaneously. Following the orders of a warrant officer without hesitation or question, I had crawled under a 3-ton chain hoist attached to a missile that had become jammed on its upward journey out of a flooding magazine. I managed to free the weapon and was in the process of crawling out from under the hoist when the operator put the mechanism in motion. Much to his horror he caused it to go backward instead of forward. Normally, this would have resulted in the device hitting a mechanical stop and coming to rest. In this instance, the stop was missing, which allowed the rear drive wheels of the hoist to roll off the rails, and the back to drop and swing forward. I was in the process of standing up and still underneath the front end of the hoist when the accident occurred. The subsequent noise and the startled looks on the faces of the men present made me jump forward just as the warrant officer, the senior officer on the scene, grabbed me in his arms and pulled me to his chest— clear of the danger. I was as startled by this action as I was disturbed by the mechanical failure. I was angry with the operator who had not waited for me to be clear of the unit. The officer paused only momentarily, and then with apparent embarrassment, apologized for his action— explaining it away as his worry over having to do, “A lot of paperwork,” if he had let me die.

        Few years in the history of the USA would be as full of political and military upheavals as 1968. Anti-war protests shattered the nation’s peace like never before. In March, the My Lai Massacre took place and President Johnson (who felt that he had been maligned by the press long enough) announced that he would not seek reelection. In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated. May marked the start of the Paris peace talks. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June. August was the month of the Democratic convention, which was held in Chicago where police and demonstrators clashed. The nation’s shame and detriment of the situation were overshadowed by the election of Richard Milhouse Nixon in November.

        After my two year tour was completed on the Norton Sound, I received the promised orders to FT-B School, Great lakes, Illinois: the very same place I’d been to boot camp and two phases of ‘A’ school. It was here, in the navy hospital, that Christine Elizabeth was born behind closed doors. The navy did not believe that fathers should be present during labor or birth or even for any length of time after the birth occurred. The navy wasn’t big on family dynamics back then.

        From The Bluejackets’ Manual:
                “Class B. – At the “B” schools are taught the advanced technical
                knowledges [sic] and skills needed to prepare for certain
                rates in the higher pay grades, up to and including E-7.
                About 30 different ratings are covered through Class B schools.”

        “B” school followed the “A and C” school formats with one interesting twist: all the students (U.S. Navy) came from the fleet. As “A and C” school students we had all reported for school directly from boot camp and did not know what the navy was really like. “B” school students had served on ships of war or war support vessels and this service had provided each of us real-life navy experiences. A surprise for us returning students was that we shared the classroom with three foreign students: two German enlisted men and one officer (whose nationality I do not recall). The German sailors were the best of their country’s navy. They were smart, funny and proved they could hold more beer than any of their classmates.

        It would not be until 1975, when I applied for a health card in Arizona, that I would find out that, along with their laughs and love for partying, these healthy young men had brought tuberculosis to our class.

        In 1969 I graduated ‘B’ school and received orders to report to the USS Horne DLG-30, home base San Diego, California. Reporting aboard, I saw the ship’s official emblem for the first time. A few weeks later, while standing watch on the quarter deck, I asked one of the younger officers what “L’audace, toujours L’audace” meant. “I’m not much up on my Latin these days…. I think it can be roughly translated as ‘Audacity, always audacity.’ I guess that means to shoot first and ask questions later.”

        “Is that why we’re told to always fire a warning shot— even if it’s the second or third one fired?” I asked. This was in reference to the word that armed sentries were given regarding dealing with a potential security threat. There had been some anti-war demonstrations, bomb threats, and confrontations between the activists and servicemen as military installations came under more frequent attack.

        “No, that comes under the CYOA (cover your own ass) category. Besides, that’s not a standing order- only an unofficial suggestion.”

        While President Nixon was approving secret bombings of Cambodia, massive antiwar demonstrations were sweeping our country. Nothing had divided our nation like this since the civil war. Vietnam was taking its toll on the military and its servicemen. The navy was extremely shorthanded, and each month the need for ships and sailors increased. One approach the navy would use was to decrease the number of sailors per ship and to require ships to deploy longer and more frequently. In order to fill the demand for cannon fodder, the draft boards employed an unwritten agenda that focused on the poor of the nation. In particular, blacks and any young man who could be brought before a judge and charged with a real or imaginary breach of the law were targeted. These unfortunates were given the choice of jail or the military.

        When I reported aboard the Horne, the ship was in the middle of, what the navy called, a manpower redistribution. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself the senior white-hat in charge of FE Division. FE Div normally consisted of Gunner’s Mates (GMM’s) whose responsibility was strictly to maintain, service, operate, and repair the dual arm Terrier Guided Missile Launcher located on the forecastle.

        The next surprise I was handed came in the form of five deck seamen. They were assigned to FE Div with the idea that they would have supervision in the performance of their deck duties: cleaning, painting, and maintaining the entire forecastle. Some (but not all) were high school graduates; none were what one could describe as worldly. Some were dependable, some didn’t have a clue, some were willing to work, and some were lazy as a three-legged hound dog. They, and I, had a lot to learn before our January 1970 WestPac deployment.

        WestPac, short for Western Pacific, meant a Gulf of Tonkin cruise in navy speak: Vietnam to the more thoroughly initiated. Finally I was going to get to see some of the world, and get to find out if the navy was all it had been advertised to be in the school training films. I hated to leave Susan and Christine, now a one-year old, but I felt an excitement throughout my entire being. This was what I’d been trained and educated for, for the past five years. Life was finally happening. I was ready to go, I wanted to go. I couldn’t wait.

        To add to the excitement of deployment, I was being advanced to an E-6 rank in February. I’d passed the BMR (basic military requirements test) and the FTM-1 (Fire Control Technician Missiles First Class) Rating test given navy-wide in August. It had taken me just under five years to reach E-6, an exemplary timeframe for advancement. It also meant more pay per month.

        The excitement of standing out to sea on a US ship of the line is hard to describe. Sea smells, sea birds wheeling and screeching overhead, orders passed over the 1MC (the ship’s loudspeaker system), and the anxious looks and babble of the crew all added up to a feeling of great tension. Who could tell what we’d see and experience in the coming months? Once at sea our lives were scheduled around daily work, continuous watches (assigned work stations and duties that trumped the daily work), tests of all operating systems, drills for combat readiness, and fire and water-tight integrity.

        Our route was San Diego to Hawaii, then on to Subic Bay in the Philippines. Pubic Bay, as the sailors usually referred to it, was either loved or hated. You just couldn’t be ambivalent about it. It consisted, if one believed the rumors, of over 500 bars and 3500 prostitutes. I saw around six restaurants and about the same number of hotels.

        Small, brown-skinned people cluttered the sidewalks, some squatting over hibachis as they cooked thin square pieces of meat, which they claimed, came from monkeys. It didn’t taste like any red meat I’d ever eaten, and it certainly was not chicken, but I liked it. One peso (about seventeen cents U.S.) would get you from three to six punji sticks of the meat depending on how adept you were at bartering with the seller. Punji sticks were bamboo slivers like those used in Vietnam as weapons, placed where soldiers were forced to walk, wade, or seek cover. The sticks would spear the soldier causing pain, discomfort, and frequently, infection.

        Subic Bay was my first experience in a foreign city. I was overcome with the all-pervasive odors and fragrances hanging in the air: foods, spices, human and animal excrement, body odors, perfumes, sex, fear and anger all kept the air pulsing and moving like a wave of energy cresting at the flash point. Sailors, in all degrees of drunkenness strolled, staggered and dashed from bar to bar, street vendor to shop, girl to girl. Pickpockets plied their trade on the less vigilant, vendors stole money right out of the hand of the green ‘white hat,’ armed Philippine security men roamed the streets, and money changers willingly took US dollars and returned Philippine Pesos. Music, laughter, yelling, swearing, and screaming all assailed one’s ears and being. It was all very exciting, very vivid, and very much alive.

        The Horne anchored in Da Nang Harbor, Republic of Vietnam for briefings on 5 February 1970 before resuming her transit to the Gulf of Tonkin where she relieved USS Sterett (DLG 31) as Strike Support/Search and Rescue ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. This signaled the beginning of five months of grueling hard work. Navy rules and operating orders required the instigation of Condition III watches. These are a formal condition of ship readiness brought about by having a certain percentage of the ship’s personnel at their assigned work and battle stations 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Condition III is also a battle ready (physical) condition for the ship. Certain hatches (navy doors) must remain closed at all times, topside lights must be extinguished as sunset nears, smoking is permitted in only approved areas, and many more issues that all made shipboard life unpleasant for the crew. Helicopter operations, and underway refueling and rearming, kept the crew busy during this and two line periods to follow in the Gulf. Our ship settled into a routine (a line period) of spending 30-days cruising around in an elongated circle in the Gulf of Tonkin, then heading for a port where we’d be granted a few days of liberty. Once in port the prime focus for much of the crew was on drinking, closely followed by patronizing the prostitutes.

        Horne's first line period (5 February - 8 March) was distinguished by two successful rescue missions. On 10 February during night refueling, the ship assisted in the recovery of a man overboard from USS Platte (AO 24). After initiating emergency breakaway procedures, Horne launched a rescue helicopter and recovered Seaman Nathan Hill in excellent condition. On 23 February, Horne helicopter crews rescued two F-4 Phantom crew members who had ejected from their fuel-starved aircraft. The two Combat Air Patrol aviators spent only fifteen minutes in the water.

        Subic Bay was the main port for our liberties, but we also visited Hong Kong and Yokosuka, Japan once each. The highlight of Hong Kong was the fantastic and inexpensive food. Leo T. Hamilton, the leading second-class Gunners’ mate in the missile house, and I shared an unforgettable meal one evening in the Diamond Horseshoe restaurant: chateaubriand, Caesar’s salad with raw egg prepared at our table, a platter of fresh vegetables, baked potatoes, California wine, flaming Baked Alaska, brandy, coffee and probably more that I’ve forgotten. When the waiter delivered our bill he apologized profusely for having been required to add a 15% gratuity to it. After we had made the HK to US dollar conversion we discovered we had spent a total of eight American dollars.

        While we were in the Gulf of Tonkin, cruising in those long ovals, my division stood our watches in the missile house. The 24-hour day was broken into five segments: four 5-hour and one 4-hour. At all times there were at least two men in the house ready to load the two missiles hanging on the rails that would deliver them up and onto the missile launcher arms topside. The launcher was located on the forecastle of the ship, directly above the missile house, and would be slaved to a fire-control radar if an enemy aircraft was detected. When an enemy plane was discovered, the weapons center would announce a “missile alert” over the 1MC and each man in our division would immediately dash to our missile alert stations in preparation for a launch.

        Three storage rings, holding twenty missiles each, lay beneath the missile house and held enough nuclear missiles to erase a number of small countries from the world map.

        Days consisted of work and watches. Work was 0700 to 1630, six days a week. Watches revolved around work hours and took precedence over them. Boredom lay heavy on many of the crew and I was no different from most. When work and watch did not call, and when there were no takers for a poker game, I wrote letters. Infrequently, I even tried to express my loneliness and my sadness at a poor marriage in poetry. The results of this endeavor were sophomoric, almost laughable, and need not ever see the light of day.

Susan, Christine and Tom
in Vallejo, CA 1970

        The 1970 USS Horne WestPac cruise lasted six months. I returned home to an unhappy wife and an 18-month old daughter who almost did not know me. The day the ship docked in San Diego I had duty and was required to stay aboard. Susan and Christine joined me aboard ship for a while for a subdued reunion. This was the day men first set foot on the moon.

        Within four months I received new orders that sent me to the US Naval Schools Command, Mare Island, Vallejo, California where I would be taught the “…operation, maintenance, and repair of the AN/SPG-55A Fire Control Radar.” This was another ‘C’ school and came as a retraining step for me since ‘test equipment technician’ (my current position) was being phased out of the navy.

        As the year drew to a close, the country was in upheaval over the shooting of anti-war demonstrators on the Kent State campus by the National Guard.

        August 1971 saw me reporting to the USS Long Beach, CGN-9, a nuclear powered, nuclear weapon-capable cruiser. I had researched this ship and knew when I first saluted myself aboard that she was the third navy ship to carry this name. Furthermore, she was the first nuclear-powered surface ship in the world. In a leap of faith or a lack of understanding of the reality of war, the navy had designed and built her with only missile batteries as defensive weapons. I believe it was President John F. Kennedy who signed orders to have gun mounts placed on her as a refitting action.

        With beautiful teakwood decks (the last to ever grace a ship of war) and the highest ship’s bridge in the world, at 721 feet in length and 23 feet wide, she was impressive to see.

        In 1971, while on my second WestPac cruise the New York Times published a portion of what would become known as ‘the Pentagon Papers.’ Quickly bowing to a threat by the justice department, the Times changed direction. It took five days for the Washington Post to obtain a copy of the document and go to press. When the justice department ordered the Post to cease and desist, Ben Bradlee, Executive Editor of the Times, and Katherine Graham, the owner, decided to fight the injunction. They were quickly charged with espionage and had to fight their way through the courts clear up to the highest one in the land. They won every decision. At no time was a threat to national security ever found. I believe this is an example of one of the bravest stands ever taken by US citizens in our country’s history.

        I was destined to make two WestPac cruises on the Long Beach. During the second one in 1973, inept burglars were caught sneaking into rooms of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.. As the scenario unfolded, and the Post reported their findings for all the world to read, President Nixon started a war against the Post and its investigation. Once again, Bradlee and Graham stood up to the powers in the White House.

        As this abuse of executive power was being revealed, my wife, Susan, decided she wanted a divorce. Just after we had sailed she sent a short letter informing me of her decision. As the Long Beach was departing Hawaii I received Susan’s letter and I immediately wrote to her asking that she do nothing until I returned and we had a chance to talk it out. The letter grew dust in the ship’s post office until we reached Subic Bay and could start it’s way back to the states. More than a month later Susan wrote that she was willing to agree to my request but had found time, with the help of a friend, to draw up a do-it-yourself divorce package. Not knowing about the divorce packet for a few weeks allowed me a small glimmer of hope for salvaging our marriage. After the announcement of a ‘packet’ arrived, there was little chance of my having a happy cruise and certainly no reason to expect a warm homecoming.

        It would be unfair to say I could not see it coming. Susan and my cousin Roger had formed more than a close friendship prior to the ship’s departure. Roger, also stationed aboard the Long Beach had, in my mind, implied that he was a friend to me. I thought we had a friendship— one independent of Susan. I would be proven sadly wrong about this in the months and years to come.

        The Long Beach returned to homeport in September of that year and the following three months were, by all definitions and standards, the lowest of my life. By early November, Susan had moved out of our navy housing and into a place she and Christine would share with Roger. I remember being so very much at odds with my feelings and emotions. I was angry (at Susan and Roger) and embarrassed (at being the first in our family— since Dad— to get a divorce). I felt relief (at being free of an unhappy marriage), loneliness (I was three thousand miles from home, family and friends), and insecurity (having my discharge date approaching and knowing in my heart that I could not face reenlisting, and having no plan for life after the navy).

        The hindsight of coming years would bring my ability to see some of the positive gifts Susan had bestowed on me in her parting. She was the one who discovered A.S. Neill’s concept of a ‘Free School,’ Summerhill, Jack and Liz Prohaska, and the Long Beach Unitarian Universalist Church— all of which she freely introduced me to. At the time I did not recognize the potential of these gifts but in the coming weeks, months, and years I would embrace the concepts, the people, and the non-dogmatic religion with enthusiasm almost bordering on fervor.

FTM-1 Irons aboard the
USS Long Beach CGN-9 1973

        When Susan left me for Roger, the anger and betrayal I felt was tremendous and the inability to stop her was overwhelming. Try as I might, I could not see how I could afford to pay for her lawyer, my lawyer, child support, and alimony and still support myself. She made it clear I could accept her offer or we could let the courts decide the issue of money and custody. Regardless of what I chose, I would pay.

        In 1973, in California there were no precedents that I knew of where a newly discharged dad had received custody of his child. I did know that much had been written about how an angry and acrimonious divorce always left children shattered and unhappy. With these parameters in my mind, I decided to simply step aside and let Susan have everything she asked for.

        During those dark and depressing weeks prior to my discharge, I somehow came to realize that I had to focus my attention on taking one day, one issue, at a time. I formed a plan of action. I sought out older, wiser men aboard ship whom I respected and asked them how to look for a job, write a resume, and approach a job interview. The week before I was to be discharged, I saw ads in the Sunday newspaper for IMB and TRW.

BACK                      NEXT