A Magic Place: For Sam

i had written the real “Climbing My Mountain” last night. i decided it was too deep, too dark, too me to put it out there, at least for now and a long time forward. i also noticed i was writing way too much about me, the old man. i get maudlin, sappy, or worse, angry. It ain’t really me. It’s just me groveling around in my dark recesses, especially during what i might consider dark times.

But i can choose. Dark or light. Good vibes or bad. i choose light and good vibes. It’s just sometimes it takes me a while to get there. When younger with the world and success and worry about being secure when i got old pressing on me, dark was often with me, a driver to get moving. But i am at the older stage now, and secure. Maybe not as secure as i would like to be, but old enough to realize i can handle it, regardless of what happens for the rest of this crazy, insane, beautiful (at least, to me) life of mine. So i wrote this for Sam, an adjunct to the autobiography i’m writing only for him, which i am likely to never finish since i started not quite two years ago and thus far have reached the end of grammar school (Bet they don’t call it that now). Sam, this is for you.

This morning, i took a shower after a run and walk, which would have embarrassed me ten years ago. Automatically, i reach for the third hand towel, a rag essentially, to do the deed i detest, the dictate from my bride of thirty-four years: squeegee the shower when you are finished. For forty years, i never squeegeed a shower. Until Maureen and i moved into our first home together. Been squeegeeing ever since.

As i was squeegeeing (that’s one hell of a word isn’t it: “squeegeeing”?), my age sort of hit me in the face again, thinking, of all things, about squeegeeing. i thought about my pre-squeegeeing days, and considered what folks nowadays might think of me now and back then.

My daughters and my son-in-law probably consider me old and eccentric, nice old man but a little screwy and not necessarily someone they should heed. i’m a little batty they might say. Of course, they are correct on that count. My grandson Sam would think i’m prehistoric. If i’m lucky, he might think i came from a magic place far, far away and a long, long time ago.

i did.

i came from a place where i was isolated from the world going bad. You said, “Please,” “Thank you,” “i’m sorry.” And you better have meant what you said or retribution would swiftly follow, like in my case a pinch somewhere it hurt.”

My magic place was for children, only we didn’t know it. After all, we were told, “Children should be seen and not heard.” And if we talked loudly or silly in public, we would disappear with a parent into some corner. Rear end whelps were the usual result. Now, the parents say, “Isn’t that cute?”

But we had freedom. So did our parents in many ways. i often wondered what the hell locks were for. We never locked our cars, never. We never locked our homes either, except my father would lock the doors before he went to bed and unlock them when he arose. That’s it.

We played. Boy, did we play. Outside. All the time except for school. In the summer and during Christmas vacation (we actually called it that: “Christmas Vacation.” It sounds sort of right. i mean that’s what we had it for; and i’m pretty damn sure it wasn’t a government holiday; just the schools shut down for a couple of weeks, sort of like they did it because it was the right thing to do; the grownups and their businesses just kept on truckin’ right up through Christmas Eve. In fact, i don’t think there were any Christmas ads or stores stocking Christmas gifts and decorations until after Thanksgiving. We wrote our letters to Santa, and he magically showed up, left our presents requested, ate the cookie and drank the boiled custard we gave him, and somehow got that sleigh filled with more than a semi trailer could hold off the roof courtesy of eight tiny (but very strong) reindeer without us ever seeing him regardless of how hard we tried to stay up and catch him.

Anyway, during those winter two weeks and three months of summer, we woke, ate breakfast as a family, and were outside in about ten minutes. We did have to dress , have our morning constitutionals although we didn’t know what a constitutional was until later, much later, wash our faces, and, of course, brush our teeth. Ten minutes. Tops.

Then, after being admonished in the winter to put on our coats and hats, which we did dutifully, and not go too far (some undefinable limit only a parent would know) in the summer, we were outside to play. Until dinner (in the South, i’m not sure i used the term lunch except for school. After all, i had a lunch box). That was maybe a half-hour ordeal (unless of course dinner was a peanut butter and jelly or banana sandwich: then it wasn’t an ordeal), we were back outside until, yep, you guessed it, supper (“dinner” was midday except for highfaluting folks or Yankees) . In the summer, we were back at it after we washed and dried the dishes. Outside. The hell with the mosquitoes. We were catching those lightning bugs (some misguided souls called them fireflies) and putting them in a mason jar with holes punched in the lid with Mother’s icepick.

Also in the summer, we wore the minimum. Boys: underwear and shorts. Girls: underwear, shorts, and a halter top. That’s it. The hell with bee stings on the feet. In fact, bee stings were damn near an initiation requirement.

We would put blankets in the shade underneath the front yard Chinese maple, our rendezvous place. But we were seldom in the shade. Tan was good. i don’t think i ever saw sunscreen other than an umbrella for old ladies until i was about…oh say, forty. Oh, women had tanning lotion. Baby oil and other concoctions to get a deeper tan. But not for us, even at the swimming pool.

And then we were gone. All over the neighborhood. Almost every home had one to five kids. Those that didn’t were considered weird, a place to avoid. We roamed.

We had a hole in the back fence where we could go play with the kids on Pennsylvania Annex and was later the shortcut for us and almost every kid within five miles. We could run through the sheets and laundry hung out to dry because we didn’t have a dryer.

But we better not get caught. If we did, we would be ordered inside, where Mother would pull down that well-worn paddle originally with a ball and rubber band attached by a staple, and we would get it. That, of course, was for minor infractions. For the big ones, like not coming home for one of those aforementioned meals or being late for bedtime, could be serious. And telling a whopper, or hitting someone who didn’t deserve it, well, that meant the old paddle was used to an extensive extent, and then, even worse, we were told in a menacing tone to wait until Daddy got home. A fate worse than death. And when he got home, he would sit down on a chair and direct me to go find a “good” switch on a bush outside and bring it in. And i would fetch the smallest twig i could find i thought might pass muster, and it wouldn’t. So Daddy would get angry when he had just been only severe, and tell me to get another one, and i learned (after about four or five of these experiences: i was a slow learner) to get a proper “switch.” Because if i didn’t, he would get angrier, and pull off his belt. Regardless, sometime after this hopeless negotiation on my part, i would be brought to bending over his knees after my pants or shorts had been lowered to a most embarrassing position, and my father, in what is a most accurate description of what happened, “wear me out.”

i am still amazed that when they said i was getting this diabolical punishment because they loved me i believed them completely. Still do. i was not so much in belief when they would often note it was going to hurt them more than it hurt me. Now that i’m older, i understand a little bit, but i still ain’t buying it.

And in June, we would catch June bugs. Of course. And we would tie a string around the June bugs leg and let it fly around our heads in never-ending circles. And we never even considered it might be cruel from the June bug’s perspective.

And we ate watermelon long before some agronomist or some such figured out how to make them “seedless.” Man, slobbering through a wedge of watermelon and spitting the seeds out was part of the joy and deliciousness of eating watermelon. Outside only.

But that was topped by homemade peach ice cream. The folks would invite all the kin over and dig the old wooden bucket with a crank handle on top out of some recess in the basement and bring it outside. Then they would put the canister filled with the magic elixir into the bucket filled with ice then surround it with dry ice and then cover all but the crank with blankets and we (one to three of the children, aka me) would crank the crank until we couldn’t crank anymore and one of the menfolk would take over until the ice cream in the canister was…well, ice cream. We would pull out bowls right there in the back yard and some expert would extract the ice cream from the canister into the bowls and the grownups would sit in the lawn chairs and the children would sit on the grass ingesting the best tasting stuff in the world, homemade peach ice cream.Consumed. Right there. On the spot. All of it. Gone. It was a mess to clean up but worth it.

We would walk to school and back by ourselves every day unless it rained or snowed when mother (Daddy was long gone to work before we left for school) would take us in the car. In the afternoons, we usually would congregate into a herd of first to six graders and walk together with young’uns peeling off when we reached their homes on the route.

At school recess (two a day, mid-morning, mid-afternoon to swing on swings and take them to the sky because you were a sissy if you didn’t get them parallel to the ground where they would slack and slam you back as you returned on the never ending arc,  or propelling the old metal merry-go-round to what we considered the speed of sound or just under the limit (most of the time) to a speed where we could jump on the bed without holding on to the handle and propelling ourselves out with possible grievous injury to ourselves and all nearby, or playing kickball on the diamond made a diamond by the constant running around the paths to bases formed from articles of clothing or softball at the diamond on the end of the playground which had a tree behind the backstop where someone — i don’t think it was actually him, for it was from relatively new knife cuts and he had died at the Alamo about six score years before i saw and worshipped the carving as a religious icon — had carved a terse, scrawling note: “D. Crockett, kilt a bear under this tree, March 1810.”

Walking home and especially at the above school recess, there was some things going on which today would be cause for twenty years behind bars or exorcism or public degradation, or some media outlet calling you out as despicable. There were fights, at least among the boys, and there was bullying and the bully got his upstart from the kids, like “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt you” or “i’m gonna tell,” which was something akin to a death knell if you were a kid. Snitchers were the lowest form pre-prepubescent munchkins. The remarkable thing was we fixed it ourselves.

In fact, the whole town, this magic place, fixed themselves. Except for Doc Lowe (and others) of course. We would go in to the hospital, a whopping mile and a half all the way across town, and Charles T. Lowe, MD, would check me out, or we would go to his house two blocks away, or he would come over to ours with his little black leather bag and check me out. Nearly always, he would pat me on the head, have me pull down my britches (does anyone call them “britches” anymore? and if so, do they know what it means?) and lean over his knee (fearfully reminiscent those moments where my father would say “this hurts me more than you.”) and stick what i believed to be a footlong needle into my backside and shoot the juice they called penicillin into the most tender muscles of my poor but valiant rear end. i don’t recall any specialists, although they could have been hiding somewhere. All illness and varying damages due to child collisions: one doc. Brought me into this world, saw me through childhood, a most difficult task, taking out my tonsils at six and then ten. Yes, twice. Meant i got ice cream twice. But that either was awful smelling. It was a toss-up.

And i don’t remember counselors. Of any type. They may have been there, and probably were abundant in Nashville, but not in Lebanon, thirty miles and about 123 farms down the road east.

And decisions about school extracurricular activities? There were three sports. Football, basketball, and baseball. That’s it. Except up at Castle Heights where they were way more sophisticated and offered a panoply of athletic pursuits. But by that time, my other religious experience besides church on good Sundays was the other blessed trinity: Football in the fall. Basketball in the winter. Baseball in the spring and summer. Fall, it all began again.

And when it rained, we played with wood scraps, from Uncle Snook’s work as a builder with his brother Ben, on the small screened in back porch or we played canasta until infinity with the old RCA Victrola record player blaring 78 RPM records such as Dennis  Day singing for Disney and relating the story of “Johnny Appleseed” or Phil Harris singing “That’s What I Like About the South” over and over and over.

And i would walk down West Main to the library into the old stately house turned book haven and wander through the shelves and pick out books, mostly about American heroes painted with a halo, because none did wrong in these books, and i would read two or three in a week and walk back down West Main and turn them in before they were overdue, of which the date for that terrible deed occurring stamped on the card in the small folder glued to the back of the cover, and if i failed and had to pay a penny for each day i sinned, out would come Mother’s wood paddle off the refrigerator one more time.

Then in 1952 came television when Roberta Padgett invited me across the field after school  so we could watch on her brand new twelve-inch screen black and white television, the latest thing. After Kate Smith sang “America, the Beautiful,” we could watch “Howdy Doody” and Ruffin Ready introduced Roy or Gene in their oater of the day. All before i would be sent home for supper.

And low and behold in 1954, an earthquake occurred at 127 Castle Heights Avenue when our father brought home our own television. It sat in a place of glory in the corner of living room next to the interior hall. The focus of the room changed and we would sit or lie on the floor, the latter with our chins resting on our hands while we could watch magic. In addition to the addictions i had acquired at Roberta’s, we would watch Milton Berle in “The Texaco Hour,” “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour,” “Red Skeleton,” and “Martha Raye.” Saturday mornings were child heaven with the “Sealtest Big Top,” the “Andy’s Show” hosted by Andy Devine and his squeaky voice with Froggy and Midnight and Buster Brown and his dog, Tige, who lived in a shoe, both of them, and then “Little Beaver,” “Red Ryder,” and “Sky King,” and “Lassie.” And we were, we undoubtedly knew, in heaven.

Magic place.

And they kept me away all that other bad stuff. Jim Crow, the segregatrion from other people with darker skins besides a babysitter, housekeeper named Vicey  Shavers, and the garbage man named Jake Hughes who came every Tuesday and parked his wagon with truck tires for wheels, reeking with smell, and pulled by his old mule, and he would walk to the back of the house and pick up the tin garbage can and tote it to the wagon, and hoist it up and empty the contents into the aromatic wagon bed, and return the can to its rightful place in the backyard far enough away so the aroma before next Tuesday would not waft into the house because we didn’t have air conditioning and the windows were open in the summer. And Jake, wonderful soul that he was, amassed a small fortune i am told. Good for him.

My magic place was isolated. It had a dark side i never really saw, and it was “Brigadoon,” only an ocean and a state and old bunch of world and time removed.

It was magic.

It was home, the likes of which i don’t think we will ever see again.

Climbing My Mountain

There is this need i have to explain myself when i write something. i don’t know why, but i’m pretty sure it all goes back to my second semester freshman English class at Vanderbilt in 1963.

Our “professor” was a graduate student. Fortunately for both of us, i don’t remember her name. She was not very pretty, which should have no bearing on her competence. That did not disturb me. She appeared very academic until i noticed she wore pads to catch sweat (i guess) under her armpits. Sadly, she still emitted a bearable but unpleasant aroma around her desk.

Again, that did not bother me or affect my estimate of her as a professor in any way. But the two of us encountered a problem between the two of us. Being she was the professor, the problem was mine. But i didn’t recognize the problem as mine. Come to think of it, i still don’t.

Our textbook was one of the best. Later, i bought a copy in order to refer to it when i needed some guidance on poetry. The textbook is Understanding Poetry  by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. It can make your head spin with poetry, criticism, guidance, and knowledge, although granted it didn’t take a lot to make my head spin back in those days.

My professor believed in that book. i think she memorized it. So about three weeks into the course, we had a quiz. The quiz paper had a poem at the beginning. My challenge was to find the symbolism in the poem and justify my answer. Fortunately again — for i might reread it now and find out the professor was correct — i do not remember the name of the poem.

Ahh, the problem. The problem was i really liked the poem the way it was. i loved the lilt of the verse, the rhyme pattern, the pleasure of the thought i experienced while i read. i was taken in or aback by the beauty of the poem. i saw no need to try and interpret what the poet had written or believe he or she had some other meaning deeply hidden in the words. Those words, i thought, stood just fine all by themselves, just the way they were. Also, i wasn’t really all that into symbolism since i had been out drinking and never read the applicable assignments where Cleanth and Robert Penn explained such things.

The real problem came when i had the temerity to suggest such a dastardly idea there was no need for symbolism in such a beautiful poem. My beautifully written answer the professor apparently found abhorrent.

i flunked the test.

i also did such brazen things as have a contest with my fraternity brothers (no pledge hazing involved; this idea came from my pledge buddies, myself included). We went to our various classes that early spring day to see who could sit through an hour class — labs were excluded because there might have been an opportunity to spit into some lab sink or worse — without spitting out our wad of tobacco. i made it through the class without spitting. After all, i had become somewhat of a tobacco chewing virtuoso while playing baseball or softball almost every day of every spring and summer in high school. However, i’m sure it was not very attractive, and although i don’t remember the professor asking me any questions, i’m sure either a: i refused to answer, or b: if i did answer it was a very ugly scene — i honestly do not remember; after all this was fifty-three years ago. Regardless, the ensuing ugliness of my retching on the campus lawn immediately afterwards negated my success at making it through the class without spitting tobacco.

Somehow, i miraculously got a “C” in the course, one of the very few as damn near every grade i got was a “D,” that despicable ignominious category like limbo, meaning i didn’t fail but i was a pretty worthless student in that class.

i have always regretted not getting a degree at Vanderbilt although i am completely convinced the knowledge i attained pursuing my English BA at Middle Tennessee was equal if not superior to what i would have achieved at Vandy. You see, i had heeded the wise caution of my mother and the officers at the Vanderbilt NROTC unit and changed my major from English in the Arts and Science college and declared for a civil engineering degree about a month before matriculation. Bad move.

i have sought to remedy that lack of degree thing several times. When i was required to go to shore duty, i requested NROTC duty at Vanderbilt or Texas A&M, thinking i could get a master’s in my off hours. With a marriage headed south, i opted for A&M with the reasoning my soon to be ex, whose father was an Aggie, would be close to home if things didn’t work out. They worked out all right and it was a good choice. She got her degree from A&M and stayed in Texas. So my plan for a Vandy degree was thwarted again.

Then after i completed my active duty of some twenty-two years, i began research on getting accepted to Vanderbilt for a master’s degree in English, which hopefully would allow me to teach at a junior college. After all, back then (and now for those of us who retired (sic) from the Navy, the pension required some more income come from somewhere. But alas, Vanderbilt had done away with an English/Literature masters and the graduate program only offered doctorates, an intense time consuming discipline, which i, now well north of sixty, was not ready to attempt. Thwart again.

But there was one last gasp of an attempt. While looking for that master’s opportunity, i discovered an elite Vandy program for a Master’s of Fine Arts in literature, either prose or poetry. i was all in. i worked diligently in assembling the required writing samples, the endorsements, the mass of forms required. For extra effort, i went back home and wandered into the office of the MFA program administrator in what we called “Old Science” building.

She did not appear happy to see me. Apparently, they frowned on extra effort and personal interaction. i left her office with my Vandy degree in the hands of fate.

Fate told me to eat it.

Vandy accepted younger applicants with more academic achievements i’m sure. After all, my academic achievements really didn’t amount to squat.

And after reflecting on my ill advised journey into the administrator’s office, i realized while in her office, i smelled a strange but familiar odor from long ago near where we sat. No. It couldn’t be. She was  way too young. But i had not checked for arm pit pads.

You see, the above, in my ubiquitous green italic font, was to be a short lead in to a post i’m working on. Then it took on a life of its own and has nothing to do with “Climbing My Mountain.”

Oh well.

Random Thoughts on a Labor Day Morning

It is later than usual for me to arise and write random thoughts. 5:45 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time. Then, by the time i grind the coffee and start the coffee maker, set the table, put up last night’s dishes, feed the cats, have our always breakfast with the newspaper, folding and stowing away the clothes Maureen washed yesterday (and put in front of my family room chair to uncompromisingly hint i had a job to do), it was mid-morning, long after i wrote the first words of random thoughts. But i always return and sit down to this damnable screen with keyboard i can’t escape. Screw with it way, way too much. It is becoming me, or at least an essential part of me. Maybe it always has been since i started banging on those keys on the old Royal on that worn desk in “The Cavalier” room, at the back of Armstrong Hall, just before the circle, aka the bullring in front of Main at Castle Heights under the watchful and demanding eye of Coach Leftwich.

i’m no longer particularly good at it. Age has given me the okay to ignore correct grammar, punctuation, and sometimes, more often that not, coherent thought. i fooled myself for a long time my stories, my thoughts might serve the younger set as good and bad examples from which to learn. But i’m even older now and have learned in that oldness that the younger set doesn’t have time to listen to oldsters. It’s a different time, different ways, too busy thinking about fixing the world their way and my stuff is from a past time, no good, obsolescent information, if not obsolete.

Boy, that past time had a lot of problems. Lots and lots of problems, but i’m glad it was mine. i was protected, reared in a pasteurized environment where we didn’t lock our cars or our doors; we played outside; we got our images from books, oaters, cartoons, and our imaginations. We didn’t wear shoes, or shirts for that matter from May until September. Shorts. We wandered from neighbor’s yard to neighbor’s yard playing.  We walked to school. By ourselves. From first grade on. No kindergarten. And we got religion. Man did we get religion. Bathed, dressed up in our Sunday best, starched clothes and us, hair slicked back en route to a full day: 9:00 Sunday School, 11:00 Church Service, 12:30 dinner out or a big one at home of us or kin, later for the kids 5:00 MYF the same time the men’s chorus had supper and rehearsed, and 7:00 Evening service mostly gospels. It wasn’t the church in the wildwood, but man, it had that feel, had that feel.

And i learned, and i believed. Later, it sort of got away with me. i had some hell to raise, a world to conquer (didn’t), life to live, women to wed, silently crying inside with divorces, children to raise (even if one was from long distance), wars to fight, seas to sail, sports to cover, dreams to chase, people to meet, friends to make and keep. That religion thing all came back in a different fashion again, later. Oh, i wouldn’t be called a church goer, or much of anything else, but i believe. i don’t proselytize because i know even mine is a belief, not a fact, and i get tired of all of those folks trying to prove a belief. Ain’t happening. It’s enough to believe if your belief is good. You know, Jesus like. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Those without guilt throw the first stone (none should be thrown, but they are falling like hailstorms in a never-ending storm of hate and fear). Walk in the customer’s shoes, or something like that, but maybe that was what i learned in a leadership intervention i facilitated, which apparently is no longer in vogue with the corporate money-makers even though they wear it in their marketing like a hood ornament, but we know damn well it ain’t under that hood. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world (well, we pay it lip service, but i see the hate and the fear on all sides, protecting their own, throwing those rocks, spitting hate, meanness, small little people bent on being better by walking over all of those not like them, remembering the past as it wasn’t but what they want it to be to justify their hate.

But that place i started writing about. That place that taught me all that stuff. They protected me from seeing the underbelly. Oh, i knew. Somewhere, sometime, it dawned on me. i made some effort to be above it, be without a color line, even made some statements and behaviors that backed that up. Never, not even through today, understood it. My world taught me equality without observing it, taught me goodness with evil lurking like a imbecile child in the basement: Boo Radley, taught me responsibility without stepping up to the plate.

But no one’s heeding. That’s okay. i’ll just try to make some people, perhaps just those near my age feel good. And i will try to live a good life, do the right thing, ignore the smallness, try hard to be bigger in my thoughts. Play decent golf and not curse (well, maybe a little bit). This writing thing is there in me, deep inside, won’t let me go. Don’t wish to market or sell my wares on television, radio talk shows, but it would be nice to make a few bucks to pay for my golf and things for my wife, daughters, grandson, family, and friends. But it’s more important just to put it out there. Don’t know why.

*    *     *

i do have a worry. i don’t see much making things anymore, except paper money. i see the big shots and their offspring playing games, manipulating people, propagandizing for their causes. The masses marching, protesting, deriding all who do not fit their idea of equal, which isn’t equal at all. My daughter’s elementary school had it right with their slogan: “ICMM,” i can manage myself. Doesn’t seem like too many people deal with that: too busy fixing everybody else. After all, they know what’s wrong with the rest of the world, just not themselves or their causes.

*    *     *

Ahh, what a glorious weekend. Courtesy of Tick Bryan, i linked up to the Lebanon High School football game Friday night. Mount Juliet beat them handily, but watching took me back to damn near every Friday night from six or so until twenty-four. Blue Devils. Autumn. Me.

Saturday, Vanderbilt beat Middle Tennessee, but Middle Tennessee wasn’t embarrassed. Good, hard play on both sides of the ball. It’s always difficult, having gone to both schools. i was a Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Middle Tennessee football fan growing up. Listened to every game i could. Don’t think i saw a one on television until Vandy beat Auburn in the 1955 Gator Bowl, but had been in the stands for all three teams before i was 20. i wanted both the Commodores and the Blue Raiders to win. No tie. Turned out about as good as it could.

And delight of delights: The San Diego Padres swept a day-night double-header from the Dodgers, the team, like quite a few others, maybe all of them, attempting to buy a World Series, only with more money than most. Fans are awful. So are the Padre fans, but not quite as bad. Still it was sweet.

And Saturday, i went home. i went back to Tennessee in August. It was 97 here and humid, not dry like it’s supposed to be. All of my bragging about not needing air conditioning seemed a bit foolish. We were okay. We know how to cope. Being over the hill from the ocean gives us an edge with the sea breeze. But it was hot and humid. Like Tennessee. In August. When before AC there and then, Daddy had installed a large window fan in the upstairs hall window. That was it. i would lie in my jockey shorts at the end of the bed. No cover, no top sheet. Just me, my jockey shorts, curled at the foot of the bed where i was all in front of the double window to our room, maximizing what little air the fan pumped through the hall to out our window.

And yes, early season practice up the hill at Heights. Two-a-days. Heavy cotton jerseys over pads. High top cleats. Helmets. 95/95. Refusing water: hydration wasn’t a manly thing to do back then. But salt pills, that was good. 9:00 morning practice with a ten pound water loss; driving to Johnson’s Dairy at West Main and West End Heights where Walgren’s now sells drugs for a half-gallon of orange drink. Coming back to find the Carthage boys passing a jug of moonshine back and forth on the bunk beds. Afternoon practice. Same gear, same 95/95. Seemed longer. Sprints were a killer. Ten or more pounds gone again. Be back by next morning practice. And then, just like here in the Southwest corner, surprisingly, i could smell the rain on the wind. And it came. And it cooled down to what? 80? Still sliding in the mud of the practice field down Hill Street with the rain infusing its drops through every pore felt good, and we slowly trodding back up the hill to the locker room with mud-crusted uniforms, smelling to high heaven with sweat, and we laughed..

And yes, digging graves. 95/95. Work shoes and Levis. No shirt. Pick and shovel. Mr. Bill and Dub and me. Taking turns. Wiping brows. Tough work. Leaving on the dot. After all, Legion Ball or fast pitch softball (bad descriptor) down by that church at the Southern end of Baird Park where it seems i remember the preacher ran away with one of his younger parishioners. And catching in the gear and sweating until the uniform was soaked and at the end going out and finding Country Club Malt Liquor and drinking and smoking for the first time because i didn’t have football that fall and sitting on the side of a rock road, talking, laughing before starting it all again Monday digging graves. Hot and humid. Just like it was in the Southwest corner this past Saturday.

Good memories.

A Birthday for a Kin

There’s this kid…well, not really a kid anymore. In fact, he’s a grown man, my kin, nephew actually, but damn near a long distance son. He was a kid for a long time. Then, he grew up fast. Went from being a carefree bachelor to a wife and five children in less than four years. Speed record.

He knew what he wanted. He got it.

Intelligent young man, he is. My younger daughter is almost like his sister. They will have spent fifteen years of Christmases together come December.

i find it amusing he has become successful, albeit extremely busy, especially this time of year, in the business where i thought i would end up, sports journalism. He’s a good one. i send him books about Grantland Rice and Fred Russell, my heroes.

He has a wonderful wife, Abby. He has two stepdaughters. He treats them like actual daughters of his, and his parents treat those two like they are actually granddaughters of theirs. He and Abby had a beautiful young girl right after they married. They rounded out the group with two identical twin boys. Good thing they live on a farm, a farm on Signal Mountain, Walden actually. Good place for children.

He, like all of his cousins and his aunts and uncles and his momma and papa, has as special bond. His grandfather, Jimmy Jewell, and his grandmother, Estelle Jewell, in their home for seventy-five years naturally brought all of these folks, these kin together. Because he has this farm, he got a lot of the stuff his grandfather left behind. This man works with those tools like his grandfather did. Natural talent.

i’m proud, very proud of being Tommy Duff’s crazy uncle. Happy Birthday, Tommy. This morning, it occurred to me that not only am i proud of you, Grandma and Grandpa are proud of you also. i can see them laughing in happiness on your birthday.

And, if the truth be known, you are a lot like that ole man. i know. i’ve seen both of you operate. That’s also about the highest compliment i could give any male, being like him.

You, like him, are a good man. From where he and i come from, that puts you in high cotton.

Happy Birthday, Tommy.

Another Sea Story, totally politically incorrect

With all of the tragedy around us and the Navy collisions causing loss of 17 sailors and the fake news about a Navy ship hitting an office building in downtown Houston and my old Hawkins shipmate, Norm O’Neal sending me a joke about an airman in Thule, Greenland, i thought it was time to lighten up a bit. This sea story actually happened. And as i have claimed in the past with several posts, sometimes the “F” word is the only one that works. So beware.

Before I returned to active duty in 1972, the USS Stephen B. Luce (DLG 7) had completed overhaul in the Philadelphia Navy Shipyard. The officer i relieved, who shall remain anonymous for later obvious reasons, was showing off his Anti-Submarine Warfare spaces and equipment to his new bride and her parents who had come on board for a weekend lunch and the tour. The lieutenant escorted them to the bridge and showed the the Anti-Submarine Rocket (ASROC) launcher forward and below. Then he took them down to the third deck to Underwater Battery Plot and showed off the sonar and new computer-driven fire control system.

Finally, they walked out onto the 01 level weather deck on the starboard side. There was the Mark 32 torpedo tubes. Leaning up against the bulkhead was the second class torpedo man. He was dressed in the standard blue chambray work shirt with dungarees. His dixie cup, the sailor’s hat, was down on his nose, covering his eyes, almost as if he was asleep leaning against the bulkhead.

The ASW Officer proudly pointed to the torpedo tubes and boasted, “Evelyn, Mom and Dad, these are my torpedo tubes.

The second class petty officer stirred. With one finger, he pushed the bill of his dixie cup off of his eyes and quizzically looked at the ASW Officer.

“Beg your pardon, sir,” he said quietly, “Those are my fucking torpedo tubes.”

He was right, of course.

For Sam: A Story of Long Ago With Some Semblance of Truth

This is a story sort of wrapping up Willie Nod. i wrote it recently. i have sent it to my grandson already.

i haven’t found any more Willie Nod poems but expect i will run across some in some cranny of all the files i have. i intend to write some more. But i thought you might want know how Willie Nod ended up…at least temporarily.

i should stress this is the first draft and Sarah’s drawing is her first draft. As with all Willie Nod works, the writing is mine, copyright jim jewell 2017, and the drawings are Sarah’s, all copyright Sarah Jewell 2017.

For Sam: A Story of Long Ago With Some Semblance of Truth

Sam,

This is a story that began in my mind a long time ago after one of the most difficult times in my life and just before one of the most magical times in my life.

The hut in this story was real. In 1969, that hut was off of First Beach right behind the house where i rented the upstairs apartment. I think someone actually lived in it.

It was down the rocks from the back yard of my apartment, an old big house really, in Newport, Rhode Island.

A great deal of this is fiction, but it is based on actual places and things in my mind i still believe.

It was really just a hole dug a bit into the hard sand underneath the rocks someone had cleared around the hut’s front facing the beach. The roof was makeshift, made from corrugated tin sheet the builder apparently found somewhere. The rocky shore slanted toward the waters of Newport’s Easton Bay with First Beach to the right, or northward. The tin roof was almost unrecognizable as tin with seaweed and seagull droppings piled upon the roof and only the very front edge of the tin was visible, shakily held up by four by four timbers of ancient vintage. There was a chimney, a metal pipe sticking up near the front with a rain cap of tin beaten into an upside down vee. Old colored glass fishing floats and ramshackle, worn wooden lobster pots littered the rocks above and on the sides of the hut.

Jake Wilson noticed it right after he had rented the upstairs apartment in the large, run-downed old big house at the end of Tuckerman Avenue, which circumvented the point jutting out south into the Atlantic between First and Second beaches.

But Jake had rented the apartment because it was affordable, less expensive than the nicer apartments in Middletown and downtown Newport. He had stumbled onto this place and fallen in love with it.

The small porch off the bedroom’s apartment looked straight across the bay to “The Breakers,” Cornelius Vanderbilt, II’s famous summer mansion. The apartment living room was about twenty-five feet long and fifteen feet wide with an ornate fireplace at the north end. The fireplace inlaid, ornate tiles were hand painted. The rest of the apartment was cramped to say the least. The bedroom itself could barely hold the double-bed. The kitchen was the size of a narrow closet and the kitchen sink served double as the bathroom sink. The bathroom itself was just big enough to turn around amid the shower and the toilet.

However, the view of mansion row across the bay, the rocky shoreline, and the feeling of being next to the sea appealed to Jake. He would wake up in the morning and immediately walk out on the porch and take in the view. It mattered not to him if it was sunny, calm, cloudy, stormy with driving rain, hot or cold. In the evening on return from his ship, he would go directly to the porch and again survey his view from the beach where folks might still be digging for quahogs in the wet sand to the Cliff Walk where couples would be walking past sunset to the mansions down Ochre Point to Land’s End on Sheep’s Point, and of course, the ocean. Before he hit the rack in the evening, Jake once more would return to the port and take in the night lights.

It was three weeks before Jake noticed the hut. It was a warm autumn Saturday morning when he walked out onto his beloved porch with his cup of coffee after breakfast. He was testing the weather, thinking he might drag a chair out on the porch and read through the morning. The weather was just fine, dry, clear, warmer than usual for that time of year. Jake scanned the view he had come to love.

He then noticed the pipe chimney and beaten rain cap for the first time. He spied the lobster pots and glass floats before but assumed they were just debris or possibly jetsam that had floated ashore and up into the rocks at high tide. But seeing the chimney, Jake looked closer. He made out the roof. He wondered when the structure might have been built and why. He guessed it was a really old, abandoned place, maybe even once a playhouse for the children of previous residents when it was a home, not broken into apartments. Jake’s telephone rang inside. He went in to answer and forgot for the time being about the strange construction.

About a week later when the weather had turned cooler and sea winds were brittle and harsh, Jake walked out on the porch in his rain gear. He was a Navy officer and like to think of being on the open bridge of a ship in bad weather. As he was staring out at sea from his porch, he caught a flimsy trail of smoke out of the corner of his eye. When he turned to see the source of the smoke, he discovered it was coming from the pipe chimney of the hut. Someone was living there or at least was using it for a temporary shelter from the wind and the cold.

The next Sunday, he decided to check out the hut and figure out what was going on. The hut sat halfway up the shoreline’s rocky slope. The rocks were slippery, especially when wet. Just seeing the smoke wasn’t worth finding out more about the hut. It was just a relic, he thought, probably someone walking the beach and decided to take a break from the cold. It wasn’t worth the risk of falling to find out. But during the week, Jake stopped at The Tavern on Memorial Avenue for a beer after coming from the ship. He sat at the bar and began talking to a local sitting next to him. The guy told him about the rumors about the hut. He said a whole bunch of folks thought there was a ghost haunting the place. Others said they had seen a bedraggled old man wandering around the beaches and claimed he, whoever he was, lived in that hut. Now Jake wanted to know just exactly what was happening in that hut. He guessed it was most likely a homeless man who holed up in the shelter during bad weather. But he wanted to know for sure and decided he would risk scaling down those rocks to find out.

That Sunday, Jake finished his breakfast of sausage, eggs, and grits (he had found the grits and Tennessee sausage in a small grocery on Thames). He sat in the middle of the large living room with the Sunday edition of The New York Times spread across the floor. He pored over each section until the sun had warmed the autumn morning. When he had finished his reading and his coffee, he pulled on his sneakers, he went down the stairs and out the back entrance to the house, which was actually the front of the house because it faced the bay and not Tuckerman Avenue.

Jake carefully maneuvered down the slick rocks until he reached the side of the hut. “Halloo,” he yelled, “Anybody here?” When there was no answer, he shouted the same query again, only louder.

With no answer again, Jake slid further down and across the rocks to the front of the hut. The old, faded-white door, like it used to be an interior door, was ajar. Jake, inching closer carefully, peered inside. He could make out the “Ben Franklin” stove connected to the old pipe chimney. Further back in the hut was an old canvas cot with blankets and pillows piled high. Jake moved a little closer and saw an old wooden sea chest with brass bindings next to the cot.

Feeling a bit embarrassed like he was intruding into someone’s home, Jake climbed back up the rocks. Once back on the house lawn, he peered up and down the shoreline but saw no one. He gave up and went back to his apartment.

Jake continued to watch the hut closely at every opportunity. Several nights, he spotted smoke coming from the hut’s chimney. It was always late. He never saw anyone coming in or out.

After about a month, Jake was ready for his enjoyable Sunday morning routine again. He had eaten his breakfast of eggs, grits, and sausage. Before breaking out his copy of the Sunday Times, he grabbed his cup of coffee and walked out on his porch. As usual, he scanned the view. As he looked toward First Beach, he spotted the man by the water’s edge below the hut.

As quickly as he could, Jake got dressed, ran down the stairs, ran across the lawn and as quickly as he deemed safe climbed down the rocks.

Halfway down, he stopped to get his bearings. He again located the man at the water’s edge. Jake gasped when he realized the man was leaning over the water. Immediately below the man’s head was a dolphin. The two seemed to be talking to each other although, because of the sound of the surf, Jake couldn’t be sure they were talking.

He studied the man and the mammal. The man appeared to be old but was lithe and agile in his movement. The man had on worn jeans and boat shoes, and a heavy wool sweater. His very long beard was dark rust. His head was covered with a sailor’s heavy weather wool knit cap, a watch cap the sailor’s called them. As the dolphin bobbed up and down, his nose got very close to the man’s face. Jake now was certain the two were talking to each other.

Jake moved closer and yelled, “Halloo!”

The man and the dolphin turned toward Jake. It seemed to him they nodded okay. He moved closer.

Before he got next to them, the old man greeted, “How are you doing on this fine day?”

“Fine,” Jake replied, “How about you?”

“We are just super fine,” the man nodded toward the dolphin who nodded his head and made a dolphin squeal. The man added, nodding toward the dolphin again, “This is my friend Eddie.”

Not quite sure just exactly he should respond to a man and a dolphin, Jake responded, “It’s nice to meet both of you.”

“Eddie says it’s nice to meet you as well but he needs to get back to fishing,” the man translated.

Jake was sure Eddie, the dolphin rose a foot or so more out of the water, nodded his head once or twice, twisted as he dove into the water and disappeared.

Still a bit stunned and a bit unsure of himself, which most of us would be if we met a man talking to a dolphin, Jake apologized, “I’m sorry if I bothered you and interrupted your time with…er, Eddie. But I saw you down here from my apartment up there, and I was curious about what was going on and wondering if you were the one who stayed in that hut up there,” nodding his head up the rocks toward the hut.

“No problem with Eddie; no need to apologize,” the man said, “He and I meet here quite often and talk about things.

“And yes, that is my home up there, also nodding towards the hut.

As they talked, Jake studied the man. He decided the man was not as old as he looked initially, maybe in his fifties, early sixties.

“Wow,” Jake exclaimed, “How long have you lived there?”

“Well, let’s see,” the man mulled, “The original owner of that house where you live…I think his name was McDougall, gave me the okay to dig out this place, make the hut, such as it is, and stay as long as I wanted. I think I have the deed, he wrote out, maybe in that sea chest, but never no mind, I guess to answer your question, I’ve been living here, off and on, for about twenty-five, thirty years.”

“So what do you do?” Jake asked, “How did you live here that long?”

The man expounded:

“Well, when I finally grew up, I joined the Navy and sailed on a bunch of ships. Can’t complain. I saw a whole bunch of the world in about ten years, met a bunch of different animals from all over.

“But I got tired of it, and when my last Navy ship, a destroyer, pulled back into here after a deployment, I just said ‘adieu’ and gave it up.

“I worked on fishing boats and chartered sailboats for a while, but that only lasted for about five years.

“I’ve been sort of wandering around since then. But I always seem to end up back here. This is really the only real home I’ve had since growing up. And it’s one of the few places left where I can talk to my friends.”

Jake was trying to absorb the man’s story, trying to decide what was factual and what was fantasy.

“So what friends do you talk to?” he asked.

“Oh, not as many as I used to,” the man replied and continued, “one of my very favorites, the old silver bird, sort of gave up on me. When I got older, I couldn’t hold on as well. So he and I decided I shouldn’t ride with him on his flights. He just sort of left like Rabbit Smith left me out in the desert a bunch of years ago.

“But there were others,” the man continued, “Most left because I got older. They said they couldn’t trust a grownup. Grownups, they said, are selfish, not as honest, more concerned about getting rather than getting along, they said. They said grownups like to blame others for their problems and just don’t get along with each other, plus they are pretty mean to animals even when they are trying to be helpful.

“Of course, my animals didn’t have it exactly right. They, like us humans, never get it exactly right. Like Rabbit Smith, I think i finally figured out the problem: There’s a difference between caring and worrying. And animals, just like humans, can’t quite figure that difference. At least, Rabbit Smith didn’t worry that much.”

“But anyways, the animals started to not trust me because I became a grownup. So they left.”

“Whoa, whoa,” Jake responded, “Who are these people? The bird who wouldn’t take you flying, was he a pilot? And this Rabbit Smith guy, was he a sailor? And if so, what were you two doing in the desert?”

“Oh, I guess you don’t understand,” the man acknowledged, “The bird really was a silver bird, beautiful, kind old fellow. He used to put me on top of his wings and take me flying. Oh, how we loved to fly together. The first animal I really talked to, outside my dog and cat, of course.

“And Rabbit Smith?” He was a long-eared, Southwestern jack rabbit. Crazier than a loon. Hard headed old coot. But he was a great friend.

“You see, when I was young, I discovered I could talk to a lot of animals. Now I only talk to a few. My dog and cat, and of course, Eddie.”

Jake was flabbergasted, but he decided to trust the man and not question him much further. The man asked Jake about who he was, where he came from, and what he did for a living. They talked for an hour or so. Then Jake climbed back up the rocks and went to his apartment where he turned on the television and watched the Sunday afternoon professional football game.

Jake went down and talked to the man sevneral more times after that. Twice, it was when Eddie was there. Jake would listen to the strange sounds between the man and the dolphin. Then the man would translate. Jake couldn’t come close to learning how to talk to the dolphin.

After a while, Jake’s ship deployed to the Mediterranean for ten months. He had to give up his apartment. When his ship returned, Jake drove over to Tuckerman Avenue and parked on the street next to his old apartment. He walked around the house to the rocky bank down to the shore. He scaled down the rocks to the hut.

There was no sign of the man. The hut was abandoned. The cot and the sea chest were gone. The chimney was broken and the whole place was in disarray as if no one had lived there in quite a while. There was graffiti scrawled across the old, now broken door.

Jake stood outside the hut, staring. He didn’t look at the beach or the mansions across the bay. He looked out to the Atlantic Ocean and wondered where the man had gone.

Staring at the ocean, Jake remembered one of his last meetings with the man. The man had scratched his long, thick beard and then talked about what Rabbit Smith had told him when the two had spent time together in the desert:

“‘Well, Willie,’ Rabbit Smith said to me, ‘if you don’t have a lot of other people to worry about, you don’t worry about yourself so much.’

“Rabbit Smith went on, ‘I’ve never been too much of a worrier; so one day when I was all wrapped up in worrying about all of those other scrawny, bug-eyed rabbits, I decided I was worrying too much. Took off; headed east.’”

Jake wondered if that was what the man had done: got to thinking about worrying about Jake and taken off.

Jake then remembered in their last discussions, Jake had finally asked the man his name. Jake remembered thinking it was a weird name, but seemed fitting for the man, who had replied:

“Willie Nod.”

Ghost Story

i think i’ve posted this before, but i ran across it today and liked recalling the days of my youth, often misspent, but always a learning experience. The beer in this story was Country Club Malt Liquor.

Ghost story

once upon a time, in a place far away, a time long ago,
us’n boys were old enough to drink beer
after obtaining it illegally from the store man way out in the country,
and
pee on the side of the roads with the cigarettes we couldn’t smoke at home
hanging out the sides of our mouths:
oh, we thought we were grown up
but
young enough to still believe in ghosts
or
at least some of us still believed,
and
there was a run-down log shack out on Hickory Ridge Road,
on the corner of a rock road they now call Crowell’s Lane
and
the baseball players were goofing around in a 1953 sludge green Studebaker,
when they decided to mess with George:
they told him the shack was haunted by the black man who died there 

but
they were young and in the South in 1959;
so it ain’t likely they said “black man”
but, as i recall we did use the proper term of “negro,”
not the now infamous slur

and
they dared George to go into the shack to check it out;
not knowing the plot, i felt sorry for George,
and
volunteered to go with him into the haunted shack,
so,
like the dunce that i am,
i asked him if he would like me to go with him;
somewhat frightened it seemed to me, he agreed
while my buddies urged me to let him go it alone;
i did not
and
when we crossed the threshold of the log hut,
the old Studebaker peeled out, gravel flying,
and
George and i were alone in the country, sitting on the threshold of a ghost shack:

a half century later, i do not recall the meat of our conversation,
but
i remember after the boys returned in an hour or so laughing as they picked us up
and
i realized George was a great guy
and
i learned more about him than i would have ever known
had i not joined him in the dare to enter
the ghost shack.

 

Willie Nod and Benny Rattler

This poem was not part of the original book i created for Sam in 2014. i keep finding strays like this one and will post them here if they are “pretty good” enough. i think Sarah had some accompanying drawings,but i can’t find them this morning.

Willie Nod and Benny Rattler

Willie Nod finally stayed home for a while.
His parents had a nice home with a large hill at the end of the backyard.
Willie Nod liked to walk up to the top of the hill.
He thought he could see the world from the top of the hill.

One day in the heat of summer, Willie Nod walked up the hill to see the world.
He heard the sound first.
It sounded like a high speed drill his daddy would sometime use in his workshop,
But then Willie spotted the rattlesnake.
The snake was coiled up with his rattlers on his tail shaking and forked tongue hissing.

Now Willie Nod, as we know, had the ability to talk to many animals,
But he had never talked to a snake, especially a rattling, hissing, poisonous one.
And
Willie Nod had heard snakes can’t hear, so he was worried.
Without many other options, Willie Nod decided to hiss
Because he didn’t think he could rattle.
He still didn’t know if the snake could hear or understand his hissing if the snake could hear.

Surprisingly, the hissing worked. He began talking to the rattlesnake:
“Snake, how come you are being so hostile?
“Why are you acting like you want to bite me with your poison fangs?”
The snake replied,
“I don’t want to hurt you;
“I just want to see the world from the top of my hill.”

The snake relaxed a little bit from his coiling and the rattling ceased.
“I’m not being hostile,” the snake said in his hissing way,
“I’m just being defensive;
“After all, it looked like you were going to step on me
“While i lay on this path with the sun warming me,
“And that would hurt, if not kill me.”

You see, snakes are cold blooded so they like to be warm
And
like to bathe in the sun when it’s shining to keep warm.

He continued, “And don’t call me ‘Snake’;
“My name is Benny Rattler
“And i’m proud of it.”

“Okay, Benny Rattler,” Willie Nod returned the hissing,
“Then why is it everyone talks about how dangerous you are?”
“Well, you see,” the snake responded,
“We snakes are dangerous when we are threatened.
“I’ve got my wife snake with twelve little rattler babies
“Down in that hole a ground squirrel dug for us;
“If i have to protect them, i am very dangerous.
“But most of the time, i’m just trying to get along
“And not cause any more trouble than a normal snake.”

“Of course,” Benny Rattler continued, “We have a few of us
“Who mess everything up for the rest of us,
“Always trying to cause trouble, hurt people when they haven’t done anything.
“These bad act snakes think they are most important
“And keep trying to prove how big they are when they really are
“Very, very small, not big at all;
“Just big bullies.”

“And then,” Benny Rattler continued and continued,
“A lot of people think all of us are like the bad snakes,
“And they make up tales about us,
“And tell stories about people falling into snake pits,
“And then make movies about us,
“And it scares a lot of folks, especially women,
“But all we really want is to be left alone.”

“Do you want me to leave you alone, Benny Rattler?” Willie Nod asked.
“No, Willie Nod,” Benny Rattler exclaimed,
“I like you.”

So almost every day, Willie Nod walked to the top of the hill.
In addition to seeing the world, Willie Nod and Benny Rattler
Would meet at the top and hiss about all of the things
You think a little boy and a rattlesnake would talk about,
And
they became good friends.

But Willie Nod never, ever tried to scare Benny Rattler
Nor make him think he was in danger.
And
their friendship lasted a long, long time.

 

 

Oh please, please, please get a grip

When the USS Fitzgerald collided with the ACX Crystal roughly forty nautical miles southwest of Tokyo Bay, i was involved with a flurry of emails among retired Navy Surface Warfare Officers like me. There was a lot of information we didn’t know and still don’t, but we all generally agreed the Commanding Officer should be relieved for cause. He is ultimately responsible for his ship. That, of course reached fruition several days ago. Complete information remains either undisclosed or the investigation is not yet complete. Seven sailors were killed in the incident.

Then Monday, the USS John R. McCain collided with the  Alnic MC, a 600-foot, Liberian-flagged oil and chemical tanker east of the infamous Straits of Malacca and Singapore. There is one sailor confirmed dead and nine still are officially listed as missing as i write. From what little i know, the McCain may not be as much as fault, but it is way too early with so much more information required to determine fault of either ship.

The ensuing reaction of higher command was as expected. The Fitzgerald’s CO, XO, several other officers and senior enlisted were dumped. A Safety Stand Down was ordered throughout the fleet. Investigations, studies, and all sorts of other reactions are de riguer in such cases. The senior chain of command even dumped the commander of seventh fleet, a three-star who was close to retiring.

And already, folks are positioning to find blame or an excuse to push their projects ahead. Flags are saying it was predicted because there are not enough ships, deployments are too long and taxing, hours make for poor decisions. It all translates to: “See, we told you so. If you gave us the ships and the money, money, money we want, this would never have happened. It wasn’t our fault.” The link to the article i read is at the end of this post.

i am a bit frustrated. i reached out to one of my former commanding officers who replied to my emailed questions. Excerpts from that email are below. i will leave the respondent anonymous because he did not expect his comments to be made public. i have the greatest respect for him, and am pretty sure the best surface commanding officers under whom i served including this one would have responded in much the same way as he did:

The Navy is embarrassed and a big head had to roll to get everyone’s attention…lack of fuel for steaming hours and touchy-feely meetings about social issues under the previous SECNAV sure didn’t help improve seamanship. My guess the Navy problem is a combination of a number of things but the responsibility for the safe navigation rests with the Captain and the watch he has entrusted with the safety of the ship. I believe each of us can remember close calls so I hesitate to point fingers.

i agree with his comments concerning responsibility of the CO and his entrusted watch standers. i also agree the Navy hierarchy felt it necessary to make a statement by firing Seventh Fleet after the incidents of McCain, the Fitzgerald, and the two other ships, the Antietam running aground in Tokyo Bay and the Lake Champlain colliding with a South Korean fishing vessel since the turn of this year.

This is all puzzling to me. i served on ten ships. As my commanding officer noted, i and every Surface Warfare Officer i know who spent time at sea have experienced close calls. i remember about a half-dozen extremely close encounters of the sea kind when i was the officer-of-the-deck. They were close, too close, but there was no collision.

After i was commissioned, the standard deployment to the Western Pacific or the Mediterranean was ten months. Later in my career, the Navy reduced it to six months. That’s hardly enough time to get over there, wherever that is, and get acclimated before turning around. Nor does less time at sea improve safe navigation.

Sailors belong at sea. i suffered from the “mid-cruise” blues (roughly the half-way point in a deployment where sailors realize there is still a long way to go before they get home) on every deployment. When they reduced the deployment time, they reduced time at sea. On numerous deployments, it was not unusual to stand “port and starboard” (six hours on watch and six hours off) for extended periods of time. When difficult operations or exercises were underway, i frequently would be up on watch or at work on station for 24 hours and more. The long periods of unrelenting pressure did not diminish my performance. They made me better the next time.

i am not sure if “ship swaps” are still in vogue. The submarine force has had blue and gold teams for as long as i can remember. They swapped out on deployments with the “off” crew preparing and training for the next one. i am old school and i never liked this plan for surface ships. Our ship was a breathing, living organism we learned to appreciate if not loved. We knew our ships and we knew their eccentricities. We were part of her when we navigated her through dangerous situations.

i am all in favor of an equal opportunity Navy. Women being assigned to ships was a positive from my perspective. i’m even writing a book about my time when the program was in its beginning and i was the XO of the USS Yosemite during an Indian Ocean deployment when she was the first ship with women assigned to spend extended out of port time at sea. It worked extremely well.

i do not care what gender or sexual orientation sailors are. As long as they contribute to the mission. The Navy should not be about making everyone feel good. The military should not be a social engineering experiment. The purpose of ships at sea is to meet the Navy’s mission. Period. The Navy should reflect the cultural mores of the country and should be above the biases and prejudices that cloud judgement. However, spending all sorts of time with training should be time spent in training for the being at sea.

Driving a ship was one of my greatest thrills and one fraught with danger. There is no responsibility greater than that of a commanding officer being ultimately responsible for the safety of his/her ship. There is no more of a sacred trust than when the commanding officer qualifies an officer to stand watch in his stead. Nearly all, if not all collisions at sea can be avoided if a ship takes proper action in a critical moment of time. But it takes constant vigilance, constant awareness of the situation in relation to the Rules of the Road. To attain that vigilance, awareness, and capability to execute in a timely manner requires the team to spend countless hours at sea.

Oh by the way, i had two shore tours during my active duty. They were good tours, but they were two too many for me. i wanted all of my tours to be on ships. i am positive the amount of sea tours made me a better mariner. Surface Warfare Officers are required to have subspecialties and Washington tours. Getting promoted and being attractive for flag is as, if not more important than successful sea tours. Staying at sea, i belatedly found out is not career enhancing. That, i believe is the problem. Surface Warfare Officers and their enlisted counterparts should be spending more time at sea and their shore time should be preparing for that.

But then, i am an old salt, a mariner, a surface warfare officer, and not a politician.

http://www.military.com/daily-news/2017/08/23/why-navy-ships-colliding-pacific-experts-weigh-in.html#.WZ73hQpQ8So.email

Willie Nod Growing Up

This was the last poem in my Willie Nod book for Sam at Christmas in 2014. i will add others i have written later. i wrote this while i was in Newport, Rhode Island for “Prospective Executive Officer” training at the Naval Destroyer School. i was at a critical point in my Naval career and headed for my last (although i didn’t know it then) operational tour. i was to be married in two months and facing the fact i might actually have to grow up. Blythe was eleven. i was thinking she was growing up also. So i decided i’d write about how Willie Nod felt about growing up.

 

Willie Nod Growing Up

Willie Nod
Has been thinking about growing up.
Not that he’s made up his mind,
Mind you:
Just thinking about it;
Thinking about leaving his friends,
Those dogs and cats, ponies, lions, ducks and rabbits,
Behind.
“Where would he go?
“What would he do?”
You ask?
Well, he would drive his car to work,
Play with lots of paper,
Argue with people,
Not laugh very much,
then
Drive home again.
Ugh.
Maybe not yet.
Maybe Willie Nod
Won’t even think about it yet.