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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

On Fighting A War, Or, The Best Christmas Ever

Lots of people enlist in the military, many more marry into it.
Others are born into it.

I’m one of those.

I was literally born into the Navy.
So literally that my place of birth is the Portsmouth Naval Hospital.

Before I was nine, I was stationed at Portsmouth, Virginia, Jacksonville, Florida, and Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard, San Francisco. That’s where my Dad was transferred to a destroyer being converted from an older design, the USS Somers (DDG 34).

I remember attending the commissioning, and strangely enough, the one memory of that event that really stands out was meeting a Rear Admiral who had, my Dad told me, risen through the ranks from seaman to admiral.

I remember because my Dad made sure to point out that even though he had been an enlisted man, he did not have a Good Conduct Medal. That may have been the first time I learned iconoclasm can be a good thing.

We had been in California for about three years at that point, and every night my Dad would “come home from work”.

This was about to change.

Ships are not based at shipyards after the work is finished, so it was again time to move, this time to Naval Station Long Beach, California. (Ironically, the Federal Correctional Institution Terminal Island now occupies the site. But I digress.)

I have not set a time to this story, and it’s time to do so.

We are now in the year 1969. Man will be landing on the moon in a month or so (and I’ll be allowed to stay up late to watch it on TV), and we’re fighting the Vietnam War. I am 9 going on 10.

So that’s when my dad left for his first “WestPac” cruise (the Western Pacific, for those of you not Naval); and that’s the first time I understood what having a parent gone for 6 months means.

It sucked that he was away.
It sucked being home.
I don’t remember ever crying because he was gone-he was just gone.

Probably the worst part of all this was not knowing when he was coming back-and the fact that 6 months to a 10 year old is a huge piece of your life.

But that all passes, and eventually he came back.

And then left. And came back again.

Now it’s summer of 1972, and we’re on a new ship, the USS Goldsborough (DDG 20).

In October they left for Vietnam, once again, to do what a destroyer does on duty. The third Christmas in a row Dad was to be gone.

What does a destroyer do in Vietnam? Basically sit off the coast and toss shells on shore at enemy positions. Pretty boring duty, I’m told, unless they shoot back.

Wanna hear a story of cultural adaptation? I heard this after one of the cruises, and never forgot it.

Apparently my Dad’s ship was tied up at Subic Bay (in the Philippines, again for those not Naval) next to a Philippine Navy ship which needed electrical repairs, and a volunteer from the US ship was sent to assist.

Courtesy requires the ship to express its appreciation, and the sailor (an enlisted man) was invited to dine with the Captain and the officers of the Philippine vessel in the ship’s wardroom.

Dinner was apparently quite good, and the Captain announced he had a special treat in honor of the occasion. In walked the steward, I was told, bearing a plate of eggs.

The sailor watched in shock as the officers each opened their eggs, slurped out the liquid contents, and ate what appeared to be a tiny bird from inside.

It turns out the eggs in question are known as Balut-and there is a tiny bird inside. Balut, as it happens, is a fertilized duck egg containing a near fully developed embryo in the shell. (Check out the picture here. Warning: the sensitive among you might choose to pass on this and the next link.)

As you might imagine, his unease grew with each passing moment, as the tray bearing the eggs drew ever closer. What to do? As a brave American fighting man, he knew he had only one choice-eat the egg.

To refuse might be considered an insult; and he was a guest on a foreign ship, after all.

With a slurp and a will of iron, he did his duty.

The Captain looked down the table and asked: “How was it?”
What could he say? “Very good, Sir”

The Captain looked back at him and uttered the words he would come to dread: “Well, in that case, let’s have another.”

I am told the second egg had a different…texture…than the first.
An unexpected sort of crunchiness that was absent from the first experience.

Nonetheless, he was able to gulp it down.

As he looked around the table, he noticed a strange look on the faces of the Philippine officers. Unsure if he had committed an error of etiquette, he looked questioningly to the Captain, who was staring back with a look of wonder on his face.

“I guess it is true what they say about you Americans” he said to the sailor.

“What do you mean, Sir?” was the perplexed reply.

“Well, I heard Americans had iron stomachs, and it must be true” the Captain responded, “the crunchy eggs, like yours…we don’t even eat those in the Philippines.”

Christmas in California is odd, now that I look back on it.

Snow? Not in LA.
Cold, bitter winds? Sometimes it would get all the way down to the 50’s, which probably doesn’t impress the Chicago reader.

Nonetheless, the holiday was just coming up, and as a twelve year old I was expecting some pretty cool presents.

Well, I got one all right.

It had to be the 22nd, or 23rd, as close to Christmas Eve as you could get, midafternoon, when I heard the knocking on the door.

The last thing I ever expected to see was what I saw-my Dad, unannounced, and at least four months early, standing at the door.

Not only that, but standing there in a uniform I’d never seen before-he had made Chief during the cruise.

Even now I can see the moment-and even now it still makes me smile.

I don’t know if I could ever recreate the emotional impact of that exact second.

I am indeed fortunate that you can watch the very same thing happen to a sailor’s son from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, Washington. His Dad showed up unannounced at his school, and if you haven’t yet seen the video, you need to. It’s just simply amazing. (Here’s the link to the text version of the story. Click on the “Raw Video” link for the…well, raw video. You’ll need Windows Explorer.)

As it turned out, he didn’t return to sea duty for the rest of his career.

Nonetheless, that one day he stood in the doorway was better than all the rest of the days he was home put together.

And for a kid who never saw it coming, it was the best Christmas ever.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Today's diary was written for the BlueNC Veteran's Day celebration, and was originally posted here.

It is one of a series being posted to celebrate Veterans on the site today, and I would encourage you to visit.

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