Having served for ten years active duty, including combat, in the United States Navy did not make me eligible for a pension or stipend of any sort. It did not allow for tax free shopping privileges at the on-base Commissary for groceries or the Navy Exchange for sundry goods. It did not provide for medical or dental benefits. It did not even permit access to the Naval Air Station to show my son the few buildings still standing where I used to work.
All that remained to show for a decade of service to my country were boxed up medals, plaques, awards, memories, and the only perk that honestly lasts forever-friendships tempered by the steely combat of a long-misplaced youth.
Eight months ago, I had a once in a lifetime opportunity to turn back the clock a quarter century, if only temporarily. And if only in fantasy. I had a chance to prowl through decks and levels, over knee-knockers, through passageways and up and down ladders, to enter ship’s spaces not seen in more than twenty years. It was in these rooms that the seeds of intense first thoughts on my own mortality were planted. I would step aboard U.S.S. Ranger a final time before she left Puget Sound Navy Shipyard without flags or fanfare, absent the traditional white uniformed sailors manning her rails.
Ranger was being prepared to be towed away, with boilers silent and cold under the perpetual darkness of a forgotten warrior. Ranger was being prepared to be rendered for scrap. For the morning, though, she was ours to share with past comrades in arms, to temporarily join physical reality with memory.
One day and two dozen years earlier, I had launched from Ranger’s deck in the predawn Persian Gulf blackness into the unknowns of first combat. In certain ways, it marked the launch of the rest of my life-I was not the same person after that morning. But that was past, worthy of reflection only when surrounded by old squadron-mates, and not as the topic of a moribund séance in a solitary mind. To have this opportunity presented at such a time in my life bared its teeth at coincidence, challenged life with the stubborn insistence of a young man’s-and an old salt of a warship’s-denial of fate.
Ross Wilhelm, a VA-145 B/N and friend, had called me on the Monday before the tour with the Ranger invitation. The U.S.S. Ranger was decommissioned in 1993. She had fought off the blow torches and junk yard cranes for 22 years. Why scrap her now?
The more I thought about it, though, the more appropriate it seemed to be; everything goes away, everybody dies-that’s just the way things are. Maybe it was better to grapple with this fact in the close combat of reality than to push it off until it could no longer be ignored; before the facts of life intercepted a tired mind’s fantasies in an ambush of truth.
Tugg Thompson was one of those old friends traveling to Bremerton to say goodbye, a friend who fortunately had retired from the navy and still had an identification card and access to navy facilities. We had both been pilots when on active duty, but I would succumb today and sit in the right seat of his silver Accord and let him do the driving onto the navy base.
My son, Jared, sat in back, skipping school for a lesson in history from has-been shipmates, given on a ship that hadn’t sailed in decades. As we drove onto the Keystone Ferry to travel from Whidbey Island to Port Townsend, Tugg’s descriptions of past victories and foibles were unrelenting in their energy; he was a tenacious energizer bunny with a heart as big as his enthusiasm for flight, with every word threatening to spin out of control with a fiery clap of his hands. It would be a lesson for Jared not available in a dozen weeks or years of school.
The ferry rolled in the unseen swell of a wintry, still-dark, pre-dawn, priming our memories and arming our resolve. Once in Port Townsend, it would be a one hour drive to the Bremerton Naval Shipyard, where Ross Wilhelm would meet us for the tour. We would need to be off the Ranger ninety minutes later, as she was slated to leave Bremerton in four weeks for the tow around the Cape of Magellan, and then north to Brownsville, Texas. For a ship to die on dry ground took a great deal of preparation indeed.
A half dozen other squadron mates had opted to regret the invite, stating honestly-if imperfectly-that the event would just be too sad.
This I could not fully understand. I had a vague sense of how a soft melancholy might threaten, but to have tales of the past intrude on the present, to manifest themselves through real, physical emotion?
No. To me, it was a celebration of a long-closed chapter, one so distant through the ravages of time, so alien to today’s reality, that it was difficult to quite believe that the memories were real.
Would it have been better to have Ranger slowly rust away pier-side without urgency or reason? Would it have been happier to know that Ranger, bereft of visitors or mission, would slowly flake into obscurity? Wasn’t the scrap pile just the sort of tidy closure that so many seemed to be searching for in life? Wasn’t this cause to celebrate the past?
My mood was far from sad when we got to Ranger. Walking her passageways was energizing as I eagerly peered into each darkened space for a glimpse of the familiar. The view was not disappointing-it was as if movers had come for her furniture and wall hangings, but left behind everything else unmolested.
Walking the passages, which had always been bare, it looked the same as walking onto the darkened ship after a night of liberty in port: mostly quiet, but with the jarring yells of returned revelers always threatening.
Or, was it more akin to the walk from Mid-rats to the stateroom in the middle of the rolling night, standing the alert 15, heavy flight gear hanging loosely on an uncaring young frame, prepared and eager for the urgency of a surprise launch: something vitally important, a mission. It was both. And it was neither. It was real.
I left Ranger seeing and sharing with Jared far more than expected and feeling pretty damn good, without a hint of sadness. I asked Tugg on the return drive how he felt and he agreed. Memories, as important as they are, must be left in the past. Not only is there no choice in the matter, but if allowed to flow with life’s natural energy, it is better.
Beauty effortlessly comes in many forms; the challenge is to accept beauty on her own terms. Old friendships work that way.