Running on Fumes – Musings from the Mess Decks, pt 2

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From Dan –  

Yes, I was aware that children, for a short time, were considered mail-able. It seems weird, but doctors used to prescribe cigarettes for pregnant women, so maybe it’s not too weird. 

We recently celebrated my elder child’s 30th birthday, and of course I was reminded of the circumstances of how I was alerted to her arrival. For you see, I was cruising around South America at the time and communications between me and the States were irregular and crude.

I knew she would be along pretty soon, and it was after a very long midnight watch up in the gun director that I settled into my rack for a precious 3-hour nap before the endless cycle of events of a warship underway, the next go round of eat, work, and watch.  With great surprise my then-Senior Chief (RIP) thrust his hand past the blue-curtain barrier that defined my sacrosanct rack with a just barely not growled “Here! Read this!”

I had been handed, of course, the long awaited for birth announcement. And now, here it was, a telegram for the love of God, sent to me by the Red Cross. Sleep was out of the question, and I walked fore and aft, bilge to bridge making the announcement to anyone who would listen. I finally ran out of people to tell, and I ended up on the port side main deck, smoking a celebratory cigar while watching the wilderness of the Andes Mountains slide aft. I’m sure there are things about that day that I have long since forgotten, but I still have that telegram up in my study where I keep a number of priceless mementos of my life to remind me of that amazing morning.

There’s a wide variety of trinkets and tchotchkes in that cache of memories, an unsurprisingly number amongst them are letters: Honest-to-God, sat-down-with-pen-and-paper letters written at various times and delivered to me (via paths that can only be guessed at) to whatever ship I was on and wherever I was. Those letters are occasionally pulled from storage, their decades-old creases unfolded so that I may again experience an echo of the thrill I enjoyed when I first received them so long ago. A few of them still are redolent of the fuel-oil, paint, and steel smell of a warship underway and it’s that odor that instantly transports me back to a very different time and place.

Today’s Sailors feel they are lucky. E-mails back and forth to the home-front are everyday events, phone calls common, and video chats with loved ones unremarkable. Keeping up with the day-to-day activities of the household and families has never been easier or more immediately possible for the Sailor.

 

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And, I think it safe to say, that very, very few of the Active Duty folks would willingly return to my Morse code and semaphore way of doing things. Hard to blame them, really. If I could have been part of a video call back in 1985, well, let’s just say I might be missing parts of my anatomy. Running your life/marriage via mail that makes it way home via a wandering and unpredictable path (Say, over to an oiler, then to an amphib, and finally over to a series of Air Force Base storage areas[1]) sometimes takes longer than the deployment. Indeed. Stories of mail arriving home after the Sailor used to be very common.

And it is also true that we could on occasion call home by radio, thanks to ham radio operators and long distance phone calls. It was called the MARS system, although it was probably easier to call the planet than it was to call home. MARS was wonderful to have, but weird. We had to use Navy radio techniques (“Over”) which were hard to teach to small children, and there was a very long list of things that were taboo to talk about on the radio. Imagine phoning home and then being prosecuted. Ah, the perils of military life.

But emails and phone calls can’t be kept, cherished, and handed down like the letters and other messages I have from those long-ago days. It might be fun to see a new e-mail in the inbox in the morning, but every morning? I wonder. And, I wonder if that experience can match the intense feelings of anticipation and joy (and sometimes desolation) when the Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch passed “Mail Call!” Remember, that would sometimes happen only twice a month.

It was possible to tell by holding that the letter had power. You were holding something she had held just a while ago. That letter had been in your house! Your daughter can write! All of those things so very far away. A talisman of home, a status hard to convey onto an e-mail.

Mail and its service seems to be failing, albeit slowly, and the whole process is probably doomed. Sad I suppose, but such is the inexorable march of time. I try to remember that everything in the world today will someday be gone and considered either quaint or no longer understood, enigmas from the past like Stonehenge or the Antikythera Mechanism. One of my more ridiculous thoughts is of my great, great grandchildren attempting to decipher those letters found one day moldering away in dusty old box. “Jeez,” I can hear them say, “Who was this guy? Why didn’t he just flash over and see Grammy Lynn instead of doin’ this? And what’s a ‘ship’?” Sic transit Gloria mundi.


[1] My days in the Navy started before Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Mail services had been archaic/slow for years, but improved drastically after American service members started going to the Middle East in serious numbers. I’m not complaining, it’s just the way it was. And, we could always tell when Oprah or Sally Jesse Raphael had a story about the folks in the Persian Gulf as after those shows, we would receive a mountain of mail on the fantail addressed to Any Sailor/Soldier.

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As always, a huge thank you to my friend, Dan, for his sole contribution to this RoF special piece. I know I have many other friends/family with stories for days of their time and I’d love to post them, too. Please contact me if you have a contribution or if you have a story but are unable to put it into words that make sense – I’m hear to listen and write on your behalf. Always! -Kel

Running on Fumes – Musings from the Mess Deck

Introducing my newest special feature: Running on Fumes – Musings from the Mess Deck. For those not familiar with Navy lingo…a) a mess deck is a place aboard a Naval vessel where military personnel eat, socialize, and essentially live their lives and b) you may find tons of other Naval terminology in this previous post. Hope you enjoy!

My time in the Navy + my time on the East coast + my everything else = meeting some really incredible (and well-traveled) people. One of those people, Dan, I met while working for BAE in Norfolk, VA. We began working there within the same time period and often found ourselves working on/near the same projects which usually involved lots of walking and the occasional grumbling. More my part than his. Dan has a great sense of humor, often times rueful, but nonetheless fitting for any situation. Thankfully we’ve kept in touch. Below is a recent correspondence. I realize this post is much longer than probably any other on Running on Fumes – but I promise it’s worth it! I travel vicariously through others’ stories. Enjoy!

Hi – Good to hear from you. I follow along with your blog, and it’s always fun for me to try and connect the dots between the different installments, and from what I gather, you seem to be having fun out on the Texas prairie.

As you can see, this one goes on a bit. I don’t get to talk to people much anymore (work from the house), and I feel the need to reach out to someone who has some shared common experiences.

And, I sense that maybe you might be a bit at loose ends? Tired of the whole “Work. Rinse. Repeat” schtic? Ready for an adventure? I know what you mean. I’m a bit at loose ends myself and I also have a bit of wanderlust.

And so I’ve been thinking about the places I’ve been, and the ones I’d like to visit again. It’s a long list, and I seem to have eaten my way across the globe, but I do so believe the best way to get to know people is to share a meal with them. Here are some highlights:

* Haifa, Israel. I was there Easter, 1996. Full moon on Easter Day too. I visited what was reputed to be the oldest continuing operating mosque in the world, said to be over 1100 years old. Met the Iman there who was very cool, and toured the city of Acre where remnants of the Third Crusade are easily visible. Bedouin rules of hospitality pre-date Mohammed and are in full force everywhere. I was fed all afternoon by two Israeli Arab cops, and then taken home for dinner. Oh, my.

* The south of France, including Toulon, Cannes, St. Tropez, Aix-en-Provence (and just about anywhere in the French Department of Provence, incidentally. Rented a bicycle and rode for 2 days through the country side. Drank jugs of the local red, and ate fresh loaves of bread in tiny towns. Amazing. Toured a castle there that has been in the same family for over 1000 years, and whose founders are Roman Catholic Saints.

* Sardinia. A Roman rock garden masquerading as an island. I stayed in a hotel where Caesar would have felt at home. Ate the local sausage one morning that had been walking around the barnyard earlier that same morning. I don’t remember the name of the local firewater because it erased a number of other memories. Like so many places in Europe, it’s an interesting mix of the very old and the very new. Think of a donkey cart parked next to an ATM.

* Rome. C’mon. It’s Rome. Entire academic careers have been dedicated to this one city. Home of the World’s Most Expensive Breakfast Not In an Airport. I double-dog dare you to get bored. Spend an afternoon at an outdoor cafe drinking wine, eating delicious bits of everything, and soaking up the Roman sunshine while speaking with the locals. Exquisite.

* Sicily. Hiker’s paradise once you get out of Palermo, although the Palermo Cathedral is worth a visit. It’s the burial site of Odo of Bayeux who was William the Conqueror’s brother, although the good Brothers there at the church are not really sure where he might actually be. Mt. Etna. Tours and day trips to Roman (and far earlier) ruins can be found everywhere as can excellent, excellent wine. A small-town Sicilian restaurant with outdoor seating and fresh goodies is very difficult to beat.

* Trieste, Italy. Another Roman city. Amazing architecture. Found a Country and Western bar there that was blaring Dan Seals and Marie Osmond, and despite that semi-promising start, contained not one soul that spoke English. Award winner for Crudest Public Bathroom You Might Actually Have to Use. Trieste is where East meets West a la Constantinople, and it’s fun to look around and see where the two worlds come together.

* Skiathos, Greece. Big island, lots to see and lots to do. If you go down to where all the yachts are parked you’ll see men and women so beautiful you’ll swear a magazine ad for French perfume has come to life. Normal people can be found everywhere else. Great beaches, especially if modesty is not your thing, but the Mediterranean sun is. Tiny 4- and 5-room hotels can be found without too much effort, and you’ll eat so well you’ll be convinced that you’re being prepared for slaughter.

* Cartagena, Columbia. Old, old city. Pirates still hang out there as they have for 400 years. They are decidedly not like Disney pirates. Ate entire fish dinner there (At the “Casa del Pescado” Really.) that was so huge (about a 40 lb. grouper!) I invited 3 other tables to join me. We ate, drank, and sang for hours and the whole thing cost me about $20.00. This city is the scene for my best-ever sea story called “Hookers, Coca-Cola, and Machine Guns” in which the CNO of the Columbian Navy makes an appearance. And it’s all true.

* The entire Pacific coast of Chile, from Coquimbo south to Tierra del Fuego. Chile is an absolutely amazing country and well worth the effort to get there. A cabin on the extended southern coast can be rented for about $9.00/night if you time it well and don’t treat the locals like idiots. Food is extra so take an extra 10 bucks. The coast of Chile is tourist agency picture perfect. Valparaiso has a world-class museum filled with Incan pieces or you can go to Machu Picchu on your own. Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) is misnamed, for it is possibly the coldest place I’ve ever been. But if your luck holds, you can meet there real-live adventurers in the mold of Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton, buy them drinks, and hear their astounding stories.

* Bahia Blanca, Argentina. The single-most European city in all of South America. Town squares can be found about every four blocks that are so picturesque they’d be travel destinations anywhere else in the world. Luscious steaks from the Argentinian Pampas, “tortas fritas” (a local kind of flatbread) served next to schnitzel. The people can be a bit distant at first, but warm quickly. An Argentinian friend is fiercely your friend for life. The “Policia Nacionel” there do not screw around, and trouble with them is trouble indeed. But, I was one night able to talk a pair of them out of arresting my buddies by pretending to speak passable Spanish. I later concluded that by doing so, I had clearly used up whatever luck I had been allocated for that trip.

* Montevideo, Uruguay. Montevideo is under the radar for most people, but it is simultaneously both very modern and very colonial. There is an open air market most days that stretches eight or nine blocks on each side, and filled with literally anything for sale that you can imagine. I saw a peddler’s stand that was selling Michael J. Fox pool cues next to NAPA oil filters for an old Ford. Yes, that’s weird. I have a great adventure story about the city of Punta del Esta, which is a few miles to the east of Montevideo. And we all lived.

* Guadalupe, in the French Lesser Antilles. If you can’t find fun there, check your pulse.

* St. Maarten, in the British East Indies. A bit touristy now, but still a great place to visit. The Dutch side of the island is mostly on island time, mon. Doan be getiin’ up in no hurry, mon. E’re ting gwarn bee iree. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnBupO_Kjto

There are 50 states, of course, and I believe I have visited every one. They all have similarities (crappy chain motels, crappy chain restaurants), but with just the most minimum of effort from a curious traveler they all have rewarding experiences to find and enjoy. I prefer to travel by car (I’d like to one day take a motorcycle tour of the Midwest), but I like to get away from “Interstate World” and visit those roads less traveled. We Americans are a friendly, gregarious lot and it’s an important reminder from visiting our neighbors all around the country that we have ten, even a hundred times more things in common with each other than those that separate us.

* Go the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. You can make lifetime friends in an afternoon. Ditto the Georgia State Fair in Hampton. The farmers in Rutland, Vermont will dare you (with a knowing wink) to not enjoy their butter, cheese, and other goodies at their own fair.

* Take the train across the country. I just did, from Chicago to Seattle. I literally saw deer and antelope playing on the northern prairie along with a couple of herds of bison. How cool is that? On the same trip, I wandered around Chicago and just had a ball. In addition to revisiting places from my Navy past 30-odd years ago, I ate a stunningly satisfying steak dinner at a good old-fashioned Illinois supper club, and an equally amazing sushi dinner so good I nearly wept. And a couple of Chicago dogs out on the street? Check.

* And you’ll never know who you’ll run into. I met a guy in a bar near St. Louis one night who had been an Air Force F-86 Sabre pilot in the Korean War. I asked him if he knew of CAPT. Joe McConnell, a boyhood hero who shot down 16 enemy aircraft in that conflict. Know him? Hell, son, I flew with him back in 1953. Great Un-Revised North American Jesus Christ! We talked into the wee hours, and though he was 35 years older than I, he stood up and steadily walked out of the place in that way the Blue Suiters have despite the bottle of scotch he and I had shared. What a memory. You just never know.

* Had a Greek dinner in San Ysidro, probably 200 meters from the Mexican border. Nice little cultural cross-rip. Just up the road, of course, is San Diego and my favorite place on the West Coast, Coronado. Try the bar at the Hotel Del Coronado, and wait for the ghosts of Sammy, Marilyn, and Frank.

* There is so much I have left out. Cathedrals in England. The Louvre in Paris. But you get the idea. There is just too much to see and do out there, so go and see and do. For specific recommendations? For the contemplative, meditative trip plan a campout at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. For a 3-day girls’ night out, try the Music Row section of Nashville and visit all the clubs and music venues up and down Division St and Broadway.

So that’s my two cents and then some. I hope you’ve had a great week, and that you enjoy your weekend. I miss spending time with you as well, and I look forward to the time we can yell at the salad waitress again. Take care of yourself,

Dan

Note: yelling at the salad waitress is a story for another day. Safe to say, there will be more stories! And, we didn’t yell at her in a derogatory, downgrading way. She simply couldn’t hear us, though no fault of her own. More to come!