When I was an ensign on board USS Constellation, I was told there were three things one did not discuss at the dinner table in the wardroom mess: politics, women and religion. I am finished with dinner and no longer at the table, so let's begin with politics. (Big laugh.) How many of you are from California? (About twenty people raised their hands.) How many of you are running for governor a couple of weeks from now? (About ten people raised their hands.) In California in two weeks we will have a choice between a governor who is a robot and one who merely portrayed a robot on screen. Of course, there are 134 candidates for governor. Even I could have run by paying a $3500 registration fee and producing 65 signatures of voters. However, clever Gray Davis, our present governor, decided to reduce his deficit by tripling our automobile registration fee. Given the choice of spending my limited disposable income on registering as a candidate for governor or registering my car, I chose the latter so I could keep my promise to Al Creasy to be your speaker tonight.
Al Creasy advertised that I would be talking tonight about sea stories including Morton's rescue of 70 Vietnamese boat people in 1982, but I know that the rescue story is already familiar to most of you who look at Rick Palmer's fine Morton web site. Nevertheless, John Kieft and Al have both suggested that many of you are unfamiliar with it. How many of you have read that story? (About 15 of the 110 people present raised their hands.) I'm afraid that I will bore those of you who have read it. I will therefore use a summary of that story to introduce my main topic of reunions and the Internet because that story begins with an e-mail posted on Morton's web site. What I really want to discuss is the meaning to me of the e-mail to me from the young Vietnamese-American woman, Jacquelynne Vu, who, as a little girl, had been among those rescued. That e-mail changed my life in a big way, starting me on a path that really accounts more than anything for my being here at this reunion tonight.
(Here is where I summarized the rescue story.)
In an Oregonian story on my reunion with them, Jacquelynne was quoted as saying, "I figured that you never know when you're going to die, and I wanted to say thank you before I was gone. Our family has always been so grateful."
This brings me to my main message to you. Prior to Jacquelynne's e-mail, I had never attended a reunion of any type; high school, college, ship, or anything. I had never attempted to contact former schoolmates or shipmates.
However, Jacquelynne caused me to think about all of the people who had made a difference in my life over the sixty plus years that I have been around this planet. People have helped and supported me all of my life in a variety of ways. It has seldom been such dramatic help that my life was saved, but certainly in my career and my life have benefited from hundreds of significant folks. The teamwork of all of the Morton crew members, as well as the crews, departments, divisions, and fellow officers on all of the ships and shore stations where I served had a part in the full and happy life that I enjoyed then and still today. Unfortunately, I have already missed my chance to thank many who played a part in my life. Increasingly, my search for former classmates or shipmates ends with the bad news that they are no longer with us. Sadly, my XO, Duane Bower, is among those.
On the positive side, the advent of the Internet has facilitated tracking down old friends going back as far as my college roommate and my very first shipmates. Equally, the Internet has enabled old friends to contact me. Shift Colors, the newsletter for Navy retirees published a list, which I have, if anyone wants it, of veteran and retiree web sites and noted that one of the unique aspects of military service is the unique bond it builds among those who serve. Enduring the hardships and horrors, achievements and joys with brothers and sister-in-arms throughout ones period of service, long or short, provides the cement for a retirement full of sea stories, memories, and lifelong friendships. No matter where you travel, when you meet a guy who's been to sea, there's an instant kind of friendship because we are all shipmates at heart. There's nothing like having people around you who for seven days a week have stood three section watches for 90 days at a crack out at sea to understand what that kind of life requires, even in peacetime. Such a person will know that it's not all "Top Gun" and "An Officer and a Gentleman;" that there are long, grueling hours. It helps a lot to be with people who paid there dues with firsthand experience manning the nation's battlements.
Unlike the old soldier who fades away, we have opportunities to foster and build upon these friendships and camaraderie throughout our lives. We may not have served on Morton at the same time, or even in the same decade, but we all share a common experience. With the advent of the Internet we have unprecedented ability to find, connect up with and stay connected to our shipmates as well as to other veterans organizations and to the military's and VA's support services for us. Veterans groups all over the world provide everything from reunions like this and social activities to congressional lobbying and formal assistance.
I know some folks are reluctant to buy a computer and learn new fangled stuff like surfing the net. However, I have got to tell you from personal experience that the technology is not that hard to learn, and learning about computers is certainly worthwhile and rewarding.
For example, after retiring from the Navy in 1987, I found that I needed computer skills just to survive in the business community. After just a few nearly free adult school courses in my neighborhood, I became very skilled at computer applications. Because I could not type, I was reluctant, at first, to enter these courses, but I found free typing courses were available, too. Don't be put off by the intelligent looking nerds and efficient looking secretaries you meet taking these courses. We can still hold our own in an academic environment. In the past, I was often the top person in my class, and at the adult school, I was told I was the only person they had who had ever attained a perfect score on their final exam.
I know that I am preaching to the choir here, for many of you are here tonight because of connections you have made over the Internet with Morton shipmates and the Morton web site. However, I know others experience the same fear that I did initially. I have what I call a "fear of features." That is the fear and laziness that prevents one from mastering all of the new features on their new equipment. For example, the instruction book on my car is bigger than War and Peace. My digital camera came with over one hundred pages of supposedly easy to follow instructions. Meanwhile, 12:00 o'clock is still blinking on my ten year-old VCR.
Once you have a rudimentary knowledge of your computer, you will be able to contact friends instantly, send photos, music, and letters to them. You can search the country for old friends. I once was asked by a friend to find his estranged father, a man for whom he had searched in vain for many years. I was able in twenty minutes to locate successfully the man in a tiny town in northeastern Louisiana, even though my friend knew only that his father had last lived in southern Mississippi. In the last couple of years I have been tracked down by many old shipmates, and I, in turn, have found many of them. It is a warm feeling to receive a phone call from a voice that you have not heard, but still recognize, after 35 years.
I have had that exact experience. A fellow officer from my second ship, USS Sumner County (LST 1148), called me at work with the question, "Guess who this is?" I said immediately, "Dan Jeff!" He said, "Jesus, Al, how did you know? It has been 33 years!" Henry Miller, an American writer, said "A true friend is one who picks up right where you left off, whether it's been a week, a month, or twenty years." I would up that to thirty-five or forty years. Dan and I have gotten together numerous times since his phone call, and each time we have picked up as if we had never been apart.
Encouraged by his contacting me, I began searching out old friends and shipmates. Since then I have found dozens, going all of the way back to my college roommate and my friends from Duke University and to my first boss in the Navy.
In the last few months I have had individual face-to-face reunions with six of these old buddies. And I have had the chance to do what Jacquelynne Vu taught me was so important. I thanked those people who helped me. The officer who was USS Constellation's First Lieutenant was an old mustang when I was a fresh faced ensign just out of college. He was a true mentor to me, and a great positive role model. In January of this year I met with him as he was about to embark on a cruise ship in San Diego. I thanked him for his support and leadership and told him how much it had meant to me back in 1963. Say that to someone, and you will see tears form in his eyes.
Similarly, I contacted two of my fellow junior officers from that ship. They had taught me about camaraderie, enduring friendship, and mutual regard. Also, on an impulse I searched the Internet for my old Vietnamese riverine outfit. Up popped a magazine article written by one of the enlisted men who served under me in the U Minh Forest of the Mekong Delta. He and I were then able to track down two of our other former boatmates. To this day some of my best and closest friends are people with whom I served in the Navy. Reunions with old comrades are often crucial steps in making peace with life's darkest hours.
Why do we feel this way? All of us here have endured hell in the Navy. Anyone who says it was all fun was not in the same Navy I experienced. Even those I knew who served in only peacetime remember the pain of getting up for the midwatch when you had only been able to rack out an hour earlier. Then after watch you often had to go directly to your unrep station. The Morton newsletter recently had a humorous list of ways to simulate being a sailor. Although funny like "once a month take all major appliances apart and then reassemble them," or "Have your neighbor come over each day at 5 am, blow a whistle so loud Helen Keller could hear it, and shout 'Reveille, reveille, all hands heave out and trice up!,'" they are very true. Here are just a few ways to simulate being a sailor:
*Buy a steel dumpster, paint it gray inside and out, and live in it for six months.
* Run all the pipes and wires in your house exposed on the walls.
* Repaint your entire house every month.
* Renovate your bathroom. Build a wall across the middle of the bathtub and move the showerhead to chest level. When you take showers, make sure you turn off the water while you soap down.
* Put lube oil in your humidifier and set it on high.
* Once a week, blow compressed air up your chimney, making sure the wind carries the soot onto your neighbor's house. Ignore his complaints.
* Once a month, take all major appliances apart and then reassemble them.
* Raise the thresholds and lower the headers of your front and back doors, so that you either trip or bang your head every time you pass through them.
* Disassemble and inspect your lawnmower every week.
* On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, turn your water heater temperature up to 200 degrees. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, turn the heater off.
* On Saturdays and Sundays tell your family they use too much water during the week, so no bathing will be allowed.
* Raise your bed to within 6 inches of the ceiling, so you can't turn over without getting out and then getting back in.
* Sleep on the shelf in your closet. Replace the closet door with a curtain. Have your spouse whip open the curtain about 3 hours after you go to sleep, shine a flashlight in your eyes, and say "Sorry, wrong rack".
* Make your family qualify to operate each appliance in your house - dishwasher operator, blender technician, etc.
* Find the dumbest guy in the neighborhood and make him your boss for the next two years.
* Lower all shower heads to not more than four and one-half feet off the deck and be sure the tops of all mirrors are no more than four and one-half feet high as well. Tell your family members that hunching to look in the mirror is really natural. Then yell "Attention on deck" when the cat walks by to see how quickly they can assume a full upright
* Have your neighbor come over each day at 5 am, blow a
whistle so loud Helen Keller could hear it, and shout "Reveille,
reveille, all hands heave out and trice up".
* Place a podium at the end of your driveway. Have your family stand watches at the podium, rotating at 4-hour intervals. This is best done when the weather is worst. January is a good time.
* For former engineers: bring your lawn mower into the living room, and run it all day long.
Who's ready to go back to sea? That list hits very close to home, but I can't read anymore of these because my eyes are tearing up.
How many of you have heard, "General Quarters, General Quarters! This is not a drill!"? Even those who served on Morton in peace when I was CO heard that. When asked by me if he missed the Navy after he got out as a junior officer, one old shipmate replied, "Yes, I did miss the Navy, but every time that feeling came over me I would set my alarm for 3:00 AM and get up and stand for four hours on my back porch with two bricks hanging around my neck." For those of you who never stood a bridge watch, the bricks were a substitute for those heavy old binoculars we had to wear around our necks. I think I have a permanent groove in my neck from them. Sadly, the shipmate who talked about the bricks is one of those no longer with us.
In a combat zone, watch schedules leave people zombies after a few weeks. Soldiers talk about a thousand yard stare that combat fatigued grunts develop. Bridge watchstanders get a seven mile stare from looking at the horizon. CIC watchstanders get a twelve inch stare from staring at radar scopes. Engineering watchstanders, laundrymen, and cooks just get steamed well done in their superheated work spaces.
Fortunately, as Captain Jack McGill has told you, I am qualified as a psychology major to tell you how we are able to overcome these trials and still live normal lives - even looking back with nostalgia on the good old days. One's mind has defense mechanisms, the most important of which is "Repression." Repression is selectively forgetting about whatever is troubling you; pushing unwanted or "negative" feelings into the unconscious where they don't have to be faced. You can't choose to do this, your mind does it for you to protect you, but the process can be bad because the feelings can later break out in an uncontrolled way which can be very destructive, unless dealt with. I think these reunions help us deal with the unpleasant in a healthy way, as well as helping us renew friendships and just have fun. When you tell a sea story about something bad that happened, you are airing the wound, so to speak, so that it does not fester. I encourage you to bring these stories up here and see that they are no longer threatening. We can truly laugh about the most awful things now. It's certainly healthy to do so.
What I most like about reunions though is the chance to not only renew friendships, but to make new ones with people whose experiences may have been in a different timeframe, but which were similar enough that we have a common language and background. Our time together with friends is very important.
Finally, those of whatever generation of Morton who have steamed far perhaps to train or fight in foreign lands share a common feeling. We know that our greatest comfort was to have our friends close at hand. Though we consider ourselves patriots, in the heat of operations at sea, or battle, it ceases to be an idea for which we fight, or even a flag. Rather, we fight for the man on our right, and we fight for the man on our left. When navies have rusted and been cut up for scrap and crews have been scattered to the four winds, when empires fall away, all that remains is the memory of the precious moments we spent side by side.
Al Bell's 2003 Reunion Talk