By: Garland Davis
They say the best ships a sailor serves in are his last one and his next one. How many times have you departed a ship feeling the anticipation of something new? A new challenge awaits. Your old ship has become monotonous and a grind and you find yourself glad to put it behind you. Even as your stride lengthens when you walk away, you feel an underlying regret to be leaving. There are men, and, I suppose in our new, ever changing Navy, women with whom you have shared some rough seas and hard times and some of the best of times. You are going to miss them. But this time, you will keep in touch.
But you eventually lose track. As the years and water pass under the keel, you forget names and which ship. You remember the good times. You’ll start a sea story with, “Me and this fucking Radioman, damned if I can remember his name…” all too often. You’ll tell stories about sailors from other ships that you met in the bars and clubs. Guys who know some of the same people you know. You never served together but now you are shipmates.
Finally, you reach the end of your run and retire to a civilian life that you have no fucking conception of. It is more strange to you than boot camp was when you first enlisted. You had seen the movies and TV shows and had some idea of what to expect. Coming into civilian life as an adult, a civilian life that you had only lived in as a kid is a fucking traumatic experience.
It brings to mind to an old joke. A Marine Sergeant Major, the epitome and recruiting poster picture of the perfect Marine reaches retirement. After the retirement ceremony, he dresses in a three-piece suit as a successful civilian does and departs the base. A few months later one of his subordinate Sergeants meets him on the street. He is appalled at the Sergeant Major’s appearance. The once perfect Marine is unshaven, ungroomed, dressed in wrinkled clothing, has shaky hands, and is scurrying along the street looking around as if he had seen a ghost or something was chasing him.
The Sergeant asked, “Sergeant Major, what in the world has happened to you? You were the perfect Marine. What happened to change you?”
The Sergeant Major replies, “You know, there ain’t nobody in fucking charge out here!”
Then there is the story of a thirty-year sailor who retired to a job in manufacturing. The fourth day he reported to work, his boss intercepted him and asked, “Hartman, this is the fourth day you have been late for work. What did they say to you in the Navy when you came into the office ten minutes late every day?”
Hartman said, “They always said, ‘Good morning, Master Chief.’”
But we move on and adapt to civilian life. Those of us lucky enough to live near an old shipmate or another serviceman, Navy, Army, Marine Corps, it really doesn’t matter have a tenuous connection to the past. A spark of the old life is there. Of course, we make civilian friends, but they are not friends on the level that our shipmates and those we called shipmate were.
We often sat around and wondered, “What happened to Old So and So?” But we really had no way of tracking them down. All one could do was reminisce and wonder.
And then came the Information Revolution and the information Superhighway. Some of us embraced it and others had to be dragged kicking and screaming, yelling, “fucking computers.” There was a miraculous web of electrons where we could communicate via e-mail. Later came the social sites. Bulletin boards where those with similar beliefs and experiences could connect. There were search sites where you could search for individuals. Slowly we reconnected with a few people. Then FaceBook exploded on the scene. You could join a group called Tin Can Sailors, or The Majestic and Ancient Order of Shit River and there he was, “Old Shit for Brains”, whom you had spent many hours thinking about, laughing about, and missing. And he knew where one or two other old shipmates were. You slowly reconnected with old shipmates and made friends with others who had been there and did the things you did albeit in different ships or at a slightly different time. It was as if the twenty or thirty years hadn’t passed. You built a group from the old life. You even discovered that one of your old shipmates retired in the next town over, an hour’s drive away.
The military sites and Facebook groups are rife with reunion announcements, places, dates and etc. More and more, old shipmates are driving halfway across the country to spend time with an old shipmate and going to the ships and unit reunions. Telephone plans are such that you can call anywhere in the country at no extra cost. Old sailors call other old sailors across the country and talk as if they lived within blocks of each other.
In 2012/2013, five of us started the Asia Sailor website and Facebook group. I don’t believe any of us served in the same command, but we had served together in Asia at relatively the same time period. I am in Hawaii, one is in the Ozarks, one in Florida, one in California, and our webmaster is in Thailand. Using e-mails and the messaging capability of Facebook, we conceptualized and launched the Asia Sailor Westpac’ers Association website and Facebook group. Each entity has in excess of five hundred members.
Barely four months after launching the website, we held our first annual Westpac’rs reunion in April 2013 at the Clarion Hotel in Branson, MO. For such a quickly planned and put together event, everyone agreed that it was an unqualified success. In May 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 the reunions were repeated with an overwhelming response. Shipmates from as far as Japan have attended expected again this year. Last year we had a shipmate travel from the West Coast of Africa to be with us and he is doing it again this year.
This will be the last regular post in my Blog until May 30th. I leave Honolulu tomorrow evening for Denver and on to Branson. I am carrying the laptop with me and may occasionally post from the reunion. I will return from my trip with new stories about the reunion, the events and the antics of my shipmates and myself when I resume routine posting.
While I am away I invite you to go through the menus and read earlier posts. Just click on the red rectangle at the top of the page to find a chronological list of months. Click on the month to read all postings in that time period.
This was posted earlier in the Blog. It is a poem I wrote after the 2013 reunion:
The Weight of Our Years
By: Garland Davis
For a time, the old men would tell of years and wars past…
Stories and laughter among a forest of empty bottles
scattered in a graceless pack across the table.
Rain filled the darkness outside the window,
and the tables filled with memorabilia abetted the
desperation with which they yearned for those long gone days.
Reluctant to leave the companionship, once again
found for a few days at the spring reunion
and held close in that bitter pall of tomorrow’s leaving.
But, the thrill of our shared derangement, and stories
true and not that evoked both joy at remembering
and sadness, knowing that one cannot go back.
The old men remain, with their lives caving in around them,
crushed by the weight of years and lost among memories and bottles.