Many years at sea tend to make you a little lonely and crazy. You begin to wonder if anyone knows that you are alive. If you aren’t careful, you can become so isolated that you become a seagoing hermit. I’ve seen old timers who became so detached from the real world that they were actually afraid to leave the ship, asking shipmates to bring them necessities from ashore. To paraphrase the singer, Van Morrison, they had smelled the sea and felt the sky so long that their souls had sailed into the mystic.
Part of my problem was that I never had a sense of belonging to begin with. Growing up in Lumberton, for example, I always envied families that joined in events together as simple as the annual summer trek to Pontchartrain Beach, the long-gone amusement park along the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Even today, I still remember their advertising jingle, blasted out ad nauseum over New Orleans radio station WNOE-AM, owned by James A. Noe, one-time governor of Louisiana:
“At the beach, at the beach, at Pontchartrain Beach;
You’ll have fun, you’ll have fun, every day of the week;
You’ll love the thrilling rides, laugh til you split your sides;
That’s Pontchartrain Beach!”
Unfortunately, I never made it. To paraphrase the CCR song, “Proud Mary,” I spent all my time “pumping pane for the man” at the gas station where I worked throughout high school, but I at least had the radio on.
Although reading at sea was what kept me sane, and I will explain it later, different people dealt with the ennui and the melancholy of prolonged life at sea in different ways: some turned inward and become indifferent to the outside world; some became alcoholics and wore out their welcome in every liberty port; a few found solace in music, and woe to the person who snitched one of their precious 45 rpm records and later cassettes; and some, like me, with a vague sense of history, marked the passage of time with the many rituals and rites of passage of Navy life.
It was only when I became a deck seaman at 17 that I began to gain a sense of “belonging,” primarily because of my participation in the ancient nautical customs and traditions that were still common and politically correct in the Navy of the late 1950s, many of which we inherited from the British Navy: the “Crossing the Line” ceremony (Crossing the Equator initiation ceremonies, which often got pretty violent); “tacking on crows” (punching your buddy in the arm to “attach” his new promotion badge); hoisting a broom at the main mast when you made a “clean sweep” of a competitive gunnery exercise; stringing colored electric lights from the bow to the stern with a lighted cross atop the main mast at Christmas; stringing white lights in the same place when you “Med Moored” (backed in to the pier, stern first) in a foreign port, etc.
Later, when I became a line officer, my involvement in such customs and traditions became much more official: I was in charge of the gun crews; I was responsible for stringing the lights. On one ship, I remember quietly asking the Old Man to put me in charge of a special Crossing the Line ceremony (we were crossing the Equator at the International Date Line, which made the initiates “Golden Shellbacks”) because I had overheard scuttlebutt on the mess deck that some nutjob was going to put broken glass into the inflated rubber life raft full of rancid kitchen garbage that all of the “pollywogs” (uninitiated) had to swim through en route to their audience with King Neptune. As they approached his august presence on their knees, they had to kiss the greased belly of the Royal Baby. In today’s Navy, you couldn’t even find a sailor fat enough to serve as the Royal Baby. “Big Navy” kicked them out for being overweight, too fat to fight for their country. That’s wrong. I’ve known overweight sailors who could whip the last man standing. If you cross the Equator on a Navy ship today, they wash you down with a fire hose, give you a diploma and you eat barbecue. Everybody gets a trophy. I guess that’s progress, but it’s bogus.
As far as rites of passage, one of the happiest days of my life was when I graduated from the Army Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and received my jump wings on the drop zone. The lead instructor, one of the fearsome “Black Hats,” punched the two metal prongs of the parachute insignia into my chest, and it bled, but it never crossed my mind to file a complaint. I was content because I was now part of a unique “family,” and I was no longer numbered among those dregs of humanity called “legs” who had never jumped out of an airplane. Strapped to someone else doesn’t count; you have to do it on your own.
I suppose that to a civilian, all of the above sounds like something out of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” (1954) — some kind of tribal mumbo jumbo — but it’s those little things that hold military units together and give credence to such phrases as “I’ve got your back” and “Leave no one behind.”
As my career progressed, I was often involved in memorial services which involved dropping wreaths of flowers into waters all over the world. For example, when a Navy ship comes into Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, at the beginning of a long deployment to the Far East, it’s traditional to drop a wreath in honor of those killed or wounded on Dec. 7, 1941. You start getting ready as the ship rounds Iroquois Point and drop it in the water about where the Battleship California sank on Battleship Row. As you do it, you can’t help but visualize those Zero fighters and “Val” dive-bombers swooping in over Ford’s Island that awful Sunday morning.
One of the most interesting wreath-laying ceremonies I ever took part in was in commemoration of the Battle of the Solomon Islands, the only World War II naval battle where two U.S. Navy admirals were killed.
I was hitching a ride to Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam, on the ammunition ship, USS Haleakala (AE-25), and we dropped a wreath and had a brief memorial ceremony while transiting the New Georgia Sound, otherwise known as the “Slot.”
Every night, before the Marines took the island, Japanese ships, known as the “Tokyo Express,” made their way down the narrow passage between islands to resupply their troops on Guadalcanal. Incidentally, this is also where John F. Kennedy’s boat, PT-109, was struck by the Japanese destroyer, Amagiri (“Heavenly Mist”), and sliced in half.
As far as reading, I generally went to sea with a bag of books, carefully rationing them out so they would last the usual six or seven months of an overseas deployment. Books and words seize your imagination. Books and words are also powerful: they can change the trajectory of your life; they can break your heart; and they can literally put your life at risk. For example, the 56 patriots who read and signed the Declaration of Independence around July 4, 1776, were committing treason according to the laws of England and were putting their lives at risk. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly” (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe, solidified the American antislavery, abolitionist movement and laid the foundation for the Civil War. “J’Accuse…!” (I Accuse), an open letter published in 1898 by the French author, Emile Zola, helped bring down the Third Republic by condemning the unjust, anti-Semitic sentencing of a Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, to the penal colony on Devil’s Island. “The Diary of Anne Frank,” also known as “The Diary of a Young Girl” (1947), was written by a young Jewish Dutch girl hiding from the Nazis. For many, it put a human face on the horrors of the Holocaust. Anne died of typhus in 1944 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after her family was betrayed by a collaborator. Rachael Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962) documented the harmful effects of pesticides, especially DDT, on the environment. Because of her book, there might be a few more bugs about, but at least there are birds left to sing.
Once I sailed with the complete works of Rudyard Kipling, more or less, which I had rounded up over the years in used bookstores in liberty ports up and down the West Coast. Kipling, who would be “canceled” today, was an elegant defender of British colonialism. His poem, “Tommy” — from the book, “Barrack Room Ballads” (1892) — about “Thomas Adkins,” a sobriquet for the common British soldier, pretty well summed up American attitudes toward the military as the war in Vietnam was winding down:
“Well, it’s Tommy this, and Tommy that
And Tommy go away,
But it’s thank you, Mr. Atkins
When the band begins to play.
Well, it’s Tommy this and Tommy that
And chunk him out, the brute,
But it’s savior of his country
When the guns begin to shoot.”
Although it took me seven years to complete the course work over two separate tours of shore duty, I got my Master of Arts degree in English Literature at the University of Rhode Island. It was a piece of cake because I had already read most of the books. The Renaissance scholar on my oral examination committee tried to cut my throat with a question about “Occam’s Razor.” Fortunately, I had read enough philosophy books to know that Occam’s Razor is the problem-solving principle attributed to William of Occam, a medieval English monk. It basically says that when you have competing hypotheses, simply pick the one with the fewest assumptions.
Those master’s and Ph.D. oral exams are adversarial in nature and reminded me of a military court-martial, complete with judge, jury and the long green table. I told the Renaissance guy that Occam’s Razor simply means that “less is more,” and he gave me a thumbs up. Incidentally, had the signers of the Declaration of Independence been captured, as one actually was, they would have been taken back to England in chains and prosecuted on behalf of the “Board of Green Cloth,” an archaic congregation of senior court officials named after the green baize table where they used to confer — hence the “long green table” infamous in Navy discipline.
Not surprising, William was the inspiration for the hero in Umberto Eco’s 1980 novel, “The Name of the Rose,” one of the few books that transferred well to the silver screen. I saw that movie onboard ship back when nightly movies on the mess deck and in the wardroom were major diversions and social events. When a ship went on deployment, it would sail with a compliment of 15-20 movies. Obviously, it wouldn’t take long to run through these, and the crew would clamor for something new. I’ve seen ships divert course a hundred miles or so to meet up with another ship in the middle of the ocean just to trade movies. You really had to watch the guys on the other ship. They would take all of your John Wayne’s and slip you a bunch of Judy Garland’s and Fred Astaire’s if you were not careful.
It wasn’t until I came ashore for good in 1996 that I began to understand the truth in Thomas Wolfe’s statement, “You can’t go home again,” the title of his 1940 novel of the same name.
Here I had spent almost 40 years trying to deal with loneliness at sea, and now I was back to where I started: Lumberton — confused, isolated and still searching for my identity.
No wonder the title is reinforced in the denouement of the novel when the protagonist realizes:
“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and system of things which once seemed everlasting but which changed all the time — back to the escapades of Time and Memory.”
Considering all I’ve just said — remember, I was just asking for a friend.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.