During the pandemic lockdown, several people I know have sheltered in place at Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, the Redneck Rivera, but nobody asked me to go.
I guess I’m bad company, or maybe they think I have cooties, but I can understand their desire to head to the water. I like that area myself.
My last duty station was Naval Air Station, Pensacola. I came home on weekends, and I had a red, 1992 fox-bodied 5.0 Mustang convertible that would almost outrun the Holy Ghost.
I bought it second-hand off a lawyer in Hattiesburg who used it to pull a camper trailer, which struck me as overkill and just a little crazy. I kept thinking of that movie about Desi Arnaz and Lucile Ball on their honeymoon (The Long Trailer) when I first drove it.
Unfortunately, the car matched the profile of every drug dealer vehicle running east on Interstate 10 out of Mexico, so I often got stopped for speeding, particularly around Mobile, on the way home to visit my family in Oak Grove.
When the state trooper saw my Navy uniform, however, he would just get back in his car; after all, I was headed in the wrong direction, albeit a little fast.
I still love to go to church at the Florabama, the famous night club on the beach, straddling the Florida/Alabama line. Services are held twice on Sunday morning, and they are packed with both locals and tourists.
The church band is made up of musicians who play in the area night clubs, so the hymns are rocking.
My last time there, a few months ago, the pastor had parachuted onto the beach behind the Florabama building, a tandem jump, and performed a baptism in the surf just before the early church services.
My kind of guy.
There’re lots of theories why people love the ocean.
For example, evolutionists might say that we came from the water and that we have this primal instinct to return to it, just like those baby sea turtles you see on the nature television shows, skittering across the sand moments after hatching.
Some neuroscientists say that humans are intrinsically connected with the sea and that when in harmony with it, we experience profound psychological benefits that can elevate mood, reduce stress and improve faculties such as concentration, clear thinking and memory.
Others say that ocean waves generate negative ions, charged air particles that have been linked to mental energy and emotional well-being.
Or maybe it’s because about 71% of the earth’s surface is water with the oceans holding 97% of that water and, as my doctor likes to tell me, the human body is 60% water; so maybe it’s inevitable that the two will eventually merge.
In any event, there’s even a word for loving the sea: “thalassophile,” which is from the Greek word, “Thalassa,” or sea. I know that sounds like a disease, and I’ve had it bad as long as I can remember.
In my case, growing up as a child of dirt farmers outside Lumberton, which did not yet have tumbleweeds rolling down main street, my window on the outside world was the local picture show, the Apex theater, which would occasionally alternate its usual Saturday matinee fare of cowboy shoot-um-ups with swashbuckling epics on the bounding main.
I was hooked, or maybe “shanghaied” might be a more appropriate word, into a change of loyalties, what psychologists would refer to as “transference,” to switching role models from characters like Johnny Mack Brown and Wild Bill Elliot, saving the homesteaders, winning the girl, and riding off into the sunset, to idolizing such celluloid heroes as Errol Flynn and Clark Gable swinging through the rigging of white, canvas-clad sailing ships with a sword clinched in their teeth.
I’ve loved the sea and ships since the first time I read “Moby Dick” and floated down Black Creek underneath Highway 49 at Brooklyn in a john boat.
In high school, I would skip school and go to Gulfport to watch the banana boats coming up out of Honduras and Belize unloading their cargo, long before I learned that the United Fruit Company had turned both countries into the prototypes of banana republics.
Even back in the 1950s, the bananas came to the States on container ships, and I was disappointed that they were not unloaded bunch by bunch, as in the Harry Belafonte tune of that era, “Banana Boat Song.”
I really wanted to see one of those “beautiful bunches of ripe bananas, hiding the deadly black tarantula.”
Many years later, in the field at Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton, outside Oceanside, California, the tarantulas would come out of their holes in the ground around our campfire at night in droves. They didn’t like fire, and they just naturally didn’t like each other.
We would catch a couple, pair them up, and they would fight to the death. Some people say that tarantulas are not venomous, but don’t believe it.
It depends on the species. Some only sting about like a wasp; others will cause intense muscle spasms and even hallucinations. Always check your boots before putting them on.
I was more afraid of the scorpions. They are sneaky and harder to find.
If I had the gas money, I would go to New Orleans and sit on the levy behind the old Jax brewery (“The Beer of Friendship”) and watch the tugs, barges, freighters, and tankers passing on the river. I learned to read the flags they were flying – if you know what to look for, you can tell where a ship has been and where it’s going.
I’d read the home ports embossed on their sterns and fantasize about going to Bremerhaven, Monrovia, and Nassau myself, not yet realizing that such designations were usually just “flags of convenience” for insurance or legal purposes, or to circumvent labor laws and avoid paying their non-unionized Filipino or Indonesian crews decent wages, and not where the ship was actually from. Maritime racism.
Once you are committed to the sea, you have to decide whether your interests lie in it or on it.
Although I have no interest in fishing, for example, I have definitely seen some interesting things in the sea: swimming with sea snakes during swim call in the South China Sea; watching whales spout migrating past President Nixon’s old compound on San Clemente Island; sailing in the Sargasso Sea, the only place in the world where eels come to spawn and die, etc.
My focus, rather, has always been on the sea, primarily on the ships that ply it. Joining the Navy at 17, I always sought out sea duty, with 20 of my 36 years on active duty spent at sea.
I served on destroyer escorts, destroyers, frigates, cruisers, and even a battleship. While I was assigned to some interesting and historic vessels, I also saw some unique craft that stand out in my mind. Let me share just a few.
I always enjoyed coming into the port of New York, passing piers 84-92, where I often saw such famous passenger liners as the SS France, which was known as “Le Plus Grande Paquebot du Monde,” or “the best mail boat in the world.”
In the heyday of the transatlantic liners, carrying the mail was an important function.
The French postmarked a letter mailed at sea with “Paquebot” (ocean liner) or sometimes simply “P.”
I also saw the SS United States, which held the “Blue Riband” for setting the speed record in 1952 from the Ambrose light ship, off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, to Bishop Rock, off Cornwall, England, in 3 days, 10 hours, and 40 minutes.
The United States could also do 20 knots backwards. By way of comparison, it took Christopher Columbus 5 weeks to sail to the New World, and he had the benefit of the Gulf Stream pushing him west.
It was always a good feeling to see the Ambrose light ship itself, painted red, looming up out of the foggy approach to New York City.
It meant that you were getting back to the “world,” or back to the States. It’s gone now, just like the transatlantic liners, replaced first by a beacon on a Texas Tower and now by just a floating buoy.
A word of advice: if you are ever sailing back into a channel marked by buoys, like the one under the bridge at Orange Beach, keep the red one on your starboard side and the green one to port. The rule is “Red right returning.”
Just up Interstate 95 from the Big Apple, in New London, Connecticut, you can see the only “Nazi” ship in the American military, the U.S. Coast Guard sailing barque, Eagle.
Built in Hamburg in 1936 to train German naval cadets, we acquired it in 1946 as war reparations after drawing straws with the Russians.
It was originally named Horst Wessel, after a founding member of Hitler’s SA (“Sturmabteilung,” literally a “storm detachment”).
Rudolph Hess, who you will remember flew into England on that ill-fated one-man peace mission and ended up imprisoned for life, gave the commissioning speech (Rumor says he was the ghost writer of “Mein Kampf”); and Hitler himself scarred up the new teak decks with his hobnail boots, but no one was brave enough to complain.
Other than the USS Constitution in Boston, “Old Ironsides,” which only gets turned around at the pier once a year, Eagle is the only commissioned sailing vessel we have.
It is used to train Coast Guard cadets at the nearby Coast Guard Academy.
Similar to Eagle is another “tall” ship, the sailing vessel, Esmeralda, a steel-hulled, four-masted barquentine of the Chilean Navy that I visited in Recife, Brazil. Nicknamed “La Dama Blanca,” or “The White Lady,” it is a beautiful sight to see underway. Esmeralda, of course, means “emerald” in Spanish, and was the name of Victor Hugo’s heroine in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the cathedral in Paris I hope you got to see before the recent fire.
In addition to ships, the Germans also gave up some unique floating cranes as war reparations.
For example, until 1999, at the Long Beach, California, Naval Shipyard, you could see possibly the largest one in the world. Affectionately known as “Herman the German” by the shipyard workers, it was used to put one of my ships, the battleship, New Jersey (BB-62), almost identical to the old USS Alabama laid up now in Mobile, back into commission as part of President Reagan’s attempt to build the Navy up to 600 ships.
Now called the Titan, Herman is used in the Panama Canal to raise the doors on the locks for repairs. The British got its twin, but it sank in the English Channel while being towed from Germany.
In case you are wondering, we only have 280 active ships in the Navy today, and with 1/3 at sea, 1/3 standing down after deployment, and 1/3 training for deployment, we probably couldn’t fight a two-ocean war very well, which has always been the standard of readiness.
I could go on, but after a while the memories of an old man become self-indulgent and begin to fade like aged photographs.
If this piece has a point, I suppose it is that our destinies are set in stone, or water, early in life, and we must follow them until the end of our days.
But, as she said to me when I left Marseilles: “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Light a candle for me.
Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at: bennyhornsby.com