In 1997, a ship that I was very familiar with, the USS Edenton (ATS-1), a salvage and rescue ship long part of the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, was extensively overhauled and given to the Coast Guard. Most significantly, it was then renamed the “Alex Haley” (WMEC-39) and was the first Coast Guard ship named after a writer. Assigned to Alaskan waters, it is now known as the “Bulldog of the Bering Sea.”
Alex Haley, an African American, served in the Coast Guard from 1939 until 1959, and is today remembered as the author of “Roots” (1976), a celebrated novel and television series about Kunta Kinte, an African slave brought to 18th century America. It is also a record of Haley’s efforts to trace his own family origin. While he was from New York, where his father was a graduate student at Cornell University, Haley briefly attended Alcorn A&M, now Alcorn State University, at Lorman, Mississippi, before entering the Coast Guard at 17.
We all wonder who we are and seek meaning in life. In 1976, I had been in the Navy for 16 years when Alex Haley published “Roots,” and I was intrigued by the fact that he was a retired Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer. I had read his “Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1965), and I could relate to his quest to learn about his past. Many of us question how we fit into this little moment of the space and time continuum. On my mama’s side of the family, I heard mention of a rebel grandfather, several grands back, who spent the Civil War as a Confederate deserter hiding out in the Red Creek swamps of Forrest and Stone counties. On my daddy’s side, I knew his people moved here from Sand Mountain, near Birmingham, to farm the cheap, cut-over timberland around Purvis during the Depression. They were also religious conscientious objectors during World War II, which led to me getting a draft notice from the Lamar County Draft Board in1961 even though I had already been overseas in the Navy for two years. The official letter said I had 30 days to report to Jackson for my induction physical or face the consequences. I didn’t make it, so I suppose there must be a warrant for my arrest out there some place. In any event, none of the yarns or anecdotes I heard about my family seemed to apply to me.
Like Chief Petty Officer Haley, I, too, was adrift at 17. I was a tabula rasa, a blank tablet; and in my case, the Navy’s stories became my stories. The longer I stayed in, the more difficult it became to separate my prior life from the life I was living; from what I had been to what I had become. I absorbed the Navy’s past, and all its traditions, myths, and tales became my own. Even now, I can tell you more about such things than I can about myself. Let me share just a few examples, perhaps a sorry summation from a mind filled with such random information: the origin of taps and the hand salute; why sailors place coins under the mast; and what is a dead horse.
It was my first night in boot camp when I heard taps played just for me. I was lying in my bunk, 2,000 miles from home, exhausted, wondering what daylight would bring, when its haunting sound came lilting across the drill field, softly settling into every dark corner of the suddenly quiet barracks. What had been a cacophony of sound from the lips of 100 newly caught sailors from west of the Mississippi abruptly became quiet as each one of us, in our own way, pondered the events and circumstances that had brought us to that point of place and time.
The original word, “taps,” is derived from the Dutch word, “taptoe,” or time to close all the beer taps and taverns in the military garrisoned towns. In a quaint volume entitled “The Military Guide for Young Officers” (1776), printed in Philadelphia by Thomas Simes, there are these instructions for the officer of the guard: “The tat-too is the signal given for the soldiers to retire to their barracks or quarters, to put out their fire and candle, and to go to bed. The public houses are at the same time, to shut their doors, and sell no more liquor that night.”
In time, trumpets were used for tat-too, and there was a melody for “taps” or “extinguish lights” as early as the American Revolution. In a 1933 St. Louis “Globe Democrat” article, it was recorded that a man named Vincent Norton, of Bloomfield, Michigan, had told the “New York Times” that the current melody of taps was composed by General David Butterfield, a general in the Civil War’s Army of the Potomac, and that it was first sounded by the writer’s father, Oliver W. Norton, brigade bugler, in July, 1862, at Harrison’s Landing, on the lower James River, in Virginia, where the Butterfield brigade was encamped.
The son said that he often heard his father tell how General Butterfield scribbled the musical notes on the back of an old envelope, summoned Bugler Norton, and directed him to sound the notes. After a few trials and changes, the now world-famous call was finally arranged to suit the general and ordered that night substituted for the regulation bugle call, “extinguish lights” which up to that time had been used by the United States Army. Soon adapted by the Navy, the haunting melody was reportedly heard wafting up late at night from Confederate encampments as well.
Today the hand salute is a dignified and military gesture. It is the act of military and naval men looking another companion in arms in the eye and, by proper salute, paying due respect to the uniform and to the authority of another servant of the state. The hand salute in the American Navy came to us by way of the British Navy. That there was nothing in the hand is a possible explanation of the British salute with the palm turned out. There is a certain plausibility in placing the ultimate origin of the salute in the medieval days of chivalry. It was customary for the knights in armor to raise their visors, so that those of the same order could see their faces. In time, the gesture denoted membership in the same order or another friendly organization. Because of the strict graduations of rank in the days of chivalry it is believed that the junior was required to make the first gesture, and that distinction in class and in grade entered the beginnings of the hand salute.
I hardly ever get to give or receive a hand salute anymore. The only times are my occasional visits to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi and my yearly Veteran’s Day presentation at my daughter’s 4th grade class at Purvis Upper Elementary School. I usually get saluted by the Keesler gate guards upon presentation of my retired Navy ID card, unless they are daydreaming, because after 9/11, all military rank decals were removed from civilian automobiles to prevent terrorist attack. I seriously doubt a terrorist would waste a bomb on any car that I drive, however.
The children are a tough audience, and having to do something to keep their interest, among other things I line them up and teach the proper hand salute. Children, especially boys, are interested in military-related subjects, and teaching them the proper salute is a hands-on activity that they enjoy. I’ve noticed that everyone’s natural tendency is to give the open, palm out, British style salute, so the need is there. Most will never use the skill as only about 1% of today’s youth join our all-volunteer military. Many more try, but can’t meet the mental and physical standards, or have had problems with the legal system, primarily drug-related, which disqualify them. It seems bad, but on the other hand, only about 2% of high school boy-girl relationships last, so it’s an arbitrary, transitory world that we live in.
I only had the opportunity to be a “Plank Owner” once. A plank owner in the Navy is assigned to the original crew of a ship when it is first constructed and placed in commission. Having been ship’s company in 7 ships, I can tell you that even modern sailors are very superstitious, and the ancient custom of placing coins under the mast of a new ship is part of that superstition. It is possibly a memory of the old Roman custom of placing coins in the mouths of the dead to pay their way to Charon for transportation across the River Styx. If a ship met with mishap at sea and all hands were lost, this ensured that the way of all was paid.
I also don’t think I’ve been on a ship yet where I didn’t hear the rumor that one or more shipyard workers had been trapped and died inside some watertight space of the ship during construction, thereby ensuring that the ship was forever cursed. Such customs and rumors tend to show that even modern sailors cheerfully subscribe to superstition, and some might even have read Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), with its revenge tale of a man being buried alive.
About the only curse I ever experienced in the Navy was the dreaded “Dead Horse.” That was the practice of borrowing against your next paycheck. I don’t know if it’s still permitted, but I fell into the trap several times as a kid. Going back to the days of sail, mariners were permitted to borrow a month’s advance pay. After four weeks at sea, or at whatever time the advance money had been worked off, the men made a horse out of canvas stuffed with old rope and waste material, and permission was requested to light it and hoist it out to the end of a boom or yard. This was done amid cheers and marked the time that the crew or individual started to accumulate wages “on the books,” and were relieved of the weight of the dead horse. The sad part about my dead horses was that I usually borrowed money to buy things I really couldn’t afford.
As I grow older, I am hoping that my luck will change; but I guess I’m a goner despite all. I keep seeing on cable television that some big law firm is dying to sue somebody on my behalf because of the toxic water polluting Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. It just so happens that I was once assigned there, and even attended Field Medical School there before going to Vietnam. Since I’ve never said anything about being covered with Agent Orange, doused with asbestos numerous times, and exposed to second-hand smoke for 36 years, I guess I’ll keep quiet about drinking that water, too. C’est la vie.
Last Saturday, I attended the annual Mississippi Book Fair in Jackson, and I was privileged to meet another man who adjusted to and dealt successfully with the world in which he found himself – James Meredith. Mr. Meredith, as you know, bravely integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962 after spending 9 years in the Air Force. After serving his country, being a tax paying citizen, and inspired by John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, he felt that he had as much
right to attend a state university as anyone else. Upon graduating from Ole Miss, he received his
law degree from Columbia University and has remained a prominent civil rights activist.
Now 89, Mr. Meredith was energetically manning his display booth in the book-selling area of the fair, and I found him to be friendly, well-spoken, and cogent. In closing, I’ll share with you the dedication that he graciously wrote on the first page of his memoir, “Three Years in Mississippi,” that I was happy to purchase: “To Our Future!”
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: email@example.com.