by Guest Columnist Joe White
USN 1963-66, Fire Control Technician Third Class
So, I Joined the Navy
Just by the by, didn't the design contest turn out well! These days I'm just
your average paddle-it-down-the-creek canoeist but those little cabin sailors took me back
to my Navy days, when I stood watch on steel decks in the Mediterranean and daydreamed
about all those pretty sailboats moored around me.
In 1963 I graduated from high school and didn't really want to go to college (I lived four
blocks from Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, I coulda gone to school for coffee change)so I
joined the Navy. Figured if I joined the Army I'd spend four years in red-dirt Alabama and
my scores were too high to get in the Marines. I really was still enamored of all those
Horatio Hornblower novels, wanted to get to sea. When the Tonkin Gulf blowup came along I
was already stationed in the Atlantic so I can never claim to be any kind of Vietnam vet,
just a "Vietnam-era" vet.
I loved the ocean. Cold blue (or colder gray) North Atlantic, the white-sand bottoms in
the Caribbean, an ageless place where it feels like Columbus is anchored around the next
point. Crabbers driving out in the cold morning mists in Narragansett Bay. Fancy sailboats
heeling around the buoys, racing for the America's Cup, while classy women wearing tennis
bracelets watch disinterestedly from the O-1 deck.
Standing mid-watch at anchor in Corfu, off the west coast of Greece, watching the little
white and blue double-enders chug out of the perfect little harbor for the day's fishing.
Slender women stretched out on bright-wood yachts at St. Tropez, wearing light beige
two-piece bathing suits with two polka dots right on the....oh, excuse me, my mistake. But
the Navy wasn't bad either. Where else can a couple hundred 19-year-olds run a warship? It
wasn't exactly Admiral Lord Nelson's navy, but some of the equipment was almost that
old...But I got out at the end of my first and only hitch.
30 years later it wasn't so funny. My youngest daughter graduated high school, didn't want
to go to college and so.... yeah. She joined the CeeBees (construction battalions) of the
Navy and spent five years. One winter she spent in Bosnia, and she said, "Dad, for
the first time I feel like I'm doing EXACTLY what I should be doing. Because we're here,
these people aren't killing each other." She also enjoyed upsetting the Army brass --
the Army doesn't train women on M-60 machine guns, her combat assignment.
Service is like a fraternity. People in it are no better, no worse than anybody else, but
they have shared experiences that help them understand each other. It runs in families.
Sometimes the actual service skips a generation but the connection is always there (read
military historian John Keegan's personal notes and wonder with me if his books would ever
have been written had he been physically able to serve in the Queen's military). The
families are all around us, not invisible but transparent. They look like everybody else.
But they have stickers on their cars about past regiments and divisions, upcoming
reunions, parking passes to the nearest base exchange/PX. It's the lady with a brand new,
black baseball cap in the rear window of her car reading "U.S.S. Bainbridge CGN
25". A son? In this day and age, a daughter?
One day, one of my daughters will have a child who curls up with a C.S. Forester novel and
disappears into a bygone ocean. Maybe I'll buy the kid a ship model. My daughter will
disapprove. It'll be fun.
Joe White, USN 1963-66, Fire Control Technician Third Class