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The United States Navy Memorial

Navy Memorial Honor, recognize, & celebrate the men and women of the sea services.

Off Beaver Tail Light

07/01/2013 8:45AM

By: Commander Ed Bookhardt, USN Retired

As described in my short story MAL DE MER, heavy seas had taken its toll on the men of Headquarters Company assigned to the forward troop compartment of the Attack Transport Olmsted. The dark triangular shaped compartment with canvas bunks stacked to the overhead was directly beneath the forecastle. Its location in stormy weather exaggerated the motion of the ship many fold. For terra-firma loving Seabees, seasickness had been rampant; some cases were so severe it brought on immobility and acute dehydration. The poorly ventilated spaces reeked of a moldy dankness and vomit. Conditions were untenable… The weather subsided during the early morning hours of the last day at sea. At reveille the ship seemed almost motionless. I momentarily thought we were dead in the water. Then I heard the sounds of the bow wake and the water hissing along the sides of the hull. I loosened my grip on the bunk frame I had held for eternity and shook my hands to restore circulation. Easing down the bunk tiers I slowly gained some equilibrium. Wobbly legged; I washed up and mustered the courage to go to breakfast as meals had been few and far between. I took the ladder to the main deck to clear my lungs and air my uniform of the sickening odors before going amidships to chow. As I stepped out on deck, I was taken by surprise! The unexpected crispness of the frigid air sent a chill through my body. It was delightfully exhilarating and an abrupt change after a year in the tropics. In an instant the nauseating maladies that had plagued me seem to vanish! Dawn was breaking off the starboard quarter in brilliant hues of reddish-orange and yellows giving the sea an eerie golden sheen. Off to port, Block Island appeared in the distant mist. The familiar squawk of gulls, terns and other sea birds echoed off the superstructure then dissipated on the soft breeze as the seabirds circled overhead or planed the placid ocean surface. I stood a moment in total awe of the picturesque seascape. A deep inner joy swept over me…I was about to see my beloved wife and children. We would be sharing the Christmas Holidays together! I smiled, did a little skip, clicked my heels and went to the mess deck. The mess was filled with excitement, homeport was only a few hours away and spirits were soaring! The smell of brewing coffee and baked goods drifted out into the passageway. Bill Andrews, one of our Master at Arms and a close friend met me as we picked up trays and silverware. Bill a born jester, could put an entire funeral congregation including the dearly departed rolling in the aisles! He had an infectious trait that lifted the spirits…the type of guy you like to be around. Grinning broadly he punched me lightly on the arm, “Hey Big Ed, old buddy, we’re gonna be sleeping with our sweet, sweet mamas tooo-night! Damn, it’s been a long time…ten, eleven months! I think I can still remember what to do…hope I can get Willie to attention!” He looked pensively down at his crotch and sighed…“Wild Bill, damn you do love to ham-it up! You should be out in Hollywood making “Road” movies with Hope and Crosby! One of those desert flicks where you hump a camel, or better yet, and perfect for you, as an exhumed mummy!” We both laughed… After promising we would take the girls to the “Nasty-gansett Inn” for beers, I reluctantly returned to the stench of the troop compartment to try and shave and change into my Dress Blues for our arrival at Quonset and the Construction Battalion Center. The Skipper had allowed First Class Petty Officers a piece of hand luggage, so along with some small family gifts, I had my pea coat, inspection Blues and shoes packed in a small flat suitcase that always kept them neat and wrinkle-free. I had long been tagged with the handle, “A. J. Squared-away” by my drinking buddies. It was recognition I deeply cherished. My other belongings were stuffed in the old seabag, along with the friggin’ sardines and pork-n-beans I was told by some ships company smart-ass to bring along as the ship was a lousy feeder! I snickered at being so damn gullible. Carefully knotting my neckerchief at the vee and donning my pea coat, I mustered my squad. Then shouting and shoving we all headed topside to find a spot at the rail. As the ship passed Point Judith, a thick fog bank lay across the entrance to Narragansett Bay. It stretched from Beaver Tail Point to Newport. A collective moan rippled across the deck as the ship’s PA system crackled to life to advise we would lay off Beaver Tail light until the fog lifted enough to receive the harbor pilot. My thoughts triggered by latent anxieties turned to the lot of a married sailor and the never-ending cycle of deployments and homecomings. I understood, and fully accepted it as a standard part of Navy life, yet it can sometimes grind you down. In all honesty, I didn’t mind the departures as much as the homecomings. The bride, a real Navy wife took on the additional responsibilities of decision making, finances and other tasks in stride during my absence and though we were young, our marriage was solidly structured. Of course saying goodbye is a ball-buster…I never know how to handle those last few moments before grabbing my gear and bidding farewell. On the other hand, the excitement of a new deployment, the anticipated adventure soon fills the void. The journey into the unknown can be extremely addictive. I always found that after a few days of adapting, and dealing with pangs of loneliness and the blues, particularly after “lights out,” I was settled in for the long haul…career sailors do not count days or mark calendars. On the flip-side, homecomings can be traumatic roller-coaster rides of overpowering joy mixed with caution and uncertainty. Your habits and tastes change during months away, as do those of your wife and growing children. The family structure is affected dramatically! You try to resume your role as a parent and head of house with as little disruption as possible. But even then you often run into conflicts, particularly as the children age. Re-establishing the intimate side of marriage after long separations can also be extremely awkward. You are in fact, two strangers. Deep loving intimacy cannot be achieved without being comfortable with your mate. Closeness in the mental sense is paramount for it to work. It truly takes a period of gentle caring consideration and adjustment to bring that about. For some it is never achieved… My day dreams were suddenly interrupted by the commotion of the pilot coming along side and the roaring cheers that followed. Knowing he was the “man of the hour,” he waved and smiled as he made his way to the bridge. The ship adjusted it course and slowly made headway past the narrows off Conanicut Island into Narragansett Bay. The bay area in the wintertime is like an old black and white movie; everything is in shades of gray. However, the cold dullness of the passing shoreline could not dampen the spirit of the occasion. Light flakes of snow began to fall as the tugs pushed the ship into the Quonset Point piers. With the mooring lines over, the band began playing Sousa marches. Their efforts were soon lost in the enthusiasm of the awaiting crowd and some six-hundred jubilant sailors manning the rails, decks and superstructure. Scanning the sea of upturned faces, welcome-home signs and fluttering banners below me, I spotted her bright crimson car coat! Snowflakes dotted her raven hair and had begun to accumulate on her slim tapered shoulders. There she stood, my rock, my soul…she was so beautiful holding the baby in her arms and our son by her side! Smiling, she blew me a kiss and then pointed me out to our son. Squinting, he soon found me and began waving his tiny flag before bashfully burying his face in his mother’s coat. Tears began falling on my up-turned collar. That all too familiar lump in the throat, the shuttering subdued sobs, feeling each beat of one’s pounding heart! Oh, the overwhelming wonders of it all…

Commander Ed Bookhardt, USN Retired