By lex, on Thu – January 15, 2004
I was driving in to work this morning, past the carrier piers, where USS JOHN C. STENNIS and USS NIMITZ are parked. I was running a little late, and turned the corner by the carrier pier just at 0755. Just in time for morning colors.
The senior ship on the waterfront will lead this ceremony, every morning, rain or shine. A bosun’s mate will blow shrilly on his pipe: “Attention!” Then comes “Present arms,” and finally, “Carry on.”Aft, on the flagstaff, the “ensign” (more commonly known as the American Flag) will be raised, briskly. On the jackstaff, forward, the jack will be raised, simultaneously. Only in port will a ship wear a jack. And only in port will she fly the ensign aft – at sea, the ensign flies at the main mast, and never comes down, these days:
When cruising under wartime conditions, it is customary to fly the national ensign continuously at sea, since battle action may be regarded as always imminent. (U.S. Navy regulations)
The jack we fly these days is the first Navy jack, also known as the “Don’t Tread on Me” jack. In my younger days, only the oldest combatant ship in the Navy wore it, and for a time, when I served aboard INDEPENDENCE, that was our jack. First flown in 1775 by Commodore Esek Hopkins of the Continental Navy, the flag was a signal to engage the enemy.
Shortly after 9/11, Navy leadership made the decision that all warships would fly the “Don’t Tread on Me” jack, not just the most senior one. And so they do.
So anyway, turning the corner this morning as colors were piped, I stopped my car until the brief ceremony was complete. Beside me was a young Filipino sailor, ramrod straight, and saluting proudly. At his side, was a graying, 50ish dockworker, with a ponytail, also at attention, his hard hat over his heart. And everywhere on the waterfront, everyone stopped whatever it was they were doing, and rendered honors to the flag. And when “carry on” was piped, they went about their lives.
Now this sort of thing either warms your heart or it does not. But it is one of those small ceremonies that is so very commonplace, yet means so much to me. It has gone on in precisely the same way for over 225 years, day after day. It forms a direct link to the earliest days of our Republic, and a link as well to the unbroken chain of Sailors that have served our country so honorably for all of that time – a sturdy chain that has never yet let the Republic down.
The oldest, most grizzled Master Chief, up on that flight deck, watching the color ceremony with a gimlet eye and brass in his voice, a veteran of two desert wars and perhaps Vietnam was once a seaman recruit. His leading chief had fought in Korea, and perhaps as well in World War II. That chief as a seaman served with a man who had sailed around the world in the Great White Fleet. His chief had sailed up the Mississippi at full speed, damning the torpedoes. And so on, back to the infant Navy of 1775, the fighting men who sailed with John Paul Jones, and David Farragut and Hopkins who first flew that Navy jack, and by flying it meant to clear the decks and prime the guns for combat. These are our fathers and our grandfathers.
Somehow the ceremony also reminded me of an event that took place several years ago, when I was living in base housing in Fallon, Nevada:
My son, then 11, was walking his 8-year-old sister to the school bus stop, holding her hand. I was watching somewhat wistfully, knowing that one day they would grow up. Although I did not hear the trumpet call, I knew it must have sounded, because suddenly my son stopped short, and turning his sister to the right, faced the flagstaff by the front gate. And although I had never taught him to do so, he stood there at attention while the ensign ran briskly up that flagstaff.
I remember looking at my watch – it was 0755.