By lex, on March 1st, 2008
I was looking for something else last night, and ran across an old letter. It was from my old man to me, sent about two weeks and a bit into my plebe summer at the Severn River Trade School.
I was not a particularly good plebe, as my first class detail never tired of reminding me. I had passed up offers to Duke and Virginia, and – sitting at a phone bank at the bottom of my dormitory with a dozen others just like me, wearing a uniform that had not quite broken in, sweating in a humid Annapolis night in a heat so oppressive that you could cut it and peel it back with a butter knife – I was beginning to wonder if I hadn’t made some sort of horrible mistake.
A couple of days later I received this letter:
24 July 1978
We are hearing very good things about you, as we told you in our phone conversation last night. We are proud of you indeed and we are sure you’ll make it fine.
I know you won’t believe it now, but the worst is over. It is downhill from here on out.
The Congressman has received excellent reports about you from the Academy. I am surprised at the detail. Almost every significant event that has occurred apparently is documented in detail. I haven’t seen it, and I don’t know if we will.
You stand in the upper 10% of the plebes as analyzed by your upper classmen – Outstanding in adherence to the Honor Code, outstanding in military – a bit short fused. This is the chink in your armor, they have found it and will exploit it. It was mine too. I think the worst things that happened to me were the unjust punishments and criticisms – the indignities and humiliations. I never minded too much being hauled over the coals for things that I had done wrong (and there were plenty) but when I had done everything right, and I knew that it was right it seemed too much to bear and not worth it – they broke me almost, I would have quit, but I didn’t have anywhere to go but down –
IS IT WORTH IT? YOU ARE DAMNED RIGHT IT IS. The payoff came for me on a bitter cold night in the spring of 1942 rounding the North Cape south of Spitzbergen. Mists, sleety snow, eerie Northern Light, magnetic compasses spinning (we didn’t have a gyro compass). The first real action for me and most of us on the ship, DEER LODGE. A couple of squadrons of JU 88 dive bombers and a squadron of HE 111 torpedo bombers penetrated the convoy. CAPE CORSO, laden with ammo, less than 1,000 yards away blew up – JUTLAND, laden with heavy structural steel, took a hit in the stern – and went down in two or three minutes standing vertically in the water as she sank with horrible noises of exploding boilers and cargo tearing her apart – BOTAVON, her bow blown off, steamed right beneath the waves – a fascinating sight. Men in the water – you didn’t stop – they were dead already – five minutes is about all you get in thirty degree temperature. The pay off? It is easy enough to keep station, maneuver, plot, enter logs, avoid collisions, put up an appearance of confidence and nonchalance when things are relatively serene but here we had to set an example for the crew – if we panicked then everyone would. It never occurred to me – terrified – HELL YES – but the conditioning made me do my job as effectively as if we were entering Rio on a beautiful tropical day in peacetime.
Jim O’Brien told me about some advice that he gave Dennis. Pick the dumbest, least admirable upper classman around and say to yourself, “If that guy made it, then so can I.”
Maybe good advice, but I think that I would pick the one I most admire, that has it all together the way I would like to be and say, “I want to be like him, he did it and so can I.”
I know this rambles, Son, probably with no great point, but I am banging out my thoughts as they come to me without any efforts to be logical or to write beautiful prose – forgive me.
We are so pleased at how well you did in the validating exams – I expected you to do well in English – but Math, well I did you an injustice. Go as far as you can in the humanities – the more advanced these courses, the more interesting – and you are prepared.
Never hesitate to call – in your case, we’ll accept the charges every time.
The more we know (the Hobbit), the more we think of her, she is as supportive a woman as ever there was. As much as she misses you, and loves you, and wants to see you she is not going to whine and upset you. If there is any way that she can make your lot easier and help you over the rough spots and back you up all the way I’ll lay odds she’ll do it and there is no way she is going to place you in jeopardy at the Academy. You know the operation by now, whenever she can come – we’ll see that she gets there, if at all possible.
We do plan to come up for the parade Wednesday – I hope you can break away for a few minutes but if it is not to be, well as (the Hobbit) puts it it’s only 3 weeks, 3 days and 50 minutes until Town Liberty. (Don’t ask anybody for anything, but if they give it to you, fine and dandy).
Another way to put it is that you have, as of this writing, put away 2 weeks, 4 days and 10 minutes (Don’t check my arithmetic).
I know that bit about my relative performance as a plebe wasn’t true – knew it then, know it now. What I don’t know is whether he had been misinformed, or whether he – a profoundly honorable man – had embellished a bit around the margins. For the greater good. I never asked him.
The letter is two pages long and neatly typewritten, apart from the valediction, which is signed in ink. There is only one typo, towards the end. Having been handled many times, it is a little dog-eared: There are various occasions for a man to feel sorry for himself over the course of a life lived up against the margins, and his letter always helped me to put things in perspective.
Or maybe it was just good to hear the old man’s voice echoing around inside my head again from time to time. He was a good man, take him for all in all. I would have liked knowing him as an adult.
He wrote it when he was 62 years old, and he would be dead in less than four years, never getting to see his only son graduate from the US Naval Academy. The letter is beginning to yellow.
There is some sort of stain at the bottom.