By lex, Mon – May 24, 2004
The USS JOHN C. STENNIS got underway this morning, headed for points west. It’ll be a while this time, before she’s home again.
The TV was on this morning, and on it there were Sailors lining the rail of a gray-hulled warship, behind an announcer babbling inanities in the foreground. The Hobbit smiled and asked, “Oh, who’s coming home?” It’s a Navy wife thing, the communal joy of a homecoming, even when you don’t know anyone on the ship or in the battle group. A warm knowledge that somewhere, a lot of people are very, very happy. A misty recollection of smiles and tears of joy, a remembrance of reunion.
I wrote about that feeling here – the joy of a homecoming after a long deployment. But this was not to be one of those days. I wracked my brains for a moment, trying to remember who would be coming in – no one, all the west coast strike groups, for an amazingly short and singular period, had been home last week. Then I remembered: Today JOHN C. STENNIS was to leave San Diego on an extended deployment. I passed this on to the Hobbit, who quietly said, “Oh,” and looked away, and I could tell she was a little sad. Because the lives of those who spend their lives at sea are like the tides themselves – there is ebb and flow, a yin and yang. You train for the deployment and then you leave, in order to earn the right to come home again.
My staff had spent a lot of time with STENNIS strike group – we had trained, and mentored and evaluated them through rocks and shoals of the training cycle. We had invested a great deal of effort to make them as ready as they could be – to join the fight in the Global War on Terror, or wherever else the nation sends them. 6500 people, strangers to us at the beginning of the training cycle, they were now our friends. And they were leaving. In just the way that Sailors have left home for so long as men have used the sea.
She had just gotten underway when I got on base – I was refueling the car at the gas station (15 cents less per gallon, on base), when I heard the single proud, prolonged blast of the ship’s whistle indicating that the last line tethering the ship to shore has slipped into the bay, to be retrieved on board. When I drove by the pier, I saw the brightly colored tugboats churning the water at her sides, nudging her off the pier, into the open bay where she could make steerageway on her own main engines, and clear the channel to chase the setting sun.
I knew what the people on the ship, lining the rails in their dress whites were feeling. For the youngest, there is a kind of excitement, the sense of limitless possibilities, adventure, and a chance to learn and grow and demonstrate mastery of complex skills. There is for those who have been to sea before, and for whom the adventure has lost its novelty, there is sometimes a deep and abiding sadness, an awareness of the enormity of the time and tasks to come. They will have the memory of that last embrace before liberty expired some two hours prior in the pre-dawn parking lot – a body-length hug that you don’t want to ease away even minutely, because when you do, it signals the end of that part of your life for a while; you’d have to turn away, walk up the brow, walk away from love. But the moment always comes, and then they will have made their way up the brow, up there to the rail, waving their small, almost hesitant goodbyes until the pier is out of sight, taking with it the last, longing glimpses of home and family. When she is safely to sea, they will go below decks and change into coveralls or flight suits or dungarees – there will be much work to do before they rest. Best to get started.
But I had never seen the families on the pier up close before – only through a pair of binoculars from Aux Conn. Now as I drove past, I could see them, see their faces. The very young children with the questioning eyes, tended by the painfully young mothers with tears in their own. The teenage sons and daughters trying hard to be brave, and generally succeeding, most of them, most of the time. The stolid, Midwestern parents with their signs and American flags. The brothers and sisters who mostly don’t get it, the many of them that never really will.
And I said to myself, “Oh,” and I looked away, as the Hobbit had earlier that morning. Like her, I was a little sad. She had gotten it earlier – she’s much faster on the uptake for this sort of thing than I am, much more intuitive. But then again, she’s had a lot more practice.
Farewell JOHN C. STENNIS – following seas.