By lex, on December 16th, 2007
Yesterday I had set two main tasks before myself: I would complete the chapter outline of my revised thesis proposal and fill in the somewhat astonishingly numerous employment documents sent to me so that I can get paid to fly on weekends. Neither task required much intellectual effort – just putting the time in.
At 0930, while your correspondent was enjoying his second cup of coffee and lounging about in what he likes to consider his Saturday morning slops, the Hobbit peeled an invite off the fridge and reminded him that a shipmate’s retirement would be in 30 minutes – had he forgotten, at all? Was he concerned?
The retirement was to be aboard the USS Peleliu at the 32nd Street Naval Base. A good 30 minutes away from these our humble lodgings at a lope and of course it was to be expected that your humble scribe would arrive with all due pomp and circumstance, a-wearing of his very best service dress blue rig. As opposed to Saturday morning slops.
When I was a plebe midshipman, one of the more drearily effective forms of harassment was the “uniform race.” We’d be called out into the commons in the uniform of the day and then required and desired to dash back up the several flights of stairs in order to return to our rooms and expeditiously – but accurately – change into a new and usually unfamiliar uniform and race back to the assembly area in order to present ourselves for inspection. Doesn’t sound like much, but it did tend to go on and you didn’t want to be late: The last three mids to join formation always got “special attention” from the upperclass and woe betide those who had omitted some niggling detail in dress or accessory. The first would be forced to either strain away at push ups in the unkind Summer heat and humidity or else repeatedly hurl themselves into the bulkhead on either side of the hall “sounding off” name, rate and class. Inattentives would have to “brace up” – an extreme form of attention with the chin pulled painfully back into the neck, with shoulders thrust aft and spine erect while jogging through the corridors shouting to all and sundry, “Look at me, I’m imprecise!” I can assure you that it is far more entertaining to observe than perform.
Not quite 30 years later though, this form of “training” paid off – and not for the first time. In moments (about 3.5 minutes, actually) I had shed my layabouts, was dressed in a fashion befitting my state and was hurtling down the freeway hell-bent for leather, shaving as I went. I got aboard the ship only one minute late, which ordinarily might as well have been a year but thankfully I didn’t have a speaking part, and the people gathered there were many. I waved the startled quarterdeck watch away from the ship’s bell with emphatic sideway gestures of my right hand, lowered to the waist – no honors, for God’s sake – and found a spot in the back to watch the ceremony mostly unobserved.
My friend had been the executive officer of the local NROTC unit, serving the University of San Diego, San Diego State, UCSD and Point Loma – Nazarene University. His retirement was preceded by the commissioning of a bushel of young men and women in four pecks – eight new ensigns, three officers of Marines, two Army second lieutenants and a pair of bus drivers Air Force officers. Young. Frightfully young.
There is a rhythm to such things as familiar as the liturgy: A call to attention for the national anthem, followed by a priestly benediction and the parading of the colors. After that, some commanding officer of something of something or other reads a (hopefully) brief introduction to the Exalted Being who has been invited to do the Actual Speech. The young people are both congratulated for their hard work thus far and sternly admonished of the gravity of the tasks before them. The Republic is counting on you. You personally. Savvy?
Oaths are read and repeated back, identifying insignia of rank attached or revealed, the Marines are ensworded with their Mamelukes, first salutes are exchanged for a silver dollar (the first you pay for, the rest you must earn), we pray a bit more, or pretend to – while thinking about the fight still waiting for all those smooth cheeks – and then break up to mill around the canapes and bug juice.
But linger, yet a while. My shipmate, one of those “mariners and souls that had toiled, and wrought, and thought with me– that ever with a frolic welcome took the thunder and the sunshine, and opposed free hearts, free foreheads,” was laying it all by after 22 years of the faithful, standing down even as a cohort of the young and the restless stood to. It needed a moment or two of official things read aloud, kind words and a short speech condensing two decades of hard work, achievement and sacrifice before it could be considered rightly complete. Afterwards we shook hands, spoke briefly, promised to play that game of golf we keep promising to play and I walked off the ship to sound of four bells and “Captain, United States Navy, departing.”
It was a far more pleasant stroll down the mole than it had been a dash up it. Time to cast a professionally searching gaze across the hulls on either side and be quietly pleased to see nothing objectionable. Lines and ratguards just as they should have been, watches on deck, nothing but the least hint of a stain here or there, and that hard by a discharge vent. You never get it all.
A beautiful San Diego day, the sky so blue you wanted to drink from it. Ships. Ships and sailors, the sound and the sky. I had so missed it. It’ll be PowerPoint slides again on Monday.
Upon returning home I found that the house was left to myself and the Kat and after a brief discussion it was decided that Bronx Pizza in Hillcrest would be just the thing to set it right. On a whim passing the 8 we changed destination to Dave and Buster’s – where the food is good and young people are groomed to someday be compulsive gamblers. Dave and Busters, besides being a restaurant and gaming area is also a place fiercely resistant to being conventionally discovered. We always stumble over it while thinking ourselves lost and about to swing about for another pass – a sort of modern-day Brigadoon.
The Kat thought that appetizers alone would be just thing, and who was I to disagree? She had root beer, I had a Guinness and betwixt the two of us we had convo – horses mostly, she does the talking – and a ret good time. She’s 13 you know, and you have to treasure times like that. Times like that don’t grow on trees past 13. A 15-year old kid could be on fire and she’d still turn down a bucket of water with a polite, “No thanks,” so long as the person doing the offering was any class of father.
On the way home I threw the dice and asked if she’d want to extend the time a bit by shopping for a Christmas tree. It took us three different establishments to get the right price-to-quality ratio this year, since quality has been expanded to mean not only “unlikely to send the house up in flames within the first 24 hours of purchase” but also a kind of scale and grandeur. Size does matter, at least to some and she doesn’t settle.
Wrestled it home, set it up, utterly destroyed the legacy tree stand. The poor thing was never meant to grapple with eleven foot trees, so it was off again seeking a replacement. Several fits and starts later I was back at a tree lot, bashfully asking for their largest stand. “Twenty-seven dollars,” the young lady asked with a smile. I handed over my credit card and she continued, “Cash or check,” and of course, I had neither. The moment stretched wordlessly. “Just bring it by when you can,” she said.
And this, in San Diego.
Pizza was summoned, the clan joined – with even the Biscuit herself condescending to come out of chambers to help decorate the tree. The decorations themselves were brought out of their annual storage, as always with a little trepidation. Few casualties this year though, and old things that once brought smiles were brought forth in perfection, remembered, commented upon. The paper plate that the Biscuit had decorated 10 years ago when she was a mere nobbut was hung with all the solemnity of the crystal angel or the little porcelain statue of Father Christmas himself. Music to help us rock around the Christmas tree in that new old fashioned way when we weren’t decking the halls with boughs of holly. At 10PM it was discovered to our alarm that there were no candy canes. There would have to be candy canes. This serious breach of holiday discipline was soon rectified. The Kat and I returned to find the Hobbit and the Biscuit engaged in happy eager, heartfelt conversation. Warmed in a glow that wasn’t just Christmas tree lights the music turned mellow and we four pulled up chairs, sat close and just. Talked. Until midnight. Memories were summoned and tears were shed between the gales of laughter and serious thoughts, gentle reader. ‘Tis the season after all.
Another one of those moments, another of those days that I would have preserved in amber if I could, and kept someplace safe. To bring it out like the phial of Galadriel – to be a light for me in dark places, when all other lights go out.
I had set two tasks before me yesterday and accomplished neither. It was a good day.
This is the second Christmas the LeFon family is without their beloved husband and father. I hope the memories they’ve “preserved in amber” give them comfort over the Christmas season.