Thanksgiving a quarter century ago.

This morning dawned with a wonderful warm November morning greeting my bleary eyes. It’s almost 50 degrees and I’m safe in my home in Saint Paul, Minnesota. 25 years ago today I was at sea on the U.S.S. Coral Sea some 4600 miles from my place of birth. All things considered, I’ll take Saint Paul. But the story of why I was in France and who I was with is important to me and I’d like to tell you that tale this morning. So go grab that second cup of coffee and make yourself comfortable. The tale continues below the fold.

Back so soon? The first thing I want to say is Thank You to our military members serving around the globe. Whether you’re stuck in the CQ at Fort Gordon, or reading this after you get back from your boomer patrol in January, I appreciate what you’re doing today to keep me free. It’s too easy to minimize and forget our service members when the press chooses to ignore their service. I have not forgotten. You are loved. You are in my prayers. Come home safely and do it soon.

In 1987 I was deployed on the U.S.S. Coral Sea, CV-43. She was known as the Cora Maru to the little group of spooks that inhabited Frame 19 and the God-awful space that was located adjacent to the catapult braking area. Every one of us has hearing loss. But we got really good at telling what kind of plane was launching just a few feet over our heads by the sound it made as it blasted off the ship. And that evolution went on night and day for the three months we were out there “visiting” the ship.

She was old. Her official nickname was the “Ageless Warrior.” Worn out this, worn out that. All of the water on board tasted like jet fuel (leaky pipes) and was oily. You had to be careful taking a shower because “live steam” would leak into some of the pipes and burn the snot out of you. People got run over on the flight deck and were crippled. We lost LT Joseph M. Mullany and his aircraft and never found a trace of him that I’m aware of to this day. Those little things should tell you a bit about our mission in 1987, arguably one of the warmest periods of the “Cold War.”

It was a real war to us with casualties, long hours, dangerous work, separation from our families, and a sense of camaraderie that I miss to this day. I can still picture that group of men quite vividly, and can taste the Marlboro that hung in my yap 24×7 when I was out of my rack.

We were in France for a unique event: The Today Show was going to do a live broadcast from our flight deck on Thanksgiving Day. First time that had been done and it was a really big deal. Getting there was not much fun. It was a rough November in the Mediterranean Sea and when I tell people we had “green water” over the flight deck they don’t believe me. Here’s a picture isn’t quite green water but it’s close, and it was taken on that passage to France –

Almost green water on the bow

The military, especially the United States Navy, has some strange traditions. One of them was our “manning the rail” on the way into Canne. We were too big to squeeze into the small harbor there, so the carrier dropped anchor well off shore. So far off, in fact, that any one sailor on the deck no doubt looked like a dust speck t anyone on shore. But we manned the rail on that final run in to the anchorage, largely for the benefit of the NBC cameras. It was cold and raw standing there that morning. That’s when I discovered that my pea coat had one silver button remaining from the switch to plastic. Thankfully someone loaned me their coat. Thankfully nobody caught the fact that I was pretending to be a CTI3 because it had the wrong “crow” or rating badge. I’m pretty sure I told some tale about how I’d forgotten to update my rank or was captured by aliens.

CT rating

And it was the day I got written up for wearing combat boots with my Dress Blues. Yeah, never was good on some of that “take everything with you” part of the navy. I couldn’t see the merit in wearing dress shoes on a carrier so I left them at home and wore the …oops, almost typed the name I called them then. Well, some Chief didn’t like the look and made an issue out of it. I got lucky and my division officer (Thanks LCDR Simpson!) went to bat for me. The Command Master Chief didn’t like my explanation of the combat boots and wanted me to buy all the uniforms that are required of a sailor, called a “sea bag” by all the “Blue Jackets.” In short, not a wonderful start to Thanksgiving.

We were stuck out off the coast, no liberty boats to take us ashore. The ship was truly abuzz with the activities to make it work for the television crews. I actually ran into Jane Pauley during a drill where I had to carry a stretcher. Having been taught to never volunteer I did my best to avoid such things, but when an officer grabs you and points, you generally do what you’re told. She was there, in the cramped passageway with her film crew. She is very diminutive, but the crew universally adored her and said nice things about her. She was very kind and polite to all she met on board.

NOBODY on board would say the same for Bryant Gumbel. He was a prima donna and complained non-stop. Word spreads quickly about such things and within about 12 hours he was widely known as “Bryant Grumble” by the crew. He hit full rpm when he whined on the set, complaining about being out on the flight deck during the rainy/cold weather. Not a word about the crew who rushed in to hold umbrellas over their heads or the fact that the deck crew was out there 24 x 7 year round. I know the electricians worked day and night to rig all the power needed for the broadcast and they were a bit hot under the collar over his behavior.

But I digress. I was lonely. And I missed my wife more than you can imagine. I hadn’t been home a whole lot in 1987 and things were getting rough. Mail was spotty at best and in the days before email you lived for that envelope. I didn’t get much mail on that trip, it was all messed up and would come in clumps. Clumps won’t cut it when you’re out at sea. We worked long days every day. Even in port we stood watches in our spaces and it meant that true days off were nonexistent. You woke up on the ship and went to bed on the ship and ate most of your meals on the ship. You spent every moment of your life with the same 10 guys including your time on shore. If you didn’t become like brothers there was a giant hole in your soul.

But it was a time in my life when I was spiritually empty as well. I’d left the church a year before and was angry with God over the actions of man. One man, a Priest, who wasn’t very accommodating in getting some marriage classes done so we could have a church wedding. I walked away and did my best to fill that void with work and beer (I was a sailor, after all.) It didn’t work. I didn’t know who I was or what my destiny was – nor did I care. The mission was the focus and I only wish that I knew then what I know know about God’s love.

But back to Thanksgiving. It was just another gray day below the decks of a 40+ year old carrier for me. And thousands of others. And today there are no doubt thousands of military people around the globe for whom it’s another day like the one before and the one to come after. It’s a job, a duty, a sacred honor in many ways to serve in our military. They are far from home and family on this day when many of us are not thankful, but instead are worshiping football and gluttony. Nothing wrong with some serious turkey and pigskin, but it is important to remember the genesis of this day in our modern history and offer thanks to God. It came to be an institution during our Civil War and that lends an especially deep note to some when we celebrate it during a time of war. Cold War or hot war, it’s still our nation in struggle and strife.

So, today I remember just how miserable a Thanksgiving can be and how wonderful it is to be where I am today. Please stop whatever you are doing and offer up a prayer of thanks right now, and throw in a prayer for our people in the military. And give a prayer of thanks for the chance to read your favorite blog in a free country.

What will I be giving thanks for today? My liberty. The fact that my two old dogs are still here and snoozing a few feet away. The chance to share a meal with my good friends Bob & Pat and their families. My wife – and the fact that I can turn and talk to her and not have to wait three weeks for a letter to reach me.

What are you thankful for today? And will you remember to be just as thankful two weeks from now?

Finally, I’d like to thank the people who maintain the unofficial navy website where I “liberated” all of these pictures. It’s a great site and I thank them for the chance to live some of those memories again.

God Bless and have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Comments are closed.