This is a love story.
As someone who still considers himself a sailor, I also consider it one of my greatest love stories. (With apologies to my beautiful wife whom I have loved for almost as long as the one I write about today – to be fair, I would have never met her it hadn’t been for you).
You were not my first.
In fact, by the time I saw you, I had lost a lot of my innocence. The excitement of seeing something new and experiencing the challenges that accompany that feeling had long been worn away with other experiences. You could almost say I was a little jaded. Two previous experiences had even made me a little afraid of taking another chance. The first one almost killed me and the second one nearly broke my spirit. I really had no intention of ever trying again.
But fate intervened and I found myself standing on the pier in the shipyard looking at you for the first time. My family thought I was nuts. I had just been through a horrific divorce and managed to find where the bottom of the lake really was. Note to self; it’s really deep and there is no air there.
The day we met
You weren’t very pretty when I first saw you either. Like me, even though you had been around for a bit, you were still not complete. There were still months ahead of effort needed to even get you to the point where you would be useful. But I was able to do the same and slowly become useful once again myself.
You taught me patience. I really sucked at patience the first two times and was constantly angry about how long everything seemed to take to get done. But day after day, I learned. The best things in life are worth investing in and watching come together in an orderly manner. Plus, it gave me a chance to be part of that development. I could put my hands on you in ways that no one else ever would be able to in the future. I saw the innermost parts of your beauty when they were still raw and uncoated.
You also helped me to learn about family. Instead of being just another person in a group of people that were already there, I got to watch as my brothers came to you one by one. Each of them was coming with the same level of experience on you. Virtually none. Some came from schools, some came from other older models, and some were even brand new. But each of us added our personalities. It’s funny to think of it now but nearly forty years later, they are still my closest family. I learned to trust them. To be fair, because of you, I also learned to love them with all of my heart. I had to. They had my life in their hands while we were all together. And I never lost a minute of sleep worrying about them doing everything they could to protect all of us.
Then the day came when you were ready. What a great coming out party. We had dignitaries, the press, and even the spirit of the President of the United States. They chose you to tell the world that the country you represented was back and we weren’t going to take any shit from anyone anymore. They promised you that soon you would have 599 other ships to stand alongside you and protect the country we all served. That was a hell of a day.
My real family was there to wish us well. But I was surrounded by my new family including a brand new wife and all of my brothers. Bonded with a common purpose. We had a shared goal. You provided them both. I think my bride was a bit jealous. But in time, she came to understand why I was so consumed with you.
There were so many lessons I learned while I stayed with you.
All of them have stayed with me all my life:
- Never give up. Life is going to throw some surprises along the way but you have to keep going. There will be storms and seas so rough you might think about quitting. But no destination was ever reached tied up next to a pier.
- Learn everything you can and then share that knowledge with others. It is the greatest gift. To truly know something, first and foremost you have to learn it yourself. Then you have to be able to give it away.
- Loyalty is more than just a word. It is a way of life. There are people in the world that will betray you along the way. They will say one thing and do another. Sometimes they will lie about you to gain an advantage. In the end, they will gain nothing but the rewards they have earned. But having brothers close to you that never betray… that is worth everything.
- Honesty and integrity are the glue that hold everything together. If you base anything on half-truths, they will not last. When the only thing that separates you from a million plus gallons of green seawater is a valve that had to be verified closed and locked, you learn to trust your brothers. A simple red tag will not stop electricity from slicing through your body, But a brother who properly checked and signed it will.
- While there are limits to depth and speed, there are no such limitations on how far you can go if you apply yourself. It turns out that the main limit is the one inside your brain.
Over the years, I also had to learn that sometimes, no matter how well we try, we are going to lose some of those brothers. I still see them all in my mind’s eye. We grew apart in distance and their lives came to a close much too soon. While I have spent a lot of time trying to put your story on paper, I can’t seem to bring myself to take them off the crew’s list. Some come to mind too often and way too easily. Silas with his easy laugh. Doug and the teddy bear. Joey and his patented smile. Others too. Some I never met in person but know they are forever tied to our story. I wonder if Jim plays the horn when each arrives for their new duty station? I can still hear taps in Yokosuka floating across the still waters.
And now they are taking you apart.
You will continue to serve in a new way but I wonder if you will miss the sea? You dove over a thousand times. I have no idea how many miles you went, but surely you earned your keep. A new generation of sailors will learn from you but I fear they will never know what you meant to all of us who sailed on you.
I’ll leave you with this. There will never be a seven eleven day that passes that somewhere, one of the family raises a glass and toasts you and those who served on you. Until the last of us is gone.
You saved my life. I literally left my heart on San Francisco.
Happy 711 day old girl. You took all of us for a hell of a ride.
To be honest, sometimes at night when dreams take hold, I still find myself at the BCP preparing to snorkel.
That is when I feel most at home.