Sunday, June 15, 2008

Living History

Date: 25 May 2008
Location: USS Nimitz; between Wake Island and Hawaii, Pacific Ocean

Dear Friends and Family-

When I was a little kid, I was obsessed with World War II, specifically the Pacific theater. I presume this comes as no surprise to anybody reading this, as the contemplation of all things military, Navy in particular, seems to catch my interest and inform my musings. My favorite movie was "Midway," about the eponymous battle in June of 1942, which I must have watched every weekend throughout middle school. My eighth grade history project was on the "Great Mariana's Turkey Shoot" and the recapture of Saipan and Tinian Islands in the Mariana's chain from the Japanese in 1944. Heck, last summer my mom found some of my Kindergarten papers, and on one that asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wrote "Air Force pilot." (disclaimer – I was unaware the Navy had an aviation arm at the time!)

So throughout my life, these histories have reached almost mythical proportions, only to be reinforced by my current profession and the role Navy fighter pilots played in each. I could point out on a globe where each of these chains were, and the path that was needed to get there by Halsey, Nimitz and MacArthur. But until I actually saw these islands for myself, as I recently did, the full impact of this written history was far from apparent.

In my past three months aboard this ship, the one thing I have come to appreciate more than anything else is how incredibly vast the Pacific Ocean is. We can take off, climb to 30,000 feet, and on a clear day, as far as the eye can see, view uninterrupted shimmering blue water. No land in sight, save a few scattered volcanic specks. Off the coast of Japan, its color takes on a more grayish hue, but its beauty becomes absolutely mesmerizing near Guam and other tropical islands. The deep blue of the deep ocean is just that. Its beauty belies the desolation it represents, but is compelling nonetheless.

Among this vastness are tiny oases of human activity separated by thousands of miles. It is surreal to fly over the island of Saipan, see that it is a mere few square miles of area, then glimpse the light shallows on its Western side. When I first saw them, I almost forgot to keep flying as it suddenly hit me that this was the very coral where thousands of Marines waded hundreds of yards to reach their landing beaches because their amphibious craft didn't have the draft to take them further. The coral upon which the landing and one of the lynchpins of the Island Hopping strategy was almost stopped in its tracks as many were cut down before they ever reached dry land. The coral upon where thousands of GI's, and tens of thousands of Japanese, died for a seemingly small piece of land in the middle of the Pacific.

A week ago, we passed by Wake Island. Unlike Saipan, accompanied by her sisters Tinian and Guam that comprise the major players of the Mariana Islands, Wake is really an atoll, and she is all alone. In what ended up being my last flight of this cruise, we took a section of Super Hornets to check the island out, and discovered that there is exactly one airstrip, and one golf course on Wake. That's it. In her midst was an emerald colored pool that took up most of her land. In my minds eye, I could see the thousands of landing ships surrounding this interruption of ocean, and almost feel the terror of the defenders as they saw the approaching armada on the once perpetually empty horizon.

And tomorrow, we will pull into Pearl Harbor, setting foot on American soil for the first time in months. The Nimitz will have her rails manned around the flightdeck with sailors and officers in whites, rendering honors as we pass the memorials to the sunken Tennessee, Nevada and Arizona. It is fitting that this coincides with Memorial Day, in perhaps the most sacred of all places for the United States Navy.

Yet while this cruise has for all intents and purposes been a peaceful one for us, with the only inkling of actual warfare being the aforementioned living history (and a few cheeky Russian bombers), it is the changes and refining process that I have undergone that will undoubtedly shape me for the rest of my life.

One of the things that continues to be the most significant for me is conversing back and forth with friends from flight school, some of whom I hadn't spoken with in ages, who are on assignment throughout the world. It seems like yesterday that we were all struggling through the same simulators, complaining about the same instructors, and dreaming of the day when we too would be shot off the front of a perfectly good ship. It is one of the characteristics peculiar to myself (I think) that I become closer to people through absence and subsequent reunion. Perhaps the reflection of hardship shared or revelry fondly reflected upon is the thing that solidifies brotherhood in my mind. But it is there nonetheless when I hear about passage through the Straits of Hormuz, operating off the coast of Australia, or making a port call to Marseilles. We may be separated by thousands of miles, and countless time-zones, but the empathy and understanding is universal.

This has not been an easy cruise, psychologically or mentally, by any stretch of the imagination. Especially as a Nugget, I've lost track of how many nights I've gone to bed tossing and turning in my rack, wondering if I will ever cut it. One too many one wires, the frustrations of life at sea coursing through my brain when I know I should be sleeping. After a bad landing at the boat, the hardest thing I have ever done is get up again the next morning, and convince myself to climb in the jet to try it again – wondering what the skipper is thinking still trusting me. Every time taxiing to the catapult at night, musing that I still have a chance to stay on deck – all I have to do is not flip that switch, controlled merely by my pinky, turning on all the aircraft's lights indicating I am ready to be hurled into the darkest blackness I have ever experienced. That's what a sane person would do. Yet every time, I for some reason flick the switch on anyway, meaning that at some point I will have to come back and land – and it will probably be even darker.

Cursing the fate of having nowhere to blow off steam because no matter where you go, I am still on the ship, able to be called back to the ready room at a moments notice. Sometimes the only solace being to close the curtains across my tiny cube of personal space, put on the headphones with a Beethoven Symphony and read through the latest issue (it being from Sept of '07, but still refreshing) of Smithsonian magazine stopping on an article about the homes of the founding fathers – in an attempt to take myself as far away from this place and the Navy as possible.

Then sometimes I get up in the air, things go right, and an unexplainable feeling of euphoria envelops me. The sun setting, orange and reds brilliantly bouncing off the clouds as another section of Hornets passes below me. I catch the three wire on a rails all the way, center ball pass, shut the jet down and smile as the plane captain asks how my flight went, the adrenaline keeping my spirits up at least through midrats (midnight meal). I've once again made the world safe for democracy, and CAG has nothing to be mad about. Yet I still wonder what life is like with trees and plant life, the beguiling smell and saunter of women, and good food. Mythical things we have all heard of, and maybe even experienced at one point in our lives, but seemingly out of reach.

Somewhere, some place, gas prices are apparently going up. Mortgages are being foreclosed on. I even hear there is an election going on, with a barnburner of a campaign and the associated meaningless commentary from self-important talking heads. Universities are graduating a new crop of lawyers, businesspeople, doctors, financers. The things that used to consume my daily life are merely echoes in the reality I occupy on cruise, and somehow they just don't seem that important. One day at a time, one more day, then maybe a time will come once again where life exists outside these metal walls. At least this highly concentrated environment has one up side – it puts into perspective what really matters.

When I first came to meet my squadron in Japan, I remember sitting in the waiting room of Narita airport in Tokyo, looking around, thinking of how great it would be to spend time getting to further know that culture. What it would be like to then spend subsequent years in various parts of the world just learning and living their different cultures. But as this cruise has gone on, and I have had the chance to visit quite a few other places, it has become apparent how much I miss the States and how incredible it really is.

When I fall asleep at night, it is not the rest of the world I dream about, but memories of my home. The rolling hills of Virginia horse country in the summer, exploring and discovering out of the way taverns amidst slowly settling mist. Experiencing the museums of Chicago, and the bustle of Michigan Avenue. Absorbing the magnificence of the Washington Mall at night, seeing Mr. Lincoln on one side and the glowing Capitol building on the other, then solemnly walking the Vietnam memorial as tears slowly well up being in the presence of fallen compatriots. Driving though Bel Air gawking at the mansions and gaudy displays of wealth, but loving the palm tree lined boulevards and falling in love with California. Running the Lakes of Minneapolis and stopping at the Bandshell to hear whatever concert happens to be occurring, then getting a scoop of ice cream from Sebastian Joe's. Driving through the Sierra's to ski Squaw Valley and catch a glimpse of Lake Tahoe shimmering on a cold winters day. Hearing from friends who have just led their first ER operation, taking about the shenanigan's of their kindergarteners, what the first year of married life has held. Most of all, the freedom to do whatever we American's please, whenever we please. The cacophony of opinion, both left and right, the marketplace of religions, the innovation of free markets and free peoples.

I am almost there, and for that I am grateful. My friends are still scattered throughout the globe, and though I will be back for the time being, part of me will remain with them, often in situations and environments more serious than any I faced in the Western Pacific. They will not see home for some time yet, but perhaps the history they are making now will one day inspire a young boy to dream, and see with his own eyes what the history books were really talking about.

Thanks for all your support -- it means the world.

Ben

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

please write more...Wilma

NPSmith said...

You write so beautifully! I stumbled upon this while searching for conservative sites to keep my spirits up during this cynical election cycle. Glad I found yours! God Bless you, Nancy, Omaha, NE

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