Memories Climb Aboard The Good Ship Columbia

I’m sitting in the forward viewing lounge of the M/V Columbia, the pride of the Alaska Maritime Highway System, somewhere south of Ketchikan bound for Bellingham, Washington. Expected arrival time is Friday around 8am or 0800 for you military types.

It’s been a comfortable few days aboard the Columbia with mostly good weather and calm seas. Today, it’s overcast and rainy, getting us ready for the Northwest U.S. where rain is a daily way of life. The ship is rocking slightly in 2ft seas and there is the distinctive smell of diesel throughout the ship. Those who have served on ships in the Navy will know instantly what I mean. Even more so for submariners where even the best snorkel lineup or surface diesel ops enable the light smoke to invade all spaces. Wives of those who went to sea know it as the god-awful smell that comes from the seabag that was thrown into the closet after a deployment and eventually brought out to launder.

The solitude onboard has enabled me to be both entertained and horrified by the excellent 10-part HBO series, Band of Brothers, the story of the fabled 101st Airborne during WWII operations in Europe. It is an exceptional story of bravery and camaraderie under extraordinary circumstances that included the D-Day landing at Normandy and the siege at Bastogne. I highly recommend it to all.

I never saw combat in my twenty-five years of naval service. Good thing, too, as the vessels I served on carried incredible firepower that would only be used when there were no other options and the often cited “MAD” or Mutual Assured Destruction was in progress. Every time we deployed and returned with missiles intact was another victory for us. And for the world. Because these weapons did not discriminate between those who chose to wage war against us and the poor guy just trying to find enough to feed his family that night. Millions of people in hundreds of wars have been like that guy – hoping to keep his family safe, ensuring that they get enough to eat, wanting a little better life for his young ones – all while ducking the next rock, arrow, bullet, or missile that whizzed over their heads. Glad I didn’t add to his troubles.

Still, as I watched the movie, it brought recollections of those that I have fond (and some less so) memories of from my own service. People who influenced me in some way, good or bad, and who I think of from time to time – wondering how they are doing or what ever happened to them. In some lucky instances, I’ve maintained contact and occasionally shared a beer with them.

Like Willard Bartlett, from Maine, who was already at Naval Communications Unit, London, UK (my first duty station) in 1974. I had completed boot camp, Radioman school, and was in jolly old England for a two year tour. Bart was an odd sort – college grad but not an officer. He was a very prim and proper sort who loved to hang with us rowdy young kids who drank too much and spent too much time getting hit for long hair and lack of military bearing. Bart got out and I went off to Submarine School. Many years later, I had progressed up the ranks and become an officer and had the opportunity to visit Maine on orders. I made arrangements to meet with Bart at the hotel and we sat down for some drinks. To my surprise, he was visibly upset that I had sold out – become part of the establishment. He had always admired my rebellious nature and I guess he expected me to continue on that path forever. No amount of explanation would erase the disappointment that I had become in his eyes. Sorry, Bart.

There was Tom Amann, part good friend, part evil nemesis. We went through advanced communications training and roomed together in the barracks. His constant entreaties to go out and party left me tired and hungover during most morning lectures. He always seemed fresh and ready to go. I don’t know how he did it. The class never got tired of Tom’s daily shining of his watch’s reflection on the bald spot on the head of one of our instructors as he wrote on the blackboard. I’m sure the poor guy knew what was going on, but was powerless to stop it.

And there was Doug Baker, a burly hick from Tennessee, who ran the sonar shack on the USS James Madison. He was a boot-scootin’, howdy-ma’am, semi-toothless boy who had three kids by the age 24 and not a complete piece of furniture in his house. He struggled to make ends meet on his meager pay but a house full of loud and loving family made him a rich man nevertheless.

John Oliveri was a garrulous Air Force Sergeant who worked with me at the U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha. He was big, Italian, and a joy to be around. He got a huge kick out of presenting me with my departing gift when I left Omaha – a red handset from a secure phone mounted on a plaque of Nebraska. I’ve been back to Omaha a couple of times since and he’s always ready to sit and catch up over a cold one.

John Major was a friend who opened the door for me to go to Mobile Technical Unit 14 where I had some crazy adventures and eventually followed him into the commissioned ranks. Captain Winston Weed was a hard-nosed, hard-driving, unforgiving son-of-a-bitch CO of the JAMES MADISON who I would go to war with anytime because he would bust your ass but, man, could he shoot the hell out of torpedoes. Milton Bartlett was a good-natured but perennial loser as a radioman who made an excellent ship’s cook after many misadventures demonstrated that his future didn’t lie in my radio shack. RM2 Mike Singer followed me to the MADISON from sub school and was a strong, supportive young shift supervisor during six straight understaffed patrols. RMCM(SS) Paul O’Brien and RMCS(SS) Mike McLachlan were true professionals who served as vast reservoirs of knowledge and support for a raw new department head at Submarine Squadron 16. And, of course, my wife, Donna, who, while making every apartment and housing unit feel like home during this time, made and lost countless friends during the many moves required by my career.

The more I reminisce, the more names and places that pop into my head and the more lost I get in the past.  But, I’ve already sufficiently bored you with this bit of personal history, so I’ll stop here.

Still, what’s the good of having a travel blog if you can’t wander off on occasion to look back on the path that brought you to where you are?


2 responses to “Memories Climb Aboard The Good Ship Columbia

  1. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard you acknowledge how many friends I’ve made and lost over the years. I had to start over at a lot of crappy jobs too, but the fact is, that you and Matthew are the only career I ever wanted. Thank you.

  2. Do not blame me for those hung over mornings……hahahaha. You and your front wheeled drived Tercel made sure we got back in heavy snow from playing darts and drinking John Courage. Do not forget the only class in advanced electronics that sang Christmas carols for the 12 days preceding Christmas that year. Those were some good times Keith.

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