Cologne, Peanuts & Diesel: Growing Up Navy
Sociologists refer to military brats as a “subculture.” As if it’s a choice, an affectation. Ours is an inheritance of shadows. We are haunted by the wars we did not fight.
July 9, 1962. My Grandfather and my Dad walk down to the Makalapa pool at Pearl Harbor. At 10 p.m., the Johnsons look out on the South Pacific as an eerie green borealis appears in the sky, shooting sheets of viridescent radiation that soon recede into a cherry red glow.
Starfish Prime they call it. An upper elevation nuclear test in which a warhead is detonated in the magnetosphere so the military can measure the effect of concentrated atomic energy on radio communications.
A few months later, my Dad is participating in frantic and futile emergency missile preparedness drills as his high school gropes to cope with the impending prospect of nuclear war. Up at Pearl, a Teletype message chatters in to Grandpa’s office notifying him in apocalyptic staccato that Kennedy is raising the Strategic Air Command alert to DEFCON 2.
My Dad recalls the Starfish Prime explosion with great fear and wonder. The horrors of nuclear holocaust have a gorgeous light.
Newport, Rhode Island: Winter 1988. My first memory. Toddling little me, alternately enchanted and terrified, watching intently out of the converted servants’ quarters we’re renting during my Dad’s six-month stint at the Surface Warfare Officers School. No one wants to cough up top dollar to live on Narragansett Bay in the cold months. We pay a song to reside in one wing of Chastellux, the oldest mansion on the island — built on the foundations of a fort Rochambeau carved out during the Revolution.
Outside, heavy breath fogs forth from the mouths of two Carhartt suit wearing construction workers. They kick a neon soccer ball back and forth, up and down. I watch obsessively.
BOOM. Huge chunks of the house beyond come crumbling down. Controlled demolition. Explosions soundtrack the flight of this impossibly colorful little orb as it dances in the broken shadows of a late winter afternoon
Heart of a lion, soul of a Marine. USS Smedley Butler. The name has been changed to protect the innocent. The facts remain. 404 feet of steel displacing 4,200 tons when full. Keel laid down in October of 1981, five years before I appear on the scene. 209 men and fifteen officers manning two GE LM2500–30 gas turbines, two auxiliary propulsion units, air-search/surface-search radar, sonar, fire control radar, 1 OTO Melara Mk 75 76mm naval gun, 2 Mk triple-tube Mark 46 torpedo launchers, 1 Vulcan Phalanx anti-missile system, 4 fifty cal machine guns, 1 Mk 13 Harpoon anti-ship missile launcher and SM-1MR anti-ship/air missiles. One UH-60 helicopter for good measure. One Captain in 1990, my Dad.
A Perry Class Frigate, workhorse of Pax Americana with a 5,000 mile nautical range and top speed of 29 knots. A low-slung, ubiquitous fleet compliment built to do dirty work quickly and efficiently. There were 71 like her, but I don’t feel anything for the other 70. I save everything for the Butler.
Cologne, peanuts and diesel. An extraordinary perfume of utility, vanity and hunger hanging from my Dad’s service khakis. That scent marks his return from the ship every day. Lingering in the days and weeks after he leaves. You begin to understand why people save the clothes of their dearly departed loved ones. Smell is a powerful goose to memory and feeling. An almost acceptable surrogate for a father half a world away. A cheap sugar rush of emotion: intoxicating for a moment before crashing into a tailspin of reality.
St. Patrick’s Day, 1990. Back when you used to be able to drive right on to the pier. My Grandfather stands Prussian and stiff next to Grandma. His bony fingers holding my head, instructing me on the stations of familial pride. He grips my body, but it’s not my body that he feels at all. It’s the rail of the Arnold J. Isbell, the Davisson, the Manchester, the New Orleans, the Springfield. He is confused, vicariously titillated. This is not his day. It is his son’s day and an awful one at that.
A tug drags the Butler out from her berth in Long Beach, out past the breakwater into the Pacific and out of sight. My Mom takes me to Winchell’s Donuts where every little ball of sugar is slathered in green frosting — my favorite. Then we go to Disneyland and ride the train. At the end of the day, we come home and Dad is still gone.
The Captain’s wife — loneliest of all. A world of burdens on her shoulders. The house, the family, the bills, the other wives, the admirals, the obligatory show of strength, the solitude. She is of solid frontier stock, built to endure, tenacious, loyal, determined. Constant prayer is her cloak and sword. An unending search for grace in a storm.
Her entire life has prepared her for this trial. She does not know it yet. One part divine appeal, one part atavistic entrenchment. Her parents, divorced when she was two. Her mom long gone. Her dad an expert at the subtleties of emotional abuse, a ghoul who refused to speak to us, but still lingered on the periphery of our lives, a constant abstract menace.
April 15, 1990 — Easter comes late. There was to be no resurrection that year. One of the junior officers on the Butler has a son my age. We go to school together. We know one another. We share afloat fathers. Then one day we share nothing because the boy is dead.
My Dad pulls strings in WestPac to get a bird out to the ship so the father could go home for the funeral where the priest is drunk. He teeters and slurs his words during the ceremony.
The families rally in the only way they understand. Enlisted and officer families alike go down to the Exchange and buy up a room full of Easter toys and candy and stuffed animals and all the other pleasures I dream of owning. They sit there under lock and key in our guest bedroom. Prizes for a dead child. Just close enough to facilitate a fantasy that would never be fulfilled. One day it is all gone.
Paper chains, a time-honored tradition amongst military families. Tiny links of construction paper pasted together. Each link represents one day until the ship returns to port. We children are fools to assume this jury-rigged homage to the anchor is an ironclad agreement with the United States Navy.
The terms of service do not make exceptions for compassion and love and emptiness and spiritual necessity. We, the families, are but another component in the defense machine to be adjusted, managed and placated whenever necessary.
The Navy does not appreciate a squeaky wheel. We are told time and time again — the only way to support your loved ones is to be a team player. “Don’t worry,” they say, “we’re in control.”
Rear Admiral Insight, my Dad’s superior officer. At a luncheon shortly before the war starts, my Mom greets Admiral Insight and gets a blank stare in return. She’s Commander Johnson’s wife? Nothing. Commander Johnson of the Butler? Dead eyes, confusion. Commander Johnson of the Butler in the northern Persian Gulf? Faint glimpses of recognition.
That moment scares the living shit out of her. The man in charge of my Dad’s well being is clueless. Very reassuring.
Wives and dependents are cunning people. We smile and circumvent. We have basic needs — food, shelter, safety. As well as pressing ancillary demands — are you going to get our loved ones killed? Can we trust you? Who will have the decency to be honest?
Mom does the Captain’s Wife two-step. She tends to the flock of wives and girlfriends. She slaps on lipstick. She advocates for her husband. She asks uncomfortable questions. She refuses the bullshit party line. She makes people feel uncomfortable. She invokes the name of Sybil Stockdale. She gets what information she can.
The Admiral’s aide had been my Dad’s XO years before. The skipper of the Butler’s sister ship, the USS Jarrett (FFG-33) passes information to the Gulf on my Mom’s behalf. She finds help where she can.
August, 1934. The bus from my grandfather’s home in Steubenville, Ohio to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The year before, my Grandfather’s brother, a brutish hulk of muscle known in his USNA prep school yearbook as “Frankenstein,” rides the bus. One spider bite later and he’s riding home in a casket. This year, his diminutive, bookish younger brother Charles, my Grandfather, assumes his slot at Annapolis where his love for electronics earns him the sobriquet “Wizard.”
Graduates 1938, serves aboard cruiser USS New Orleans out of San Pedro before joining CINCPAC Staff at Pearl. First in his BOQ to awake on December 7, 1941. Watches railroad mounted 40mm Bofors gun swat at Japanese planes, witnesses fleet destruction, dutifully works to ensnare the Japanese at Midway, delights in their suffering. Serves with MacArthur. Plank holder USS Springfield, survivor Okinawa campaign.
Returns to the states in ’46. Marries a WAVE from Santa Monica. Dad comes into the world.
Grandpa builds a career in the tin-can navy — a consummate destroyer man. He skippers DesRon 25 (Submersas Obruimus Hostis) out of Pearl until the Honolulu Conference of 1964 when he makes choice remarks about American military commitment in Vietnam being inadvisable. Finds himself re-assigned as commissioning commander of the Naval Inshore Operations Training Center in Vallejo where he is tasked with establishing fighting doctrine for swift boats in the Mekong River Delta. The job comes with a free, armed trip to Southeast Asia. He survives. Again.
Summer 1990. They invite my Mom and I up the coast for family dinner. Grandma flitting around the house, dusting antiques, bribing me with sweets. Grandpa sitting quiet and demure in his favorite easy chair where he would die almost fifteen years later.
(When my Dad and I go to move the chair out of the house in 2005, we find his WWII issue Navy shark knife unsheathed and razor sharp, stuck in the side beneath the cushion where he could get at it easily. He was a vigilant man.)
His first subscription is always protocol. Do not cross the Navy. Be supportive. Stay out of the men’s way. Do your duty. Grandma nods along.
A veil of cruel calculation masking tremendous hurt. Years later we uncover his telegraphic correspondence with my Dad aboard the Butler. From son to father: “You were right. We should not be here.”
Summertime in the Persian Gulf. Night time low: 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside the Combat Information Center (CIC), on-board cooling knocks the heat down to 105. Tensions run high. Situation Normal: All Fucked Up.
An impossibly bleak tactical forecast. The Butler is tasked with anti-air operations as well as freighter boarding and reflagging amidst a warren of hazards. The name of the game is “presence.” The Butler sails beneath the weight of three ships.
April 14, 1988. Perry class frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) strikes an Iranian mine while patrolling these same waters. The keel snaps. Ten sailors wounded. US Navy initiates Operation Praying Mantis against the Ayatollah’s Navy. In 2003, an international tribunal judges the battle to be an unlawful exertion of power on the part of the United States.
May 17, 1987. Iraqi Air Force a constant threat. An Iraqi Mirage fighter puts two Exocet missiles into the hull of the USS Stark (FFG-31), wrecks the ship and turns almost of a fifth of the crew and officers into casualties in an instant. Perilous precedent.
July 3, 1988. Captain Will Rogers of the USS Vincennes (CG-49) responds aggressively to reports of Iranian boats harassing shipping. Trigger happy, he engages the Iranian craft with his 5-inch gun. The ship’s radars pick up an air bogey coming out of the gulf from Bandar Abbas, Iran. Chatter in the Vincennes’ Combat Information Center reports the plane could be an “Astro” or an F-14. Rogers fires two surface-to-air missiles at the target, which turns out to be Iran Air flight 655. 290 civilians die.
In 1990, immediate orders for the Butler fall into two categories: “don’t take the first hit” and “don’t fuck this up.” A razor’s edge conditionally polarizing the captain’s conduct between the passive and the aggressive. The ship is caught between the flaming hulls of vulnerable American warships dead in the water and the embarrassment of a first strike humanitarian crisis.
October 23, 1983. My Dad is just off shore of Beirut on the USS New Jersey. Early that morning, suicide bombers drive truck bombs into the Marine Corps barracks, killing 241 American servicemen.
Before the ship closes on shore and trains her 16-inch main batteries on the Lebanese countryside, then Lt. Johnson receives orders back to the states. He leaves the “Big Dragon” on a bird bound for Cyprus where he hops a ride back to the states on a C-141. The hold of the massive cargo plane cannot accommodate the Marine caskets. The airmen line the aisles of the plane with the surplus sarcophagi. The in flight announcement instructs all passengers to please refrain from resting their heels on the solemn metal boxes
Upon receiving deployment orders six years later, Cdr. Johnson takes an oath that he will not lose a single man due to inattention of his own. “We weren’t about to get caught sleeping for a heartbeat,” he later tells a correspondent from the LA Times. With boot-fucked orders coming in from all angles and a nervous, exhausted crew at the helm, he does just that — he doesn’t sleep.
I, the home front tyrant. A savage little ball of temper tantrums exploding like so many pyroclastic flows. A screaming fit here, a seething mess there. Shoes thrown in anger, fists flying — the symptomology of a child without his father who does not know how to express this absence in anything other than the vernacular of rage.
I give my mother a black eye. Literally. I pop her in the face with a wing tip. We were visiting friends in the Bay. The next day, we take a plane home. The flight attendants treat my Mom extra nice. Her black eye conspicuous next to her then semi-permanent furrows of worry. I was there, the actual culprit looking ultra-cherubic.
I exhaust my supply of pre-counted links in my paper chain early on a Saturday morning. Exuberant little Daniel runs curls-a-flying into his parents’ bed then being used by Mom and Chip, the tabby cat that took up residence on my Dad’s pillow the day he deployed and stayed there with amazing fortitude for the duration.
I jump up and down, starling the whole kit and caboodle. It is “Daddy Day.” But it isn’t. Something has happened.
Those were desperate days for my Mom. I don’t think anyone knew how tough she had it except for the neighbors. We put a yellow ribbon up on a tree in front of our modest house in Garden Grove. A news report indicates that criminals might be targeting houses with yellow ribbons because the patriotic symbol denotes a male service member deployed abroad. So my neighbors get together and buy as much yellow ribbon as they could. They deck the whole block in goldenrod.
In the wake of the Vincennes incident, radical Islamists issue threats against the wives and families of Navy CO’s in the Gulf. We recognize it now as bluster, but in the high days of paranoia, no one could discredit the threat. My Mom begins drilling in the driveway to see how quickly she can yank me out of my car seat and get to safety. Not swift enough.
We have our little escapes. Twice a month on pay day, my Mom picks me up from school and takes me to a celebratory kids meal at KFC. If the Captain is away on duty, we might as well lean on the Colonel.
Back in March, my Mom purchased military discounted season passes to Disneyland. We live within earshot of the fireworks. When things get a little too serious, she takes me up Harbor Drive to the Happiest Place on Earth where war in Iraq is a trifling concern and we are stoutly banned from being anything but joyful.
But you can’t escape from heartache. That’s the rub. It always finds a way back.
August 2, 1990. Saddam’s armor punches through the Kuwaiti border. Of the four American ships in the northern Persian Gulf, the Butler is closest to the battle. Tasked as “anti-aircraft warfare commander,” it’s the ship’s job to observe all air action and protect the fleet below.
The Butler and its sister ships in the Gulf fall under the command of Rear Admiral Teamplayer, a political sacred cow who served as the DoD’s chief investigator in the Vincennes incident. Apparently, his memory for past American failures is pretty short.
On the first day of the war, Teamplayer radios the Butler. He’s requested permission from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to fire at all planes coming down the Gulf. Take heed. In a moment of frustration, my Dad climbs the pole in the ship’s CIC and shouts, “you can’t do that — we’re going to shoot friendlies down!” Teamplayer’s request is flatly refused. He is soon supplanted by other commands.
Radio communications are suddenly taxed with a glut of messages. A standard communiqué to the Butler takes five days to arrive piecemeal. If you believe Bob Woodward’s account of high-level leadership in the Gulf War, The Commanders, this sudden drought of information is by design. Secretary Cheney and other upper-echelon advisors harbor an intense fear of another civilian tragedy fostered by an over-stimulated skipper.
Intelligence briefings sent to the USS Butler become sparse. A man already low on sleep and dually tasked with preserving the lives of his crewmen and acting as a fine honed instrument of American foreign policy suddenly finds his eyes and ears sutured shut.
August 3, 1990. Shortly before nightfall, a British destroyer hails the Butler on a secure circuit. The Captain has received intelligence from the Royal Navy indicating the high probability of an attack from no less than seventy Iraqi jets. The British captain proposes “to stand abeam of the Butler all night and shoot it out.”
My Dad politely declines. He slips his ship behind offshore drilling platforms to mask her radar signature. This becomes de rigueur. The USS Butler becomes a ghost. At night, the ship darts in towards the shore line where primitive cell phone networks enable my Dad to call my Mom collect so she can briefly tell him every specific mention of troop or equipment movements she has seen reported on CNN that day.
That’s how the USS Butler gets its wartime intelligence. That’s how they stay in the fight. That’s how my folks rack up a still un-reimbursed $3,000 phone bill in 1990.
At home, the wives are coming undone. The ship’s phone tree doubles as a viral rumor mill. Hysteria grows exponentially. Unfounded claims become known facts. Reports from news outlets balloon into apocalyptic threats.
My Mom uses her contacts to dispel the most unsettling scuttlebutt. No, the Iraqis will likely not be wasting their few planes on a concentrated kamikaze attack on US Navy ships. No, it is unlikely that chemical weapons will wipe out the Butler’s crew.
Friends and family of one wife in particular have to forcibly unplug her television so she’ll finally sleep instead of marathon watching CNN.
October 13, 1990. By the time the Navy pulls the ship off the line, her crew are known as the “Butler Zombies.” On board the crew refer to her as “The Frigate From Hell.” They pull into port two days short of the ship’s ninth birthday.
I don’t think I will ever be that excited for something again.
The mooring lines go out. The bow thrusters nestle the hull against the pier. The band strikes up. The brow reaches out to the ship. Families charge aboard to see their loved ones.
We have a photo from the LA Times. The photographer captures the very moment I see my Dad again. I have a pristine look of absolute ecstasy on my four-year-old face. His arms hook beneath my race car sweater and send my squealing self flying up into the air above the deck.
I nestle my face into his neck. The smell isn’t what I had hoped. It is dry and foul. The cologne and peanuts have all but disappeared. It is a scent of diesel, salt water, sweat and frustration.
That afternoon my Dad comes home and sets up his loot. The ship stopped in Hong Kong on the way back to Long Beach. He buys me a train set. For himself, he scores a receiver and a CD deck. We set up my new choo-choo and then he plays Rubber Soul for me.
“There are places I remember…”
Then we all live happily ever after except not.
My Dad comes back exhausted. His reassuring tone shields me from what the thick bags beneath his eyes and freshly sprouted patch of gray hairs belie. There is a hurt he doesn’t acknowledge, but we can plainly see.
One day in May, my Mom and I come home to discover our kitchen windows are gone. Whosoever took them off the had also seen fit to stroll into my folks’ bedroom and take every little bit of jewelry they’d accumulated over their short, parsimonious lives. That little theft, the feeling of undeserved violation by a categorical enemy — that goes a long way in teaching me how to hate.
In June, Dad gets orders again for Newport. This time as an instructor. I lose all my friends and my sense of security in that move. My parents lose worse. The Savings & Loan Scandal and George H.W. Bush’s base closure policy tag teams their pocketbook. They lose their shirts, their nest egg and the 3k they’d sunk into keeping my Dad informed.
In August of ’91, we weather Hurricane Bob as it slices across Aquidneck Island. We batten down the hatches and watch from inside as the world turns to chaos outside. It is as it was the year before — three of us (plus some cats) doing our best to endure lethal gusts.
Afterwards, all the proud and vertical oaks on the block are ripped out of the earth. Only the tiny saplings survive. Their elastic trunks genuflect to the gale and thus are saved. Such is life.
We end up moving again the next year. Full restart. Virginia this time.
In Rhode Island, the cool kids sit in the front of the bus for reasons I will never understand. In Virginia, the sixth graders congregate logically in the back. I violate this critical custom on my first day at a new school. The older kids enlighten me as to my ignorance by wrapping the cords of my sweatshirt around my neck and choking me with them while they punch me in the stomach. I went a long time that year without friends.
Thanksgiving, 2003. My Grandpa comes back East to visit. He’s wheelchair bound by this point. We bundle him up on a breezy day and take him down to the mall in DC to see the Vietnam Memorial. I push his chair along the serpentine gabbro wall. It has been characterized as a scar and rightfully so. When we reach a particularly narrow stretch in the path, a very respectful Japanese film crew shooting a segment on the wall blocks us.
I stop pushing. Grandpa signals to go forward. Every time I slow, he eggs me on. Finally the feet of his chair are inches away from the reporter’s silk stockings. She looks down at a crusty old man sitting ramrod straight in a rented wheel chair. He looks back up at her and says, “get the hell of my way, you goddam Jap — this is my memorial.”
She steps politely from the path. We press on.
Old passions die hard.
One Veteran’s Day not long before then, a late tropical depression flies up the Atlantic Coast and inundates northern Virginia with a warm, weekend long monsoon of moisture.
My Dad and I are driving in his pickup when the song “Riders on the Storm” comes on. The album L.A. Woman came out in 1971, just before my Dad’s second stint with the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club. The rain comes down in thick bands. My Dad pulls the truck over. At first he just looks out the window and up towards the clouds and then he puts his head in his hands and sobs.
February 2015. We gather on the helo deck of the Butler as she sits in port at the 32nd Street Naval Station in San Diego. It’s the sort of white cake and punch affair the Navy has obliged its acolytes with since the days of Halsey. A few minutes before and some choice words from the skipper of the 1st Marine Division, a dip of the colors, customary whistles and a brass band rendition of “Eternal Father” serve to decommission the ship.
It’s been twenty-four years since the three of us stood on her decks. She creaks in new ways. The paint is cracked. The hull shows its age. So too, my Dad hardly resembles the man who took her to sea in 1990. His hair is pure silver. The sharpness in his eyes flashes now and then with the same electricity as it did when he was skipper, but it’s rare and fleeting. If you knew him then, you might hardly recognize him now.
Yet, they know him. Men who were 18 and 19 and 20 year old boys when they’d gone to the Gulf with my Dad. They salute and shake his hand and introduce him to their children and speak of yesterday and the things that transpired long ago and the respect they felt for him all these years.
Everyone grows up in the glow of something they can’t quite comprehend.
In my father’s life I see the traces of a mid-July atomic fireworks show, a mixed awe and terror at a nuclear age teetering on a brinksman’s razor between immense prosperity and holocaust.
Through much of my life I’ve struggled to understand my own relationship to the wars of my Father and my Father’s Father. The military ethos preaches invincibility, moral superiority and a God-given imperative to transmit one’s noble values to the entire world. The life of a military brat privileges this projection of power. We are mobile and tough. Mission oriented. We inherit the strategies and tactics inherent to the family business.
We are also subject to strength’s unspoken corollaries — fear, vulnerability, hatred and isolation.
I’ve spent most of my life torn between. I espoused a version of my self that was rock solid and built on an unshakeable foundation. I learned at an early point to mask my weaknesses, to act with force, to appear impervious. Yet, so much of my life points to an uglier truth, a great and vast insecurity. Paranoia, undeserved rancor, brimming vitriol, punitive fantasies, a violent temper, irrational disgust — these are the tell tale signs.
After all, we brats bear the hurt of war. We insulate it and keep it warm. Our bodies and souls are receptacles of an unimaginable heartache. We have a way of looking out at the world from behind the walls of an emotional castle built to protect a lonely treasure.
I honor my Father and his Father. I pay my due respects to their lives and their service. I admire them in ways they will never know. I have cherished their experiences because I come from a world that sees the best of humanity in the ways individuals choose to hold themselves with dignity despite circumstances.
I stoutly refuse to bear the burden of war any longer. It is not my weight to lug. It never was. I have done my duty as a Father’s son. I will do no more. I will take of them only what I can carry.
Every time I see a video of a soldier or sailor reuniting with their children after deployment, I cannot help but feel a tangible ecstasy. My heart beats a little faster. I can still feel that same excitement so many years later. I remember viscerally what it feels like to close little hands around the fabric of a uniform and breathe in great whiffs of something so beloved.
For every son and daughter of the 2.7 million Americans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and the countless others who have watched their parents go to the wars of the now distant past. For every child who grows up recollecting the embrace of a goodbye that knows no return. For each and every brave soul around the world who knows intimately, deeply and truly the hurt of war.
I want you all to know that there will be a time when you don’t need to hold on so tightly.