In the presence of greatness : the Battle of Midway celebration *UPDATED*

This past weekend’s sunny Saturday morning was a quintessential suburban spring day.  I gathered with hundreds of other families at a local high school for our children’s swim meet.  We traveled there in our comfortable cars, air conditioners blowing, driving over clean safe streets.  We all met up at the large, inviting pool, where we spent our day watching our happy, healthy children churn their way through the clear, blue water.

As always, the meet started with a few sweet little girls warbling the national anthem.  Everyone stood; most forgot to remove their hats; and about half sang along.  Hands on hearts were not de rigueur, even amongst the children.

As I stood and stared out upon the singularly blessed crowd surrounding me, I wondered how many of them were thinking about the commitment that lies behind the national anthem:  a promise to take up arms to protect “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  In our suburban wonderland, we take for granted our freedoms.  We also fairly consistently ignore the sacrifices that, for more than two hundred years, American men and women (but mostly men) have made on our behalf to preserve, not only our freedoms, but also the plenty that invariably flows from their preservation.

That very same Saturday night, I had the opportunity to look into the lined faces of people who, in the past, defended our freedoms, and into the still-unlined faces of those who stand willing to do so today and tomorrow.  The occasion was the annual Battle of Midway Celebration, an event commemorating that significant battle (one ensuring that, for the war’s duration, Japan would not dominate the seas) and to honor those few survivors who served during those terrible and important days.

As a native San Franciscan, I’d long seen the elegant marquee shading the entrance to the San Francisco Marines Memorial Club, but I’d never really thought about what might be housed inside.  I knew I was in for an aesthetic treat, however, the moment I entered the lobby, which is an elegant space with wood paneling, and discreetly rich decor.  What distinguishes it from being just another generically fancy downtown hotel lobby is the Marine memorabilia scattered about the space, including the dashingly-attired stuffed (or was it carved?) bulldog nestled in an alcove.

The reception itself was held high on the 11th floor, which boasts three rooms:  a cozy, old-fashioned library that looks more suited to an English country house than a downtown semi-high rise, a mid-size reception room decorated in perfect regency style, and a large and elegant banquet room, also in regency style.  This came as a pleasant surprise, because I had feared a heavy Victorian hand, complete with red flocked wall paper, massive amounts of dark and carved wood, and silly, heavy epergnes dominating every flat service. I was therefore delighted by the open, airy rooms, with their high ceilings and restrained decorations.  And because of their very restraint, these rooms were the perfect setting for the real décor:  the guests.

The event was a formal one, which is much more beautiful than a civilian black tie affair.  The women, of course, presented a familiar and pleasing picture.  They had on lovely dresses ranging from safe (but always elegant) black to a rainbow of jewel-like colors.  Their hair was piled high or cascaded down in graceful ringlets, curls or curtains of silky hair.  Their make-up said, appropriately, “Here I am and aren’t I lovely?”  I expected that.

It was the men who were such a treat — and a surprise.  To me, “formal” means black tie.  It’s a good look, since it’s the rare man who isn’t elevated slightly by the dignity of a black jacket, pleated shirt, and neatly tied black tie.  Add in a cummerbund, and he’s ready to face anything.  I am, therefore, not complaining about traditional formals.  It’s just that, after having seen Navy formal wear, traditional men’s formal wear will, forever after, seem a little bit bland.

As I knew, but had never seen, Navy formal wear is white.  The uniform therefore brings the light in a room up, rather than down.  On their arms and shoulders, the officers wear the golden insignia of their rank.  I know now, although I didn’t understand that fact when I walked in, that many of the men present boasted an Admiral’s rank.  There was no shortage, however, of other ranks, whether chiefs or captains or lieutenants. The young men and women in attendance who had not (yet) attained the higher ranks were nattily attired from head to toe (or, if they were women, from head to knee) in whites.  The only exceptions were the two tall, trim, young Marines who were resplendent in their dark blue uniforms, lavishly decorated with gold and red.

Every uniformed guest had a variety of “mini-medals” on his (or her) left chest, over his (or her) heart.  The higher the rank, or the longer the years of service, the more of these exquisite medallions adorned the wearer — exquisite both because they are beautiful on their own terms, as mere objets, and because each represents a special level of accomplishment, dedication or bravery.

A beautiful sight, right?  But an event’s visual beauty is static.  If that was all the evening offered, I would have gazed my fill and left quickly.  The real fun of the evening lay in the guests themselves.

As the veteran of more rarefied receptions than I can count, whether because of my legal work or the fact that my children attend schools in a posh community, I was mentally prepared for the heavy work of introducing myself to small groups of strangers, all of whom usually smile a polite greeting and then instantly resume chatting with their known friends about cases won or lost, business deals at hand, luxury vacations, and the minutiae of raising children.  I’m used to smiling quietly; listening for a few minutes to a conversation about people I don’t know, events I haven’t experienced, and places I haven’t been; and then murmuring something about a friend on the other side of the room, so that I can ooze away.  Sometimes I fall into a welcoming group, which is a great relief, and I then stick limpet-like to that group for as long as I politely can.

I needn’t haven’t worried about that kind of stiff and sticky social situation at this celebration.  The people gathered there were a gregarious and friendly crowd, instantly making me feel welcome.  They were also courteous in a very old-fashioned way, which in itself is a wonderful social lubricant.  In addition to making sure I had a drink in hand (a task I usually perform myself), each person with whom I spoke made sure that, if anyone else came along, I got introduced to each new person present — again, a task I usually have to perform myself.  It’s a very small thing, but being introduced to people makes it seem as if you, the person being introduced, are just a little special.  Conversely, having to introduce yourself to an established group shows right away that you’re an outsider.

One of the men to whom I was introduced was the guest of honor, Admiral Eric T. Olson, who is the Commander of the U.S. Special Operations CommandThe Admiral — and please note the use of the article “the” when I refer to him because, while there were many admirals in the room, he was the only one denominated The Admiral — is not a big man.  He’s not a small man either.  He is, simply, quiet in the way he occupies space.  This is not someone who needs to throw his considerable weight around.

Given his restrained presence, Adm. Olson’s voice, which is quite deep and carrying, comes as a bit of a surprise.  His manners, of course, are perfect.  Not only did he greet me with warmth but, when we parted ways after a minute or two of conversation, he remembered my name.  I can’t do that.  I know that the trick when you’re introduced to someone is to repeat his (or her) name to yourself several times, but I can’t play that mnemonic game and still track the conversation.  I always end up opting for conversation over memorization, and then find myself apologizing later for having lost a name completely.  The Admiral clearly has no such problems.

Without exception, whether they were currently serving or had retired, the men and women to whom I spoke looked back on their naval career with pleasure.  As a lawyer, a field that is dominated by people who view it as just a job, and often not a very pleasant one, this delight in service invariably surprises me.  In my world, jobs aren’t things you necessarily like; they’re things you do to buy the things you like.  This isn’t to say that I don’t know people who aren’t completely happy with their careers, or even to say that I, in my time, haven’t had jobs that gave me pleasure.  It’s just that it’s a rare thing indeed for me to find myself in a room filled with people who are universally committed to the notion that theirs is a wonderful career.

After some time (59 minutes to be precise) spent socializing over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, we adjourned to the dining room (or, as it was denominated, Navy-style, the “mess”) and there the real celebration began.  The dinner was extremely ritualized, so much so that the written program included a lengthy itinerary, timed to the minute, as well as a detailed description of the protocol.  It could have been intimidating, or even boring, to someone like me, a thoroughly archetypal civilian — but it wasn’t, not for a moment.  I found the ritual alternately moving (as when the “Tribute to Our Fallen and Missing” took place), fascinating (the “Parading of the Beef”), and quite amusing.

“Amusing,” she said?!  But wasn’t this a solemn commemoration of an historic experience?  Well, yes and no.  The evening was indeed intended to recall an historic experience, but it was a true “celebration,” an energetic, humorous, and bonhominous occasion to reflect on the Navy’s great history, rather than a ponderous, dry delving into a vanished past.  It was clear that large numbers of the naval guests knew each other and knew each other well, and they all showed great glee in the gentle ragging and hazing that went on for most of the evening.

Even that part of the evening dedicated to honoring the Midway veterans who attended, and those who could attend no more, was uplifting.  The President of the Mess asked each veteran to stand (or wave) as his name was called.  He then told the assembled gathering the role that the veteran had played in the Battle of Midway.  Each had a tale of derring-do, heroism, ingenuity, and commitment.  Each man, unsurprisingly, went on to serve long after the battle was over, some merely for the remainder of the war, and some for the rest of their careers.  Some of these men were hale, and some so frail they looked practically transparent, but each managed to stand proudly to hear his accomplishments read to the assembly.  Each then received a well-deserved standing ovation.  I didn’t cry, but I was tempted.

After each of the veterans was individually honored, The Admiral gave a short speech that focused tightly on the Battle of Midway itself, and on the legacy of heroism and service that the veterans of that war have bequeathed to those who serve in today’s military.  It was a nice speech, especially because, as I mentioned, The Admiral has a satisfyingly deep and resonant voice.  The talk was also nice because it was gloriously free of the bombast and pomposity that sometimes infects the speeches people give when they’ve reached such a preeminent position.

When The Admiral finished speaking, artist-in-residence Sally Schultz presented him with an exquisitely detailed pencil drawing she made of pivotal events that occurred during the Battle of Midway.  I particularly note Sally’s presentation here because I was impressed by her bravery.  Although she is terrified by public speaking, and was shaking like a leaf by the time her short speech ended, she still did it.  Sometimes the biggest battles we face our those that see us dealing with our own fears, and I admire Sally tremendously for looking straight at her fear of public speaking and then batting it aside as she did.

The evening wrapped up with the Toasts, which are much more exciting than the mere clinking of classes to which I am used.  Following ritualized toasts to the Commander in Chief and to each branch of the military, saving only the Navy, members of the mess were able to stand and request toasts to specific groups, such as the Chaplains, the Doctors, the Seabees, etc.  There was a lot of amusing badinage as the President and the Vice, along with the member making the proposal, engaged in (and I quote the program) “inspired wit and subtle sarcasm.”  I have to mention the Seabees here, because they surpassed themselves by singing, loudly and tunefully (almost) their Seabee song.  Only after the inspiration for all other toasts had been exhausted did the room rise as one to drink the last toast to the United States Navy.

I’ll wrap up this long post now too.  I began my Saturday day by looking at the blessings of my life.  I ended my day with a celebration shared with that small number of men and women who have in the past committed, and still today commit, their lives to defending American freedoms, thereby enabling the majority of Americans to benefit from this county’s great bounty.  To these men and women, I can only say, “Thank you.  Thank you so much.”

U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers, June 6, 1942
U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-3 "Dauntless" dive bombers, June 6, 1942

UPDATE: Here’s a link with pictures.  By the way, although I’m not saying whether or not I’m in the pictures, I have a surefire method for you to figure out which woman I might be. Scan the women in the crowd pictures. The one you find most attractive — well, that’s probably me.