A short, but very sweet, visit to the USS Pinckney

I’ve probably mentioned here about a couple of thousand times the fact that I just love Fleet Week.  It’s the one weekend of the year when I get to step out of my suburban lawyer/mom rut, and do and see things that are entirely different from my ordinary life.  I’m too old and too set in my ways, not to mention too prone to seasickness, to want the naval life for myself, but I sure do enjoy these brief glimpses.

By the way, I get these special glimpses, not because I’m a special person, but because I’ve had the good sense to join the Navy League.  For those of us who live near federal maritime waterways, the Navy League is a wonderful opportunity to interact with the Navy in a way most people never do.  Even if you don’t live near an ocean or Great Lake, you’d do well to send some money to the Navy League.  It’s a wonderful organization that provides two incredibly useful services:

First, the Navy League’s public education efforts are designed to inform the nation, and its political leaders, of the vital importance to the country of comprehensive and fully-prepared sea services. Second, the Navy League, primarily through its councils, provides support for active duty sea services personnel and their families.

You can’t beat that.  Still, being near the water is, well, more fun than not.

Today, Mr. Bookworm and I were the official greeters for the USS Pinckney, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. In the ordinary course of things, being a greeter means that, once the ship docks, you get to attend the officer’s briefing.  (I should warn you before I go any further that my grasp of naval terminology is slender at best.  I’ll try to use the right word here, or at least give the right sense with the wrong word, but all you navy people should feel free to correct my inevitable errors.)  We attended a briefing a couple of years ago, on the USS Bonhomme Richard and, as I wrote at the time, it was quite a formal affair.

I expected the same thing this time and have to say that I was a bit nervous.  You see, this time I was the one designated to give the speech.  I’m great at speaking extemporaneously on subjects near and dear to my heart (some would say I’m boring, but I say I’m great), but I’m not so good when I’m trying to convey information that doesn’t naturally float about in my brain.  And while I agreed wholeheartedly with the text of my Navy League speech, most of the information was new to me.  After some abortive efforts to memorize the short speech — abortive primarily because I hate memorizing things — I printed the darn thing out, and hoped that my dulcet tones would offset that sinking feeling most audience-members get when they see someone approach a podium with a printed speech in hand.

In addition to the speech, I came bearing gifts, courtesy of the Navy League.  These bags are awfully nice.  Depending on the donations the Navy League receives on any given year (plus the Navy League’s own contributions to the bag), they might have mugs, t-shirts, posters, candy, magnets, and gift certificates.  The CO, XO, and CMC (that would be Commanding Officer, Executive Officer, and Command Master Chief for those of you as unversed as I in navy talk) each get a bag, although the gift certificates are pretty much for the whole crew to share around.

So, there we were, Mr. Bookworm and I, bearing gift bags and, in my case, one crumpled speech clenched tightly in my sweaty palm.  It was a beautiful day and the pier was quiet.  The only ones on the pier aside from us were Navy and USGC security, and the crew tasked with putting up the gangplank leading from ship to shore.  We watched as the ship slowly and carefully crept up to the pier, with a tug boat pushing her closer and closer until, with just the right amount of space between ship and pier, she stopped.  As someone who has had a few ugly automotive run-ins with pillars and posts, I was deeply impressed.

The whole landing process took a while.  It then took an even longer while for the gangplank, a fancy one with stairs, to get installed. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ship, which we couldn’t see from where we stood, another ship was being “piggy-backed” onto the Pinckney.  Apparently there wasn’t enough pier to go around.  The whole thing was very complicated.

Eventually, the public liaison officer found us, and explained that, because of exigent circumstances, the briefing wasn’t going to take place.  Hmmmm.  Now what?  We’ve got those gift bags and I’ve still got that now-grubby speech in my hand.  Our blank expressions must have conveyed volumes, since she snagged the CMC, who cheerfully volunteered to see what she could do for us.  Her graciousness impressed me, since we must have been dragging her away from more pressing business.

Following closely on the CMC’s heels, we zipped into the ship and raced up those ladders.  Okay, here’s the truth.  The CMC and my husband raced up those ladders.  I minced up them exactly as you’d expect from someone with vertigo.  I did go as fast as I could, though, which must count for something.  We ended up in officer territory, waiting as the CMC looked around for the XO.  While she was XO-hunting, Mr. Bookworm and I stumbled across the CO himself.

He was clearly chagrined that he didn’t have a briefing to offer us, but actually went one better:  he invited us to join him for lunch.  Yes!!  A new experience, and one that promises to be both fun and interesting.

I abandoned my now sweat-soaked notes and gave the CO the quickie version of the official speech:  Welcome to our fair city; enjoy the gifts; and we hope you and your crew are able to take advantage of the various gift certificates and services you’ll find in the bags.   Whew!  Thank goodness that’s over.

The CO then escorted us to the dining room which I, in my own mind, called the Officer’s Mess, but which my husband referred to as the wardroom.  Maybe you can tell me which is the right term.  [Update:  I have been reliably informed that it’s a wardroom.  Go figure.]

The CO directed us to our chairs (very heavy chairs, to help avoid this scenario).  In front of us was a small menu.  He told us to circle what we’d like to eat, after which the attendants would pick up the order and deliver the food.  At the recommendation of one of the officers already present, I ordered the cheese steak, and tempered that wonderful, rich, fatty rush of meat and cheese with some broccoli.  The food came instantly and was delicious.

It was interesting to see people coming and going.  Each asked the CO’s permission to dine there.  Naturally, he gave his permission each time.  A friend of mine who is in the Army told me that this tradition differs a great deal from the Army approach to dining.  While the Navy continues to have separate areas for officers and crew, the Army eats in a single room.  I can see where each has its virtues.  The Army’s approach is more egalitarian.  However, given how hierarchical the military is, it may be more relaxing for personnel to dine with similar ranks.  If you have an opinion, let me know.

The captain was a lovely dining companion.  (And yes, “lovely” is a girly term, but I’m a girl, so I get to use it.)  As with everyone else I’ve had the chance to speak since joining the Navy League, he clearly has a passion for his job.  This is not someone marking time from paycheck to paycheck until retirement.  This is someone spending his time doing something he loves.  Lucky man.

We didn’t linger.  Things were hopping, so we said our thank-yous and farewells as soon as the meal was over.  As we headed back to our car, we passed by hundreds of people heading for the same area we were leaving.  I doubt any could guess what I great experience we had just enjoyed.