“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” — Lewis Carroll
I was struggling to figure out how to write my annual post about the Admiral’s Reception that closes out Fleet Week festivities, until it occurred to me that the answer, as is often the case, can be found in Alice in Wonderland. The King of Hearts may have had some peculiar ideas (“Give your evidence,” said the King; “and don’t be nervous, or I’ll have you executed on the spot.”), but he understood how to structure narrative. So, let me begin at the beginning.
This is the beginning:
This beauty is the USS Makin Island, a very recently commissioned Wasp-class amphibious assault ship. In layman’s terms, it is a transport ship, one that carries marines, vehicles, weapons and other supplies to the action, whether the action is the field of battle or a humanitarian relief mission. The Makin Island isn’t just any amphibious assault ship, though. It is a futuristic ship that boasts a long list of systems aimed at optimizing both human and mechanical energy:
[G]as turbine main propulsion engines, all-electric auxiliaries, an advanced machinery control system, water mist fire protection systems, and the Navy’s most advanced command and control and combat systems equipment. The gas turbine propulsion plant, with all electric auxiliaries, is a program first for large deck amphibious assault ships and will provide significant savings in manpower and maintenance costs associated with traditional steam-powered amphibious ships. The ship carries four reverse-osmosis water-purification systems, each holding 50,000 gallons.
It is a marvel of human ingenuity, bent to our nation’s defense. When you drive up and see it bathed in the setting sun, you can’t be anything but impressed.
The beginning of any party on board the ship is the parking. Normally, in San Francisco, parking is the stuff of which nightmares are made. As we got closer and closer to our destination, my husband kept spying side streets and saying, “Let’s see if we can find parking there.” I was adamant: “No.” I had three things that supported me in this certainty: (1) a parking pass; (2) high heels; and (3) past experience with the parking procedure for these evenings. It was the third factor that convinced my husband. “It’s part of the whole event,” I said.
We fell into line behind the other cars that were heading onto the pier. As we got closer to the entrance, we saw more and more Marines, about half of whom were heavily armed. When it was our turn, a polite Marine with a checklist asked for identification. Once he confirmed that we were on the guest list, he waved us forward. The Marines had set up a maze, part of it based upon existing structures on the pier, and part of it created using movable barriers — all aimed, no doubt, at slowing down a bad guy with a loaded car. At each turning point, a helpful Marine stood, directing us. The only disappointment was that this year, unlike past years, there was no elegant German shepherd to circle the car, sniffing for bombs. I like dogs, and I appreciate a dog that makes itself useful.
After we had parked and gathered ourselves, I turned to my husband and asked, “Did you lock the car?” He laughed and said, “Yes, but this is the only place I’ve ever been in San Francisco where I don’t really feel as if I have to.”
Once aboard the ship, we headed immediately up to the reception, which was held in the main — oh, Lord, I’m going to get this word wrong — hangar. There was a live band (a little too loud for my slightly mature sensibilities), and a huge buffet. I’d like to tell you what the spread was, but I instantly ran into old friends and got so busy talking, I never made it anywhere near the food. I was left with a confused impression of strawberries with chocolate for dipping, fruit punch fountains, huge dishes of shrimp, little sausages, and other tasty viands for the hungry and the patient. It was a magnificent spread, but I simply didn’t partake.
I always enjoy the human spectacle at these Navy events. As I’ve commented before, at most parties the men, clad only in black and white, fade into insignificance next to the women. At Navy parties, however, it’s the men (plus a handful of women) in their dress blues who draw the eye. Aside from the fact that the basic uniform, whether Navy or Marine, is flattering to the male figure, the decorations just light up the room. Whether it’s sleeves covered with gold stripes and other insignia, chests loaded with ribbons, or colorful shoulder braids, everything looks just fine.
I found myself feeling envious, not of the clothes’ magnificence, but of the way they tell a story about the wearer. I have no insignia announcing to the world that I’ve survived umpteen years as a lawyer, mother or homemaker. I’d love to have good service stripes for all the times I gritted my teeth and didn’t yell. And it would be very gratifying to have some neat ribbon or pin attesting to my authorial skills. Alas, though, I simply have to violate good manners and boast if I want to impress people.
As always, my Navy League mentor instantly found me. It’s a great pleasure to see him and his wife and, I must admit, an even greater pleasure to see his children. If all teenagers were like these two, every family in America would be desperate to have a teen of its own. After a fond greeting with these dear friends, I ran into several people I’d met, and whose company I’d very much enjoyed, at the Battle of Midway Commemoration this past May.
What struck me about these men is the fact that, even though they’re retired, they remain strongly committed to the Navy, and are willing to expend a great deal of time on its behalf. I can tell you with certainty that I’ve never met a lawyer who, after retiring, continues to work unstintingly for the old law firm. Lawyers may boast about their years at the firm, but their support doesn’t extend beyond the comfort of their armchair at home. The only other people I’ve seen who have the same enthusiasm for an institution with which they were once affiliated are college sports fans. That’s understandable. College represents youth. It’s both the first and last unfettered time in a person’s life: away from home and not yet tied to a job. (And I know exams are stressful, but they don’t compare to the demands of real life.)
That retired Naval personnel should have the same passion is less obvious, since their service is not the most carefree time in their life — instead, it is a time of intense duty and responsibility. Perhaps, though, that intense duty and responsibility explain precisely why people may retire from the Navy, but never seem to leave it. An old Army slogan aptly sums it up: “Be all you can be.” Partying is fun, but living to your full potential in the service of the greater good is fundamentally rewarding. While many of us struggle with existential questions (“Why am I smarter than a cow and, being smarter, what’s my purpose on this earth?”), military personnel know what their purpose is: to protect their country. Oh, and by the way, while doing it, they get to travel all over the world and play with the best toys.
I’m not just making this up from my perspective as a suburban blogger living a pleasant, but pointless, life. I’m distilling the stories I’ve heard from person after person after person to whom I’ve spoken during my time in the Navy League. Whether they’re responsible for a single weapon, an array of weapons systems, the whole ship, or a whole division, each person, whether active duty or retired, has sounded the same note: My life has meaning. Even when my job is repetitive or dull, I am part of a bigger purpose.
The Chief who gave us a ship’s tour last night was no different. He is one of the people in charge of a very sophisticated aspect of the ship. He glowed when he described his system and his responsibilities. As we bade him farewell and prepared to head home, my husband said, “You seem to have the best job in the world.” “Yes, sir,” he replied. “I have the best job in the world.”
(A delicate hint to those who would like to support the Navy and get a glimpse of this world: join the Navy League.)
UPDATE: Maybe this explains the missing dogs — they’re out in the private sector getting rich. 😉