25 May, 2012

Looking For My Gold Bar

I didn't get it. The gold bar that is.

I'm thinking about it because I'm in Washington to present a paper at a conference (this afternoon, in fact), and whenever I'm here, I find it impossible not to think about all things patriotic, especially the oath I once took.

That gold bar would have been my initial insignia in the US Navy. By the time I was to be graduated from university, I knew I didn't want the navy as a career and that my patience would be repeatedly tested even if serving for only a few years, but I wanted to serve. I owed the Navy a lot.

I was a Navy brat. My father retired when I was ten though, and I didn't have the repeated moves that so many dependents experience. There was only one of any real consequence, but I grew up on or around Navy bases. The Navy paid for my medical care until I was graduated from college, paid for four years of college (tuition, books, and monthly stipend), and gave me a summer job.

Well, sort of a summer job. It was actually training for a couple of months each summer, but it was still paid active duty. I spent the summer of 1967 on an aircraft carrier and rotating through most of the jobs enlisted naval personnel do as we sailed in and out of Norfolk and around the northeast Atlantic off Labrador and south of Greenland. It wasn't all work. Getting shot off a catapult and then landing on a carrier is better than any roller coaster I've ever ridden.

Then there was the summer of 1968 and one month with the Marines at Little Creek Amphibious Base. I can't say I was a fan of the obstacle course or the confidence course, but the mock invasions of Virginia Beach by helicopter and later by sea were interesting. We invaded Yorktown too, by river. Lot of miles of river in Vietnam, after all.

That was followed by a month with the aviators in Corpus Christi. Although we had one training flight in a jet, we mostly had flight lessons in two-seat prop planes (Beechcraft T-34). I liked the touch-and-go exercises, but nothing compares with doing a barrel roll or putting it into a nose dive and counting your revolutions by watching the beaches of Padre Island spin beneath you. It's the loop that caps it all though - especially watching the upside down horizon come back to you as you go over the top. The high altitude and ejection seat experiences were very cool. Hooyah!

My last summer was spent at sea again - June and July of 1969 on a guided missile frigate temporarily stationed in Guantanamo Bay. See: Helter Swelter. Although I enjoyed the training as I rotated through the various officers' positions, I have to admit what I remember best was finding a twenty dollar bill on the floor in front of the bar in the Officers' Club. What would you do with free money in a bar in the middle of some God-forsaken desert?

It wasn't all good. My father had a heart attack while I was there, and I could not get home - although I did manage to talk to him through some kind of radio magic engineered by PO3 "Sparks." It was also in Cuba that I first noticed the lump that would later be diagnosed as Hodgkin's.

There are lots of great memories; that's for certain. At a later time I'll write about my childhood exploits while living on the largest naval base in the world, but today I am thinking about what I owe the Navy. It is no small amount.

I wasn't awarded the gold bar that an ensign wears because of illness as a senior, but I completed all of the requirements. I also took the oath of an officer in September of 1966 when I became a midshipman. It's a solemn occasion and not something one forgets. You might not recall all of the words, but the sense of honor and privilege and obligation is permanent. I would have gladly served my country as an officer and a gentleman - in spite of my dissatisfaction with what was happening in southeast Asia.

I, Thomas G. Brown, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.