by Charles Paige, used with his permission. Charles is author of Petty Officer and a Swabbie. He served as RM3 (Radioman, 3rd class) about the USS Midway (CV-41) 1969-1972
He wrote this essay 30-31 May 2021.
It was September 13, 1972, and the last night I was to spend aboard the Midway. This is a
tale about that night; fictional as to timelines and what I may have been actually thinking
that last night, but non-fictional as to all the circumstances, events and significances. In
this version of that night, let’s say gifted to me by my more circumspect doppelganger
from a parallel universe, I am lying in my bunk, the lowest of three bunks and very close
to the deck. I’ve just finished reading a letter from my father stating he has received the
heavy load of stereophonic equipment I’ve had sent to his farm address from the Navy
Exchange in Yokosuka, Japan. Apparently I hadn’t informed him in advance, so all that
equipment suddenly showing up at his doorstep had thrown him for a loop.
It’d been a very busy day, but then again, which HADN’T been a busy day? I was bone tired but my brain was ablaze with thoughts of tomorrow and leaving the ship, perhaps for the last time ever. Also keeping my mind buzzing was a body full of coffee—how many cups I had drunk during watch only God knew, but I swear it was enough to make my blood one-quarter caffeinated. Still more keeping me awake was a throbbing left
thumb that had been crushed not long ago. I had been standing in the doorway between Faccon and Cryptographic talking to a group of guys, with my left hand propped against the door sill. Suddenly, for some reason the spring-loaded door closed, with my thumb crushed at the door’s fulcrum. Chief Wilson said I would probably lose the nail, which
had slowly turned red and then black.
Now that I was through with the letter, I no longer needed the reading light above my
head so turned it off. This was one of those infrequent occasions when it was night
outside the ship and I was able to sleep after Lights Out was announced inside. The
compartment was barely lit. There wasn’t much happening in the compartment’s small
entertainment area holding tables, chairs and the TV, so little noise came from there, and
I registered little activity in the rest of the compartment. That meant there was no need to
close the privacy curtains provided for each bunk. The reason for the quiet was obvious.
Everybody that could be on liberty was either spending it on base or in the nearby town
we called Olongapo City—what the locals called City of Olongapo.
It was Wednesday night and tomorrow…. Well, tomorrow….
Four years ago I had volunteered to be ripped from a different universe—one I had
known all my life. At that time ANOTHER tomorrow had come. And with it came my
mental and physical introduction into this other, then foreign universe. From the
beginning one explosion of events followed another followed another, and it was truly a
sink or swim situation. My neurons had no choice but to multiply and body to strengthen
to accommodate all the explosions, exposures and rigors. But I was one of the lucky ones
who learned to roll and thrive in the midst of sometimes controlled chaos and within
military structures and stricture.
Tomorrow I would be leaving behind a ship I had been virtually lashed to for three years.
I had seen it lie naked and prostrate at the hands of civilians. I had hobnobbed with its
prospective captain. I had seen its crew arrive, bringing with them the ship’s life blood. I
had seen it reborn. My Navy rank had increased as the ship’s readiness had grown, and in
so many ways we had evolved together.It had been a very busy day, but then again, what day HADN’T been?
The fact that tomorrow I’d be leaving the ship also helped animate my thinking. There was so much significance surrounding the event. Soon I would be leaving the military universe forever
and returning to one I thought—hoped—would be the same as the one in which I was raised. Dad expressed his happiness that he’d soon be seeing his civilian son back in the fold where I belonged. I knew my mother felt similarly. Yet my mind wasn’t so sure I’d be staying in that ‘fold’ very long. I could not see myself moving back from a California world of unlimited, macrocosmic experiences and opportunities, to Michigan and the conformity/uniformity required by community and family. Echoing through my mind were words from the prophetic WW I song “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree.”
Yes, I would be returning to that universe, in whatever its current form, but that meant I
was also leaving this universe that I had been forged into being part of. I had been pulled
and stretched, pounded and flattened, puffed up and popped. I had earned the right to be
what I had become, and I had a huge amount of professional pride for what had been
accomplished during the past years.
Recently I had gotten Outstanding at a flight deck inspection by Flag, AKA
COMCARDIVONE, Rear Admiral Butts. It was my third flight deck inspection while
onboard and had gotten Outstanding on the first two. The captain promised that anyone
who got three Outstandings at such inspections would never have to stand another. This
time RAdm Butts stood before me and said “Old Shoes,” at which his attendant marked
something in the muster ledger as Flag moved to the next in ranks. I was mortified. I had
been so careful to spit-polish my shoes and ensure my silk, black neckerchief was rolled
and tied just so, my uniform wrinkle and lint free, my undershirt, hat and piping sparkling
white, and everything aligned correctly. But I had been hit with “Old Shoes.” Crestfallen,
I returned to my compartment to change back into working dungarees. One of the first
class petty officers overheard me lament and then laughingly explained “that means Out
Standing.” As relieved and good as that news made me feel, I also realized the irony of it
all. I would never have to stand another such inspection again because I soon would be
LEAVING THE SHIP.
Oh my God! Leaving the ship! Leaving my home of three years. Leaving all those guys I
had worked with, sweated with, and had fun with. We had seen each other through trying
times as we and the ship were put through the paces. There were never any times or
opportunities to put on the brakes and say “whoa, that’s enough!” I was sad when the few
who did buckle under the strain were gone—to fates unknown to the rest of us. Those
who started to buckle but could be buttressed until brought up to speed were carried by
the rest of us guys working together.
I always hated seeing guys leave us, for whatever reason. Usually it was because their
time in the Navy was up, or their time on the ship was up, sending them off to a different
command. And some left for humanitarian reasons, like one of our Faccon members
whose father was killed back home during a robbery at his business. Only one shipmate I
knew had left by dying. It occurred between when the ship returned from its 1971
Westpac cruise and the start of its 1972 cruise. That fellow was Sloan—someone I had
met during our BE/E “P” School days in early 1969. He recently had been assigned to the
ship, and I ran into him as he was buying a soft drink from an onboard vending machine.
Not long after our reunion Sloan fell to his death while unsuccessfully attempting to
climb around a barricade blocking a closed gangway while the ship was in dry dock. His
shocking death was heartbreaking enough, but because he came aboard between the two
Westpac cruises, his name was not included on either cruise book’s IN MEMORIAM
page—as though he had never been aboard.
Tomorrow I would be the one leaving—leaving behind the unceasing turmoil and
managed chaos at work, the engrained camaraderie of a well-grooved, tight-knit group,
the memorized maze enclosed by the protective and far-ranging ship’s hull, and the
profession that I had gotten so used to and good at.
My Navy career flashed before my eyes as though I were dying, but sleep finally came—
fitfully. Soon I would be dying and reborn, metaphorically. Before me was a future filled
with uncertainty mixed with possibility. I would be leaving a military that had gotten in
bad odor with much of the American public, and my service likely would be
unappreciated, even scorned, by many. Yet I was still young and full of hope. Then I
awoke and it was tomorrow.