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I am writing this in October, but this event did not actually occur in October. However, surprise was definitely our reaction. I got a call one day from a Navy recruiter in Washington state, asking me if I would be willing to send our youngest son’s Eagle Scout certificate to their office to verify that our son had, indeed, earned that rank during his Boy Scout years. (The Navy will give you a step up in rank right after boot camp if you are an Eagle Scout.)
What?? Navy recruiter?? Our youngest son was about 23 by then. He’d served as a missionary for our church from age 19-21, learning Russian in his assigned area that covered the length of the Ural Mountains, from the Arctic Circle to the border of Kazakhstan. It had been a challenging but rewarding experience, and when he came home, he attended college for a year and then moved out to the West from Maryland, where he’d lived since he was in junior high. I hadn’t sensed that he was looking, but he decided he needed to do something else with purpose, and college wasn’t it.
The Navy was his first choice because it was a family tradition. My dad served in World War II as a radioman. He used to tell me that he “listened” to the war. He’d been stationed on Mindanao in the Philippines and mostly transmitted messages. He knew Morse code his whole life and would occasionally say “dit dit dot dot dot” in different patterns and then tell us what that meant. It was a dramatic change from the life he’d lived as a boy on a dairy farm in Wyoming.
My husband was a sailor too. We’re old enough that the draft was still going when we finished high school, and when the numbers were announced that year, his birthday was No. 3 on the list. He’d always planned to serve in the military. It was what you did in his family, so he went down and signed up with the Navy. He wanted to go places and see things. He’d grown up on a horse on a cattle ranch and also helping his older brother’s business of taking people on two-week-long wilderness camping trips in a remote corner of Yellowstone Park. Ironically, my husband’s Navy career was spent in Memphis at school and then 13 years at various bases, all in San Diego! (But … if you have to be “stuck” somewhere, Southern California is a perfect location!)
We were married about seven months after he started at his first San Diego assignment, and all of our children were born there. But Daddy hadn’t been in the Navy for most of the youngest son’s life. We left that world when our baby was only 2 years old. I might have had an inkling that the life of a sonarman in a submarine would be his destiny after he’d gone on a field trip in sixth grade. At that point, we were living in Maryland, surrounded by enormous rivers that met at the end of our peninsula at the Chesapeake Bay. The field trip was on one of those rivers, in an oysterman’s boat.
The students were learning about the culture and history of the region, and they toured the area where the earliest residents of the new British colony had settled 400 years before. They were learning about the life of boat people, oystermen, who had harvested these waters for generations. At dinner that night, I asked about the experience. Did you see the base where Dad worked? Umm, no. Did you see the old church that was built in the 1600s on the end of the peninsula? Umm, no. It turns out that the oyster boat had a “really cool” screen where you could watch the bottom of the river and see all the shapes of everything they drove over, and the rocks and the oyster beds, and so he’d spent the entire time staring at that screen. Yes — his first experience with sonar!
Also, his musical skills are off the chart. Hand him an instrument and give him an hour, he’ll be playing it with more skill than many who worked for months. He sings too! I do not know exactly where this gift of pitch and ability to manipulate notes and tones has come from in the gene pool. I play the piano in a mediocre way. All of the kids were taken to lessons for at least two years. But this son has something in his brain structure that makes music like no one I know, which helped with the sonarman job.
So … he decided to bring a new challenge into his life at 22 years old and joined the Navy and became a submarine sonarman. He was active duty for about seven/eight years and did several deployments in the Pacific Ocean and lived in Guam for a while too. Once I asked him if his skills with the Russian language were useful on his job, and he smiled and pointed out that I didn’t have a security clearance, so he couldn’t talk about his work “underway.” But … his commander was “quite pleased” that his new sonar guy was bilingual. Hmm ….
When our son told us that he was enlisting in the Navy, I hadn’t expected that my reaction would be so strong. Both of us — Dad too — were quite surprised. Then, very, very proud of him. We were able to go to Chicago for his boot-camp graduation. It brought back a flood of memories for Dad, even though his boot camp was in San Diego four decades before. We were both so proud of him. When my husband joined, there wasn’t a good atmosphere in the country toward military service. So, now, all these years later, he was beaming with pride as he watched his baby follow in his footsteps to do something that has always been a good and noble endeavor. It was a really good feeling, and we’re glad that we could be “surprised” in this way by our son.
By the way, I chose this date deliberately to tell this story because Oct. 13 is the birthday of the U.S. Navy, established in 1775. So, we always celebrate this day in our family for obvious reasons! Anchors aweigh!!