Growing-up in Catholic New Orleans offered one a potpourri of holidays uncelebrated by others in our country. Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday (Alka Seltzer Wednesday); King Cake parties in grammar schools on 12th night complete with the concealed porcelain baby Jesus; May Day crowning of the Virgin Mary in the corner of the school yard; and the long holiday for Easter which began on Wednesday at the Holy Name of Jesus Church (my elementary school of the same name) with a seance of sorts termed The Stations of the Cross. Boring! And we knew that after the hymns, incense and ritual, Easter would begin. Four days away from the Sisters of Mercy and their co-conspirator Jesuit priests of Loyola University. The floating holiday was usually replete with good weather, bike rides to and with friends, sports, preoccupied adults and the jackpot of Easter Sunday, except for the mandatory muster at Mass. Easter Monday was a holiday also. I’m not sure why. Maybe the apostles needed a few minutes to figure-out exactly what happened: here, there, gone, now missing. Someone’s got to write this down!
Easter Leave was equally special at the Naval Academy, mainly because it gave us a chance to act like and to be with other college kids. Everyone goes home for Christmas and our summers were consumed with a sequence of training programs which permitted us only 30 days of summer vacation (Leave in the vernacular, but you had to come back).
I recall with relish a couple of the Easter Leaves, especially the one to Wauchula, Florida in my green van with Charlie Cannon, Roger Smith and Billy Ellis, circa 1973. We drove non-stop in 2 man, three hour shifts. Ate out of a cooler, slept in the back. Underway from USNA at 1600, shift to Florida shore-power (arrive) at 0800 the next morning. Charlie’s sister, Sara, who latter married Tom Fargo the future Commander of all naval forces in the Pacific (CinCPac), introduced us at the beach to her friends, females, several each, who worked at Disney World. Mids Gone Wild!
The advent of spring directs my thinking to the May opening of the pool at our tennis club. A cold beer at the pool after a tennis match can be a delight of adult refreshment. Of course, spring leads to summer where real blue water, aka the Atlantic Ocean, is but a 2 hour, 2 red-light journey between my home and the closest beach of North Carolina.
I’m fond of seaports: New Orleans, Baltimore, San Francisco, even London, Marseille and Stockholm (three via the Navy and three via IBM). Regardless of my genetic predisposition to water (born in July as a Cancer), bodies of water bring to mind swimming in pools without deep-ends and bursting with flash-backs of the frog-kick, side stroke, breast stroke, 30’ tower jump, inflating my cotton khakis and the exercise in drowning classified as the 40 Minute Swim where 300 midshipmen swam the perimeter of the Olympic-sized pool in uniform minus shoes. I’ve seen Pandemonium. My eyes are beginning to ache in chlorine memory as I recall the dash across the red tiles in the cold air between Bancroft Hall where we lived and McDonough Hall which contained said natatorium.
I passed several classes that I should have failed, escaped demerits even when the paperwork was completed (I’m advised that in today’s Conduct System, the demerit form is delivered electronically. A kind of AOL-like “Ding! You Have Demerits.”) and there is an reasonable argument about the decision for graduating me into the bosom or bosun of our Navy.
I did not escape the Swimming Sub-Squad (the official process for recovering from failure). I recall fearing the 50 meter test, and in a panic, ending-up three lanes over after turning 135 degrees shortly after leaping from the edge of the pool at the commencement of this time trial. I suppose that I didn’t realize how much stronger was my right arm stroke than my left one. Driving while texting is dangerous; swimming with both eyes closed is, shall we agree, highly disorienting.
Anyhow, I mustered for several afternoons at the natatorium to improve my sub-squad strokes. Actually, the deal was that you showed-up at 3:30 pm, impressed the duty lieutenant that you were ‘taking a strain’ and after 4 or 5 sessions, you passed the test.
By the way, the nautical value of the free-style 50 only ensured that if you ever fell overboard in the North Atlantic or somewhere in the Pacific 1,000 miles from both Pearl Harbor and Japan, that you could swim 50 yards at panic speed before drowning in the sea state that hurled you overboard in the first place. No one goes overboard in calm waters unless they miss the gangplank returning from liberty (twice I saw this on the Joseph Strauss while on quarterdeck watch in Taipei).
There you have it, I am fully qualified at the 50 yard freestyle so long as direction is not critical. Had I fallen overboard, I probably would have swam (swum, swimmed?) 25 yards west of the amidships and then returned 25 yards to the east. Probably a good flight plan in assistance of the Man Overboard team. Probably a Famous Naval Bad Idea if my launch was inspired by an abandon ship command.
Aboard my second ship, USS Joseph Strauss (DDG-16), in an attempt to spice-up the Oscar / Man Overboard Drills, we inflated a life-sized, anatomically correct rubber doll as purchased by the Supply Officer in a Hong Kong R&R shop, clothed her in a life preserver (now the term Mae West begins to mean something) and threw Rubber Rhonda, her stage name, overboard. The bridge watch team would sound 3 Prolonged Blasts, the Bosun’s Mate of the Watch would announce, “Rhonda overboard, port side (we usually got this correct) and the Gay Jose’ (an actual term of endearment by the crew of the Joseph Strauss) would dispatch its crack man overboard team to the amusement of the entire crew, including officers. This drill would occur about once per week as we ambled across the Pacific conserving fresh water and husbanding our aging engineering plant.
Nothing good lasts forever. One sunny day in the middle of the Pacific, the MOB crew motored out to Rhonda. Amidst conflicting instructions to the helmsman regarding from which side to approach her, he maintained a heading of 000 relative. Rhonda met the 5 bladed, spinning brass propellor and struck her colors. Actually, she lost her air. This scene was both diliriously funny to all aboard and simultaneously regretful, especially when we each realized that it could have been one of us overboard meeting the prop. These drills were never again as well executed (ignoring Rhonda’s murder).
Remember how I began with that natatorium in McDonough Hall. I’ll end there also. Now that I am the certified 50 meter free style Mark Spitz of the Brigade of Midshipmen, I join Lenny May in enrolling for scuba diving qualification. Color me Lloyd Bridges, father of Jeff aka The Duder. We take these classes after evening meal and more importantly after the sun goes down. Therefore, it is cold in January on the way over to class and super FillInYourFavoriteExpletive cold on the way back to our dorm rooms in a wet bathing suit and a gym shirt. I won’t protract the conversation except to say that I really, truly, nearly drowned as one of the requirements of the class was to tread water for 10 minutes while holding afloat your buddy who acted immobile. I was not Louie Zamperini-like; my partner-victim was Lenny the starting tackle on the varsity football team. Me at 150 pounds, fresh from the sub-squad where I could barely keep myself afloat, kicking like a desperate crab trying to keep both Lenny’s and my head out of the water. I am certain that to those on the side of the pool it looked as though I was trying to climb up on top of Lenny as if he were the nearest island. He was spouting like the Trident Fountain. Somehow, we passed this test.
My scuba career ended where it began in a submerged rock quarry in Pennsylvania one Sunday morning in February. All went according to practice until I cracked my wet-suit to let the water in that my body was supposed to heat to provide the required layer of insulation. What an Urban Legend! Then I descended through the black, mucky water, hands on a rope stretched between a buoy and weight at the bottom of the quarry. 50 feet down, up, pause, regulator shut-off, restore air flow, mask removed, clean, drain, restore mask to face. I’m trying not to vomit in panic. As I neared the light at the surface, I took one, not too long look around my ice box of a sports adventure, declaring that this would be not only the first, but also my last time in scuba gear. This is one promise to myself that I’ve kept.
On occasion at the tennis club and just before enjoying a beer and the scenery, I’ll thrash along a couple of lengths in the pool designated for lap swimming. Thanks to the plastic lane buoys and my investment in waterproof goggles, my tacking to the other side is not so pronounced as it once was. I still do not float well and expend much of energy trying to stay on top of the water. Whenever I regret what a weak swimmer that I am, I remind myself of how it could be worse in a wet suit.
PS the CO of the Strauss nixed the idea of a proper burial at sea for Rhonda. She departed Strauss via the fantail along with the weighted bags of trash and message traffic.