You might not remember me. It is very likely that in the many decades of your U.S. Naval career I was not even a footnote, but that doesn’t matter. I remember you and I remember the kindness you showed me, though I hadn’t realized it as kindness until just a few weeks ago.
It is strange to be writing this, with you now five years in your grave, but it took me a while to figure it out. If you remembered me at all, you would know that I tend to come at things backwards.
I served with you aboard the USS Portland (LSD-37) during my tour from 1989 to 1992. I was never a good military man. My mind simply refuses to accept tedium as a valid method of work. Why should I press my dungaree uniform when I’ll be busting rust and chipping paint fifteen minutes after muster? What’s the purpose of shiny shoes when I’ll be scuffing them up on the nonskid and then polishing them repeatedly? These and other logical paradoxes were my constant mental enemy. It was a war I lost on a daily basis.
I gained and lost E-2 so many times I couldn’t even keep track. I’d never been able to stay out of trouble for more than a few weeks. I spent a lot of time on extra duty. How I ever managed liberty at all I’ll never know.
I would have to say that my father is largely responsible for any good I did while aboard that ship. His work ethic rubbed off on me quite a bit. I might never have been the prettiest sailor; I was one of the hardest working. Provided I could get a job I felt was worth doing!
I remember the first time I met you. You were as old as my grandfather and had something of the same masterful stare. You were hard-nosed and genial in the same instant. I couldn’t have hated you if I tried. I think you saw in me the potential of the man I was going to be, and that you also understood that my future was not “haze grey and underway.” As a Warrant Officer you had risen through the ranks and I’m sure you had seen hundreds of kids like me.
One of your most bewildering traits was your fairness. You understood the dichotomy of the military; that the people who “never have done” were in charge of those who “do every day.”
One particular event took place on the way to the Persian Gulf. Since the Portland was just one big, floating pickup truck for hauling boats around, we were preparing to take Marine Corp landing craft on board prior to entering the operating theater. We could have taken the boats on during the morning, but there were complications with the Marines that left the evolution until late afternoon. We might be working for the same outfit, but those guys pilot like hell in the best of weather, and what they know of the sea could be put on the head of a pen with enough room left over for the UCMJ.
We could barely see the Marine vessels, but the weather was already turning against us. By the time the boats were making their approaches, the sea had taken on the threatening cast of unsheathed steel, mirroring the angry sky. The ship rolled obediently on fitful waves as the stern gate was lowered and the water came into the well deck, we all knew we were in for some serious work.
By the time we were actually pulling the boats into the ship, it was raining hard. The clouds had become dark and smothering. The well deck had been flooded to ten feet and we had our own tempest in a teacup. I’m sure the wind was blowing, but I don’t actually remember it, because I had other things on my mind.
I threw out my line to the first boat that breached our stern. They tied it off to the bow. The landing craft was gray and flat bottomed and the face that looked up at me was gray and sick looking. I looked back at him seriously and then gave him a wink; he didn’t look comforted.
I was supposed to have a partner named Williams, but he left me before I sent out my line. I was alone. My line was one of those two inch, right-lay synthetics that felt like a rubber band when it got wet. Stretched like one too. I had 30 feet of it in my left hand and was trying to maintain control of the boat with my right as I walked up the narrow catwalk on the inside the wing wall.
My job was to guide the boat in and tie it off, but the landing craft bucked and swung port and starboard, surging forward and then sliding back. All the while my mind played out that video we all watched in Basic. Brutally frank images of manikins being dismembered ran thought my brain, their hard bodies shattering like rotten wood as a snapped line shot backward with the speed of a bullet.
I don’t remember being scared, I should have been, I should have been terrified as I attempted to maneuver my line along a three foot walkway and pull a boat safely into the belly of the ship, but all I remember feeling was hot anger. I’d been left alone, abandoned doing a job I’d never done before, relying only on similar situations and the basics of deck seamanship. There’s nothing like a life and death scenario to etch absolute knowledge into the very core of a man. Most of what I did that day was automatic, almost intuitive muscle memory.
I reached my final station and looped the line over one of the two cylindrical bitts. The boat took a sudden roll to port and the line surged through my hands and rode the bitt all the way to the cap, but I kept control of the damned thing. We went back and forth for a while, the boat and the waves fighting against a single man with a two inch rope. My feet threatened to get tangled in the slack of my line that I was forced to simply drop on the catwalk and there was no proper angle to work at that would get me completely clear, should the line snap. I was thumbing my nose at Davey Jones, and hoping he wasn’t looking.
So you could imagine my elation when a green Ensign decided to walk up to me, with his white safety officer’s hat, his pressed khaki uniform, and his fancy academy ways and tell me that I was doing my job wrong.
I readily admit that I lost every ounce of military bearing I possessed—though two captain’s masts had pretty much determined that I had none—and that my temper chased after it like a rabid hound. I don’t remember everything I said, but I do remember screaming the last few words.
“EITHER HELP WITH THE LINE OR GET THE FUCK OFF OF MY WING WALL!”
It was not my finest hour.
It became not my finest year when that Ensign turned out to be my new division officer.
My next clear memory is of you standing in front of me while I was locked at attention. You spoke harshly, cruelly, and at great length concerning my actions, my lack of intelligence, and my worth as a human being. You instructed me to perform several acts of biological impossibility and then kicked me out of your office.
I stood in the passageway outside your closed door, stunned, scared, and angry as hell. I didn’t say anything—I couldn’t say anything—I just stood there and let the rage-monster inside me vibrate my skin and shake my bones. Then I heard you talk to the Chief who was the only person left in the office. “Pierson’s had enough. Give him twenty minutes and then knock him off for the day. And get that butterbar on the horn, I need to have words with that boy.”
Then I started to understand. Not everything, not by a damn sight, but the basic idea was there. You had to yell at me because I was in the wrong in dealing with an officer. You had to yell at him too, because he was also at fault for interfering with me at a moment where mistakes could be fatal. The really important point was that you couldn’t yell at the two of us at the same time; that would destroy the illusion of authority between officer and enlisted man. It was a small thing, but profound for me at the time.
But the event that was most critical—though I did not know it at the time or for over two decades after—was the day the Captain decided to move the ship forward twenty feet so we could lower the stern gate for the Change of Command Ceremony.
We had been docked for a month at Little Creek, Naval Base after our return from the Persian Gulf. Our stern was facing the quay wall and we had relaxed the six, four inch lines that held the ship in place. There were about ten of us on the forecastle manning two lines, as well as a brakeman standing by on the capstan, a corpsman and yourself.
We spent a lot of time on that triangle of deck between the superstructure of the ship and the tip of the bow. After twenty two years the layout is still as clear in my mind as any memory can be. But maybe we spent so much time there, doing so many difficult maneuvers that something this simple made us lax in our attention. That was the opinion of the Executive Officer, at first—thanks for setting him straight. I think it’s just that the universe runs on tragedy and when it doesn’t get enough, it conspires to make its own.
We were going to move forward ten or twenty feet, that’s all. So, when the tug got stuck between the stern of the ship and the quay wall its crew had a simple choice, break free or be crushed. They broke free.
The ship shot forward so fast that all but a few of us were caught off guard. There was one seasoned sailor at the head of line 1, I was the tail and between us were three new guys. When the line surged forward, I instantly opened my hands and let it run. I’m sure the number one guy did the same, or his hands would have been broken between the rope and the steel bitt. The rest of the guys were still using land-side reflexes and instinctively GRABBED the line tighter. I watched them fly forward, slamming into each other and driving the head man into the bitts. They fell to each side, prat-falling onto the steel deck with violent dedication. I was alone on the line, I looked to line 2 and saw that the same thing had happened, only their line had slipped free and ran off the side of the ship like a fleeing snake.
The ship kept moving forward and the line kept playing out. I continued to walk the line hand over hand as I stepped over my fallen shipmates. My right hand felt the texture of the line change as the line that is usually coiled inside gave way to the more weathered line that is usually exposed. I knew I was working on reaching the bitter end. I held onto that point and took a final quick step forward to get some slack. I looped the line over the bitt, put my foot on the top of it, and pulled. An instant later the ships forward momentum slacked. I played out some slack and pulled again.
I did it again.
All the way to the end where I was holding onto the eye spliced into the end of that line. I had four inches on my side and if the ship went any further forward I would have to abandon that line. It didn’t, we’d stopped.
I looked around and saw the devastation around us. There were sailors sitting and lying on the deck away from the lines themselves. I was the only person who was holding onto a line on the forward part of the ship. Then I saw you staring at me like you’d never seen me before.
“Sup, Bos’n.” I remember saying.
“When you took a turn on that bitt and put your foot down, the look on your face scared the hell out of me! Damn fine work, Pierson.”
I can’t articulate most of what you taught me in the year and a half I knew you. Most of it was subtle; ideas, half formed thoughts, nuggets of wisdom wrapped in a reprimand or a joke. Most people learn by examining the rules and working within them. I learn where the boundaries are by breaking them. You knew this and never held it against me. How foolish I must have seemed in your eyes!
The next four months were my last four months. They went amazingly smooth. No problems, no troubles, no hassles. I finished my term of service without a hitch and left the USS Portland without so much as a look back. It wasn’t until I was talking with a fellow Vet—over twenty two years later—that I realized that the only way my last months could have been so trouble free was if you had used your influence. You let me take my Honorable and walk and I now understand that it was the only kindness you could give me.