It’s a balmy 77 degrees this morning, expected to rocket into the 90s within a few hours. There’s alot going on in the area but chances are I’ll skip most of it. The heat, the crowds, and the hoopla seem to have much less appeal with each passing year. There’s a Sopranos marathon being shown on A&E and something tells me I’ll probably be watching it off and on and reading up on writing screenplays until after sunset.
Memorial Day to me, for whatever reason, always comes with a combination of optimistic Summer expectations and a hint of reflective melancholy for simpler times and those who couldn’t be here. Of course there are marches here and there to honor the fallen vets but what I never hear about are the other casualties of war — some of the vets who returned psychologically and emotionally scarred from putting their lives on the line and their families and marriages that ultimately paid the price.
I think back to Memorial Day weekend, 1975. My father was a Chief Petty Officer on the USS Belknap at the time. He was in his early 30s and most of the guys under his command were in their late teens to early 20s. That weekend he decided to have a cookout and invite all his friends, my adopted uncles and aunts, and his guys. Everyone partied like, well, like sailors. Blow-out afros, women wearing shorts and skirts with pretty legs, and dudes with open-chest shirts with most of the buttons undone. Funk, Jazz and Soul music seemed to be everywhere I went, inside and out. Beer and booze was flowing. Anything that ever had feathers, fins or hooves ended up on the grill.Â There were even a few people smoking joints here and there, including enlisted men and a couple of people I’d swear were officers at the time. As some of the guys got nice and wasted, they began to relive sea stories about their collective adventures while on shore leave in different countries. I remember that in more than a few of the tales there was a drunken brawl of some sort and my father would end up jumping into it to pull his guys out of the fire, get them safely back to the ship, or in some other way scramble to pull one of them out of trouble. By that time they didn’t care that I was a 6-year old kid hanging out listening to the unadulterated mayhem of grown folks, although anytime my mother or father walked up on a conversation they’d send me to my room. Once they were gone I would sneak back in to listen to their stories, and they had no problem telling them with me around, almost as if I was a little brother in some strange way out of respect for my father. The next morning I remember walking downstairs to watch PBS, the only pre-cable TV source of children’s shows on a Sunday, and discovered that most of his guys had just passed out wherever they found a spot — on the floor, on the couches, in chairs, in doorways, and even on the patio.
I don’t remember whether it was days or weeks later but the next thing I recall is the Belknap heading back out to sea for what seemed like it would be forever. Unlike today where there’s instant communication through the Internet, I remember we, as in Navy families, were lucky if we could speak to our loved ones once every month or so. Since a 10-minute international phone call was more expensive than some utility bills, letters were the cheapest way to go. The seasons had gone from Summer to Fall. Thanksgiving was a few days away. My mother, little brother Jason and I were over at Aunt Montrose’s house. Jason and I were downstairs playing and watching TV when a news bulletin flashed across the screen, something involving the Belknap. I didn’t fully understand what was being said but it also involved The John F Kennedy and I could tell by the news anchor’s expression that it wasn’t good. When I ran upstairs to tell the adults they thought I had seen one of the “Bicentennial Minutes”, on which the Belknap was supposed to be featured at some point. I kept repeating that it wasn’t one of the Bicentennial Minutes and that something bad had happened. My adamant attempts to get them to take me seriously were brushed off as the mistaken musings of a then 7-year old boy. The problem was that I didn’t catch all of news cast to repeat it verbatim. Had I remembered the word “collision” it would have put everything into perspective.
As it turned out, the U.S.S. Belknap (a guided missile cruiser) and the U.S.S. John F Kennedy (a supercarrier, the largest of the aircraft carriers) had collided just off the coast of Sicily, Italy. A few days had passed before we got confirmation that my father was alive and well. Soon after that all the men were flown back to one of the local Naval bases. I was the first to run up and jump into my father’s arms and, somehow, that was the first time I’d sensed that he wasn’t the same man he was when he left. In the days and months to come I learned that it was my father’s men were on watch that night and were the first to begin fighting the fires when it happened. They also comprised most of the seven casualties on the Belknap side, many of the very same faces that had been partying at the house that past Memorial Day.
These days, the doctors probably would have diagnosed my father and many others from that fateful trip with some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder shortly after they returned home. I’m almost positive of this because my father was never the same after that. Without getting too deep with the family dirty laundry, a few years later my parents separated, the beginning of a long ugly divorce and my brothers and I growing up alienated from our father for years. Echoes of those times constantly remind me that every military casualty has collateral damage, sometimes that carries on for years, the kind that is rarely acknowledged at the parades.
My father rescued the Ship’s Bell from the wreckage, smuggled it back stateside, had it acid-dipped and re-engraved, and placed it inside of a custom-made maple cabinet. Along with the court marshal of Captain Shaffer, the Navy searched high and low for the bell amidst rumors and speculation. As far as I know, the missing Belknap bell is probably among one of the US Navy’s longest running unsolved mysteries. Outside of maybe answering a question or two about the incident itself, my father never talked about the fires or his lost comrades again. Their memories reside in the bell cabinet, beneath the bell in his last Belknap yearbook on a memorial page for the seven Belknap casualties and one on the Kennedy.
So, for this Memorial Day, I also dedicate my thoughts and prayers to the families and friends who were forever affected by loved ones who were lost or wounded in the U.S. military in service to our country.