My two kids, my two grandkids and I boarded the battleship Massachusetts. We crawled all over her, from galley to gun decks and bridge. She’s a museum now, but her 16-inch guns and 16-inch armor remain a sight. It takes the length of your forearm and extended hand to reach through a slot in the armor that protected her bridge. You wonder how so much metal stayed afloat.
To tell you the truth, I was disappointed none of the kids asked me a question like that. Maybe I never told them I was a Navy Reserve sailor. Yet every ladder, every gun, every bundled-up duffle bag recalls a scene to me.
In 1948, the war was just over. Nuclear war with Russia was soon to be a threat. Korea was about to boil over. We all expected to do our bit, but I wanted to go to medical school first, so I joined the Navy Reserve.
The Navy issued me a full uniform – blues, whites, fatigues and a huge-collared pea coat. I wore the coat to school all winter long.
Every Wednesday night, we gathered at the foot of Porter Avenue. On one side of the street, the sleek gray-hulled Patrol Craft 1208 sat in the waters of Buffalo Harbor, her guns reminding us of the threat of war. Across the street in the Navy Reserve Station, we studied wire circuits, radio and radar and sat around to kibitz and drink coffee, like sailors.
Some lucky guys went on short-term active-duty cruises to the Caribbean or the Mediterranean. My cruise was on our own PC 1208. Our first night was in a foreign port – Port Colborne, Ont.
The next day, in broiling sun, we made the passage through the Welland Canal. My job was to help move a massive woven-hemp bumper from one side of the ship to the other as we moved from lock to lock. But the captain promised us liberty in Toronto and we were going to look for girls at Sunnyside Amusement Park.
We slept two decks down on triple-decker bunks; a pretty tight fit for the gang of us. A petty officer approached me confidentially and offered to make me a compartment cleaner. “You won’t get stuck out in the sun chipping paint all day,” he said.
So I became “Captain of the Head.” I gave new luster to the old brass bathroom fixtures. When I finished cleaning, I had time to nose around the ship and volunteered to take a turn at the wheel. Imagine a 450-ton warship at the command of your fingertips.
When I smell diesel now, I’m right back aboard the ship, the thrum-thrum-thrum of engines vibrating through steel plates and into me, wind and sky before me, blue water all around, adventure in the offing.
On board the Massachusetts with the family, we were having fun, like another amusement park. Inside her gun turrets, we brushed against 4-foot-high steel shells lining the walls. Every one of them had carried an explosive charge that could have blown my PC 1208 into confetti.
Finally we came upon an old man in a baseball cap bearing the name of a long-defunct ship. He sat at a wardroom table where he held the rapt attention of seven other gnarled old men.
“I was down below sweating every minute. My heart was pounding,” he said. “I was watching the water gauge go up and down, up and down. If it went too far down …” He fell silent, shook his head and jerked his hands wide apart in an explosion.
I thought, “And still we go down to the sea in ships.”