Finally Home, Again

By Richard C. Kurth

Frankly, I was not expecting much from the weekend. Ever since "American Graffiti," nostalgia seemed to have been a pretty big thing with my generation—the leading edge of the baby-boomers. We matured on "Back to the Future," Elvis sightings and impersonators, continuous oldies on the radio, and so on. I get into that to a certain extent, but so much is going on in my life today that I barely have enough mental capacity for the demands of the present, much less the past. Besides, the 13 months I spent on remote, muddy hilltops in Vietnam seems to be the military experience more likely to stimulate contemplative reflection, whenever I am so inclined.

Coming from that frame of reference, I was totally unprepared for the scene near the pier when I arrived. It was almost overwhelming. Any ship's homecoming after a long deployment is bound to be emotional for those involved. But with a ship that size (crew of about 5,000— especially one that has been in the fleet for a long time (since the late 1950s)—a fairly large group of people have a portion of either their present realities or their personal histories connected to her.

Oddly enough, I am told that arrivals of older ships often tend to be bigger events than arrivals of newer ones. Usually, fewer politicians and military brass attend the return of an old ship, but regular folks are in greater abundance. This day, a lot of people were there, and I had to park a long way away. Finding the friends I was supposed to meet was clearly going to be a challenge. To the extent that I thought about it at all beforehand, I had underestimated the size of the crowd and the magnitude of what was happening. I was in for much more than I had anticipated.

I had been through the ship-returns-to-the-States routine a long time before, on the same large but austere combat vessel that was now inbound again. I had the experience from the opposite perspective. I remember having trouble sleeping the last two or three nights before we got back. I recall vividly walking on the flight deck in the darkness with a number of other insomniacs (I think we called it "channel fever"). But this time, from shoreside, the atmosphere was completely different. It was wild.

There were balloons—lots of balloons—brightly decorated cakes, flags, open-air tents with food and beverages, outdoor grills, biplanes towing banners, festive-minded citizens of all ages, and every manner of hand-held signs, proclaiming: "Welcome Back USS Kitty Hawk ;" "Hi Bob;" "Deck Division Families;" "VFW;" and "We Love You Daddy." They were festooned with hearts, caricatures, colored letters, and finger-painted images to help get their deeper messages across. The sky was absolutely clear, the sun was bright, and the temperature was perfect. It was an ideal San Diego day.

There were older people who had children or grandchildren on that ship and/or who had served on her in their own youth. Especially prominent were young families—kids in strollers, on blankets, in child-carriers of every type, and running all over. There were newborns who had yet to see or to be seen by their fathers. Two bands were semi-competing from opposite ends of the pier, smoke billowed from the grills, bouquets of flowers abounded, and people were dressed in everything from cut-offs, to uniforms, to long, flowing dresses. The variety of aromas went from charred picnic hot dogs to expensive perfume. This was Americana at its finest; better than a dozen Norman Rockwell paintings.

It was one helluva party. But it was a lot more. If there had been a Richter-type earthquake scale calibrated to measure the sum of all the individual emotional events taking place, it would have registered off the chart. The energy had to be synergistic; not that many people could have ties to the crew, could they? I simply could more than see the emotional outpouring from the crowd, I could feel it.

The Kitty Hawk finally came faintly into sight at about 1130. She was moving purposefully around the bend in the channel, completing a return transit that had gone more than halfway around the world. Nearly eight months before, she had sailed for destinations where previously she had not been a welcome sight to some elements of local populaces. And now, slipping smoothly past buildings a fraction her size, she was coming home, again. I was reminded of the sobering fact that not all the young men who departed on that very ship had returned home alive. Such was the case on both of the major deployments in which I had participated. Occasional overseas liberty port visits are fun, but the basic business of a warship is very serious stuff.

As the "Hawk" continued to come into view, with the ship's company in dress white uniforms, standing in formation all the way around the edge of the flight deck, the bands on shore didn't have a chance. The crowd began cheering, laughing, screaming, crying—all at the same time. And all focused in the same direction. Even those who had started out as spectators to whatever was attracting such a crowd were caught up in it by then, and no one was leaving before this one was over.

The ship approached the pier very slowly, and it took a while to get there (80,000 tons with no emergency brake requires careful handling when in close). Anxious family members and friends strained to make out individual faces among the crew on deck; to no avail at first, but then with an increasing number of jumps for joy and wild arm-waving here and there around the crowd, and on board, as the separation got smaller and smaller, and direct visual connections were made. "I see him, I see him!" was the most common refrain. But more clinical observations, like "I swear, that ship looks to be in better condition now than it was 30 years ago," were also heard from various self-proclaimed but aging authorities on the subject. A veteran of my approximate vintage muttered that he was as hard as nails, but this was about to bring a tear to his eye. It did.

A few banners proclaiming such messages as, "I Missed You Cathy, Rebecca, and Todd," began to appear on the ship, as the small strip of water that still separated her from home continued to narrow. There was even one that said, "Will you marry me, Jill?" from high above the "63" on the superstructure, aimed at some surprised young lady in the crowd. The unveiling of that one got a huge round of applause and cheers from shore.

We learned later that the crew members assigned to man the rail on the opposite side of the ship had something to occupy their attention as well. A boat in the harbor (out of the crowd's view), keeping pace during the big ship's slow passage, was marketing the music and gyrating dancers from a local bar. Female sailors were on board, too, and some question whether or not they should be there. That issue was not on my agenda at the time, either way.

The proud, battle-proven United States Ship Kitty Hawk , in ever-increasing visual detail, began looming several stories over the crowd, filling the empty space and blocking out the view of the City of San Diego across the bay—and much of the sky—that had been there before her arrival. She was magnificent. More impressive than I remembered, she really did somehow look newer and fresher now than she had all those years before. When the first mooring line was finally thrown down to the pier, and the ship's public address system loudly instructed the special sea and anchor detail to "shift colors, the ship is moored"—well, you can imagine the explosion of pandemonium that erupted from the already emotionally overloaded pier population to that piece of news. It was what they all had been waiting for.

It was a fun and happy day. It was also a profoundly poignant day for me. Seeing a stroller with a little girl about age two or three, looking a bit puzzled, with a young, apprehensive mother holding a balloon and a little banner, searching upward among all the uniforms, trying to keep her composure—frankly, I could no longer keep my composure.

So much of life has gone by in the two or three microseconds since my now 26-year-old daughter was in that stroller, my still-as-beautiful-today-as-she-was-then bride was holding that balloon, and I was a young Marine on that same ship approaching that same pier, under that same flawless sky, trying to spot them in the crowd.

When we finally found each other, on that earlier day, my bride's happy smile disappeared for a few minutes. Our little girl did not remember me at all after eight months of separation. She was frightened and tried to withdraw into the stroller. Then, for just a second, there was that tilted, quizzical look. In the next, magic instant, she lit up in recognition, threw her little arms around my neck, and held on so relentlessly that my freshly washed white cover fell off. When I tried to stand up, she and the stroller came with me. The hat and the stroller are long gone, but I can still feel her soft cheek pressed against mine; and the sound of her halting little breath will reside pleasantly in my ear from that special moment until the day I die.

My reverie was interrupted by someone calling my name. One of my old shipmates had somehow noticed me in the mob, and the reunion was under way. We laughed at each other's receding hairlines and expanding waistlines. How lucky I am to have such friends as these. Like the ship, they are, mysteriously, even better now than they were then.

In the years since I was a member of that same ship's company, the one that was now streaming down the gangways and onto the pier, much of my life has been far from ordinary. There have been wonderful adventures, and other events I wish I could forget. Earlier, as a young Vietnam returnee, I had heard from a gruff but wise old colonel that peacetime is sometimes harder on you than war. I scoffed at that at the time, but his remark turned out to be prophetic in many respects. My special bride and I experienced the very traumatic arrival of two more children, the fairly recent loss of one of them, and the near loss of both of our others—all in separate incidents. Our daughter who was in that stroller came through a very serious illness and a major, life-threatening injury. She even survived adolescence. There were times when I did not believe I would ever be able to say it again, but we are okay today. In fact, life is pretty good.

In the midst of the continuing festivities of that recent Friday, as I stood newly reunited with my friends, I looked over my shoulder in the direction of where the young mother and her little girl had been. They were gone by then, and I hoped that the reunion they were probably having at that moment was as special as mine had been, on that same pier, so many years before. Then, for a powerful instant, it seemed as if none of the events, mundane or extraordinary, of the intervening quarter-century had actually taken place at all. They had just been part of a dream. That long-ago arrival day had not yet ended. I was still there, under that clear but somehow younger sky. I had just seen my own little family from the ship, and I knew they must still be there, too—somewhere in that crowd—just as I was. I couldn't wait to find them. The Kitty Hawk was finally home, again, and so was I.

Mr. Kurth , who served in the Vietnam War as a U.S. Marine, lives in Laguna Beach, California.



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