As you surely know by now, I come from the eastern seaboard of this great land of ours. And yet here I am in the middle of a desert, well over 300 miles from the nearest salt water, and more than a 5,000 feet above sea level. And when it came time to join up during Korea, I chose the Air Force, not the Navy.
Naturally, every once in a while somebody gets curious and asks me, “Hey, Tom, how come you didn’t join the Navy?”
Ah yes. The siren call of the sea. The briny deep. The ...
Sorry. Stop the music. You’re wasting your time.
It’s not that I didn’t hear that call. No one could grow up in New London, Conn. and be unaware of the sea. And that’s the secret. People who fall in love with the sea are often people who’ve never seen it. I saw it. Boy did I see it! The Atlantic was right there in plain sight of our house, which stood atop a hill.
As a teenager, some of my best days were spent in the attic where I had both my workbench and my bedroom. I used to clamber up the stairs to the skylight, hinge it open, and sit atop our steep slanted roof enjoying a view stretching over 180 degrees.
Behind our house and off to the south stood large Victorian clapboard houses, some topped by widow’s walks, small square rooms built atop the roof.
Widow’s walks were windowed on all four sides and had narrow outside walkways edged with ornate wrought iron railings. Since New London was a whaling town, 18th and 19th century wives spent many troubled hours searching the sea for the first sign of tall masts and billowing sails bringing home a beloved husband. And occasionally they weren’t disappointed.
To the east from my roof, I watched the broad waters of the Thames River flowing to the sea beneath a high arching bridge. Across the Thames stood the satellite city of Groton, row after row of houses rising up from the bank of the river to the tops of low hills mirroring the hills on our side.
At the southernmost end of Groton was the Electric Boat Company, where so many of our submarines were, and still are, built. What a nest of activity that was during the war, especially at night. Up on the roof at night I watched the brilliant glare of arc welding torches reflecting across the dark waters of the Thames as men and women struggled night and day to produce enough subs to catch up with Germany’s 28-year head start.
Swiveling toward the north during the day, I could just catch a glimpse of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy atop a hill at the north end of town. And barely visible beyond it were the tops of some of the structures of the sub base from which our submarines sallied forth into the Atlantic. Never did a day go by when less than two or three subs entered or exited the harbor past steel submarine nets stretched across the mouth of the harbor.
Signs of the sea were everywhere in New London. Tall masted yachts with shining spar-varnished decks docked right at the foot of State Street, the main street of town. On Bank Street, which ran along the edge of the river, stood the Whaling Museum. The biggest attraction in town was Ocean Beach, a sprawling commercial beach where I worked summers during my high school years.
Yes, it was then, and still is, impossible to spend a single day in New London and remain unaware of the sea.
So why am I here, a mile above sea level in Arizona?
People who grow up far from the sea often think of it as romantic and adventurous, but those who live along its edge know it for what it really is — immense, beyond human control, glacially indifferent to those who venture upon it or live along its shores, and subject to sudden violent changes. History is filled with tales of brave sailors for the simple reason that the ocean offers so many chances to die bravely.
Of all the things on this planet which are beyond our control, the foremost example is the sea. We can tame rivers, plow plains, irrigate deserts, hew down forests. But the sea is what it is — and always will be. We can no more change it than we can stop the progress of the Earth in its orbit.
I’m a reader. Been one all my life. And the libraries in coastal cities like New London are filled with books telling of the sea. True, some of them romanticize it, but most of them speak the plain unvarnished truth, and it wasn’t long before I caught on. The sea is neither friendly nor hostile. It does what it does as if you and I didn’t exist. It’s a great place for sea critters, but humans are land critters, and on land we belong.
As I worked my way through the New London library with an eye toward choosing a career, I slowly came to understand the history of humankind’s ventures upon what the Hindus call the kala pani — the black water. It is a history of disaster. Those hand hewn, wooden, wind driven ships our ancestors sailed around the globe left a lot to be desired. Most of them were small enough to fit sideways on your house lot, and narrow enough so a 4-year-old could toss a rock across them amidships. And now that we at last have ships which are larger, better constructed, and far safer, the nations of the world have developed the nasty habit of sinking the %$#@! things! Often — as the expression goes — “with all hands.”
I am very happy there are people who view that as a potential occupation, but I tell you frankly it’s not for me. I like things where the terra is — as they say — firma. I’ve traveled around the world a couple of times, some of it on the bounding main. And I’ve spent my share of time sailing little cockleshell sailboats here and there. And I’ve overflown a lot of downright unfriendly water, in particular the North Sea, which did its best to get me once, but failed because of sheer good luck. Mine, not its.
And so I went Air Force. What I like about the Air Force is this: If your ship goes down, it’s going down through the air. With wings, hopefully. And a fair chance to land in a place from which you can walk back home. And if it goes down faster than that, the end will be swift enough so you won’t spend your last few hours on the planet treading water, kicking your legs, saying “Bad shark! Bad shark!” and asking who the %$#@! talked you into this.
So who’s in the Navy? A whole lot of guys from Kansas.