Sea Story: Showing the flag in the Grand Canal

My 20 years in the Navy took me from the cornfields of the Midwest to retirement the Pacific Northwest.

I enlisted in 1982 for a simple reason: I owed a college a significant sum of money — the school was displeased I attended classes for more than a year without paying — and had no other job prospects.

I took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) entrance exam for the Air Force, and scored quite well, but couldn’t wait six months for boot camp — not only was the college on me but my student loans were starting to accrue interest. The bank manager mentioned that by enlisting my loans could be frozen for a year or more, so I headed off to find the local recruiting station.

The Air Force recruiter suggested I try another branch, so I took my test results to the next office down the hall where I found a Navy recruiter who promised me I’d be on a bus to boot camp in no time. I signed on the dotted line, and the recruiter shook my hand and then took me next door to a tavern for a celebratory beer.

The 9/11 terrorist attack came nearly 19 years to the day after I lifted my hand to be sworn into military service for the first time at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in Chicago. I was sworn in by an Army Lieutenant Colonel, and before he started the oath the hundred or so of us in the room were given one last chance to leave; I heard a shuffling of feet behind me and the doors opening and closing, but I held fast and repeated the words with him once he started.

I mention 9/11 because I know that event led many to enlist or seek out officer programs. I retired before too many of those folks made it to my corner of the fleet, because in my 20 years of service I only met one person who ever claimed to have joined the Navy out of patriotism.

*  *  *  *

Of course that isn’t to say patriotism wasn’t a consideration — primary, secondary, a tiny bit — just that it wasn’t something folks I served with ever spoke of. Even after Grenada, Panama and Desert Shield/Storm, after which serving in the military was publicly redeemed following the Vietnam years, the answers were usually the same as I heard at boot camp: money to pay off a debt, a too-young family to take care of, college to be saved for, and the occasional judicial intervention.

But to protect our flag and country? For democracy and our freedoms? Didn’t hear much of that in my first decade in uniform. But, again, that isn’t to say it wasn’t there in some form.

The Navy, like every branch of our military, does a very good job indoctrinating Sailors in its traditions and history. From John Paul Jones to Stephen Decatur to Midway and Torpedo Squadron 8; bravery, sacrifice and honor were instilled in me long before the “Core Values” of Honor, Courage and Commitment became a catchphrase for Sailors to memorize and repeat back.

My moment of patriotism, when my heart felt like it would burst from pride — in my country, my Navy my shipmates and my ship ­— came during the first liberty port visit USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) made during her inaugural deployment in early 1993.

But as I remember it, things — as they sometimes do — didn’t work out exactly as planned on that occasion.

*  *  *  *

Shortly after we left Norfolk, Va., on that deployment the Navy decided to transfer responsibility for all shipboard postal functions from the Executive Department to the Supply Department. Upon notification of this rule change, I paid a visit to our ship’s postal clerk (PC) in his work space, and was displeased at what I found. The space was a mess, and although our PC seemed like a somewhat squared-away Sailor, I wasn’t looking forward to all the new audits and reports he brought with him.

I gave one of my chief petty officers a week to get the space cleaned up —accomplished ahead of time — while I hit the manuals to figure out what I needed to do. With just days to go before our first liberty port visit of the deployment — Burke briefly stopped at the Naval Base in Rota, Spain for a face-to-face turnover with the ship we relieved — I sat down with the postal clerk so he could explain to me his responsibilities for getting mail in foreign ports.

As we would be anchored quite far off the coast, he asked me to arrange a small boat to take him through the canals of Venice to a parking garage near the train station on the far side of the city. The ship’s rental van was located in the parking garage, which was next to a causeway to the mainland. Once in the van, the postal clerk would drive to a nearby civilian airport, pick up the mail ­— expected to include many bags of personal and official mail as well as boxes of spare parts — and then reverse course.

At the end of the conversation the postal clerk suggested I tag along on his mail run, so that I could better understand what his job entailed. I said I would.

*  *  *  *

The ship’s First Lieutenant was one of my best friends, and he was more than happy to serve as Boat Officer for the mail run as it fell on his duty day. We set about late in the afternoon — we had received word when the plane with mail on it arrived at the civilian airport — using one of the ship’s two Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats, commonly called “Rhibs.”

The First Lieutenant asked if we needed to be in dress uniform as we were traveling into the city on official business, but the ship’s Executive Officer said working uniforms in good repair — no holes, rips, stains, paint splatters, etc. — would be fine as the working party could get dirty hauling around mailbags and boxes.

So we set off, the First Lieutenant and I in our khakis and flight jackets (another sea story for another day); and the postal clerk, Coxswain, Boat Engineer and Bow Hook in dungarees and foul weather jackets. We all wore ball caps emblazoned with the ship’s name and hull number.

The trip into Venice itself was long and uneventful — our anchoring position in the Golfo di Venezia was about an hour by small boat to the city because of water depth ­­— and the early-spring wind was cold off the northern Adriatic Sea. By the time we got to the entrance of the Grand Canal, the main thoroughfare winding through Venice, it was dark.

*  *  *  *

Business, as they say, picked up once we entered the Grand Canal. Small boats were everywhere: taxis and busses — sleek speedboats and lumbering people-filled ferries, respectively — gondolas and flat-bottomed cargo boats. We had boats crossing the bow and passing astern, overtaking us on both sides and dodging other boats going the opposite direction — and all at close range.

As our small boat slowly pulled into the Grand Canal, we became aware that everyone, in other boats, on the ferries and walking along the sides of the canal, was staring at us. Our gray-painted Rhib with the crew of uniformed U.S. Navy Sailors had the attention of Venice.

I turned to Mark to say something, and was instead transfixed by the flag streaming out behind our small boat. The wind was just right and there was just enough ambient light to go with the bulb atop the flagstaff; there was no mistaking the Stars and Stripes — I don’t think the red of the stripes or the blue of the field has ever looked so bright to me —or who we were.

In that moment I was filled with an overwhelming sense of pride, a feeling that grew as we slowly made our way through the heart of Venice, going under Rialto Bridge and passing the Casino as well as hotels and restaurants. We were Sailors in the world’s largest and most powerful Navy, representing our country in a foreign land. With the train station visible in the distance, the Coxswain began to look for a suitable place to tie up.

And that’s when the Rhib’s propeller fell off, leaving us adrift smack dab in the middle of the Grand Canal and all its traffic.

*  *  *  *

At that moment there was no point in asking why the screw fell off, the immediate concern was to get the Rhib and ourselves to safety before we were run into or swamped. A heavily-loaded bus went by close aboard — the passengers staring at us now for very different reasons ­— and the wake nudged us close enough to the edge of the canal for the Bow Hook to throw a line that a passer-by made fast.

The First Lieutenant radioed the ship to explain our situation, and after the Command Duty Officer stopped laughing we were told the other Rhib would be launched to tow us back. With at least an hour and probably more to kill while a boat crew was rounded up and the Rhib put into the water, the postal clerk, First Lieutenant and I made the mail run and stopped for pizza before returning to the canal and our stranded crew.

The return trip through the Grand Canal was very quiet. Our rescuers took three hours after the first radio call to get to us, and by that point in the evening Venice had closed up shop. Our crew from the stricken Rhib was very cold, tired, and still hungry even after the pizza, and we also had to endure a few taunts from the other crew as they towed us.

Our little procession had just cleared the Grand Canal and entered the Golfo di Venezia when the leading Rhib began to veer off course and then come to a sudden stop. The steering gear had failed, and while the crew connected a manual tiller for steering, we pulled alongside and lashed our Rhib to theirs in the hope that we could help with steering.

With the manual tiller and both Rhibs lashed together side by side, our best speed was just above crawl and so it wasn’t until after daybreak that we finally got back to Arleigh Burke. As we were unloading the mailbags and boxes, I told the postal clerk that I wouldn’t be joining him on future mail runs. He smiled and said they were rarely that exciting, but he understood completely.

That turned out to be another long day, as we had to identify and order repair parts for one of the Rhibs while the other was repaired by our own Sailors. Fortunately we were anchored off the boat-part capital of Southern Europe, so getting the parts wasn’t too hard but I recall the First Lieutenant and I getting a lot of grief from the Executive Officer over our “boat trip.”

*  *  *  *

The sea story that goes along with that boat trip is fun to tell — now — but I have never told the whole story before, choosing instead to leave the part about the flag out while emphasizing the Marx Brothers quality of what happened when the screw fell off in the middle of the Grand Canal.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel it. And now, going on 20 years after the fact, I can still clearly recall the emotion that swept over me as our little crew proudly showed the American flag in a foreign port.


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