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The Stoddard Reunion
Lynne Petersen

So many mornings I trekked across that concrete deck. My father pointed out the window of our tour bus as we eased to a stop in front of a docked destroyer on the Naval base in San Diego.  peterson.jpg (46140 bytes)

It was the first time he had joined his old shipmates since their tours of duty on the USS-Stoddard from 1965-67. The leaders of the get-together had arranged for a tour of a destroyer like their old ship, but a much more recent and still commissioned version. 

Were loading up, the reunion coordinators called to the crowd and began ushering everyone out of the restaurant. Want to go with us? my Dad asked, popping the last bit of breakfast into his mouth and sliding across the vinyl booth. I didn't know much about that part of my fathers life, except for a few stories of being off the coast during Vietnam, seeing some black and white pictures of him aboard the ship, and knowing that he was stationed in San Francisco when he met my mother. I instantly took him up on the offer. I was intrigued by the idea of tracing that time of his life, so I grabbed my purse and followed him out. 

The sky was clear and the horizon long as we left the bus, filing down the steps into the salted air. The men looked toward the ship. They laughed and talked and partook in remember when's, then fell into hushed tones at the booth where an 100% security check was in progress. 

We never had anything like this, my Dad said as we watched an armed sailor traverse the deck on the look-out for possible terrorism threats. Its a different world, I agreed. Walking across the deck, I stared at the length of the ship and remembered as a child how our 20 foot sail boat would ride by those ships in the bay and they looked like slabs of mountainous granite suspended in water. My childhood eyes had seen insurmountable force, my adult ones knew better and saw the vulnerability of all things...even something made of 100% steel. 

The career military were the first alumni on, eager to shake hands and tip their hats to the new generation of sailors. Then there was the gang that my Dad was part of, joined the Navy because they didn't want to get drafted into the Army, didn't know what else to do at that point in their lives, and had a love for the sea. 

As we stepped onto the ship, my Dad tapped a mid sized post with his foot. "Bang your shins up black and blue when we were running dark", he said grinning. His friend and former shipmate agreed. What does that mean? I asked stepping to his side. That's when the ship was completely dark and no light could be seen anywhere. My father and his friend began recalling stories that heralded the pitch black night. 

Our tour guide met us at the stern, he was short, sturdy, and young. Welcome to the USS-Oldendorff, he said, and begun pointing to missiles and guns, explaining their uses. He observed the older men and asked them if they had any questions. What will that do? How much power does that have the men looked at the new machinery, nodded slowly and raised their eyebrows at one another. 

Onto the Combat Information Center. Our guide ushered us along. We passed the Commanding officers quarters on the way. The passageways were narrow, but spit spot clean and lined with strength. 

This is where I worked, Lynne, my Dad offered as we entered the Combat Center. He was amazed at how big it was, how high tech it seemed. They have chairs someone called to the others and they recalled how they had been required to stand all day. 

Our wide grinned tour guide continued with his explanation. When was this ship built? someone wondered. This one is actually a little out of date now and will soon give way to the ones just produced, but she was built the year I was born...1978 Laughter and moaning from the crowd. Well this is what you'll look like in 30 years, my Dad said, to more laughter. He walked through the center, stopping periodically to look more closely at some of the screens and dials, his hands halfway in his pockets-looking over the top of his glasses. I imagined him thirty years prior, searching the radar, following commands, feeling a certain weight and responsibility. I wondered about the decisions he had made in his life. Did he remember being at a crossroads and fearing the future? Did he have many regrets? 

Our guide explained everything they could do from there and the crowd, no doubt, remembered what they could do and possibly how much they couldn't. My Dad glanced back as we left the radar room, Still smells the same. I took a deep breath... like Band-Aids and wet metal.

What are these? Dad asked Mitch, our tour guide, while running his hand over the rail of the deep step ladders that separated the decks. He was referring to the hard rope like material that covered the once strait brass railing. Mitch shrugged They covered the strait brass handles a long time ago. My father ran his hand down the foreign material We had learned to just hold on and slide, like a fireman's pole. He was laughing with his friend as they remembered how easy it had once been. Now, the steps weren't as solid beneath their feet and on the first couple of flights their footing was tentative; but, halfway through the tour it began to come back to them- the speed, familiarity, and agility they had possessed at 26. 

We went onto the bridge. Dad showed me the compass on a gimbal, built so that no matter how turbulent the seas are, the compass lies flat. I was surprised to see the helm looking very much the same as it did hundreds of years ago. They still steer the ship the same way? I asked, expecting to see something out of the Star Trek command center by now. Yep, they still steer it the same way, Mitch said and I smiled. I appreciated that there was something permanent there, something that resisted change. I slid my fingers around the curve of the wheel wanting to feel the weight of what all mariners had known throughout the ages and I caught my fathers reflection in the window.

I notice little things about him now, like how his skin looks a bit more fragile, when once, everything about him seemed invincible. Its surely worn from years of building, working, playing catch, waving hello and goodbye to my sister and I throughout the seasons of our life, and now lifting the grandchildren. Is my imagination or are his shoulders slightly rounded forward... is his mustache almost white? 

We ended our tour on the bow. Mitch listened to the men's questions, but yawned and humbly admitted he didn't know the answers to some of what they wanted to know, then he turned over the last explanation to another sailor his same rank, but very decorated for his young age. Mitch watched him as he talked about where all of his ribbons had come from, then kicked at the gray texture beneath his feet and looked out toward the horizon. That's what I used to look like, my Dad said, chuckling to me and his friend, his crease is all off, his shirt is sloppy and his shoes look like he polished them with a Hershey bar.

My Dad's shipmate, Terry, had his memory sparked at almost every turn. Remember the guy who could recite all fifty states in 3 seconds and the barber who would scalp you if he was in a bad mood? he asked. They talked of how eerie the middle of the Pacific ocean could be when they were running dark, and the guy who was once a pretty good mate, but turned fat and mean when he became a chief. Diego, the man who patched up the hole when they were hit by enemy fire in 67, likes Jay Leno and feels amazingly blessed by his good fortune, children, and grandchildren. There's a widow who comes with her son every year to pay tribute to her husband. 

What do you watch these days? one of the guys questioned. We've got 16 cable stations, Mitch answered, then went on to explain all the technologies related to a man and his remote control. My Dad's friend recalled their choices in 1965, which were limited to black and white films and the same 6 books in the library. 

We thanked Mitch and followed the rest of the men as they disembarked. Walking away from the ship as my father had done some 35 years ago, I wondered how he felt having retraced his steps and I watched him look into the face of his past, watching him watch himself.

We got back on the bus that would soon drive us away from a memory. My father propped his elbow onto the window and looked out to sea. I turned my face in the same direction. That's who we were then, he said with tender resolve, Just a bunch of kids. And I think of him as one of those kids and his life since then and I am overcome with memories when they are too powerful to embrace, covered with a desperation to hang onto every moment that reflects the relationship of a father and a daughter. 

The engine fired up and the bus began to throttle itself unto the narrow roads of the navy base. I was seeing my Dad reflecting on the period of life that I'm in now, early 30s- kids, mortgages, careers and I am amazed at the overlap of time. Just as I had looked at the compass tucked beneath the glass, so delicate an instrument, yet so stabilizing a force, I was realizing that the memories resting upon the compass of my own life where incredibly strong in some respects, yet so fragile in others. I wish I had more faith, I wish I didn't feel the passing of time so keenly now, and I wish I knew that everything that is supposed to be said, has been said.

When I get home I'll place another picture on my bookcase. It's just been taken of my father and me at the reunion. I set it next to a picture taken of our family in 1974. My parents are in their early 30s, my mother in her baby blue cut-offs, sunglasses in hand, standing next to the sailboat my father had just bought. My sister and I propped up on the bow- all smiles. I had often wondered who were they then, how much they had changed...how much they had learned, how much was I like them. My simple afternoon at the harbor taught me that they had changed some, they had learned much, and I am very much now, who they were then.

[These are the thoughts of Lynne Petersen, the daughter of Brad Petersen (Stoddard 65-67) after returning home from visiting with her Dad and attending part of the 2002 Reunion]