A Bittersweet Remembrance: A US Navy Dad by Anne Campbell Gruner

anne gruner's fatherWhen I try to remember Daddy, who died prematurely from lung cancer some twenty-five years ago, it’s difficult. Not painful, just hard for me to remember much. Maybe it was because he was gone more than he was around, always flying off somewhere or taking a cruise, compliments of the U.S. Navy. What I do remember is just missing him all the time.

A naval aviator, Daddy flew to distant lands with strange names such as “Sigonnella,” “Thule,” and “Rota.” He would be gone for months. One of my earliest memories is standing on a taxiway, a small girl looking up into the sky, as a squadron of planes flew overhead in formation. One dipped its wing. That was Daddy waving good-bye. I hated it.

As an adult, I learned he flew the P-3 Orion, a maritime patrol aircraft with four turboprop engines that during the Cold War could fly for hours hunting Soviet submarines hidden beneath the sea. The aircraft was named for the mighty hunter Orion of Greek myth who bragged he could rid the world of wild animals.

One of his missions was to patrol the famous Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom, or GIUK, “Gap,” a naval chokepoint through which stealthy Soviet submarines could enter into the Atlantic Ocean and potentially threaten the U.S. homeland. Daddy also flew hurricane hunters into giant storms, which I thought was very scary, even though he brought home nifty photographs from inside the eye of the storms. He must have been a good pilot and leader since he became a “skipper,” which meant he was the squadron’s commanding officer.

While Daddy was flying into the wild blue yonder, we stayed behind in base housing at naval air stations in Jacksonville, Florida, and Patuxent River, Maryland. We lived on base and went to the base theater, shopped in the commissary and PX, and attended the non-denominational base Sunday school. That’s pretty much my memory of growing up as a “Navy brat,” at least in the early years. I was so happy when Daddy would return from his deployments, but his visits home were always too short.

He also would be gone for months at sea—in particular, on the USS Boxer, a World War II vintage aircraft carrier on which he served as executive officer. On one of its coolest missions, the ship picked up some astronauts whose capsule was landing in the sea—Gemini 8, I believe. I remember watching the television, hoping to get a glimpse of Daddy welcoming the astronauts, or at least see his ship steaming toward the bobbing capsule. But alas, the spacecraft went off course and splashed down elsewhere, in the Pacific instead of the Atlantic, and was recovered by another ship, much to my disappointment.

And then there were his deployments to Vietnam, which made me worry a lot. In those days, the USS Boxer was delivering the helicopters and aircraft of the US Army First Cavalry, which would fight the Viet Cong on the front lines. In retrospect, Daddy probably was not really in much danger on the ship, unlike the fathers of my friends in the Army, Air Force and Marines who were engaged in actual combat operations. But we endured what seemed forever without him.

The USS Boxer had a proud history of having supported the landing at Inchon during the Korean War, participated in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and evacuated a thousand Americans from the Dominican Republic following a revolution there. Having missed out on the Gemini recovery, it later successfully recovered one of the first unmanned Apollo spacecrafts from the ocean. The Boxer was decommissioned in December 1969 and sold for scrap in 1971, an unceremonious end to a noble ship. I wonder if the veterans from those days felt like they too had been sold for scrap.

In the late 1960s we moved to the Washington, D.C., area where Daddy had been assigned to the proverbial desk job, specifically to the dreaded “BUPERS,” the Navy’s Bureau of Personnel in Arlington, Virginia. I only now appreciate how this must have seemed like a donkey job for an operator like Daddy—my apologies to the U.S. Navy, and to anyone who previously or currently works there. As they say, someone has to do it.

He seemed to suffer from flying his BUPERS desk, even though the assignment allowed him to spend more time with his family at our home in Mantua Hills near Fairfax, Virginia. I was able to observe him more closely and frequently than at any previous time. I remember all too vividly his nightly saga of sadness: descending the steps from the kitchen to the family room, swaying ever so slightly, martini in his right hand, his characteristic Kent cigarette hanging loosely from his lips, and the morning’s Washington Post pinioned under his left arm.

The Beefeater sloshed in his glass, rising like a wave against its rim and letting loose a cascade of crystal drops that disappeared into the tired beige, cut-pile wall-to-wall. The ice tinkled and the glassy green olive bobbed like a mini beach ball floating in a pool of gin. His navy whites, that had been crisp and bright in the early morning dawn when he left the house, looked tired and gray in the diffuse light of the torchier lamp at the day’s end. His uniform’s rainbow of ribbons and golden wings of eagles were no longer able to sustain his memory of soaring through the sky or skimming the seas in search of Soviet subs.

Only now do I understand that he drank at night to erase the monotony of the day.

He sank his weary frame into the aged, upholstered rocker, the old-fashioned kind with a wooden brake, the ancestor of the barcalounger. The gray smoke of his Kent curled above his head and dissipate into the air, leaving its acrid stench to permeate the house. With his index finger, he tapped the ashes into the round burnt umber ashtray, the kind that used to be found in government office buildings or in the poker room at Truman’s “Little White House” in Key West. Sometimes the ash fell onto the carpet, where he would casually rub it out with the toe of his shoe, grinding it ever deeper and irretrievably into the pile. The newspaper rustled as he scanned its pages, allowing the sections to fall to the floor as he finished them.

As he sipped his gin, he watched the evening news on the black and white television: first Huntley and Brinkley on NBC, then Walter Cronkite on CBS, a double dose of the day’s dilemmas. The news anchors droned on about the Vietnam War and flashed gory footage of combat soldiers eviscerated by shrapnel and smoldering villages incinerated by napalm. Thank goodness we only had a black and white.

The gin and the gore were interrupted only by Mitzi, the family dog, a white snowball of a Spitz with a curly cue tail and pointy ears. Trying to gain her master’s attention, she would nuzzle his hand with her sharp nose, her jet black eyes commanding him to scratch her ears. She rubbed coyly against his leg, her long white coat shedding an invisible trail of hairs on his white trousers. Giving in to her persuasions, he would scratch her haunches, making her wriggle in delight, an act of mutual pleasure.

I wonder now if he was thinking about the giant Chinooks he had delivered to “Nam,” or the men who flew them, fearlessly risking their lives. Had he believed in the war or not? I never knew and never asked. And unlike the history of the P-3 and the USS Boxer, it’s not a question I can research to find the answer.

We survived the BUPERS assignment, and Daddy was rewarded (I suppose) with his only “accompanied” overseas tour: one in which the dependents, namely yours truly, could go along. I was so excited when I learned we were moving to Naples, Italy, even though I would have to change schools in the middle of high school. All I could think of was Gidget Goes to Rome, that silly movie with James Darren and whoever played “Gidget.”

So I said farewell to my friends and headed off to Naples, the headquarters of the Allied Forces Southern Command, or AFSOUTH, as it was known. There, Daddy and other Allied officers from the Atlantic Alliance—NATO—coordinated American and Allied maritime patrols of the Mediterranean Sea, an assignment that earned him the nickname “Captain NATO.” At that time, those pesky Soviet submarines had begun to encroach into the “Med,” which was considered Europe’s backyard swimming pool. This was not good, but Daddy was on it.

This time, he didn’t fly the P-3s, but directing and coordinating them was the next best thing. More aware of the world, I actually asked him what he did every day. I listened with fascination as he talked about the Soviet Union and its submarines. I recently read that late former Chief of the Soviet General Staff Marshall Sergey Akhromeyev once said that he always knew where his submarines were because he had only to look at where the P-3s were flying. If true, that’s quite a compliment.

Naples was a wonderful posting for dads and for families. I still did not see much of Daddy, I guess because we were both working too much and otherwise having fun when not. I attended the Department of Defense Admiral Forest Sherman High School while he kept the world safe for democracy watching those subs. The parties on the Naples rooftops, overlooking the stunning Bay of Napoli, were legendary. We high school seniors mingled with our parents and their friends as the Filipino stewards politely served hors d’oeuvres and old fashioneds, or whatever. We were young sophisticates in the making. In between train trips to Rome to watch our basketball team play the Notre Dame International School, I studied hard and graduated as class valedictorian.

Those years in Naples were unquestionably the best of my childhood, the most fun, and the ones I remember as an adult with almost maudlin sentimentality. Daddy was happy and also around. Life was normal, more or less. After Naples, I was off to college and to live my own life, and I never again spent much time at home.

It turned out that Naples affected me in a profound way. Having lived there and traveled abroad, I decided I wanted to join the Foreign Service, so I majored in international relations and specialized in international security affairs. Those Soviet subs had left an enduring impression. In those days, however, budget shortfalls under President Carter had resulted in cancellations of Foreign Service classes, so I ended up joining an intelligence agency instead. I became a military analyst following Soviet strategic nuclear forces, eventually rising to become a senior intelligence analyst assessing the Russian military, subs and everything.

Daddy’s premature death from lung cancer—the Kents finally got him—robbed me of an adult relationship with him. So I am stuck with my childhood memories, as limited as they are, and as dim as they have become after almost twenty-five years, other than the searing image of his white navy cap and dress gloves lying on the altar in the Old Post Chapel at Fort Meyer, Virginia. I studied the cap, with its proud eagle looking to the wearer’s right, and spread above a silver shield of two gold crossed anchors, the emblem of the US Navy that he had so loved and proudly served. I watched numbly as horses pulled the caisson with his flag-draped casket. My understanding of him so limited, I cried inconsolably for my loss.

It was just one of those things that I ended up with nothing from Daddy’s estate and had little to remember him by other than a few photos taken while I was growing up, mostly from our time in Naples. Then one day I stepped inside the dark and dingy, crammed-full-of-used-and-old stuff, antique store in our small urban village outside of Washington, D.C. I rarely went there, but something I’d seen at a friend’s house prompted me to stop. After roaming around, I was about to leave when a corner cabinet caught my eye and I ambled to the front to ask the price. I approached the counter and happened to look down at an old table. Under a pile of junk on a stack of books I could just barely see the bottom edge of a thick book sticking out from the stack of stuff. There I read the words “The Lucky Bag 1947.”

I was stunned. This, I knew, was the annual yearbook for the US Naval Academy, and amazingly this volume was from Daddy’s year—1947. This was the class that had been accelerated to graduate in three years because of World War II. I pulled it out from under the junk and said to myself but loud enough for the proprietor to hear, “My Dad’s in here.” Sure enough, I found him in the index and turned to his photo. I must have seen the book when I was a kid, but I remembered nothing of it.

I read that Daddy had been “a mainstay of the Chapel Choir” and could “harmonize with any tune that came along.” I had no idea. I couldn’t recall his ever singing anything. I happen to sing in my church choir, too. His tribute cited him for “scrupulous neatness,” unfortunately not a trait I inherited or acquired. I also knew he was supposed to have been funny, with a “Bob Hope sense of humor,” although I never saw it, really, except maybe in Naples.

I turned some pages and saw “James Earl Carter, Jr.,” Jimmy Carter. I had known the former President was in Daddy’s class, but had no idea he was in the very same battalion unit. It said he had graduated in the upper part of the class even though he had never cracked a book other than to help a classmate. Imagine if he had actually studied!

Emotion overwhelmed me as I closed the book. I mumbled that I had to buy it and the shopkeeper shook her head and said “You can have it.” No charge. I took the book into my arms and walked out the door, still slightly in shock.

What were the odds? I hardly ever went into that shop. If I hadn’t asked about the corner cabinet, or if I hadn’t looked down at the precise moment, or if the bottom of the book hadn’t been sticking out just enough, I never would have noticed it. What are the chances that a US Naval Academy yearbook from 1947 would be in that shop underneath a pile of stuff and that I would find it?

There is no doubt in my mind that this was a transmission from Daddy, a supernatural concatenation of events arranged to communicate with me. It had to be. After sobbing on the drive home, I was comforted, exceedingly happy to have in my possession the “Lucky Bag” from 1947, and a little piece of Daddy.

 

anne campbell grunerAnne Campbell Gruner is a retired career CIA analyst and senior executive who attended Georgetown University Law Center and became a family law attorney. In her first career she negotiated nuclear disarmament treaties with the former Soviet Union and, in her second career, property settlement agreements—from the sublime to the ridiculous. Now, in her third career, she is vice president of Gruner Associates, Ltd, an international business intelligence consultancy. In addition to being an aspiring writer, she serves on the Board of Visitors of George Mason University.

 

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/US Navy

  1 comment for “A Bittersweet Remembrance: A US Navy Dad by Anne Campbell Gruner

  1. Every place you mention, every station, every port, every mission (including just missing out on recovering a space capsule) brings back memories to this old Navy guy. Your dad is lucky to have you to publish this very complimentary and honest remembrance. I am trying to leave enough clues around to make the job easier for my son and grandkids.
    John Matthews

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