Wow….homecoming….after seven-plus months at sea everyone was returning to US soil and their families. I knew it was going to be a memorable day with lots of mixed emotions for all.
Eric and I had agreed to make it another 06:00 day, but around 05:00 I managed to wiggle out of the rack and get cleaned up. I wasn’t sleeping anyway, so why stare at the inside of my eyelids when I could go ahead and get cleaned up and get ready for the day. The ship’s movement had eased over night and the roll and pitch were almost gone….too bad as I was starting to get used to the movement. But it did make the shower easier…not worrying about loosing balance and all- or maybe I was just getting used to things now. It figures that about the time I adapt to the ship pretty well the cruise is over. Hours on the carrier start pretty early, and there was a fair amount of activity and movement. Of course coming home may have had a little to do with folks being up and about.
Soon enough junior popped his head into berthing and we headed out into the hanger deck. It was amazing to see the area so packed with crates and tool boxes and desk chairs and bomb racks and whatnot. It was clear a lot of folks stayed up pretty late getting ready to move to a new duty station. Whereas the night before had clear pathways and all, this morning you had to watch where you wanted to walk.
Off to the galley….no lines, no crowds- guess the early bird really does get the worm so to speak. Eric was happy….real eggs…said the powdered kind wasn’t the best, so eggs and bacon and biscuits and gravy and all. Maybe not the heart healthiest diet this AM but what the heck. How often do you get to eat breakfast on a Nimitz-class carrier anyway? Walking around the hanger you could see that the day was nice…sunny…really no significant chop out there, but it was really cool. It made you appreciate a coat. Soon enough it was time to think about a trip up to the flight deck after spending some time in the shop. Not too many people on the deck, but like I said, it was COOL….VERY COOL. I’m not sure what our speed was, but enough when combined with the wind and morning temps to really make you know it wasn’t summer on the Atlantic. The word had come down….any sailor not sponsoring a Tiger was to man the rails…in whites. Now while we parents think that whites look wonderful and that they are the signature of the Navy, the sailors find them a pain. They are a “dirt magnet” and for this morning, they are not the warmest uniform for cool weather. I felt sorry for those sailors that would be on the rails. I was glad to have a Navy “hoodie” to wear. But all that was in the background because you could see land….we were a little south of Virginia Beach and soon the buildings would start to appear, but here was no mistaking the sight of land in the distance.
We were scheduled to dock at 10:00 and we were slowly making our way to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. I hadn’t seen the Bay since I left the East Coast in ’78 and knowing that I was that close to Maryland and the years I spent there during college gave me pause to think about all the years that had passed. There are a few defining moments in our lives where we see how the past has shaped our lives and that was one for me. I was starting to wish for some more time in my schedule so I drive up to DC and visit…I still have friends in the area and I would have really liked to see the area again….and I want to visit “The Wall” and new World War II memorial. Those will have to wait though…but I figure with Eric there for a few more years that I’ll have an excuse to fly back and fulfill those goals.
Anyway…time to get off the flight deck. Back to my lost puppy routine…I’ll never learn all these passages and corridors. And once we get back down to the hanger level, that is closed off as well as the crew is moving a lot of stuff around. We’ll have to go below the hanger and cross the ship to the shop area. Man oh man…people everywhere and once again to the right, down a ladder, though this hatch, to the left, through this hatch, up a ladder, right, left, down….etc….etc. I really don’t know how these sailors manage to remember all this as Eric even had to pause a time or two to figure the best route to take. Eventually we ended up back at the shop where all were getting ready for Norfolk and home. Seeing everyone running around in whites was sure a change from the utilities I had seen over the past two days.
I had packed my belongings earlier and stripped my rack so no need to head back to berthing for anything. That was a pretty chaotic area earlier with everyone packing their sea bags and trying to get their uniform ironed. I had gone with Eric as he did the same and he took a few minutes to show me the collection of cigars and humidor he had bought….he also took a couple of Cohiba’s with him that we were going to light up to celebrate being back in the United States…..I know about the embargo and all so no grief please!
Anyway, it was certainly fun being in the shop and seeing excitement on everybody’s face about getting to head home. We didn’t stay in the shop for long however as the hanger deck was clear to move about and I stopped at one of the elevators for a little while. A Coast Guard escort was off our starboard side and it was nice to see the defenders of our home waters there to help maintain a security perimeter…..a small fishing boat was heading towards the ship, probably only to look at the Roosevelt, but the Coast Guard boat was there in a flash to prevent them from getting any closer.
The small vessel got the message pretty darn fast and turned away rather that face further ire from the CG. The CG doesn’t get the recognition that they deserve in my book and I salute them all for the tough job they are entrusted to. The sailors were manning the rails…and I knew it was cold up there. I felt sorry for them, but knew that they would soon be in the Bay and things would calm down and warm up. I could tell we were slowing down as we drew closer to the south tunnel of the famous Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. Soon enough we crossed that line and we were in the Bay and nearing the Navy yards in Norfolk.
The word came down that the Tigers could assemble on the flight deck as well- so back my lost puppy routine and follow Eric right, left, up, down, etc.. We were all anxious to be up there—we’ve all seen on TV the celebration from dockside when a warship come home to port. Being on the ship though would give us all a special perspective and I knew it was going to most memorable. We were advised that we must stay back from the rails though so as to allow the Navy to present the ship with the correct look of sailors on the rail. Seeing 1292 civilians wandering around the deck would look chaotic and we didn’t want to interfere with long established Navy tradition.
It was till cool up there, but with the pier now in sight, everyone forgot about the temperature. Besides, the sun was rising ever higher and being in the protected waters of the lower Bay made the climate much more comfortable. Soon enough it would be downright warm! The ship was nearing Pier 14 dead slow as the tugs became the primary mode of propulsion. They knew the waters and the currents and could control the movements of the ship much more precisely. The area is congested and to dock the ship would actually stop and the tugs would swing the stern around and “back” the ship into place.
When you look around at the pier the first thing you really notice is the cars….lots of cars parked! We had heard estimates of 10,000 people expected for the return and to see that many cars in the lots….well…maybe. Then you look around and the yard……Naval vessels everywhere and then you realize you’re looking at a carrier….the George Bush is moored there…the last of the Nimitz-class carriers to be built.
And you start to realize that this is something big…not the size of the ship we’re on, but the mission and the people that make that mission. And all the moms and dads and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters and aunts and uncles and everyone else that support our sailors that man these ships and get the mission done. It was a moving thing to realize.
The pier…pier 14…..lots of folks there in grandstands and on the pier with signs and banners and music from the band playing there. Soon enough everyone was at the rails and people were waving and yelling…flags were everywhere and man, there sure were a lot of smiles! You could not be there and not feel the emotion and the happiness in the sailors. Soon enough they would be reunited with their families.
Mooring a ship the size of the Roosevelt takes some time....you don’t move 100,000 tons of steel very quickly in close quarters and you want to be pretty careful with what you do, so we headed back down to the shop to kill some time. It takes quite a while to get the lines drawn between the ship and the pier and you could hear the shots from the gunners shooting lines to the pier workers. After the ship was tied off they would have to set the brows in place. And there is protocol and tradition to disembarking.
New fathers are about the first off the ship and then by rank….it took quite a while before the call went out for E-4’s and below to disembark--- and the rush was horrendous! Lines everywhere trying to get to a brow to head off the ship. Mixed in to the rush were all the Tigers trying to follow their sponsor off the ship. The lines moved slooooowly, but soon enough Eric stepped on the brow, turned and saluted and we headed back to land! Now keep in mind that a pier is not terribly wide and with 5000 sailors trying to get off the ship and 10,000 family members were trying to meet up with their sailors….well, you get the idea. We might have been on land, but the crowd was ridiculous and it took longer to get from the ship to the gate than it did to get off the ship. It was cool though to see all the happy faces and tears as people found their loved ones and got reacquainted after those long months. It took awhile, but soon enough we were at the gate and the crowds thinned out. We headed to the NEX for something to drink and find a taxi for a ride to our hotel. A little of the surreal atmosphere was still in the air….I just got off a two-day cruise on the Theodore Roosevelt and I was at the NEX drinking an iced-tea while I was looking across the road at the USS George Bush. If I looked to my left all I saw were Navy ships for miles……….amazing……simply amazing……..
Next: Some thoughts on the experience