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Friday, December 7, 2012

This Date Which Lives in Infamy Not So Distant

One of the many personal ironies I’ve reconciled in adulthood is how I eagerly returned home to Arizona after being discharged from the U.S. Navy, which I had joined in order to get out of Arizona.

To me, it was a valid reason to enlist in 1981; while my brothers and father and grandfather before me served in different branches for various reasons, I really just wanted to leave my small, unexciting hometown behind in a cloud of dust, and the Navy would pay me to do that. Anyplace, everyplace would be better after 17 agonizing years of growing up in Flagstaff.

Oh, the fickleness of youth.

My youthful disdain for Flagstaff – the state of Arizona, even – had dissipated by the time my four years of active duty were over. I’m quite proud of the time I served, of the Good Conduct Medal and the Navy Expeditionary Medal I earned, and of being able to call myself a vet, but when I was 21 and finishing my hitch, small-town life in Flagstaff was looking a lot more attractive than Second Division drudgery and 0600 reveilles aboard an ammunition ship. I wasn’t going to look back when I walked down the gangplank.

U.S. Navy Good Conduct Medal (left)
and a U.S. Navy Expeditionary Medal.
Call it 20/20 hindsight or just becoming more mature, but with time my recollection of those days on a Navy ship began looking a little more golden than before, just as life in Flagstaff seemed a lot more idyllic than it ever was — and it was gloriously carefree, even by my school-age standards. In my youth I wanted to rush headlong into the future, but with age I began embracing moments of nostalgia; I paid a little more attention to the detail in such scenes as veterans visiting their ships or reuniting at old duty stations. Such images on the news began resonating with me more fully each year.

A visit in October to the Arizona State Capitol caused a full wave of nostalgia to crash over me. First were the grade school memories of a family trip to the State Capitol in, let’s say, 1974. Back then, the upper floors of the rotunda were being used for storage, and I remember poking around in one of the hot, dark rooms with my dad. Who knows what historic documents were in the boxes I casually toed with the end of my sneaker? I had the impression then as I do now that we weren’t supposed to be touring dusty, unlit rooms, but the door was open and no one threw us out, which I imagine is the answer to the first question of every police interrogation for breaking and entering.
Gov. George W.P. Hunt

My visit just a few weeks ago to tour the historic Capitol building, which is now the Arizona Capitol Museum, was my first since childhood. The forbidden rooms on the upper levels are now open, lit and inviting, and filled with displays of various stages of state history. The historic governor’s office is outfitted with a mock-up of how it looked in the day of Arizona’s first governor, George W.P. Hunt—replete with a true-to-life figure of the Old Walrus himself.

The old house chambers are cramped yet sunlit and almost cozy, and when you imagine what it must have felt like to sit in that maze of desks in a summertime special session, you gain a new appreciation for swamp cooling. It had to feel just like the cab of my dad’s ’73 Datsun pickup truck in the Phoenix summer heat before we had air conditioning.

In a separate wing on the bottom floor of the old Capitol Building is a room devoted to the USS Arizona. A few artifacts and a salvaged piece of hull line the walls, and it’s there that it hits you: This is the Arizona, the one that was bombed and sunk on Dec. 7, 1941, the one we all heard about as kids and every year since at this time of year. It sits in arm’s reach all the way from a day that will live in infamy.

A piece of the superstructure of the
USS Arizona.
The small scrap of metal is merely a representative piece of the battleship, which is now a tomb anchored in an idyllic place, a rusted shadow of its previous form that still flies the ensign like commissioned Navy ships. The rust, the fractures, the warped plating speak of age and decay…and of strength under terrific stress, heat and assault. The metal is like the metal on my old ship, the rivets as unyielding. My ship, an inelegant, inglorious hunk of floating rust looked just like that slab of steel in the museum.

The faces of my Navy buddies resembled those men we see on aged photos from the bombing; I promise you they probably had unprintable nicknames for each other too. My ship had a disaster of its own, but it will not – nor should it – be remembered in the same vein as those lost in Pearl Harbor 71 years ago. The intense fire on my ship warped steel just the same, though.

And the parallels continued to unfold before me: The boatswain’s whistle on display could’ve belonged to any of my division petty officers, its shape and design having been unchanged for decades. My own father, an Army veteran who served in both theaters of World War II, died on Dec. 7, 2006.

Also, the USS Arizona was constructed at the New York Navy Yard, also known by its popular name, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which is where I first reported to my ship when I was sent to the fleet. And the Arizona’s date of commissioning? My birthday, Oct. 17.

These aren’t mystifying coincidences, just random pieces of info that serve to remind me how things I once considered ironic probably have more in common than not. Memories of my history do get better with age, and I still feel connected to places I tried to escape.

My wish is that when we see the pictures or newsreel footage commemorating this anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, we remember that we can see up close some of those pieces of history, and maybe realize we aren’t so far removed from it.

Arizona Capitol Museum
Arizona State Capitol
1700 W. Washington St.
Phoenix, Ariz.

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