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Tales of Midway

By Ken Noltie, Member of United Church of Christ in La Mesa

     It all started Memorial Weekend 2007.  I knew the USS Midway Museum was looking for volunteer docents and I figured, “I served on carriers and I speak navy so why not try it out.”

     When you first come aboard a carrier you enter onto the hanger bay.  When she was commissioned she was the largest vessel to ever sail the ocean, but my first impression was I was amazed at how small she was.   After all I had served aboard the super carrier Ranger.  Super being the name the applied to the Forrestal class carriers, not a superlative to brag up the Danger Ranger!

     The second thing that I was aware of was the smell.  All navy ships have a distinctive smell and no matter how long it’s been since you’ve been aboard, when the smell hits you the dam breaks and the memories start coming back and you are taken back to your days at sea.  Ask any sailor and they will tell you, “The smell brought it all back.”  It’s hard to describe the smell.  It’s a mixture of the ships fuel, the asbestos, the grease from the galley, the steam from the pipes and if the ship has aircraft – the JP-5 jet fuel which coincidently is also the flavor of the water.  And when the old salts come back aboard and they get that first blast of the ship’s smell they get a smile on their face and they are immediately transported back to when they were young men fresh out of boot camp and checking into their first command.

     I sat through 30 hours of class room instructions and 24 hours of OJT learning all the facts that could be drilled into me.  From the technical facts like the size of the fuel tanks (2.3 million gallons for the ships fuel, 1.2 million for the aircraft fuel), and her gas mileage (18 feet per gallon), the temperature of the steam (486 F), the temperature of the saturated steam (850 F) or the number of feet it takes to launch an aircraft (250) to the fun facts like the number of beds on board for a crew of 4,500 men (correct answer is 3), the number of meals served daily (13,500), number of turkeys needed for Thanksgiving Dinner (225), weight of each anchor (20 tons), the fact that there are no showers on board (they’re called rain lockers), what type of food is served on the forward mess deck (sliders and rollers a.k.a hamburgers and hotdogs) and the average age of a sailor (19 – think about that one for a minute).

     What they could not prepare me for in training was why some people come aboard and some of the stories the guests share with you.  I got to speak to a woman whose son was in the navy and killed in Iraq.  She came aboard to feel closer to him and to see how he lived while he was on a ship.  She left the ship healed.  I spoke to one woman; actually she gave me a politically charged dressing down on the evils of war and the military.  I’m still trying to figure out why she even bothered to come on board.  That one was a true test of my patience.  The whole time she was going off I just kept saying to myself, “She really means to say thank you for the privilege of being able to mean mouth her government without getting a public beat down.”

     The guest that touched me the most occurred one afternoon when I was telling the story of the Midway and her part in the evacuation of Saigon.  I was explaining that parents were putting their children into the H-1 helicopters and having them flown out to the safety of the ship and that the parents would stay behind.  One of the ladies in my group raised her hand and said, “I was one of them.” 

     It’s because of her that I keep going back and telling the story of the Midway and of the 225,000+ men who sailed her and the 200 men of her crew who never came home. 

     I never approached this endeavor from a spiritual mindset.  Relating my religious tenants to the guests that came aboard was not something on my to-do list.  Never mind the fact that among the list of don’ts we have to adhere to, evangelizing is towards the top.  However, there is occasion to talk not about my faith, but about the most underappreciated job in the military, the men and women who make up the Chaplain Corps.

     The chaplains are not there to convert or add to the numbers of their particular denomination.   They are there to provide for the faith needs of not only the crew of their ship, but of the strike force that they are sailing with.  For those of you still getting to know Rev. Félix Villanueva as he roams around the conference ask him about his time dangling out of the Hell Hole as he rode the Holy Helo.  The rabbi may be called upon to assist the Catholics with their particular needs.  The Baptist preacher may be called upon to provide assistance to the Jews.  And believe it or not, the Lutheran chaplain may be called upon to assist the Muslims in observing their faith.  

     I still find myself amazed that when I am in the ship’s chapel how calming it is.  Even on a man o’ war that tips the scales at 70,000 tons God created a space that puts you in a place when you can quietly have a conversation with talk with Him and get re-centered.  When I talk to the guests about how the crew gets to stay in touch with their faith I always ask them one question.  “Can you ever fly a flag above the American flag?”  And after everyone has quickly told me, “No” I get to tell them you can.   A little known fact about American Flag etiquette is that there is a proper time to fly something over the Stars and Stripes.  When the chaplain is conducting a religious service, the church pennant is flown over the American flag.  It represents that we are one nation under God.  There is a pennant for Christians, one for Jews, and one for Muslims.  And for a small moment in time everyone under God’s flag is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.                

     When I enlisted in 1979 the Vietnam War was four years into America’s history books and people were still putting signs on their lawns that read, “Dogs and sailors keep off the grass.”  I’m grateful that that attitude has changed and people are appreciating what the men and women of our armed forces are doing not only for us, but for complete strangers in strange lands who need help. 
Kind of reminds me of a story about a Good Samaritan.

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