A Christmas in the Navy, 1987 [December 2005]   ©Mark Zen

When I was first stationed on the USS Coral Sea, I was completely overwhelmed. The aircraft carrier was over one thousand feet long, and three hundred feet wide. There was enough room inside the hangar bay to put two football fields end to end. With my berthing in the middle of the ship, and each of our offices at opposite ends of the ship, I had plenty of opportunity to get lost. My division was responsible for forty storerooms, leaving me to run up one flight of stairs and down another in an attempt to be where I was supposed to, when I was supposed to.

After a week, I finally could make it from my rack to the chow line, and then to our offices. The only saving grace was the age of the carrier itself. One of my friends was on a nuclear powered carrier, and it was enormous. My ship would have fit inside without touching anything. In the middle of a passageway, which ran from one end of the ship to the other, it just looked like a tunnel fading into nothing. My ship had been modified and rebuilt; the angled flight deck had been added ten years after the carrier was launched. There was no such thing as a straight passageway, at least not for more than thirty feet.

After two weeks, I knew where the post office, the pay window, and the barbershop were. I was familiar enough with the ship to find a shower if the ones above our berthing space was closed and I could find my way back too. The chow line was at one end of the ship, the sandwich line at the other. Since the ship was in the shipyards, and under full repairs, passageways were closed, and new routes needed to be learned. By the time I had been stationed on the USS Coral Sea for a month, I knew how to get from the bilge all the way to the top of the island.

I spent my first Christmas in the Navy, in the shipyard. My second Christmas was in port, Naples, Italy. The ship was alive and bustling here. New sailors transferred on and a few went home. With planes and weapons onboard, finding your way through the ship became challenging again.

One new sailor was on his first ship, even though he had been in the Navy for four years. I imagined how tough it was going to be for him, as it had for me. In three days, he probably only knew how to get from his rack, to chow, and his main office. He did find a free spot on the hangar deck to exercise. That’s where and how he died, ten feet outside my office door. His undiagnosed heart defect left a widow and child behind.

This sailor died serving his country, a reminder to us all, why we are free to chose whether to celebrate Christmas or not, as we wish.

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