Where Were You When You Heard?
Today, July 20, 2019, is the fiftieth anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon. Everyone knows that (or they will after they read the paper or go online today) but few will recall it as the 75thanniversary of Operation Valkyrie, the attempted assassination of Adolph Hitler by Claus von Stauffenberg and several other heroic German officers.
There will be countless “where were you” stories and here are mine.
I was nowhere in 1944 as it would take nearly two more years for me to be born.
I don’t actually know where I was on the day of the moon landing except sailing around the Mediterranean on a destroyer. If you can believe it, communications at sea were so primitive that none of us knew the moon landing had even happened.
Well, that was fast. Now you can go on to someone else’s more riveting tales.
But wait, there’s more.
A day or so after the Armstrong/Aldrin lunar adventure, we were to pull in to Naples harbor and I was called to the bridge by the ship’s captain. This was generally not good news as I was about a year out of Harvard, not too wild about the war in Viet Nam and generally kind of a snot. Captains tended not to like any of those things.
My job title on the ship was First Lieutenant (in the Navy that’s a job not a rank). That meant I was responsible for everything to do with seamanship like getting ships anchored or tied up to piers. It was a great job because it was largely outdoors and I got to learn all the things that only the Navy could teach.
“Lieutenant Pell, when we anchor in Naples tomorrow you will have your men in dress white uniforms and all those not involved with actual docking and line handling will be manning the rail,” said the Captain. Manning the rail is pretty impressive. The crew stands at precise intervals the entire way around the ship and on command they salute as one.
“What the fuck,” thought I. (Note that I only thought it but did not say it. I confessed to being a snot but I never said I was stupid.)
Stammer stammer. “Sir, as you know docking a ship can be pretty dirty work, is there a reason we will be in dress whites instead of working dungarees?” I asked politely.
“Just do as you are told Lieutenant,” he replied.
There were any number of reasons the Navy was not a long-term career option for me, but that was definitely one of them.
“Yes Sir,” was my pithy retort as I contemplated passing this information along to three-dozen men, some of whom had but a nodding acquaintance with concepts like school and education. Indeed, several had chosen service in the Navy as an alternative to incarceration thanks to “encouragement” by local judges.
Of course, there was much grumbling and I believe I heard something pejorative about the college from which I had recently graduated to say nothing of several impolite anatomical references.
We actually looked terrific when the ship pulled into Naples harbor. There we discovered what appeared to be the entire city lining the waterfront. They were all cheering because we were the first Americans they had seen since the moon landing.
And only then did we learn what had happened. We saluted on command and there was no more grumbling.
Those were simpler times.