and I’m still bummed out about it almost a week later.
This is the time of the year when I feel the most nostalgic about my military past, and find myself digging up old photos and memorabilia from those days. Leaving the Navy was bittersweet for me, but it was the right decision. For every one thing I miss, there are probably five that I don’t. I do know that the biggest thing I would have missed, if I had stayed on for several more years, was my family. I had found that I resented time away from home, more and more as our family grew, and this is how I knew it was time to part ways. I had given 12 years, if you count my 4 in Annapolis, and would have gone anywhere Uncle Sam had seen fit to send me. I was extremely fortunate to have hit one of the peaceful cycles in our nation’s history, 93′ to 01′, which would be shattered just three short months after I left.
Back to the fireworks. Unfortunately, the 4th fell on a Monday, and my wife and I were facing a full week of work and summer camp…so, as the afternoon progressed, we both started grumbling about getting home after ten o’clock, fighting traffic, getting bitten by mosquitoes, packing lunches for camp. The list of grievances continued until we decided to bag the fireworks. The kids weren’t happy, but we eased their pain with the promise of sparklers and ice cream. We were both exhausted from the long weekend, and went to bed pretty early, so we could hear the fireworks through our bedroom windows…and this is when I truly realized what I loved about the fireworks. THE NOISE!
“The rockets red glare…the bombs bursting in air” is spectacular, and gets most of the ooohs and aaaahs, but I enjoy the deep resonating booms and sharp crackles more. I count the time it takes the sound to reach us, from each flash, applying an old field trick to determine distance to a target. What? You say. Well, I spent the last four years of my Navy career working with Marines, first as a forward observer and then as an instructor for the Navy/Marine Corps school that taught new forward observers. I have always loved explosions and the sound of gunfire, but these four years turned it into a love affair. As a forward observer and forward air controller, I got to “radio in” just about every munition in the Navy or Marine Corps arsenal. A few years later, as an instructor down in Coronado, California, I was assigned to a rare job, filled by only three naval officers and one Navy Chief.
We ran the Navy’s only ship to shore bombardment range, which was located about 50 miles off the Orange County coast, on a nasty little chunk of rock called San Clemente Island. It’s sister island is a day trip oasis known as Catalina Island. Somehow, stuff thrived on the other island…or at least someone tried to make it happen. San Clemente was a washed out rock, beautiful in its own way, but sparse and mostly abandoned. On the south-west tip of the island, sits the Navy’s Shore Bombardment Area, and a few horrifyingly old structures used to house the “range safety officers.” ME.
We’d sit in a bunker, and “radio” fire missions to ships off shore, or we’d oversee Marines doing the same thing. Either way, if someone was firing at that range, we were required to be there. This is where I fell in love with the sound of high explosives. The 5 inch shells fired by our modern navy pale in comparison to the 8 inch and larger guns of the older fleet, but it was still impressive. I’d make a radio call, engage in a scripted back and forth conversation with the ship, and less than a minute later, 5 inch shells would crash into the beach area below…way below. It sounded exactly like the Fourth of July. When ships were looking to dump ammo, we’d call in lots of shells. The more the better, and we’d try to move the impacts closer and closer to the “bunker.” We were told it could withstand a direct hit from a 16 inch shell. The concrete was easily three feet thick, but I had my doubts about that…but these were only 5 inch shells. Still, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near one of the “smaller explosions.” I have a piece of shrapnel from one of these, and it could easily remove your head.
So, as I lie in bed last Monday, I was bummed that I wasn’t closer to the sounds. My thoughts drifted to my days out at San Clemente Island. There was no other experience like it at the time. Today, there are a lot of veterans and active duty military personnel that would be happy to never hear a sound like that again, and I can only imagine how many of them watched fireworks displays with a little anxiety, AND A TON OF PRIDE.
My hat goes off to all of them, and especially the ones who have heard the REAL THING…and probably not from a bunker like the one I got to sit in ten years ago.
I’m going to commemorate these veterans by releasing an uncut scene from a book that I published last fall. I had read several accounts of 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade’s attack through An-Nasiriyah, particularly the fierce fighting around the bridge over the Saddam Canal. The day saw fierce fighting all throughout the city, but I was drawn to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines’ story. They heroically held the bridge, in the confused absence of reinforcements, for most of the day, suffering 18 killed. Worse, they were repeatedly attacked by U.S. A-10 attack jets, who mistook their vehicles for an incoming enemy armor offensive. I chose to use their incredible story as background for the main character of my novel. The scene is historical fiction, based on the fight to hold the Saddam Canal Bridge, and I hope I did some justice to these Marines and Sailors. They truly deserve it. You can find the scene here: UNCUT BATTLE SCENE from The Jakarta Pandemic