This Navy Town of Mine

At my college graduation party, a female relative winked and nudged at me, predicting I’d find a sailor in no time because I was moving to a Navy town (Norfolk). This was exciting, so far from Georgia, where I lived. There were Army and Air Force bases in Georgia, but no Navy. She felt certain that I would bag myself a sailor in no time.

A male relative leaned in and added on, “You know what they say about those sailors?” No, I told him, I did not. “They like to ride the waves.” He winked.

I had no idea what he was talking about? Like, in the ocean? On a boat?

It wasn’t until a month or so later, when I told my mother about the joke, that she explained what WAVES were (and the full impropriety of the joke settled in).

I knew so little about Navy culture when I moved this Navy town of mine. I went on a tour of the Wisconsin and the Nauticus museum within a few days of arriving. It was all very interesting and a bit romantic; uniforms and bit boats and what not. I particularly liked doing yoga at the YMCA in Norfolk. From the sixth floor, where the yoga studio is, you can look out onto the USS Wisconsin, doing into warrior one while looking at a very old battleship. But before too long, the sight of men and women in uniform became commonplace; I barely noticed it anymore, unless they were in large groups. I learned what underways and deployments were, but I didn’t really get a full introduction to Navy culture until I did, in fact, bag myself a sailor.

Last week, my girlfriend, an officer in the Navy, was invited to a birthday party for a retired World War II Navy nurse who was turning 100 years old. We dressed up, bought a card, and went to stand in a long line to see the woman, Lt. Commander Kathryn Barclay, at her assisted living home in Norfolk. The line was mixed with people who knew Lt. Commander Barclay personally (the woman in front of us told me she played Lt. Commander Barclay’s favorite hymn on the piano), and those who were/are in the Navy, including a large group of WAVES who brought gifts and took photos, laughing and carousing with Lt. Commander Barclay like old friends (which they might have been).

As Amanda and I stood in line, we eavesdropped on conversations, exchanging secret smiles and glances at particularly funny moments. As we got closer to the head of the line, we tried to figure out what we would say to this woman, a stranger, who we had come to celebrate. A news camera rolled (you can see me in the video about midway through), capturing the celebration.

As I stood in line, I listened to a young girl in her teens chat with one of the elderly residents of the home. She had passed by me earlier, telling her mother that she wanted to go back and talk to a woman in a pink sweatshirt, and sure enough, when I rounded the corner, she was settled on the couch next to said pink sweatshirt-clad woman. I eavesdropped as she told the woman about her favorite subjects in school, her favorite hymns (“It Is Well (With My Soul)” was one of them), and about her grandmother, who had passed away.

My own grandmother passed away in May. It seems hard to go to an assisted living home, where you are surrounded by elderly women and men, and not think of your grandparents. So it was with me.

After my grandmother passed away, my mom sent me several old photos she had found. One was a photo of my grandmother and her husband (who I never met – he passed away when my mom was a teenager) at a house in Norfolk in 1944. He was stationed on the USS Shoshone, and that ship was in port in Norfolk for about two weeks in October of 1944. My mom and I have a theory that the photo was taken at a house in Colonial Place, a neighborhood about five minutes down the road from where I now live. I derive a certain amount of whimsical pleasure from the circular nature of my life:  the way I can end up making my home in a place where my grandparents visited, ever so briefly, during World War II because the Navy brought them here. The way I could end up so connected to the Navy when it had become commonplace. My grandmother fell in love with a sailor; so did I. She dealt with deployments (during wartime, no less); I will too. It’s a link to her that I never imagined.

My grandparents in Norfolk in 1944

I know so little about my grandmother from that time in her life. She told me tidbits of her childhood in Brooklyn, but she never told me about her life during World War II, the boyfriends she had, the men she wrote letters to while they were away fighting in the war. I like to imagine her wearing dresses that I covet nowadays, white gloves and fabulous shoes. I imagine her being classy, as she always was, but also bold, sensible, no-nonsense, as I always knew her to be.

Oh yeah. Grandma's pulling off a big bow tie. (1941)

I’ve been planning out the plot for a novel using characters from my story that is forthcoming in Shaking Magazine next month. The grandmother in the story is loosely based on my grandmother. My own grandmother didn’t keep clutter; she got rid of old pictures and letters long ago, so there’s no way of knowing much of her past, especially the days before she started having children. I imagine her as a mixture of the woman I know, and Francie from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I imagine her coming to Norfolk, a newlywed, to meet her husband, and what this city must have looked like back then. Did they go to Oceanview when it had a fully functioning boardwalk and a ferris wheel? Did they go downtown and hit the bars on Granby Street? She walked my streets; I couldn’t place her here until I saw the photo.

Back to the party for Lt. Commander Barclay:  She was a bit like a queen on her throne, and Amanda and I knelt, one on each side of her. She reached out and took our hands. Amanda spoke first (thank goodness), thanking her for her service and wishing her a happy birthday. But before she could finish speaking, Lt. Commander Barclay interrupted. With 100 years worth of memories in her head, she jumped around a bit, skipping from one topic to the next. We held on, though, listening. She asked Amanda if she was in the Navy and where she had been stationed. She told us about her early days in the Navy. She told us about being stationed in the South Pole, and that she had helped with the babies while the men were in Europe fighting. She relayed to us that her aunts were always so worried about her. “What’s Kathryn going to do?” they asked. They were most concerned about whether she would have a bed to herself. Lt. Commander Barclay told us that things were different back then. She told us we were beautiful and talented and educated. She told us she feared she might lose one of her teeth (to date, she still has all her own teeth). She asked me what would happen if she had another birthday? “We’ll just have to come back and eat more cake,” I told her.

Part of what I find so wonderful about writing is that it’s a product of these moments. It’s a snapshot of my grandmother in 1944. It’s an old woman’s brithday party. It’s pink sweatshirts and old hymns and battleships and greeting cards and raucous Navy nurses, laughing loudly while posing for a picture. It’s my girlfriend leaning in close to tell me a secret. It’s walking down Colley Avenue and wondering, was Grandma here in Ghent? How did she see it? It’s knowing that I’ll never know.

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