My granddad left me a lot of memories, including my last one of him: the two of us sitting at the little table in my grandparents’ mobile home in Prescott, as he went through a pile of tattered and faded photographs from his time in the Navy. At one point, he said to me so that my dad and my grandmother couldn’t hear, “We’re the sailors in the family” as if it was a point of pride that he finally had someone else in his bloodline that understood the love of the water.
I listened to his stories about each picture, amazed later that after 60 years, he still remembered names and dates like it was yesterday. That time in his life must have been one of his biggest adventures, sailing around the Pacific and the South China Sea, seeing places a farmboy could only dream of: Philippines, China, Hong Kong, Japan. 80 years later, I’ve been to those places, but they look nothing like they did in those photos from the 1920s.
At one point in the afternoon, my grandmother, ever practical, said “Walter, I don’t think she wants to sit there all afternoon and listen to your old stories” but I did. My granddad just shrugged her off, and we kept going till she made us clear off the table for dinner. He gave me the photos, along with his “coming home” flag, a panoramic photo of his shipwreck, and a few other things. I got the feeling that he thought I’d appreciate them, one sailor to another.
I think he also knew something I didn’t. That trip was the last time I ever saw my granddad. He died the next spring, wracked by lung cancer. I’m still glad that I stayed indoors on that nice Arizona afternoon and listened to an old man’s stories. I wouldn’t have had another chance at it.
To survive life in the Navy takes work and luck, and it’s the latter that got my granddad through in the end. On a dark September night in 1923, a destroyer squadron headed down the California coast on a simulated wartime run. Using dead reckoning and not the too-new-to-trust radio signal, they turned too soon, running up on the rocks of Honda Point, completely missing the Santa Barbara Channel further south. My granddad spent the night cold and wet on what is now Destroyer Rock, along with his shipmates and another destroyer’s crew. 23 sailers died that night; my granddad survived, and I’m here as one result of that luck.
Maybe I’m old enough now to appreciate his legacy–the love of sailing and the wanderlust to travel to faraway places–and his luck. I’ve gotten the water-stained, torn panorama print restored and am having it framed up with some smaller photos of the disaster. It feels like the right way to pay tribute to that young man who went to sea and came back to start a family that two generations later included me.
(To read more about the Honda Point disaster, you can google it.)