Scaling the roof of 547 was pretty simple and I was directed to do so when yard maintenance (always a favorite) required that I trim an overgrown bougainvillea. The shining, almost iridescent flowering of the shrub was always captivating – but I knew from clipping smaller sections that thorns covered the stalks and the larger the plant, the longer the thorns. This proportionality took on real meaning when you consider that clinging to a neglected corner of our new home was a veritable bougainvillea tree.
Climbing to clip the wild tendrils and top branches of the giant shrub was preliminary to further work down below – so I dawdled when finished – and after giving the monster its haircut, I sat at the peak of our new, larger residence with my back against the chimney and took in the panorama. This house was built on a small semblance of hill and I could turn to see the full mural – the Pacific, the bay, the ferries, and the Hotel Del on a straight line down ‘A.’ I could see, looking back and forth, the two Naval installations predominating work life for our household – and so many others.
On one side sat ‘the amphib base,’ – amphibious qualifications and training in a low profile set of buildings, yard areas, with rubber reconnaissance rafts stored in bay pockets for launch during practice exercises. This squatty, short peninsula was the Navy’s main site for basic underwater demolition (BUD/s) training – as they morphed into their distinct new identity as SEALS.
Still, the only real way you could actually know specialized training occurred on Coronado was to surf the glassy north beach waves at sunrise. While straddling your board in the cold water waiting for a next line of swells, you could at first hear, and then see through the fog a herd of broad muscular men jogging their morning miles in nothing but khaki shorts and heavy boots. Words were never exchanged as skinny junior high school boys cleared a path for the slow stampede. These were men who would soon be ‘advisors,’ training South Vietnamese troops for forays into the North.
President Kennedy okayed the spy-like missions dropping paratrooper teams of South Vietnamese soldiers into the North to infiltrate. Such surreptitious maneuvering was popular with the young, suave president. It seemed an almost romantic homage to quaint clandestine practices – even if the incursions left the very few ‘in the know’ hoping against hope that something good might come of it.
All in all, as ‘military’ as they were, these attempts at assault were lathered with CIA guile and intentionality. Both land-based provocations and their maritime counterparts out of Da Nang were ways select politicians could play at war – adventure without consequences – diplomats with guns. But beyond the very few military families involved, outside of communities like Coronado, Vietnam was a name in America’s ether – far, far away – little more than a crossword clue.
The Navy’s more public face of was over my other shoulder. Looming on the left hand horizon was a complete contrast. Instead of inconspicuous, low key, or covert, here we had the bold, expansive, audacious confidence of aircraft carriers in port. When one or two of them were docked at North Island, they blocked the San Diego horizon. Big painted numbers on the face of the ship’s island (a ‘building’ on one side of the flight deck where aviation and ship operations are directed) identified ‘who’ was in port.
With my dependent’s pass I could ride my bike onto the base any time. When I rode over to the Navy Exchange or base barbershop, I would take a right off the main drag down to the piers. My landmark for a turn on that path was the large sign – ‘LAST CHANCE GEDUNK’ painted on the side of a building – indicating a final opportunity for that greasy burger and fries before reporting aboard and submitting to ship’s mess over the next several months.
These ships were (and remain) reminders to the world. Their presence in port is an impressive and serious statement. Riding alongside the pier, I was always taken in by their sheer enormity. This was the Navy our government wanted its citizens to appreciate and admire… strong, generous, and fair. Not that base over your other shoulder – not the one that trains for stealth and silent deadly force. Look away from the secret and sometimes-sordid training for face-to-face war. Most Americans keep that stuff in a drawer labeled, “Too Hard.”
Instead, relish the pomp… Focus on the dress flags waving from bow to stern across the massive floating fortress. Listen to the boom and brass of the Navy Band strike up marching music – and feel that pride you should feel without question.
There were two navies in Coronado. One over each shoulder as I stood on the roof of the last ‘Navy house’ we would ever know. At 13, I lived somewhere between these two influences in dynamic tension with one another – one a whispered secret and the other a blatant public declaration. What held Coronado together (at the expense of more than a few relationships) were those co-mingling whispered conversations of spouses from both navies. Across backyard hedges, they reluctantly shared about a husband’s recent letter home or a hazardous assignment.
You couldn’t get too far along as a thinking Navy kid without feeling the press of ambiguity. Not unlike Dad’s telling of men in port who would work for table scraps, the tug and pull of conscience and loyalty were always near the surface.
This melancholy was, of course, overcome in the day-to-day ‘need to get things done,’ household routines, time with friends at the beach or the park, school, and accompanying homework. I was just one among a million kids who grew up in similar circumstances. We were all conditioned to be respectful and polite. If anything at all, we were not expected to talk (or even think) in these terms. Reflection was gently discouraged.
Even with all there was to do in sunny southern California, I missed my walks in the woods with Dad and stepping up to his study, smelling the rich smoke of his pipe tobacco. I’d grown out of Little League so my role was accompanying my younger brothers to tryouts. My glove and hunting knife were reminders on a shelf. I tried Boy Scouts – but a scandalous campout involving alcohol, a ‘junior scout leader,’ and a couple of kids in another tent busted the troop up pretty quickly. The only redeeming result was reassurance from Dad that he wanted me to go on to my ‘Explorer’ years at Camp Miniwanca – a summer refuge I treasured.
Basic Boyhood Passage
It was your basic boyhood passage into whatever happens next – and I had no reason to be discontent. School was straightforward – go here, go there, do this, do that – I especially liked eating lunch outside in the courtyard on picnic tables. That always struck me as a southern California hallmark – except for depositss from the perennial pigeons.
I would think about some of what I saw or heard in my downstairs basement bedroom or while riding to the Day & Night Market in town on my skateboard. (Ash Makaha – an early model with ball bearings in clay wheels.) If there was anything to worry about, those in my world masked their misgivings. ‘Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you may die,’ was the refrain of the Naval aviator – and (typically) his family sang along out of the overwrought expectation that they be cheerful.
We were not the stereotype – but it was all around us. When out for a casual family dinner, we would often go to The Mexican Village. From our family booth, we could see and hear the fliers at the bar getting cranked up. Mom and Dad exchanged glances when a recognizable hoot or holler came from someone they surely knew.
In our house, Dad’s shelves filled with books and notes from his days at Stanford were a contrast to the casual, almost careless, fighter pilot outlook on life. Time spent with Dad was spare – but he was working on it – and down deep (even if gradually) I would come to understand the nature of his job pretty well.