Updated: May 10
It was a dark and rainy night when the plane I was on started to fall out of the sky – it really was dark and wet - I’ll get back to the weather report...but first, let me begin my story at an earlier moment in time. My oldest daughter Jennifer was born on March 9th, 1974. It was a happy and joyous occasion, but a cloud was hanging over the event. In two days, I had to deploy with the USS FORRESTAL, the aircraft carrier where I was stationed. The Navy did not (probably still doesn’t) consider normal childbirth as a reason to miss a ship’s movement. The ship was scheduled to deploy to the Mediterranean for a 6-month cruise bright and early on Monday, March 11th. As I rode the ship down the channel to the Atlantic Ocean, my wife and daughter were still in the hospital. It was a difficult departure and journey – I had teary eyes all the way to the Azores. I will always be thankful for the Navy wives who stepped up and watched after my wife and daughter as I left on deployment. They came together and fetched and carried, shopped, and cleaned. They ran the household. They even picked my mother-in-law up at the airport when she visited. My mother-in-law took over taking care of everyone, but the Navy wives were at the ready. Everything was going well until my wife came down with phlebitis (blood clots in her legs). The doctors at the hospital thought it was severe enough to send a message to the ship. My Commanding Officer gave me 30 days of emergency leave, and I returned to Virginia. (Now, there’s another story to be told about how I got back. Remember, I was on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Mediterranean, and it was not all that easy to get home.) It took me over 48 hours of traveling to get home, and I arrived safely. The first thing I did was sleep after I found out everyone was ok. My wife was released from the hospital shortly after I arrived, and we had 30 days to bond with the baby. My mother also visited, but her visit was cut short when my grandfather died.
Since I couldn’t stay on leave forever, I had to return to the ship. I didn’t want to, but the Navy has this thing called Unauthorized Absence, where they put you in jail. Since jail didn’t appeal to me – off, I went. I started my journey on a Sunday afternoon. The return trip was not going to be an easy task. I had to use a mix of civilian and government transportation; at times, the two did not mix well. I flew from Norfolk, Virginia, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where I was told it would take 2-3 weeks to get processed and on an airplane to Europe. I certainly didn’t want to sit for three weeks. The Navy has a “way” of keeping you busy, and typically they keep you busy with unpleasant tasks. Since I was a Personnelman (a guy who works in the personnel office), I volunteered to do 14 of the processing center’s transfers if they’d let me be number 15. The Chief in charge thought that was a great idea, and a deal was struck. I managed to leave for Europe after only three days in Philadelphia. My first flight left from Trenton, New Jersey, and took me to Rota, Spain, where I caught another flight to Germany, where I found another flight to Naples, where I caught another flight to Palma Majorca. It was on the next leg of the journey when it was a dark and rainy night... The last part of the trip back to the ship was on a plane that would land on the carrier. I was excited about the prospect. We had been in the air for about ½ hour when smoke started filling the plane. At first, it was a slight smell of something burning, and then smoke - a lot of smoke. The flight crew began yelling orders and frantically searching for the source of the smoke. In the process, I was handed a parachute and was assigned to a ditching station. I was only a Seaman and did not possess much knowledge about the Navy, ships, or airplanes, but I knew enough that ditching in an ocean at night was not good – even with a parachute. I figured this was it – gravity was finally going to get me. The plane started losing altitude – and then I heard shouts of, “...it’s out...it’s ok. It’s a seabag.” It seems a seabag had been placed on a set of wires, which caused a short, which caused a fire, which caused – havoc!! The pilot turned the plane around and landed in Palma. I had to stay overnight and was told to catch another flight to the ship the next day. However, when the next day arrived, the ship had moved into another area of operations, so I could no longer fly out to land on the carrier. I had to meet the ship at its next port, so I flew back to Naples. The flight to Naples arrived about an hour after the ship had dropped anchor in the harbor. At this point, I was finished with planes. I took a small boat out to the ship. It had been a long journey – over 7 days to get back to the ship. I was glad to be back on the ship– something I was surprised at the feeling, but the ship was familiar territory. I may have been happy to be back, but my heart was still in Norfolk with the little girl I had just briefly met.