This article of mine appeared in the Corpus Christi Caller Times in the spring of '92. The U.S.S. Lexington was decommissioned in '91 and headed for the scrap yards. Corpus Christi, TX; Mobile, Al; and Quincy, Mass bid on using her as a museum. Corpus won, but that win set off a local furor as citizens fought over using tax dollars to fund the project. Some saw her as a rusting white elephant. My article ended the debate and led to a job offer to write for the paper--a job I had to turn down in order to go to college and learn to write.
Today, the Lex is a major tourist attraction. She sits proud and regal, a boon to the local economy. As you can tell, I am quite proud of the role I played in helping to bring this about.
"Welcoming the Lex--A Piece of American History"
"What the hell am I doing here?" I thought to myself as I stood shivering in the cold, misty breeze near the end of the Port Aransas jetty.
Just over thirty minutes earlier I was in Corpus Christi, comfortably propped up in my bed, nursing my coffee as I tried to focus on the morning TV news. The big story was the imminent arrival of the U.S.S. Lexington at Port Aransas. Suddenly, I had to be there. I jumped from my bed, threw on the handiest thing available (my tennis outfit), and headed for Port A.
When I pulled onto the beach, I was amazed at all the cars I saw. It was as though the tide had indiscriminately deposited them in the night, mostly against the south jetty. The jetty, extending into the Gulf of Mexico, was full of people looking out to sea. I was shocked to find all these people. I could understand a crowd of this magnitude if the Lexington were being towed up the Trinity River to Fort Worth, but this was Corpus Christi. These people have seen big boats before, and the Lexington is no stranger to this port.
Why aren't these kids in school? Don't these people have jobs? Did someone declare this a national holiday and not tell me? I took my place on the jetty and peered out. There she was, just emerging from the mist, the Blue Ghost.
The whole scene reminded me of the movie, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," wherein people from all over were drawn by an irresistible force to Devil's Tower, Wyo. There they stood silently waiting for the arrival of aliens. That was the feeling I had on the jetty as we all stood in silent anticipation.
I could have stayed put, and the Lex would have passed by in thirty minutes or so. I was too excited to wait in the warmth of my car and too cold to stand still. I began making my way out on the jetty, weaving through the crowd of onlookers. Somewhere en route, the two halves of my brain began a silent conversation. My rational left brain asking my irrational, yet sensitive, right brain, "What the hell are we doing here?"
"I want to see the Lexington."
"We could have stayed in bed and seen it on TV."
"It's not the same; she's special. She has done so much for us; now, she's coming home to stay. It is only proper that we welcome her in person."
"You need to get a grip on reality. That is a large rusty bucket of bolts under tow. You talk as though it is alive and has a personality."
"Calling the Lexington a rusty bucket of bolts is like calling the Liberty Bell a broken wind chime. She is a floating piece of American history. She was built by the men and women of Quincy, Mass., descendants of the men who fired the shot heard around the world. The Japanese were not finished celebrating the sinking of the Lexington IV (also built at Quincy) when they were suddenly faced with the Lexington V.
Leaner, meaner, and madder than hell, she tore into the enemy like an angry pit bull. From the time she entered the Pacific theater, she never gave the enemy a moment's peace. On four separate occasions the Japanese announced her demise, only to find her back in the fight at the next battle. She won the Presidential Unit Citation and 11 battle stars. Her guns and planes destroyed over 1,000 enemy planes and a million-plus tons of Japanese shipping. She not only sank the last carrier involved in the Pearl Harbor raid, but sank the carrier that sank her namesake. Planes from the Lex had to be recalled from a strike on Japan when the Japanese finally surrendered. To them, there was nothing lady-like about the Lady Lex. To the Japanese, she was the 'Blue Ghost'."
"That's all well and good, but it's still just a big boat."
"To you, my rational self, I'm sure that's all you'll ever see, but to me she holds a little piece of every person who ever came in contact with her. One day, I will reach out and touch her bulkhead and make a spiritual connection with all those who have gone before."
At about this time, I had arrived at the point on the jetty where the pavement ends, and to go forward it was necessary to hop from rock to rock. I had to set aside the internal conversation and concentrate on the task at hand. It wasn't long before the Lex and I came abreast of each other. I turned towards her and paid my respects. Feeling at ease now, I wanted off that jetty and into my warm car as quickly as possible.
As I made my way back, with the Lex at my side, I watched the people watching the Lex. I was wondering what they were thinking, when I came upon an old man staring intently at the passing carrier. He wore a faded ball cap. From my profile view, the letters "USS LE" were visible along with other letters and numbers that were probably a squadron designation. Tears welled in his eyes, and I realized he was a former Lex crew member. I very much wanted to have a word with him but realized this was a solemn moment. I moved on.
All the way home the image of that old sailor played over and over in my mind. I wished I had stayed to talk with him, or at least had gotten his name and address. I had a million questions I wanted to ask him. Why did he come? Where did he come from? What memories were playing in his mind that caused the tears to well up? What did he think of her new assignment? Did he want to go aboard and make contact with her?
I'm glad now that I did not disturb him, for I already knew the answers to most of those questions, and I envied this old sailor. Soon, he would once again walk the deck on his grand old lady, and all those memories will come flooding back. He would get back in touch with his youthful self and remember a time when he was in his prime, when the highs were very high and the lows were very low. He would recall how he and his comrades were constantly being whipsawed between those two extremes as they struggled to save their collective skins and keep the flag flying.
Yes, I envied this old sailor, because his battlefield was coming back to him. My battlefield was on the other side of the world in a hostile land called Vietnam. My Lex was in the form of an ancient Chinese fortress surrounded by a moat where a handful of Green Berets planted the American flag and defied anyone to take her down. For over seven years, the flag flew, and although the enemy tried relentlessly to take it down, they never succeeded. That piece of turf was consecrated by the blood of our wounds, the sweat of our toil, and the tears of our despair.
Should the day ever come when I can stand once again in that courtyard and look at the place where the flag once flew, I am sure the tears will well up in my eyes, also. I hope that no one will disturb me while I remember and pay silent homage to my fallen comrades.
It is unlikely that I will ever make that pilgrimage, but I now realize why I had to be on that jetty to welcome the Lex home. I had finally found a suitable substitute for my battlefield. The USS Lexington is a portable battlefield whose steel fabric has been consecrated by the blood, sweat, and tears of my generation of Americans. She served in Vietnam and was my surrogate battlefield.
Maybe one day, years from now, I will gather my great- grandchildren around me, board the Lexington, and introduce them to my generation of Americans. In the hallowed passageways of the Lexington, I'll tell them about Frank Celano, David Mixter, John R. Jones and others. I'll have them reach out and touch her to make that grand connection with their American heritage.
I am exceedingly grateful to the people of Corpus Christi, Mobile, and Quincy, who fought hard to win her. It is only fitting that she be fought over in her retirement. How tragic it would have been to have her cut up and sold to scrap merchants. It is not unlikely that she may have been sold to Japanese interests, only to return to the U.S. as a Nippon import. It is sad to think of that old Lexington sailor having to make a connection with his past by passing his hand along the hood of a shiny new Toyota.
In winning the Lex, Corpus Christi has won a great honor. To those who fear that the Lexington will become a burden to local taxpayers, all I can say is--maybe some other big boat, but not the Lexington. It just isn't in her nature. In the not-too- distant future, I believe the USS Lexington will be to Corpus Christi what the Alamo is to San Antonio. That there were Corpus Christians who opposed her coming here will be laughable. In the meantime, I am sure there is a need for volunteers to polish her brass, or scrape and paint. Just tell me where the line forms.
The day this article came out, I received a call from the old man. I went to see him. We talked for hours. I also heard from and met Captain Hugh Winters, commander of Air Group 19--Lex's air wing. He invited me to their squadron reunion and offered me an honorary membership to the group. For me, that was the thrill of a lifetime. I can relate to Vietnam buffs, because I am a WWII Navy Aviation buff.
This incident marked the beginning of my journey to get back in touch with my own past. The pull of The Wall began on that jetty. A few weeks later, I stood before The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and made a solumn vow to tell it like it was. The path led me to a Vietnam War discussion list on the Internet, and I am now trying to make good on that vow.