Memory of a Midnight Sea

By

Today is Memorial Day, so it occurs to me that this may be an appropriate memory to haul to the surface. I resubmit it for your perusal.

It seems like pirates in are in the news every time I turn around these days. But when this story popped up a while back it really caught my attention:

USS Dubuque Seizes Ship Captured by Pirates.

You can probably imagine my interest in the report but my association goes deeper than simply being an author who writes about pirates. Almost twenty years ago, you see, I was U.S. Marine Sergeant “Pete” Peterson and I served on the USS Dubuque for a while.

Luckily, the time I spent on the De Puke (as we called it) was almost entirely taken up by sleeping, playing Spades, and reading Michael Crichton novels rather than fighting pirates or saving the free world. I remember a tattered copy of Jurassic Park making the rounds from jarhead to jarhead throughout the berthing area and it ignited all sorts of lively debate about how well Steven Spielberg had (or hadn’t) interpreted it. Crichton was considered high literature to us in those days. If I remember correctly, a copy of Congo was being passed along not far behind it.

This was in the early to mid-90’s and there seemed to be a new war or conflict springing up every other week. Young as we were, we were anxious for pirates to fight, or an embassy to evacuate, or a “peacekeeping mission” to join. Day after day, we’d run through our drills and study our battle plans and then we’d stand outside the hatch at night smoking our cigarettes as the sea rolled past.

Standing outside on the ship’s walkways at night was an explicit violation of the posted and oft repeated rules, but we did it anyway because it was so much easier than wandering through a mile of dark corridors to the authorized smoking area in the fo’c’s’le (that’s pronounced foke-sull, short for forecastle if you’re wondering). Those nights were the darkest I’ve ever seen. In the middle of an ocean there is no hint of a man-made light source. There’s no streetlamp, no spotlight, no glow on the horizon from the city in the distance. It’s pure unblemished night, a beautiful thing, and haunting. It was while standing in that wholly natural dark that I first saw the ocean shine. Below me, in the curling whitewater of the ship’s wake, dull green swells of light shimmered, rolled, and faded away.

Bioluminescence is a miraculous thing. It’s an effect caused by millions of microscopic sea creatures that are invisible to the naked eye until their tiny lives are disturbed by something like the passage of a warship. When the ship passes through large groups of them, it sends them whorling and seething in its wake and the violent motion causes them to give off light. In some parts of the world the sea can glow with this “living-light” as brightly as if it were lit from below like a swimming pool. I rarely saw it so spectacular, though. Usually it was nothing but a dim glow, faint ripples and swells in the darkness, scarcely more. In the presence of this natural wonder, we’d toss our cigarette butts to the wind and grumble about the absence of a war in which to prove ourselves and let our talents shine.

One night (I think we were off the coast of Myanmar) we were awakened by something that sounded like a jack hammer rapping on the hull. Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. We sat up in our racks confused and baffled, looking at one another as if to say, “Did you hear that?” Then the ship’s intercom whined and whistled. “General quarters. General quarters. All hands man your battle stations. General quarters!” This wasn’t a drill.

Here, at last, was some adventure. Was it pirates? Were we under attack? Was this an act of war? Whatever it was, the sad truth is that aboard a ship, a marine’s battle station is in his berthing area; while sailors rush to the control rooms, the armory, the flight deck and sickbay, we few, we proud, we stay in our beds and grumble. So we listened as the footsteps of the crew pounded through the corridors above us. We listened to the alarms and announcements chattering over the intercom. We heard our Cobra attack helicopters spin up and launch and fade into the distance and then, of all things, we went back to sleep.

In the morning we learned that it had been a local fisherman who’d been spooked by the sight of our ship and fired at us in a panic. That’s the story they told us anyway. I guess machine guns are basic equipment on fishing boats in that part of the world. In the end, no missiles had been launched, no boat sunk, no pirates captured. We were disappointed that it had all been resolved peacefully and we went back to our racks and our Crichton novels and we wondered when we’d get to see some action and have some of that adventure we’d left our homes to find.

For me, the action never came. I remember thinking, near the end of my service in the Marine Corps, that the whole thing had been a waste. Except for a few boring days of flight control during the Bosnian conflict, six years of preparation for war had gone totally unused. I was what they call an Air Support Operations Operator. It was my job to coordinate and control fighter planes and helicopters during troop transports, bombing runs, and med-evacs. I’d spent untold hours in training and here I was leaving the Corps without having seen or done any of the things I’d so foolishly hoped to. No battle had been fought, no war was ever joined. I had no shining moment of valor to tell my children of in years to come. What a shame, I thought.

When I saw the news report of the old Dubuque last week it plucked a strange chord inside me. I was glad that the Marines had reclaimed a ship from pirates. I was glad that, like those tiny creatures in the midnight sea, they had a chance to shine. I was even more glad that due to their long hours of training, the whole affair was accomplished without a shot being fired or a drop of blood being spilled. But most of all, it made me glad that I spent my own time in the service doing little more than reading Crichton novels and dreaming.

I don’t have any telling scars or combat decorations. And I don’t have memories of distant wars won or lost. Instead, I remember the thousand colors of a Mediterranean sunset. I remember the white stone bastions of Malta and the fruited jungles of Thailand. I remember swimming in the Phillipine Sea hundreds of miles from land. I remember waterspouts in the mid-Atlantic dancing together, four and five at a time, like white ribbons hung from the belly of a thunderhead. I remember the deep, sapphire blue of pacific island bays. I remember the Aegean Sea lying flat as a looking glass while Orion and his starry host sauntered through its ageless deeps. By grace, none of these memories are overshadowed by the passage of war, and that is a blessed preservation. War is no adventure; it’s an erasure.

Thank goodness for the sailors and marines of the USS Dubuque and all the many others. But all these years later, when I recall the midnight sea roiling in bioluminescent heaves, I thank God that I never did live in that moment of shimmering, swirling chaos. My time of service was undisturbed, only a faint twinkle, never shining. It’s a gift, this dimmer glow, and in the stillness that follows there is a blessing in which to live, and sleep, and fondly dream.

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


49 Comments

  1. Leigh McLeroy

    “I remember waterspouts in the mid-Atlantic dancing together, four and five at a time, like white ribbons hung from the belly of a thunderhead…”

    That sounds beautiful, Pete. What a sight to see!

  2. Jen

    My morning coffee ended in a good morning cry. The last time my husband and I visited with my grandfather, he told us WWII stories. He traveled across the Pacific on an aircraft carrier and would lay on the deck at night in awe of the endless sky. I wish I could ask him about the ocean after reading this. Thank you for the beautiful account of your memories.

  3. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Pete: God was interested in making a writer, not a fighter. He gave you years of experience of many places to pervade your stories with reality.

  4. John

    I was in the Navy, and, I, too, don’t have any battle scars or stories to tell about “the day that…” And part of me wishes I did. I was the Strike Officer – in charge of all the Tomohawks and various and sundry other missiles. Never actually fired one. Lots of excercises – but only fired a couple of duds to make sure the our system worked. (And I didn’t even get to see them go up!)
    But the nights, standing outside smoking a cigarette…you’re right, Pete, there’s something beautiful about the darkness of the sea at night. The stars…well – as you say.
    And – a good friend of mine used to sail on the Dubuque. Good on ’em!

  5. Chris Slaten

    It’s only through reading descriptions from stories like the Caine Mutiny, the Secret Sharer and your reflections that I will probably ever get to experience anything like this. Thanks for a good Monday morning midnight sea trip.

  6. Peter Br

    Awesome. What Ron, JJ, Paula, Leigh, etc. said. What amazing memories to have.

    Jen: mine too! My grandfather went back and forth on the USS Suwannee until it was kamikaze-bombed (he was purple-hearted while participating in the chaotic rescue effort that ensued). He never talked about it much — for obvious reasons — I wish, I wish, I wish I had asked him more about that time.

  7. Sir Jonathan Andrews

    Because our beaches have white sand down here in Pensacola you can sometimes see the bioluminescent glow in your foot prints at night in the sand. I have always loved that. Great post.

  8. dawngreen

    …even though your experience lacked pirates– thank you for your time and service. Thanks for the beautiful story, as always.

  9. Patrick

    I was an Army Medic stationed in Germany for much of my brief enlistment. I can testify that peacetime in the military does feel like a waste of time in the midst of it. But we served with honorable intent, and our experiences of positive enrichment were well worth every second of ‘playing war’ drills. Thank you for refreshing this perspective for me, Pete. You shared your experience beautifully.

  10. Paula Shaw

    Wow, after the day has just about been spent, I realize I’ve been thinking about my eldest brother, my Dad and one of my nephews. My eldest brother was a Navy career man, and sailed many a sea. He was in Naval Intelligence, but I STILL don’t know what that means. All the same, I think he must have seen the sights your post speaks about during his time served. My Dad was a Drill Instructor in the Marine Corps. He fought in the Pacific Theater and earned a Purple Heart for the Japanese bullet he carried in his hip until the day he died at the age of 96, just 2 1/2 years ago. I often wish I would have picked his brain for all the experiences he had and the sights he saw, but I sort of doubt he would have shared any of it. There always seemed to be a veil of secrecy about his time in the Marine Corp, particularly the time he spent in active duty. I never understood that until a few years ago. . .
    My nephew. My sweet, brave, exceedingly loving nephew serves in the Army. He served 2 tours in Iraq and is now in Tennessee. He flew Black Hawk helicopters in Iraq, and then came home to be a Black Hawk pilot instructor. Now he’s doing special ops. . . he’s a lovely and brave man, who I admire with all that I am. He’s sort of my hero. I wish he hadn’t had to serve in active duty, but he did, and I thank God every day that he made it home mostly unscathed.
    All this to say, Pete, that I’m exceedingly glad God made you to write and not fight, as Ron said. Isn’t God so ingenious with His plans for us? All the same, I’m betting you’d have measured up quite well if put to the test.
    PS. Stop smokin’! It’s BAD for you!
    😉

  11. Peter Br

    *ahem* When I said “mine too”, I meant “my grandfather traveled across the Pacific on an aircraft carrier” and was a stargazer; not “my morning coffee ended in a good morning cry”.

    Carry on.

  12. Tony from Pandora

    My dad was in the Marines during Vietnam. He got some shrapnel in the back of the leg, was in the hospital for 3 months then served another 9 months. One of his very good friends lost both legs and an arm. Actually this friend is Dale Wilson from North Carolina. He was honored with being last year’s ‘Disabled Veteran of the Year” Anyway, all that to say that both my dad and Dale wish their tour would have been boring…

  13. EmmaJ

    Funny how one’s views on such things change over time. There are definitely things that I wanted and expected that have not come to pass as I have hoped, and others which have surprised my socks off. But if God can direct your path so well, Pete, as one of His children, and lead you to the things you were meant to do (and somehow inexplicably away from those that were not his intention, in spite of being so very near)… there’s hope for the rest of us, too, right? I am bound to say (and to preach to myself in darker moments) that it is so. And praise God for the glimpses we can see here and now, the true tales that evidence the reality of that hope, even though we will never know the full story until the day when all is revealed in the bright dawn of eternity.

  14. Shirley B

    Thank you for being faithful in sharing your experiences and in so doing lifting up our Lord. That was just beautiful. What a gift you have!

  15. carrie luke

    Lovely post, Pete. I love how all of our experiences(no matter how seemingly purposeless or life changing) can be a color on a pallet for later paintings because I saw Fiddler’s Gun/Green fingerprints all over this essay.

  16. Kevin

    Thanks for the recollections, Pete. Not only are they quite beautiful but they are quite appropriate for me to read as I prepare to head to Afghanistan in a few weeks with the Navy (Yes, I know, there’s no water there. Helping out the Army and the Marines…). I too am conflicted between a desire for daring do and a desire for a boring tour so I can get back to my wife and kids. You helped me remember that God has a plan for my time in Afghanistan and that I just need to have faith and let it unfold.

  17. PDM

    We long for peace and the stories that provide the exposition for that peace.

    I love the line that war is erasure. I have a close friend in Afaghanstan who has seen the close calls of “adventure” too many times.

    I disagree with a certain pirate captain: “Death is the only adventure.” Not so, to live and to long for peace cultivates the fullest love and greatest hope. And truly, the greatest love involves laying one’s life down for the sake of another.

    Though you did not see any fire, you spent a season of life on the line. Thank you and thanks to so many others.

  18. Art Peterson

    Thanks,son,for a beautiful read on Memorial Day 2012! Your mother and I are also very glad that God used that time to craft a writer rather than a fighter. You have blessed our lives immeasurably…and others too.

  19. Chris

    It is difficult at times, wrong as it sounds, to say ‘thank-you’ to those veterans who haven’t actually seen a second of battle and yet it is in those moments that we can be thankful that they didn’t have the chance of losing his or her own life though that is what they offered when they signed on the dotted line…so that I could tweet and peruse facebook. Thanks, Pete…and all you other veterans…thank-you.

  20. PJ

    Sounds like the Kingdom of God, Pete. Some will be martyrs, some will become the Luthers and Calvins of the world, but most will serve in seeming obscurity.

  21. Riley Anne

    Thank you for a very timely message this Memorial Day!
    Training and being prepared is never a waste! I often think of Romans 8:28 All things work for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose. I also think of the lyrics of a favorite song: Nothing Is Wasted!
    Looking back we find the mysterious ways that God has prepared us for the present without our even knowing or understanding! What an Awesome God we serve!

  22. Lois

    I never had a grandfather that was in World War II so I have always kind of felt left out. My father, however, was in the navy. for six years.

  23. Nathan

    I thought of this last summer while looking at the stars aboard the Eisenhower. We were flight testing a new system at sea. You never know night until you have seen it at sea. Thank you for your service from a grateful engineer.

  24. Eowyn

    Makes me think of one of my favorite Tolkien quotes:

    “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” -Faramir

  25. April Pickle

    My husband’s grandfather was a B-17 pilot in WWII and carried out 63 missions before he was allowed go home to his wife and meet his toddler son. He didn’t talk much about the war, refused to see Saving Private Ryan and I heard he would yell in his sleep as he relived some of those experiences through nightmares, even 40 years later. When I first met him (I was 19 and very naive!), I casually smiled at him and said “I heard you were in World War II. What was that like?” Being the gentleman that he was, he paused, raised his eyebrows and then answered,”Well, I really enjoyed flying, but I didn’t like dropping the bombs.” To which I bit my lip and wished I could crawl into a hole.
    Thank you for bringing this memory to my mind, Sergeant Pete, and for your words. I think the “many roads you took to get here were just for (you) to tell this story and for (us) to hear” your beautiful words (to quote your brother. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself!).

  26. Buddy Greene

    Man, I ought to visit this sight more often. Caleb, Alan Paton, and now this, Pete. You write beautifully, my friend.
    My dad served in the Navy in WWII, on a destroyer in the Pacific . He witnessed such battles as Iwo Jima. As a boy, I was proud that my dad had served, but he rarely spoke of that time. A year or two before he died there aired on PBS a multi-part documentary on the war. When it came time for the episode about the Pacific, I tried to get Dad to watch. He later told me that he turned it off after seeing images of dead seamen floating in the water; that he had witnessed first hand such sights, remembered the smell, and had no desire to relive the horror of those memories. I was reminded of this as I read your observation that “War is no adventure; it’s an erasure.”

  27. JamesDWitmer

    Pete,

    As far as I’m concerned, you can re-post this every Memorial Day for the rest of my life.

    Thank you for your service, and for the beautifully-written reminder of God’s greater purposes.

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