Last weekend, I took a trip into the past.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I served in the U.S. Navy as a Navy Journalist – a job title that no longer exists, having later been subsumed into another rating. Except for boot camp in Illinois and training at the Defense Information School (then housed at an Army post in Indianapolis), my entire stint was spent in the Public Affairs Office of the USS Ranger (CV-61), an aircraft carrier based in San Diego.
Commissioned in 1957, the Ranger (known alternatively and sometimes affectionately as the “Top Gun of the Pacific Fleet,” “CV-By God-61” and “Danger Ranger”) was decommissioned in 1993, a few months after I mustered out. I’d been part of the “Decommissioning Crew” (and still have the hat to prove it), and, still living in California, I went to the ceremony. I don’t think I teared up, by I did feel some pangs as I watched the Ranger sail away toward the “mothball fleet” in Bremerton, Washington.
I’d never really considered making the Navy my career. Like many people, I’d joined up during a somewhat aimless period of my youth. But I’d known since middle school that I wanted to someday pursue journalism. The idea basically was that I would serve a few years, see parts of the world that I would not have a chance to otherwise, and get some much-needed discipline. To an extent, it worked. A couple of years into civilian life, I landed my first newspaper job was at a small community newspaper in the San Diego area. There, I covered my first murder trial, a few terse small-city council meetings, problems facing minority and immigrant communities, an event at an area prison and the disposal of a makeshift bomb at the local city hall, my first and only “Stop the presses!” moment. Heady stuff for a young reporter, even one working at a twice-weekly paper.
Not too long later, though, I returned to Houston to go back to the university, and ultimately began my journalism career in earnest. My time in the Navy, and aboard the Ranger, receded – somewhat – into memory. Living aboard a floating city with an airport operating just a few decks above where you sleep has a way of making a lifelong impression.
Every once in a while over the years, I’d read news about efforts to turn the Ranger, quietly rusting away among the hulks in Bremerton, into a floating museum, much like the USS Lexington in Corpus Christi or the USS Midway (which a fellow “DINFOS-trained killer” buddy of mine served aboard) in San Diego. Those efforts focused on berthing the ship somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, most likely Oregon. I hoped it would happen, but had my doubts. I contacted the foundation behind the project, offering to donate for fundraising purposes a painting that my father – a professional commercial artist and lifelong aviation enthusiast – did of the Ranger years after he came aboard for two “Tiger Cruises” from Pearl Harbor to San Diego. I never heard back.
But the plans always lacked adequate funding and support, and late last year the sad news came down that the Navy had finally sold the Ranger to a shipbreaking company in Brownsville, at Texas’ southernmost tip. The massive vessel, two big to transit the Panama Canal, would have to be slowly towed down the West Coast and around the tip of South America.
Through Facebook groups, I sporadically kept abreast of the ship’s progress. Suddenly, on a Monday, I saw that it was due to arrive early, the following weekend. I knew I had to go. But the trip would have to somewhat on-the-fly: It was uncertain which day it would actually pull in, and I had a work commitment that Friday evening. Finally, though, it seemed settled: Ranger would make its transit just after first light on Sunday morning.
My decade-old car doesn’t have adequate air conditioning, so I planned to begin on Saturday after noon, hoping to offset the worst of the heat making the five-hour trek through South Texas to Brownsville and Padre Island – my first time in the region, despite growing up in and spending most of my adult life in the state. I loaded up my car with a few clothes and and CDs by Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits (only they would do, since – because of outside events that I may write about later — the trip suddenly took on another dimension) and headed south.
And yes, just in case you’re wondering – driving through South Texas in July without good A/C is brutal, especially when I found myself stopped because of a bad accident ahead. But with the windows down and the help of “Born to Run” and “Wrecking Ball” turned up full-blast, I made it to Brownsville just as evening began to fall. I managed to make a quick jaunt into downtown (a longtime courthouse aficionado, I got a quick glimpse of the handsome Cameron County Courthouse) and the International Border, where Mexican nationals were making their way home from work or shopping excursions. Suddenly, my memory was taken back to my San Diego days, when I sometimes made the crossing at San Ysidro to Tijuana.
In fact, the whole area gave off a certain Southern California vibe, especially as I made my way to the moneyed and touristy South Padre Island, where I’d learned through Facebook a small group of Rangermen and friends were having dinner and reminiscing in the Harborside Bar and Grill of the Pearl Hotel. I crossed the causeway to the island and was treated to a spectacular sunset over the channel.
In the restaurant, I found the group – including a former shipmate, a boatswain’s mate, who recognized me right off as I approached the table. He gave me a patch memorializing the Ranger’s “Final Voyage” designed by a former crewman of the USS Constellation, another antiquated carrier that was already being dismantled in the same Brownsville shipyard.
Among the group was the daughter of one of the Ranger’s Vietnam War-era captains. She described movingly how her family would go to the pier to watch her father deploy, she wearing white gloves. No crying was allowed on the pier, she said, only at home afterward. I also learned for the first time that the Ranger had been deployed to the Sea of Japan during the USS Peublo incident. A couple of guys who were aboard at the time said it was coldest, and most frightening, time of the lives.
By then, there was new word: the Ranger, which was anchored just offshore, wouldn’t be coming in until the afternoon. My original idea had been to sleep in the car to be sure that I would catch the ship at first light. Now I wasn’t so sure. After the party broke up, I walked along the beautiful Padre Island beach, lit sporadically by the lights of hotels, with families scattered about with flashlights, excitedly hunting in the sand for crabs. Above me, the stars shone more brilliantly than I’d seen in years – not unlike those many nights long ago when I looked out at them while at sea. It was a lovely night.
But it was a warm and humid one, and my attempts to get some shut-eye in my car parked in the hotel lot quickly proved fruitless. Vacancies on the island weren’t to be found, but I managed to find a room at a less-than-prime motel on the mainland.
A few hours later, I was up with the sun. Making my way back down toward Padre, I stopped to take in the water tower of San Benito, hometown of the Tejano music legend Freddy Fender, and Bobz World, a combination of gift shop and wacky theme park, complete with giant mock-ups of dinosaurs and King Kong.
Arriving on Padre with hours to go before the ship came in, I decided to drive the length of the island – or at least as far as the shifting beach sands would allow me. Early in the morning, it seemed it would be rather overcast weather. But as I made my way to the – literal – end of the line, the South Padre beaches showed off their well-earned reputation for beauty.
But it was time to go see the ship. I got back to the island’s southern tip and the park at what are called The Jetties – the longest I’ve ever seen. Quite a few Rangermen were about, easily recognizable in their ball caps or other Navy accoutrements. I spoke to several, including a biker guy from the Dallas area with flags and Ranger logos on his leather vest who told me about how he’s carving out a new career for himself as a computer programmer after being laid off.
I walked toward the beach, and through two rows of parked cars, there it was – the unmistakable profile of an American aircraft carrier, anchored about a mile offshore past sunbathers and fishermen on the jetties. It was a moment both thrilling and unsettling. I hadn’t seen this ship – which I’d lived aboard for nearly five years – in over two decades. After this day, I would never see her again.
There was a somewhat carnival-like atmosphere at the park – news crews, Rangermen and their families set up in lawn chairs near a statue of Jesus Christ with arms outstretched, welcoming home those lost at sea (similar in form but obviously much smaller than the one in Rio de Janeiro), curious onlookers and lots of people who neither knew nor cared about the Ranger coming in.
I wanted something a bit more serene. So I trod carefully down the jetty – the longest I’ve ever seen, making it to the end with just a few minutes to spare before the small tugs, flitting about the carrier like flies around an elephant, cranked up their diesels. One of the guys from the night before, who also had served aboard during the ship’s last years, was there.
And then it started toward us. Up to then, the few people at the end of the jetty were talking excitedly. But as the Ranger came into full view, all talking stopped. All that could be heard was the tugs’ engines and waves crashing over the rocks of the jetty.
With a camera borrowed from a friend, I furiously snapped photos before switching to my smartphone for video. With the South Texas sun beating down hard, it was difficult to see if my shot was well-aligned or in focus, but I managed to get what I wanted.
As the ship slid past, we took it in. Two decades’ worth of sitting idly in a berth, with minimal maintenance, had taken their toll. Rust, the thing most abhorrent to sailors, was all about the ship’s gray hull. The huge florescent lights on the “island” superstructure that had emblazoned “61” for all around to see – that had often welcomed me home after a night in port — were missing. But, still, as it moved slowly by, filling the frame of my smartphone camera, the ship was spectacular.
And then it was past us, moving along the jetty. Many watched in awe, some looked up briefly while casting their fishing lines. News crews talked to former sailors. A helicopter buzzed overhead, accompanied quietly by a “Smiley Face” parasail.
I got back to the park, talked to a couple of people I’d seen the night before, a couple of new faces. One guy was carrying the ship’s final cruisebook. I pointed out my photo to a television reporter, but he was ready to move on, not that interested. The ship, becoming smaller in the distance, slowly made its way toward its ultimate end.
I got in my car and pointed it toward the causeway. As I crossed, I could still make out the ship’s superstructure in the distance to my left. I thought about trying to follow it to the scrapyard. But it was already mid-afternoon, and I had a long drive back to Houston. Besides, I’d seen enough. When I got to the highway, I turned right.
There were other sights along the way. I came through a Border Patrol checkpoint – again, a reminder of my days in Southern California. My windows down, I heard a patrolman ask the Latina driver ahead of me where she was from. She replied “Houston.” He asked her if he could look inside her car trunk, and she complied. When he asked me where I was from, I told him the same thing. “Drive safely,” he said.
I was only vaguely aware, if at all, of the huge windfarms along the South Texas coast. Just up the road a bit, I stopped to see one up close. I had to drive up a rough dirt road to get there as – I’m not making this up – Springsteen’s “Rocky Ground” poured out of my car speakers. Later, I came across a dilapidated chicken restaurant, now serving as a place to buy velvet rugs with all manner of images, from Marilyn Monroe to Tweety Bird to the Confederate flag.
Closer to home, I stopped to take a close look at a beautiful, early 20th Century Catholic church that had caught my eye on the trip down. The sun was beginning to set, casting the sanctuary’s white walls in a lovely light. A small statue of Christ extended its arms, one hand with a couple of missing fingers holding a rosary.
I’m not a particularly religious man. But for this trip, it was a fitting end.
[See more photos of the trip here.]
Copyright © 2015 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.