Of Shipmates, On and Off the Water, Pens, and Holidays

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Navy photo / MCS 2nd Class Eddie Harrison

U.S. sailors in holiday camouflage aboard the destroyer USS Pinckney hail supply ship USNS Richard E. Byrd last Christmas Eve in the Gulf of Aden.

I got my Christmas cards out early this year. I had some time after Thanksgiving to write short notes, and I mailed them the end of November. A little early, but I still think it is fun to send and receive, and heaven knows, the post office likes the extra business…Merry Christmas to them! I still have the longer letters to get to; I’ve still got time.

But I got a call today from the son of a woman I have been communicating with since I took command of the USS Opportune 22 years ago this month. She passed away about four months ago.

I had never met her, but she was a prolific writer and we maintained the snail-mail communication over the years. She was extremely supportive of my Navy career, and even sponsored me for the women’s register at the Women in Military Service for America memorial. I was very saddened to hear that she had died, and it made me start thinking of the cycle of life and maintaining friendships.

When I walked aboard the USS Opportune for the first time and took command on December 27, 1990, there was a stack of mail sitting on my desk.

All of them were congratulatory cards, mostly for people I had never met, and some from people I hadn’t seen or heard from in years. I decided that however long it took, I would write back to each one and thank them for their good wishes. Two of the strangers became “pen pals.”

My first new friend was named Eddie Dykes. Eddie had been a sailor for four years during World War II, and even though he was discharged like most everybody else in 1945-46, those were the four most important years of his life.

His letters consisted of stories about his time at sea, his stint as an underwater demolition technician, and how much he missed it. Before the war he had been a semi-pro baseball player, and afterwards he worked in construction.

Eddie lived very close to where my mom lives in California, so one day when I was out visiting my mom, I decided to meet him. We had a lovely time as he showed me all of his baseball and Navy paraphernalia and mementos. He never tired of talking about it, and I was just amazed at his memory and his zest for life.

On one visit I asked him if I could interview him for the Veterans History Project, and he agreed. I still have all the information, but I have not yet had the interview transcribed and sent in. His last few years were spent in hospice care at the Palo Alto VA hospital. Whenever I would visit him there, he still had the same zest for life. Eddie died about three or four years ago at age 92. I have no idea where all his mementos went. I am saddened to think they might have just been discarded.

Joy lived in Texas, and lived up to her name. She was a Navy wife, and was active with the local Navy League. She wrote because she could not do what I had done, and she was so proud to have seen the day… I do wish I had met her.

I have another friend, Leland. He was the commanding officer of the USS Hoist long before I was her executive officer in the late 1980s. He contacted me, somehow finding out that I was on board. We both lived in Norfolk, Va., and he gave me his leather aviator’s jacket.

It doesn’t fit me anymore, but I still treasure it.

We visited often until I moved from Norfolk in 1993, but we still send annual Christmas letters. I haven’t received his yet, but I still have time to write mine. I will do it now. Merry Christmas everyone, and remember your friends, and the gift of time. Just writing makes a difference in the lives of those you love.