Trekking from Suffolk for the Reagan

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 18, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

A quick call to my daughter Suzie followed my receiving two tickets to the commissioning ceremony for the newest and largest aircraft carrier in the world, the Ronald Reagan. What a thrill it would be for me to witness the exciting event, and what a thrill for Suzie who retired from the U.S. Navy after 19 years of service. She quickly said, &uot;Yes!&uot; and arranged to be at my house the next morning at 8:45 – plenty early to get to the Naval Operations Base in Norfolk for the 11:00 AM ceremony.

Saturday morning there was plenty of sunshine as we left Suffolk, right on time. Still, we decided to carry umbrellas in case a shower should develop. We zipped right along down 64 and in no time we turned onto the HOV lane at 564 (Open to All Traffic). Although traffic was heavy for a Saturday, Suzie glanced at her watch and reported that we were ahead of schedule because it was just 9:45. At that point I noticed a lot of red taillights ahead, so I slowed, and then quickly came to a stop. From then on it was mostly &uot;stop&uot; with very little &uot;go,&uot; as we realized that the Navy had invited several people in addition to Suzie and me.

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By the time we left the Interstate behind and passed through the gate, an hour had elapsed in the tie-up, and my watch now showed that it was 10:50. Glad to be moving again, we were pleased with the efficient organization provided by the Navy in directing visitors to parking areas. At ours, there were at least 1,000 other cars were already parked. We jumped out and took about two steps when I remembered my handy pocketknife that is always in my pocket. After returning to the car and disposing of the knife, I grabbed my camera and a telephoto lens. Following the crowd that was pouring out of the various vehicles, we headed to a line of buses that were obviously there to transport us to the carrier, which was nowhere in sight.

The buses bore names that indicated that they were from Pennsylvania, New York, and D.C. as well as from the Tidewater area. It was plain that someone had done a lot of planning for this event. We boarded a beautiful bus that had colorful carpet and upholstery, along with TV monitors and overhead bins just as in an airliner. As soon as we got comfortable we arrived at the end of the line, and we looked up to see the huge carrier. We then went through security that was tighter than at the Norfolk Airport. Each visitor was given a very impressive souvenir book and some jelly beans, as well as a bottle of water to help prevent dehydration in the hot sun.

We then went into the seating area where about 9000 people appeared to have arrived just before Suzie and me. Although we couldn’t get close enough to see the speaker’s platform, we could hear Dick Cheney droning on about something, because the PA system was great. The seats were comfortable and it was a perfect spot to get a little sun. The view of the platform was obscured by temporary towers that flanked it, so the only luminary that I got to see was Nancy Reagan as she was being assisted to the microphone so that she could give her order to &uot;Bring the ship to life.&uot;

That precipitated the most exciting visual of the day, as 5000 sailors raced up the steps, up the gangplank, and into the bowels of the carrier through an open hanger door. After they disappeared there was some more fanfare, and the command was given to &uot;Man the Ship.&uot; Immediately, the sailors stepped forward 10 stories above us, lining the edge of the flight deck. It was truly a thrilling sight.

There were other ceremonies that included the hoisting of various flags such as that of the vice president, and of course, the &uot;colors&uot;, the stars and stripes. In addition there was a deafening flyover of four navy jets. As the ceremony concluded, we headed for the buses and our car. From then on it was kind of down hill because there was no organization to the return to the buses, which were arriving haphazardly throughout the pick-up area. People were running from bus to bus, trying to guess which one would leave next. We found a likely one and got onto it. Although we waited about ten minutes, it was certainly comfortable. In a few minutes we were back to our parking lot. Of course, we had no idea where the car was, so we split-up and began our search. In just a few minutes we were on our way back to Suffolk, unencumbered by any traffic jams.

Next time I get an invitation to a commissioning ceremony I’ll leave three hours early, put a flag on my radio aerial, and bring my own water and a hat. I think I’ll bring binoculars, too – just in case. I wouldn’t have missed this one for anything!