This is an excerpt from my new novel, The Lifer, a story about a young sailor who died in a terrible accident aboard the USS Enterprise while the ship was at sea off the coast of Vietnam in January of 1969. As most old salty dogs know, the spirits of the sailors who die at sea sometimes remains aboard the ship. In The Lifer, I explore the question; What happens to the ghosts of the dead sailors when the time comes to decommission the ship?
USS Enterprise Decommissioning
The Aircraft Carrier USS Enterprise CVN 65 sits idle, tied to the pier. Red, white and blue bunting draped along her sides ruffles in the breeze. A big banner declares, USS Enterprise Decommissioning Ceremony.
Several hundred military personnel and civilians seated in folding chairs in rows facing a dais. Admirals and politicians in suits seated up there. A Navy band plays a march.
Beyond the seating area, crammed in along the pier and spilling over, filling a big parking lot are hundreds, no thousands, of former Enterprise crew members.
The Navy band winds down and an admiral steps to the podium. Before he can speak, someone in the back of the crowd shouts “The Big-E!” Then everyone starts clapping and cheering. First way in the back among the rowdy bunches crammed in out there. Quickly the cheering picks up and every person present is suddenly on their feet clapping and hooting. Most of these salty old sailors are feeling pin pricks flash over their rough skin. Some are choked up. They’ve all crossed oceans, and some have circled the plant aboard this great ship. The best years of their lives. Vivid memories burned into their consciousness forever.
The admiral steps back from the podium and claps his hands. He looks back over his shoulder at the massive wall of steel. The clapping reaches a thunderous roar and the cheers rise. Whistling and hooting and screaming. The Admiral does a crisp about face and raises a salute. The crowd goes crazy. The cheering lasts a solid ten minutes.
The admiral gives a speech. What you’d expect. The long service of this proud ship. Historical highlights. First nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, such and such tons of steel, millions of miles travelled, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, etc., etc. All stuff you can now read on Wikipedia.
Through the minds of all those who have served aboard, they hear the Admiral but they are flashing back to long days and nights at sea. Quite moments looking out at the horizon. Standing watches late at night in the reactor plant, launching jets off the flight deck, cooking food for 5000 in the galleys.
Way at the back of the crowd, there’s a group of old sailors waving signs. They are protesting the decommissioning of the USS Enterprise. Several of the old timers are wearing t-shirts with US NAVY FLIGHT DECK VETERANS emblazoned across the front. Several wear VFW hats, many have medals hanging on the fronts of their jackets. Though greying and chubby they are a stout and strong bunch. Some are straight laced and squared away, others are roughnecks. Several are obviously bikers with long hair and tattoos. Some wave American flags. A few are saluting. Others raise a fist in the air. A line of police and Navy Master at Arms stand between these hardened Navy veterans and the rest of the crowd.
Up at the front, those seated close to the ship are listening to a politician in a suit give a speech. There are many sailors and marines in dress uniforms. There are many Navy and Marine Corps veterans. Young and old. Men and women. Many are wearing USS Enterprise CVN65 ball caps and t-shirts.
It’s a patriotic scene. Everyone has come to honor this grand old ship and see her decommissioned from active duty in the fleet.
The banner hanging down from the ship’s forward catwalk just below the flight deck reads: “USS Enterprise 50 Years of Proud Service in the Fleet 1912 to 2012.”
High on the ship’s superstructure, way up above the big number 65 painted on the side of the island, a group of sailors are standing and sitting around taking in the scene.
In the midst of this crowd, high up above the pier, Jake is standing there, on the topmost level of the ship’s superstructure. His back straight, he’s wearing his cracker jacks. Something is not quite right about this bunch though, some don’t look so good. A few are wearing nice clean dress uniforms, but others are in tattered and dirty working blue dungarees. Some stand tall, looking healthy and spry. Others are run down, like they’ve been working too hard. Several are obviously sick or injured. Yet they are all together. Some standing, others sitting or lying on the deck. A few are leaning against the steel mast.
Jake is holding binoculars, scanning the scene below. He can see the flight deck and catwalks are all deserted. He knows that today there are no workers aboard the ship. Today, there’s only this group of sailors standing up here with him.
Now Jake is studying the crowd, looking closely at people’s faces and their clothes. He stops to zoom in on a sailor in uniform holding a young boy. The boy is holding a small American Flag on a stick. Next to the sailor, his wife is standing at his side. Jake pauses, looks closely at the sailor’s hand on his wife’s hip. He feels his heart break a little, then scans across the crowd, pauses on another family. He stares at the woman as she turns and hugs her husband, and kisses him on the cheek.
A politician at the podium continues his speech. Jake can hear him. He’s saying: “Today our Navy family is retiring a dear loved one, for the USS Enterprise has been more than just a ship, she has been a shipmate for fifty years. Many proud sailors have called her home while travelling countless miles around the world. So, we call this great ship our home, our Navy home, our trusted shipmate, a classic old vessel.”
Jake pauses over the big banner and reads it 50 YEARS OF SERVICE 1961 to 2012. USS ENTERPRISE DECOMMISSIONING CEREMONY.
Jake says, “What are we going to do now?”
The roughneck standing beside Jake says, “You’re damn right, Jake. Once they start cutting up this old tub, what will happen to us?”
“Where are we going to go?” Jake says.
“Davy Jones’ locker.” Roughneck says as he scans the crowd with binoculars too. “Golly, there are so many good looking girls out there? Last time I saw this many pretty ladies in one place, I was alive and I was a civilian.”
Another sailor, Henderson, walks over to Roughneck.
Henderson says, “Quit hogging up the binoc’s, let me get a look.” Henderson takes the binoculars from Roughneck and starts scanning the crowd on the pier. “Dang, you weren’t kidding. It’s wall-to-wall poontang down there.”
Jake pauses scanning the crowd to look at another sailor and his wife, both sitting side by side in chairs only a few rows back from the Navy band. The wife is holding a baby in her arms.
Jake whispers, “That is never going to happen for any of us.” He looks way back at the edge of the parking lot, and there he sees a sign “ENTERPRISE MUSEUM” another says “MEMORIALIZE THE BIG E” and another shouts, “PRESERVE OUR GREAT NAVAL TRADITION.”
“That would solve our problem,” Jake says.
“What would solve our problem?” Roughneck asks.
Jake says, “If they turn the ship into a museum.”
“Is that an actual thing?” Henderson asks. “Could they really turn her into a museum ship?”
“Why not? They turned the Midway into a museum and now she’s permanently moored in New York City.”
The politician wraps up his speech and the Navy band plays another march. A boatswain mate blows a whistles and there’s a 21-gun salute by a platoon of US Marines.
The Navy band plays as the crowd begins to disperse. The protesters are handing out leaflets that call for the Enterprise to be saved and converted into a museum ship. They are soliciting donations. Police move in and try to disperse the protesters. A minor scuffle occurs between the old veterans and the cops, but the big crowd flushes everyone out through the gates and onto the street.
High above the dwindling crowd, Jake and his friends are still standing around scanning with binoculars. Jake has not moved. He does not blink. The wind blows, flapping the colorful signal flags strung up on the Enterprise’s masts above them. The wind is gusting hard at this height, almost two-hundred feet above the pier. The black neckerchief on the front of Jake’s uniform does not move, though. The wind is blasting but does not affect him.
A tear runs down Jake’s cheek.
After a while, there’s only a crew of guys packing up the chairs, taking down the bunting. Two workers are putting the podium into the back of a van. They lower the gigantic American flag and begin to fold it up.
High above it all, Jake is still standing atop the superstructure, holding his salute. He’s frozen in time.
Days are going by. Each morning trucks and vans pull up on the pier. Work crews, welders, engineers, technicians and mechanics arrive. They climb the gangway up to the Quarterdeck of the Enterprise. They carry tools and small coolers containing their lunches.
There are several cranes along the pier. They lift construction trailers and rollaway dumpsters up onto the flight deck.
All day workers are crawling all over the ship, going in and out of her many doors, on her weather decks.
There’s a work crew gathered around a foreman on the flight deck.
“Peterson,” the foreman says, “your crew is pulling cable and duct work out of the forward ladders. Any questions?
“No boss,” Peterson says. We’re in good shape.” Then to his crew, “Okay let’s get to work and be safe about it.”
The crew starts walking forward. Lagging behind, following along, Jake is there. He’s wearing old style Navy bellbottom dungaree pants, black boondocker boots and a blue shirt. A white Dixie cup hat crimped on his head. Jake looks out of place among the workers who are all civilian, with scruffy beards, hard hats, Carharts, work gloves. Jake is younger than the workers who are all late twenties, thirties and forties. Jake is only 19 or so, with a clean shaved chin. Sometimes, light seems to shine through him as if he’s transparent. People and objects pass through him as if he’s not really there.
They climb below into the catwalk and enter the ship through a door in the side of the hull. There are workers up on ladders using torches to cut ventilation ducts and wire brackets from the overhead steel ceiling. Sparks are flying all over the place. Workers are shouting to each other as brackets break away and bundles of wires and metal ventilation ducts come crashing down to the deck. Other workers are cutting up the ventilation ducts with powerful hydraulic snipers, tossing cut-up metal into hand trucks on wheels that are being rolled away.
Jake is there lurking about, watching the workers. A sad expression on his face.
Several times Jake steps up close to a worker and as he reaches for a tool, Jake pushes the tool away and causes the worker to fumble after it.
Later Jake is deep below in a passageway. His eyes are wide open and his jaw drops in total disbelief. Workers are taking down a large wooden plaque with the Enterprise logo and “The Big E” emblazoned across it. One of the workers leans toward his toolbox reaching for a pair of pliers, one hand holding the plaque, still attached to the bulkhead. Jake slams the toolbox lid on the workers hand. The worker lets go of the plaque, and his coworker can’t hold the weight, so the coworker lets the plaque go. It crashes to the deck, shattering. Jake is already walking away down the passageway.
In an open area, forklifts are moving huge wooden crates full of scrap metal torn from the ship’s ventilation system. The forklifts are filling an industrial elevator with crates. Every few minutes a worker shuts the gate on the elevator and it goes up to the deck above, returning empty several minutes later.
Jake stands next to one of the forklifts. The driver has a crate loaded up. He’s waiting for the elevator door to open. Jake reaches over and hits the gear shifter and the machine jumps forward. The operator is totally unprepared for this and fumbles at the controls as the forklift crashes into the still-shut elevator gate, bending it and sending the crate full of scrap metal crashing all over the deck.
* * *
Inside one of the construction trailers, the foreman is addressing a crew of supervisors. He holds a stack of papers in one hand and points to a drawing of the USS Enterprise that shows in cut-away, the inside compartments and passageways.
“Six accidents in four days!” the foreman says. He slams the packet of papers on the desk. “This is unacceptable! The Navy is going to shut this jobsite down if we have another accident! So, to prevent this, you supervisors are going to lead a four-hour safety stand down tomorrow morning and review safety best practices and policies with every worker on this project, is that understood?”
In the middle of the crowd of grim-faced supervisors, Jake stands with his arms crossed on his chest, a satisfied smile spread across his face. He gives two thumbs up.
* * *
The next morning on the pier, a large crowd of workers are walking down the gangway off the USS Enterprise. Two workers are walking side-by-side, carrying safety gear and tool boxes.
One of the workers says, “They need to do more than a safety stand down tomorrow, I’ll tell you that much.
“I’ve never seen so many stupid accidents,” the other worker says. “It doesn’t make any sense. No sense at all.”
Droves of workers are walking across the pier toward their cars and trucks. It’s the lot where thousands of active duty and retired sailors and their families stood while attending the ship’s decommissioning.
“There’s no way a forklift slips into gear.”
“Another freak accident. We’re lucky nobody died.”
“Freak accident, my ass! This ship is haunted.”
“Haunted? Now I’ve heard it all.”
“Yeah, well, just when you thought you’d heard it all, that’s when you find out how little you really know. I’m telling you this ship is haunted. Not the first time I’ve seen this happen.”
* * *
Workers are cutting through a steel bracket with a torch. One worker shuts off the torch and sets it aside to bend what's left of the bracket out of his way. He’s wearing goggles and gloves. He reaches back to grab the torch, but it’s not where he left it.
Another worker sees him feeling around and suddenly his jaw drops in surprise at the sight of the torch floating in mid-air. The hose from the torch to the acetylene tanks looks like a poisonous snake rising from a basket as an Indian Swami plays a flute. The tip of the torch is still red hot. He shouts, “Hey, watch out!”
The worker looks up just as the hot tip of the torch touches his exposed arm. “Ouch! Dam it!” he shouts and jumps up, letting go of the bracket. It swings and hits another worker in the head, knocking his goggles and hardhat off. Blood gushes from a gash on his forehead.
* * *
The foreman is yelling at a supervisor.
* * *
Several workers are walking off the gangway.
“You can’t pay me enough to work on this old tub. She’s haunted.”
“There’s clearly a ghost of an old sailor, maybe more than one, on this ship.”
“Hundreds of guys have died while aboard this ship.”
“That’s crazy. I never heard anything like it!”
“What could a ghost possibly want?”
“I’ll tell you what he doesn’t want, he doesn’t want his ship being torn apart, that’s what.”
* * *
The next day a sign on the locked gate states: JOB SITE CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.
There tied to the lonely pier, floats the hulk of the USS Enterprise.
There tied to the lonely pier, floats the hulk of the USS Enterprise.
Check back for new chapters every week!
These two sea stories are always free on all eReaders:
Malcolm Torres is the author of original sea stories and nautical novels.