Saturday, December 17, 2005

Beirut Bombing Pain Goes On

When I kissed my love goodbye on the morning of May 10th 1983 I didn’t expect this to be the last time she would ever see me again. If we had known what was to come we would have never let go of each other, but reluctantly I walked away and up on the USS Portland. As I sit here today, almost 22 years later, I try to picture that day. Hoping that if I can see it, feel it that maybe it will return, maybe I can return home. But all I can see is a ship full of young men, each of them doing their job ensuring that “Sweet P” would safely pull from her home and travel across the Atlantic.
I stood on the signal bridge waving to Becky, her eyes full of sadness, my tears matching hers. I told myself that I had done this many times before and soon we would be back home and all would be good again.
“ Single all lines.” The call came from the bridge to the line handlers. I moved to break the call sign another signalman stood by with the flag to shift colors from the stern to the mast. We waited for the feeling of the ship floating free in the water, the tugs held her tight to the pier as the lines were singled. After a moment or two the tugs stopped pushing and all was quiet then the ships engines began to wind up and the ship was free of her bindings.
“ Underway, shift ships colors.” I tugged on the halyard and the call sign broke free. The four signal flags that make up a naval call sign picked up the wind, I watched as the ships colors traveled up the main mast.
I shifted my thoughts from the ship to my wife, would she be all right? Would she make the drive to Florida ok? Would my children be ok while I was gone? Never once did I think that I was the one in danger, none of us did. We were doing what we had done many times before, our job. Before long we had dropped the lines from the tugs and were making way into the Chesapeake Bay then we would be in the Atlantic Ocean heading for the Coast of North Carolina to pick up our Marines and form up so we could steam as an Amphibious Assault Group to the coast of Lebanon.
The last memory I have of that day was when they secured from Sea and Anchor Detail and set the underway watch. From that point on, all of the memories of MARG 2-83 are obscured, almost as if they have been blended and spit out as one day, one hour, one moment in time.
Somewhere underneath the Atlantic Ocean are my memories of that time, walking the decks of the Portland as she sits on the bottom of the ocean we once sailed across toward that one moment in time we had all been thrown together for.
When I learned that the Navy had sunk her I felt as though they had tossed away one of our heroes. Why would they throw her away? Was it an oversight? Had they just decided that she wasn’t worth keeping around anymore? Whatever their reason it was the final nail in my coffin, now I would not be able to return to her decks and reclaim my innocence. I have dreams of walking those decks deep under the water. I meet my ghost, he is sad but always wants to sit and talk. I Spend hours sitting on the signal bridge speaking with the 24 year old me. Always the same questions; “ How’s Becky, Josh and Tab?” I always tell him that they are fine Some times he asks me if he can come home now, I tell him yes but then I see the chain holding him to the deck and the tears in his eyes. “ Take care of my babies.” He says as I am being pulled toward the land of the so-called living. I try to shout back that I will but I can never get the words out.
In the harsh light of reality I see that he is more than just the man who said he would love honor and obey Becky Sundholm that hot April afternoon in Largo Florida, he is my soul. Bound and trapped under all of that cold water and it is up to me to free him so that he can return home. But I have no understanding of how to do this, I would need a key to remove those chains. So I sit and immerse myself in anything other than reality. The pain of his imprisonment is too strong for me to conquer or ignore, it rips the very fabric of my being and hungers for more. So I go through another day without my soul, navigating in the dark with nothing more than a string and a nail for a sextant.
When we arrived in Beirut we saw a city that was war torn but yet a Ferris Wheel stood on the beach north of what we would call Green Beach. We sailed in toward the harbor to the north of Beirut and were met with a body floating in the water. We should have taken this as a sign of what was to come. Then a southerly turn and we were in the area to off load our Marines.I remember a friend of mine say as we watched them load into the mike boats, “ Some of these guys aren’t coming home.” We watched as they loaded and headed toward the beach, boat after boat, chopper after chopper. Don’t ask me what day this was or what time it was, ask the one who is trapped underwater he knows everything about Beirut.
If you ever dream of him sitting on the ship, look on the port side of the signal bridge looking east. That is where he is trapped, standing where we split looking toward the beach that Sunday morning in October. Ask him about what happened before the terrorists took all from everyone there, he knows. But don’t ask him about what happened after, he never saw any of the death or carnage, that was me. I left him standing there when I was told to grab a helmet and flack jacket, I was being flown into the airport to rescue and recover the Marines trapped in the building, I guess our last thought as a whole person was of our family, hoping they were ok and how this would be seen back home. Then he was gone and I was alone for the first time in my life.
They say that trauma creates a shock that makes us replay the memory over and over again. The only memories I replay are of the aftermath of the bombing, I remember nothing of what happened after I returned to the ship. I only remember being tired, numb and angry. I no longer had any friends, I only wanted to be left alone. I was so consumed by the memories that I must have left my soul, the person I was before standing on that signal bridge. Now it is too late to find him and release him of the chains I created to keep him safe from the horror in my memories. I miss him, I weep for him every night and every morning when I wake from my visit to his watery grave. My tears fall for all of those who died and for the ones who still live in their nightmares of that day. I cry for my wife as she lost the man she married, my children as they never knew him. As night approaches I feel the fear approach, a fear of the dreams I know will come when I sleep. First the bodies, I see them piling up, dead men speaking asking why. Then always I drop deep into the water and see my chained soul begging for release.
Sometimes I can feel the ship move, when I am confronted with a dusty smell, I am back in Beirut, if I am walking and having a good day and someone or something triggers a memory then suddenly I am climbing across the rubble of the BLT HQ. My memories are filled with death and feelings of guilt. One minute I am laughing with my son and the next I am pulling the remains of a hero from the rubble. I look into his eyes and I know he has no idea what has happened to me just then. But it hurts to see the hurt in his eyes when I don’t want to play or sit and talk. My chained soul never knew him or my other daughter. He would have loved them, he would have loved playing with our grandchildren but he is trapped forever in the cold blackness of the Atlantic Ocean, I know that he is holding his chin up never expecting the worst keeping the Portland Pride alive.

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