I had intended to write this piece about my special affinity for the USS Enterprise, the first aircraft carrier I ever landed on, took off from and reported about. We all know about the special feelings we have for firsts – and this is the real firsts of firsts, not only for me, but the U.S. Navy and the nation.
But then I heard Capt. William C. Hamilton Jr. address the remaining crew and shipbuilders as the Enterprise finished her last trip into the Newport News Shipbuilding yard to be dismantled and gutted, save for her nuclear reactors, which will be removed in Puget Sound.
And he simply and beautifully stole my thunder.
Late June can be an awfully hot time in that Tidewater pocket of Virginia, but 20 June turned out to be a wonderfully pleasant day with briny breezes wafting off the James River as the Enterprise set to dock in Newport News.
Capt. Hamilton could have treated the event like a wake. He could have focused on the ancient triumphs of this ship that had plied the world’s oceans in the name of the nation for about five decades, the first nuclear-powered carrier to flex that “90,000 tons of diplomacy” that the carrier clan likes to brag about.
But he didn’t.
He chose to talk about the last deployment that ended only several months ago – and how the Enterprise showed everyone just what she was capable of. She was the still-reigning heavyweight champion, and she finished off her career with a knockout.
“We had 100 percent of power availability 100 percent of the time,” Hamilton said. The arresting gears, the catapults – they all worked in the high 90th-percentile of the time, too, he boasted.
And that was plowing through the Arabian Sea, in the height of summer.
“It was hotter than – well, hell,” he said. “I had never been there in summer. It was a whole different kind of heat. We had to run some things out of spec.”
But don’t tell Navy officialdom that, he said.
But I say, go on – tell them. Tell them what a good, well-built ship can do after a half century of service
He looked at the assemblage of brass, brawn and brains that had built and operated the Enterprise through the years. “This is the poster child.”
“The night before we pulled into Norfolk, I just wanted to see how fast she could go,” he said.
He smiled. “As fast as ever. It was steering the helmsman.”
The captain had the same look as someone might have talking about cruising in a vintage car down a highway.
“Anyone have a ’61 Chevy you drive every day?” Capt. Hamilton asked. “It’s pretty hard to get parts for that bad boy.”
It’s much the same with the Enterprise.
The captain of the Enterprise squared his shoulders and told the shipbuilders, “It’s my privilege to deliver her back to you, with dignity and respect.”