My Piece of the ARIZONA©

Who remembers the “Wabac”[1] Machine? I do and it was just about to crank up when we returned to the States after living in Hawaii in the late ‘50s.

I’d like to use that machine now to teleport us back in time. Not to the early 60’s when the writers of Rocky and Bullwinkle initially took literary license to invent that marvelous machine but to a time a tad earlier. To the mid 50’s and to the time that the events surrounding my opportunity to pilfer treasure first began to unfold.

It’s a story, like many that were told in the adolescence of TV of good versus evil, told within 30 minutes inclusive of at least 2 commercials, and with a happy ending. Mine’s the same but with one exception; it’s commercial free. Mine is of a good boy who turns bad but who redeems himself through effort and time.

It was 1956[2] when my treasure was purloined. I was then brother to four other boys, two older and two younger. The oldest just about fourteen and me – all of a wee lad of 10.

We all were would-be dutiful sons of an Air Force colonel and a military Mom who were just the best parents any kids could wish for! It was our fifth duty station since I was born. We’d lived in Columbus, Ohio; Tachiakawa, Japan; Montgomery, Alabama; and, South Arlington, Virginia before Dad became the wing commander of MATS (Military Air Transport Service) at Hickam Air Force Base.

As a young adolescent, I was “full of vim and vinegar” according to my Mom. If she were still alive she’d just say ‘I was full of it’. In some ways we had to learn to grow up fast because of who and where we were. My bros and I learned quickly what was needed to survive and to get accepted in our new setting and culture.[3] I was at the time also learning of my own rebellious nature, especially against authority.[4] These traits, I think, help explain what I did when I did it.

Whatever the reasons or motivations for taking the treasure, I’m hoping I don’t use them too much as excuses for my conduct. I’m here to come clean and admit fully I did it! And, to tell you I’m glad I did it. I would do it again if the time and circumstances were the same. Having it with me over the years has just meant that much to me in so many ways.

That said, here’s how my first real experience with real History went down…

Hickam is near the city of Honolulu and on the Island of Oahu, Hawaii. Our home at 18 Julian Street was itself situated on its own island.[5] A portion of Hickam sits astride Pearl Harbor and from our home we could see every ship entering or leaving the harbor. It was in Pearl Harbor that my dastardly deed was committed.

I’m guessing that if you know anything about World War II you’ve heard of Pearl Harbor and its place in History. It’s the site of a horrific attack that in moments prematurely ended more than two thousand lives; including, 1177 brave Navy Officers and Seamen and Marines killed on, in, and around the majestic battleship, the USS Arizona.

The Arizona was one of a number of ships in the U.S. Pacific fleet that succumbed to the onslaught of torpedoes and bombs launched by waves of dive bombers descending upon and zeroing in on them, almost unopposed, as each lay berthed or at anchor in the early morning hours of that now “infamous” Sunday of December 7, 1941.

The attack formed the catalyst for President Roosevelt’s request to Congress to declare a state of war with the Empire of Japan. It also marked America’s official entry into WWII. And, the beginning of America’s years long, epic and eventually successful struggle, thankfully, to defeat Japan and Germany in that war.

The USS Arizona thus holds a very special place in History and a very special meaning to those who fought on Her and to their Families and Military Services associated with Her and to our Country. As a 10 year old, however, I did not fathom or fully and appropriately appreciate its significance when my father came to all of us and asked if we would like to accompany him to a Memorial Ceremony for the USS Arizona.

The beautifully conceived and constructed Memorial that hovers so gracefully and majestically over Her remains today did not exist when Dad’s invitation was extended. Today, the entire superstructure of that Great Ship has rusted away or was removed decades ago. It has in its entirety slipped beneath the Harbor’s surface.

Its’ remains are today visible on the bottom and, at times, only through the appearance of an occasional oil slick that has for almost 76 years intermittently but continuously silently snaked its way from Her hallowed hull to the water’s surface. When the sun strikes the sheen that is created when she disgorges oil in such a way, one may gaze upon Her remains at the bottom as if through a rainbow.

When we went to see Her for the first time, the Navy had been performing commemorative ceremonies for a number of years for those who had made their ultimate sacrifices in 1941.[6] Those services previously performed, like ours, were conducted above the superstructure of that once Mighty Ship. Portions of Her superstructure were still visible above water. We traversed a long gangway that started on Ford Island (I think), came close to parts of Her superstructure and ultimately ended above the site of the temporary Memorial that then existed.

While on the gangway to get to the USS Arizona, my father turned around to speak to us. It was just before we reached the platform of the Memorial itself and adjacent to where the gangway came close to the remnants of the Ship’s superstructure. In his sternest of military voices, he admonished us to heed the importance of and reverence for the place we were about to visit; to listen intently to what was about to go on; and, to be respectful to everyone and everything around us. And, of course, to keep our hands in our pockets at all times.

I think I missed that latter part. Perhaps my rebellious nature had just taken over. Dad had no sooner turned around and walked onto the Memorial’s platform where the services were to take place when I committed my wicked deed. I reached over the gangway’s railing, stretched out my arms and hands as far as I could to reach the top of one of the Arizona’s rusted areas, and snagged a rusting piece of the Arizona that lay, so invitingly, to my 10-years-old’s eyes.

In a blink of those eyes my treasure was dispatched to and secreted in my pants’ pocket. A millisecond thereafter, my pocket was fully filled with my hand. And, that hand compliantly stayed there for the remainder of the ceremony.

It was agonizing to know I had it but could not take it out and look at it. I could not wait to hold it; to examine every facet of its two-toned color and its shape; and, to gaze upon it as only a boy of ten can do after he knows he’s “gotten away with it.” Like money in a youngster’s pocket, it was burning a hole in mine. It seem to get heavier and heavier as time went on.

But there it stayed until we got back to our car to take us home. Crammed into the darkness of the pit of my pants. Just atop the small hole I had in that pocket and that always seemed to be in one of them whenever I got hand-me-downs from my older brother.

The hole was latticed, like you see in some potato chips. It wasn’t yet just a hole. It still had remnants of tiny threads crisscrossing and connecting parts of the pocket from one side to the other. It was, thankfully, not yet big enough or fully devoid of connecting threads to allow the treasure to escape. But even if it got big enough because of the jagged edges of the treasure or because its weight became too much for the threads themselves, my treasure wasn’t going anywhere. My smallish, clammy hand was there to make sure it remained with me as well as out of the sight of anyone else.

When we reached the semi-sanctuary of our car’s backseat to go home, I slipped it out just above the top of the pocket and clandestinely admired it. Just for a second or two before putting it back as nonchalantly as I could. And, the whole way back I was as silent. My lips remained sealed but curled, just enough I think, to present a smirk if someone had been looking. I did not utter a word. Indeed, I don’t think Sergeant Joe Friday[7] could have dragged anything from me even if had been a suspect on the ride home. There was a sense of smugness about me.

After getting it home, it was taken to its place of honor among other treasures that I kept in various boxes under my beds; including, the wooden, cigar box I once had before the ravages of time and my abuse of that box took it from me. It was not taken out of that box during the remainder of our stay in Hawaii, except maybe once or twice. When it was it was brought out it was only for show and tell purposes and made known only to those I trusted or that I knew I could beat into silence if disclosure to Mom or Dad was ever threatened.

No one else, most particularly, my mother and father, ever knew of its existence or how it came my way. That is, until many, many years later.

The treasure remained at my parents’ home as merely a part of the things they kept for me while I was away at college. And, it was among the things I was to take with me when I finally moved out on my own. When that eventually happened, I collected my precious piece of that revered Ship and cherished it wherever I went. And, it has been kept, always, in a safe place.

It was not until my college years that I first revealed my miscreant behavior to my folks. They were appropriately appalled at what I’d done. We spoke of my “being brought up better” of “having been admonished not to do something like what I did” and about “knowing better.” All of what was said was, of course, true. That said, my rust-arrested piece of the Arizona was still one of my prized treasures and, after all, I could always rationalize keeping it by remembering that it was the catalyst for my love for History itself. As parents, they were duty bound to forgive me. They did, upon reflection, I think, because they loved me and there was nothing that could immediately be done with or about it by either of them or by me.

Now, let’s use Star Trek’s warp coil to bring us back closer to today’s time.

Eventually my treasure and my love for all things WWII took me to France where for the second time in my life I was truly privileged to visit a historical site that also holds another very special place in History and a very special meaning to those who fought there, their Families and Military Services associated with that important place and to our Country. This time it was a visit to the beaches and to the Memorial Cemetary in Normandy.

By the time of my visit to Normandy I had studied many times and in many ways WWII; including, the importance of that place in that war. For those not familiar with it, it marked the beginning of the end of the Nazis and the war in Europe. It was, among other things, the initial landing site of the Allied Forces in their to attempts to take back Europe and to end the war in that theater of operations.[8] The Normandy landing was successful but once again came with a huge price. More men and women lost their lives at Normandy than were lost at Pearl Harbor in order to secure the beachheads there.[9]

By the time I reached Normandy, I had come to understand and had long known not only of its importance but that of Pearl Harbor. I knew then and had long appreciated the significance of my historical relic and hidden treasure. I hoped I could leave Normandy with another historical symbol to add to my treasures.

I got one while I was there. But, this time, it was with permission and without having to purloin it. I was permitted to take one of the pinecones that had fallen from one of the statuesque trees lining the Cemetary itself. I brought it home and it lay next to my piece of the USS Arizona for a number of years.

These historical treasures were taken out only on special occasions. I did so to help me renew and to express to others my reverence for each piece and to explain their importance to me and, hopefully, to others. Particularly to kids expressing an interest or knowledge about WWII. When asked, I’ve explained how I got each piece and why each is so important.

My explanations have included my belief that each treasure symbolizes the huge debt of gratitude that we should feel towards those who died and those who made enumerable sacrifices in the service of our Country – for us. Their efforts should not be forgotten. Each is for me a symbol of Freedom itself. Freedom that almost always ultimately comes with a price that must be paid today and everyday thereafter!

Each time I’ve looked at the History I’ve possessed I’ve been humbled by their meaning to me. Because of them and, in particular, because of the piece of the Arizona I’ve been privileged to possess I’ve been inspired to express my heartfelt thanks many, many times to the men and women of our Armed Forces that over the years I’ve been blessed to share time with. I’ve shared with them my belief that it has been their individual and collective efforts and sacrifices that make and have made each artifact truly meaningful to me. And to them all I say again: I am privileged and honored to have been a temporary keeper and would-be-steward of a piece of History that truly symbolizes and personifies their noble pursuits and ‘sacrifices that each has laid on the alter of Freedom’.[10]

I say ‘temporary steward’ because here and, as promised, is the happy ending to my story. I am no longer the keeper of that treasure from Pearl Harbor. It is repatriated into the waters below the Memorial there. It again resides where it rightfully belongs; with the remains of that once Gallant Ship, the USS Arizona, from which it came and with those treasured men who went down with Her.

In mid-November 2017 — some 61 years after my piece of the Arizona was unceremoniously purloined and some 58 years after I cast my flowered lei upon the waters of Hawaii and, by tradition, promised thereby to return — I fulfilled that promise and returned, for the first time since 1959, to Hawaii. While there and without fanfare[11] but with the utmost of reverence and respect I could muster and bring to the event, I quietly slipped, unnoticed by anyone there except my most precious Family, my piece of History over the side of the Memorial and onto the bottom of Pearl Harbor.

It, like my conscience, now rests at peace where each was meant to be.

On this December 7th – Pearl Harbor Day – I hope you will think about, as I know I will, my piece of History. And, if you do, my fervent hope is that its memory will allow you, like me, to take the time to remember those who have made and who make today our daily Freedoms a reality.


© 2017; 2000 South Ocean Blvd #11E, Lauderdale By The Sea, FL 33062

[1] For those not familiar with early 60’s TV programing, the “Wabac” machine transported those who watched the cartoon series The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show to times of historical events and to well known classical fairy tales. Through its segment called “Fractured Fairy Tales” Professor Peabody and Sherman sought to teach us ‘life’s lessons’- some of which were actually worth learning. Their vehicle for doing so was humor wrought from ‘fracturing’ history and fairly tales to expose our human foibles.

[2] You know, that momentous time in the World when Rock N Roll was just coming into its own as acceptable music. That would make the time of the commission of my deed about a year or so before Elvis made his first trip to the Hawaii. It was also about two years before Steve McQueen’s first big acting break in The Blob. That incredible independently made American science fiction film classic. When released it was part of a double feature with I Married a Monster from Outer Space. The hairstyle for the guys then was your basic Little Richard pompadour with a twist – grease it back with a handful of Pomade. “Richard Wayne Penniman (born December 5, 1932), known as Little Richard, then to become an American musician, singer, actor, comedian and songwriter” was ever popular. Ever heard “Long Tall Sally” (1956)? That song was his break-though hit. Check him and that groove out…

Pomade, that wicked stuff, can still be bought believe it or not; e.g., at Walmart. In today’s vernacular that was ‘stlylin’ then. Using it, however “was a sure-fire way, my Dad would say, to lose your hair.” “No air, no hair,” he’d say. He was right. My oldest brother’s hair needed an iron lung to try to save it after he’d used the product for a year or two. He claims to this day his hair loss is the result of the gene of pattern baldness Dad gave to him … but his Bros and the makers of Pomade know the truth.

I also digress from my story to let you also know how I first became aware of Elvis and became one of his fans. That happened when I got a shred of one of Elvis’s album covers. He’d thrown it down from the hotel suite in which he was staying on Waikiki Beach just before this story began to unfold. I was meandering through a huge crowd there as it was chanting in unison “Elvis, Elvis, Elvis” beckoning him to make an appearance on his balcony. I had no idea at the time who he was or why the teenagers beside me were so hopped-up. I found out when his album cover landed in the sand next to me and a hoard of crazed teenyboppers descended like piranhas upon it and upon me as I bent over to pick it up. I still have the scar their talons left on the hand that clutched that tattered LP jacket. He’d be 82 this year but for his untimely death at 42 in 1977. Wonder if he’d be like Tiger Woods making his umpteenth comeback attempt? I think music and golf needs them both today. I miss each of them for the unquestioned talent each had/has!

[3] Back in the day fighting at school … I should say after school … was a way of life. If you did it in school, you ran the risk of being expelled for just one fight. After school and off school grounds was another story altogether. To gain acceptance and to get ‘NSYNK’ with your native classmates; that is to say, to mark our respective kid-territories with our new Hawaiian friends all of whom would soon become our fellow citizens in ’59 when Hawaii became our 50th state, you had to fight. And to get accepted you had to beat at least one kid your own age and, if you won, his older cousin. Pride (another human foible I’ve succumbed to more than once) and the ascension to the position of old fogy make me believe in my mind’s eye today that I won more fights then than I lost. Hence, we made a lot of friends.

[4] I don’t know whether my rebellious nature was a product of where I was or the 1950s. Indeed, I have come to believe that it’s a trait inherently found in many kids who, like me, become self-aware and live in a structured environment. Although, there were some movies just out then that may have hastened that spirit in me and inflamed it. The movie Rebel Without A Cause (1955) may have been just such an influence. It starred James Dean and Natalie Wood. The film was “a groundbreaking attempt to portray the moral decay of American youth, critique parental styles in raising kids, and explore the differences and conflicts between generations.” If you have not scoped it out yet, do so – it’s worth the time since its themes transcend time by being relevant to all kids heading towards adulthood.

[5] It was the only house on a huge triangle-shaped lot that was bounded on one side by the mouth of Pearl Harbor and on another by more military homes. The Navy’s harbor fence that separated the Air Force Base and Pearl Harbor was no more than 30 yards away. We could see from our quarters every ship and vessel that came into or out of the Harbor. What a view! The view from our tropically flowered and perpetually scented front yard that faced the Harbor itself was obstructed only by the Officers’ Club pool to our left and the sprawling and constantly mown grass that lay on the base-side of the fence separating the two military installations. There were a couple of exceptions. In front of the house and across the street toward the Harbor fence was a trellis and hanging garden filled with monkey pod vines and some kinds of plant that produced sausage like fruit and other tropical flowers and some mango trees. We would play there for hours sometimes swinging like moneys among the vines. Sometimes we perched in them to escape from others searching for us.

[6] “During and following the end of World War II, the Arizona’s wrecked superstructure was removed and efforts began to erect a memorial at the remaining submerged hull. The Pacific War Memorial Commission was created in 1949 to build a permanent memorial in Hawaii. Admiral Arthur W. Radford, commander of the Pacific Fleet attached a flagpole to the main mast of the Arizona in 1950 and began a tradition of hoisting and lowering the flag. In that same year a temporary memorial was built above the remaining portion of the deckhouse. Radford requested funds for a national memorial in 1951 and 1952 but was denied because of budget constraints during the Korean War…The Navy placed the first permanent memorial, a ten-foot-tall basalt stone and plaque, over the mid-ship deckhouse on December 7, 1955. President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved the creation of a National Memorial in 1958…” (November 2017).

[7] “Dragnet was an American radio, television and motion picture series, enacting the cases of a dedicated Los Angeles police detective, Sergeant Joe Friday, and his partners. The show takes its name from the police term ‘dragnet’, meaning a system of coordinated measures for apprehending criminals or suspects.”

[8] It was a part of “D-Day… the World War II military operation which took place on June 6, 1944. It was code-named Operation Neptune, presumably because it involved a water landing by the Allies on the beaches of Normandy, France. It is the largest military operation by sea in history, and of course it had great significance to the war…[It was] the largest invasion fleet ever assembled, before or since, landing 156,000 allied troop on five beach-heads” on Normandy’s shores.

[9] According to some estimates, more than 4,000 Allied troops lost their lives in the D-Day invasion, with thousands more wounded or missing.

[10] Letter to Mrs. Bixby – Abraham Lincoln Online . See also, Harve Pressnell’s soliloquy as General George C. Marshall in Steven Spielberg’s movie Saving Private Ryan.

[11] Prior to leaving for Hawaii I asked a friend of many, many years and who also retired as a general in the Air Force who in the Navy Department or DOD (Department of Defense) I might contact before getting to Hawaii to, hopefully, learn how to properly repatriate the piece of the Arizona I had. Before getting to Hawaii, none of our efforts were successful to find out what, if any, protocol would be appropriate for re-interring the hallowed, treasured object.