Friday, August 28, 2009

Anchors away!

June 22, 2009

The policeman standing guard inside the gates of the Washington Navy Yard barely glanced at my ID, and the same was true for the others in my party. He basically just smiled and waved us through. Apparently all that was necessary to get through security for the afternoon’s ceremony was to be dressed well and to SEEM to have some sort of identification.

This was remarkable considering the Navy Yard is a site of great historical and strategic military significance, in the heart of the nation’s capital, and that among those in attendance at the afternoon’s event were Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, arguably the second most important military man in the world, former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus, who was being sworn in as the 75th Secretary of the Navy, numerous foreign diplomats, representatives of the military-industrial complex, a phalanx of marines and sailors and a hundreds of other well-wishers, including my little cadre of friends.

I hate to say it aloud, but was this not an event that warranted extraordinary secuirty? Yet judging from the convivial, non-threatening atmosphere, it may as well have been Sept. 10, 2001, when we could still afford to be unconcerned. The relative lack of security actually felt oddly reassuring, making us seem somehow more secure – a feeling that was enhanced by the trappings of pomp and circumstance that soon began to unfold, including inspiring speeches, highly accomplished military displays and rousing John Phillip Sousa tunes that brought to mind the soundtrack of a 1950s movie starring, perhaps, Glenn Ford, which included renditions of that famous Navy song about the shores of Tripoli, “Stars and Stripes Forever,” “Anchors Away”, and the ditty that children sing with the words, “Be kind to your web-footed friends, ’cause a duck might be somebody’s mother…” It all felt very Back Then.

Still, I couldn’t help thinking: Really? We can just walk right in? And the first checkpoint is INSIDE the gates?

I later heard that one exceptionally pretty woman had been told not to worry when she had trouble finding her driver’s license in her purse, because, as the guard said with a big smile, “You don’t look like a terrorist.” My first thought, upon hearing this, was that more people ought to watch “The Battle of Algiers,” because among the many lessons imparted by the film, which chronicles the overthrow of the French in Algeria in the late 1950s, is that suicide bombers may assume the personae of exceptionally beautiful women. Also, is it not true that a person can be arrested for joking about terrorists, even in a baggage screening line? It was as if we had passed through some invisible barrier, before the physical one, at which point we had been scanned and determined to pose no threat, and so, from that point on, were allowed to move freely among other likewise-safe visitors. Then, at the visible, ceremonial checkpoint, we waved our IDs for show, as if to emphasize the absurdity of needing to do so.

Though it was said that the official party arrived in an armored car, the atmosphere of the event was a throwback to a more confident and secure time in American history, when leaders waved from open convertibles, which certainly contributed to the strange tug of patriotism we all felt, even those of us who are skeptical of nationalism and the war machine that parasitizes and perverts it (Hello, Trent Lott, former war-mongering politician who now lobbies for the military shipbuilding industry, who was once a political foe of Mabus but on this day was turned out in a seersucker suit for his official coronation). Anyway, for the moment, at least, it was possible to feel confident, even sanguine, about America’s history and might, having been allowed proximity to power while under the invigorating influence of marching tunes performed by bands of square-jawed marines in crisp white pants, gloves and hats and tight black jackets with tasteful red piping. Guns were going off, without anyone being injured. It was perfect, in its way.

The marines and the sailors who lined up and marched around for us served as stylized, carefully-choreographed stand-ins for the characters Mabus evoked in his splendid speech about sailors of yore who fought pirates on the Barbary Coast during the infant years of our great republic; sailors and marines who routed our nation's enemies during 230 years of battle, in places like Chateau Thierry, Havana, Manilla and the Persian Gulf; men and women who today police the coasts of Somalia and North Korea and fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Our sea services are always forward-deployed,” Mabus said proudly, and I found myself inching toward unfamiliar, visceral patriotism. I felt confident and utterly needless of photo ID.

Mabus noted, quite eloquently, "There is a long, unbreakable line of heroism that stretches from there, back to the beginning. The heroes of our country are the heroes of our own families. They come from us; they defend us; wearing the uniform from 1775 until today, they are the shining fabric of America."

Not to take anything away from Mabus, who rose brilliantly to the occasion, or Gates, or even Dorsey Carson, who thoughtfully plugged Sultana to the reporter from either CNN or Entertainment Tonight (it was never clear to me), but the marines pretty much stole the show. And without doubt, the highlight was the stirring Silent Drill Platoon. The silent platoon guys were amazing, perfectly synched in the execution of their gun-wielding dance routine, without a word being spoken, the only sounds being the slapping of their hands on their legs or their guns. They were both lithe and formal, straight and strong of posture, precise in their movements and perfectly organized, illustrating the graceful choreography that, from all appearances, forms the basis for organized killing. They were, as Dorsey's wife Susan pointed out, hot, and in more ways than one.

Their show went on for quite some time, and they had to be burning up – I could see the sweat on their faces, which was one thing, at least, that we all had in common. The summer sun drenched the parade ground and ricocheted off the old buildings that lined its perimeter, yet the marines soldiered on, running their gloved hands up and down the barrels of their glinting M1 rifles, while staring resolutely, face to face, or sending the guns aloft in a brilliant twirl, then gracefully catching them, in all but one case. And even in that case, the one that everyone lamented, it looked as if the rifle was supposed to stick in the ground, bayonet first, and that the unperturbed marine was supposed to ceremonially pluck sod from its barrel-end. The guys, these troupes of troops, were that good.

Under the circumstances, it would not have seemed odd if there had been a ceremonial plucking of the sod from the barrel of a gun. A lot of the ceremony involved cryptic military traditions that the audience knew nothing about. After being sworn in, for example, Mabus entreated Gates to “break my flag” – a request that no one could explain to me, but which subsequent research reveals to be a traditional comment made when commands change. We watched all of this while fanning our faces with our programs. Most of us were dressed for air-conditioning, with only a few women wearing appropriately gauzy summer dresses and a few men – older and clearly from the South – sporting white linen, poplin or seersucker suits. I had to concede that Lott at least showed good sartorial sense, having gone with the seersucker.

I couldn’t see everything from where I sat because of other people’s heads, but I could glimpse bits and pieces -- vignettes of the troop performances and the actual swearing-in. The rest of the time I glanced around at the guests perspiring in their finery, studied the handsome 19th century buildings surrounding the parade ground, surveyed the handful of Secret Service agents relaxing in the shade (see!) or watched the doves being roused from the treetops by the occasional cannon fire, the latter of which reverberated in our breasts, echoed off the buildings and filled the air with cinematic blue smoke.

Afterward there was much debate about how many times the cannon had been fired, with the number ranging from 17 to 19, in each of two firing episodes. No one professed to know why there were two episodes, and different people counted different numbers of firings. Typically people did not start counting until the first round was already under way, at the point when they began to wonder if it was going to be a 21-gun salute, and because they had started in the middle, their counts were pointless. During the second episode those who were inclined to count, including me, were given a second chance, and we determined to start at the beginning but, in most cases, lost count. It was harder than you might think to keep up, and therefore a good thing that none of us was in charge of the firing. I later googled gun salutes, by the way, and while it’s not worth going into here, there are different numbers of shots fired for different levels of importance. I still don’t know why we had two episodes.

Needless to say the event was heavy on tradition and ceremony. The Navy Yard itself, which served as the set piece, was built in 1799 on the banks of the Anacostia River. Its imposing gates date to 1809, indicating that we were not the first to consider the concept of keeping the place secure. The Yard was burned during the War of 1812 and afterward rebuilt as a shipyard and ordinance plant. There is still an active marine barracks, which resembles a prison, and ships docked along the river, all of which helped imbue the event with a sense of meaningful history. Mabus’s swearing in was also a proud moment for those of us who know him and saw him passed over for the Navy post after President Clinton was elected. At that time, when Mabus was exiting his job as governor, I worked as his environmental aide and wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter outlining his attributes for the post.

Now he was there. The former sailor was in charge of a Navy with 900,000 employees and a budget of $150 billion, at a time when America is waging two wars and pirates are once again rearing their ugly heads, and when the military industrial complex is exerting new pressures for a share of the shrinking budgetary pie. Utterly nonplussed, Mabus seemed thrilled when we finally spoke, after Reed Branson and I tarried too long on the parade ground and inadvertently intersected with his ceremonial passage to the Navy Museum, where the reception was held. He absolutely beamed.

The reception was… a reception, which is to say there was a lot of standing around and glancing around and pacing of conversations over lemonade and pink-tinted wraps. For me, the reception was a good opportunity to see old friends from the days at the governor’s office, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and to cause a good bit of consternation by asking selected people if they knew anything about a private dinner party afterward.

In an email, Mabus had mentioned that he would be having a small dinner after the reception, and instructed me to “ask about it” at the reception. I wondered why we had switched to “ask, don’t tell”, but resolved to follow orders. Except that each time I asked someone about their dinner plans, they replied that they were thinking of doing this or that and that I would be welcome to join them, at which point I would become annoyingly coy. I seemed to be something of a dinner tease. Moving on, I might ask the next person the same question, at which point a few responded by asking, “Why, is something going on?” and again, I would be forced to run for conversational cover. This became distressing fairly quickly, so I decided to come clean, which was not a good idea. When told that there was in fact a private dinner brewing, to which it inevitably turned out that they were not invited, each person I queried felt left out. And oddly enough, I found NO ONE who had been invited, including among several people who were closer to Mabus than I. I could never ask him directly because there was always someone with him. Finally, as the reception was winding down, I saw Mabus’s wife, Lynne, alone, and approached. She had been greeting for the better part of an hour, and seeing me zeroing in on her said, preemptively, “Thank you for coming!” I took that as my answer, and in reverse order, re-approached each person I had asked about the secret dinner and proposed that we have our own secret dinner, which we did, and which was quite fun. I felt a little guilty about blowing off the official private dinner until I heard that it had not come off – aides had advised Mabus that there was no way to satisfactorily limit the guest list, so he ended up dining with the fam.

Our secret dinner was held at a restaurant called Central, at which Bill Triplett got a private dining room off the kitchen for our small circle of old and new friends, which included Lynn Parker, the exceptionally pretty woman who does not look like a terrorist (and who, in fact, works for Homeland Security), Reed, Dorsey, Susan, state Sen. John Horhn, Jennifer Scarbrough and Brad Morris; you can see photos on Dorsey's Facebook profile, as well as a short video clip of the silent marines.

After a late night I made my way home to my friend Dudley’s house in Dupont Circle, got up the next day to meet Rishi Sahgal for coffee (brother of Archana Sahgal, creator of this page), then took the train back to New York City for my friend Danny’s boxing match. As a result, I missed the Ceremonial Parade on Friday night, which capped the Navy festivities.

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