|The essay below was posted in 1997
on the website that was, at that time, maintained by the late Sam Orr.
Sam was a retired US Navy Commander and a US Navy SEAL
I saved it because I think he accurately captured the universal feelings of older veterans about those "days gone by" --- regardless of their particular service experiences.
Sid H. (2003)
ANNUAL UDT/SEAL REUNION (1996)
This weekend, America observes Armed Forces Day, which we celebrate on November 11th in remembrance of the Armistice of WWI. Veterans from all prior and subsequent wars are honored in touching speeches that give thanks for the freedom we have, and for the living and dead who made it so. For me, a former Navy frogman dating back to the Korean War, it has become especially meaningful. Just sixty miles away, a group of my old associates traditionally schedules an annual UDT/SEAL reunion at the Naval Special Warfare Forces Museum in Ft. Pierce, FL. The famed Scouts and Raiders group of WWII was trained there.
It is customary to refer to the event as a muster, since many of the old warriors, still wet at least behind the ears, show up, drink a little beer, swap legions of the better sea stories, pretend to be young, and try to forget they are old. An active duty platoon of Navy SEALs puts on a demonstration using live explosives, and a skirmish that includes a parachute operation which lands directly on the adjacent beach. To the degree that generational continuity can be maintained, the old and the young commingle. There is little harm in it, and sometimes much good.
Two years ago, I met Leo Bowers there. Leo was a Chief Petty Officer I knew long ago and hadn't seen for 35 years. He drove all the way from Oklahoma to attend. Men like Leo, including myself, make the pilgrimage, for that in truth is what it is, to recall what they once were and to relive for a brief time the glories of their past. Our time has come and gone, and we are yet unwilling to totally relinquish it.
During the air conditioned, hour and twenty minute drive to the reunion on the tropical, palm lined, ocean highway, an unusual thought came to my mind. I was somehow reminded of the annual religious pilgrimage to Canterbury that Geoffry Chaucer chronicled so beautifully in verse and bawdy humor. In a way, and with a different meaning, even the religious aspect remains. Chaucer's companions made the week long, 80 mile trek from London by horse and on foot ostensibly to worship their maker, but the carousing, drinking, and monstrous oaths and tales were cut from identical cloth.
All that the UDT/SEAL muster lacks to be remembered in perpetuity is someone of the playful mindset and literary talent of Chaucer. Men like him have been replaced by the photographer, and literature and our culture are the poorer for it. That is why The Canterbury Tales about no more than forty people will be read and enjoyed as long as humans understand English: the tales will last centuries after these photographs are dust. Who knows if the pictures and history of thousands of UDT/SEAL sailors will remain in the memory of man for another hundred years?
Chaucer having written so much about his supplicants, perhaps a few words should be devoted to the recent pilgrimage on Florida's palm beach. The typical Scouts and Raider or frogman attendee is older than sixty, still healthy, self supporting and self-reliant, confident in his ability to persevere until a task is done, and capable of operating alone or as part of a team to complete it.
These men are a cut above average. A lot of them were achievers, hyper-actives, individualists who selected special forces units both to prove themselves and because they detested routine. Many would also qualify as romantics of a sort, direct, honest men who hated pretense and duplicity, idealists who found the hardest things in the world to forget were their own illusions. Not only do these self-deceptions die harder than the men themselves, they are never quite forgotten. No, the youthful ideals at best fade slowly, as the challenges that motivated them are met, or prove over time to be too difficult to overcome.
Most of the men's illusions involved themselves, and are deeply embedded in their personalities. It is clear that the yearly pilgrimages are a means of restoring them, not from the vantage point of tired old sailors, but as still vital men who need to maintain memories and interaction with others who look on life as they do.
The reunion is a time to browse through the museum, view pictures of oneself in one's prime, recall the names of old acquaintances, perhaps see some of them, and taste whatever memory permits of the old associations. Warm emotions, nostalgic feelings, and the prospect of meeting old friends are unusually seductive. They ensure excellent yearly attendance.
Perhaps the strongest draw is the realization these pictures were taken in a time when everyone truly felt immortal, a time that seemed almost free of care.
Sam Orr World Traveler and Philanthrope (Location Unknown)