by Andy Weddington
Monday, 21 November 2011
"I think the most un-American thing you can say is, "You can't say that." Garrison Keillor
The best, the lasting, lessons in life come from firsthand experience. And you just never know when those lessons are going to come along. You just never know, so you'd best be ever paying attention.
Situated between West Adams and West Jefferson streets, with East Washington running into it, in downtown Phoenix, Arizona, is the Wesley Bolin (1909-1978) Memorial Plaza. The site bears the name of the state's 15th governor who died after a mere five months in office (named less than a week after his death).
Bolin Memorial Plaza fronts Arizona's state capitol complex. It is home to more than two dozen memorials including World Wars I & II; Korean War; Vietnam War; Desert Storm; the mast and anchor from the USS Arizona; and many more military tributes and honors to individuals important in Arizona's rich history. And there are gardens. The plaza is listed among "Phoenix Points of Pride." When in town, make it a point to visit. You'll be glad you spared the time.
A couple of months ago I was invited to visit the Bolin Plaza, for the first time, to attend a ceremony held this past weekend. And because I was paying attention, there's a story, a life's lesson, a civics lesson, realized from my visit.
At approximately 1215 Saturday afternoon, clad in coat and tie and my wife in Service Dress Blues, we exited I-10 East at 144A and proceeded south on 7th Avenue in search of something to eat. Unfamiliar with the area, and starving, there was not much to be found. A McDonalds (drive-thru), not in the best part of town, was the only convenient option.
When handed the bag of food and change, heavy black marker writing on a five dollar bill caught my attention. On the face side, with an arrow pointing to the 'United States Federal Reserve System' seal to the left of Lincoln's portrait was the word, "Traitors." To the right, with a line coming from Lincoln's mouth, was the question, "Are you really emancipated?" Verso, in large letters above and right of the Lincoln Memorial, "Occupy Phoenix." Below and running across the bottom of the memorial's pillars, "Help Save America."
About thirty minutes later driving along East Washington, in the business district 12 or so blocks east of Bolin Plaza, we came upon a common area (on the south side) taken over by Phoenix Occupiers. Blue tarps hastily strung were the first signs of the disorganized encampment. To be blunt, it was a damn eyesore. A hodgepodge of characters, that by any reasonable person's assessment were in need of comprehensive personal hygiene and clean clothes, were milling around. Several police officers were in the area. I parked, momentarily, behind a television news crew's truck. And one character, wearing a sateen military-type jacket holding a hand-scribbled cardboard sign, "Honk If You're in Debt - Support Occupy Phoenix," was curbside annoying motorists and pedestrians.
How interesting. A defaced five dollar bill and an impromptu encounter with Occupiers (one of which undoubtedly ate at McDonalds) all within an half hour. And so was the first half of a developing civics lesson: Freedom to assemble and freedom of speech.
Twelve blocks and ten minutes later we pulled into the north parking lot of Bolin Plaza. It was not packed but steadily filling for the 1400 ceremony. Folks in uniform and others spiffily dressed were converging on a common area encircled by memorials. The occasion? A master chief petty officer in the United States Navy was retiring.
Well over 300, who traveled from coast to coast and Hawaii--many in uniform and many retired, came to honor a revered shipmate. There was a few admirals. And a few Marines. And there was some young Sailors--officer and enlisted. And more chief petty officers than I could accurately count--losing track after 62. And there was family. And there was friends.
The contrast to the Occupiers was striking--in purpose; in attire; and in civility. Chairs were neatly arranged and so was a temporary ground-level stage. There was no blue tarps. There was no disorder. There was no police. There was no television news crew (regrettable and shameful). Peacefully gathering was the people who protect and defend the other's right to assemble and protest. America, what a country. And what better illustration for a civics lesson in democracy? It was an opportunity missed by teachers and their students. Too bad. And too bad it--the contrast--wasn't captured by the television news crew for news at six and eleven.
The 2 hours and 16 minutes ceremony, a little longer than most, was marked by laughter and tears and plenty to think about. Thirty years of personal and family sacrifice, dedicated and faithful service to God, family, and country had elapsed and was coming to a close. The usual pomp and circumstance was nice and impressive. It always is. The awards and sundry recognitions earned bestowed with class. But in all my years witnessing retirements--military or civilian--I do not recall hearing an honoree deliver more eloquent, thoughtful, heartfelt, and passionate comments, while, for the most part, maintaining composure, about the meaning of duty--to God, family, and country; their personal mantra. Humility, while not afraid to march forward into uncertainty and conquer, throughout a career, clear. The older in attendance listened. I hope the younger paid close attention--to the master chief and the elders.
The day and time for younger Sailors to assume the watch had arrived. And they confidently and respectfully told that old master chief 'your duty done, stand down, we have the watch.' Though the Navy will dearly miss this Sailor, an indelible imprint remains--caring, exemplary, selfless leadership that will more than linger, it'll endure from generation to generation.
In keeping with tradition, sideboys saluted while the Chief Boatswain's Mate piped the master chief ashore. And following that once-in-a-career walk, and also in keeping with tradition, the master chief returned to escort family--spouse and three children--on their deserved walk ashore; salute and piping repeated. A Navy family they will always be.
Master Chief Petty Officer Stella Reyes, U. S. Navy (Retired) is one of the good ones--the really good ones. She is the daughter of a U. S. Navy Master Chief Petty Officer. The overlaps with her father's (now deceased) career more than ironic. Further, both sides of her family have a distinguished history of Navy and Marine Corps service too long to recap here. Suffice to say they have done, and continue to do, their part. No pressure on the youngsters now coming of age who are facing adult decisions--their example right before them.
Though not planned as such, the master chief's day was more than a retirement. It was an unplanned but powerful current events civics lesson of and for America--a more compelling example does not come to mind. It was a day I will long remember--with a defaced five spot, to be framed between panes of glass, as proof and reminder.
In summary, that 12-block stretch along East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix on a beautiful Saturday afternoon was 100% occupied: by a sampling of the 99% clueless as to how to go about making a credible statement and the other 1% being America's protectors, America's defenders--America's patriots. It was a clash of ideologies without confrontation of any sort. Perfect. And it was my distinct pleasure to be counted amongst and mingle with the elite minority.
As expected, shortly after the ceremony, the area was cleared and policed--leaving no trace of what had just happened. Rest assured that will not be the case with the Occupiers--whenever they should decide to disband.
I suppose there's some serendipity, too, with Phoenix and ties to mythology--the old, the new, rebirth, and so on and so forth--and that our national bird is an eagle, an eagle is the centerpiece of a master chief petty officer's rating insignia, and an eagle rests atop a shield on a five dollar note. If nothing else it makes for a nice story--good copy. But it's much more.
And then there's the overarching conclusion the entire day of 19 November 2011 lending credence to the thought nothing in life is happenstance. It's just we don't, we can't, fully understand the complexity of our enormous, chaotic, and nonlinear world--of the master plan--until life ends. Thus leaving us all something marvelous to look forward to when we reunite, one day.
Fair Winds and Following Seas, Master Chief.
It's my privilege to know Master Chief Reyes. Though a Sailor, there's the Marine mystique deeply rooted in her spirit--for she, as was her husband, was a Marine Corps JROTC student in high school. Her Marine instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Patrick Campbell, USMC (Retired) was at the ceremony. I've heard much about him. And though never having laid eyes on him I knew him the instant I saw him. He looked like a Marine 'Gunny'--he sported a fresh flat top, was neatly dressed from head to toe, and particularly the gaze--he just looked the part. Marines know. I introduced myself and we (and his wife) spoke briefly at the reception. I learned he retired from active duty in 1968 and then taught MCJROTC for 19 years. Though of different generations, we had plenty to talk about--just as any two Marines would. When parting, we agreed though a superb Sailor, Master Chief Reyes would have made a great Marine and that the Corps loss was the Navy's gain--was it ever. And she proved it.
1. Master Chief Reyes has a daughter with a date of birth 10 November (some years ago)--the birthday of our Corps, for those readers unfamiliar.
2. To my wife's shock, she was, during the ceremony, presented with title "Honorary Chief Petty Officer" and thereby welcomed to the Chief's mess--an honor of the highest order (signed by Command Master Chief Banks). She's worked alongside Master Chief Reyes, and many of the other chiefs in attendance, throughout her career. Her brother, Bobby, retired a U. S. Navy Chief Petty Officer. He was a boiler technician--an always sweaty, grimy and dirty Sailor who made sailing warships possible. Deceased now 11 years, I suspect he was not surprised by another in the family making chief but, like me, is incredibly proud of his little sister. Anchors Aweigh.