An interesting story from my old shipmate and new Hungarian friend.
YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN
by Adam von Dioszeghy
Fifty years is a long time. People die. Generations die. Babies are born. Buildings are torn down and new ones go up. Ships are scrapped and new ones launched. Some types of music pass out of favor and others rise to the top. Old habits cease and new ones take hold. In general, things change.
Most of us don’t like change; at least, we don’t like those things to change that we have not only become accustomed to but that we like a lot. And yet, change is inevitable, like it or not. The hardest thing to take is the unexpected change of something that you would have sworn would never change. You go into a thing, expecting it to be JUST as you knew it and….bam! it’s gone. Or it is now something totally different than what it used to be, than what you knew it to be.
I served as a Naval officer in the conflict know as the “Vietnam War”. It started in 1964 and ended in 1975. I was involved in the front end, on a destroyer (USS Porterfield DD682); my last deployment was in 1967, on the same old destroyer. When my tour ended, I said my good byes in Yokosuka, Japan, flew back to the US – to be specific, to Travis Air Force Base in Northern California – went to law school, practiced law and lived another kind of life. But I never forgot Vietnam or the Navy. As hard as the experience was, it left an indelible mark on my life and on my persona. I still say, “say again” instead of, please repeat it, or “you’re coming in garbled and unreadable” instead of, I didn’t understand you, and “we’ve been rotating and radiating” instead of, we’ve been moving about aimlessly. When we are getting ready to go somewhere, I say, “single up all lines”. Fortunately, my wife understands me and my idiosyncracies. This speaks volumes for her and her kindness.
In 2000, we moved back to the land of my birth, Hungary. The Navy faded further and further back in my mind. But – as tangents go – it never quite reached the point of being completely forgotten. Some of the Navy pictures still hang on the walls. My old “official” Navy baseball cap is still around, and I still wear it; it has the name of my ship and my name, rank and position (ASW or Anti-Submarine Warfare officer) on it. It has survived 50 years of use and abuse. Not like some other things…but I’m getting ahead of my story.
In 2016, Aliz and I decided that it was time to visit our old homeland, the U.S.of A. We had not been there since 2009. Our last home was in Napa Valley, California, so that was the major destination we had in mind. But we had friends all over the State, so we made arrangements to see as many of them as possible. One such friend was Martha, the widow of one of my shipmates on the Porterfield. In fact, he was not just a shipmate but my superior officer, as he was head of the Weapons Department, ASW being a part thereof. He was also the best friend I had on the ship. He left the Porterfield late in 1966 to pursue a Naval career, which he managed to do excellently…as he did most things. Sadly, he died after a short illness, battling pancreatic cancer, in 1999. Aliz and I kept in touch with Martha, his widow. So, as we planned our journey, we decided to include a trip to San Diego to visit her.
The Porterfield was homeported in San Diego. Although Martha and Todd lived in various places in the States, they returned there when he retired, and she still resides there.
The San Diego Naval Base has always been a big and important one, and it has stayed that way even after some down-sizing by the Navy. The destroyers and cruisers of the fleet were “housed” at the “32nd Street Naval Station”. I had many wonderful memories of the base; well, not so much of the base itself, as its Officers’ Club, affectionately referred to as “O Club”. Rarely did a day go by when – after “libs” began (for you non-Navy types, that is the commencement of liberty…usually about 16:00 hours…or 4 p.m.) – the officers would gather at the O Club for a few drinks (one, two, seven or eight) and for discussions of the disgusting habits of the CO (Commanding Officer) or the XO (Executive Officer) or the idiotic ways of the Navy. When the ship would go out for excercises on Monday morning, and return Friday afternoon, it was inevitable that all officers (not on duty) would gather at the O Club, occasionally even joined by wives and/or girlfriends. From time to time, such gatherings would “deterriorate” into dinner, and a very late night, indeed. Cops, way back then, were a little more forgiving of drunk driving, especially by “warriors”. I’m happy to report that there were never any accidents, let alone ones with death or injury attached. God looks after fools, little children and – apparently – drunken Naval officers. As a personal aside, on one occasion, our ship came back after a particularly difficult and trying week at sea, and was followed by an unusually enthusiastic evening of drinking and dining, with even more than the usually copious amount of imbibing. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that the next morning – a Saturday – I had to take the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test) on Point Loma at a unversity there. When the test began, I was not even hung over: I was still inebriated. For reasons only known to the Man Upstrairs, I got a high score on the test, and managed to get admitted into Stanford Law School. Apologies for the digression….
So, as you see, the O Club was an essential part of my Naval experience. And as memories would occasionally surface, it featured prominently in my recollections. However, the distance to Hungary and our very infrequent trips to the US reduced the chances of ever seeing my beloved O Club again. And then came the visit of 2016.
Before going to visit Martha, Aliz and I decided to stay a couple of days at a hotel in downtown San Diego and see some old sights. And, of course, go to the O Club for a drink, “strolling down memory lane”; Aliz had heard so much about the place, I desperately wanted her to come and re-live a few moments with me in that iconic place.
Of course, San Diego had also changed in 50 years. There were new freeways criss-crossing it, new high-rises, changing views and the redesign of the center of town, making recognition of old things difficult. As Aliz and I sat in a downtown bar, I asked the bartender if he was local. He shook his head…he was new in town. So I said,
“Then, I guess, You wouldn’t know how to get to 32nd street from here?”
Before he answered, a nice young man, sitting at the end of the bar, with a baseball cap turned backwards on his head, said to me,
“Do you mean the Naval Base?”
I lit up like a lamp.
“Yeah, the 32nd Street Naval Station!”, was my enthusiastic reply. The young man pulled out his smart phone, punched in some data, and commenced telling me how to get to it, using some freeways. I was so happy I could have danced a jig. It looked like Fate wanted us to go memory-hunting. I couldn’t wait till the next afternoon so we could make our pilgrimage.
The next afternoon came, and my excitement rose to new heights. I told story after story to Aliz about those wonderful times at the O club so many years ago. How every time one of us “made rank” (being promoted to a higher rank), he had to host a “wetting down party” for all the other officers in the wardroom….a financial “hit” of no inconsiderable measure to his pocket book. She hid her boredom well, and was waiting to see and experience the “scene of the crimes” herself. I followed the instructions of my young friend of the previous day and made the approach to the gate of the base. I tried to search my memory to see if anything looked familiar, but the surrounding area had changed too much. The entry, which was quite active and busy back in the 60s, seemed much less so; and yet, there was a line of cars waiting to enter. Finally, I pulled up to the Marine sentry.
My heart was beating pretty fast as I handed the Marine my Navy i.d. card. The card was dated Sept. 21, 1968, and the accompanying photo was of the same vintage. It took some imagination to match the face of the 30 year-old officer, staring back at you – with a decidedly military look – with the face of the 77 year-old geezer sitting at the wheel of the car seeking entry. However, the old i.d card had “indefinite” for the expiration date, so the card was – technically! – valid. The Marine stared at the card, as if he was looking at a ghost. He looked at the photo and then he looked at me. Finally, his hand flew to his cap in a salute.
“Good afternoon, Sir. May I help you?” Deja vu was all over me. The spool of time was being rewound.
“Good afternoon, Marine”, I replied. “I haven’t been on this base since the Vietnam War….almost 50 years ago. Can you direct me to the Officers’ Club so I can show my wife where we had about the only fun back in those long-gone, hard days”, I continued. “I have forgotten where it is.”
There was a pause, and the Marine – still standing at attention – slowly replied.
“I’m afraid, Sir, that there is no longer an Officers’ Club on this base.”
I was stunned. I couldn’t have heard right. WHAT? NO OFFICERS’ CLUB ON A NAVY BASE??? I almost didn’t know what to say to him. Then I gathered my wits about me and turned back to him.
“Where do the officers do their drinking when the ship ties up after a hard week of exercises at sea?” I asked.
“I’m afraid I don’t know , Sir….all I know is that there is no Officers’ Club on this base….hasn’t been one since women entered the Navy fighting force. Now, I don’t know if the two events are connected…”, said the Marine. I shook my head and continued my seemingly hopeless task (meanwhile, the line behind me was getting longer, but no one honked the horn): “Do you mean to tell me that you can’t even have a BEER on this base??!!” The laconic answer was: “I’m afraid you can’t, SIR!”
I was devastated. There was nothing else I could do. My wife was remarkably silent and placid beside me. I straightened in my seat (as much as I could), and said to the Marine:
“Thank you, Marine…I’m sorry I bothered you.” The Marine straightened – which was unnecessary being that he was as straight as could be – tightened his salute and said, in parting:
“No problem, SIR! And I’m sorry, SIR! I understand how you feel, Sir. And, thank you for serving in ‘Nam, SIR!” My hand flew to my coverless head, and my salute was as snappy as his. I put the car in gear, negotiated a U-turn and headed out the gate. The folks behind me probably wondered what that was all about. There is not a snowball’s chance in hell that any of them could have guessed.
Aliz and I did not speak until we were back on I-5, heading north. She must have know how I felt and did not want to disturb my thoughts. I looked at her – her face reflecting the setting sun – and I thought that her eyes were a bit more moist than usual. I smiled, as our eyes met, and said:
“Thomas Wolfe couldn’t have said it better: ‘You can’t go home again'”.
I got just a little drunk that night in a nice, civilized, civilian bar.
More of Adam von Dioszeghy (Mr. von D as we called him back then) here: