Saturday, May 7, 2016
When he’s in a self-deprecating mood, Houston Steve likes to tell this story of his days in the United States Naval Academy, back when he was a naïve young middie.
It is a USNA tradition that upon returning from their summer cruise and sighting the Academy chapel dome, third-class midshipmen are elevated to the exalted status of “youngster,” with the various privileges pertaining thereto. Our story takes place during Houston Steve’s youngster cruise... on a dark, clear, moonless night somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.
Picture, if you can, Midshipman 3c Houston Steve, who is standing on the signal bridge with a fellow whom we shall refer to here as Signalman 2c Smith. Smith is a grizzled veteran, someone who probably has been plugging away in the E-5 grade for at least ten and more likely twenty years. And yet Houston Steve, despite his being a mere snot-nosed middie, outranks Smith.
As noted above, it is a dark, clear, moonless night... and way out in the middle of the ocean, it is really dark. No cities are near enough to spoil the night sky with visual and atmospheric pollution, which means there is a spectacular view of the entire dome of the heavens from horizon to horizon.
This is when Houston Steve attempts to make conversation with his companion on the signal bridge.
Houston Steve: “You know, Smith - it’s pretty amazing. There’s no moon, but you can still see the clouds.”
Smith: “Jesus Christ, Sir - that’s the fucking Milky Way!”
Note that Smith’s riposte, despite conveying a heavy freight of amused contempt towards his youthful superior, is perfectly and appropriately polite.
It has been some forty-five years since this little adventure took place, and Houston Steve still takes pleasure in telling about it. He also acknowledges that Signalman Smith - assuming he is still walking the planet - probably enjoys telling the story as well. We both wonder how different it sounds from his vantage point.