In early 1968, I enlisted in the Navy. Leaving my home near Park Circle in North Charleston, this was my first venture beyond the Deep South and with the war in Vietnam at its height, my mind was full of excitement and certain fears for the next four years. Little did I know that remnants of the Civil War would be following closely.
Boot camp passed quickly and was followed by several months of radarman school. I worked and trained alongside young men from all parts of the country and participated in many good-natured discussions and arguments along regional lines.
About a third of us were from the South, so I always had allies. As a Southerner, I extolled and defended the virtues of grits, hushpuppies, boiled peanuts and Southern belles. As a Civil War buff, I debated the merits of Lee and Grant and a host of related topics with my Northern classmates.
Orders for my next duty station arrived, sending me to the aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge. I knew the original Kearsarge was a Yankee ship that sunk the famous CSS Alabama in 1864 and it bothered me, a good Southern boy, to have to serve on a ship with that name. Knowing more than 800 other ships in the Navy with more acceptable names existed, I requested a change in orders. An officer informed me no change was possible but offered some understanding by saying I could get around my personal conflict by remembering the Kearsarge's namesake was a mountain in New Hampshire named after an Indian chief. Consoled with this thought, I traveled to Long Beach and reported aboard.
Upon arrival I learned, with great dismay and shock, that not a single one of the 90 other radarmen aboard Kearsarge was from below the Mason-Dixon line. Never have I felt so lonely and isolated. My accent was a lightning rod of sorts because everyone I met immediately made some sort of jesting remark. It wasn't long before I was the butt of jokes and had several nicknames. Watch bills went up with "The Southerner," "Ridge-Runner," "Corn-Pone" and other such things. I couldn't help but be amused at the effort put onto making me a celebrity of sorts. Listening to New England, Brooklyn, New Jersey and Pennsylvania Dutch dialects telling me I spoke funny always cracked me up and sparked many fine heritage debates.
At times I was able to throw a zinger at some of those Northern boys that usually resulted in a humor-filled funfest that could go on for hours. Someone once asked if I knew the origin of our ship's name in an obvious attempt to bring up the Alabama battle. My answer about the New Hampshire mountain threw them off track and gave me a small victory because they didn't know about it.
Another time I was asked how I came to be assigned to this particular ship. I replied, "Because the Navy realized there was a profound need for some class, culture and couth and sent me all the way from Charleston." That brought the house down.
In early 1969, we deployed to the waters off South Vietnam where the Navy had two operational areas for carriers. The southernmost area was known as Dixie Station and the northern one was ... you guessed it: Yankee Station. That is where we spent several months, much to the delight of my Yankee shipmates who kept reminding me where we were.
All this was just good-natured bantering. We worked hard together in close quarters, sharing challenges, 20-hour work days at sea and on occasion, extreme boredom. When the ship was decommissioned in late 1969, it hurt to part with those guys. Men from Maine, Minnesota, Montana and New Jersey were true friends and the camaraderie in such unusual circumstances was one of the most memorable highlights of my life.
D. Michael Thomas, who lives in Goose Creek, served four years in the Navy and is a retired customs broker, a Civil War buff and a fisherman.
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