“On the bridge! This is Lieutenant Hine, Lieutenant Handel has the Deck!”
“This is Lieutenant Handel. I have the Deck.”
“Aye, aye, sir!” the seven men on the bridge watch shouted.
I headed down the starboard side toward the signal bridge. The sky was brilliant with stars, but no moon. We were cutting through the smooth, dark waters of the Eastern Mediterranean at an easy 20 knots, heading East-Southeast.
I felt a mixture of excitement, elation, and exhaustion as I headed for the door leading to my stateroom, eight decks below. Tomorrow, we would be arriving in Alexandria, Egypt, for the first official visit by an American warship since 1958. Sixteen years is a long time in Mideast politics, and a lot was hanging on this visit.
I paused at the door, with a vague uncertainty nagging at my mind. The signal bridge was just abaft the hatch that I was about to enter. I walked back there, to chat with the signalmen on watch. There were no ships to signal, so I was hardly interrupting anything. Signalman First Class Giordano was alone in the shack.
“Got an Egyptian flag ready for tomorrow?” I asked. It was not a strange question, coming from the Sixth Fleet Commander’s Protocol Officer. It was just the sort of detail I would be expected to think of, even though the ship’s Navigator was in charge of courtesy flags.
“Got it right here, sir!” the signalman said proudly. He snapped the flag out from its rolled position on the table. I stared in disbelief.
“My God, Giordano,” I said. “That won’t do at all!”
“What wrong with it, sir?”
Petty Officer Giordano phoned his Chief, who showed up in less than two minutes. By then the signalman was already pulling out the sewing machine and work table.
“What does the current flag look like, sir?” the Chief Swartz asked as he came into the shack on the signal bridge. “I have to admit, it escaped me, too. Syria, Iraq and Egypt all look alike, you know.”
“Good point, Chief, but Syria still has these two stars, and Iraq has three. Egypt went back to the pre-UAR flag, with an eagle-looking thing in the middle.”
“Got a picture, sir?”
“No, but I think I know where we can find one – I hope.” I dashed out of the signal shack with the Chief on my heels. We headed for the wardroom, where I remembered that we had an ancient set of the Collins Encyclopedia on a shelf in the lounge area. I hoped it wasn’t too ancient.
The series was from 1954, two years after the Egyptian Arab Revolution.
“Thank goodness,” I sighed. “It should be in here.”
The picture on the page of national flags was small, but clearly, a shield with an eagle would never look like two stars. It was in color, too. The decoration was golden.
“We can do this,” said the Chief, taking the book from me. “Giordano probably has the green stars off the flag already. Tomorrow, this eagle thingy will look as real as we can get it. Way up there, no one will know if it’s a chicken or an eagle!”
“Thanks, Chief,” I said, walking him to the door. “This was a close one.” He smiled and disappeared into the darkness of the red-lit passageway.
It was 0100, and I had to be up in four hours, before we set the Special Sea Detail for entering port. Suddenly, the exhaustion of having been up for 18 hours set in …
The sun was blinding, and by 0800 it was already warm. A hot breeze was blowing over the dust-colored city as USS Little Rock, Flagship of the Commander, US Sixth Fleet, steamed slowly into the harbor. Standing on the ship’s rail with the rest of the staff, I looked up to see the golden eagle moving on the red, white and black flag snapping from the starboard signal yard. From the harbor fort, the steady boom of a 21-gun salute echoed off the ship’s side and back to the walls of the fort, giving three booms for every salvo.
The sweat was trickling down my back under my Service Dress White blouse, but I could not care less. I was so proud of Chief Swartz and his signalmen – and grateful for whatever last-minute nudge made me walk into the signal shack when I should have gone to bed.
Trip update: This is almost a misnomer, considering that I am still in Charlottesville. But I have been riding 30-40 km almost every day, and planning to increase that next week.
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Until next week,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,