In January of 1966, while the Beatles were “Working It Out”, and “Day Tripping”, and Len Barrie was musically counting “1-2-3”, we left Pier 2 in Norfolk and the Tutuila steamed up the stormy Atlantic coast to Newport, Rhode Island; there to service a squadron of destroyers. Newport was, I’m sure, a welcome respite for the destroyer sailors after an extended period with NATO’s anti-submarine force in the wintry North Atlantic, and an interesting diversion for us. And while we did a lot of work in that four-week period, we had a lot of fun, as well.
Mostly surrounded by the waters of Narragansett Bay, Newport is quite cold in the winter. A foggy 10°, I discovered, can be very much more uncomfortable than a dry, crisp 0° or below on the prairies of Illinois. But we made do. A lot of shore-leave time, for me and my friends at least, was spent at, and around, a place called Kukla’s Kitchen, a small café which brought home to me the reality of the term “greasy spoon” restaurant. Cuisine notwithstanding, it was a pretty good hangout with, most importantly, friendly waitresses.
One weekend I, and a friend, took a day trip, courtesy of a Greyhound bus, to Fall River Massachusetts, whose most famous resident remains Lizzie Borden. Going there, I recalled the 19th century rhyme which memorialized her and fixed her place in the nation’s history:
“Lizzie Borden took an ax, and gave her mother forty whacks,
Then when all was said and done, she gave her father forty-one”
We chose Fall River as a destination because it was different, and sounded interesting, and was something to do. So on a snowy Saturday we set off from Newport on a one hour bus ride to visit what turned out to be a dreary New England industrial city on the Taunton River. In fact, the only thing of any interest in Fall River, MA was the World War II battleship USS Massachusetts, tied to a lonely pier next to the I-195 bridge. What would later become the centerpiece of a large museum called “Battleship Cove”, the ship was closed and silent in the falling snow.
Still, it was a sight to behold, looming over the dock; it’s fighting top level with the high bridge span beside which it was moored. Up until that point the largest ship I had seen — other than aircraft carriers, which are quite different — was the heavy cruiser USS Newport News, which was pretty big. But this obsolete battleship was massively larger; and impressive even in this drab and remote setting. In later years I would visit Battleship Cove and tour the Massachusetts, as well as her sister ship, the USS Alabama, in Mobile, and the still larger USS New Jersey, in Trenton, and the USS Iowa in San Pedro, CA. But this first glimpse of the ultimate of 20th century Naval surface power was unforgettable.