Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Chapter 26 Pipefitter Jeff

It happened the following Saturday on an already warm and muggy April morning.  I drove my truck to Home Depot in Oxon Hill, Maryland -- my quasi home away from home.

His truck was there, a dingy, light brown Ford F-150.  It looked beat up, weathered.  But I bet inside her hood held a lot to show--a souped up V-8 engine that could pull a 6,000 lb camper or a 20 foot sailboat.

 And there on the door was a sign that caught my eye: “Triple T Home Repairs”.  I didn’t wait a minute. I picked up my cell and started dialing even before I finished reading the sign.

A fellow by the name of Jeff answered the phone by the second ring.

         “Let’s meet inside the customer service desk.”
         I agreed and headed inside.

   At 5’ 8” Jeff Bishop was stocky, a few extra pounds but not overweight.

He had wide shoulders, thick legs and even a bigger grin.

Jeff carried a cheery demeanor and I immediately felt that he was trustworthy.  But I knew I had to be careful.  I felt the same with Jerry, with Jimmy, with Monty and now Bobby.

“What’s up big doc,” he said, giving my hand a firm shake. “My name’s Jeff.  What can I do for you today?”

“Nice to meet you Jeff. Name’s Chito. “

“What have you been up to?” His smile seemed genuine and warm.

“Just staying busy. You know we’re busting our backsides here, fixin’ my damn house – it’s like pouring money down the drain.  Can you help?”

I asked if he was willing to install a surround bath and do some laminate flooring work.  He told me that he would be glad to take a look at it.

“There’s absolutely nothing I wouldn’t tackle—except carpentry,” he said. “And I’m willing to do just about anything even clean a shitter, if the price is right.”

“I also do some electric but I won’t change out power panels,” he added. “Leave that for the big boyz.  I want to live long enough to see my baby  finish school, get married and make me a proud granddaddy someday.”

Jeff by trade was a plumber and professionally schooled as a pipefitter journeyman, welder and foreman.

He was licensed for those skillsets, but nevertheless, he considered himself a jack-of-all –trades, and at the end of the day cared mostly about the bottom line.  He would even haul a load of trash as long as there was a big healthy stack of greenbacks waiting for him in the end.

Jeff Bishop, the sunny-tempered, pleasant-faced former crack addict whose plump mien always lights up with a smile, is a pipe fitter by trade.

Despite his trade, he would always strut in style. On his fingers, Jeff wore six gold, diamond-studded rings. On his neck he wore a gold necklace with a heavy cross pendant.  Each piece of jewelry represents the eight years that Jeff had been drug free.

Never daunted by squalid, filthy environs, he religiously lives by his motto: nothing is too heavy or too messy for him to deal with. His job may not rank too high in prestige, but his skills are undeniably in high demand and he has no qualms about charging an extremely high premium for it. 

He is indiscriminate about location and takes on plumbing jobs in every nook and cranny of the city, and when it gets to the sewer business, the mess is unbelievable. Yet, he is able to take in all in his stride, after all, what matter, if in the end it brought him the green bucks.

Jeff has volumes of such squalid stories in his memory bank he would relate to create a diversion in the monotony of the tedious renovations. He told grimy, sordid stories of working on the condos on Danbury St SW, near South Capitol Street where sewer lines of the buildings were never connected to the city's sewer lines.

And so it happened that for a good 20 years, the waste from the bathrooms ran into the ground and eventually seeped through the basement walls, oftentimes creating visible pools of sewage. Homeowners had to install a sump pump that worked 24 hours a day to pump raw sewage out of the basement and out onto the back alley. The ensuing revolting situation defied description, with toilets stopping up and drinking water becoming contaminated. Eventually the city gave up and demolished the buildings.  

Jeff spoke of stories that the city had worked out a deal with Centex Homes, an established builder known for constructing upper middle class town houses in the past.  It would a first for Centex Homes to build housing in the city and it would not be long before they realized this was a different kettle of fish.

I was going to make Jeff responsible for unclogging my drains, for installing two new bathrooms and for replacing faulty plumbing. Intuitively I knew that this would work.

Jeff and I made a commitment to meet at Lebaum St. that afternoon.  He showed up promptly in his beat up Ford F-150.    From the sidewalk he gave the house one good look over as if he could sum it all up from just out in the street.

Then Jeff coolly strolled in. He carried an easy gait, head held high, he squeezed his wide shoulders through the front door and made his presence known like a big jobsite foreman would.  He looked around and saw the rugged team of men working aimlessly in the house and didn’t pipe a word.

He eyed them suspiciously and they stared back like he was some city inspector or tax collector or even worse the drug king from around the corner snooping on their turf.

As he toured up and down, every nook and cranny, he shook his head in utter disbelief.  “Pitiful and disgusting” were the only words in his tongue. 

Jeff was ripping the place apart as if this house could be condemned right then and there. I was alarmed but internally satisfied.  This was exactly the kick ass, take names type of guy I was looking for – exactly what I needed.

Jeff inspected the whole entire house and noted the sloppy paint job and the basement with the unleveled walls.

 Then down in the basement, inside an empty room at a far corner, the doors shut tight, Jeff came right up to me.

“Man, who you got doing the work—a bunch of drunken, sloppy, good-for-nothing crackheads?”

“I guess. They’re the best I got though.”

“Where did you pick these ghetto rats at; down the street on King Ave?  I mean I got hoes that can skim, sand and paint better than that.  My girls will put these guys to shame anytime of the day or night.”

Sinzinger, Kathryn and Abeyta, Oscar,  "Ward 8's Public Cesspool", The Common Denominator, Dec 4, 2000

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Feb 2003: Finding Anacostia

Chapter 1

The nagging buzz of the alarm clock penetrated my dreamless sleep. Shoot, 4.30 seemed merely minutes ago when I laid down. It would be many, many hours before I would once again learn to enjoy the mindless comfort of my Sleep Number mattress.

Waking up at “O-dark-thirty” was never pleasant, but it would be severely painful for my fitness report if I didn’t make it to work on time. (O-dark-thirty is military jargon for “earlier than the rooster crows”)
Automatically I sat up, eyes fuzzy with sleep, and fumbled in the dark to still the alarm, unaware just then that I had woken up to a day that would forever change my life.

As good as auto-pilot, I showered and shaved, and dressed to face a freezing wintry morning in the nation's capital. The biting wind stung my face as I stepped on to the snow-covered streets with caution to negotiate the short walk from the Metropolitan mid-rise apartments in Pentagon City to my office at the Pentagon. The normally invigorating ten minute walk seemed like eternity that morning.

View Larger Map
My short walk from the Metropolitan Apartments to the Pentagon
   As my boots scrunched on yesterday’s snow, my mind had already wandered firmly into my office setting, letting my thoughts slip lazily over the job that awaited me at this early, silent hour. Privately and for the last three weeks that I had embarked on this wicked regimen, each weekday morning, I had often times categorized it as menial and monotonous. But in stark reality, I knew how critical and valued this by-product would become.

My crucial task was to conduct a targeted online search, browse Navy-related articles or ones of relevance to the Navy and collate them together in one concise PDF document. In particular, I would have to browse the 5 major metropolitan papers that CHINFO, or the Navy Office of Information, subscribed to daily: The Washington Post, the Washington Times, USA Today, Baltimore Sun and the Christian Science Monitor. I have always been baffled by this particular combination, but it never once occurred to me to ask why.
    This “CHINFO News Clips” the twenty or twenty-five pages of methodically culled Navy-related and sociopolitically relevant news of the day that I religiously prepared each morning, is electronically distributed to the entire Navy leadership before they are served their first cup of java. Some of Washington’s powerful decision-makers and opinion shapers within DoD and USG were also on the obligatory distribution list.

In the distance I could see the massive concrete and steel behemoth known colloquially as the "Five-sided Palace", the bright lights beckoning, enticing me to the warmth of its secure fold. I quickened my pace, my chilled body longing for the almost maternal embrace of the heated atmosphere within. As my breath steamed in the frosty air, I imagined the pampered feeling of being enveloped by the pungent aroma of freshly-brewed coffee. My near-frozen body yearned for my first mug of steaming java. Just a few steps more .......
I headed to my office located in the B ring of the 4th corridor, specifically 4B463, the same wedge that was damaged on 9/11 and now arose like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes of the ghastly terrorist attack.
Now looking at the cozy interior, still shining with the fresh glow of newness, it struck me anew as it does every time I enter the building, as symbolic of our resurrection from the brutal onslaught of terrorism.

    As I settled myself down comfortably in my office embracing my mug of steaming hot java, my thoughts sobered as they dwelt on the prevailing global political arena. There was no doubt that trouble was brewing in the Middle East drama, with hostilities escalating at dizzying speed. The UN reported that Iraq has not come to a "genuine acceptance of the disarmament that was demanded of it," and President Bush announced that the US is ready to attack Iraq even without a UN mandate. So, it became very apparent that the US was poised to strike Iraq at any moment, and all the tension, the suppressed excitement, the anxiety of an impending war was almost tangible around me at the Pentagon. It was getting translated into laborious top level meetings, long hours and lots of pizza deliveries. As much as it got the adrenaline pumping, I felt a tinge of fear mixed with anxiety. Several of my close friends and colleagues were forward-deployed to Kuwait . How long would they serve in a violent land with an indefinite end date and what was the fate of the impending war? How were their families coping while they were overseas? Would they return home safely to hug their children once again? An unsettling feeling of disquiet tugged at me as I reviewed the news of the day – so slow, so lethargic, as if everything was holding its breath in anticipation. This feeling of calm before the storm was unnerving and I was feeling over the edge.
As these thoughts and concerns swirled wildly in my stream of consciousness, I casually opened the Washington Post and began browsing its contents. One section, then the next ... suddenly I stiffened, my attention riveted by the Feb 13, front page story of the Metro Section. It was a two-page spread on the plight of a community east of the Anacostia River. The graphic story of this economically-distressed neighborhood tugged at my heart in the most peculiar way.
    The writer’s passion and sensitivity added depth and poignance to an already heart-wrenching story. My attention was caught by the accuracy of the information and the upbeat tone that hinted at a better future around the corner, for the residents.

Such are the contrasts in the hilly neighborhoods of Bellevue, Washington Highlands, Congress Heights, [Frederick Douglass] and Shipley. Together, these five neighborhoods fill the bottom of the D.C. diamond, just east of Bolling Air Force Base.

It was sparsely populated until the middle of last century, when doctors, engineers and other professionals arrived to new neighborhoods of brick houses and bungalows. Many worked at nearby Bolling Air Force Base, just across Interstate 295, or at St. Elizabeths. Some of the public housing projects now being demolished were constructed as temporary government housing during World War II.

In the 1970s, thousands of poor African American families were relocated to these neighborhoods and the rest of [Ward] 8 to clear the way for "urban renewal" on the Southwest waterfront. Many were the children or grandchildren of an earlier generation of families moved to Southwest from Georgetown, Foggy Bottom and Dupont Circle, to clear those neighborhoods for affluent whites.
Like other financially struggling areas of the city, the neighborhoods in the southern tip suffer from a lack of retail shopping. Martin Luther King Avenue, across from the gated east campus entrance of St. Elizabeths, today offers little more than a barbershop, a convenience store, a discount general store and the Player's Lounge, a local and political watering hole. There is no dry cleaner, drugstore or hardware store, no place to sit down with a cup of coffee. The gaps remind Avery Thagard, the city planner assigned to Ward 8, of the mouth of an old man who has spent a lifetime without good dental care. "It's like missing teeth," he said. "We've got to find a way to fill these gaps with the type of neighborhood conveniences that other communities take for granted."
As I methodically consumed the information, savoring every nuance of expression, I was mentally shaking my head. No, not there, I thought. I had heard way too many horror stories from way too many people in different social strata. And this was even before I had ever stepped on the soil of Washington DC. Anacostia, the armpit of the nation’s capital, ironically, seemed saturated with crime and as sleazy as any downtrodden community could get. Not to be touched with a barge pole ...... that was the unspoken conclusion I had drawn over and over again.
The day dragged on, and with the passing hours I was conscientiously monitoring the overseas news, tracking each incident as it arose. And all the while, an inner voice was nudging me, trying to steal my attention to the dangerous dilemma of Anacostia. My mind was focused on the glimmer of hope I detected in the story; it yearned for the people, its presence, their plight. “That community is on the verge of a turnaround. This could be a diamond in the rough.” Like the tides, I learned to trust, the thought waves ebbed and flowed, and being a good military officer, I was determined to do my own reconnaissance.
It was like was jumping head on into an adventure in the wilds. The danger and the forbidding elements only whetted my insatiable appetite further. Anacostia was calling me in mysterious, unfathomable ways. No work week had seemed so long. Never had time dragged this way. I was impatiently counting the hours till the weekend when I would get the opportunity to do my own windshield tour of Anacostia.

    I couldn't wait until I returned home, realizing that the day got dark earlier and earlier as it got colder and colder. Almost the very first thing I did after kissing and hugging my five-year-old son was to succumb to the luring attraction of search engines and news clippings.   I expended critical hours surfing the web and learning everything I could about this unknown and dangerous side that lingered across the Anacostia. It seemed like the beginning of a mysterious love affair, but one that I wanted to seriously shake away. I was delving as deep as I could into the history of Anacostia, to get to know her, to understand the myriad complex facets that make her what she is today.

Chapter 2 Discovering Anacostia

"The deprived community of Anacostia came to be, not by choice but by chance and through a woeful lack of vision."

 Anacostia, known as Uniontown in the 1850s, was once home to an all-white workforce from the nearby Navy Yard across the Anacostia River. A stone’s throw away was the Barry Farms area where the descendants of slaves and freed Blacks lived. As the 1880s wore on, the blacks began moving into Uniontown. The home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass on the panoramic Cedar Hill is a National Historic Site managed by the U.S. National Park Service and a the largest tourist attraction in the area.

By the turn of the century, the city began to expand into the Anacostia area. Even the federal government moved in, developing an airfield on a tract of land that spanned several miles along the shoreline. This installation would eventually be named Bolling Air Force Base, Anacostia Naval Air Station and the Naval Research Lab.

In the early 1900s, Anacostia’s economic wellbeing was hitched to a hub of barber shops, small drug, grocery and hardware stores, and family-owned furniture shops.

WW II brought in dramatic change to Anacostia. The population doubled as new neighborhoods in the far southeast region were developed. The wartime growth in the military bases spurred demand for housing, with thousands of two-level apartment buildings established.

In the years leading up to the 1960s, Anacostia was a thriving, vibrant community with quaint and dignified suburbs in the outskirts of Washington DC, with predominantly white people, good schools, plenty of parkland and clean air. With the gradual development of the outlying areas of Washington DC in the 1950s and the 1960s, longtime white residents moved out of Anacostia, and waves of blacks began to move in. Many of the small shops put up shutters or followed their longtime customers to the suburbs.

The influx of new residents occurred along with the shutting down of the wartime industry such as the military armament factory in Congress Heights. These combined effects triggered the economic and population decline of the southeast.

As I read on, I realized that the deprived community of Anacostia came to be, not by choice but by chance and through a woeful lack of vision. As the once wealthy neighborhood began to collapse, day by day, the affluence was getting replaced by stark disrepair. The city leaders of the 1960s lacked the vision and foresight to realize the negative consequences of what they did in order to make space for revitalization of the southwest neighborhood across the river. Supported by the federal government, they literally dumped the poor and under-privileged across the river to the newly-built but congested tenements that were sprouting like mushrooms around every corner.

Before long, the city fathers realized the gravity of their error, but it was too late in the day to retrace their steps. The shift in populace and the new bussing regulations that swept the nation, led to white people leaving Anacostia in droves. Following close on their heels were the middle class blacks who couldn’t stand how bad the streets had gotten and how unsafe the schools had become. The neighborhood was almost unrecognizable after some time. The safe and trusty Mom and Pop stores and the family barbershops gave way to vandalized houses, vacant lots and liquor stores.

Over thirty years, the upscale neighborhood fell from its middle-class perch to a poverty-ridden, crime-infested community where the common sights were check-cashing outlets, liquor stores, drugs, crime, homeless people, storefront churches and abandoned buildings. When Interstate 295 came into being in the 1960s, there was fervent hope that might bring a change for the better. Hopes were miserably dashed when all the beltway did was to give Anacostia a sense of being little more than a shortcut from the suburbs to downtown.

By the beginning of the 21st century, nearly one in six housing units were vacant and more than one in three residents were living in poverty.
Only residents know the miserable reality of life in Anacostia. Crime is a part of daily life, with one-fourth of the city’s murders committed in the area, according to police statistics for the Seventh District. Anacostia and Ballou, the High Schools of the area are among the District’s most troubled. In 1990, the only grocery store in Anacostia closed down. There are no sit-down restaurants in the entire Ward – just a sea of carry-outs that pass food to customers through bullet-proof glass. The Players Club on Martin Luther King Street, the only place that serves a decent lunch, has albeit, a Jekyll-and-Hyde fa├žade.  
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The Players Lounge
During the day, you may run into the mayor for lunch or encounter a local or aspiring politician.  By night, the lounge transforms  into a sleazy, sordid strip club where people get mugged or stabbed perennially every night. The formerly famous and classy Nichols Avenue (Dr. Nichols was formerly the superintendent of St. Elizabeth's Hospital) is now the infamous Martin Luther King Avenue, where open air drug markets, drive-by shootings and gang wars play out in squalid surroundings. Teenage boys regularly terrorize the town by stealing cars, burning them up and leaving the burned carcass on cinder blocks on the wayside. Makes no sense. These acts were merely for the fun of it.  Crime was coming back in a big way. Crack or cocaine use is rampant on Galveston Place and Mellon Street and residents who brave the menacing behavior and threats in the light of day, are too scared to do the same at night, even though securely locked up in their cars. Fear is all-pervasive, and even the police delay answering distress calls, often waiting an hour or more to respond. The state of the main thoroughfare of Anacostia seems no different to the vandalism and waste of war-torn, terror-swamped Beirut or Baghdad after a terrorist strike.

When the weekend came around, I was sufficiently acquainted with the history of Anacostia for my first visit there to be meaningful. As I drove my truck down from Arlington, the dismal weather added to my somber mood in no mean way. The twelve inches of thick, wet snow dumped by the huge snow storm of the previous week was gone. What was left behind was a muddy quagmire of rocks, sand and mud and a bone-chilling, blustery wind that blew steadily from the east. I passed the Barry Farms, the last vestige of public housing in DC. My truck rattled crazily on the cracked and rutty road which was in an absolute state of neglect and disrepair like the dilapidated, pathetic-looking puke-brown houses at Barry Farms. Rough-looking, unkempt; youth hung around the street indolently, while the children of the area played around them, shrieking and yelling as they ran hither and thither amidst crack needles and used condoms, innocently oblivious to the more sinister goings on around them. Every which way I turned, hopelessness stared me in the face and my heart kept sinking with every mile, even as the laundry hanging on makeshift clothes lines whipped about crazily in the cold blowing, as if desperately trying to lure me there. The feeling of abandonment, of overhanging danger, was so intense I began to wish I was in an armored humvee with ballistic glass, instead of in my simple Ford Ranger pickup truck.

As I steered my truck down Martin Luther King Boulevard, the atmosphere turned tangibly formidable. The solitariness that seemed to pervade the area was enhanced by the silence that enveloped the red-brick walled campuses of the old mental asylum of St Elizabeths, which flanked both sides of the road. I had no idea where I would end up—perhaps this was a war zone .... With a deep sense of uncertainty I headed north on Alabama Avenue.

And then serendipity walked into my life. What a wonderful feeling of old-world charm, of warmth, courtesy and dignity flowed through my being! Not in my wildest dreams had I expected this kind of genteel neighborhood in such squalid, miserable surroundings. Leafless burly oak trees, like faithful sentinels, lined the street, their gigantic trunks offering security and stability to the ornate Victorian houses that stood beyond, gracious, spacious buildings, most of them orderly and well-kept.

As I cruised by, bemused, enthralled, the years rolled back to an era of wine and roses in Anacostia. I imagined an environment of upper class living that matched the graciousness of their homes. A well-maintained playground and a softball field would have been favorite haunts of the children of the area as they ran and played with abandon, singing at the tops of their voices, the air filled with high-pitched laughter and joyous screams. The ting-a-ling-ling of the ice-cream truck on a hot summer day would have brought the kids out by the dozen, thirsting for ice-lollies and varied flavors of ice-cream. 

Schools that were clean and well-maintained where the children of affluent white Americans in days gone by were given the foundation for their lives. As I drove past, I could not help the let-down feeling that engulfed me as I observed the leaky roofs, the sense of dilapidation and neglect that seemed all-pervading. The neglect outside was just a whiff of the unkempt condition that could probably be found inside, I said to myself.

Chapter 3 My Early Eye-Opening Beginnings

I joined the Navy not really by choice but merely by chance.

    A day after 17, fresh out of a backroads Georgian high school and risen from the far, debt-ridden reaches of a one-stop, boonie town called Darien, where the biggest industry was shrimping and crabbing and even that was quietly fading away. 

   Within a year of coming to Coastal Georgia immigrating from the cultural metropolis we longed for in Singapore, my family and I were rudely confronted to the civil dissent and racial resent that was so pervasive in the backwater lowlands.

   In 1981, I was shocked to come face-to-face with a dozen hooded racists, wearing conical-shaped hats, eyes that implied a face of hate.  Mysterious men with thick biceps welding pick-axe bats villified, the throng terrified as the hooded beasts pushed through downtown Darien to protest a bitter feud between the only two (equally-represented) social classes that existed within the four corners of our classrooms, snugly, albeit tumultously like thundercloud and sky.

   That's why I was nary surprised when Praying for Sheetrock", the 1991 epic story of the tribulations this backwoods County faced under the tyranny and uninpuned felony of the ominipotent Sheriff Tom Poppell became its most identifiable symbol of depravity of days gone past.
    I wanted to join the Navy because it was my only recourse and this quest became instinctual, rather natural, after being raised along the high seas and growing up deck and dawn onboard a 40-foot yawl for most of my childhood existence, I was naturally drawn to the sanctuary of the ocean and its calmy balm, eerie solitude.

Born in Hong Kong in '67, while the war in Vietnam was still brewing and napalm incendiary violently burning, I knew all along I was destined to roam free. When I was four-years old and having a ball in this bustling urbanity, I remember vividly the night my mother woke me and my sister as if our lives were suddenly on the brink. Our bags were already packed and we sneaked out of the flat that we knew as home. My father was somewhere around, sound asleep, unbeknownst of our clever escape strategy as we were also unaware of the fuzzy horizons that lay eerily ahead.

For the first time, I had got to know an American, who became my Dad and we pulled anchor at the wink of dawn. Our first destination to be followed by a string of remote, exotic locations was Manilla and this is the city where I thrilled the shores and chased the gulls and was graciously presented a name that stuck with me to this day.

After sailing vicariously throughout Southeast Asia to the likes of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, to the most remote reaches and white crystal beaches in the Asiatic Archipelagos, we finally set anchor in the port that would become our home for five endless years -- the Lion City of Singapura.
Then when I was 12, a waderlust pre-teen, spoiled by the unstructured, unschooled lifestyle within a global classroom, my family decided we had reached our fill with our lifebound-journey--we shipped the boat to the mother land and purchased a one-way ticket to our new-found home, reaching foreign shores with fresh perspectives, new hopes abound.

But we were sad to let go -- we loved this city, the food, the friends, the culture -- every single and social bit of it. And we were sad, outrightly downtrodden, when we had to reluctantly wave goodbye to the only thing that I clinged in my life.

With all the excitement and adventure, you would think we would settle down in a major metropolis with beaucoup culture and high societies somewhere along the eastern seaboard or California shoreline.

To my dismay, we rested our travel-weary bones in a quaint, backyard town of Darien, population 2,500, where we learned to live slow and enjoy the tranquil Golden Isles sunset slipping away along the saltwater marshline, and we sadly vowed never to sail the high seas by line or lever ever again.

We loved our country and my mother, my sister and I became proud, naturalized citizens and upon graduation from high school, I decided to break our family promise of dismissing the seas so that I could give something back for the country that gave me some hope.

My first duty station after boot camp in frigid Great Lakes where the snow rose over our knee caps and our uniforms froze to our bellies.

     Then on to initial specialty training school in Virginia Beach to become an Operations Specialist (radar operator) and excitedly to my first ship berthed in Yokosuka Japan, the defiantly sleek fast Knox-class frigate, USS Francis Hammond (FF-1067). We were a small crew, barely over 200, and we were one, tight family who embraced our new culture and traditions of this amazing land, the country of the samurai, origami and the most celebrated rituals in all the world.
  My first duty station was also the one I got to rediscover my core family -- to get to intimately know my other sister who resided with her grandma her entire life and my mother's family who resided in Kobe, Japan. They had not gotten to spend much time with my mother since she left Kobe to Hong Kong in the early 1960s to be with this charming, seductive man who would become my father.

  And it was from an opportune port visit in December 1986 in Hong Kong that I got to visit my father for the very first time since I was four. We embraced as if it was our very first time and talked as if it would be our last conversation that we would know. We bawled our eyes out and cried like doom and death looming, and he asked me about the night that we slipped away never to be seen or heard again for a seeming eternity.

It was a tear-jerker and too emotional for the likes of a budding, 18-year old Sailor who wanted to spread out and stretch his wings. We said our hurried good-byes as the ship was preparing to weigh anchor hoping to unite again, and not having to wait another 14 years to do so, but knowing deep inside that the days were numbered and there would be more port visits in other distant lands between here and now.

I did return to Hong Kong later, much later in my career, when I was already a commissioned officer, this time aboard a sprawling aircraft carrier of 5,000 Sailors Strong (USS John C. Stennis), but it didn't matter much anymore -- my father died just a year after I visited him, I always pondered whether he had waited for this time to cherish memories and to bury the past before he had to depart -- his soft, tender ashes scattered like seed somewhere along the South China Sea and my memories clung on distant and long hoping never to fade.