Of all the places I’ve been stationed I still feel the warmest feelings for my memories of San Diego.
From the moment I set foot in San Diego back in 1st of April 2001 I realize what a vibrant place I am in; tall skyscrapers, sandwiched by many numerous small neighborhoods, each with their own spice and personality; endless rows of palm trees, homes with bright new paint clashing with fading stucco and whitewashed fences, manicured lawns and overgrown yards.
But beyond it all was the dark blue of the sea, which was why I was here.
I am a 21-year-old kid, with a wide-open future and my eyes see no shadows; I am excited to be here, and as soon as I toss my things down on the bed in my new barracks room I am out the door to explore the base.
32nd street is unique both in the navy and the world; no other base is split quite like it is. Dry side, where I find myself living, is the smaller part of the base where the majority of schools and living facilities are. Wet side is a much more massive base where the 13 piers of ships are berthed, and various contractor buildings and hangers are scattered.
Both sides are connected by one long foot bridge that climbs up over a busy road and railroad tracks that had freight trains and faded red trolleys scuttling by underneath. Getting around in San Diego with no car was actually pretty convenient, I would soon find. But the first few nights I contented myself walking around the piers, with the slight smell of rotten eggs tainting the enjoyment of the briny sea breeze. I had been born next to the sea, and I missed the smell of salt and the sound of waves washing over rocks.
As I look at all the ships moored in the ports in front of me I couldn’t help but be excited to think of going to sea and getting underway on a ship, any ship. My memories of sailing on a small yacht over Lake Michigan in the cool sunshine were so comforting and vivid that I couldn’t help but smile as I went about my walk.
Across the bay I could see the Coronado Bridge framed in the red fire light of the fading sun, and beyond that, North Island, where all of the biggest ships in the Navy arsenal were berthed. Aircraft carriers were so massive and tall that they could not fit under the bridge like the destroyers and frigates, tankers and cargo ships going by could, so the piers at North Island were created with deep channels and berths to easily accept their deeper draft. The first night I was disappointed, finding only a huge blank spot, making me wonder what a carrier really looked like. I had never seen one before in person. For some reason massive things, things that dwarf me entice me; huge things like trains or ships that throw a bit of scare into me have always pulled me in. I find myself looking forward to the carrier’s return as I turn around and head back to the foot bridge.
With my first day in the fleet coming to a close alongside the setting sun, I walk back to my barracks in the soft moonlight, happy I was here, and tired from the day’s travels and from the long walk exploring both bases.
After work everyday I cross the footbridge and go over to wet side where I walk the piers in the fading light. Its relaxing to listen to the surf coming back in, the cries od seagulls and the occasional bark of seal lions mixed with the briny odor of the salty water. I do this every night after work and finally I get a thrilling surprise when I look over at North Island in the distance, and I see the dark blank spot is now filled with the massive lit-up shape of an aircraft carrier that had obviously pulled into port earlier today.
It was amazing what a behemoth it was; the white lights on its superstructure tracing a large “74”that was so blinding it burned spots into my field of vision after I looked away. I am distracted entirely by the sight of this big ship, and it is even bigger than I thought. I stand staring at it in awe for some time. The sun goes down and the air goes colder and I finally turn to go back the way I came.
I always liked the morning walk across the base going to work. I will never forget hearing the hummingbirds chirping from their perches, making tiny kissing noises while they defrosted from their torpor as I walked towards the building that our pre-comm was located in.
In those early hours the clouds hung all over threatening bad weather only to suddenly blow away after noon, revealing a sun that poured down light, casting knife-like shadows all over the ground beneath the large trees. San Diego was a pretty cheerful colorful place, and there was definitely no reason to complain about being bored, even if we stayed on base.
After work my roommate and I would take a twelve-pack of beer and go sit on the foot bridge connecting dry side to wet side, and just sit in the middle basking in the warm sun, waiting for trolleys and trains to pass by underneath. When trains would go by just a few feet under us, we would stand as close as we could to the edge of the bridge so we could feel the burning exhaust as they went by under us.
Sitting here echoed memories of my childhood; my Dad lovingly taking us kids out to watch trains, which I loved: the gorgeous green and yellow paint of Chicago and Northwestern trains roaring by, the blasts of the SD-40-2’s and old dirty beat up GP’s answering us kids waves made our day. Dad would drive us into nearby Elmhurst, IL where we would sit by the tracks on Sunday mornings, eating cinnamon rolls and swigging chocolate milk, getting excited when a freight train came rolling past, the rows of heavy diesel locomotives whining, chugging and reverberating, thumping everything with the hot power of their 3,000 horsepower engines, and we’d get out and run up to the tracks, not wanting to get too dangerously close, but just enough to feel the vibration in our entire bodies.
Now I was 21 years old, not 8 or 13 anymore; but nothing was so different, and yet a whole lot had changed. Instead of my sisters I had one friend to share that memory with, and I was delighted to find she enjoyed watching the trains go by just like I did. We would go sit on that bridge almost every night after work, quietly passing time, just enjoying the soft fading sun on that bridge, sipping a beer, or chatting about life. We were very much alike in personality and temperament and motivation, and we had a lot of the same likes and dislikes that gave us a common ground to take comfort in.
She was curious about the base so I happily showed her around. Down from our barracks by the front gates on base there was a nice recreation facility and extensive gym and I took her there. The gym was a pleasant surprise with tons of weights and machines to work out on, and I began frequenting this place working out in preparation for taking my EOD entry test.
We also began riding on the trolley together, taking the blue line into the downtown area where we got off to take the green line to the Gas Lamp district, where we walked to Horton Plaza and ambled around the mall. Sometimes we stayed on the green line to go to Mission Valley to wander around there on the weekends. Sitting on the trolleys we saw the sights of some of the neighborhoods; going under the Coronado Bridge we came into Barrio Logan with its colorful Spanish history and intriguing murals. Then past the marina, where Mission Bay stretched lazily out, the ocean yawning in the distance, a faded azure color. I loved the contrast of the buildings, some quiet and old fashioned, old Mission churches, planted deeply next to metal and glass buildings on the water front, and small vessels clustered all over behind them like sea gulls floating in small slips.
We really felt the excitement coming into the downtown area; feeling dwarfed by the magnificent rows of skyscrapers and the constant hustle of business as we passed the convention center and the Embarcadero, where the huge cruise ships berthed, then going past the impressive campus of San Diego State University, where we would get off at the Santa Fe Depot, watching families and kids trying to catch trolleys or wait for a coming Amtrak train.
We ventured up and down the streets finding Little Italy and Banker’s Hill, Balboa Park and Old Town, our eyes taking in everything, intrigued with the old and new feel, the art deco and modern minimalism intertwined. It was food for the senses, a warm soup that soothed my soul looking at. My heart loved San Diego from the first minute and in that, I was home.
Every day I took my long walk around the piers on wet side, savoring the beautiful San Diego weather and the peaceful views before me. Sometimes my roommate came with me, and we would sit on the first pier, just enjoyed the gentle breeze, not speaking.
Some weekends we would go over to Coronado and play in the surf, and sometimes I look back and still wish I was there again, the sound of happiness and peace as loud as the waves hitting the beach in the background.
Who knew these memories would remain so strong after so many years?