It’s July 24, 2017. I’m on my third day of my retirement vacation down in Key West. I wanted to write during the transit and all, but it was a whirlwind flight down from Norfolk, and I’ve not been letting the grass grow under my feet as it were.
The story of my connection to Key West began 15 years ago in 2002. I was still a Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class (this is before the rating merger in the Navy that merged us all into Mass Communication Specialists). I was attached to VF-213 working on the F-14D Tomcat’s reconnaissance cameras and laser-targeting systems. We came off deployment on USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in January. Late that spring the squadron sent several planes to NAS Key West to use the aerial gunnery range out over the ocean.
There was no “pod” work to be done at all. No recon cameras to be used, and certainly no laser targeting system since no bombs were being dropped. There was absolutely no reason PH2 Nathanael Miller and PHAN Shawn Hussong needed to be sent to Key West for this detachment exercises…
…Except they liked me. Seriously, my command liked me that much. I had done very hard and very good work leading the day shift of our shop don the “Chucky V’s” flight deck during the opening ten weeks of Operation Enduring Freedom. They sent Hussong and I along simply as a good deal for us, a reward for very hard work. Now, despite his Asian-sounding name, Hussong was as Germanic as you can get short of being born in Germany. Even he had no idea how his family named evolved as it did, but he was a very good worker and great Sailor.
I had orders to Guam already, and was nervous about living on an isolated island. Two weeks in Key West made me realized I love island living and became very excited about Guam.
We were here two weeks, so we had one weekend of liberty. Hussong and I spent that Saturday walking everywhere. The Key West Lighthouse, the Key West Cemetery, the Ernest Hemingway House, the Mel Fisher Museum, etc. I fell in love with the island and promised myself that Key West would be my retirement vacation. I think I even mentioned that to Hussong in 2002.
Now fifteen years have passed. Fifteen. I made that promise at the end of the first ¼ of my Navy career, and now I keep it to myself. A lot has happened in those 15 years. We have seen two presidents elected. We have seen North Korea emerge as a nuclear threat. Britain voted to leave the European Union. Marvel Studios smacked the crap of DC Comics in the movie theaters, but DC sucker-punched Marvel by getting Wonder Woman to the screen—the first female led (and directed) superhero movie ever. I came out of the closet. All four of my nephews were born. I made chief petty officer. I decided to retire at 20 years in 2017.
And Shawn Hussong died.
He got out of the Navy after his first hitch. During his civilian time he got big into body building, but also got into steroid use. He wanted to re-enter the Navy, but was refused in 2004 when he popped positive on an entry drug test because of those steroids. Apparently devastated and directionless, he shot himself.
I had lost contact with him and learned of his 2004 suicide in 2009.
A maudlin sense of loss and melodramatic sadness are not the overriding emotions of my vacation. Nope; far from it. But, as I sit alone by the pool at the first gay resort I have ever stayed at, the dark of night cooling the island and the sound of the little waterfall singing at one of the pool, I did let my mind wander a back bit.
Shawn and I had a blast that day back in 2002. He told me after the fact he thought he’d be bored walking the island with me. Instead he fell in love with the lighthouse and the Mel Fisher Museum and all of it. As I toured the Mel Fisher Museum today alone, I did think about him a bit. I remember his wide-eyed amazement as he stared at the treasures Mel Fisher and his family found. There was a gold bar in a security case you could lift to get a feel for its weight. He and I both lifted it. He was particularly taken by a fancy, gorgeously crafted gold-and-emerald cross and ring that Fisher found in the wreck of the Atocha.
Oddly enough that gold bar was stolen in broad daylight during normal business hours a couple of years ago. The crime is still unsolved, even though the video security system caught it. Today they require all visitors to remove their hats so faces are clearly visible in the video.
The emerald cross is still there, however. For just a second I could see Shawn 15 years ago going all goggle-eyed amazed over it.
I promised myself Key West 15 years ago. I’m here and I’ll enjoy every minute of it. I did spend today walking about and I’ll tell you about the Shipwreck Museum and St. Pauls’ Church and the ghost tour I took last night later. I visited the Mel Fisher Museum again this afternoon, and that brought up the memories of Shawn. So, tonight, for just a minute as I had the pool area all to myself, I took a moment to think about a lost shipmate. Tomorrow I’ll rent a bicycle and go see a few things I saw 15 years ago…and also go see things I haven’t seen yet.
After all, I’m on vacation!