Back From Hawaii, Back To Reality

Waikiki Beach, Oahu, Hawaii
Waikiki Beach, Oahu, Hawaii

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Winnie and I returned home from our one week’s whirlwind visit to the lovely island of Oahu, Hawaii. It was a wonderful vacation for both of us. So much so that I had to wonder why I waited 27 years to go back.

While our reason for this trip was being part of decommissioning the last ship I served on during my Navy career, it was also our first vacation trip since the zombie apocalypse started in January 2020.

Forty-Seven Years of Hawaiian Visits

During my Navy career I was mostly a “West Coast Sailor,” serving on ships and Navy bases on the west coast. My first time visiting Hawaii was in August 1975. The Navy sent me out to Pearl Harbor Naval Station (island of Oahu), Hawaii, for my final 16 weeks of electronics training prior to picking up my first submarine. I was one week past my nineteenth birthday and had been in the Navy a whopping 14 months, all of it training time.

Hawaii was my first experience with tropical cultures. I wasn’t sure what to expect before I arrived, but thoughts of hula-girls in grass-roofed huts on white sand beaches did cross my mind. I didn’t find those huts, but did have wonderful experiences. During my 16 weeks, between classes, I learned to scuba dive, met lots of friendly exotic women, and generally enjoyed the warm climate and beautiful island. I left Oahu at the end of November 1975 on my first submarine USS Scamp, but I left a big piece of me behind.

Periodic Visits and Homeporting

I passed through Pearl Harbor on ships or Navy assignments periodically until 1994. The final two years of my career, 1994 – 1996, I was homeported in Pearl Harbor on my ship USS Port Royal (CG 73) as a “Geo-Bachelor.” The Port Royal had just been commissioned and I was a Plankowner.

It was emotionally difficult being separated from my now-first wife, but I did have some fun. I was out most weekends with guys from my ship scuba diving. When I wasn’t diving, I was riding my bicycle, taking DaBus around the island exploring, and burning up extra energy jogging. I also visited three other islands; Maui, The Big Island (Hawaii), and Kauai.

The Port Royal left Pearl Harbor in November 1995 for her maiden deployment. I was tanned and physically fit, the best physical condition since graduating High School. Also the best physical condition I’ve been in since. And once again, I left a big piece of me behind in Hawaii.

I retired from Navy life effective April 1996, leaving the ship while steaming in the Persian Gulf and flying home to Mississippi. Once settled into my new life as civilian, I never made the opportunity to go back to the ‘Islands, as something else always seemed to take precedence. And the years did slip by…

About Last Week

So, our trip last week was my first time back in Oahu since Navy retirement. Returning to Oahu felt like a homecoming after being too long gone. Things were the same but different. The warm weather, flower-scented breezes, and endless oceans rolling onto reef-strewn beaches was all the same. Man-made stuff was different; some added, some gone, some changed.

This would be my first time on Oahu exclusively as a vacationer.

As befitting our vacationing status, Winnie and I stayed at the military-operated Hale Koa Hotel, right at the foot of Waikiki Beach. A number of my former Port Royal shipmates were also staying at the Hale Koa, and Winnie and I met up with one former shipmate Ernie, and his significant other, Jasmine, our first morning there over breakfast.

Diamond Head and Waikiki From Our Hotel beach
Diamond Head and Waikiki From Our Hotel beach

We spent most of the week playing tourists and snorkeling around beaches. Winnie’s only prior experience with snorkeling was from our boat in the Potomac River. But snorkeling in clear tropical oceans is a bit different then in the muddy Potomac. More fish, better underwater visibility, salt water and coral reefs.

Photographing The Fish

Our first big snorkeling adventure was at Shark’s Cove tidal pools, on the north shore. Winnie was so excited about seeing the many beautiful fish she insisted on taking photos and video of them. So we first tried putting a cellphone inside a waterproof pouch. But, we quickly discovered the pouch wasn’t all that watertight. So then we managed to borrow a GoPro camera for the rest of the week. The camera got a lot of use.

Tidal Pools at Shark's Cove, Oahu North Shore
Tidal Pools at Shark’s Cove, Oahu North Shore

Over the next several days we explored several beaches, including the world-famous Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve. Winnie tried to act nonchalant about the beaches we visited (“How different? They all have sand and water”), but I could tell she was really enjoying herself. On Friday, at two different beaches we visited on the leeward (west) shore, we twice saw sea turtles. I’d have to say that was the highlight of my trip.

Looking Down into Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
Looking Down into Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
Winnie In Her Snorkeling Gear at Hanauma Bay
Winnie In Her Snorkeling Gear at Hanauma Bay
Friendly Neighborhood Sea Turtle, Cruising the Neighborhood
Friendly Neighborhood Sea Turtle, Cruising the Neighborhood

Decommissioning Port Royal

The stated reason for our Hawaii visit was attending the decommissioning of the last ship I rode while on active duty. The Port Royal was by now 28 years old, a decent age for a Navy warship, and time to cycle out. Last Thursday was the Big Day.

Port Royal on Decommissioning Day
Port Royal on Decommissioning Day

We met up with another former shipmate, Eric, and his wife and drove over to Pearl Harbor Naval Station, now advertised as a joint command with the next-door Hickam Air Force Base. We arrived early, and had the opportunity to tour the ship, escorted by a young female Port Royal officer. The ship was an all-male crew when commissioned, but I knew the replacement crew had been planned coed. It wasn’t so much of a shock to see female officers and enlisted crewmembers; it was a shock to see how damned YOUNG they all were.

Once aboard, I was able to show Winnie some key parts of the ship, including where I slept and had my office, during the two years I lived aboard. Along the tour route I kept meeting up with former shipmates I hadn’t seen for 27 years. We did get up into the bridge and even into the combat center. Another shock was seeing how much of the electronic equipment was the literally the same gear the ship was commissioned with. Given the current three-year obsolescence cycle of computer systems, 28-year old electronics was absolutely ancient.

But, you go to sea with the equipment you have, not the equipment you wished you had.

The Ceremony

The decommissioning ceremony started at 11:00 AM, and us Plankowners were invited to stand up on the ship side-by-side with the last crew, manning the rails.

It was a mercifully short ceremony, with only the first Commanding Officer (CO), current Commodore, and final CO giving (short) speeches. I’d like to say the speeches were inspiring and reflective of the occasion – but I can’t. Every time someone got up to speak F-35s from Hickam flew overhead, drowning out all speech. If I didn’t know better I’d say the Air Force did that deliberately.

Then the final order was given, “Port Royal Crew, Depart the Ship,” accompanied by ringing eight bells. All of us past and present sailors manning the rails made a semblance of marching off, and that was it. The crew had arranged a light lunch which we were all invited to. We ate, mingled, and swapped sea stories. I think every past and present sailor felt the same as I did; sad to see a fine ship no longer serving.

That evening most of us Plankowners met up at the Hale Koa for a traditional tourist Luau dinner show. Because what’s a vacation trip to Hawaii without a Luau?

Departing the Island

Our flight home was Saturday evening, 10:00PM. I had arranged a late flight deliberately to give us a little more sight-seeing time. So Saturday morning we had a scrumptious breakfast buffet at the hotel, packed up our rental car, and checked out. As much as we both wanted to, we decided not to try anymore snorkeling as we didn’t want wet stuff packed in our luggage. So, we headed up to Waimea Valley Cultural Center as I wanted Winnie to experience the lovely gardens there.

As it turned out, the summer in Oahu has been extremely dry. So dry that the Waimea Falls had stopped flowing and all the gardens were stressed from lack of water. We walked around for awhile, then decided on a picnic lunch. Shark’s Cove beach was close by, along with a local grocery store. Winnie and I picked up some deli foods, found an empty spot on the beach, and had a farewell picnic. From there we drove around a bit more, then headed for the airport arriving 15 minutes before our rental car was due in. Near perfect timing.

A few hours later we were flying the friendly skies back home to reality. I’ve made a promise to myself that this will not be my last visit to Hawaii.

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