Norfolk Reunion: Can You Top This?

19-23 September 2012

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By George S. K. Rider

Group photo aboard Wisconsin
MacArthur statue
Group at MacArthur Memorial
Group photo

NORFOLK, Virginia — Ted Karras & Company have set the bar so high that surpassing this year’s reunion will be difficult, if not impossible. My money is on them!

Just before midnight Tuesday, September 18, Dorothy and I boarded Amtrak at the totally deserted, Old Saybrook, Conn., station for the 13-hour trip south. The weather was awful. Gale force winds and wind driven rain turned the normally 15-minute drive to the station from home into a limb-dodging 40-minute adventure. The bus ride from Newport News to Norfolk and a cab to the Sheraton Waterside Hotel and the reunion began to unfold. Check-in and a nap and early dinner, a good night’s sleep closed out our arrival.

Thursday’s 6:30 wake-up call and the reunion was in full swing. Breakfast for the next four days was a gastronomic phenomenon. The only thing missing was sardines. Every other favorite was available. The omelette chef also made waffles and fried eggs while resembling a human octopus, with incredible results. There went my diet.

We boarded two comfortable buses and spent all day enjoying Pat Joyce, our tour guide’s insightful commentary and description of historic places and events, marking Norfolk’s rich history. Our first stop was Nauticus, a museum that includes the National Marine Center and Hampton Roads Naval Museum. We viewed a riveting movie on our arrival, “The Last Battleship,” the story of the battleship Wisconsin.

The Nauticus tour ended as we walked across the extended companionway to the main deck of Wisconsin, moored adjacent to the museum. The teak decks and the huge 16-inch guns mounted fore and aft gave witness to the power that she could release. The Abbot crew and their families were photographed separately under the forward battery followed by the beautiful Abbot memorial service conducted on the stern.

As Jay Hershberger offered a prayer and read from a list of names, Ted Karras rang a single stroke from a ship’s bell after each name with a pause between each to allow a time to reflect. I waited as Jay read my brother Ken’s name and Ted clanged the bell. I stiffened and the tears welled as I rush of memories filled the interlude. As the formal service ended, Jay, Ted and Mary Lou escorted to the port quarter rail Mary Vaughn, widow of Edwin (who served aboard from 1944-46), and members of their family. Ted was carrying a beautiful red white and blue flowered wreath draped with a red white and blue bow and ribbons. The wreath was thrown to the water by Mary and Harry Benoit, a plank holder. A simple touching end to a heart-tugging service!

We boarded the buses again and headed for a fine luncheon at Sewells Point Golf Course, followed by a driving tour of the naval base and adjacent airfield. Before the start of the tour we underwent an extensive security search conducted by active duty Navy personnel, a reminder of the world in which we now live.

Fifteen hundred-plus Marines are on duty 24/7 on the Norfolk base, members of the Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team, known as FAST. Security is tight on the world’s largest naval base; the morning of 9/11, the 18-plus gates were locked down in three minutes.

Picture taking was prohibited during the first part of the tour as we transited the dock area and drove close by two carriers, a handful of destroyers and several vessels equipped with stern launching areas for deploying amphibious attack and landing craft.

Back to the Sheraton Waterside, our gracious reunion headquarters, walking distance from the Wisconsin. A quick stop at our hospitality room and a nap before the dinner cruise aboard the 410-capacity Spirit of Norfolk. The cruise featured a delicious buffet, great company at the table — Gene and Terry Gallagher, Brian Bremer, Frank Egan, and Phil Brooks — and a harbor cruise with a beautiful sunset and moon rise which we enjoyed from the top deck after dinner. The show during dinner featured members of the crew staff singing and dancing and a background of newer music you could really hear!

Back again to the well stocked hospitality suite and bed.

Friday dawned too quickly. Another run at the incredible breakfast. This time waffles.

8:30 a.m.: Back aboard the bus with Pat ready to shepherd us through another event-packed day.

Our first stop was the, Mariners’ Museum, located halfway between Williamsburg and Norfolk. The Washington Post calls it “A national treasure, one of the finest nautical museums in the country.”

The museum’s International Small Craft Center featured several dozen watercraft from around the world, from a handmade boat used by Cuban refugees to an outrigger sailing canoe and Chris-Crafts once synonymous with the American dream.

Also highlighted was the USS Monitor Center, which has original parts from the historic civil war ship, an exact replica of the turret and later artifacts including an aircraft carrier flight deck and a German Enigma cipher machine from World War II. These are just a few items from 500 years of seafaring adventures that we were treated to on this fabulous tour.

Back aboard our bus and a drive through Norfolk with Pat pointing out The Chrysler Museum of Art where the founder’s artifacts and extensive art collection are displayed. We drove by the Old Dominion University campus and many other historic places.

We arrived at Freemason Abbey, the 140-year-old church-turned-restaurant, for a fine lunch.

The next stop was a visit to The MacArthur Memorial, the final resting place of our first five-star general. Located in downtown Norfolk’s restored 1850 city hall, memorial is soon to expand into a new building. The general and his wife are buried side by side in a monumental rotunda surrounded by inscriptions, banners and flags highlighting his long and distinguished career.

We were treated to a look at history as we viewed his black 1950 Chrysler Crown Imperial limousine being delivered to the museum for permanent display, joining the command jeep that he rode during his triumphant New York ticker tape parade.

The last stop on Friday was a fitting conclusion to two action-packed days. The buses pulled into Doumar’s Cones & Barbecue, which dates to 1904; the founder is said to have invented the ice cream cone at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. In 1907 he moved the business to Norfolk.

As our bus rolled to a stop in Doumar’s parking lot a sprightly older gentleman boarded the bus. Albert, son of the founder and dapper in suspenders and a ballcap at age 91, took Pat’s microphone and welcomed us with a brief talk about Doumar’s. As veterans we enjoyed ice cream cones made on the original 1904 machine, with a napkin to hold the hot cone as we proceeded inside to choose our favorite flavors. This was a real treat!

Back to the Sheraton, and an early dinner. 2000 hours (8 p.m. for you landlubbers), we joined shipmates and family for the raffles and awards. Rich Baran presided over the drawing for the 28 baskets whose production, with a big assist from Peggy, he so artfully orchestrated. Ted and Mary Lou donated four free nights lodging to the raffle. Their daughter Tammy was unable to attend due to a bicycling accident and donated her three nights of lodging as well. A ship’s picture, the flag that flew over the state house in Atlanta provided by George Simmons, and several other prizes were also raffled. The end of another great day!

Dorothy and I skipped Williamsburg on Saturday, but not breakfast. We lounged around and I swam in the pool for over an hour, napped and got ready for dinner.

Cocktails and conversation before being seated at the nicely decorated dining room set the tone for a great evening. A color guard provided by Princess Anne High School, Virginia Beach, presented the colors, followed by the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer.

The Sheraton provided a great dinner featuring perfectly done roast beef and all the trimmings.

Ted opened his remarks by thanking Rich and Peggy for their raffle efforts, and John Jackson for handling the financial aspects of the reunion and turning a $200 profit that will be donated to the Wounded Warriors Fund. He thanked Bill Beavers for his work as Abbot’s record keeper. He then thanked Jay Hershberger for his guidance and introduced key Sheraton helpers who received a big hand for all the niceties that made us feel at home.

Next, Ted awarded plaques to Harry Benoit, a plank holder, and Mary Vaughn in honor of Edwin and the family for attending and supporting so many reunions.

Mary Lou presented John Alford with a blanket bearing the Abbot seal, donated by Mary Lou and daughter Tammy.

John’s remarks were greeted with applause and laughter. Max Fletcher spoke of his ancestor Commodore Joel Abbot, the hero of the War of 1812 for whom Abbot was named.

James V. Jones, president of Tin Can Sailors, spoke about his organization’s great publication, the scope of its coverage and the future. The anecdotes about his career and rise from the ranks to captain were poignant and funny at times and a fitting climax to a very entertaining evening.

Throughout the entire dinner, Walt Baranger’s slide and video presentation played quietly on a far wall adding to the theme of the evening. Walt’s dad served as exec in the ’40s.

Four incredible days gone bye in a wink! The memories will last forever.