Saturday, December 22, 2012


For a wise and glorious purpose
Thou hast placed me here on earth
And withheld the recollection
Of my former friends and birth;
Yet ofttimes a secret something
Whispered, “You’re a stranger here,”
And I felt that I had wandered
From a more exalted sphere.*

Cassie Taylor welcomes home her
daddy on the USS Vicksburg

Elder Draper and I stand on the pier at Naval Station Mayport on a chilly North Florida winter morning, wrapped in our jackets, scarves, and gloves. Homemade posterboard signs flap excitedly in the wind that comes whipping through the harbor from the east, their creators clutching them tightly to keep them from flying away. There is no possibility the sailors at the rails of the ship will be able to read the thin Magic Marker writing: “Welcome Home Daddy”, “We missed you”, “8 months, 2 days, 15 hours, and 49 minutes – but who’s counting?” It doesn’t really matter. Those signs will hang on front doors or in living rooms of scores of homes for at least a month where Honey or Daddy can gaze on them every day and remember this day.

Sister Barns welcomes home her
husband from the USS Hué City
The Navy band files onto the dock through the ten-foot tall chain-link security gate and takes their places on folding chairs set up for them. Shuffling, unpacking instruments, setting up music stands, more shuffling, and then the air comes alive with Stars and Stripes Forever. Already euphoric from the anticipation of the USS Underwood homecoming, and before the band completes even the first bar of the song, a surge of excitement energizes the crowd and leaps from it out toward the Atlantic. Someone spots the Underwood, with her entourage of helpful tugs, steaming along the jetties not quite two miles away. We catch a glimpse of her tall mast moving toward us behind the anchored ships and Navy base buildings. She blows her horn: a deep, vibrating, sonorous note answered almost immediately by the mixed voices of the other ships in their berths welcoming her home. They are Thoroughbred horses in their stalls behind the track whinnying to a returning champion, fresh from the race.
The crowd’s enthusiasm swells and a cheer erupts, seasoned with applause. Anticipation dances in the air like St. Elmo’s fire. Children stand wide-eyed and apprehensive as mothers bend down, pointing to the approaching ship and cry, “That’s Daddy’s ship!”
Some wives or girlfriends, the young ones mostly, wear cocktail dresses and high heels and shiver in the brisk air, wondering if their sailor will appreciate their display of goose-pimply flesh. Others are more practical. Collectively they wait expectantly, impatiently. 
They have to be incredibly resilient and self-sufficient, these Navy wives, to survive the long and frequent separations required of “sea duty”. Adjusting to life again with Honey is even more challenging than separation. Sadly, for too many couples the home-again/gone-again deployment schedules spell disaster for a marriage already frayed at the edges; more than a quarter of Navy marriages never make it. The Navy wives that do stick it out are a tough breed. Alone, they are both mother and father. As single parents they manage car repairs, emergency room visits when junior falls off his skate board and breaks his arm, household finances, sickness, sleepless nights, isolation, and often in the evening stillness, a lonely heart. By themselves they endure the crucible of pregnancy and childbirth: in a few moments several babies will see their fathers for the first time. Many children will hide behind Mom, not recognizing their daddies. Children that had been crawling when Honey went away are now walking. Silent, shy children when he left are now loquacious yammerers.
A lot has changed in eight months.
The Underwood is full in view now and growing larger by the second. Dressed in their whites, scores of sailors "man the rails", stand straight and eager along the ship's railing. Each searches for a familiar face on the dock and smiles broadly when he sees her. The tugs nudge the Underwood ever so gently into her berth. Sweet anxiety flows unabated between dock and ship.
As sailors throw bow and aft lines to the waiting dock crew, a curious parallel comes to mind. Most of us throughout our existence on Earth struggle with heavy shackles of doubt, grief, pain, loss, exhaustion, and disappointment. Hopefully, most of us also create, or manage to find along the way, a measure of comfort, belonging, joy, peace, and love. Eventually we come to realize that there must be more to our existence than this.
We occasionally have a vague sense that we are not permanent residents here: on this planet, at this place, in this life. We are foreigners sojourning on a strange, alien ocean. We toil and watch. We grit our teeth and white-knuckle our way through the storms. We sigh with relief in the calm and rejoice at each spectacular sunrise and sunset. And we sail on.
Somewhere, where we cannot see or touch, they are waiting eagerly for us, just beyond the horizon. From time to time, when we are particularly still or in need, we even sense their gossamer and tender brush against our soul.
We are torn. We cling to life but our spirits long to go home to them, to those who have gone before.
The Barns family, together again
They are waiting expectantly, impatiently for us. They see us coming and call to us. They stand on the dock searching the rails of the ship bringing us home. How excited we are to see them. How joyful the reunion.
We yearn for their touch, their embrace, to sit in a beautiful, quiet place and talk for days, for years, for centuries. We have so much to tell them about our life on Earth, and they have much to tell us. We’ve missed them. We suddenly realize just how homesick we’ve been.
A lot has changed in the years since we left. We’ve amassed a huge reservoir of experience here. We trained and prepared for this, but it has turned out more difficult than we imagined. On Earth we sometimes walk by faith, clear-eyed and confident. Other times we stumble in the dark. Sometimes we stumble a lot.
For now, we wait and work and endure, and look to the day when we man the rails of our own homecoming.

*From “O My Father,” Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, no. 292

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