In the Shadow of the Battleship
Written by Sarah K. Inman
Sunday, 11 March 2007 21:42
Four fighter jets bring noise, a giant whooshing sound, to the crisp spring sky. Two helicopters chug past in the opposite direction. In a rigid hull inflatable, seamen from the Coast Guard bounce on waters surrounding the USS New Orleans, guns at the ready.
On Saturday, March 10, people come to recognize the commissioning ceremony of the LPD 18 model vessel, which, according to the literature being distributed, is “a technological marvel” with “superb living conditions for the crew…” With six landing spots, two cannons “for surface threat defense,” the ship can hold 66 officers and 654 enlisted persons.
Stretching 105 feet upwards and 684 feet across, the vessel is hard to miss. For the past week, the USS New Orleans has sat on the river alongside Woldenberg Park. Soldiers carrying M-16s face outward, guarding the ship, and tours are given to those willing to check their cell phones and pass through metal detectors.
It’s worth noting, too, that the vessel survived Katrina, having been moored on the Mississippi in 2005. Commander Brad Skillman marvels at “the pride and resiliency of the Northup Grumman workforce, who returned from the hurricane and worked hard to finish the ship even though their homes may have been destroyed.”
Three other vessels in America’s history have been named New Orleans, the first used during the Spanish-American War and World War I before being decommissioned and sold for scrap metal. Commissioned in 1934, the second USS New Orleans “served valiantly” at Pearl Harbor, and for this she was awarded 17 Battle Stars. The last USS New Orleans was deemed “highly effective” during both the Vietnam and Cold Wars and led the tactic of minesweeping the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm.
On one side of a barricade, the commissioning ceremony takes place. “Man the Ship and Bring Her to Life” is among today’s activities. Friendly seamen work the borders, distributing literature about the LPD 18. After a nineteen-gun salute, the colors are retired and a band strikes up “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
In the shadow of the battleship on the open end of the lawn, a man named Richard recites prayers. He has a system to it. “May peace be everywhere in the country of Mongolia. May peace prevail on Earth. May peace be everywhere in the country of Monrovia. May peace prevail on Earth...” White haired, slim, and wearing a floppy hat, Richard carries a book that lists places to pray for. The list is segmented by continent, country, certain cities, eastern countries, indigenous peoples, living creatures, and earth and the environment. It’s important to pray for peace for everyone and everything. One must express gratitude towards nature too. “Fighting doesn’t have to be a forceful thing, in my opinion,” Richard says. Then he adds, “War is obsolete.” According to Richard, different ways of using force exist. One is war. Another involves accessing love and using the heart of humanity.
A small section of people gather around a banner that reads, “How ‘bout 1.3 billion dollars for the real New Orleans?” They’ve come from other parts of the city, mostly downriver, to picnic and protest war. Dressed in turquoise pants, Christopher, the organizer of the movement, walks about, chatting amicably with folks. Billy, sporting an impish mustache, cites the cost of the USS New Orleans as an argument against it. “We know how 1.3 billion dollars could actually reinvigorate the community.” The vessel, he claims, is not representative of New Orleans. In fact, it’s as if “they just stamped the sign New Orleans on the ship.” A man wearing a t-shirt that reads “pussy power” over the image of yellow tabby kittens echoes Billy’s sentiment and wonders about the return of Jean Lafitte, given the piratical nature of history.
Following the path along the park, a dark haired woman dressed in yellow linen calls out to a lady soldier armed with an M-16. “We love y’all. Thank you so much.”
Richard continues. “May peace be everywhere in the country of Mozambique. May peace prevail on Earth. May peace be everywhere in the city of New Orleans…”
Seaman Kerns asserts, “It’s a great spring day, a great day for New Orleans.” The ship was built in Avondale and soon will cruise to San Diego where it will be stationed. “We’re bringing the ship to life,” Kerns says, “a testament to the people who live here or those who want to come back.”
Kitt, a five-year-old German sheperd, stands guard near the Aquarium, as do Les, Caesar, and Rick, who barks at a child when the kid’s parents jokingly request discipline.
A few yards away, near the Algiers Ferry Landing, one gray cat, the color of the celebrated vessel, braves the noise. She pokes out from under the sago palms and takes the food offered to her. She’s one among many who lies in wait for the ship to sail.
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