I haven’t been to the Washington Navy Yard in almost 30 years, yet the news of the mass shooting there yesterday still felt … too close to home. (More)
I was stationed at Marine Barracks, Washington D.C. for my final two years of active duty in the early 1980s. The base is tiny. Its only open area is the parade ground, carefully groomed for the Friday night ceremonial reviews that often host the President and other dignitaries. The Commandant of the Marine Corps lives in elegant quarters at the north end of the parade ground. Along the west side were other officers’ quarters. Along the east side are offices that, when I was there, included the rehearsal space for the Drum and Bugle Corps. At the south end of the parade ground were the offices, rehearsal space, and performance hall for the Marine Corps Band. Farther south, across the street, were our enlisted quarters: several floors of two- and three-person dorms, with a small mess hall and a gym on the ground floor and an underground parking lot.
If you wanted to play outdoor sports, the nearest facility was the Washington Navy Yard, three blocks further south, at M Street. The Navy Yard also provided our walk-in health clinic, the nearest branch of the Navy Federal Credit Union where most of us banked. I went to the Navy Yard to cash my paychecks. I went there when I was ill. I went there for physical therapy for a torn back muscle. I went there to play pickup soccer. I went there to admire the beautifully-painted and -sculpted dioramas at the Marine Corps Museum.
I also went there on official business, from time to time. The Navy Yard is home to the Sea Chanters, who graciously agreed to provide the music for a play that I wrote and directed to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I sat in on some of their rehearsals for that event, and they let me sing along in one session. My chaplain’s office sometimes referred struggling young Marine families to the Navy League for financial help, and I walked them down to the Navy Yard to introduce them to the volunteers.
The Navy Yard now hosts the Naval Sea Systems Command, which I remember best for a typographical error that became legend. The command’s message byline is NAVSEA, and its commander-in-chief is CINC-NAVSEA. A worldwide message on shipboard dining facilities went out with this header:
Subj: Ships’ messes
Needless to say, a corrected message was issued immediately. But local legend had it that the admiral who was CINC-NAVSEA framed a copy of the original message and mounted it on his wall.
Those memories and others swirled as I watched the horrific news yesterday. It had been almost 30 years since I’d been to the Washington Navy Yard, yet the news still felt … too close to home.
I had the same reaction to the Boston Marathon Bombings. I lived in Massachusetts and spent a fair amount of time in Boston during my teens. I never ran the Boston Marathon but, like many Bay State joggers, I had run Heartbreak Hill and dashed across the Marathon’s traditional finish line. The shops had changed, but I still recognized the street when I saw those awful video images. My partner lived in Colorado for awhile, decades ago, and had the same response to the coverage of this week’s tragic floods. Despite the distance in space and time, the news still felt … too close to home.
The news often feels like a reality television show, dramatic footage narrated by breathless anchors who seem – and many are – more interested in grabbing and keeping our attention than truly informing us about the events they cover. That makes it too easy to get callous, to cynically dismiss leaders’ comments as political posturing, to spin out conspiracy theories, to do almost anything but empathize with the people whose suffering we witness. Add our natural human tendency to care more about people we know personally, and it’s easy to feel detached while believing ourselves informed and engaged.
But then something happens in a place where you once lived. Faces and names, sounds and scents bubble up from long-buried reaches and it’s almost as if you are there. You want to reach out and hug the crying woman on television, not because you know her, but because you remember the other woman who did her job when you were there. They’re not the same woman. Yet they are. She was and somehow still is a neighbor, a colleague, perhaps even a friend.
Maybe if we felt that connection more often, we would spend less time debating esoteric theories, and more time working to prevent and ease real suffering. The people whose faces flash across your television screen deserve to be real. For them, far more than for me, yesterday’s tragedy was … too close to home.