We went to Mobile this past weekend to visit my Uncle Steve and his wife, Brenda. When they invited us, we searched our schedule, hoping we would be able to make it over there sometime this summer. The only weekend open was this past one. Thankfully, it worked for them, too. It was a last family excursion before our chance at summer trips were over. School is still three weeks away. However, my younger son’s football practice begins this week (initial evaluations) and that will soon be an everyday thing.
While in Mobile, we visited the U.S.S. Alabama, a battleship moored in Mobile Bay. The submarine, U.S.S. Drum, is set up next to it. There’s also a hangar with a number of planes on display. I had never been on a battleship before, so I was looking forward to seeing this one.
My kids and I first viewed the firing area for the large guns on board. I don’t mean the ones where the gunners themselves can change the elevation with a crank. Instead, these guns stretch several decks, being aimed on one and loaded on another. We also walked around the deck of the ship, trying to imagine what it was like back then.
And then we took the self-guided tour. To go below deck, you have to descend a steep set of stairs. My first thought was for the safety of my kids. What if they fall? Whenever we got on these stairs, I made sure I got under them, particularly my younger son, whose legs are shorter and who tends to be less careful.
Oddly, though, my second thought was of Himeji Castle in Himeji, Japan.
Himeji Castle is a seven-story structure and one of the few original castles remaining in the country. It also has steep stairs with narrow entrances between floors. We visited Himeji Castle on our last trip to Japan. As I ascended the stairs, my wife worried that I would hit my head going up or else fall. Apparently, hitting your head was a concern on the Alabama. As I climbed up the above ground decks, I noted small pillows attached around the openings to the next level. (I found out later that those pillows were likely put there for tourists after the boat was retired.) My kids and I climbed as high as we could, then waved at my wife, who had chosen to remain on the deck.
What I remember most about the ship, though, was what was below the main deck. When at sea, the battleship carried 2,500 people. There were beds everywhere and many of the areas aboard ship could be converted to makeshift sleeping areas (via hammocks). I’d expected to find metalwork and other functions that repairs of necessary shipboard items. However, there were cobblers, barbers, paymasters, a general store, bakers, movie rooms, a laundry (and a place to have your best uniform pressed if there were visitors), films, and many more functions you’d never consider. It was a floating metal castle, a self-contained city.
Himeji Castle, like most castles, was built for defense. However, it was never actually tested. The Alabama though, was built for offense as well. A castle ready to move forward. A castle ready to do battle and to take that battle to the enemy.
And I’m thankful for those served aboard her.
Postscript: The next day, we went to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola. Pensacola is just over an hour from Mobile. It showcases a complete history of naval air warfare. My kids loved it. (You can touch most of the exhibits and climb inside cockpits.) The admission is free. And it’s worth the look if you’re close.