Everyone we know or have known, at least for more than just a casual acquaintance, touches us in ways that we may not always understand at the time. Memories of those we have known fade into dim recesses, remaining forgotten until an event or circumstance triggers a flood of memories of an earlier time.
Today I had such a flood of memories.
I was doing a search on Google and found myself looking up the name of my first commanding officer in the Navy. I found his obituary and learned that he had died four years ago. More troubling to me was learning that he died of complications from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).
Douglas Volgenau was his name. Born outside of Buffalo, New York in 1937, he graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1959.
I first met him at Navy Nuclear Power School at Mare Island, California in 1975 where he was commanding officer of the school. He was little seen after he met with our class for a question and answer session, except by those unfortunates who wound at academic review boards for failed courses; given the nuclear Navy, all I knew who went to those boards wound up doing something else.
After further nuclear power training and submarine school, I reported to the USS Billfish (SSN 676) in April 1976. By coincidence, he had reported earlier to the same boat where he was to be the commanding officer.
As he took command I started my journey on learning what it really meant to be an officer. The journey was not easy as I was full of myself and had a great deal to learn. Needless to say, the education came in the form of being yelled at a lot – many times by him.
He was a big man, having been a heavy-weight wrestler at the Naval Academy. He had a dark complexion and when he was pointing his big finger in my face I knew I was in trouble.
But to his credit, he gave me time to grow and over time I learned to keep my mouth shut and become what I had been commissioned to be.
I still recall the first watch I stood after I was qualified as officer of the deck (OOD). The boat was scheduled to go to periscope depth at night, which can always be a dangerous evolution due to risk of collision if there are nearby surface vessels, and more so at night due to reduced visibility.
I made my preparations, called down to the wardroom where he was at dinner, reported the status, and requested permission to go to periscope depth. He gave me permission and remained at the wardroom table – trusting me to do my job without him needing to oversee what I was doing – something he had done for other new officers of the deck.
It may not seem like much, but at that moment I learned what trust really meant: if I had made a mistake he would have been held responsible and his naval career would have been ruined.
His and my time on the boat wasn’t as happy as it probably could have been. There was a decided chill between the senior officers and the junior officers. Many officers in our wardroom left the Navy, and when I was younger I thought a great deal of it had to do with him, given his sometimes overbearing personality. He wasn’t a perfect man by any means as none of us are.
But as I grew older and more reflective, I started to understand he had been a victim of his predecessor who had burned out the officers and crew in a brutal shipyard period. The resentments and hostility toward the Navy were passed on to those who reported onboard over the next year – including me. Of the many regrets I have, one is that I wasn’t mature enough at the time to understand the interpersonal dynamics.
After my tour on the Billfish, as I was getting to go to my next command, he told me something I have always treasured: “I wouldn’t have said this to you two years ago, but I’d be glad to have you as an OOD on any mission.”
I knew even at the time that he was a decent man – loving and proud of his children and tolerant of their teasing even when we officers were in his house, and in love with his wife Sue who he remained married to for 53 years.
I remember the day he was to take command. He arrived in his dress blues with his rows of ribbons. It was only when he showed up that he learned the uniform of the day was dress blues with medals. As I was the most junior officer present, he asked for my single medal and hurriedly took off his ribbons – to be replaced by my single medal. Sue laughed the whole time, and I liked her immediately; I saw the strength of their marriage in that silly moment.
Life is fragile as I learned last year and we all face our mortality. Learning of his death was sad, but learning how he died made it so much more difficult.
I can’t imagine what his last two years were like as ALS took his strength and he lost all movement. I have to believe he would have endured it, with Sue and his children beside him, as he did with life – face the problems and do the best he could.
So, while it’s four years late in coming, Admiral – you had a profound impact on me, and on who I became. I will never forget you.
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar. – Tennyson
His obituary is here.