Sunday, March 28, 2010

Saying Hello to Uncle Daniel

In light of HBO's The Pacific, which began airing a few weeks ago, I thought I would mention a small tradition that I undertake whenever I'm back in San Francisco. I've already devoted considerable space on this blog to my treasured SF runs (click on the running tag for a sampling), and I've also discussed how much I enjoy spending time on the Coastal Trail, which traces the northwestern boundary of the City. One of the (so far) unstated reasons that I particularly like the Coastal Trail, however, is that in the course of any run or hike along its sandy path I get a chance to say hello to my Great Uncle Daniel.
The entrance to the Bay, as seen from Land's End
To clarify, Uncle Dan does not live along or perpetually stand on the Coastal Trail, although that would certainly make for rich blog fodder. His memorial, however, does; it stands right at Land's End, at the point where San Francisco drops into the Pacific, and thus at the half-way point for all of these runs and hikes. As a result, before I turn around and head east to home, I spend a few silent moments with the memory of him and his men, which is made all the more poignant by the memorial's vantage point over the interminable Pacific.
U.S.S. San Francisco Memorial
Uncle Dan, along with other male members of my family, was a U.S. Admiral who served in the Pacific Theatre during WWII; he was also FDR's naval attache and the commander of FDR's presidential yacht prior to the war's commencement. While in the Pacific, Uncle Dan commanded the U.S.S. San Francisco, and the bridge of this ship--its sides now pock-marked with shell-holes--is what stands on the Land's End precipice today. Why the ship bridge now rests here, of course, is somewhat self-evident. During the first naval Battle of Guadalcanal, which took place in the middle of the night on November 13th, 1942, Uncle Dan discovered that his ship was surrounded by Japanese Admiral Hiroaki Abe's destroyers; he ordered an aggressive attack, and was soon killed along with most of the ship's senior "bridge" staff. Survivors continuously stumbled over his long 6'6" frame, which was lying across the bridge, for the remainder of the dark battle.
6000 miles to Guadalcanal
My great-grandfather, who was commanding the U.S.S. Missouri in a different part of the Pacific, knew his brother's fate soon after; my grandfather, who would soon leave for the Naval Academy himself, learned of it from a newspaper while riding the streetcar home from high school. It's difficult for me to conceptualize what any of these experiences might have felt like--the battle, the news, or the war itself. A few years ago my siblings and I were on a memorial cruise of the U.S.S. Potomac on San Francisco Bay; one of the men on board was one of the U.S.S. San Francisco's survivors, and he spoke reverentially to us of our great-uncle's leadership during the battle as well as during the days prior. I don't know that I've ever felt more alien from someone with whom I've spoken; it's as though he were describing an experience that he'd had on Mars. And I'm very grateful that--fingers crossed--such experiences have remained so unfamiliar.

I think about these things, sometimes, when I'm out at Land's End; other times I just watch the water, which stretches thousands of miles beyond my sight line. Then I kiss my fingertips, place them on Uncle Dan's name, and run home.

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