September 21, 2019

Four Years Ago

It was my third weekend in LA. The new job was going OK, although it was pretty much what I'd expected, and I knew I'd never love it. LA itself was still confusing, even baffling. But I was starting to get a handle on things. My apartment and general business was in good enough shape that I could take some time to go do something fun. And there was one thing that had topped my list since well before I'd moved. Iowa.

My first look at Iowa

So it was after church and lunch with new friends that I set off, heading for San Pedro and silently screaming the whole time I was on the freeway. The directions were baffling. Apparently, there was some construction that forced an alternate route to the ship.1 But I made it, despite the huge trucks, and realized that the online ticket I'd bought needed to be printed out, so I'd have to buy a second one. Oh, well. I'd probably use it eventually. After all, this was a battleship! I'd become increasingly interested in naval architecture and old warships since discovering Norman Friedman in college. I hadn't been on a museum ship since Blueback four years earlier.

I don't remember much of that first visit. I remember that she was smaller than I expected. Still massive, but it's hard to picture 887' of ship, and I'd overshot some. And I remember thinking that it was cool to see what I'd read about, but that I wasn't actually learning all that much. An hour and a half later, I was in the giftshop. For reasons I find impossible to explain at this remove, I bought a Missouri hat. My existing hat needed replacing, and I had grown up in that state, mistakenly believing that the last battleship was the best. I'd wear that hat in my picture for my first crew badge. I was young and stupid.

The disappointing thing was that none of the really cool stuff was open. I couldn't see the engines, or the guns, or the fire-control computers. All of those doors had "Authorized Access Only" signs on them. So I asked one of the security guys how I could get authorized. He said that I should volunteer. It sounded like an interesting idea, and I said I'd think about it.

Me with the big guns on that first day

Over the next month or so, I kept thinking about it. I was still coming to grips with being on my own and out of school, and I figured that sacrificing a dozen or so Saturdays for a chance to see the really cool bits of the ship was a fair trade. After that, I'd probably scale back my involvement, or just quit. So I got into contact with Sue, Iowa's wonderful volunteer coordinator, and we started to figure out where I'd go. I was on the fence between tours and ops, and I ended up in tours because it aligned more with my skills. I came down one day after work, and talked with Jim Pobog, the tour lead. We got on well, and I officially signed up to join the crew of the battleship Iowa.

In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I soon discovered that while getting to see the behind-the-scenes stuff was cool, the best thing was getting to talk about battleships and having people listen. I'd always had an excessive number of nerdy interests, but the usual reaction had been "you're being weird, please go away". Now, even when I wasn't at the ship, I was able to talk about one of them and the common reaction was "tell me more". One friend who I'd known years before said "yeah, we would have stopped you after 10 minutes back in the old days". Given that we'd just finished a 2-hour tour, it seemed like a pretty good deal to me.

Which isn't to say that the other stuff I did in my 21 months as a tour guide wasn't a lot of fun, too. From my first day through getting the chance to ride America up from San Diego to getting to know the bowels of the ship, it was a blast. And once I moved, I didn't stop talking about the ship, I just moved it to the internet. It's been a good four years, and that great grey ship has played a big part in it.

1 This finally wrapped up in late 2020, and it was weird to not have to go on a weird alternate route during my visit in 2021. Before that, I'd only made a few trips that didn't take weird alternate routes because of it, and those were the times I came in from the north for one reason or another.


  1. September 21, 2019Doctorpat said...

    I haven't been on a battleship. I have toured USS Midway, and "smaller than I expected" are not words that spring to mind.

    HMS Surprise (near Midway in San Diego) and a number of submarines in various locations around the world, yes, they are tiny compared to how they look on TV/movies.

  2. September 22, 2019bean said...

    It wasn't movies/TV that was informing me, it was books, which aren't particularly good for size reference. Don't get me wrong. She's not a small ship, and I wasn't disappointed, I'd just let her grow in my head.

    Re Midway, she's significantly visually bigger than Iowa. I was surprised at her size, which may have been me overcompensating for the initial encounter with Iowa. Some of it is also that she's a carrier, which means lots of volume relative to her displacement.

  3. September 23, 2019doctorpat said...

    Thinking of how battleships are depicted in TV/movies... I can't actually think of many. There is "Tora Tora Tora". And that Steven Seagal thing "Under Siege".

    That's it.

    By comparison, there are heaps of submarines in movies and TV. Probably because they are much easier and cheaper to get one to film, and 99% of the filming is done inside the ship, where you can easily mock up a (much more roomy) film set to actually film in.

  4. September 23, 2019bean said...

    The movie Battleship also springs to mind. I think that part of it is that submarines tend to operate alone, which makes it a lot easier to tell a story about them. A battleship is a fleet unit, which greatly constrains what you can do with it without sounding really strange.

  5. September 23, 2019Daib said...

    Hey, X-Men First Class had a scene with some gratuitous 60s naval porn, including an Iowa. Shells traveled a bit too slowly, and there definitely wasn't a massive soviet surface fleet off of Cuba at the time, but still enjoyable to try and recognize ships.

  6. September 23, 2019bean said...

    That's not actually an Iowa. It's clearly inspired by Iowa, but there are lots of details that got changed. Also, Iowa and Wisconsin decommissioned in 1958.

  7. September 24, 2019Lambert said...

    How would you convey how big a battleship is in words?

  8. September 24, 2019bean said...

    Imagine a (slim) 70-story skyscraper lying on its side.

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