A Veteran’s Journey Home

Our Panama Canal pilot, Capt. Olson, could have been a character in a Carl Hiaasen book. Bowlegged with skin leathered from a life at sea, his confidence provided immediate comfort. We were ship number 26, but 24 was running late. This set him off on a good sailor’s tirade over the radio with the Port Authority … editing out some typical descriptive words from the mariner’s vocabulary, he proceeded to dress down the dispatcher for bringing us in when the locks were not ready for us. We did an extra loop around the harbor and took our place in line behind 24 and proceeded to the Gatun Locks. On the way we passed a yacht from, as best I could determine, Norway, with a bunch of cheering, drunk revelers who would follow us through the locks like a pilot fish. They provided us with a good laugh to get us started and as they got drunker, better laughs along the way.

Returning to the pilothouse after doing some “international relations” on the bridge wing, I found my executive officer looking for an outlet to plug in a speaker. “I don’t work without music,” the good pilot had told him. The first set of locks would be set to a soundtrack of the Eagles. “Heartache Tonight” started us off and I hoped it wouldn’t be a regretful irony.  

As we approached the locks the first thing all of us felt was a sense of awe, history and the kind of giddiness children get when they get to do something really, really cool for the first time! Sure, my nerves stood on edge as we approached the wall of the first lock, but Capt. Olson took charge and helped us nail the approach. After the Canal line-handlers boarded, a crew of two rowed, (yes, rowed) in their row boat to collect the tending lines that would be used to haul aboard the wire ropes that would connect us to the “mules” that would tow us through the locks. Mules are powerful electric locomotives that ride on either side of the locks keeping the ship centered and moving through the canal after the dock floods. Pretty cool little system.

The date on the locks, 1913, gave us that sense of connection to some amazing history. After much talk about the building of the canal, we all had a newfound respect for both the good and bad of progress. This water that lifted us the 80 some-odd feet to the level of Gatun Lake has lifted so much history! Warships from both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf — some of the greatest warships ever constructed. These same waters lifted the mammoth battleships that were so big they carved ruts into the lock’s walls. My little frigate was truly joining the company of giants! Amazing.

Nine hours later, we emerged in the Pacific Ocean, all of us proud members of the “Order of the Ditch.” There had been no heartache, just a “Peaceful, Easy Feeling.”

Steve Fuller retired from the U.S. Navy in 2019 after nearly 27 years of service serving at sea on ships as small as frigates and as large as aircraft carriers. A visit to the Driftless and a desire for a radical course change brought him home to Wisconsin where he lives on a small parcel of land with chickens and horses and … more to come! He has been a creative writer since he first saw U2 perform in Live Aid, and now as he returns home after a life of service, he looks forward to sharing more of his writing with willing readers.