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Warships and Gum

On December 7th, 2011, I stood on the deck of the USS North Carolina taking in the sunrise over Wilmington.

Moments before, actor Mario Van Peebles and I were foraging through the craft services table for something we could call breakfast. I stole away with coffee, my customary recently-defrosted bagel and a package of gum—it’s bad form to have food breath, especially when filming in such close quarters.

I put on my first officer’s uniform and retreated to the bow where Carolina’s union jack was at half-mast. I rehearsed my lines a bit, and then my Great Uncle Bill crossed my mind.

The Battleship North Carolina was built in the New York Naval Shipyard where Bill worked as a shipfitter—someone who welds or rivets together structural portions—before being deployed in 1944. In the film I was working on, the Carolina serves as the USS Iowa. Bill had a hand in building a few warships, including the USS Missouri, aboard which Emperor Hirohito formally surrendered Japan.

Bill was married to my grandmother’s sister, Helen, and he and my grandfather were best friends.

Robert, my grandfather, was in the Navy but never had to go overseas. When Bill was deployed, Robert gave him a pack of Dentyne and simply said, “I want this back.” That’s how tough guys say, “Be careful and please come home safe.”

Bill wrote the date on the package and kept it with him for two years.

His WWII tours culminated in accompanying the Missouri into Tokyo Bay onboard the USS Teton, which was built in Wilmington. When Uncle Bill came home, he promptly returned the Dentyne to my grandfather as ordered.

Bill went on to serve on a number of ships in the Korean Conflict and then went back to work in the shipyard until it closed in 1966. A museum to what is better known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard opened there in November. It holds either a lunch pail or a hard hat Bill had donated when the idea of a museum was in its infancy.

When my grandfather died in 1969, my grandmother returned the package of Dentyne to Bill. When Bill passed away in 2006, his daughter Barbara gave it to my Aunt Regina.

Presently, the petrified Dentyne is in the pocket of Bill’s deployed grandson, Jay, somewhere in the Andar Province of Afghanistan.

Beneath Carolina’s 16-inch guns I read articles about the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, noting the dwindling number of survivors from that era. Then I was startled by the squawk of a production assistant’s radio, followed by the declaration, “I got him right here.” It was time to go.

During the walk to set, I popped a piece of Dentyne Ice—coincidently stale and hard as a rock. I laughed, saluted Uncle Bill and went to work.

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