It happened in the hull of the USS North Carolina, that wondrous World War II warship. It began with an email from the Our State editor, Elizabeth Hudson. I’ve been bugging them for work, and she offered me two stories. Told me to pick one. It was like picking Door Number One or Door Number Two, on whatever that game show was.
I won the grand prize.
It’s one of the greatest stories I’ve discovered yet; it’s a story I’ve spent more time on than any other. For four days, the battleship became my office. For four days, I drove four and a half miles to her. I walked past those waiting in line for tickets, and I unclipped chains forbidding others access. It made me feel good, but not in a prideful way. It made me feel like I was hunting for something that nobody else was even allowed to discover.
I unclipped chains to access ladders and hatches that took me back through the depths of the ship to the archives. They keep files upon files upon files deep in that battleship.
And what I discovered down there made me feel as alive as I’ve felt writing about anything in a long time. What I discovered reminded me of why I fell in love with journalism.
The same could be said of the writing process. I wrote and rewrote like crazy. And the revisions Hudson suggested, they were brilliant. We discussed the ship as a character in a story, and I loved that. The original draft of the story was 4,000 words long and, though driven by a narrative, heavy-laden with detail. We cut out nearly half, creating instead a quick-reading short story, more of an experience than a report. That was and is always my goal; Hudson is one of the best editors I’ve worked with to date, and I work with some great ones.
I fell in love with journalism again because I fell in love with the people in the story. They were people from fifty years past, and one of them grabbed my heart from the outset. You’ll meet him in the story, the man they called Jimmy Craig. He’s the one that started it all. He read the story in the Wilmington Morning Star that the battleship would be scrapped, same as everyone else read it. Same as everyone else, it pained him. Same as everyone else, he wanted to do something about it. But unlike everyone else, he actually did. He was the candle that lit the fire; his vision brought the battleship home from Bayonne, NJ, to Wilmington, NC.
And in one of the greatest tragedies ever, he never got to see her here, in Wilmington. Of all times to die, Jimmy Craig died the week she was on her way.
That’s the story grabbed me; around it, everything else fell into place. I loved meeting and writing about Chuck Paty, the skinny 17-year-old who nearly got thrown into the ocean when he first boarded her. He fell in love with her, as all sailors do with their ships, and when time came to support her, though he suffered horrific stage fright, he became a public speaker, imploring others to help him and Jimmy Craig and everyone else save her.
And they did.
Then there was the ship herself, that massive, invincible, beautiful thing. It was a romance, our time together; like she’d won the hearts of those whom she protected, she won mine. At the time of her birth, she was the greatest warship the US Navy had ever built. Had politics not played their part, the treaty would have been signed aboard the North Carolina, not the Missouri. She earned 15 battle stars, routinely devastating America’s enemies.
So desperate for her to be gone, to be done wrecking them, were the Japanese that not once or twice, but six times they mistakenly believed her to be sunk. She suffered her wounds and carries her scars, like any warrior, but she never sank, never died, never failed her men and her country.
Now she nears her 50th anniversary in her home in Wilmington. And I am the lucky joker who got to write about her for North Carolina’s biggest magazine.
Already I’ve gotten emails from people telling me the story moved them to tears. This is a hard life, the writer’s life, and the rewards aren’t always so great, financially speaking.
But still, I feel rich.