Friday, September 26, 2014

I’ve known TJ Whalen since 1967 when we were on the pre-commissioning unit for the USS Lapon. We were both Machinist’s Mates second class at the time. He was an auxiliaryman and I was a nuke. At sea we shared the lower level of machinery room #2; he nursed #2 O2 generator and I monitored the water inventories of the steam generators.

In 1968 we were both eligible for rotation to shore duty and also to take the exam for petty officer first class. We conspired, in a low level fashion, to avoid becoming PO1c because that rotation date would extend to near eternity. In order to take the exam one must complete certain course work, demonstrate competency in a standard set of “practical factors”, and submit a request to take the test.

We accomplished none of the above.

We were at sea for a “spec-op” the day the exams were given. I stood the 0000-0600 watch at that time and at 1000 I was comfortably asleep in my deck-level bunky-poo next to the hatch leading to the diesel generator space. The Chief of the Boat (COB) shook me out of my well-earned nap, “C’mon, Pete, time to take the first class test.”

“I don’t have a test. I didn’t submit for one.”

“There’s one with your name on it and the captain says you’re going to take it.”

Yes, our commanding officer was that way. Every man was expected to rise to the next level as quick as he could. My service record has entries that I successfully completed all of the requirements.

I dressed and made my way to the crews mess. Among the other crewmembers sat TJ. He gave me a confused, pleading look.

TJ was always smarter than me. Sometimes it is difficult for people who share a deep fraternal bond to admit a cohort is smarter. I have no problem bowing to TJ.

Three or four months later the results were in. I passed the test and was advanced in the first increment.

TJ failed the test and soon thereafter was transferred to shore duty in Ravinia, OH, not far from his hometown. As a first class, my rotation didn’t come up for another four years.

Over the years I kept track of TJ and a score of other Lapon sailors. We started having reunions in 2000, so I have seen TJ and his wife at least every two years.

TJ has fought ocular melanoma for fifteen years. His cancer metastasized, in predictable fashion, to his liver. In addition to the initial loss of his right eye he has survived twenty procedures to remove tumors plus various chemical treatments.

Throughout the fight TJ maintained a positive attitude and good spirit. Despite his optimism, those of us close to him have been holding our collective breath. He can’t beat the odds forever.

I got the call from another longtime friend who lives in TJ’s region and the word is the latest treatment didn’t work and caused deleterious side effects. Earlier this year we had discussed going for a visit before he dies.  It’s just 900 miles, and I can stay overnight with Jack and Ginny in Columbiana, Ohio.

I think it will mean more to TJ than if I waited for the memorial service.

Chuck Petterson’s passions are his wife, music, writing, and dogs. He is grateful his telephone no longer interrupts him to fly off to service clients and he can concentrate on his passions. He and his wife, Lynn, live on two acres in Washington Township, Harrison County, Iowa, with a varying number of permanent resident dogs and rescued Irish Red and White Setters and Gordon Setters. He plays with a variety of local and state-wide bands, which ensures he gets out of the house a few times during the week. He is a U.S. Navy Submarine Force veteran and active with local and national veterans’ organizations.