First Light

First Light

by John Athanson


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First Light by John Athanson

What starts as a journey to find the essence of his great, great grandfather becomes the author's journey to chronicle his own life and times. John Athanson's journey takes him through three decades of distinguished service to his country. We experience the thrill of his early days as a midshipman at the California Maritime Academy, as a naval officer aboard combat ships, and with a Beach Jumper Unit during the Vietnam War. Then we stand beside him as he commands the USS Schenectady during two deployments to the Far East and Indian Ocean.

He takes us onto the bridge of his ships to witness the intensity of operations at sea, including difficult ship maneuvers, gunnery action, storm evasions, and an engine room fire. Later, we witness him as an international affairs specialist on sensitive assignments to Iran, Nicaragua, Hong Kong, and Italy. We share the excitement of his work, and travel with him to exotic backwater paradises, Shanghai's waterfront, Tibet's High Plateau, Tuscany's hilltop towns, and Germany's alpine mountains. He shares this poignant journey with his beloved wife, Ruth, and their three sons, David, Stephen, and Michael. It is an extraordinary adventure.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781440191411
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 11/16/2009
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.88(d)

About the Author

John Athanson is a veteran of twenty-eight years in the U.S. Navy, during which time he was awarded numerous medals for his achievements, including the Defense Superior Service Medal. He and his wife of forty-three years, Ruth, have three grown sons. They live in Virginia.

Read an Excerpt


Memoir of a U.S. Naval Officer
By John Athanson

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2009 John Athanson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4401-9139-8

Chapter One

First Light

"What do you want to call him?"

The question descended out of nowhere and jolted me into consciousness.

I stood dumbly in my mother's bedroom, my back pressed against the nubble of her white chenille bedspread. The acrid smell of mothballs had made me woozy, and now the glare of sunlight through the window hurt my eyes. I wanted sanctuary, but this was neither the time nor the place.

What am I suppose to say?

I couldn't concentrate on the question. Instead, I hung my head and focused on the hem of my mother's skirt.

"Daddy," my brother said.

Paul stood next to me, his arm pressing against my shoulder. He was a year older than me and quicker when it came to these things. I was glad he answered first.

The hem rose as my mother bent over me.

"Is that what you want to call him?"

I nodded.

"Then, from now on that's what we'll call him."

The discussion ended, and I turned away.

I didn't understand much of what happened that day. Later, I learned my mother had married a man from Oakland who brought Paul and me nickel candy, usually a five-flavor roll of mint Life Savers.

Yet, I remember that meeting well. I can see exactly where we stood and the arrangement of the room. Iremember my hesitance. But most of all, I remember the question-and the light.

It was the earliest conversation I recall having with my mother. I was five.

Infantile amnesia obliterated all memories of my mother before then but for a few flashes in the dark.

* * *

I was born knock-kneed on December 8, 1942, the second son of Russell and Frances Leslie. My parents named me John Wayne, after the movie star. No one ever called me "Duke."

Russell and my mother separated about the time I arrived, so that put everything on a tilt.

For a while, we lived in a boarding house in San Lorenzo, California. I don't remember much about it, except when my brother made a hole in the wall behind our bed and got into big trouble. I think he was trying to break out.

My mother worked at Saint Mary's College near Moraga. In those days, it was a preflight school for naval aviators heading for the war. I once asked her what she did exactly at Saint Mary's.

"I filed papers."

This was a period in my mother's life she rarely spoke of. I don't think she ever got over her divorce. Maybe she blamed me. I asked her about it one day after we ran into one of her former high school friends at a bakery in Oakland. My mother introduced me.

"Why, you look just like your father," the lady said.

I didn't know what to say since I had never met Russell or even seen his picture. So I just thanked her.

I broached the subject on our way home.

"Mom, why did you get divorced?"

My mother stared at the road ahead, clutching the steering wheel with both hands.

"One day I was taking his suit into the cleaners, and I found a receipt for flowers in his jacket pocket."

"And ..."

"And they weren't for me."

She said something about a certain blonde, but I already had my answer. I never pressed her again.

When I was about two years old, my mother was bedridden with polio. So we had to move in with my grandparents who lived in the small town of Orinda. We stayed there even after she recovered and got a job as a hatcheck lady at the Athens Athletic Club in downtown Oakland.

I have fond memories of those days.

Our grandmother-we called her "Nana"-doted on Paul and me. Every day, she read us stories like The Spotted Seal and The Secret Garden, and others that began: "Once upon a time ..."

In the summer, my brother and I played cowboys and Indians in the backyard where we used an old piece of canvas as a tent.

I spent hours exploring the creek bed flowing through fields of pussy willows, looking for bull frogs and box turtles. I had imaginary playmates-an old tree stump gnarled in the likeness of a troll and a colorful garden statue of a sleeping Mexican peasant with his knees pulled up under his chin and a sombrero covering his face.

Sometimes I played with Tony-Nana's golden cocker spaniel-or watched Grandpa in the tool shed hammering out old rusty nails. Grandpa had lived through the Great Depression, so he knew the value of a used nail, a stretch of rope, or a paper bag brought home from the grocery store.

Our icebox was full of small bowls and jars of leftover food-even a few peas could be used in tomorrow's dinner. When I opened the cooler, the breeze passed through the mesh screen and the aroma of fresh vegetables filled the kitchen.

The milkman came daily. Nana poured the cream off the top of the quart bottles into a pitcher. Butter came in a soft white block with a yellow ball the size of an egg yolk. Nana said it was because of the war. She let me mix the two until the butter turned a pale yellow.

On occasion, Nana took out her Indian beads, headdresses, and breastplates. She had gotten these from the Washoe Indians camping alongside the Central Pacific Railroad at Lake Tahoe when her family had migrated to San Francisco in 1903. She also had silver trays and German beer mugs from when my great-grandfather owned the Huebner-Toledo Breweries-before Prohibition.

Every Saturday, Nana drove us to Oakland to see the matinee at the Chimes Theater. Afterward, we stopped by the South Berkeley Creamery for a hamburger and a milkshake.

Orinda was just a way stop in those days; the first town east of the Berkeley Hills, tucked in rolling countryside that once contained only farms and ranches.

In the 1930s, other small communities sprang up along the two lane road that headed eastward into Contra Costa County. These towns soon took the names of Lafayette, Walnut Creek, and Danville. Places where people never locked their houses, and you could double-park your car and leave the engine running on Main Street.

Old-timers called Orinda "the Crossroads" because the town's few commercial buildings were built at the intersection of two roads: Mount Diablo Boulevard and Moraga Way. The Crossroads Bar sat on the northwest corner, the Flying Horse gas station and OrindaTheater-added in 1941-on the southwest corner, and the Casa Orinda restaurant and Black's market on the southeast corner. It was everything you would expect of a crossroads town.

The restaurant was part saloon-a roadhouse where everyone knew you. Jack Snow, a cattle rancher from Montana, owned it. He kept a collection of antique firearms-muskets, flintlocks, and gunslinger pistols-in glass cases in the restaurant. Paul and I spent hours eyeing those guns, our imaginations running wild.

The art deco theater featured the week's newsreel-mostly updates on the war-coming attractions, two movies, and a cartoon for thirty-five cents. I saw my first movie there: Walt Disney's Bambi. I didn't understand why the bad hunters had to kill Bambi's mother.

Mr. and Mrs. Black owned the town's grocery store. He stocked the shelves and cut the meat while she added up our food with a pencil and a sheet of paper.

"Gretchen, you want to pay now or put it on the book?"

Nana always kept it on the book until the first visit of the month. Then she paid in cash what was owed.

We used ration stamps during the war for gasoline and meat.

My grandparents' home sat in a valley surrounded by rolling hills. Early spring showers brought a blanket of green grass that slowly turned brown as the summer wore on. From our backyard, I could see the tops of the western foothills that eventually merged with the taller Berkeley Hills. They appeared as barren buttresses-except the highest hill in the far distance. It was capped by a mysterious, dark colonnade.

"What's that, Nana?"

"That's Heaven."

Nana was a devout Christian Scientist who recited the Psalms and believed in the power of the Word. She never faltered when it came to divine inspiration, like the time I broke my middle finger playing baseball.

"It's just 'error'," Nana said.

"But it hurts ..."

"It's only in your Mind. Don't think about it."

Oh, yeah, like positive thoughts are going to make it all better. Tell that to my poor, puffed up purple finger.

I soaked my finger in warm water mixed with Epsom salt. It may have been error, but it still hurt.

Eventually, I figured out the distant colonnade was just a dense clump of eucalyptus trees. As for the broken finger, it was what it was.

If Nana lived in a state of grace, my grandfather sided with the devil. It had something to do with Prohibition, when the Huebners lost the family brewery. Ever since then, my grandfather thought the whole world was going to hell in a handbasket. He looked for every opportunity to confirm this belief, and-when found-leaned on a limited vocabulary to address it.

One day, I found him hammering away in the work shed next to the garage.

"Grandpa, what are you doing?"

Down came the hammer. "Goddamn it to hell." Translation: "I'm pounding out nails."

With my grandfather, I usually never got passed the first question. But this looked like a lot of work for just a few nails.

"Why don't you buy some at the store?"

"The devil you say."

Bang ... bang ... bang.

That just about covered it.

Living with my grandparents instilled in me a balanced perspective, and throughout my life I never failed to find the right words to fit any occasion.

Our house on Orchard Road bordered a vacant lot on one side and the home of President Madison on the other. At least, that's what I thought for the longest while. A certain Mr. Madison lived next door, and my grandfather always spoke of him as being "well off." I once asked Nana why Mr. Madison was such a "good person," and she said because he was the fourth president of our country and a founding father who wrote the Constitution. Well, naturally I got the two Madisons confused, and although I never saw any children he "founded" playing over there, I pictured him as a good father, but probably strict. I tried not to make any noise on that side of our house on account I didn't want the president complaining about me to my grandfather. As far as I know, he never did.

We continued living lives of quasi-positive thinking on Orchard Road-until the morning the black sedan pulled up.

I was playing in our front yard while Nana tended her daisies and petunias along the brick pathway. She stopped her work, walked over to the car, and spoke softly to a lean, apologetic man with gray hair. After he drove away, Nana took my hand and said we had to go in. She was peeling potatoes over the kitchen sink before I realized she was crying.

"Nana, why are you crying?"

"I'm not crying."

I tugged on her dress. "Nana-"

"That was Mr. Takahashi and his wife ... they used to be our gardeners ... they can't come anymore."


"Because they're moving to Oregon."

"Why are they moving to Oregon?"

Nana turned and looked directly in to my eyes, searching for the right words.

"Because they were interned ... they had to live in a camp ... just before you were born."


"Because they were Japanese."

"But why?"

She closed her eyes.

The "why" just hung there-

I had gone too far.

She put down the potato and paring knife, and shut off the water. She shook her hands over the sink, turned, and rested them on my shoulders.

"Because, our government thought Japanese people would do bad things to us. So they had to go live in camps until the war was over."

"Is the war over now?"


"Then why aren't they coming back to us?"

"Because they don't think of this as their home anymore, that's 'why'."

Nana withdrew her hands, and returned to her potatoes.

I leaned against the cooler door, lost in thought.

"Is Mister Taka ... Takahashi mad at us?"

"No, Honey, he's just very sad."

Nana resumed weeping, so I didn't ask any more questions about Mister Takahashi. I never saw him or the black sedan again.

In 1948, my mother remarried and we moved into a two-bedroom duplex-with a party line telephone-on Moss Wood Drive in the neighboring town of Lafayette.

I didn't have any thoughts about my new dad. He just showed up in our lives one day, and that was that-as though it had always been that way.

We transferred schools that winter. It was a terrible thing to be thrust into a new class in the middle of the school year. I didn't know anybody. To make matters worse, I was one of the youngest students-a handicap all the way through school.

The day before my sixth birthday, our new father drove us to the Alameda County courthouse for our adoption. The judge asked if he could see Paul and me alone in his chambers. He said something about the importance and gravity of the procedure.

"Do you understand what's happening here, today?"

"Yes," we replied.

"Do you want this man to be your father?"


Then he signed some papers.

Our last name changed from Leslie to Athanson. I don't recall anyone ever calling me "John Leslie."

We moved into a new house on Pine Lane in the spring of 1950. It was a good time to be young.

Paul and I had our own General Electric radio. We lay in bed listening to our favorite radio shows: Big John and Sparkie, Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders, and The Lone Ranger-"you go, Kemo Sabe!" The Shadow was on at night. I pulled the covers up.

"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!"

All our heroes fought for truth, justice, and the American Way. It's different today.

We saw our first television set at the Alameda Naval Air Station. My new dad served as a Navy warrant officer during the war and was now in the reserves. On Sunday nights he took us to the officers club-they served prime rib that night. While he and my mother had cocktails in the lounge, Paul and I watched television.

Early television was in black and white, with a lot of static. If we were lucky, we could pull-in all three channels. Amos and Andy, Ed Sullivan, and The Wonderful World of Disney were the most popular shows. We got the American flag, our national anthem, and a test pattern at the end of the evening.

My father brought home our first Zenith television in 1954. He set it up in the guest bedroom, which became known as the TV room. We had one of those ugly TV antennas strapped to the chimney. Every other weekend my dad climbed onto the roof to adjust it in a vain attempt to improve the reception. One day, the TV company hooked up a new model and he never set foot on the roof again.

Paul and I joined the local Boy Scout troop and got our Eagle Scout badges at the same ceremony in September 1957. Then I served as a junior assistant scout master until my senior year in high school.

We spent our summers at Lake of the Woods in the Desolation Valley Wilderness Area of the Sierra Nevada. Our scout camp was above eight thousand feet, so it took a day or two to adjust to the altitude.

An old horse breeder at Echo Lake supplied the various campsites with his weekly horse and mule pack trains. Chet Mitchell was a genuine American cowboy-more comfortable around horses than people. One of his wranglers once told me Chet lived close to the ground. I always thought that was a fitting way to go through life.

I helped unload the horses when the pack train stopped at Lake of the Woods. Occasionally, I'd find a loose horse along the trail. I'd rope it and set out looking for Chet, knowing he was somewhere in the valley. It wasn't really necessary. All the horses and mules knew the way back to Echo Lake.

But I liked hiking in the wilderness. I was one of the few campers who could find Lost Lake. Not that it was ever "lost"; it just wasn't there sometimes. And, I knew where Frata was buried-up near where she built the horse corral on the way to Frata Lake, which we called Warm Lake, because it was. I bet I could still find her marker.


Excerpted from FIRST LIGHT by John Athanson Copyright © 2009 by John Athanson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. First Light....................1
2. By the Bay....................11
3. The Navigator....................20
4. The Gig of the Morton Maru....................34
5. Pelham Street....................46
6. Monkey Goo....................48
7. Beach Jumpers....................62
8. Monterey....................75
9. The Little Beavers....................79
10. Peter Rabbit....................89
11. Sank Like a Rock....................94
12. The Arms Bazaar....................106
13. Command....................127
14. Down Under....................135
15. The Long Way Home....................143
16. A Plan of Action....................151
17. The Russians....................157
18. Sea Buoys....................161
19. You Call, We Haul....................166
20. Tok Sok Ri....................171
21. Five-Canteen Days....................174
22. Reminiscence....................179
23. Henry David Thoreau....................195
24. Nicaragua....................198
25. The Attaché....................206
26. Land of the Dragon....................212
27. In the Queen's Interest....................221
28. The Roof of the World....................231
29. Solfatara....................255
30. La Dolce Vita....................261
31. The Oracles....................268
32. Death Came Calling....................279
33. Zugspitze....................282
34. Course Changes....................292

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