Five years after she retired, she was towed a few hundred miles south to the harbor, where she's been ever since. At the time, it was a big deal; no aircraft carrier had been turned into a museum. The carrier's new home state established the museum, and for the first few years things went well.
But the years since have not been kind. Preserving any ship is a huge task, but a great big one with a huge, flat deck (especially one with a lot of wood beneath the non-skid coating) is something else altogether. There's the corrosive environment that comes with living right next to an ocean. There's bad weather, hurricanes, gales, you name it. Then there's the man-made problems: a museum that grew too large, a development project that went bust, a state with budget problems, and some ideas that flopped in execution. There's maintenance decisions made in the name of expedience and cost that turned out not to be the best. There's also some restoration work that was done with a lot of heart, but accuracy was another matter.
In fairness, some of the problems come from the fact this museum was the first of its kind. Nobody really knew back then preserving an aircraft carrier was going to bring these kinds of long-term problems. We didn't know what we do now about the challenges of ship preservation, and we didn't have the tools then we do now. (You can really get an idea of what the Navy, and of what the preservation community, has learned if you go here and spend a few hours reading. Getting a decommissioned ship for donation has become very difficult, and rightly so after a few embarrassments.)
And I'll also say this much: The museum's current management knows the job ahead is immense, and is working on a long-term strategy. There are encouraging signs. But the museum needs resources to make it all happen, and I'm not sure those resources will be forthcoming unless a philanthropist with a few hundred million bucks to spare shows up.
I was happy to see my old friend again, but I ached for her. It's been 32 years since I first went aboard, and on every visit since (and I've lost count of how many times I've been aboard), she's seemed just a little more unhappy. I've seen her go from being a proud warship to a sideshow attraction, a political backdrop, a movie set, a venue for sporting events...taking on all kinds of jobs just to ensure her very survival. As rational as those decisions may be, you still see just a little more of her dignity fade every time something like that happens. A ship that dodged bombs and torpedoes and kamikaze attacks, a ship where men fought and died, a ship that launched pilots on missions (some of whom never returned)...a ship that played her own important role in history. A great ship that's now a sideshow, a ship that needs a lot of help, and a ship that must also dodge the calls from a vocal minority who see her as a taxpayer burden that should be towed out to sea and sunk (not realizing that getting the ship in suitable condition to scuttle would cost only slightly less than making the needed repairs).
It's all this that struck me as I passed through compartments on board that have been consecrated to the memory of her fallen sisters. It's sad that Enterprise and Essex and Ticonderoga and Hancock and so many others with distinguished service records fell to the blows of pneumatic hammers and cutting torches, their remains loaded into rail cars. And yet as I looked at what has happened to the ship that housed those commemorations, I found myself saying to a picture of one of those long-gone ships, "At least you were spared this." (The quote from "Crossing the Line" about the long-gone Enterprise, near the bottom of this page, really hit home about that time.)
I hope my friend will survive. In spite of everything that's happened to her, she still means a lot to me. But every time I see her, I ache a little more, and a little part of me wishes I could pick her up with my hands and bring her home with me.