After months of writing letters to a Naval officer stationed on the USS Guam, students in Lois Lee Porter's first-period class at Old Mill Middle South finally got the chance to put a face to the name of their shipboard pen pal.
Lt. David Gray, a graduate of Chesapeake High School and the U.S. Naval Academy, visited the school Friday to thank the 29 students who have corresponded with him and his shipmates aboard the Guam since Christmas. The amphibious assault ship had been on a tour of duty in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of the former Yugoslavia for six months.
"I really wanted to meet him, because it's kind of hard to write to someone you really don't know," said 12-year-old Steve Twardowski.
Added Pam Shiflett, also 12, "It's kind of exciting to meet him and see what he looks like. The only picture we had was of the ship."
Dressed in his white uniform and joined by his wife, Jenifer, Lieutenant Gray, 27, passed around pictures of the ship and the crew while detailing life on the seas. For instance, there are no telephones aboard the ship, limiting contact with family members, Lieutenant Gray said.
And generally, movies and television programs sent on tape are about a year old. Even the news comes late. A week had passed before crew members learned about the bombing of the World Trade Center, he said.
Students asked Lieutenant Gray questions ranging from where the ship is docked now (Norfolk, Va.) to whether the sailors celebrate holidays on board (definitely yes).
Lieutenant Gray described the USS Guam as a city unto itself. About the length of "two-plus" football fields, the ship was home to 900 Marines and 900 Navy personnel for six months.
The ship is large enough for sailors to drive jeeps on and for helicopters to take off and land. There's even room for a couple of basketball hoops. But the big thing was for the sailors to fish from the deck of the ship, which is about 10 stories tall. Seldom were any of the fish kept, Lieutenant Gray said; the sailors were more interested in seeing what kind of fish lived in the different bodies of water.
But with the work and the limited activities on board ship, Lieutenant Gray said sailors can get pretty lonely. While the JTC lieutenant was fortunate enough to have his wife writing him daily, he said many of the sailors received very few letters.
"Your letters are like hot cakes on the ship. It was very difficult to tell people that we'd run out of them. I don't have the words to express the excitement these letters caused, or what they meant.
"Sometimes you get so focused on bad things going on in the world.Then, you get a letter from someone about how they didn't do so well on their spelling test, or how their parents are on them to do better. How could that not bring a smile to your face? It just makes everything seem that much better," he said.
The students' letters and small gifts meant so much to the lieutenant that he now carries with him a friendship bracelet one of the students sent him.
"I can't wear it with my uniform, but I keep it right here in my pocket," he said.