Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Death Picture

Frequent readers of my blog know that I am a retired Navy Officer. I served from 1985-2007 and those were 22 of the funnest, fastest and pretty much incredible years I have spent on this planet so far. They were also years where it was possible for me to go to work one day and never return. My work environment fairly dangerous, as I was surrounded by high explosives, JP-5, high energy propulsion systems, rotating machinery, etc. Couple this environment with deploying to places in harm's way where there were people who wanted to kill me and you pretty much get the picture. When I made my last deployment aboard USS JOHN C. STENNIS (CVN 74), a commercial photographer left with us as he and is assistant were hired to take photographs of each member of the crew for inclusion into a cruise book. A cruise book is a lot like a high school yearbook. In it, images are collected of places the ship went, things that happened on board as well as a picture of most of the crew. Well, the deal with the photographer was this: if you pre-paid for photos, he would take two proof shots. If you did not pre-pay for the photos, he would only take one. I thought it was pretty silly to pay $30 for a pre-determined number of photos when I did not even know how the proofs would look, and I knew that most portrait photographers took 10 or 15 proof shots to give the potential client a lot of images to pick the right one. Thus, I opted for the "Take 1 proof and see how it turns out."

So somewhere between San Diego and Pusan, South Korea, my time came to have these aforementioned photographers take a single photo of me for the cruise book. I filled out a few forms and I opted to have a copy of the proof image sent (free of charge) to Deirdre so she could see it. Within a few minutes of my photo being taken, I completely forgot about it as I was busy working as the AUXO of the STENNIS on deployment. The photographers walked off the ship in Pusan, returned to the United States and then developed the film (this was at the dawn of the digital images era). Once the film was developed, a copy of the proof was sent to Deirdre and much to my surprise, it was one of the best portrait images ever taken of me. Deirdre liked the photo so much she ordered a copy for herself, my mother, her mother and my sister. Within a few weeks, these photos arrived and the response from my mother, mother-in-law and sister were all quite positive.

However, the story took a twist. While I had no intention of being killed while I was in the Navy, the possibility was always there. Additionally, most military spouse have a semi-official portrait of their husband/wife/daughter/son in uniform that is known in military circles as the "death picture." This is the photo that is given to the local paper and used in the event that the service member is killed on active duty if an article is written about their passing. Thus, Deirdre had an up to date image of me, if needed.

One night while I was gone, Deirdre and my sister Patty are on the phone. I had been gone about 3 months and the conversation went something like this:

Patty: Thanks for sending me that photo of Paul. I really like it.
Deirdre: No problem! It is one of the best military portraits taken of him.
Patty: I agree.
Deirdre: Yes, it is his death picture.
Patty: (silence)
Deirdre: Are you OK?
Patty: What do you mean by death picture?
Deirdre: If Paul is killed while on deployment, that will be the photo I will give to the local paper if they run a story about him.
Patty: Oh, I had no idea. Are you serious?
Deirdre: Yes. It is no big deal.

The conversation then went onto other things, but clearly, my sister was disturbed by the thought of her having seen the "death picture." Deirdre later found out that Patty was so upset about that picture that she put it into a drawer in her home where it remains to this day. When I made a road trip to see Patty before I retired from the Navy at the end of 2007, I saw the photo, and it was still sitting in a drawer.

Now you would think that my spouse would be the one most upset about the functionality of my death picture, but that is not the case. The following is a common statement, "Navy wife. It's the toughest job in the Navy." I would have to agree. Dee knew the dangers I faced, but she also knew how much I enjoyed serving the Navy and the Nation during my career. And she had a great death picture at the ready, should it have been needed.


1 comment:

Deirdre said...

In fairness, it IS a great picture. It was never my intent to be So cavalier. :)