A battleship sails again
Houston Chronicle (December 15, 1988)

ell darn. I missed something I really wanted to see. Told myself for months: Jeff, track this. This will be something to see. And I missed it. Had to see it on television: the Battleship Texas taking to the open water for the first time in 40 years.

I don't specifically remember being one of the Texas schoolchildren who, legend has it, tossed one of his dimes into the kitty to save the Texas from the ship-breakers. I'm old enough to qualify, though, and old enough to remember visiting the Texas, in summer, when I was too young to have enough sense to wear shoes. I had a nice tour of the parts of the Texas' deck that were in the shade.

I was going through that bellicose period boys go through at that age. War Deuce wasn't that long ago. there were plenty of War movies being made and I loved them, especially those about the Navy, because they tended to have a lot of actual combat film interpolated as stock footage.

I remember operating one of the Texas' deck guns. You could crank one wheel and get the gun to move vertically and crank another and move the thing horizontally. I suppose I imagined I was Gary Cooper or John Wayne, shooting down Zeros. Neither Wayne nor Cooper would be operating deck guns in the war movies I liked. They were up on the bridge, playing captains. I was actually identifying with William Bendix or Ward Bond.

I remember that the places I really wanted to visit aboard the Texas were the places I couldn't go: as high up as I could, up in the crow's-nest, and as far down as I could, beyond the chains that roped off the non-public areas.

In my next sure memory of being aboard the Texas, I was an adult, working for the Chronicle. In the mid-'60s, 20th Century Fox was using the Texas as a location for The Sand Pebbles. I interviewed Steve McQueen, who played a sailor aboard a small U.S. Navy gunboat patrolling a Chinese river in the '20s. The Texas, the only surviving unmodernized battleship of that era, was serving as the vessel from which McQueen was being transferred. Director Robert Wise employed cunning camera angles to obscure the presence of the San Jacinto Inn on one side of McQueen's ship and the concession stand on the other.

This was back in the era of three-hour "road show" movies, when they were shown once an evening, like plays, to reserved seats. Since the film had the local angle of the Battleship Texas, the local premiere of The Sand Pebbles was a benefit I think for a veteran's group. Small problem: Even for a road show Sand Pebbles was long, and the sequence aboard the Texas had been cut.

I wheedled the very gracious Wise into sending the deleted sequence here so that it could be run for the premiere audience in advance of the film, the only time, I was told, that the sequence was ever projected. It ran about a minute and a half, nothing very much: McQueen packing his sea bag and saluting the flag as he left lhe ship. The Texas looked great.

The Texas is now in Galveston being spruced up and made watertight so that it can float with the tides instead of eternally flopping on the mud. Don't know how much sprucing up $5 million can buy. But I know that standard for which the restorers can shoot: the HMS Belfast, floating with the 20-foot tides of the River Thames in London. I visited the Belfast last summer.

It's a much younger ship. launched in 1938, It's not a battleship ~ I think the British call this class of ships frigates - but its job was to lay serious quantities of hurt in all directions. Biggest guns are 6-inchers. The Belfast got severely dinged by a German mine in 1939, shelled Normandy on D-Day and supported U.N. force's in Korea.

Unlike the Texas, which had been partly scavenged for reusable gear before being purchased as a monument, the Belfast was extensively refitted only six years before it was taken out of service in 1964. The effort to preserve it began before the breaking yard loomed. The brass remains fiercely polished. Sample rounds of shells and ammunition are piled at hand.

One can imagine sneaking aboard at night, tossing off the bow and stern lines and steaming down the Thames.

Hey, there's a movie in this. Who does it? IRA terrorist. No, British Navy pensioners, dreaming of the days of empire, protesting with this lovely, nutty gesture the manginess of the British lion.

Kenneth More would be perfect for the ship's former captain. But he's dead.

Houston Chronicle © 1988

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