Hugs and handshakes, memories and musing, laughter and longing – the scene behind the scenes as USS Ponchatoula shipmates from across the country began their reunion in the Strawberry Room of Microtel the day before the official ceremonies at City Hall.
If it hadn’t been for the bright shirts with USS Ponchatoula embroidered on them, these folks are so much a part of Ponchatoula, one couldn’t tell the shipmates from the residents in their greetings. Some said they can’t make every reunion but are sure to make every Ponchatoula reunion, that the people are so friendly, it feels more like home!
One tall guy with a big smile, Kenneth “Smiley” Lawson, said he started out in Chicago and enlisted in the Navy at 18, retiring to Hawaii after 26 years as Chief Boatswain’s Mate. Another crew member joked, “Lawson wins the prize every reunion for coming the farthest.”
President Phil Rehlander of Dallas said the core group numbers 45 with some 150 in membership, but due to medical problems, not all can travel. Rehlander was on the ship from late 1964 through 1967 and did three tours of Vietnam. He paid tribute to former Tangipahoa Tourism Director Betty Stewart for first bringing the reunions to Ponchatoula, saying upon arrival, some of the crew had gone to Stewart’s to offer condolence in the loss of her husband, Roy Harris. Pointing over to effervescent Emily McKneely Matise, greeting and being greeted, it was evident before he said it, that she’s also been a long-time help in bringing them here.
Steve Van Meger of St. Louis said he’s been to every reunion here and served aboard the ship from 1963 to 1966. Last week he had lunch with a friend of Ponchatoula’s late Raoul Laurent who could be seen each year in dress uniform at the annual July Fourth flag-raising. His friend asked him to call Raoul’s widow, Carolyn.
So, a meeting within a meeting took place in the lobby as the two met for the first time. Mrs. Laurent said she and her husband had moved here from Destrehan and he’d been in service three years on ships Mellette and Cambria then in the Reserves for 25 years. So, she fit right in.
James and Carol Ball, originally from Sacramento came from Sierra Vista, Arizona. He was on the ship from 1964-1967 as a ship fitter, working in the laboratory testing oils and fuel. John Hearn of Texas said he served aboard the USS Ponchatoula from 1964-1967, in the “early stages of the Vietnam Conflict”, expressing beautifully what a ship is all about:
“When the Navy brings in a newly-commissioned ship, it’s just a piece of machinery until the ‘plank owners’ come aboard. For it is first officers like R. P. Miller and Tom Davis who bring heart and soul and the ship stops being just machinery. Those of us later rejuvenated the heart and replenished the soul.
“When the ship is decommissioned, it goes back to being machinery. But when you folks made a home for it, your city rejuvenated its heart and replenished its soul.”
Hearn went on to say, “When 9 July 1955, I. N. Kiland broke the bottle of champagne on the ship, the USS Ponchatoula was released and slid into the water and into service. The remnants of that bottle have remained in that family for 52 years and they have decided that the City of Ponchatoula be its repository.
“Our organization is preserving history – that we preserve the history and teach our kids that these artifacts actually existed and for a purpose.”
And, so it is, that the artifacts entrusted to our city are also entrusted to our hearts and souls that we never forget, nor let future generations forget, what the USS Ponchatoula represents.