Living History

Vice Admiral Phillip M. Balisle addressed the Naval ROTC of the University of Oklahoma. Conscious of the audience’s youth, the Admiral wanted a speech in a humorous vein.


Like most of my generation, I learned history from Hollywood. Every Saturday, we watched John Wayne or Lee Marvin perform magnificent–but G-rated–heroics while a full orchestra played in the background. Here I was, younger than you are now–trying to balance my popcorn and Dr. Pepper, but there’s John Wayne on the screen–shooting a bazooka in each hand. In reality, even a Marine can’t do that!

Your generation is learning history from video games. And you may be getting the better education! Of course, you’re spending a lot more time with those games than I ever spent at the movies! But from the technical and tactical perspective, you now are experts at destroying Roman legions, Spanish galleons, German tanks and Soviet subs. Some of you have even managed to win Pickett’s Charge.

And I think that you are ready for the next level of play. As officers in America’s armed forces, you are going to live history. You’ll be imbued with the achievements and traditions of our past, and you’ll come to embody, love and continue that legacy, your legacy. I know that you already love those traditions. You have proved your devotion by your choice of a career. After all, there are other ways to serve your country: you could be postal workers.

Furthermore, I think everyone here has a romantic nature and a keen sense of adventure. Any Oklahoman who hears the call of the sea must have remarkable ears or a wonderful imagination. Let’s face it: the Red River or Lake Thunderbird never inspired a naval career unless it was in pure exasperation.

What can I tell you about the sea? It deserves poetry, but with my drawl you wouldn’t want me to recite any. I will promise you this: sailing on the eternal vastness of the ocean, seeing nothing but water and sky, you’ll have a more humble sense of your place in the universe. But it is the kind of humility that makes you grateful. The magnitude, the majesty, the beauty of it all, you’ll feel the poetry of the sea.

And you’ll also feel a bond and a kinship with everyone who has ever sailed. I don’t mean just those wretched souls with whom you’re sharing the head. I am talking about history, a living tradition of exploration, adventure and duty. In fact, sailing is older than history itself. It long predates writing and cities, and it must be older than Noah. Man has ventured to sea for fifty thousand years.

Think of the very first sailor: some obvious lunatic who lashed together a few floating logs and then went along for the ride. You have to admire both his guts and his luck. And think of that unknown genius who invented the sail. That really put us in business. With just a raft and a sail, mankind began exploring and inhabiting the islands of the world. Imagine the reaction of the kangaroo and the other marsupials when, forty thousand years ago, the new mammals showed up.

Of course, with rafts we literally were skimming the sea, hopping from island to island. Man’s curiosity and vision extended farther than that. Over time, we would build ships whose capacity could match our ambition. Sailing from Lebanon, the ancient Phoenicians not only knew the location of Britain but what it had to trade. By the Renaissance, caravels and galleons could cross oceans and circumnavigate the world.

Yet, it remained a dangerous venture. Those wooden hulls were always at the mercy of the sea. Maritime charts were primitive and incomplete. Worse, until the mid-18th century, ships were navigating half-blind. Mariners could determine locations by latitude; after all, the Sun is a fairly reliable guide. But longitude was a mystery. Finding a location in terms of north or south was a matter of chance.

The Pilgrims actually were supposed to have landed in Virginia. For a mistake, Massachusetts proved a lucky one. Had the Mayflower strayed south instead of north, the Pilgrims might have arrived in Florida and had an exciting encounter with the Spanish Inquisition. In fact, the Pilgrims were lucky to have safely landed anywhere!

The ships lost at sea have provided continual employment for archaeologists and treasure-hunters. It’s ironic but some of the worst ships ever built are now some of the best preserved. The 17th century Swedish battleship, the Vasa, sank almost as soon as it was launched. That was instant preservation, and now you can see it in all its pristine glory in Stockholm. So, the engineers among us here this evening can achieve immortality through incompetence, but please do it in someone else’s navy.

I can promise you that we have mastered the principles of longitude and buoyancy. Your life will be a little easier, safer–than the crews that sailed in triremes, caravels and galleons. Some people might wonder why the sailors of the past would undertake such risks. But we know exactly why they did. The sea stirs our senses and beckons us to a life of service and adventure. It has been true in every navy, from Phoenicia to our own. It is the character of the sailor, and it has made us the free-spirits of the Armed Forces. You know, we had tattoos more than 200 years before the NBA did.