Scrimshaw, swords and sailing away

As Mills Lane IV is finishing Navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1966, mail call continues to connect him with friends and family. His father sends him on weekend errands for the Ships of the Sea Museum and his mother offers tidbits about Georgia politics, house restorations and family gossip.

IN THE NAVY, Rhode Island, 1966

Mills shares descriptions of his current duties and dreams of what life might be after September graduation:

“Of course it is fun to contemplate the possibilities for duty assignments from plush military attaché duty in Paris to the most excruciating assignment as engineering officer aboard a rusty, forty-year old auxiliary. … Perhaps it is just as well that we have no voice, since there would certainly be self-recriminations of the bitterest sort if a young ensign found himself in a horrible duty that he had chosen for himself.”

If school is tough, he can make up for it on weekends.

“The OCS struggle has been soothed by weekend liberties back in Cambridge, the scene of my college debaucheries. I’m in Cambridge now, typing in the garden of my college club, sun overhead and iced tea – with mint, too! at hand … good escape and effective therapy.”

To a young friend at his prep school, Middlesex, Mills recommends what he is rereading, The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain, and offers a bit of sword play:

“I was especially interested in reports of your 50-inch, nine pound sword. … As a Navy officer, a sword is required costume and I already have my own from Germany. I am sure it is not as glamorous as yours but I am equally proud of mine.”

Mills expresses interest in the ship models a friend’s father was selling and goes shopping at his own father’s request for scrimshaw from a Boston antiques shop.

“I purchased some magnificent pieces – one shows a whaling boat capsizing, another shows lady Liberty America, and four others show fully-rigged sailing ships.”

He keeps up with much of the family through his mother, Anne. She makes regular trips from Atlanta to Savannah to see family members and take care of “house business.” She talks about selecting paint colors and light fixtures for their many restorations and the distribution of patriarchal portraits. She takes time off to have lunch with family at the Oglethorpe Club and decries a young girl’s white lipstick. She describes a wild family wedding with an uncontrollable 3-year- old flower girl and hopes “that older man can make the bride happy.”

Anne and Mills Jr. plan a trip to Estill, S.C., to see an 1830s house that is scheduled for demolition and talk about putting it on a Bay Street lot.

Not all the renovations are of houses: The bank’s “Cruz del Sur is now having its masts rigged. … When the masts are up, it will be as tall as a 10 story building – can you imagine?”

There were also the gardens. While her own tomatoes, “regular and cocktail were starting to come in,” Anne served on the Gardens Committee for the new Georgia Governor’s Mansion. She “tramped around the grounds with the landscape architect.”

She writes that “politics in Georgia is getting more and more frantic.” On the day of the runoff between Ellis Arnell and Lester Maddox for governor, Mills Jr. takes off for a short retreat with business associates and family members to avoid the phone. The men are later picked up by the bank’s helicopter, and the women “cleaned up and drove back home in a black, foggy, rain.”

Anne sends money and good wishes to her “Dearest, darlin’, adorable Birthday Boy” when he turned 24 on August 22.

Mills sends requests that his father send a “copy of the Venture article on ship museums” and his mother “copies of the Foreign Affairs Quarterly which have been piling up while I’ve been away.”

He emphasizes his new fitness by asking his mother to send him two of his suits to see if they need to be altered by his favorite Boston tailor: “Let me suggest you send the light-grey pinstrip (sic) and one other.”

She sends his grey pin stripe suit and the July issue of Foreign Quarterly to his Cambridge Phoenix Club.

His mother says his parents would be flying to Savannah when Mills IV was graduating from OCS in September: “Wish we were flying to Newport …shall be thinking of you with love and pride. So when you stand up there to be made an officer of the U.S. Navy – know that your Mother and Father are standing spiritually with you and will be trying to visualize what is happening.”

He counts the days until graduation, but takes pride in his success.

“After trial, tribulation, and some luck, I was appointed to a very modest student officer position. I’m in charge of taking the company to morning and evening mess, and I prepare the berthing and cleaning bills, plus a little more assorted paper work. It also means that I wear two bright brass bars on my collar, have a room steward to keep my room clean and neat (no more morning rush and calloused knees for me!), get liberty off base on Wednesday night while my friends study unhappy and disconsolate ‘aboard.’ Finally I have a room with a view of Naragansett Bay right outside our barracks; last night we could doze off to the tune of fog whistles.”

“Things are getting better and better at OCS. …  We had our last physical training tests (which are known derisively and fearfully as JFK’s for the man who suggested them for the Navy).”

His life is mapped out for the next several months.

“The name of my ship is the USS STURDY and its name sounds like something out of a second-rate WWII Pacific tale. I will be at Minesweeping school in Charleston for eleven weeks, starting Oct. 3. Then I will remain in Charleston for another three week course in “Supply Duties for Line Officers.” Minesweepers are not large enough for true Supply Officers, and so I suppose I will be in charge of ship’s stores, mess, laundry, and all of its administrative paper work. But I’ll have the best opportunity for real shiphandling aboard such a small ship, too.”

He isn’t sure where his ship would be deployed, but “an ocean-going minesweeper does take cruises to the Mediterranean.”

Rexanna Keller Lester is working on a book about Mills Bee Lane IV and his preservation legacy.

For more on architecture and the history of the South, click on the “Books” tab at the top of the page.

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