Buck and Wanda Nichols, at right, shop for a photo with son, Anthony and his wife, Sara, prior to boarding Old Ironsides for their cruise on America's oldest commissioned warship. Though built of oak and live oak laminates, the ship was dubbed "Ironsides" by the enemy British when cannonballs bounced off her hull.
Photo courtesy of Buck Nichols
Having spent four years of his life aboard U.S. Navy warships during the Vietnam War, Buck Nichols did not hesitate when offered the opportunity for him and his wife, Wanda, to take a cruise on the USS Constitution, also known as “Old Ironsides.”
The oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world, the three-masted tall ship also is the flagship of the U.S. Navy.
The Nichols’ son, Anthony, had won a lottery allowing him and three guests to board Old Ironsides for a 2 1/2-hour cruise in Boston Harbor in July, and Anthony invited his wife, Sara, and his folks.
Over the years, the Nikiski couple has had numerous opportunities to do a variety of things.
This one was a “no-brainer,” Wanda said.
Buck served as a Seaman 2nd Class aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard off the coast of Vietnam during his four years in the Navy, and aboard the carrier USS Oriskany.
Except for one 30-day period while Buck was on a classified Navy mission, he and Wanda wrote letters to one another every day from 1962 to 1966.
Now they had the chance to visit a piece of Navy history, accompanying the crew on the turnaround cruise, something only a few hundred guests are allowed to do each year.
“They have to turn the ship around to face the masts in a different direction to the sun,” Buck said he learned while on the cruise.
The heat from the sun causes the masts to bend, and if not turned periodically, the square-rigged sails would not be supported from straight masts.
Anthony, a 1986 Kenai Central High School graduate and a history and finance home-school teacher in a Post Falls, Idaho, cooperative, learned of the six-year lottery program the Navy and the USS Constitution Museum was conducting as an education program for grade school children and the general public.
This is the fifth year of the program, during which 25 K-12 pupils, 25 K-12 teachers and 50 members of the public are selected to participate in a turnaround cruise along with three guests each.
Literally, the luck of the draw brought boarding passes to the Nichols.
The Nikiski couple flew to Albany, N.Y., and drove to Boston for their adventure.
On the way, they visited Oriskany, N.Y., the namesake of one of the carriers Buck sailed on in the Navy, and visited the Oriskany Museum while there.
The day preceding the cruise, they were invited to tour the USS Constitution’s special repair shop and rigging shop and were treated to a reception at the ship’s museum.
They arrived at the ship at 8:30 the morning of July 16, and because Old Ironsides ranks high on a list of potential terrorist targets, they were required to pass through a thorough security screening prior to boarding.
“It was a lot like going through the airport,” said Wanda, describing the metal detectors, shoe removal and handbag X-rays passengers underwent.
“Then they gave us (plastic identification) bracelets we had to wear the whole time,” said Buck. They also were required to wear name tags aboard ship.
Walking up the gangplank has changed considerably since the 1800s when Old Ironsides was doing battle against the British.
Today’s gangplank is metal with side curtains and handrails.
“Going up, we had butterflies in our stomachs,” Wanda said.
Once aboard ship, the Nichols found things to be much the same as they were 207 years ago, when the ship first sailed the waters of the eastern seaboard.
The oaken decks were polished, hammocks were hung in the crew sleeping quarters and all the ship’s 44 canons were in operating order.
In fact, when the 204-foot long ship was towed by tugboats to a point across the harbor, the crew fired a 21-gun salute to the nation, Buck said. Later, they did a 19-gun salute to honor the military.
What Buck didn’t know was his son and other family members were scheming behind his back.
Guests on the turnaround cruise had been invited to bring flags to be flown from Old Ironsides’ mast during the voyage.
One lottery winner from Wasilla brought a state of Alaska flag. Some brought Old Glory.
Nichols family members had taken a U.S. Navy flag and sewn on ships’ patches and Vietnam War campaign uniform insignia commemorating Buck’s military service.
When the custom flag was unveiled, “Buck started bawling,” Wanda said from their Nikiski home Tuesday.
“I’d never been so honored in my life,” the 6-foot, 4-inch veteran said.
He also was given a certificate signed by Commander Lewin C. Wright, the 68th commanding officer of the USS Constitution, stating the flag was flown from the ship’s mast on July 16, 2005.
Retired with disability following heart and back surgery, Buck, and Wanda, a retired preschool teacher, enjoy camping and fishing.
They’re also active in Nikiski New Hope Church, which opened one year ago at Mile 23 of the Kenai Spur Highway.
They say their cruise back in history is a memory they will cherish long into their future.
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