Jhe uss Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship in the United States. Launched in 1797, she was one of our first six frigates, with three masts and 52 guns. She is best known for her actions in the War of 1812, in which her defeat of the British battleship HMS female warrior earned him the nickname “Old Ironsides” after British cannonballs bounced mostly harmlessly off the Constitution hardwood shell.
Nowadays, with the age of wooden sailing warships long behind us, the Constitution spends most of her time docked in Boston, available for tours. I recently organized a family trip to soak up American history and visit writer friends in Boston, where I had planned to see the houses of John Adams and John Quincy Adams and my boots on the bridge of Constitution. My stars, I was thrilled to have the chance to walk on the decks of the famous old battleship. I read the books. I read the Constitution museum and ship websites. I was as ready to board this ship as anyone since Captain Isaac Hull took command of the ship in 1810. I did my best to get my family excited.
“Can you believe we’re going to be able to walk around on this amazing ship?” I asked my granddaughter. It was the American family vacation. We have covered almost 3,000 miles, delighted to see this ship. The streets of Boston are tricky, but in the crushing Boston heat and humidity, we finally broke through the fence on the port side of the Constitution. There we saw the sign. The vessel was closed due to unforeseen maintenance issues. I was Clark W. Griswold from the classic 1983 film National Lampoon’s Holidayreaching the cherished destination only to find it closed.
“Violin!” I exclaimed. (That’s my story, and I stand by it.) Instead of holding a security guard hostage like Griswold does in the movie, I spoke to Dominic Harris, 27, Petty Officer 2nd Class, an active duty sailor in the United States. Marine who is stationed aboard the Constitution. A few years ago, looking to challenge himself with something new, Harris applied and was accepted aboard the historic ship. He had six months of intense training, learning the ancient ship’s parts, her rigging and the difference between a bowsprit and a rat line, as well as her history, commanders and major engagements. Born and raised in Baltimore, Harris is proud to serve aboard the Constitutionshare its incredible story with visitors and be part of its history.
A black man, Harris looked at the Constitution with pride. Since its beginnings over 200 years ago, free black men have served side by side with their white shipmates. “A hundred years from now, I will still be part of his story,” Harris said. He takes great pride in teaching lucky and promising new sailors straight out of boot camp on the Constitution unique attributes.
The ship is towed for short cruises seven times a year. Harris traveled on it 18 times – 18 trips on the incredible ship! He spent the night on board supervising special events for the scouts. He loves to shoot his old cannons and climb on his rig for sail maintenance. Soon Harris will transfer to the Naval Reserve, seeking a new career in civilian law enforcement, but his Navy uniform will be adorned with Constitution medals, and he will carry the proud memory of service aboard America’s greatest ship.
Me, I’m discouraged to be deprived of the chance to board, but I am grateful to meet a great man like Harris, and will return to Boston in the future to, finally, visit the Constitution.
Trent Reedy served as a combat engineer in the Iowa National Guard from 1999 to 2005, including a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
*Some names and call signs in this story may have been changed due to operational security or privacy concerns.