Byline: Aileen Mehle
When Nancy Reagan christens the new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, the most modern and sophisticated carrier in the world, tomorrow afternoon in Newport News, Va., the day will also mark the Reagans’ 49th wedding anniversary. Since those early days from their meeting on a blind date to the California governor’s mansion and on to the White House, Nancy and Ronnie, as she calls him, have been inseparable. Now the world knows our 40th president cannot be at the ceremony, but Nancy will represent him and thousands upon thousands will gather at the Newport News Shipyards to do honor to this great advocate of American naval power. Six days after the christening, the ship will be launched, and after two years of exquisite fine-tuning will be delivered to the Navy, ready to roll, in 2003.
The Ronald Reagan is a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. Understanding the importance of these great warships to our military preparedness, Reagan, during his presidency, initiated five Nimitz-class carriers. As part of his legacy, when he left the White House, our country had a 15-carrier Navy deployed around the globe. The Ronald Reagan, 1,096-feet long, towering 20 stories above the waterline, weighing 722 tons, with a crew of 6,000 sailors, carries more than 80 aircraft on a 4.5 acre flight deck, and cruises at more than 30 knots. It took five years to build and millions of man-hours at Newport News Shipbuilding to bring to life. As for the women on board, there are more berthing spaces and facilities for them than on any previous ships of this class. You should also know that there are 1,400 telephones aboard plus 14,000 pillow cases and 28,000 sheets. More than 18,000 meals are served daily.
Anyone who has ever been aboard a mammoth ship of this size can never forget the feeling it evokes, pride and awe in the presence of America’s incomparable might. On my first visit, when my late husband, Adm. Roger W. Mehle, was then the captain and commanding officer of the aircraft carrier Saratoga, I was staggered. Of course, he ran the show, but it was much more than that. Aircraft carriers, after all, are as long as the Empire State Building is tall, and the flight deck reaches to the horizon. The display of power is overwhelming, and no one remains untouched.
For more than 100 years, the tradition throughout the world has been that women christen ships, using a bottle of champagne to do so. At Newport News, they treat the bottle like a baby. It’s enclosed in a slotted aluminum casing made in the Shipyard, and covered with a crocheted cotton sleeve to prevent fragments of the glass bottle from flying out. They take really good care of that champagne. It’s kept in an insulated bag at room temperature — just to be sure it’s good and fizzy and makes a splash when it’s broken. When the weather is cold, an electric heater is provided to keep the bag warm, and there’s a spare bottle on hand, just in case.
The ceremony is all neat and tidy now, but it was not ever thus. Ship christenings are almost as old as time. The Vikings used blood instead of champagne, sacrificed humans for good measure and called in the high priests to mutter incantations and appease the gods. Later, the Greeks and Romans, more civilized, used water as a token of purification. During the Middle Ages, wine was drunk just as the vessel hit the water.
In Tudor times, the christening took place after the ship was in the water while trumpets blared and the king’s lieutenant sat on his rump in an ornate chair on deck. After sipping a bit of red wine from a precious goblet and spilling a bit on deck, he would drink to the king’s health, toss the cup over the side and hit the road. Some of the greedier spectators went right over the side with the goblet which was worth a lot, hoping to retrieve it. The shipbuilders, eager to stop the practice, built a net around the ship to catch the cup. When the public screamed, Charles II ordered the Crown to provide the goblet, which was then presented to the master of the shipyard. In 1690, to save money, they said no more cup and substituted a bottle of wine. When champagne became the drink of choice, they unloaded the wine because, well, you know, champagne was classier.
In 1811, King George IV, speaking of classy, introduced the first lady sponsor. One of these lovelies’ aim was so bad that she hit a spectator instead of the ship, and the injured party sued for damages. The not-so- dumb Admiralty then ordered that in the future, the bottle must be secured to the ship by a lanyard. And that’s the way it will be when Nancy Reagan breaks the bottle against the ship’s hull at two in the afternoon tomorrow.
Everybody impressive will be there on this historic day. President George W. Bush himself will be the principal speaker. He’s coming with Laura. Other speakers will include such worthies as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; Jim Gilmore, the governor of Virginia; Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia; Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations; Acting Secretary of the Navy Robert B. Pirie Jr., and George Allen, the other Republican senator from Virginia. Bill Fricks, the chairman and chief executive officer of Newport News Shipbuilding, will host all the grand and glorious christening activities.
And this should warm your heart — Lee Greenwood, the Grammy Award winner, will sing his famous patriotic anthem, “Good Bless the USA” while the crowd roars, Lt. Cmdr. Donald Keller Jr. will conduct the Atlantic Fleet Band, and The Fighting Checkmates, a carrier-based fighter squadron, will perform a Navy flyover during the ceremony.
Everything will take place in the open air, come rain or come shine, so umbrellas are advised and comfortable shoes. Nancy Reagan is wearing a little black off-the-face hat, a black wool Galanos dress under a waterproof fur-lined coat and black boots. And for those who keep track of that sort of thing, she’s had them all since she lived in Washington. Yes, even the boots.