The Wisdom of Age Project—Hampton Roads, Va. Spring 2012
Documenting Life Stories & How We Get By
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"A Story Worth Remembering"

by Jane Gregorski

—“To me when you are an officer in the Navy, you are constantly in the training mode. You are always teaching the younger people, so you have to start off with having trust and faith in other people and teach them the ropes."

I GREW UP LIVING THE LIFE OF A MILITARY BRAT, in which I frequently moved from place to place usually not knowing where my new home would be. My family and I were always very close with our neighbors whenever we lived in a particular area, but when it became time to pack our bags and move to a new place, those ties would slowly loosen and eventually break. However, this was not the case when I lived next door to Captain Andy and his wife Barbra. At the time, I was between the ages of three and five when my family lived in the historic lands of Thoroughgood, located not too far from the sandy beaches of the Virginia Beach Oceanfront.

My memories of the time spent living on old Country Club Circle soon faded once my family moved to Florida, but there was something that always stuck with me. Whenever my parents would tell stories about Captain Andy and Mrs. Barbra, an image of their backyard would instantly spark into my head. I felt as if I was sitting in their simple yet elegantly decorated screened in porch, overlooking their massive pool surrounded by slabs of blazing hot concrete and freshly cut emerald grass. The smell of a smokey barbecue always complemented the memory as well. That was the only memory my mind could ever convey about the Fosina’s. I could never place Captain Andy’s face to his name. So growing up, it was always a mystery to me as to who he truly was. Luckily, my chance finally came along to solve this enigma when Captain Andy graciously agreed for me to document his life and past experiences while he was in the Navy.

Finding Captain Andy

When I first started to get in touch with Captain Andy, I figured that it would be fairly simple to arrange visits with him since he is living the retired life, in which he would find much comfort in his own home. This thought however, was proven wrong by Captain Andy. Being a retired naval captain and holding major command of an amphibious ship, that driven spirit has yet to fade out of his life. Although he does not have to worry about thousands upon thousands of sailors anymore, the old habits stick when he is helping to look after his grandchildren. Usually on the weekends, he is almost always hopping on the interstate down towards Chesapeake to look after his grandchildren for the day. However, looking after the grandchildren does not mean just sitting in the house all day. It consists of driving to basketball games, cheering on his grandson, and making sure that all the grandkids are fed and ready to go from event to event. In addition to taking care of his grandchildren, Captain Andy also tends to his mother, who is in her late nineties. So even though he is retired, Captain Andy still holds the position of being a care taker for not just one person, but many people that mean the absolute world to him.

Fortunately, I was able to swing by his daughter’s house for a quick visit during one of his hectic weekends. As I entered the driveway and parked the Sonata, a little bit of a nervous feeling struck me. I thought to myself, “What happens if I can’t remember certain things that he is talking about, relating back to when I lived in Thoroughgood?” After taking a few deep breaths, I cleared my head and slowly walked up the brick steps to the front door. When the door opened, there stood Captain Andy with a warm smile and greeted me with a kiss on each cheek. He looked a bit tired, but nonetheless his face began to glow as I repeatedly referred to him as “Captain,” almost sparking the old memories of when he was active duty. As we discussed the documentary project in greater detail, the grin on his face grew wider and wider each second. “You know, a lot of people in my family really do not recognize what I did in the past while I was in the military. I really do want them to know and hopefully remember it and share it with others,” said Captain Andy. I feel as if for Captain Andy, this project is a sign that it is worth everything to make those old memories of his earlier years in life into a legacy for his family to share with one another over several spans of generations.

A couple weeks later, I dined with Captain Andy and Barbra at their home. During the thirty minute drive there, I could not get this single thought out of my head: “I wonder if I will begin to remember much more of my childhood in Thoroughgood after this visit.” When I turned into the neighborhood, the sight still looked quite unfamiliar to me. Giant brick pillars and fresh flowers were arranged at the entrance and split into two lanes, one bearing left and the other bearing right. I decided to put my memory to the test. I shut off my GPS and just went with my gut feeling on which streets to turn on.

As I cruised steadily through the neighborhood, my eyes became fixed on many of the traditionally styled homes, most of them complemented with the deep neutral color of bricks, white picket fences, and several blooming trees. After passing a couple street names, I had yet to find one that stood out to me. The next street sign read Thoroughgood Square and suddenly, I realized where I was. After that left turn, it all came back to me. Within a matter of minutes, I arrived onto Country Club Circle and caught sight of a ranch style home with light bricks covering the front, white siding, and a 20-foot flag pole displaying an American flag in the front yard. Captain Andy’s house perfectly depicted the image of “The American Dream”, looking exactly the same as I remember it from years ago.

As I entered the house, Captain Andy directed me to the first left in the foyer, leading to the den area. The room was filled with two ivory chairs and a matching sofa, placed right behind the front windows that overlook the front yard. The room was glowing from the abundance of sunlight, vividly depicting the few pieces of art that hung on the walls. To the right of the couch, there hung a painting of the USS Rich. The painting was so detailed that if you looked close enough, you could see the swirls of blue and gray paint strokes that formed the ship and the sea. Even though the room was simply decorated with only a few pieces of art, it was obvious that each of the items held much meaning to Captain Andy.

Stories of the Sea—And Ships

“You know, there is a story behind that painting actually. Captain Leslie K. Senlon was the person that gave me the painting. He was my first Commanding Officer in the Navy on the USS Rich that is portrayed in the painting. We had stayed in touch over the years. His wife had passed away over a year ago, in September of 2010 and he passed away in January of 2011. When he passed, he asked that the painting be given to Barbra and I. My wife and his wife had traveled together to Europe to follow the ship around right after Barbra and I got married. He is the guy who convinced me to stay in the Navy when I was going to get out in 1969. He came to visit us at one of our duty stations and lived here in Virginia Beach for the last 20/25 years or so. So you know, we just stayed in touch, socialized, and that’s why I have the painting,” said Captain Andy. While he was talking about the painting, he would gaze at it quite intently, as if he could feel his feet firmly planted on the flight deck and his back against the cool touch of the ocean mist.

Maybe this brought memories of the different jobs that he pursed while in the Navy. “ After I graduated from New York State Maritime College in New Rochelle, New York in June of 1965, I enlisted into the Navy Reserves and was assigned the position of First Lieutenant and the electronic material officer on the USS Rich in August of 1965. In November of 1965, I assumed the position as navigator for the ship,” said Captain Andy.

Smuggled Into Egypt

On that same deployment, Captain Andy received quite an unexpected celebration for his twenty-third birthday. When the USS Rich made its way through the slender waterways of the Suez Canal located between Africa and Egypt in January of 1966, the ship made an unscheduled stop. Captain Andy and some of the crew traveled to the desert shores of the Canal with one of the ship’s inflatable boats. In addition, the crew managed to pack the boat with a large grill, pounds of the finest cut steak, and three bags filled with beer that they smuggled onto the ship before leaving for deployment. When they reached the shores, the crew transformed the deserted land into their version of paradise. With beat up wooden bats and torn gloves, the crew played a game of baseball for hours in the scorching heat and gulped down the ice cold beers to replenish their bone-dry throats. “That was most certainly the highlight of that cruise for me. Just wasting the day away playing a good old game of baseball and sharing memories at dinner was more than I could’ve asked for. That was most certainly a day I could never forget,” said Captain Andy.

As Captain Andy told me these stories, he grew very cheery, chuckling here and there, and the memories came back to life.

Although he had several unique experiences over the years, the hardest part of it all was being away from his family. “A year in Vietnam and a year over in Italy was quite a long time to be away from my family. But I choose to go overseas by myself because I wanted to make sure my kids had established roots,” said Captain Andy. “But the Navy was for me. A lot of it had to do with my love for traveling. Even before joining the Navy, I traveled to Europe several times when I attended New York State Maritime College.” Captain Andy also discussed many of the life lessons that the Navy had taught him over the years. “To me when you are an officer in the Navy, you are constantly in the training mode. You are always teaching the younger people, so you have to start off with having trust and faith in other people and teach them the ropes. I think of the old saying from President Reagan, 'Trust, but verify' and that holds true in your daily life in the Navy I think, especially when you are responsible for a ship and away at sea. Trust people to do what they are doing but you kinda have to stop and check every once in a while because the ultimate responsibility is yours. I also learned that if I gave people accountability for something, you have to give them the authority and responsibility necessary for then to accomplish that. You can’t tell them to go off and do something and not give them the authority that they need to make it happen. I feel that those are the important lessons learned.”

Suddenly on that note, smells of baked chicken and fresh garlic bread escaped from the kitchen oven and wafted into the room, giving off the scent of an authentic Italian bistro. “Hey Barbra, how much longer till dinner?” hollered Captain Andy. “It should be about five more minutes. And you didn’t show Janie any pictures of me, now did you?!” responded Mrs. Barbra in a sarcastic tone. Captain Andy smiled at me, then walked over to the kitchen to help set the table.

As we sat down for dinner, Mrs. Barbra looked over at me and asked with a smile, “He didn’t bore you with all those sea stories, no did he?” I nodded my head, noticing Captain Andy rolling his eyes. For much of the dinner, we caught up with one another, mostly discussing what we have planned for the summer. “We are planning on going to Hilton head for a vacation in late April. I already have my bags packed and ready to go, but Barbra here is being resistant, saying we need to take care of the house first,” said Captain Andy while Mrs. Barbra gave him a slight glare. Throughout the whole dinner, Captain Andy and Mrs. Barbra teased one another about getting older, but their actions showed that they were still quite young at heart and their desires for more adventures together will never fade. “For me, it was hard at times to have him away but you had to live with it. There was a lot of change but so many good memories,” said Barbra.

Up In The Attic

The following Saturday, I returned to Captain Andy’s house to sort through some of his old medals, plaques, and pictures that he had saved over the years. Right after entering the house, he led me out to the garage and we ventured up the tiny ladder into the attic. As I pressed my feet onto the squeaky floorboards, I was quite surprised that the attic was relatively organized. The few boxes present were covered with a slight layer of dust that tickled your nose as you took in a breath of the warm, damp air. Over to the left of the attic ladder rested two large metal boxes with “Capt. Andy Fosina” printed in large bold lettering on the side. As he opened the boxes, a single earwig popped out and scurried back underneath the pile of memorabilia.

Each box was filled with an array of plaques, old documents, watches, pictures, awards, drawings, and cards made for him by his children while he was away at sea. At first glance, Captain Andy looked over at me and said, ”I should really get rid of all this junk.” But after a couple of minutes of searching through the boxes, a faint smile appeared on his face. After we made a pile of the pictures and documents that we wanted to take a closer look at in the daylight, we scampered back down the tiny steps of the narrow ladder and strolled over to the porch.

As we began looking once more, Captain Andy’s faint smile grew larger. Suddenly he called out, “Barbra, you should come out here.” She came at once and asked, “What is it that I’m looking for?.” “I just figured that you would like to see all of these pictures,” said Captain Andy. Within a matter of seconds, a smile also appeared on Mrs. Barbra’s face as she glanced through the old photographs. All the old memories were beginning to come back to Captain Andy and Mrs. Barbra, as if they traveled back in time to the moments that they were firmly grasping in their hands. It seemed that they forgot a lot about their past, but were thrilled to discover the little reminders that they had all along hiding deep up in their attic.

Curiously, I asked Captain Andy, “So what is your overall view on aging? Do you feel like you accomplished all that you have wanted to?” “Well I think that there is always something you want to do. If you don’t have a goal in someplace, then you might as well just roll over and die. So you know, I think I’m fortunate to still have my health and am able to travel. I’ve never seen the middle of America. I’ve seen both coasts, but I’ve never seen Kansas, Missouri, or the Grand Canyon. So one of the things on my bucket list, if you will, is to see the interior of the country. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there or not, but kinda something I would like to do,” said Captain Andy. For Captain Andy, he will continue to live the rest of his life with one adventure after another, which in my eyes gives true inspiration to live a life worth telling others about. From this, I learned that everyone has a story, but it is important to make it interesting while you still have the chance. You only live once, so you might as well make your story worth remembering and create your own legacy to pass down through the future generations. ◊