Close to Home: Captain Crozier’s tough skin

In 1979, boys in Rincon Valley wore a brand of pants called Toughskins designed to withstand any form of rough-and-tumble play kids would get themselves into. I remember having them, and I'm pretty sure Capt. Brett Crozier, whom I considered my best friend at the time, also had them when we came up with the idea of capping off recess by sliding to the classroom door - on the cement - as if we were baseball players sliding into home plate. The purpose was to dare one another, establish status over our more timid classmates, and maybe even impress a girl.

I can still picture Brett - who is enduring his 15 minutes of Andy Warhol fame/infamy while fighting the coronavirus first on his Naval ship and now in his own bloodstream - running at full speed toward me, as I'd already done my slide (in fact, I'd like to take credit for the idea). I can still see the look on his face, a look of danger and determination that every daredevil has when he sets into motion an action from which there is no turning back.

Why do we remember certain things from childhood and not others? The simple answer is that some things make a powerful impression on us while others don't. The more esoteric answer, the one that leapfrogs across the space-time continuum, is that I remembered things about Brett so that I could tell you about them now.

He was promoted in Little League a year before I was, making him one of the youngest on the field. I remember wandering over from the “minors” field to the “majors” one day when he was at the plate. The pitcher hurled fastballs indicating puberty had already begun, while Brett squirmed in his stance. I don't remember whether he struck out, hit a pathetic dribbler picked up by the catcher or ripped a line-drive base hit; for the memory banks, all that was irrelevant. What made an impression was that when faced with a rocket-armed pitcher who probably already had a mustache, Brett stood his ground in the batter's box.

I was at my best not when standing my ground, but when running free. At Binkley Elementary School, Brett and I were the star Nerf football duo among our rag-tag group of misfits. Basically the teams were me and Brett versus everyone else. He was the quarterback, and we'd always run the same heroic play. While the defensive lineman counted from “one alligator” to 10, I'd run as far downfield as I could. When the lineman rushed, Brett would hurl a Hail Mary I could somehow always manage to get under. This was an early experience in overcoming self- imposed beliefs of limitation, a crucial skill for navigating life. And I shared those early experiences with him.

There is an interesting body of research that reveals an inverse relationship between the amount one knows about something and how much one professes to know. In other words, the less you know, the more you think you do. The situation in which Brett found himself might be one of those things that illustrates why the most ill-informed opinions are spoken in the loudest voices. None of us knows the conditions aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which is how it's supposed to be, nor what we would have done if it had been us wearing the commanding officer's hat. How we react to Brett's story likely says more about ourselves and our biases than the facts of a situation we were never in.

Memories are filed for long-term storage because there's a lesson to be learned from them, something that can be drawn upon when the time is right and the recollection comes bursting up into consciousness. I was there when Brett Crozier declared he was going to jump head-first from the high dive at Oak Park. I thought he was crazy, as the experience of legs shaking as I walked the plank for my first feet-first plunge was still fresh. But up he climbed. At the end of the diving board he joined his hands as if in prayer, scrunched himself down and took aim at the distant waters below. If mythology has taught us one thing, it's that the hero isn't the man who feels no fear, for such a man has never lived. But rather the one who feels fear and yet pushes through it. The reason I remember Brett's mixed expression of trepidation and determination is because I'd seen it before - on him, not anyone else.

Over his long career in the Navy, Brett's peers have come to know his courage. I can tell you it was there all along.

Christian Chensvold is a writer based in Newport, Rhode Island. He grew up in Santa Rosa.

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