When I was young I consumed many sailing ship novels by the late C.S. Forrester, creator of the indomitable Captain Horatio Hornblower, a name which looks really goofy to me now. I also read a number of similar books by authors whose names escape me.

These books were set around the time of the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The scuppers ran red with blood as often as not. I don't know how many times you can describe sea battles between two frigates before you lose your mind, but Forrester pounded those babies out like nobody's business. They all blur into one battle now: The guns are referred to by the weight of their shot: twelve-pounders, sixteen-pounders, etc. The ships pull alongside each other. Broadsides are fired. Cannon balls collide with people, removing limbs; cannon balls collide with wood, throwing up giant splinters which remove limbs. The marines fire their muskets. Grapeshot is fired, and yet more limbs go thataway. Und so weiter: By the end of the battle, the two ships are a shambles (not "in" a shambles; look it up), masts have fallen, rigging is shredded, and the decks are a veritable smorgasbord of severed human limbs, heads, etc. Throughout the battle, the ships' surgeons labor mightily below decks to remove their own quota of limbs from the wounded. The captain's hulking faithful servant (they always had one; there must have been a regulation) stands dumbly. When you're eight years old, you don't really understand how horrible this all is.

After all the excitement, each dead marine or sailor is sewn into a sailcloth bag with a cannon ball to weight the body. They always had enough cannon balls left. Each of these unweildy packages is placed on a board and slid into the sea, with a few appropriate words from the Book of Common Prayer.

I knew that my father had served in the Navy before I was born, and this is the image I had of Naval life; after all, I'd seen his sword, right? In the US Navy, they still wear those on formal occasions. After I graduated from college, they finally told me the awful truth: Dad had really just spent nine years flying around the world getting drunk, taking snapshots, and buying souvenirs. He never buried anybody at sea, he never repelled boarders, and that scar on his temple was from falling off a tricycle at age three, not from a duel. I was bitterly disappointed. My only comfort is this: Once, flying from Norfolk, VA to Guantanamo Bay, they lost an engine and had to jettison their bowling balls. That's close, isn't it?