The Homecoming


Scanning the gray horizon, Richard Corbin thought of his family, of being together again.

The rain started falling on Norfolk, Virginia, Thursday night while the Corbin children were still painting the banners.

“But it can’t rain tomorrow,” Matt, age 12, said. “That will ruin everything.”

“I don’t care if it rains all day,” 14-year-old Margaret said. “Dad’s coming home, and that’s all that matters.”

Out in the ocean, Richard Corbin, a Radio Officer, stood on the deck of the U. S. S. Nimitz, one of the largest aircraft carriers in the world. Corbin, the father of Margaret, Matt, and 10-year-old Nathan, and the husband of Jo Ann, was thinking of family and home. He’d been at sea for six months.

The carrier made steady headway through the misty sea. Rain was falling there, too, thick and heavy. In the evening light, the only way to tell the sky from the water was that the ocean was a darker shade of gray.

The Nimitz is a mobile, man-made island. Six thousand men live and work in its engine rooms and on its flight decks, in its galleys and its control tower. Among the thousands of men aboard are 15 LDS sailors. Brother Corbin is their group leader. Tonight he’d been finding his fellow Saints, taking time to wish them well and tell them good-bye.

“You get close to people when you work with them,” Brother Corbin said. “And you get especially close when you share the bond of the gospel. We have a place to hold Sunday meetings, and we have a family night activity. We invite other sailors to join with us and learn about the Church. And we talk about where we’re from, news we’ve received from home, how things are going. I’m glad to have an adopted family here on the ship, but I’m sure eager to see my real family at home.” Brother Corbin’s living quarters (he shares a small stateroom with another officer) are just six inches below where the airplanes land. “It gets rather noisy sometimes,” he conceded. “But after a while you can get used to anything. You learn to sleep, even with the noise. You get to where you can tell what kind of plane is landing or taking off just by the sounds it makes. There’s one plane, the S-3A Viking, that we call the ‘Hoover’ because it sounds like a vacuum cleaner.”

He looked around, above his desk and bed, at the collection of photographs of his wife and children, at the photos of the Washington D.C. Temple. “Every time the mail comes there are some snapshots,” he said. “After a while you get a pretty good collection.”

“I won’t sleep at all tonight,” he added. “Nobody will. We’re all too anxious to get home. They’ll show movies all night long to give us something to do. It’s funny. Lots of people dream of a cruise in the Mediterranean, and that’s where we’ve been. But nothing compares with coming home. Nothing.”

Nathan helped Matt finish the red border of a cardboard replica of the family coat of arms, a shield with two ravens on it. “That should stand out in a crowd,” Sister Corbin said. The other banners read, “Corbin’s the name we’re looking for,” and “Glad to have you back, Dad,” the last one spray painted on an old sheet so it wouldn’t fall apart in the rain. That was Margaret’s idea.

Matt and Margaret got out the stepladder and hung the sheet along the front of the house. Nathan watched.

“The one on the house will let everybody know he’s coming,” Margaret explained. “We’ll take the others with us to the docks so he can see us.

“You kids are soaked!” Sister Corbin called out the front door. “Come get dried off so you can go to bed.”

On the television, the newscaster was talking about the 16 ships heading for Norfolk and other home ports along the Atlantic seaboard. Everyone, it seemed, was anticipating the homecoming, the return of the men from the sea.

The rain kept falling all night long.

Friday morning dawned gray. The downpour had faded to a drizzle, but forecasts predicted more on the way. Brother Corbin climbed through a bulkhead, leaned over a railing on the carrier’s massive tower (called the “island”), and looked down at a helicopter taking off.

“That’s the travel agent, headed back to shore with orders for plane tickets. Once we dock, a lot of sailors will be headed for the airport,” Brother Corbin said.

He climbed back inside, down a set of stairs so steep it’s called a ladder. The interior of the ship was a flurry of motion, with men constantly running through narrow passageways, clanging up and down the ladders, or bending slightly to squeeze through a hatch. Almost every time Brother Corbin passed someone, there was a smile and a hello.

“The tide has finally come in,” Brother Corbin explained on his way to the communications center. “Now the water’s deep enough for us to make it to port. We won’t go quite fast enough for you to waterski behind the ship, but now we’re on a beeline for home.”

The Corbins live in Virginia Beach, a bedroom community near Norfolk. As Sister Corbin, Margaret, Matt, and Nathan rushed to beat the heavy traffic to the naval base, they could see signs everywhere. Some were red and white, posted along the road like Burma Shave ads. Others were simple but sincere, with messages like, “We love you” or “Happiness is having your ship come in.” In the car talk turned to Dad and the family. “Richard is from Webster, Texas (near Houston), and I’m from Spring Hope (near Raleigh), North Carolina,” Sister Corbin said. “We met while I was in school in Mars Hill, North Carolina. I had always told my mother I’d never date a Navy man. But then someone lined me up with a blind date.”

Their first date was a homecoming of sorts, like meeting someone you’re sure you’ve met before. The couple found they had more and more in common—so much so that they decided to keep having more and more in common.

“Shortly after we were married, we began looking for a church. We had promised each other we would have a Christian home. Our neighbors had a daughter who had just joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She asked us if we’d like to talk to the missionaries. As soon as they walked onto our porch, we knew these men were different. There was a spirit about them.”

Another homecoming, this one leading to serious study, fasting, prayer, and finally the realization that Heavenly Father was welcoming them into the only true church.

“All the pieces fit. Everything was right. And since then our love for God has grown, our faith has grown, and we’ve seen the truth in action in the lives of Latter-day Saints everywhere we’ve lived.”

Everywhere has included Guam, Texas, Louisiana, California, North Carolina, and Virginia so far, with Dad frequently at sea. That hasn’t always been easy.

“We’ve had to move a lot,” Margaret said. “And I’m naturally shy. But being a member of the Church helps. We meet people when we go to our meetings, and usually there are one or two who go to the same school we do. It’s nice to know that even when Dad’s gone, Matt’s here, so we have the priesthood in our home.” She told about kind home teachers and visiting teachers, a caring bishop, and friendly Virginia Beach Second Ward members who “always seem to take care of us.”

“There’s a real bond among Church members here,” Sister Corbin said. “They watch out for a family whose father is at sea. Many of them have been in the same boat.” Everyone laughed at the unintended pun.

“Whether he’s here or gone,” Margaret said, “we try to do what our father would have us do. And he tries to be with us when he can by calling when he’s ashore and by sending telegrams and flowers on special occasions.” Of course there are plenty of family letters exchanged. “We have to put numbers on them to keep them straight,” Nathan said. “They don’t always get there in the order we send them.” Once a bag of mail was dropped in the sea, but rescued. “All the letters were faded and stuck together,” Matthew said.

The family talked of the times when Dad has been home: of camping trips in the Shenandoah Mountains when deer would eat right out of their hands, of water slides and visits to the Cherokee reservation, of playing baseball and football together, of trips to the beach.

“One time, just as we were leaving to pick up Dad, I slipped and cut my chin,” Nathan said. “Dad had been waiting 30 minutes before he found out we were at the emergency room.” And Matt remembered a Sunday when his father came home from sea just in time to ordain him a deacon.

Last March, the family was getting discouraged because they hadn’t heard anything for so long. Then the phone rang at 9 P.M. on a Friday night. Dad was flying home from Naples, Italy, for a three-day visit! “That really lifted our spirits,” Margaret said. “We wanted to see him again, even if it was only for a little while.”

A whistle blown by a sailor pointing to a parking stall interrupted the discussion. On the waterfront, hundreds of people were already waiting. Banners and balloons were everywhere. Someone was handing out small American flags. “It’s like being at the airport with 6,000 missionaries all coming home at the same time,” Sister Corbin said.

As the family got out of the car, they opened their umbrellas. The rain was thundering down again.

You don’t unload the Nimitz in a minute or two. If you’re assigned to stand at attention as the ship pulls in (a ceremony known as manning the rails),then you can thrill at the sight of the crowds awaiting your arrival. But as soon as the ship is docked, it’s back to your duty station again, or back to waiting.

The planes flew home days ago. The four-and-one-half-acre deck is now empty, except for a few sailors scanning the docks for loved ones. Like others still on duty, Brother Corbin is busy filing reports and finalizing communications records. Down in the hangar bay normally used for plane storage and repair, the majority of the carrier’s personnel wait for permission to disembark. The bay is larger than a football field, now filled to standing room only. Men and duffle bags are everywhere.

Brother Corbin asks for permission to go ashore and bring his family back with him. Permission is granted. He joins the men in the hangar bay. And he waits, too. It seems like hours.

Finally, a microphone clicks on. Congratulations for a successful cruise are given. Announcements are made. Officers not on duty are cleared to leave, and they walk out single file. Then all others not on duty are cleared to leave, and they race for the quarterdeck and down the brow (a landlubber would say they’re rushing down the gangplanks).

On the pier, the crowd, now grown to thousands, cheers as the first sailors touch the ground. A band plays. Desperate eyes search and search, then finally meet. Then there’s running, running through a crowd for miles it seems, until those who stayed at home and those who have been at sea try to melt the absence in embraces. Fathers and mothers hug their sons, brothers and sisters smile and cry as though the reunion can’t be real. Husbands and wives hold each other and kiss. Older children put on their father’s cap or try to pick up his gear and find it far too heavy. Younger children hold onto his legs and wait for their turn to be held and loved. Babies, oblivious to it all, doze in their strollers as the rain keeps pelting the ground.

Margaret and Matthew spot Brother Corbin first. They start jumping up and down, almost screaming as they point him out to Sister Corbin and Nathan. Then Sister Corbin and Nathan are jumping up and down too, and so are some friends and neighbors who have joined them. They wave the soggy banners whose colors have faded in the rain.

“I looked and looked at the crowd and couldn’t see anything,” Brother Corbin said. “There were thousands of people, all holding signs. Then, when I was about halfway down the ramp, I spotted the red shield with the ravens.”

Now it was Brother Corbin’s turn to jump and shout, and finally free from the rails and the ramps, to rush into the embrace of those who love him.

The Corbins were finally reunited.

And this time, Brother Corbin was home for good. “I’ve been assigned to shore duty at a communications station in Virginia for three years,” he said. And with his record for time already spent at sea, he shouldn’t have to go away again.

Over the next few days, the rain would be forgotten in the sunshine of love. The Corbins would talk and talk. They would want to take Dad everywhere and tell him everything. They would listen to his stories of ships, planes, places, and people. They would hear his thanks for their Christmas package full of cookies and dried pineapple. They would tell him thanks for seashells from Israel.

On Sunday he would tell them about 18 missionaries who visited the ship in Naples, Italy, about holding church right above the flight deck where catapults launch jets into the sky, about mechanics who came to sacrament meeting dressed in dungarees. Margaret would tell him about being Beehive class president. Matthew would know his father was watching him pass the sacrament. Nathan would show Dad the new kittens born while he was away. And Brother and Sister Corbin would gather the family together to pray.

More than once they would wonder if this wasn’t what it will be like in heaven, when a loved one returns after being away. And more than once they would rejoice, glad their family was sealed in the Hawaii Temple years ago, an ordinance that opens the door to family homecomings forever.

[photos] Photos by Richard M. Romney

[photos] The sailors had been at sea forever. Now it was time to return to a land as full of memories as their cardboard boxes were full of souvenirs. At home, families like the Corbins found it hard to contain their anticipation. It spilled over onto a banner for all the world to read.

[photos] Despite thundering rain, hundreds of families lined the piers, wondering, worrying, desperately searching for just one face among the thousands that would mean, “He’s home, he’s home. Everything’s all right.” Then they would rush to him and melt away the absence in a warm embrace and tears.