At about 2:00 yesterday afternoon, December 18, 2021, my friend Rick Maixner and I poured a couple shots from the bottle of cognac he keeps stashed at the Sunset Nursing Home in Mandan, North Dakota, and toasted the fact we are still here, 50 years after we walked off the gangplank of the USS Oriskany, CVA-34, at the Alameda Naval Air Station, our homeport.
We walked off that gangplank after a seven-month deployment in the Gulf of Tonkin, and just kept on walking, ending up in North Dakota, both of us completing our four-year hitches in the Navy. Rick said some of the sweetest words he ever heard was one of his fellow officers calling him “Mister” Maixner instead of “Lieutenant” Maixner.
The most interesting part of this story is that, even though we grew up just 40 or so miles apart in southwest North Dakota, me in Hettinger and him on a ranch just west of New England, we didn’t know each other when we were aboard the same ship for almost two years. To be fair, there were about 3,000 sailors on that ship, but still . . .
We got acquainted not long after that though, he as the founder of a group of ranchers who formed a conservation organization called United Plainsmen, and me as a reporter for the Dickinson Press, who wrote stories about them–and him. And we’ve been friends ever since, through our careers that touched on politics through most of our lives.
Then, in 1982, I served as Executive Director of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, and I helped Rick campaign for and win a seat in the North Dakota Senate from District 39, my old home district. That really cemented our friendship.
Rick served in the State Senate about ten years and eventually left the ranch and politics and went to law school in the early 1990s. He practiced law in Bismarck a few years, then went to work in Washington, D.C., for Senator Byron Dorgan. In 1998, still at a relatively young age, he was felled by a severe stroke that left him in a wheelchair.
Rick was a true war hero, flying 150 missions off the carrier, dropping bombs on the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos to cut off the supply route to the Viet Cong invading South Vietnam.
I was just support staff on board the ship, part of a ten-man photographic lab keeping photo records of the ship’s activities.
I was surprised when I visited Rick’s room at the nursing home a few years ago to see a picture hanging on the wall that I had likely taken, of his squadron posed on the flight deck. That was one of my jobs, and dozens, maybe hundreds, of my photos, including that one, showed up in the “Cruise Books” the Navy printed after each cruise, much like college year books.
Oh, we had more serious work to do as well, including processing the film shot by the fighter pilots with cameras in the bellies of their planes, doing reconnaissance for Rick and his fellow bomber pilots for their next missions.
Well, Rick and I have been reminiscing about those days for years now, and it came up this past spring as we realized it had been 50 years since we sailed from Alameda on May 17, 1971, fifty years earlier, and so we made plans to get together on December 18, fifty years from the day we arrived home seven months later.
I stopped to visit him last Thursday and said I’d come by Saturday, and he said, “I’ll get out the cognac.”
And so he did. For a couple of wonderful hours we sipped and reminisced, and talked just a little bit about the future. Mine’s a little brighter than his—he’s suffering long-lasting effects of the stroke and needed supplemental oxygen this week. There’s a brilliant mind trapped in that body that doesn’t work anymore. He stays up to date on politics and the weather through his daily newspaper, and our regular visits. He gets out with his brother Joel to Mass on Sundays, and enjoys visits from his sisters and occasional political buddies—former Senator Jim Dotzenrod, a Senate colleague from the 1980s, stopped by to visit last week—and he has a can of Coors Light with lunch each day, and a shot of cognac in a snifter before going to bed.
Fifty years. It’s almost incomprehensible. There won’t be fifty more, but we’ll both make the most of those we have left. We talked about how unlikely, and how unpredictable it is that we’d be going through something like this pandemic in the twilight of our lives, how different things are today from just two years ago, and, hopefully, how different things will be two years from now. I’ll let you know how the two of us are doing from time to time. And if you’re another old friend of Rick’s and are in the area, stop by and visit sometime. He loves company.