After the High Seas, How Tough Can New York City Be?

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The New York Sun

They’ve long braved the high seas; today, they will brave New York City.

Several thousand sailors, Coast Guardsmen, and British seamen are expected to descend on the city this morning, kicking off Fleet Week. As part of the 19th annual gathering, New Yorkers are invited to attend military demonstrations and tour U.S. Navy ships, among dozens of other festive offerings.

For many of the visitors, it will be their first time in the Big Apple – and the experience can be overwhelming, the interim director of the USO, Hazel Cathers, said yesterday. “New York is so big and there are so many people. It can be disorienting for them,” she said. The USO, a 65-year-old nonprofit military support organization, will provide the servicemen and -women with city maps, as well as free tickets to Broadway shows, comedy clubs, and baseball games throughout the week.

Some of the sailors fear they will be crime victims, Ms. Cathers, who has worked for the USO for 46 years, said. “They ask, ‘Are the subways safe?’ and ‘Is it safe to take a midnight stroll?'” Ms. Cathers said. She advises them that the subways are safe, and that it’s prudent to remain in populous areas after dark.

Their time in the city usually debunks their preconceived notions, and of its residents, according to Ms. Cathers. “New York is very accommodating and kind – people really go out of their way for them,” she said. “By the time they leave, they love it here.”

In recent years, ground zero, Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and Central Park have been among the most popular attractions for visiting sailors, Ms. Cathers said.

New Yorkers make gracious hosts, Lieutenant Commander Michael Van Poots, a nuclear engineer who spent five years on active duty, said. “In every restaurant, someone would offer to pay for our lunch,” he said. “When we visited the New York Stock Exchange, the president of the exchange took us onto the trading floor. “New York is one of the most welcoming cities,” he said, recalling how taxi drivers and other motorists would honk at him and wave. “I think they’re very thankful for what we do.”

Throughout the week, men and women in uniform ride free on New York City subways and buses.

While in New York for Fleet Week in 2002, the USO provided Commander Van Poots with free tickets to the Broadway show “42nd Street” and to a taping of “The Late Show With David Letterman.”

During Fleet Week, it’s traditional for sailors and naval officers to travel the city in their “Summer White,” uniform, comprising white pants, a matching white short-sleeve, button-down shirt, and a sailor’s cap, known as a “cover.”

In New York City, it doesn’t take long for those all-white uniforms to get dirty, he said, sailors go through several sets of “Summer Whites” while in town for Fleet Week.

Now in the Reserves, Commander Van Poots, who lives in Allentown, Pa., is in New York to help the Navy with Fleet Week-related recruiting efforts. He will be manning an information booth for potential Navy recruits at Pier 88. There will be a second recruiting booth in Staten Island.

Commander Van Poots said that many would-be service men and women don’t know about the Navy’s wide range of career opportunities. “I find out what they’re interested in, because there is always something for them,” he said. You can be a doctor, a lawyer, a journalist, and there’s usually a benefit for doing so in the military.”

Fleet Week also serves as a public relations campaign, a naval spokesman said.”We’re here to let the public see what their tax dollars are being used for, and to show them the professionalism and the readiness of today’s sailors and Marines.”

The weeklong celebration is “New York’s way of saying thank you,” the executive director of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, Susan Marenoff, said.

“Fleet Week is one of those rare occasions – like the New York Marathon – when everyone in the city comes together,” she said.

The museum has a bevy of Fleet Week activities planned.

“It’s not about whether you’re for or against the war, its about showing our servicemen as much gratitude as possible,” Ms. Marenoff said. “They’re the ones on the front lines, whether you want them there or not.”

They are scheduled to arrive in New York on eight U.S. Navy ships, two Coast Guard ships, and one British naval ship. They will be joined by other servicemen and women, some who are retired and some who are on active duty in the tri-state area and beyond.

The New York Sun

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