The U.S.S. Forrestal (CV-59) was the nation's first aircraft "supercarrier" with an angled deck to allow simultaneous takeoffs and landings. From 1955 until it was decommissioned in 1993, the Forrestal saw the world from the Suez Canal, Mediterranean and North Atlantic to Vietnam, and many other places.
In 1967, while in Vietnam's Gulf of Tonkin, an accidental onboard rocket launch set off a chain reaction of explosions and fires that killed 134 crew members and injured scores of others, including a young lieutenant commander named John McCain. In 1976, the carrier was the host ship for the nation's bicentennial celebration in New York, with President Gerald Ford aboard.
The Forrestal has fine connections to Florida, based in Jacksonville and Pensacola at various times. If the name rings a bell locally, it is because of a concerted effort starting in the late 1990s to bring the carrier to Tampa as a naval museum. It failed.
This brings me to Dennis McDonald, a former state legislator from St. Petersburg and two-time candidate for mayor. He served aboard the Forrestal in the 1950s and was part of the effort to get the carrier to Tampa.
So, McDonald calls me and we have breakfast the other day at the Kopper Kitchen on west Central Avenue, and right away I see he has his old Forrestal books and materials.
"Now, about the Pier …" he begins.
The city has a task force to figure out what to do about the Pier, the historic, quarter-mile structure that juts off the downtown waterfront. The other day at a public meeting some of the people there said: Why not a naval museum?
This was all McDonald needed to be rekindled. He called Randy Wedding, the chairman of the task force.
"It really is a thing of beauty," McDonald said. He talked about the different ways the ship could be positioned, either running along side the Pier ("most esthetically pleasing") or perpendicular to it off the end.
We're talking about a 1,086-foot vessel here, not the H.M.S. Bounty.
He said the old feasibility studies showed that the carrier could draw a half-million visitors a year.
"All of the ideas for the Pier have a problem," McDonald said. "No revenue. This is always going to be a problem for the city."
Now, I did not say anything like, "This is the craziest idea I have ever heard." Instead, I agreed to, as he put it, run it up the flagpole, although it might be better to say throw it overboard and see if it sinks.
I asked Randy Wedding about it. He was diplomatic.
"To talk about the virtue of the idea, one of the things I've been saying is that we're in the entertainment business at the Pier," he said. "In that sense, the idea of having that kind of draw there is the right idea."
On the other hand, there is a tiny bit of a problem with the idea of parking a 1,086-foot aircraft carrier at the Pier, namely, it draws 30 feet of water, and we are miles away from anything like that. The dredging involved is staggering, even if possible or legal.
(I should mention another little hurdle, that the Navy is about to sink it for a reef and would have to be persuaded otherwise. Details, details.)
"It's a grand idea, but difficult to implement," Wedding concluded. However, he gives McDonald credit for thinking big about the need to draw people: "It pokes exactly at the center of the thing."
Now, about my casino idea …