ABOARD THE USS ENTERPRISE — Ray H. Godfrey knows he will get emotional when the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise pulls into Naval Station Norfolk for the last time Sunday.
For him, the event has been 51 years in the making.
Godfrey was 21 when he began his Navy career on Enterprise. He worked on the most advanced component of what was the world's most advanced ship: Its nuclear-powered engines.
Now, with the aircraft carrier nearing the end of its 25th and final combat deployment, he has rejoined his old ship for the final ride from Florida into Hampton Roads. He was among 1,500 civilians who came aboard on a sun-splashed Friday while the ship was pier side at Naval Station Mayport, near Jacksonville.
"I'm going to be choked up," he said. "My wife will be waiting on the pier. She'll be in the VIP tent. I'll be standing there, just raising the flag and happy as a – well, I don't want to say it."
He laughed at his own joke, then turned serious.
"It's just a feeling that's hard to describe," he said.
Godfrey, now 73 and living in Colorado, is a "plank owner," Navy parlance for an original member of a ship's crew. He spent five years on the Enterprise, from 1961 to 1966. His experience spanned three cruises to the Mediterranean and a jittery couple of weeks during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
He's adopted another nickname this weekend. Godfrey is also a "Tiger," the term for family and friends who are invited onto the ship for the final leg of a deployment.
"It was fifty-one years ago, near this time, actually, when we went to sea trials," Godfrey said. "She did real well, and she's still doing well. She's done great. Now's the time to retire her, with respect."
Not all tigers are retired sailors. Just ask 13-year-old Jordan Kuhlman, who flew in with his family from Texas and offered this assessment of Enterprise.
"It's really big," he said. "There's a lot of new things to see. There's a lot of passageways. There's a lot of weird stairs and cool things."
It's also pretty cool for Petty Officer Third Class Ryan Kuhlman, who gets to hang out with his little brother for a couple of days.
"This is the first time I've seen him in eight months," he said. "He's my only little brother, and he'll get to pull in with me."
Ryan Cycyk, 14 of Chesapeake, had a similar impression as he looked on to the flight deck.
"It's pretty cool to see all this stuff; all the planes," he said, smiling with a mouthful of braces.
Does it make him want to join the Navy?
"Yeah, I guess," he said.
Lt. Cmdr. John Cycyk, was just happy that he could show his son a rare slice of Navy life.
" I've been on a ton of ships, and this is the first time I've had my son aboard, so he's going to be able to see a lot of neat stuff," he said.
Lt. Cmdr. Cycyk is the material officer for Carrier Strike Group 12. He said Enterprise "did a lot of really good stuff on deployment," and it is exciting to be part of its final chapter.
"But I'll be glad to be home," he said.
Many civilians had family connections to the crew. As a plank owner, Godfrey merited special attention. He was the invited guest of the ship's commanding officer, Capt. William C. Hamilton Jr.
At one point Friday morning, the two men crossed paths on the flight deck.
"Having a good time, are you?" Hamilton asked, noting with amusement that Godfrey had been buttonholed by a couple of reporters.
After joking that he wasn't a public speaker, Godfrey looked at the captain and said: "You've done a great job bringing our ship back."