In May 2012 my daughter and I were purchasing wet suits at Play It Again Sports in Traverse City, having learned some lessons about cold water. Cmdr. Joe Buzzela was checking out with his son. Buying baseball equipment I think. A complete stranger, I approached him to thank him for the Coast Guard’s service to my family when my brother was lost on Omena Bay. And I wanted to spring board immediately to an idea I had about cold water education. The Cmdr. graciously expressed his condolences, took my card and promised to get me in touch with his public affairs officer.
A year later after months of researching and learning about cold water and weeks working with public affairs officer Lt. James Okorn (Jim), I’m sitting next to Cmdr. Buzzela in Sean Finster’s Bob FM studio at 7:30 in the morning. (Damn early.) We haven’t practiced our messages, we don’t know who’s covering what and I have no real idea how much of my press releases and info the commander knows–geez, I haven’t talked to this man in a year. There was that familiar zing. It’s a shot of adrenalin that comes with my speeches. Just enough to provide the heightened awareness necessary for my energy.
On-air you’d have thought we’d been doing this for years. So often with tandem or group media interviews, people zealously deliver their personal messages, hogging the time or veering off into tangential topics. Journalists hate it. It can sink an interview. There was none of that in our coverage of how to be safe in warm weather and cold water. We hit radio stations all over the dial all morning and again a couple weeks later. We covered material like we were tossing a ball back and forth. At one point we had six minutes on air to cover 500 – 600 words. I put the timer on my phone where we could see it, we leaned into the mic and knocked the messages off like tin cans on a firing range.
From the start I knew Cmdr. Buzzella was in charge and he trusted me to do my job. It’s a perplexing balance of care-taking and demand. I found myself standing a little taller and feeling a little safer when he was around. And I thought it might be unique to him. It’s not. Cmdr. Cross, the new commander of the Traverse City U.S. Coast Guard Station has that same presence.
The Change of Command from Buzzella to Cross
“To those in peril on the Great Lakes, the sight and sound of an orange and white helicopter approaching – made possible only by the TEAMWORK of everyone at this unit – is often the first sign of help …,” said Cmdr. Cross, the third white-uniformed speaker to step to the podium at the Traverse City Coast Guard Air Station change of command ceremony on Friday, June 7, 2013.
I admit I didn’t hear much of the rest of Cmdr. Cross’s point. I struggled to hold back tears and failed. I’d met Cmdr. Cross several days earlier at MyNorth Media offices. As he spoke at the ceremony, my mind’s eye blindsided me and I saw what Cmdr. Cross’s speech described as if it was happening right then. I saw the lights speed across Omena Bay. The orange and white angels dropped out of the darkness and turned a light on my brother and his craft, rescuing him from the sea he loved. The sea that killed him.
As brief as our meeting at MyNorth Media was, I already liked Cmdr. Cross. He easily talks about his family and kids. His wife, a native of Southern California has outfitted the family with snow gear in anticipation of Michigan winters and skiing. He’s quick to smile and handles a joke. He laughs, saying, “Where’s my gear?” I asked my wife. ‘You’re on your own,’ she says to me.” And as comfortable as I am with him, I find myself standing a little taller and feeling a little safer with him around (just like with Cmdr. Buzzella).
I expected to hear from that nice guy when Cmdr. Cross stepped to the podium. And we did. He made a couple of jokes and he expressed his gratitude to his wife of 17 years and his family. He quoted Lincoln’s Gettysburg address–a favorite of mine. And then he spoke about the mission of the Traverse City station with an intensity that commands respect. The words that struck such emotion in me weren’t meant for me. They were orders for the company standing with a watchful eye over the hangar. He leaned into the podium, his whole body turned to them … he was taking command.
I emailed my friend Jim, the public affairs officer to get the rest of Cmdr. Cross’s message: “To those in peril on the Great Lakes, the sight and sound of an orange and white helicopter approaching – made possible only by the TEAMWORK of everyone at this unit – is often the first sign of help. Your dedicated work, fixing and flying helicopters and supporting those that fix and fly, keeps this command in a prominent role in our nation’s safety and security. Our work here is vitally important business.”
He’s seen that vitality first hand. In response to my question about the most challenging experience during his time in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, Cmdr. Cross casually said, “Our team handled the tall ship HMS Bounty in hurricane Sandy.” Ummm, handled? Here’s a video of what Cmdr. Cross means when he talks about handling the rescue of 14 scattered crew from a ship built from 300 year old plans, in hurricane Sandy. The wind was blowing life rafts over, spilling crew into the sea, then blowing them apart. One voice on the radio keeps watch on the waves, “You’ve got 40 to 50 seconds before it gets gnarly again.” The video shows the view from above, distorting the wave action–it’s all gnarly.
“Our work here is vitally important business.”
Two men had taken the podium before Cmdr. Cross. And their speeches included many jokes at the expense of all involved, which everyone good-naturedly endured:
• Cmdr. Buzzella was late getting to the station because he needed hair product, once again earning his nickname Hollywood.
• At the Admiral’s prodding, Cmdr. Buzzella had added a U.S. Coast Guard go-cart to the Pirate’s Cove complement of go-carts painted for the military. In fact, the admiral felt there wasn’t a moving thing in Traverse City that didn’t have a Coast Guard moniker on it, setting new standards in branding.
• Admiral Parks was likened to the “old” and retired Falcon jet, positioned symbolically behind him.
On the serious side, Cmdr. Buzzella talked about how his experiences in Traverse City had changed him. Having lived in Traverse City he felt he was a more sensitive leader, a more attentive father and husband, and had deeper faith from these and many more experiences:
• Children who were burn victims felt safe and forgot their burns for an afternoon of fun in the hangar.
• The Boy Scouts pinewood derby, Toys for Tots present distribution and the thank you note from a little boy who dreamed of being a rescue swimmer after he spent the day with the Coasties.
• A special Pow Wow ceremony
• The respect the Coast Guard had marching in the Cherry Festival parade.
And Admiral Parks talked seriously about how each commander builds on the success of those that have gone before, and so each new commander stands on the shoulders of the giants that served before them. He remembered the change of command ceremony of beloved Cmdr. Jonathan Spaner two years earlier. He counseled the new commander then, Joe Buzzella, who seemed awe-struck at the outpouring of love from Traverse City’s citizens and the prospect of stepping into Spaner’s shoes. “I told him to focus on the mission of the Coast Guard, to care for his team and protect the Great Lakes,” said Adm. Parks.
It’s taken me a few days to put the admiral’s words into the context of the change of command ceremony, which so clearly celebrated Cmdr. Buzzella, his relationships and accomplishments over the last two years, just as the ceremony two years earlier did for Cmdr. Spaner. Every news report I read closed with the same line, “a tradition deeply rooted in American military history.” When I look at my photos, I realize that when you strip away all the rhetoric, the patriotic music and the statements of gratitude, the change of command comes down to two images. First, two men meeting and sharing respect. Second, those men passing each other on their way to do their job.
The tradition is to help us, the community and the station staff, understand that everything is okay. In two years Cmdr. Cross will pass someone else. He and his accomplishments will become the giant that supports the new commander. And those orange and white angels will continue to drop out of the sky to those in peril on the sea. Because no matter who is in command, that’s what they do.
Cmdr. Cross understands that, “Our work here is vitally important business.” And while I’ll miss Cmdr. Buzzella, I will stand a little taller next to Cmdr. Cross next spring while I help educate folks about how to be safe when the weather is warm and the water is cold. And I will feel a little safer knowing the U.S. Coast Guard Traverse City Station has another commander to carry on its mission.