Concert at Sea aboard the Aircraft Carrier USS George Washington

It Started Like This:

In 1997-98 we were receiving letters and sporadic emails (when we had reception in those days) from a lady in Virginia named Marsha Rutherford. Marsha was ordering two or three recordings from us with each message. This happened roughly four or five times before December of 1998. 

In December of 1998 Linda and I were in Billings, Montana, on a concert tour when we received an email from Marsha ordering more recordings. Something seemed strange, so Linda looked up her previous orders and saw that she'd already ordered these before.  

We wondered if she'd received faulty recordings, or if she never received them at all. Whatever, we packaged them up and sent an email. Since we'd communicated with her before and had actually exchanged some humor, this time our email said something to the effect of:

"Marsha: here's your recordings. We've noticed you ordered the same ones as before. Are you (ha-ha) living at one end of the house and your husband lives at the other? (pun intended)."

Within moments we received an email back saying:

"My husband is the captain of the U.S.S. George Washington aircraft carrier. I order the same recordings because he takes them on the ship and likes to listen to them. Right now the fleet is stationed in the Persian Gulf and has just received their orders to open fire on Saddam Hussein and Iraq. It's kind of a nervous time over here right now..."

We rushed outside the hotel and found a newspaper box. (No internet news in those days.) Fumbling for 50¢ in a Montana winter, we finally got a newspaper out. The front page told the whole story.  


The GW battle fleet steams into the Persian Gulf. Unseen are the submarines protecting the fleet. The carrier doesn't actually "steam," it's an old term. It can stay at sea for 18 years without refueling. 

Marine Corps Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, commander U.S. Central Command, briefs reporters at the Pentagon following Operation Desert Fox, the four-day bombing campaign against Iraq. 

An F/A-18 Hornet attack jet launching from the deck of the GW during Operation Desert Fox.

Saddam vows to fight back. 

A missile launches from a destroyer in the GW battle fleet. 

A F/A-18 Hornet attack jet launching a night attack against Saddam from the GW deck. 

A destroyer fires a missile at the enemy. 

Calming News

The GW comes home.

About two weeks later the news was reporting that the invasion was over, a different carrier fleet had replaced the GW, and that the GW was on its way back to Norfolk for "weapons upgrades." (gave me chills). I immediately contacted Marsha and told her if there was any way the Navy could get me out to that ship I wanted to play an American concert for those guys. 

She responded by saying there was no possible way to contact them because they were under "communications blackout." She said that nobody knew where they were, including herself. 

About ten days later the news reported, along with a photo, that the GW had come back to the Norfolk Navy Base.

The Mackinac Bridge is 155' above the water level.

A size comparison shows the 244' high GW coming into Fort Lauderdale port and passing a 30-storey hotel. It's a 5-storey drop from the flight deck to the water. The row of "white dots" encompassing the perimeter is the crew. There's a mob of people, indistinguishable, at the beach bottom right. 

Incredible News!

A Request came to our house to perform for the sailors aboard the USS George Washington. The occasion was a "family day" event, where the parents and relatives of the sailors were invited to go out to sea with their son or daughter in service aboard the carrier. The request came from Captain Lindell Rutherford.  

Stuff Starts Arriving at our House!

A cherished memory from Capt. Lindell Rutherford and the crew:

"Bob: best wishes from the officers and crew of the USS George Washington."

(signed) CO, Capt. Yank Rutherford    ("CO," Commanding Officer)

CVN (Carrier, Volplane, Nuclear), a United States Navy hull classification symbol for nuclear aircraft carriers. 

A letter arrived from Captain Rutherford, inviting me to perform on the GW during their Family Day Cruise! Apparently he'd heard that I wanted to fly out there and perform for their personnel, and now it was actually coming to pass. 

I was "over the moon." 

A Mad Dash to Get There

Bob & Linda left the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival (Sedalia, Missouri) on a Sunday afternoon in June, 1999, to drive 1100 miles to be at the Norfolk Naval Base at "zero-dark-30" (a military term translated to me to mean "pretty darned early"). 

Bob takes a "fresh air" break during the long, grueling drive from western Missouri to the Navy Base in eastern Virginia. 

We calculated our arrival time at the base with our newly acquired GPS, and hoped it new what it was doing. 

Arrive at the Navy Base at "zero-dark-30" (3:00 in the morning).

We arrived at the Norfolk Naval Base in our old grey van around 3:00 a.m. It was guarded heavily by armed personnel carrying rifles and protective gear. A man in full military dress stepped forward and asked very directly, 

"Sir! Will you tell me your business at the Naval Base today, Sir?!"

I explained we were there to be on the George Washington carrier for an event today.

He said,

"Do you have tickets to show me for this event, Sir!"

I reached into my shirt pocket and began to pull out the tickets. As soon as he saw the tops of them coming from my pocket he snapped to attention and saluted us. The tickets, reflecting the captain's guests, were barely one inch out of my pocket. The gates began to swing open. He remained in that position for as long as I could see him in the mirror. 

These two tickets were pure magic in this place. 

The tickets even had a map on the back showing us where to park. Of course, the base was so huge and so many military vehicles charging around that we ended up in the wrong lot somewhere. And of course we had no idea where Pier 11 was or what CVN 73 meant. It was a long walk in a dark night to first, find Pier 11, and then find the GW. 

Arriving at the Ship

We parked and walked seemingly forever in total darkness, wondering when the heck we'd arrive at the ship. We saw lights in the far distance so figured that was it. Then we realized that the "black wall of a factory" we'd been walking next to for some time was actually the ship.

We ascended the stairs, showed our tickets, and were taken aboard. Later we learned we'd taken the "wrong entrance." Captain's guests were supposed to come up a different staircase. We didn't know. 

We arrived in the airplane hanger, an area the size of almost four football fields. It was set up like Lapeer Days, with food and souvenir booths on both sides of an area stretching several blocks long. 

A view from the deck before sunrise. 

As daylight broke we noticed we were actually going out to sea. The U.S.S. Enterprise was docked right next to us. 

Suddenly we realized that we were going out to sea, and that the entire harbor was churning like a washing machine from our wake. The picture below shows this better.

The Harbor Churns Like a Washing Machine

 The size of the wake doesn't do this photo justice, but these would be rough waters for a small boat. You're looking down from six stories up. 

We noticed we weren't alone. A submarine shadowed us in the distance, finally going underwater. 

Later and officer said to us, 

"Mr. Milne, I can neither confirm nor deny that you saw a submarine. It may have been a barge..."

Finally we heard an announcement over the loudspeaker:

"Will the party of Robert Milne please report to sleeping room number ____?"

The announcement was repeated several times. 

We arrived at the room where I instantly crashed following the wild 1100 mile drive. 

Then there was frantic knocking on our door. An officer I'll call Tom P. came charging in saying,

"I've found you! Thank god I've found you!"

We tried to ask him what was going on but he was unable to talk straight, rambling on about running through all the booths in the hanger, charging up and down ship's ladders trying to find us, fearing we were standing back there by the Enterprise, and so forth. 

Then he nervously explained that he had been assigned by Capt. Rutherford to meet us at the top of the Captain's ramp when we boarded, but we didn't know we were supposed to go up that ramp. Tom apparently went berserk, finally saying that after we were out to sea and he still hadn't found us, he was forced to go to the command tower and and say, 

"Sir, Captain Rutherford, Sir! I have lost your guests, Sir."

Apparently Capt. Rutherford then told him to get his butt out into the ship and find us. Hence the wild announcement we heard blaring across the deck. 

It took Tom probably 20 minutes to calm down enough to be able to talk straight to us. 

Then he led us up to the command tower to meet the captain and Marsha. 

Tom takes us to the Command Tower

Captain Lindell Rutherford and wife, Marsha. 

The captain asked me to join the picture.

We eventually learned that Captain Rutherford was a fighter pilot with over 4200 hours in the air, including much combat service. 

Marsha insisted that Linda join the photo. We are both honored to be with these people. 

We also learned that Captain Rutherford, as a pilot, had landed on an aircraft carrier 954 times. 

We retired to the Captain's Lounge, right off the command deck. (top level in picture).

The lounge had comfortable furniture in it such as chairs, a couch, and nice end tables, but it also had a hot breakfast buffet set up for us with three servers standing ready to help us. It included wonderful pastries, bacon and eggs, and literally everything breakfast you can imagine. If you've ever seen a "Captains' Table" on a menu somewhere, you ain't seen nothing yet. This was unbelievable. 

We sat a conversed for over an hour before our escort officer, Tom, stood up and said,

"Bob, we'll be leaving now for your performance down below."

Tom Takes Us to the Performance Stage

We arrived at the stage in the hanger as the previous group was finishing their performance. 5000 people filled the chairs in front of the stage. 

(We were just a wee dot behind the food tents in the hanger. It's impossible to describe the size.)

Officer Tom P. led our party of nine to the front row, only to find it was filled with people. Tom asked us to wait a moment, then calmly walked out in front of everyone (as the group was still performing) and said to the front row,

"Beginning with YOU and going to YOU, please remove yourselves from those chairs NOW. These are special reserved seats for the captain's wife and her guests. UP! OUT! MOVE!"

Then he calmly waved us out to fill the seats from which he'd just thrown everyone out. 

Here you can see Linda sitting in the front row with "Special Reserved Seat" signs all around her. 

Officer Tom had his orders. That's the way the military rolls. Orders from the captain are obeyed to the letter at all costs. No exceptions. Not even for the timid lady who eventually came back and sat down in an empty chair. She whispered to Tom that her grandson was on the stage. Tom said to her, 

"I'm sorry, Ma'am."

She had to leave. He had his orders. 

Once we were "comfortably seated" in our front row chairs, I noticed the piano wasn't on the stage yet. I also noticed fork lifts sitting all around the hanger (used for loading weapons and stuff onto the war planes). I became concerned that if they used a fork lift on the piano they could damage it. Tom told me to talk to the officer over at the side. 

When I asked him about fork lifts he replied,

"Sir! Are you asking me if I'll use a fork lift on the piano, Sir? Absolutely NO, Sir! When I'm ready to put the piano on the stage I'll tell these men to PUT THE PIANO ON THE STAGE, SIR! Is there anything else, Sir?"

I snuck back to my seat. A few moments later we watched him wave about eight sailors to come over to him. They got under the piano, lifted it straight up, then walked it over and set it on the stage.


I was nervous because of the "bombs" hanging over me. I later learned they were fuel tanks for the planes. 

Bob plays for 5000 people aboard the ship. The sound was spread all through the place via speakers. 

We believe this was the first time a grand piano had ever been aboard the GW and possibly any aircraft carrier. We highly appreciated Captain Rutherford's refusal to have Bob play on the keyboard at the side. 

Back to the Command Tower and the Air Show    (in the fog)

Following the concert we returned to the command tower. Captain had prepared an air show for us. He'd set up bleachers for everyone to watch the show. But the show was off to a late start.

Officer Tom P. whispered to us that Captain Rutherford had sent up a few planes to "look for better weather." We tried to remember the last time we might have gone around "looking for better weather." When you have planes it's apparent you can do that.

Captain looked down at the flight deck to see a plane revving its jets, causing it to bump up and down. He asked an officer,

"What's going on down there?"

The officer replied something we couldn't hear. Captain replied,

"Tell them to get on with it!"

We immediately saw the jet move to the flight track and go blasting off for the people in the grandstands. 

A Walk With the Captain

Once the air show started we left the command tower and headed for the flight deck. Bob & Captain Rutherford pose for a picture in front of a painting in the Captain's lounge.

When Captain Rutherford stepped onto the flight deck, many hundreds of sailors whirled, stood at attention, and saluted. 

Following the air show, Linda and I wandered around looking at various aircraft on the deck. 

A helicopter returns after putting on a show. 

A jet puts down its tail-hook to catch the deck cable to stop it. 

A Peek at the Inner Workings of the Ship

Next we were given a tour of the ship's working levels below. Martha Rutherford stands next to one of the anchor chains. We were told (and guarded by officers) to not touch or get near the chains. They can shift position and kill you. 

The people viewing the other chain are guarded by officers. Each link weighs 360 pounds, while each anchor weighs 30 tons. 

A (unbelievable) Stop at the Hospital Section

As we walked down the hall to sign in to the hospital section, officer Tom P. noticed other people close behind us. He told them,

"Excuse me, folks, but you must separate yourselves 100' from us. Captains' wife and special guests are here."

They separated. 

We entered a hospital room to find a nurse assigned to explain the surroundings to us. It was late in the day and he'd been explaining to groups for hours when we arrived. At first his speech went like this:

(speaking quietly)

"Hello, folks. That chair over there is a dentist chair. These cabinets have medicine in them..."

Marsha stepped forward and said, 

"This is really interesting, sir, and neither I nor my guests have ever seen it. My name is Marsha Rutherford."

The man snapped to attention, suddenly speaking in command tone:

"Ma'am! Yes Ma'am! You are standing in the finest medical facilities on the high seas today, Ma'am! The doctors and equipment stationed here are of the finest..."

He continued in this fashion non-stop for several minutes before finishing. Marsha had a wry smirk on her face when we left.  

A Few Extra Photos

Whenever we went anywhere with Captain Rutherford we took the Commanding Officer's Passageway, separate from all others. 

One time we rounded a corner to find a sailor standing near the top rung of a step ladder as he painted something. When Captain came into sight the man snapped to attention and saluted, paint bucket balanced on top of the ladder and paint brush in his hand. Captain Rutherford said, "At ease, sailor" as we passed by. 

Bob is thrown in the brig for "exceeding the speed limit" on the piano. 

And not combing his hair.

All Good Things Come to an End

Finally we're back at Pier 11. A great and memorable day hasn't really ended because we will remember it forever. 

Crew members wave goodbye to us. 

One last look back. 


To this day we stay in contact with the Rutherfords. 


I was given this bathrobe to wear around my room during the day, along with the chance of buying it (for a low price) when we left. I said,

"This will be mine..." 

This is a small "items" bag. The crew usually kept shaving tools or shoe shine stuff in. I keep memories. 

"Sir! Would you like a cup of coffee, Sir?"

Yes, but you have to go one thousand miles to sea to get it. 

Photo credits by: Richard Berry, Linda Milne, AP (associated press) & U.S. Navy