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By KEVIN RIORDAN
You don't know what "big" really looks like until you see the USS New Jersey for yourself.
That great gray battleship you've read so much about is huge, gigantic, enormous ... majestic, really, as it comes into view from the promenade along the Camden Waterfront.
A view made even more impressive by postcard-worthy skies Monday morning, as the Big J was at long last opened to the public.
The sparkling waters of the Delaware, the glistening skyline of Philadelphia and the vivid signal flags flying from the yardarms were a most welcoming sight.
Especially given the events of the last few weeks, events which seemed to deepen the proud red, white and blue hues decorating the ship.
"We should all salute it," said Al Bancroft, who was at the front of the line outside the Big J's spanking-new visitors center.
Bancroft and his pal Elmer Beach had left Voorhees and Oaklyn, respectively, before dawn. They and six other former Marines became the first group to take the public tour.
"It's great we have a tribute like this, a tribute to all veterans," said Bancroft, 62.
"There's a feeling you can't get until you board it," Beach, 79, said.
John Mills, a retired assistant fire chief in Camden, was a capable, colorful guide as the first group clambered from one end of the ship to the other.
Former Marine Bobbie Swain, 65, was the only woman in the group.
But what really made Swain feel special was the fact that her late father, Floyd Pagley, helped build the USS New Jersey.
"There's a little tug to the heart," Swain, of Voorhees, said. "It's a nice feeling. Maybe he's up there and can see the ship."
I knew what she meant.
In 1986, I surprised my dad by arranging for us to tour the USS Wisconsin, which was being retrofitted at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
During World War II, my father was a turret captain 1st class on the Wisconsin. A photograph of the mighty vessel sailed on the wall above the TV during my childhood, and I grew up hearing stories about life "on board ship" during wartime in the South Pacific.
I knew the Wisconsin had been an important part of my dad's life.
But until we stood together on that deck - where he'd last been in 1945, at age 23 - I didn't understand how a battleship could claim such an enduring place in his heart. I couldn't have known the enormity, the grandeur, until I saw it.
And seeing the USS New Jersey on Monday reminded me not only of the young sailor who was my father, but of all the others "on board ship" who sailed, and sail, for all of us.
Kevin Riordan's column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Contact him at (856) 486-2604 or kriordan@courierpostonline. com.
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