Father returns home with Tiger of a tale

Spends week at sea with his son aboard U.S. Navy aircraft carrier.


Andrew Berry had never seen his son Mason, a helicopter pilot and a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, fly his helicopter.

During a six-day Tiger Cruise between Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and Coronado, Calif., aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, Mr. Berry watched his son behind the controls, lifting off the deck in his MH-60 Sierra Knighthawk.

“I’ve seen video, but never actually witnessed it,” Mr. Berry told The Times. “It was pretty cool.”

Tiger trips are set up for family and friends of sailors to experience what it’s like to be aboard a ship at sea. Mason’s mother, Peyton, passed on the trip, setting the stage for the father-son voyage.

“They do it typically, as I understand it, at the tail end of an extended deployment, and not anywhere near hostile waters,” said Mr. Berry, who son was ending a six-month deployment.

The trip was delayed by a month after President Donald Trump sent the USS Carl Vinson and its strike group to Korea, a scary development for family back home.

“It’s very troubling at this time. At the risk of saying something impolitic, we don’t have a particularly rational commander in chief,” Mr. Berry said. “So I worry a little bit about what he can do. This most recent deployment was particularly troubling, because he decided to send this fleet back to Korea. They were on their way to Perth, Australia, and who knows what was going on in his mind when he made that decision. It was a little scary.”

On the Tiger trip, Mr. Berry got to witness firsthand the leader his son had become as he was saluted by sailors he outranked. “He handles it in a really cool way. If an enlisted guy passes him and salutes, he’ll salute back and say thank you,” Mr. Berry said. “I thought that was a nice touch. I think that’s good leadership.”

The USS Carl Vinson, named for the former Georgia congressman, has a hospital, a dental unit, a barbershop, and dozens of amenities, like a Post Office, that make it like a floating city.

“I was impressed by the enormity of the scope of this operation, how complicated it is, and what a choreography it is for thousands of people whose job it is to keep about 300 pilots ready to go in lots of different kinds of aircraft all the time,” Mr. Berry told The Times. “It’s unbelievable what these people can do. The pilots are impressive, but everyone else is just as impressive.”

Beginning June 17, Mr. Berry stayed with his son in his officer’s quarters, below one of the four catapults aboard the 1,092-foot, 95,000-ton ship.

Family and Island connections

Mason Berry is married and has a 1-year-old boy named Shaler, named for Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, a Harvard-educated geologist who spent time on Martha’s Vineyard studying and writing about its moraines.

The Berry family has strong ties to the Island too. Mason Berry’s grandparents, Bob and Peggy Berry, were longtime Islanders. Mason Berry and his two sisters, Marcie and Emily, visited during the summer.

“He feels really connected to this place,” Andrew Berry said of his son.

Mason Berry’s 17-year Navy career started with his commission to the U.S. Naval Academy, something he had coveted since he was in the sixth grade.

“Our job at that point was to manage his disappointment,” Mr. Berry said. “I didn’t think he had a chance he would get that admission — that’s tough. But he’s a very determined kid. He was in remedial math in seventh grade; the rest of his class was ahead of him. He graduated from the Naval Academy with a degree in systems engineering, and he now has an advanced degree in advanced system analysis.”

It was an unlikely path to a military career for a student who went to a Quaker high school. Where did this passion for the military come from? It wasn’t from his father, who grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s trying to avoid the Vietnam War. “If you told me then I’d have a kid from the Naval Academy about whom I’m goosebumpy proud, we’d have had a pretty good laugh,” Mr. Berry said.

The inspiration was likely Mason’s grandfather’s service in the Navy, and that of his great-grandfather, Robert Lawrence Berry, being a 1900 graduate of Annapolis and serving as a military attaché to President Herbert Hoover, Mr. Berry said.

Back aboard the USS Carl Vinson, Mr. Berry and the other invited guests had the ability to participate in sponsored activities and tours of the vessel, which has a flight deck four acres long. And there were plenty of opportunities to see the aircraft take off and land. (An interesting note is that aircraft carriers leave port with none of the planes and helicopters onboard. They fly on once the carrier is at sea.)

“It’s visceral. The whole experience is. It’s a full-body visceral experience when a jet takes off,” Mr. Berry told The Times. He described watching as a jet was heaved from a catapult past the jet blast deflector. “When they went up to what they call military power, my eyeballs dried out immediately. I had to close my eyes and keep the camera going. It was really loud and very hot. They say if those shields aren’t up and you get behind those jets, you’ll be blown off the ship, it’s that strong.”

Mr. Berry thought initially he could handle watching the jets come and go without benefit of ear protection. Fortunately, his son had a spare pair in his pocket, he said. “It’s so loud. It overwhelmed the audio on my camera,” Mr. Berry said.

Along with exploring the ship, the Tiger Cruise visitors also got to experience the dizzying array of acronyms used by the military. “It’s a language all their own,” Mr. Berry said. They also got a taste of life at sea — feasting on the same food the sailors eat on a daily basis.

“It’s not great, but you’re on the tail end of a six-month deployment,” he said. “They cook four meals a day — three regular meals and mid-rats, which are midnight rations. Do the math, let’s say 4,000 people, that’s 16,000 meals a day. It ain’t going to be gourmet, but it’s OK.” There was always fresh fruit and salad, he said.

The Berry family moved to the Vineyard in 2005, after Mason was already in flight training in the Navy. Mr. Berry was at Oak Bluffs School first, and then joined the administration at the high school.

Retired now, he enjoyed the chance to go see his son in action, and had a week at sea to see just how much of a well-oiled machine the crew of an aircraft carrier has to be to keep it operational.

“I come from the antiwar Vietnam era, and I’m not a bang-bang-shoot-’em-up kind of guy, but I was just very impressed,” Mr. Berry said. “The scale of the thing is what blew my mind.”

It’s fair to say even a dove like Mr. Berry now has a better understanding of why so much money is spent on defense. “If you want this kind of capability, this is what it’s going to cost,” he said.