As a Gen Xer and deep southerner, I was raised in a world of porcelain dolls and Beethoven on the piano. I remember spending quite a few evenings with my head pressed to the upstairs landing banister in my home, peering between its bars to catch a glimpse of fancy parties below. My stereotypical prom dress was white with pin-tucking, a broad sash and strings of tiny pearls on the bodice with a tea-length skirt, for goodness’ sake. I was raised as a debutante-style girlie girl. It is just what I was “supposed” to be, being from where I was from and of whom I was from.
This all sounds silly today. But as many women of the Deep South will agree, this is just how it was for young ladies in certain circles during that time. But I have my secrets. You can trust me, on that.
A Deep Desire to “Get Mechanical”
One such secret is that I could not get enough “boys'” Tonka metal cars and trucks when I was two to five years old. In those years, I also collected earthworms from hot sidewalks to save their lives. I was very interested in yard work, outdoor labor and tree climbing. I baited my own hooks without squeals and helped my father clean and gut fish.
As a teen and young adult, I had dreams of being a world traveling forensic pathologist. But my mother flatly disagreed, telling me, “No man will love a woman who works on dead bodies all day.” That stung, shooting down my dreams in one cold statement heavy with the ultra-boring life expectations and trappings of a “proper” southern belle.
I took those words to heart and let what I wanted slip into a crevasse in my psyche. Why? Because I was a little girl from a Louisiana family, a girl who wore white and pearls to her prom. Oh but wait, I never even went into prom. That was a rebellion, too. My boyfriend and I skipped it after our photos and ran off to Dallas, instead.
Beyond these glimpses of my true nature and despite all I was supposed to be, I loved machinery. I loved taking things apart and putting them back together with purpose. I have always longed to buy and fix up a classic car on my own, using the slender “girl fingers” God gave me to my mechanical advantage, as I do when gutting a computer.
So imagine my well-hidden excitement at getting to tour the decks, hospital and engine rooms of the Battleship Wisconsin. I handled it like that young lady in pearls, from an outsider’s perspective. But I really jumped for joy inside, at the idea of touring something my former self would otherwise never get to touch. Today, anyone can tour this magnificent example of our 20th century Navy, thanks to Nauticus, a maritime-themed museum in downtown Norfolk, Virginia.
A Battleship in the Heart of Downtown
The City of Norfolk acts as steward of one of the Navy’s largest and most impressive battleships, the Wisconsin. With Nauticus now caring for this gigantic mass of steel and teak, the public has access to multiple decks. Yes, for a small fee that helps keep her afloat and in ship shape, you explore areas of Wisconsin civilians could not see before.
The first stop for photographer Nicholas Crawford and I was in the SEAR. The SEAR, Ship Experience Access Room, is a special space that enables people with physical limitations to access multiple areas of the ship. In fact, war veterans no longer able to climb their familiar ladder-wells inspired development of this space. Now anyone who cannot walk freely on the decks tour from the comfort of Wisconsin’s former Administrative Office. They use a simple joystick to maneuver through 20 video feeds and explore individual spaces.
Multiple Battleship Wisconsin Tour Options to Satisfy All Curiosities
If you find yourself up for walking and climbing ladder-wells, you can freely explore multiple decks on the Wisconsin. The ship’s length is 880 feet, almost three football fields from stem to stern. So this Self-Guided Tour exploration provides amazing access to a vast portion of the vessel.
In civilian terms, these self-guided spaces include the government room, officers’ staterooms, phone company and public affairs office. You also see the law firm, bank and payroll office, chapel, dentist’s office, post office, convenience shop and main galley restaurant. Other sites include the buffet restaurant, bakery and doughnut shop, sheriff’s office, jail, garbage disposal, supply office, gun shop, machine shop and sailors’ berths. But simply walking the teak of her main deck is pretty incredible, given Wisconsin’s size and weaponry.
The four deck Guided Command and Control Tour provides another option for your visit. For this tour, your friendly guide escorts you through the Captain’s and Admiral’s quarters and Combat Engagement Center. You also tour the Flag Bridge, Navigation Bridge and Quartermaster’s space. Along the way, you learn more about the ship than her surface features reveal.
To get to the belly of the beast, the guided Life In the Engine Room Tour is your best option. As part of this visit, you go seven decks down for fascinating engine room exploration. Audio-visual displays provide a unique and masterfully creative method of seeing the engines come to life. You also gain a real sense of how these mechanical parts worked together. They powered Wisconsin through multiple wars, conflicts and cruises, starting with World War II in the Pacific.
Back inside Nauticus, you gain access to a wide range of exhibits about Battleship Wisconsin and maritime, in general. Exhibits in the main museum include a shark-petting experience, artifacts, video presentations, photographs and films. Also recommended is a visit to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, a museum-within-the-museum operated by the Navy. This space further explores life on the battleship and in Naval service, itself. Exhibits include uniforms, photos, video and other intriguing displays that add greater dimension to your walk on the decks.
Other Exciting Ways to Experience the Battleship Wisconsin
If you want an even bigger battleship experience, consider spending a night on her decks. Yes, you can live the full sailor experience, even bedding down in your own berth. Families, individuals and business groups fully enjoy exclusive guided tours, an evening movie and breakfast in the Wardroom. You also get to interact with enlisted sailors from the Navy and listen to the personal stories from vets who once sailed on the ship.
Another one of the newest ways to experience Wisconsin is through the country’s only battleship escape room. As part of Escape Ship: To Catch a Spy, you travel back in time to 1989. There, you work with your team to uncover a Russian spy posing as an ambassador. But you must do so before he enacts his evil plot.
Regardless of how deeply you choose to dig into Nauticus, the ship and Naval museum, this treasure in downtown Norfolk is a must-do. You will enjoy your visit, whether you have mechanical inclinations or just want to see how sailors lived their lives on this incredible floating fortress.