The heart-wrenching news from a distant ocean, the vigil while the names of the dead trickle in, the playing of taps for the fallen - these are not new to townspeople here, who cheer for the Navy's victories and cry for its defeats.
None of the 47 sailors killed in a gun turret explosion Wednesday on the battleship USS Iowa listed the area as their hometown. Yet the people here are claiming them as their own - just as they have done so many times before when death strikes a Norfolk-based ship."There isn't an `us' or `them.' Even when the tragedy strikes far away from here, it is felt here. That ship is part of our community," said Mayor Joseph Leafe.
Overnight, the Norfolk-Newport News-Hampton metropolitan area of 1.3 million became a small town. In schools, shops, bars and on the streets, the topic of conversation was the Iowa - who was aboard, who had word, who was helping, who had lost someone.
"It's hard to find anybody in any walk of life in this area that didn't start out in the Navy," said Donald Smith, a sociologist at Old Dominion University. "With this area's long history as the world's largest naval facility, the impact goes deeper. Young people get out of the Navy, they seem to stay around here."
The military's influence is seen throughout Hampton Roads, as the area where the James and Elizabeth rivers meet the Chesapeake Bay is known.
"The economic relationship between the military and civilian sectors is a very close one," said Wolfgang Pindur, director of research for Old Dominion's College of Business and Public Administration. "The military is the major employer. That isolates us from any downward trends in the economy."
The area has 138,000 active military men and women and 65,000 military retirees, according to government statistics. The annual payroll and federal spending for the area is $5.53 billion. Newport News Shipbuilding, which is building nuclear aircraft carriers, is the state's biggest private employer.
By comparison, tourism, the area's other major industry, brings in about $1.3 billion.
While the civilian-military economic marriage seems a sweet one, socially there has always been some friction.
There are tales of "sailors and dogs keep off the grass" signs appearing during World War II. Local officials say the signs never existed, or if they did, they were someone's poor idea of a joke.
Navy men, however, have been denied service in bars or made to pay exorbitant cover charges. In every case, when the practice became known, it ceased.
"It's a love-hate relationship, especially with the younger military men. There are a lot of kids in town and they do what all kids do ... and sometimes they get into trouble," said Pindur. "It's a pain sometimes to have all these kids running loose, but, at the same time, there is an appreciation for what they do. There job is to protect us."
Smith said some of the friction is based on class differences.
"Let's face it, the majority of these Navy kids are from lower-or working-class families," he said. "For them, the Navy was a way out."
But the tension disappears in times of triumph or tragedy.
"We are a Navy community," Pindur said. "There is a deep empathy for things that happen to Navy folks."
The Rev. David Lassalle, who delivered a short homily Friday at a service organized by the city in tribute to the dead, gestured toward the workmen setting up the podium on the Elizabeth River waterfront, the police honor guard officers rehearsing their entrance and the people quietly gathering.
"Words don't always say enough, but the actions of today . . . perhaps they say even if we didn't know their faces or their names, those men were ours," he said.