When Chet Grocki of Chatham was in high school in the 1950s, he was sometimes called out of class to play Taps at a military funeral.
Local men from his town in Connecticut were fighting and dying in the Korean War. As a trumpeter in the Connecticut All-State Band, Chet was in demand for this somber task.
“It was the beginning of my awareness of the idea of military service—what it ultimately meant was people died,” Chet says.
After graduating from high school, Chet enrolled at the United States Naval Academy (USNA) in Annapolis, Md. He graduated from there in 1958.
“That was such a life-changing event for a son of immigrant parents,” Chet says. His parents were from Poland and very proud of their son. Chet served in the Navy on active duty on a diesel submarine followed by reserve duty. After 23 years he retired as a captain to join his brother in an insurance agency.
“I credit all the good things in my life to that Navy experience,” Chet says.
Chet’s retirement from the service was not the end of the family’s Naval experience. When it came time for his son Russ to go to college, Russ followed in his father’s footsteps to the highly-competitive USNA. Russ would eventually marry a student he met at the USNA and their two sons would also join the Navy.
“From nothing came a full Navy family,” Chet says. “Had I known what would happen when I entered the Naval Academy, I would have been very surprised.”
Today Captain Russ Grocki and his wife, Rear Admiral Alma Grocki, are visiting Chet and his wife Pauline in their home near Ridgevale Beach. Russ and Alma live in Hawaii, and one thing they are unable to do there is dig for shellfish. Russ pulls a bowl of small clams on ice from the refrigerator, the fruit of the previous day’s trip to the shellfish beds.
Forty years ago, in 1976, the USNA began accepting women. Alma, who graduated from Hawaii’s Punahou School two years ahead of President Barack Obama, entered the USNA in 1977 with the second class of women. The class of about 1,200 was divided into 36 companies. Companies formed tight groups. Russ and Alma were in the same company and “great friends.”
So what was it like to be in a small minority of women in the USNA? The most awkward moments Alma recalls revolved around the women’s uniform, which was ill-adapted from the male model. “The bottom line is we just wanted to be treated like our classmates,” Alma says. “We just wanted to be midshipmen—just wanted to be like the guys.”
“One of the biggest problems was: Who would be the role model for these women?” Chet adds. “The girls were from all over the country with no women officers. They were all men.”
Many graduates of USNA graduate with an engineering degree. Chet, Russ and Alma are all engineers.
After Russ and Alma graduated, she went off to work in the shipyard in Portsmouth, N.H. and Russ joined the nuclear submarine service. Ten years later, in 1991, Alma was a reservist working in San Jose. Russ was stationed in Vallejo, Calif., on a sub. “We met there again and the rest is history,” he says.
The two married the following year. They became the parents of two boys. With Russ at sea on a six-month deployment, their life was not easy. Russ, who commanded an attack sub, left three weeks after the birth of their second child, so they made daily videos “so they [the boys] would be familiar with his voice and face when he came back,” Alma says. When their sons were old enough, Alma returned to active duty. She ended up working back in the Pearl Harbor shipyard, where her father had worked for 39 years fixing submarines. Russ retired in 2011 and Alma retired on Oct. 1. Right now she is helping with preparations for the upcoming 75th anniversary commemoration of the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
The couple’s older son, Dan, graduated from the USNA last May. Chet was on hand to turn his ceremonial sword over to his grandson. Dan is now in a submarine training program in Charleston, S.C. Their younger son, Nick, is a junior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. He is in the ROTC and also plans to head into the submarine service.
Three generations, five family members in the Navy.
With less than 2 percent of the population serving in the armed forces, what does service mean to this family?
All three speak of serving something larger than themselves – their community, country world. They speak of keeping safe things that represent America such as free speech and freedom of religion. Some of Alma and Russ’s classmates died on 9/11, just as Chet knew many who fell in World War II and the Korean War.
And Russ wants us to contemplate what lies behind the works of patriotic songs. “It may not be you that’s out there making it happen, but somebody was out there dying to keep it all in place,” he says.
“Our kids saw us, said it’s a good life, it’s an honorable life,” Alma says.