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Since Jim Salvatore was eight years old, he has dreamed of stepping foot on a Navy submarine.
This past Saturday that dream became a reality thanks to Wish of a Lifetime (WOL), a non-profit organization that grants wishes to seniors.
In partnership with SCA, a global hygiene company, and Brookdale Senior Living where Salvatore resides in Williamsburg, WOL made arrangements for Salvatore to take a day trip to Naval Station Norfolk where he boarded the USS John Warner, an active military submarine.
Salvatore, a former Navy electronics technician, was given the full tour, received an Honorary Submariner certificate, and swapped Navy stories with active servicemen.
“All I can say is it was a thrill. I can’t believe I was there,” Salvatore said. “I’ve dreamed of doing this for 80 years. It was beautiful.”
He was a boy when he first became interested in the submarines he saw in movies, but Salvatore said his expectations were exceeded by the real thing.
“I got to see where they steer the submarine and where the chiefs sleep. Compared to the Navy carrier I worked on, subs have hardly any room,” he said. “On the carrier, I slept on a bunk that was four [bunks] high and these guys are on bunks all over the sub, wherever there’s room. It’s amazing to me that three guys are assigned to the same bunk and sleep in eight-hour rotations. The bunks are never empty. Can you imagine the aroma?”
Because of the limited space in the submarine, Salvatore trained with a physical therapist for several months to transition from a walker to a cane, and gain the strength needed to descend a ladder.
“It was difficult to start using the cane, but it gave me a little more confidence,” he said. “I had to walk down the dock and climb down a ladder backwards. Everyone who assisted me was wonderful.”
Brookdale’s activities director Brenda Perkins said Salvatore worked hard to prepare for the experience.
“There were some concerns about whether or not he could climb the submarine ladder, but he worked really hard and showed he really wanted it,” she said. “He has been grinning ear to ear since he got back.”
Since the organization was founded in 2008, WOL has granted more than 1,400 senior wishes — seven from Brookdale — where staff are educated on the program and trained to keep an ear out for wishes that are shared in passing by seniors, said Perkins.
“We are big on working with Wish of a Lifetime to change the experience and expectation of aging. These folks have things they still want to accomplish and we want to help them,” she said. “As excited as the recipients are to get their wishes granted, we are just as excited. We are their biggest cheerleaders.”
Now that his wish has been fulfilled, Salvatore looks forward to one day visiting a submarine for a second time.
“I don’t know if anyone has a dream that has lasted as long as mine,” he said. “In a way I’m satisfied, but I’d also like to go take a look again.”
This story was published in partnership with WYDaily’s sister publication, SouthsideDaily.com.