The Legend of Lou Diamond Phillips

Denzel Washington and Lou Diamond Phillips in the 1996 movie Courage Under Fire.

It was the summer of ’96. We were young adult midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy learning seamanship on Yard Patrol craft. We set sail from Annapolis and navigated the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to the Delaware River and eventually the wide-open Atlantic Ocean. Under the watchful eyes of a seasoned Navy Chief Petty Officer and Lieutenant, about twenty of us rotated through all the roles of the ship’s crew. We were there to apprentice, as sailors and future leaders of sailors, but like sailors we had our eyes fixed on our liberty ports.

Eventually we made our way up to New York City and Boston before returning to Annapolis. We were tested on the “rules of the road” to prevent collisions at sea, numerous damage control exercises (emergency actions to prevent a ship from sinking), and man overboard drills. We worked, cooked, cleaned, ate, and slept in shifts. I think the Chief prayed for stormy weather, so that we could have a bit of a real taste of the unforgiving nature of the sea. His wish came true, and I will never forget our ship rocking back-and-forth so much that nearly everyone, except the Chief, got seasick and donated their dinner that night to the mermaids.

We docked at South Street Seaport in Manhattan at Pier 17 (years before it would be demolished and remodeled).

A U.S. Navy Yard Patrol Craft docked at South Street Seaport in Manhattan at Pier 17 in 2005.

New York was hot, bustling, and full of magnetic energy. On our one evening and night of liberty, we wanted to eat, drink, and be merry and we did. We were there on the heels of Fleet Week, a tradition that brings active-duty military and civilians together in our major cities. Many restaurant, bar, and shop owners will welcome and sometimes even discount or comp the purchases of our servicemembers. My friend and shipmate, Mike Lisa, was from the area and we went to his house as a base of operations. His father insisted that we have a family-style Italian meal, so we went to Carmine’s in Times Square. I ate so much I had to adjust my belt.

For our nighttime festivities, we ventured out to a comedy club. I am not sure which club it was, but I think it might have been the famous Comedy Cellar as I remember going underground to see the show and being amazed by seeing so many photographs on the walls of all the top comedians who had performed there. A group of us Midshipmen were there together, conspicuously in our Summer White uniforms. The various comedians who came on stage all found a way to incorporate us into their acts. It was usually a combination of making fun of the military followed by showing us some appreciation and respect for what we do or eventually would do.

Seated in the shadows of the back of the room was a dark-haired handsome man who looked all too familiar. We whispered to each other at our high-top table, “could that be THE Lou Diamond Phillips?” THE Lou Diamond Phillips from La Bamba. THE Lou Diamond Phillips from Young Guns and Young Guns II. THE Lou Diamond Phillips from Stand and Deliver. THE Tony-nominated Lou Diamond Phillips who was — right then — performing as the King in the King and I on Broadway. THE Lou Diamond Phillips who had a starring role with Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan in Courage Under Fire, which was hitting theaters that July. We quickly devised a plan to find out. One of the women Midshipmen in our group came up with the idea to follow Lou’s date to the restroom and then she would try to casually (if that could be done) ask her, “are you here with THE Lou Diamond Phillips?” We received confirmation! “Yes, he is my husband.” We were ecstatic. The night could have ended right then, and we would have had a great story to tell. “Guess what, on our one night out in NYC, we saw THE Lou Diamond Phillips!”

Amazingly, the story did not end there. Like something out of Dave Chapelle’s true Hollywood stories about Eddie Murphy’s older brother and comedic writer, Charlie Murphy, we were about to have a legendary night. As the comedy show ended, THE Lou Diamond Phillips and his wife approached our table, and he started by thanking us. He was humble. He was gracious. He was real. He told us how he was a Navy brat, born on Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines, and the son of a Marine Corps KC-130 Crew Chief. Lou was named by his father after Leland “Lou” Diamond, a Marine combat veteran who had served honorably in WWI and WWII. Lou asked us what we were up to that evening, and we shared we were looking for some good trouble. Without missing a beat, he invited us to shoot pool with him and his wife and have a few drinks.

Our small group in our all-white Navy uniforms stumbled out after Lou on to the sleepless streets of Manhattan. What impressed me most was not that everyone knew who Lou was and called out his name, but Lou knew the names of many of the people we passed by who were out picking up trash or minding their store fronts. Even if he didn’t know their names, he stopped to acknowledge them and say hello. He was a man of the people. He took us to a nice pool hall and bar where he secured a couple of tables for us. I thought that would be it and he and his wife would go on to bigger and better things, but instead he asked, “who is going to play us in doubles?” Mike and I stepped up and started playing Lou and his wife in billiards. Lou ordered rounds and rounds of drinks for us, and I swear I had the best tequila I have ever had in my life. We drank, we talked, we shot pool. It felt like we were visiting an older brother who had moved to the big city, and he wanted to make sure he showed us a great time and got us back home safely to mom.

We knew we had a curfew of when we had to be back on the ship and there would be major consequences if we missed it. This was not the time of Uber and Lyft, ubiquitous mobile phones, or even yellow cabs that guaranteed they would take a credit card. We were thinking about walking back to the ship, but we knew for sure we would miss curfew if we went by foot. Lou was an absolute gentleman and a saint. He walked us out to the street, hailed a couple of cabs for us, told them to take us to South Street Seaport, and he pulled out a thick roll of cash and prepaid our rides back to the ship. We thanked him in that moment for giving us a night to remember, and he thanked us for serving our country. He thanked us, again, wow.

As we head into Memorial Day Weekend, with all of the tragic news we have been experiencing, I am sharing this story because it continues to give me hope. It is all about human connection between strangers, mutual appreciation, empathy, compassion, and radical generosity. Lou did not have to come over and thank us. He did not have to invite us out with him. He did not have to spend time with us or play pool with us. He did not have to buy us drinks or pay for our pool tables or our cab rides back to the ship. He was great and successful without doing any of those things, but he is legendary because he did them. It has been almost 26 years since that unforgettable night, but it is never too late to say thank you. Thank you, Lou for showing us what real compassion looks like. Thank you for being you.

P.S. There is no place for hate or violence in America.

P.P.S. Pass universal background checks for gun ownership.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store