PACIFIC OCEAN, May 20, 2012, under way on board the USS Carl Vinson, a Nimitz-class nuclear powered carrier 1,092 feet long and 244 feet high.

As I stared at the hundreds of pipes and wires from my top rack, I wondered how I wound up here, a 54-year-old man from Riverside out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a war ship. I’m here because of my son, a third-class petty officer in the United States Navy.

My odyssey started at O’Hare airport where I boarded a plane bound for Honolulu, Hawaii. There I was met by a sergeant in the Marines, Steve Peterson, from Riverside and a childhood friend of my son, who would act as my guide.

After a few days and nights on the town, we watched as the mighty USS Carl Vinson pulled into Pearl Harbor. Hundreds of sailors manned the rails in their dress whites, police boats secured the harbor, Sea Hawk helicopters buzzed, flanking the carrier as tug boats strained, inching the huge ship towards the pier.

Shots rang out sending lead lines over the pier, as sailors worked vigorously to secure ropes. The air horn blew echoing across the harbor. Ear-piercing sirens rang out signaling to stand clear of the flight-deck elevators, which lowered 50 feet in seconds. It was a sight to witness and one that every American should experience.

Soon I was placing a lei over my son’s head saying “welcome to Hawaii” and embracing him in a bear hug. He had just completed a six-month combat deployment, supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, and anti-piracy missions in the Arabian Sea.

We were joined by another sailor, Jose Campos, also from Riverside, who is on the USS Halsey, a guided missile destroyer in the same strike group.

Looking at these three men, I realized I had coached all of them 10 years earlier, on a North Riverside Little League baseball team. Now they were more than just men, they are U.S. Military servicemen protecting our freedom.

After a couple of days of site seeing, we said goodbye to our fellow travelers. I followed my son up the stairs to the ship, bound for its home port in San Diego and asked for permission to come aboard.

“Permission granted” said the officer on deck. I was now officially a Tiger.

A Tiger Cruise is a program were relatives and friends of sailors are able to board a ship, after passing medical and security clearance, and travel from one port of call to another. In my case, I was one of 950 Tigers, as we are called, onboard.

I stuck by my son the first few days so I would not get lost. We must have walked ten miles a day over bulkheads, up and down ladder wells, through hundreds of water-tight 200-pound doors that needed to be clamped shut every time you went through an opening. It’s a wonder more people don’t get hurt.

To keep up with these sailors you had to move quickly. It is a young man’s game. The highlights were many. The air and sea power demonstration with F-18’s taking off from the flight deck was incredible, and then breaking the sound barrier 200 feet off the flight deck. The sonic boom caused the whole ship to rock!

Two ships in the strike group, the USS Halsey and the USS Bunker Hill, pulled alongside, shot off their big cannons as we gave them three cheers. They also had Tigers onboard their ships as well and gave us a hoo-yah cheer back. Quite the sight to see in eight- to 10-foot seas in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

We had many tours of the operations and mechanicals. It was noisy everywhere. Trying to sleep with my rack vibrating so hard my teeth chattered, crawling through hatchways designed for 10-year-old gymnasts and eating fine Navy chow were some of the tasks. It was beautiful eating nachos under the wings of an F-18 Hornet.

I had only a small glimpse of this life and now have a great appreciation for what they go through. These are tough men and women.

All too quickly our seven-day adventure was coming to a close, and not fast enough for some Tigers, as it is a difficult place to live. It is no cruise ship. As we pulled into Coronado bay, I was on the flight deck, with the sailors lining the rails.

I spotted my wife and daughter holding up a big neon green sign saying “Welcome Home” amongst the crowd of 3,000 people waiting for their loved ones. The flags were waving, bands were playing and the crowd would let off spontaneous cheers as the great ship was being pulled into the pier. It still brings a tear to my eye when I think about. What a great sense of pride I had for these military men and women.

I’d like to thank the crew onboard the USS Carl Vinson, but most of all I’d like to thank my son, Jeff, for what you have gone through. Without you my adventure of a lifetime would have never happened. It is amazing the places your children will take you in life.

Daniel Falater is a Riverside resident.