A Doggone Sea Story

By Pat Glesner

 

 

 

 

I crossed over the lift bridge, followed the ship canal out to the harbor, and walked into the Sand Bar, once an old refuge.  The bartender turned without speaking, pulled a Pabst from the cooler and plopped it in front of me.  “That wild bunch you used to hang out with is long gone,” he said.

 

It was the late summer of 1974, and I was between duty stations, taking the long way home from San Francisco.  It was my first time back in Duluth in almost four years.  I finished my beer, drove down Minnesota Avenue, and pulled into a beach access, next to another old haunt.  It had a fresh coat of paint and a neatly trimmed lawn, and now looked like an ordinary family dwelling.  A few years before it had resembled a fraternity house, specifically, Animal House.  The antics that went on inside could have come right out of the script.  It was a fraternity of sorts, made up of the ship’s bachelors.  The front lawn was often littered with empty beer cans, when the ship was in port, and loud music blared from within.  A sign emblazoned with a full beer stein hung under the gable, letting all know that this was “the Pad.” 

 

Finally I went down to the Woodrush.  There, resting in the shade of the QM shack was one of best friends and oldest shipmates.  He was middle-aged then, in dog years, and did not move as fast as he used to, but he greeted me in a manner that indicated that he remembered me too.

 

I was a fresh, galvanized swabbie when first we met.  Six months building trucks for Ford had convinced me that the military wasn’t so bad, so a few days before I had raised my right hand at the Detroit recruiting station, went to Cleveland to pick up my Coast Guard peculiar uniform items—flat hat, hip boots, etc—stopped off at home long enough for my mother to sew on my shields, then motored around Lake Michigan to Sturgeon Bay, WI, where the Woodrush was dry-docked. 

 

I had sailed alongside cutters and knew that the Coast Guard had smaller crews on smaller ships, painted white instead of gray, but outside of that I expected it to be just like the Navy.  I soon found out differently.

 

A heavy fog shrouded the town that Sunday morning.  Bay Shipyard was deserted and deadly quiet.  A ship loomed ahead of me.  It had a racing stripe and the hull number was right, so it had to be the Woodrush.  But it was not sleek and white; it was black and bulky.  It also appeared deserted. 

 

I had changed into crisply pressed whites a short time before, in preparation for a formal boarding.  But there was no OOD, no JOOD, no QMOW on deck, only a nearly full-grown black Labrador Retriever.  As he sniffed around me his tail wagged enthusiastically, letting me know that I had passed inspection.  By the time I went back to my car and returned with my seabag several minutes had passed, and yet I was still alone with the dog.  Finally a human appeared, a dungaree-clad, broadly smiling, baby-faced seaman with sponge in hand.  “Hi,” he said.  “You must be our new ET.”  He introduced himself as Gary Mael, and the dog as Soogie.  I was perplexed: “Soogie?”

 

“Yah,” Gary said, making scrubbing motions with his sponge, “you know, Soogie!”  Flat hats, black-football-shaped ships, deserted quarterdecks, mascots, and now a new vocabulary.  More surprises were in store.

 

“Come on in and meet the crew,” Gary said.  They were all on the messdeck, from Captain (LtCdr) Freeborn on down.  Such familiarity was unheard of in the Navy.  About half of them were in civvies, so it was difficult to tell who was what.  A man seated across from me stretched out his hand: “Hi, I’m Billy Six.”  A little later I learned that he was a BMCM.  In the Navy a master chief would have never introduced himself by his first name.  He probably would not have even shaken my hand. 

 

Next to Six sat a man who introduced himself as Emmett Davis.  I was inclined to address him as “Chief,” because of his older, lined and weather-beaten face, but fortunately did not, since I later discovered that Emmett was a career Fireman.

 

As the OD, QM1 Bill “Teddy the Toad” Ledger logged me in, CS1 Carlos Beneke offered refreshments.  It was ten o’clock in the morning, so I expected orange juice or coffee.  I was more than a little shocked when I found out that the bill of fare also included Budweiser and Shultz. 

 

There were others in the crew who had served in the Navy, including Mr. Colton, the Chief Engineer, Chief Blackburn, and EM1 Bob “Cubbie” Joy, but every one of them was now a full-fledged Coastie.  I had not yet made the transition.  I could not contain my astonishment, kept asserting that “this is definitely not the Navy,” and spoke in terms of “us,” meaning the Navy, and “you,” the Coast Guard.  DC1 Fitzpatrick sat me straight: “I got news for you, Buddy; you’re one of us now.” 

 

And so I settled in.  In the days that followed I learned that I was expected to be more than an ET.  I was also a quartermaster, yeoman and storekeeper, and if need be, a deckie.  I learned that the Coast Guard operated on a shoestring, and was proud of it, that “Air Force Junkyard” was synonymous with “Coast Guard Supply.”  I learned that along with Semper Paratus, “We work hard and play hard” was also a motto.  I also learned that on the Woodrush at least, a mascot was more than a mascot—he was just as much a part of the crew as the rest of us. 

 

Not long after I arrived we had a ship’s party, a wet party, which—another surprise—took place on the ship.  Soogie imbibed along with the rest of us, and like some of us, he over-indulged.  Soon he was staggering across the buoy deck, eventually getting hung up on a knee-knocker while trying to get into the paint locker to sleep it off.  I’m sure he shared the same hangover most of us suffered the day after, but while most of us resorted to the hair of the dog, the dog himself toughed it out, thereby learning a lesson a few of us probably never learned.  He remained a social drinker thereafter, but his absolute limit was two beers.  In that regard he was smarter that many of us.

He was intelligent, gentle, and disciplined, though not always obedient.  He was more than house broken—he was ship broken.  The crew had placed a sandbox, “Soogie’s Pee Box,” on the buoy deck, under a ladder, but Soogie preferred to restrain himself when underway.  Fortunately we were rarely out very long.  When a voyage did last more than a day or two Soogie would eventually “pump bilges,” always on the buoy deck, and would then walk away, tail down, deeply embarrassed.  Nature’s other call always waited, no matter how long we were underway.

 

He had been a gift from a breeder who hoped to make Black Labs the unofficial mascot of the U.S. Coast Guard.  Thus, he had a pedigree, a noble ancestry that should have made him at home in the wardroom; however, he preferred the company of “mongrels,” and slept, ate, played, and worked with the crew.  He had an enlisted man’s natural suspicion of chiefs and officers, and barked repeatedly whenever anyone in khaki approached the ship.  Once aboard he treated our own officers civilly, with the respect they deserved; however, he rarely made friends with visiting officers.  He generally tolerated civilians, especially those of the female gender.  When we worked buoys he was always on deck, making sure everything was in order.  In port he often earned his keep as a watchdog, alerting the QM of the approach of chiefs, officers, and strangers. 

 

Soogie gained a bit of renown in the spring of 1971, when representatives of the local media came aboard to record our annual breakout.  It had been a hard winter, and although the Lake was not completely frozen over, the ice was four feet thick for sixty miles out.  Along windrows it was as much as eight feet thick.  Still, the Captain assured the reporters that we would be in open water by mid-afternoon.  So we backed and rammed and backed and rammed.  Eight hours later we were only a mile outside Duluth harbor.  So we returned to our dock and gave the Lake a few more weeks to thaw.  Consequently that day’s big story became no story at all: for their evening’s news broadcasts Duluth’s four TV stations carried little more than clips of Soogie gamboling on the buoy deck.

 

Some of us questioned his pedigree: a Liberty Hound had surely slipped into the kennel, somewhere in his ancestral past.  Soogie loved his liberty, and was always the first one ashore.  When the ship was in Duluth he made his home at the Pad.  He’d sometimes party with the boys, but he much rather enjoyed running up and down the beach, frolicking in the Lake Superior surf, often with a crewman in tow.  When we docked elsewhere he’d often disappear for a few hours, but he’d always return before we sailed.  Well, almost always.  On one occasion he did miss ship’s movement.  Lt Grant Risinger, the XO, was absolutely livid.  He called Soogie out on the carpet, for a summary court-martial, and sentenced him to two weeks in chains.  It was a harsh lesson, but I do not believe Soogie ever missed a sailing again.

 

The crew’s previous mascot, a mutt named Charlie Brown, had a bad habit.  He was always leaping from the buoy deck to the pier.  And it was in this way that he met his demise: one day he missed, fell between the ship and the pier and drowned.  Soogie had the same bad habit, and try as we might, we couldn’t break him of it.  As soon as the ship was in range of the pier he was gone.  Fortunately, he was sharp-eyed enough to accurately gauge his range and athletic enough to span it.  On one occasion, though, he almost leapt into disaster.  The mooring lines were stretched taunt, pulling the ship toward the pier.  When Soogie leapt one of them snapped, struck Soogie in the side and knocked him unconscious.  The crew was sure he was seriously injured and rushed him to the hospital.  The vets were sure something was wrong too: he apparently could not relieve himself.  So they fed him laxatives, without result.  So they gave him more . . . and more.  For three days they stuffed him with purgatives.  Finally Soogie could hold it no longer, and everything came out in a rush.  Soogie was intensely embarrassed, and moped around for several days, overcome with shame.  Of course there was only one real problem: they forgot to tell the vet that he had an extremely well-mannered dog in his care.

 

Within a few years the old crew was gone, while Soogie remained.  He would become a companion and loyal friend to many more men, and a common bond for many of us who had called Woodrush home, a bond that would span many years.  During those years I would occasionally run across one of those who had passed through Woodrush after me.  I would always ask about Soogie.  They would always respond with a wide grin and a sea story or two.

 

In the summer of 1977 I was back in the Great Lakes, with a mobile Tiger Team, putting Radars on cutters.  One of those cutters was the Sundew, in Charlevoix, MI.  One of the crewmen had recently served on the Woodrush, so I asked him the usual question, “How’s Soogie?”   I received a frown this time:  Soogie had been hit by a snow plow in Sault Ste Marie the winter before.  He had died a few hours later, as the vet battled to save him. 

 

He was just an old seadog, but he was a good one.  I hope they gave him a proper send off, with full military honors.

 

 

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