An Old Sailor Remembers

WPB-83484

By Wink Weber

 

 

I'm getting old, my mind still thinks I'm 25 but my body tells me something quite different. The joints that were so abused in my youth now ache to remind me of my transgressions, stainless steel screws and wire adorn various part of my bodies interior, the artery that worked so well in my left leg for years now works quite well in my chest, delivering blood to a heart that has undergone two heart attacks and one open heart surgery. Ahhhh! The Golden Years!

I kick back in my recliner and put my feet up, a luxury well deserved after a hard day at the office, the remote control in my left hand and a chilled glass with two ounces of Absolute and three olives in my right hand.

Click . . . Click . . . Click, the remote takes me relentlessly through the T.V. cable channels, called a “vast wasteland” by the head of the FCC in my youth it has, nevertheless, remained the pacifier of the American Public. Suddenly, as if preordained, I am looking at the Discovery Channel and a large swell rolling in off the Pacific Ocean, cleaving through that swell comes a white bow adorned with a red slash, a 44 foot U.S. Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat! A lump comes to my throat and a surge of envy for the orange, survival suit clad crew, clinging to the stanchions courses through me and I am transported.

The mists of time and memory swirl around me and I am standing at attention, along with about 60 other guys from Company Foxtrot 29, U.S. Coast Guard Training Center, Government Island, Alameda, California. The eastern horizon, behind the Oakland hills is pink with the pre-dawn glow of a new day. It is the 3rd week of basic training with 9 more weeks to go, and we are being read the riot act by our Company Commander, BM1 Willie Braxton, while two PD's stand by smirking (they are Seaman Apprentices and think they're hot stuff). Our day started at 1:00 A.M. when our barracks was invaded by Braxton and his two henchmen who promptly started grabbing seabags and emptying them on the "Show Deck" in the middle of the barracks. This task completed, they grabbed every bottle of Wisk soap issued to us for use at the wash racks, (that's another story in itself), and dump the soap on top of the huge pile of gear. We are then given five minutes to have it all picked up and back in the bags, this is accomplished in time with the results to be sorted out later. It is now time to run to the "Grinder" with our seabags at high port and spend the next hour and a half in various forms of torture, some involving the seabag, some not. This lovely ritual is known as a "Rat Race" and is meant as a motivator to "shape us up" by first breaking us down.

At 18 years of age, all of this means nothing to me, all I know is that I hate Willie Braxton, both PD's and anything else that has USCG stenciled on it. Little did I know that a mere nine weeks later Willie Braxton would have made the beginnings of a man out of me; and as our graduating class fell out, we had the opportunity over the next few days, prior to shipping out to our respective assignments, of getting to know this salty Bos'n Mate one on one and the dawning realization of how much this man cared about his job, the Coast Guard, and last but not least "His Boys" in Foxtrot 29.

In the meantime, I stood at attention, stared at the sunburned neck of the "Boot" in front of me, and contemplated the ridge behind Oakland where, I was pretty sure, if I could make it to there I could then go overland through the hills to Mexico where an AWOL sailor could hang out for the rest of his life. This of course doesn't happen and I spend the rest of basic training building an album of memory snapshots that I draw out of my mind from time to time.

The mists of time and memory swirl and clear again and I find myself in the wheelhouse of WPB-83484 with my eyes glued to the sweep of a radar scope as we navigate the waters of Admiralty Inlet and around the light at Point Wilson, it's pitch black and visibility is not that great, only the ability to pick out the difference between a tug with tow as opposed to two fishing trawlers on the radar screen lies between us and running over a tow line and fouling a screw, or worse yet, catching a wire that is out of the water. The year is 1960 and I've been a "Coastie" for a year now and have risen to the lofty rank of Seaman (E-3).

The past nine months have been exciting with new experiences coming at me every day, some related to the day to day routine of life aboard a Coast Guard Cutter, and others that are unrelated. I've learned to free dive and have purchased a wet suit and gear, and I'm starting to learn SCUBA diving from an EN1 named Bill Mahr, who was a hardhat diver in the Navy during WWII, and has taken me under his wing to teach me diving.

It is the height of the Cold War and part of our assignment, in addition to Search and Rescue, is what we call HEP Patrol (Harbor Entrance Identification Patrol) so the Russians don't go sneaking "THE BOMB" into a port aboard an innocent looking freighter. That's what we're doing right now, running through a pitch black night, chasing an inbound ship that has just entered Admiralty Inlet from the Straits of Juan De Fuca to make positive identification and to be assured that the vessel is on the Incoming Traffic list. We have learned that the boat is to be transferred to the 11th District and will be assigned to the new Marina Del Rey in Los Angeles. Little do we know that our unit will never see Marina Del Rey, and will instead end up at Base Terminal Island where it will run Search and Rescue patrols until 1963, when the old girl will be decommissioned and transferred to the Navy.

In the meantime, with these events still unknown to us, the majority of the crew has elected to transfer with the ship, myself included. The Coast Guard was kind enough to give us a choice of transferring or staying in the 13th District. Right now though, the concentration is centered on the radar screen and the voice of BM1 Bill Lewis, who has the conn, and is asking for a heading to intercept the oncoming ship.

The bow rises and cuts into the swell and the sensations that will stay with me for a lifetime invade my senses, the feel of the twin Sterling-Viking engines thundering in the engineering spaces along with the generators, pumps, and other apparatus required to propel us at a fairly good clip through this black night, send their vibrations through the deck and into the soles of my boots—the ship is alive, and these feelings, sounds and smells will filter up out of my subconscious 40 years later and let me re-live these times.

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