A TRIP IN TIME: RE-VISITING YOUR MILITARY EXPERIENCE

©1999 by Jim Ure

Reprinted by Permission

 

A professional reporter and writer revisits his Coast Guard past.

Maybe I needed to smell the Pacific and see the mist-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge. Maybe in every personís life there comes a time for recapitulation.

Forty one years after the U.S. Coast Guard formed my recruit company on an island in San Francisco Bay, I felt the need to go back in the service.

I longed to see the fog roll down Market Street, I wanted to honor the sweat and fear of basic training, to taste the mass-produced military chow, to feel a ship beneath my feet. I made an inquiry, the Coast Guard welcomed me back, and for a few days I was a guest of the service in which I once labored as a seaman and deck hand and later as yeoman doing clerk-typist work.

So much has changed, so little has changed.

I arise before dawn and sit in the foggy stillness of Coast Guard Island--in my day called Government Island. Across the years I smell the paint we used to stencil clothing with our names and serial numbers. We stencil everything our first day of basic training, even stockings. Drill instructors--called P.D.s by the Coast Guard--profane God, country and our mothers as they try to speed up the stenciling. They donít want to be here all night. Itís after midnight before I get into a bunk without sheets, pulling up the coarse wool blankets to keep away the icy blasts of the bay. I could cry, but Iím seventeen and must be brave. Forty one years later I still have the habit of rising daily at 5:30 a.m.

Through the mists of time comes the sound of slapping feet as the company makes its morning calisthenics run. In 1957 we wear flimsy white canvas and black rubber P.E. shoes we swear are made in Communist China. A ragged little dog named Vera, the base mascot, runs alongside us. We hate that dog. She has the freedom of the base.

Some mornings, instead of calisthenics, we row 17 foot boats in the estuary separating Alameda from Oakland, and I hear the dipping of oars and the song of the coxswain: "Stroke, HUT! Stroke, HUT!" A dozen white boats slip past the stink of the Kal Kan Dog Flood plant and with oarlocks creaking we head down-tide toward the black-on- black silhouettes of the aircraft carriers moored at Alamada Naval Air Station.

No more row boats, no more Kal Kan plant, no more Naval Air Station. Now the estuary reveals itself to be a forest of pleasure craft masts. Itís one of the bayís biggest yacht basins. Even a few houseboats repose here now. Kayakers are out at first light, splashing in the dark green waters. Laughing voices carry across the water. We werenít allowed to talk or laugh, unless ordered to.

It is difficult to recreate the feeling of terror, hopelessness and despair a recruit feels during his first few days of basic training. The base chapel, sitting exactly as it was 41 years before, brings it all back. On my first Sunday in basic I am allowed one-half hour away from ranks for Protestant church services. In the chapel I pray fervently for release from this, my mandatory military term. I call on God for a dischargeable ailment--a bad back, an ulcer, a brain tumor. It doesnít work, although a few weeks later I do get Asian flu.

In the name of craft and discipline we are taught, bullied and harrassed for twelve long weeks. Seamanship classes alternate with gunnery lessons. I learn to tie a dozen knots and to braid a monkeyís paw in a rope, which mariners donít call rope at all. It is line. Rope is usually made of braided wire. Navigation classes are followed by swimming or hours of close order drill, practiced till the sun cracks our noses to bleeding. If you bleed on your clean white t-shirt, welcome to an actvity called high port. You hoist your M-1 rifle high overhead and run, and run, and run to the tune of the drill instructorís curses. I want to tell the young Coasties my eight-hours-marching-in-the-hot-sun stories, but they look at me like Iím something out of Jurassic Park.

Recruits today are no longer trained on Coast Guard Island; all Coast Guard recruit training is now done in eight weeks at Cape May, New Jersey, and yesterdayís demerits are todayís "performance trackers."

__________

Through the morning fog I see the islandís eucalyptus trees have grown huge. The buildings are new and modern and include a child care center. Instead of a board-and-batten chowhall with a surly bosnís mate demanding a head count, you have Mile Rocks Dining Hall. A cashier takes your $3.20 for lunch, and it includes an extensive salad bar. Food service is provided by a contractor, and recruits no longer spend their fourth week of basic on galley duty. The food tastes about the same as it did forty years ago; only now you get condiments to brighten it, even Gray Poupon mustard.

Gone are the marching, legging-clad recruits singing "Lift Your Head and Hold It High, India Companyís Passing By." Gone are the two-story wood barracks where we slept a hundred to a room in double-deck bunks. We lived out of seabags, now there are spacious lockers. We rolled our clothes and tied them with metal-ringed line called "clothes stops." Now they have hangers.

Gone is carbon paper, gone are typewriters, gone are most of the filing cabinets. Everything goes on computer today, including the records of the American Express Cards that are carried by all traveling Coasties. Imagine, a sailor with a credit card.

________

I board the High Endurance Cutter Boutwell, a 378-footer analagous to my old ship, the Taney (now a museum ship in Baltimore). Before long I am seated in the office of the C.O., Captain Chip Sharpe. With laughter, we demean Navy sailing skills. We shame the Navy when it sends a tug to help us dock. We wave them away and neatly maneuver into dock using the Coast Guardís own time-honored skills. The Coasties are the best sailors in the world, and everybody knows it. We exercise our arts every day as we work the shoals and riptides, rescuing hapless pleasure boaters and cargo ships, dropping buoys with pinpoint precision, chasing drug runners and illegal fishermen.

One of the Coast Guard motto's is "You Have To Go Out, But You Donít Have to Come Back." I am reminded of Sebastian Jungerís book, A Perfect Storm, in which search-and-rescue Coasties put to sea while waves a hundred feet tall are breaking up ships all over the Atlantic.

Captain Sharpe--I am now calling him "Chip," perhaps because he looks so young, perhaps because I always envied the officer-class--tells me the Boutwellís twin turbine engines can kick her speed up to 30 plus knots. "She leaves a rooster-tail at twenty five knots. Itís a sports car among bigger ships."

"Letís put the top down and take her for a spin," I suggest. He smiles. I know he wants to. Boutwell, her white hull sea-stained and her crew tired after a long North Pacific chase involving an illegal Chinese long-netter, needs time for refurbishing and refitting.

Officer Envy, Part II: I sleep that night aboard Boutwell in an officerís stateroom.

I have a bunk, locker, computer, shower and washbasin all to myself. I think of the old Taney where my bunk is a canvas sheet roped to a frame of water pipe. It is chained with five others to form a tier from deck to overhead. On your back, your nose is two inches from the guy above you. We live in the Glory Hole. A single small fan provides ventilation, and access is through a hatch about 30 inches in diameter. If we take a torpedo from the Russkies, weíll never get out. We can hear the gurgle of the Pacific as it slips past the hull of the ship, separated from the Glory Hole only by an inch or two of steel.

I dine on barbecued ribs in the Boutwellís Wardroom. Gone are the Filipino stewards. Enlisteds enter and leave the wardroom at will. There is far less formality between enlisteds and officers, and later I hear an enlisted Rescue Swimmer call his officer helicopter-pilot by his first name.

In the morning I meet a Communications Technician 2nd Class named Robin Cabana. She calls herself a Coast Guard brat. Her father recently retired as a Coastie. Shyly, she tells me she still has his old "Crackerjack" uniform in her locker, and that it fits her. She pulls on the jumper with Coast Guard shield, red hash marks and three white collar stripes for Lord Nelsonís victories.

Her fatherís uniform is my old uniform, except for the flat hat. We wore the traditional white "cup" hat. With a little effort you could roll "wings" into it, non-regulation, but definitely salty.

________

Next day, at Yerba Buena Island, I sit in the operations center of Group San Francisco, listening to a search and rescue operation near Santa Cruz. A pleasure boat reports itself disabled. A helicopter from San Francisco and a cutter from Monterey are dispatched. They search till dark and resume the hunt at first light. Later in the day the harbor master at Santa Cruz reports the boat is moored there. The boat owner failed to tell us he was okay, and the helicopter alone costs $3000 an hour to operate. Lietenant Tung Ly, the officer of the day, has directed the search and is exasperated at the expense. The Coast Guard operates on a bare-bones budget.

___________

Once, on a cold November night in 1957, I crewed a 40 foot boat during a 12 hour patrol on San Francisco Bay. I remember hours of looking into the swirling black waters beneath the Bay Bridge as we searched for the body of a woman who had jumped to her death. How vivid are the citrus-colored bridge lights reflecting from the oily waters, as vivid as my fear of seeing the waving hair of a corpse.

That night haunted me across four decades when I boarded one of the Coast Guardís new 41 foot patrol boats. Suicide patrols are still among the duties of the boats, and its crew told me horror stories of suicides--one of a man who jumped but instead of hitting the water, hit the bridge abutment. They express amazement at what happens to a human body after several weeksí immersion in salt water.

Mostly this crew rescues overturned sailboats and windsurfers and issues safety violation tickets. Miles Carter, our coxswain, received an award for a mission in which on a single day he rescued three wind surfers, two persons aboard a Zodiac and two others and their dog from a sinking sailboat.

They asked me about boarding ships and pleasure craft in my day. "You didnít wear a sidearm?" No. Those were times when authority and a uniform commanded greater respect. People were . . .different.

Miles loves his job, in part because the Coast Guard is still the smallest of the military services: "The New York Police Department is bigger than the Coast Guard."

__________

Women, thatís whatís really changed in the Coast Guard.

The hardest duty for any Coastie has long been considered the service in buoy tenders, the so-called "black hulls," roughly 180 feet of tough, tossing boat designed to service the thousands of buoys that provide aids to navigation. On the Buttonwood (all buoy tenders are named for flora), the new captain was a woman, the first female Coastie to command a buoy tender, but she was out for the day. So was the lady gunnerís mate who operates the big hoist that pulls several tons of bell, whistle and light contraption and its anchoring "rock" to the deck for servicing. Corinna Montez, a non-rated deck hand, showed me around the ship. First thing I noticed were power tools to chip, scrape and buff rust. Our tools were humble wire brushes and angled steel bars..

"Female!" she shouted as a forewarning when she showed me the menís quarters. "Rules are that you have to keep on a top and shorts in the berthing areas. Only in the showers do you totally disrobe."

Any particular problems for a female Coastie? "Try shaving your legs in twenty foot seas."

As we completed our tour of the ship, I realized Iíd heard almost no profanity since my arrival three days prior. Was it the gentling effect of feminine presence? I always hated the tough, blustering profanity that accompanied certain rituals of male bonding, including that of the military service. Yet I picked it up, got pretty good at it, and still find it useful when doing home improvements.

Upon leaving Buttonwood, Montez told me the captain had recently cut back the crewís liberty schedule, causing unhappiness. "Weíre negotiating with the captain to change that," she said. Negotiating? In my wildest dreams I never imagined negotiating anything with military superiors. They were autocrats, pure and simple.

The Coast Guard today is a kinder, gentler service.

___________

Once, about 1960, Iíd been put in a tiny rubber raft and "rescued" by a helicopter during an exercise. I remember looking up at the arc of its huge rotors, the wash of air flattening the sea around me, thinking, "What if it falls on me?"

Now I found myself sitting in the cockpit of a Coast Guard Dolphin helicopter as its pilot, Lieutenant Commander Paul Brabham, flies a patrol out of Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco. We lift to five hundred feet and cruise, chatting through the mike. I am weighted down in a combat vest complete with survival gear, garbed head to foot in a flight suit, and ordered to wear a pair of gloves at all times.

"Thatís Tiburon and Belvedere. Most of the Coasties from the air station live there."

"Not unless the Coast Guard pays a lot better than it used to," I respond, looking at the large homes and manicured estates of the wealthy. We made $77 a month as recruits. Brabham has a reputation for his wit.

We are joined by another Coast Guard helo, a twin to ours, and Brabham said "Letís fly formation. Itís something we usually do only in training." We link in a lovely dance, two scarlet-hulled airships coming home from the sea.

As if in requiem, the headset is silent. We sweep past the pylons of the Golden Gate Bridge. Down in the Marina they can feel our thunder. We shear past Fishermanís Wharf where sea lions have taken over a pier; we float past the upturned faces of office workers in the TransAmerica pyramid. The clouds part, and the sun briefly swathes the mirrored Coast Guard helos in golden light. I feel 41 years of my past collapse into that single moment; the tears roll off my cheeks and into my gray beard. Of eight fellow high-schoolers I joined with, one dear shipmate killed himself, one died of AIDS, another is clutched in the living hell of schizophrenia.

__________

"Itís magic being at sea," a Coastie told me. "Itís sort of like a camping trip where it rains and where you share both discomfort and beauty, so it brings you closer." The sea can be sapphire and turquoise, lulling and benign; a day later it can be steel gray, its slavering jaws clamped on your ship in agitated fury.

That is why San Francisco has been so welcome to a sailor returning after a long tour in the Pacific, its whiteness beckoning like a Mediterranean village through the torn fog.

Some San Francisco observations of then and now:

Then: Beat Generation women in black tights.

Now: The black miniskirt.

Then: Keane paintings.

Now: Allegorical seascapes

Then: High heels and tweed suits

Now: Platform sandals

Then: Lucky Lager Beer, Tom Collins, Old Golds

Now: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Martinis, Macanudo Cigars.

Then: Bobís 99 Cent Steaks.

Now: The Slanted Door

Then: Long, straight hair, black painted eyes

Now: Violet hair, pierced body parts

Then: The Presidentís Follies Burlesque

Now: Farrell Brothers Theater

Then: Ernieís

Now: Masaís

Then: Market Street army and navy shops

Now: Market Street Nordstroms

Then: Locals riding cable cars

Now: Lines of tourists trying to ride cable cars

Then: The ubiquitous Hofbrau

Now: The ubiquitous Deli

Then: Navy fighter jets

Now: Commuter helicopters

 

Some things never change: Vesuvio Cafe, City Lights Bookstore, Chinatown, Tony Bennett and Anchor Steam Beer.

****

Jim Ure is a writer and the owner of an advertising and public relations firm based in Salt Lake City. His email address is jimureco@xmission.com and he would be interested in hearing from any reader.

His forthcoming book, Leaving the Fold: Candid Conversations with Inactive Mormons, will be published by Signature Books in 1999.

 

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