MERRIMAC RIVER LIFEBOAT STATION

January to October, 1949

By Jack A. Eckert

 

An immature 17 year old boy comes to grips with the REAL "Old Guard" and not to successfully either...........

In January of 1949 I completed Boot Camp and was assigned to the First (Boston) District and was reassigned to Merrimac River Lifeboat Station on Plum Island, East of Newburyport, Massachusetts

It was probably just as well that I went to this station first. This was the Coast Guard of old! It was operated strictly in accordance with the 1910 Manual for Lifeboat stations. I had no real frame of reference and figured the entire service was run that way. This place was harsh reality.

Chief Cleo Bob Faulkingham was the Officer in Charge of the Station. He had been a Lieutenant Commander during World War II and along with most of the people I was to meet in the next several months, reduced in rank to their permanent one. He was a slender, blonde, balding man who spoke with a heavy "Down East (Maine)" accent. He neither smoked nor drank and seldom swore. "Judas Priest" was what he said instead of the usual curse words. He was a strong presence and no one questioned his authority. The station was run with an iron hand with no quarter given to anyone.

Andy Anderson and Pete Poloni were BM1(L)'s. They along with (**)Morris V. Beale, BM2(L) wore different uniforms than the rest of us as they had been "Surfmen" before the war. The uniforms were navy black with a single row of buttons and their hat symbols were a life ring and crossed oars. Andy and Pete had been Chiefs.

Andy was what today we would call the Executive Petty Officer. He was a short wiry Portuguese man who followed the Chiefs lead to a tee. He showed his human side when the Chief was on his two days off. I didn't see much of it as I was off at the same time. He was an excellent boatman and understood the trade well.

Pete was the cook. Even though he was a Boatswains Mate, he wasn't. He was a roly poly, good natured guy and an excellent cook. There was no shortage of food on that station. It was a good feeder. We had lobsters and steak at least twice a week. Pete had a minor scam going in that he clipped the coupons off the cans of food and cashed them in every few weeks. No big sin.

Morris Beale was a character. He was a gruff sort who wanted no responsibility. He had enlisted at The Plum Island Station which had been located about eight miles south and after the station was closed came to Merrimac River. He was never promoted during the war. All surfmen were made BM2(L)'s and that is what he wanted to be forever. He ultimately put thirty years in The Coast Guard, retired as a BM2(L) and never left Plum Island, not even on temporary duty. He was the grandson of the famous Barney Beale who allegedly rowed a 19' Jonesport Dory from Merrimac River to the Isle of Shoals routinely. There were many legends locally of his strength and stamina.

There was a division between the four old surfmen and the younger post war seaman manning the station. Throughout my career I always observed an "older vs. younger" stress. There were no father figures there. I was the youngest by two years of the rest of the crew and hadn't learned yet to adapt readily. I was hazed pretty well. This didn't go unnoticed and I paid twice. I was a lonely little kid. Eventually I received a degree of begrudging acceptance but not much.

Morris was an enigma. He was one of them but tried to be one of us.

The routine was difficult at best. We worked from 8 in the morning until 4:30 with an hour off for lunch. This was real work. Scraping, painting, cleaning, shoveling sand, and so forth. We did have drills. Every Monday Morning the beach cart came out and we rigged it in it's entirety. I was the number nine man. Each man had a position and the position had to be memorized and recited verbatim. When you learned your position you were required to learn the position of the man ahead of you and the man behind you. Thus I learned the number eight and number ten's jobs. This was taken seriously. During the summer months people would come from miles around to see the drill. It was a good show, lost in antiquity today.

Saturday's were field days and station inspection. Each of us had a cleaning station and woe be on to you if there was a brass polish overlap on the spar paint or a smidgen of dust anywhere. For that you could lose your liberty. This regimen I fell into quite well. It never gave me any problems there.

Watchstanding was in the tower. This was a skeleton tower higher than the building with a small 8 x 8 room on top with a catwalk around it. Access was through a trap door. The tower contained a ship to shore radio, an old telephone switchboard, binoculars, semaphore flags, a kerosene stove and a wall mounted desk. It was our duty to observe the ocean within our range, record boats entering and leaving, record the weather, and stay awake. To insure that we stayed awake we were provided a "Detex" time detector that we had to punch every half hour. This tower was manned around the clock. Watches did not count as work. The watch system was by number. Four on and Eight off in theory but the 4 to8 watch was dogged, i.e., reduced to two, two hour watches. There were days I worked all day, stood the 4 to 6, the 8 to 12, the 4 to 6 in the morning and then back on watch at 8 and stood there until noon. Off for twelve hours and back on a midnight. Of course with watches not counting as work it was up at reveille, 0530, even if you came off watch at 4 in the morning. The only day that we didn't "work" was Sunday but we still stood our watches.

Missing a punch was mortal sin and would be punished severely. There was quite an elaborate defense made up by the crew collectively. There were extra punch keys adrift that no one knew about so that you would not have to take your life in your hands during a whole gale to go outside and make the punch. One of the crew had a key to open the clock. The clock was designed to punch a hole in the dial that recorded the punches when opened. Thus if someone missed a punch the clock could be opened only within ten minutes of the normal time of day the dial was changed. There was a lot of pussy footing going on. I was just on the fringes of this activity and never had a punch made for me illegally. I did miss three punches over nine months. The first I was given a strong letter of reprimand. The second cost me my two days off and the third recommended me for a deck court. This was done by mail and I received a month's restriction and 40 hours extra duty. For some reason or other it was never recorded in my service record.

There was some training on the station, mostly rote stuff. The beach cart of course and some boat work. I learned to row a dory while standing up. I was only underway once in the motor lifeboat. The station did not have many calls and when there was one, the older men would go out with Tiny Hatch, the senior engineman, along. Seaman just painted and cleaned the boats.

In those days I was to young to drink and didn't have any desire to. I was plain and simple, a skirt chaser. For the life of me I don't know but I attracted women. I was 5'7", slight of build, and very fair skinned. I had girl friends all over the place.

From Newburyport and Salisbury Beach there were five girls I spent some time with. Two were telephone operators that I talked with for hours when I was on watch. I finally met one of them and she was very thin, pimply, and wore glasses. The other telephone operator was about my size and a bit formal for my tastes. I did keep good relations up with them as they kept me company during many long and boring hours on watch. The other two hung around the station like the "groupies" of today when the weather improved. There was a beautiful beach in front of it. One young lady accused me of impregnating her but I never touched her. One of the other guys did. The other young lady was a tall girl who was very attractive. I guess she wanted to mother me but I would have none of it. Ultimately she married the station's junior engineman. The girl from Salisbury Beach was a real cutie. She had a parrot and the parrot talked constantly. A good kid. I lost track of all of them when I left the station in late October.

Every once in awhile we would get a bonus evening off called a "run in." We would get a ride into the city and dropped off in the center of it. We would be picked up at the same place at eleven p.m. and return to the station to stand the mid watch. I learned right away that Coasties were not popular with the local boys so I steered clear of them. I usually wound up in Salisbury Beach with Della on those nights.

One incident occurred in the late summer which distressed me very much, both then and now. The station had a dog named, "Blackie" some sort of a black Labrador mix. The dogs were kept during the war to walk the beach patrol and help the man on watch find the key punch posts. On Plum Island at night and at high tide the walk in the deep soft sand is and was difficult. After the war ended the beach patrol was discontinued. Blackie remained on the station as a mascot.

There were two small stores within a mile of the station and with permission I would take the dog and we would walk together to the store to the south where I would pick up cigarettes and "pogy bait (candy bars)." One Sunday afternoon just as I was leaving the store Blackie spied another dog and chased after it. I hollered to the dog to come back and she didn't. I had hollered loud enough and long enough for the elderly lady clerking the store to hear me and come outside. Blackie didn't come back and I returned back to the station. Blackie never came back again, just disappeared. The lady in the store blamed me for running the station dog off and spread the word around the island as to what she thought of me. Naturally word of this eventually (within minutes, I guess) got back to the station and while they couldn't court martial me for the incident I was the guilty party and was made to suffer accordingly. Fifty years later I still wonder what happened to Blackie.

On my two days off I would get a ride into the city and then hitchhike to Boston. This was the center of my life. I headquartered myself at Armed Forces YMCA in Charleston. Rooms were 50 cents a night and this is where I had a locker to store my clothes in. In those days you went to and from your ship or station in the Service Dress uniform - Period. Initially I would spend my time at the USO in the middle of the Boston Commons. As I became familiar with the city and it's suburbs I reduced my time there and went other places.

The Shore Patrol in Boston was pretty strict and for such offenses as having your hat on the back of your head you could be taken to Joy Street and locked up. You were always stopped for your ID and Liberty Card just on general principles. Eventually I wised up and avoided places where they were.

At the time I took pride in being able to roller skate well. I spent a lot of evenings in the various roller rinks around Boston. They were far enough apart so that I could have several girl friends and acquaintances all over town and they would never meet. That was fun.

During that first year the only girl I remember was Mary Ann, an Italian girl that lived in Chelsea. She was attractive and tough in her own ways. She wanted me to transfer to Boston but I didn't want any ship. Chief Falkingham's stories about those "White Cuttahmen" had my attention. I saw Mary Ann off and on all of the time I was in the area. When all else failed I would look her up.

Jack Meyers was another Seaman on the station that was my watch mate. He also had liberty on the same days I did. I chummed a bit with him but I was not in his world. He tended to bring tales back to the station and that was very poor on his part.

I was able to go on 15 days leave that first Summer to Waukesha. I took the train out and back. I got hold of my old running mate and we spent a lot of time at the State fair, racing, and generally running around. One night I went out with Ron, Sonny and the others from the neighborhood. We wound up at Silver Lake where I hooked up with Charlene, an old flame from a year or so back. We drove her home to and I went in the house with her. It was a strange situation when she tried to put the make on me in her living room with her parents asleep in the other room. I demurred. Something was funny as she had never been loose with me in the past. I found out later she had gotten caught and was trying to catch me. That was one time when I was glad I kept it in my pants. Whew! I didn't want to be married at 17 or 18 and making only $95.00 per month.

After the leave ended summer became fall and that is when I missed a couple of punches and got in so much trouble over it. The day after the letter was received from Boston containing my lengthily restriction and extra duty the Chief called me in the office and said to pack my sea bag. I was being transferred to the Portsmouth Harbor Station. My restriction and extra duty would be carried over there. By the time I was packed and ready to go, the Portsmouth Jeep arrived, I got my paperwork, loaded my gear and we were off.

 

Chief Faulkinghan had more of an influence on my life then he or I would have ever dreamed. Sometimes you don’t appreciate someone until they have moved into your past and you reflect on it. On another part of my site I wrote a "Thank You" to him which I hope he sees looking down on us from heaven.

LOOKING BACKWARD 1998 TO 1948 - LCDR Jack A. Eckert, USCG (Retired)

[1949] - BMC(L) Cleo B. Faulkingham, OinC, Merrimac River Lifeboat Station, Newburyport, Massachusetts - As a "boy" of 17 I didn't really know what a real professional was, I had never met one. If I were to line up ALL of the CPO's that I ever knew in both the Coast Guard and the Navy he would be number one. I had a healthy respect for him with a slight element of fear when I worked under him. He was a stern taskmaster but fair to a fault. He neither smoked nor drank and the strongest oath I ever heard him use was, "Judas Priest." It was only in later years, looking backward and being able to put things into proper perspective that I appreciated his professionalism. He is gone now but the World is a better place because of what he quietly contributed. I wish I would have had the maturity at the time to appreciate him as I do today. Many times since those early days have I asked myself what THE Chief would have done given the circumstances. Thanks Chief, You were the role model I looked up to as I grew older but could never be.

 

(**) MORRIS VIRGIL BEAL (of Charlotte, of Barney) was born in Jonesport Dec. 27, 1906. He married Marion LaValley, who was born in White River Junction, Vt. He died March 28, 1963. He was a career U.S. Coast Guard man.

Children:
260. i. Marion Kathleen Beal, b. August 1931
261. ii. Morris Virgil Beal Jr., b. Apr. 7, 1935
262. iii. Jane Marie Beal, b. May 2, 1946
iv. Susan Rose Beal, b. Nov. 22, 1955

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