MIX THAT CEMENT, SET THOSE NAILS!
Or M&R in the 60’s
Many facets of the Coast Guard have been dealt with over the years, especially now. With the switch to Homeland Security, greater emphasis has been placed on “our” service, the U.S. Coast Guard. Over the years our law enforcement detachments, search and rescue, and port security units have been extolled. But there is a part of the Coast Guard that is little known, yet the people who served in these units were no less important.
In today’s world of outsourcing, the Maintenance and Repair Depots have gone the way of the Dodo, replaced by civilian contractors. How they could be more cost effective is beyond me, but the M&R folks played an important role in the 60’s. We were a dedicated group of DC’s and EM’s that roamed the Third District from one end to the other. We were easy to recognize our uniform pretty much consisted of concrete encrusted bell bottom jeans, chambray shirts with more than its usual share of burns from welding slag, and a white hard hat with a USCG decal on it. We would drill two holes in the front for attaching our crow. Add a little swagger and we were easily picked out amongst the Governors Island crew.
I first joined the Third District M&R Team out of DC school in late 1968, and by God what a rude awakening it was. I was assigned temporary duty to a construction barge that had a huge crane on it and an 18-bag cement mixer lashed to the front. We were towed up the river by a Coast Guard tug and dropped off around Poughkeepsie where a rock in the middle of the river was often hit we were to mount a light on it as a warning device.
Upon arrival at this menacing, offending rock, the 1st Class DC in charge proceeded to perform miracles. The barge had four huge stakes mounted on it, one at each corner. He walked the barge across the river by stationing us at each stake. We would raise and lower the stake at his command and simultaneously allow the current to swing us across the river to the appointed place. What a feat of coordination it turned out to be, but we wound up right in front of the rock where we wanted to be. We built a concrete form and anchored it to the rock that made life so miserable for everyone.
The next day was simply tough, exhausting, bone thudding pain. We all had certain posts and, being the junior man on board, lucky me got to mix the concrete. All day for about 11 hours, all I did was break a 94-pound bag of Sakrete brand cement over my knee, lifted up both ends, and poured the cement into the hopper. Bag after bag after bag. I became totally numb to the pain on and on through the morning into the afternoon. Then suddenly, excruciating shooting pains emanated from my left knee. I thought it split in half. Stupidly, I had broken a bag over my knee that had a solid piece of concrete right at the contact point. Oh my God, did it hurt. But our intrepid DC1 slave driver, kept pushing us, I kept breaking and mixing more and more bags. Finally we poured enough to fill the form, threw the gas driven vibrator in the concrete muck and watched it settle as the air escaped. Then we poured some more. Finally, we were done and the day was beginning to wane. I was in such pain and overcome with such fatigue that all I wanted to do was go below in the bowels of the barge and sleep forever. But, no, it wasn’t meant to be. These hardy barge workers were still full of life and wanted to go to a bar in town near a lumberyard. I was dumfounded how on earth could anyone want to do anything but sleep after a day like that?
The next day we bolted a tower on to the template that we had placed in the concrete and the rock would no longer be a menace to navigation.
Two other jobs stuck out in my mind as beyond rational. We were ordered to Great Captain’s Island Light Station in the middle of the Long Island Sound to automate the lighthouse. We motored out there on a 40-foot utility boat. After an hour and a half of a bone-jarring ride, we arrived at the lighthouse and circled around looking for a place to dock dock. The island rose out of the bay with sheer precipices all around. We radioed them and were told to go to one side of the island, which we did. As we looked up the side of the elevation we began to see davits swing out and an old whaleboat started to descend down the slide of these cliffs.
“Oh, man!” was all I could manage. “They’re using it like an elevator.” They lowered their boat until it hit the water, and we had to transfer a huge gang box full of our supplies from the 40-footer to the lifeboat. Somehow we managed to do it and got hoisted back up to the top of the island.
It was cold as hell. We poured our concrete base, let it set then put up a 40-foot pipe tower. The temperature was way below freezing, probably close to zero. I was way up top trying to steer a bolt through two dogs. It was difficult working with bulky gloves. Without thinking, I took one of the gloves off to get a better grip on the steel and wound up stuck to it. Yes, it hurt. It hurt a lot! This is one job where you definitely learned something new every day. I opened up my foul weather coat and leaned my chest into the hand and let it warm up. After a while, I gave it a tug and off it came, another painful lesson learned.
After the tower was up and the light in place, we went back in for a good night’s sleep, which was difficult because, once again, being the junior man, I was given a luxurious slate pool table to sleep on.
When this job was finished, we went back to Governor’s Island. My permanent place of residence was Barracks 515 on G.I. We had been gone for several weeks. My roommates and I hardly knew each other. It was late and I was tired as I walked into my room and immediately growled at this form sound asleep in my rack. Who are you? Get the hell out of here! Other forms of pleasantries escaped from my tired lips. I turned to one guy, who I vaguely remembered, and asked why he let someone take my rack.
“You, you’re never here,” he replied, “We thought you were transferred. I’m transferred every other day I told him, I’m all over the damn district.
Another job was building a boathouse on top of a dock at the Coast Guard Station at Fort Monmouth, also known as Sandy Hook. A crew of four of us spent the better part of four or five months building this shelter for the motor lifeboats. All I remember is bitter cold and Star Trek. At one point the temperature dropped to four below zero and we could only work outdoors for 15-minute periods, come inside to defrost, repeat the cycle hour after hour, day after day.
I thought I was going to get impaled the first day on the job. I was the lucky guy who had to hold a beam in place while one of my coworkers drilled with a wood augur from above. I had to position myself in a crouch under the dock on wet sand bracing the wood up against the underside of the dock. He missed me but not by much. After the footings were attached, we framed out the boathouse, the bottom half was corrugated tin and the top half corrugated opaque fiberglass to let in the light. Then there was the plywood roof with tarpaper and shingles.
Repairing the wharf was another new experience for me. We were using huge claw hammers and 16-penny nails. I learned how to set the nails with two strokes of a hammer. Quite a trick to it, let me tell ya!
Every day we worked until exhausted, then in the evenings our sole entertainment consisted of watching reruns of Star Trek to keep ourselves occupied.
Those were some of the big jobs. We also carried out mundane tasks, like replacing a boiler at Fire Island, replacing railings at the PX on Governors Island, and water proofing a Coast Guard Reserve training center at Gilgo Beach, Long Island.
We remodeled the ferry terminal at Governor’s Island. That was another long cold winter job. We gutted the entire terminal, leaving just the wooden framing, brick facing and roof in place. The rest was demolished. We installed new heads, a new concrete deck; new sheet rock walls, and made it habitable once again.
Two things I remember vividly were jack hammering a trough across a runway at Floyd Bennett Airfield. The guy in charge was a Second Class DC and he had a unique way of determining when we needed a break. You see this was summer and it was hot. I HATE hot weather because I sweat a lot. Well, Bob the DC decided that we didn’t get paid enough to work up a sweat, so it was determined that when I started sweating, we would stop and take a break. We took a lot of breaks, but still got the job done on time.
The second thing I remember was while we were doing a job at Long Island. One of the crew, Stoney, got food poisoning from eating a chicken potpie. I spoke to him just recently and he told me he has not had a chicken potpie since that day thirty-four years ago.
M&R was rough duty, but what I learned on the job enabled me to excel in my chosen field of stationary engineer, after Coast Guard and college. I eventually became the Chief Engineer of one of Manhattan’s most modern skyscrapers. A feat that would have been much harder without my tour of duty at Third District Maintenance and Repair from 1968 to 1970.
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