HE WOULD BE SIXTY-FOUR
By Joe Rush
You have to be hard hearted not to be touched by this article.
Been a while since I sent you something to read, but I had to write something
today for my own sanity and thought you might think it worth posting, maybe not. I really didn't get much sleep last night. What I wrote has helped with today, we'll see about tonight later. The young sailor who drowned in this true story would be 64 this year. What a waste. I never read about in the papers because I didn't want to know his name. I still don't. Does that seem odd?
Thursday, 3 February 2000:
I didn’t get much sleep last night. My mind kept wandering to the Pacific coast and to the Coast Guard men and women involved in the search for survivors of Alaska Airlines Flight 261. This isn’t the first time my mind has wandered to such events; the last time was when the plane went down off Moriches, NY.
Although I have been out of the Coast Guard for more than thirty years, I still try to keep in touch with what the Coast Guard is doing and where they are doing it. And when I think of rescue efforts my mind always goes way back, back to a different time and a different Coast Guard.
I was on watch in the tower, just starting the noon to sixteen-hundred watch at my very first duty station, Virginia Beach Lifeboat Station. Vacationers were thronging up and down the beach and boardwalk of Virginia Beach, men and women, young and old. Since this was my twentieth summer I was very much interested in the young female portion of this throng and I was keeping a “weather eye” on the beach and environs. I was on the catwalk just outside the tower door, with the door open so that I could respond to the PBX as needed. I had the binoculars so that I could see what needed seeing. What I didn’t see coming was the thing that would have a profound affect on me for a long, long time.
No call came through the switchboard and no one ran in from the boardwalk, so someone must have come from the Atlantic Avenue side of the station to raise the alarm. The first I knew that anything was wrong was when I heard the familiar commotion of the DUKW as it roared out of the boathouse, fully manned and siren blasting. I called down below and was told that there had been a drowning just about a mile up the beach to the north. I immediately felt that perhaps I had been derelict while on watch, but I just as immediately realized that, even though I was continually scanning, I couldn’t see that far up the beach. I felt a little better about that, but not
much, because someone was evidently dead.
Time for my relief at 1600 rolled around without a relief showing up. I got a call from below telling me that my relief was part of the DUKW crew and that I should just hang in there for a while. I hung in. At about 1700 the DUKW and crew returned to re-fuel and change crews. My relief came up, looking tired, but it was his turn in the tower. He told me that I was instructed to report to the boathouse as part of the next crew. Evening chow would have to wait, we were to return to the scene of the drowning and continue in the attempt to recover the body. The body in this case was that of a 22-year old Navy man from Little Creek.
I reported to the boathouse, boarded the DUKW and we departed for the scene. The driver of the DUKW was BM1 Vance Miller. The other crewmember beside myself was BM1 Bob Johnson. We drove up the beach and put out into the shallow surf. The drill was to make north/south runs parallel to the beach while dragging a grapple, a bar about four feet in length onto which were fixed several large treble hooks, evenly spaced. Bob Johnson was aft with me, holding on to me to keep me aboard, and I was maintaining tension on the line as the bar was dragged so that I could tell if it came into contact with anything.
We had made our first run to the south and were in the process of coming about for a northerly run when I felt a tug at the end of the line. I had secretly hoped that I would never feel that tug, but I announced that I had some activity. Miller and Johnson looked at me as if they hoped I was joking.
Bob and I began to slowly take in the line. When we had taken in most of the line Bob told me that if we had anything, it would soon be visible. He was right. My first glimpse of what I hadn’t wanted to see was of the body, totally white except for a pair of blue civilian-style trunks. We hauled him to the surface and were amazed to see that the grapple had snagged the trunks at the small of the back without the even touching the body. Unfortunately, in the process of hauling the body aboard, a hook sank about six inches into the boy’s right thigh. I was astonished to see that there was no bleeding, not realizing that this was normal. Johnson and I had just finished congratulating each other on our finesse with the grapple as if we had done it by design, a defense mechanism I suppose, and we were both disappointed when the grapple hook marred what we had considered our handiwork. We settled the body into a Stokes litter, covered it with a blanket, and set off for the beach.
There was much activity on the beach and even a little polite clapping from a few people, but I was in no mood to pay attention to their curiosity, and I certainly didn’t feel like we had earned any applause. A young man was dead who didn’t need to be dead, and applause for recovery of his body was, to me, an empty gesture. I was in a mild state of shock, I think. After all, I was only twenty and this was the first time I had ever touched a dead body.
When we arrived at the lifeboat station there were police and medical personnel aplenty so I went about my business, namely taking a long shower and trying to wash my hands. It was four days before I felt that my hands were starting to become clean. I didn’t eat much during those four days, partly because of my “dirty” hands, partly because I didn’t have much of an appetite anyhow.
There was no offer of therapy or counseling for us in 1958. If such were available I wasn’t made aware of it so I just went on with life, but I was forever changed and my performance suffered for a while. Whether my degraded performance was as a direct result of my recent experience or just the effects of being a young country boy far from the constraints of home, I don’t know. I do remember that I was quite wild for a while. Then, after a transfer to another duty station, my performance picked up again and I went on. “Onward and Upward!” as they say. I managed to finish a ten-year career as ET1 and have not looked back, except for times like these.
So - when I look back and think of those who are now searching for and recovering bodies I remember what it was like for me, and I wonder what it will be like for them. What will it do to them? How will it affect their careers? How will it affect their personal lives? Will it rub off onto their loved ones? One can only hope that the Coast Guard is looking out for it’s own, as I know it must be, and hope that recovery is swift and lasting for those who must go out and do the dreaded things that must be done.
I don’t envy them, yet in a strange way there is a longing in this old man to be with them, just to help where I could and to share the load with them, and perhaps share with them their pride in a job well done ... if I could.