A YOUNG MAN COMING OF AGE IN THE U. S. COAST GUARD
A Short Story by Don Hutchings
While this story is fiction it is based on the experiences of the author 40 years ago. The language gets a bit “salty.” Not to worry as this was the language of the mess deck.
On a cold gray day in early January of 1953, just a few days before my nineteenth birthday, I was about to get my first duty assignment. Nine other apprentice seamen and I had just completed thirteen weeks of basic training at the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, New Jersey. We had been granted a short leave to go home and now gathered in the small assignment room at the Coast Guard District Office. It was my first time in the northeast. Only my second time away from my hometown of Chicago.
We chatted about what we had done with our ten days of freedom. The conversation had an uneasy tone and we laughed a little too hard. Despite the chill in the drafty room, I was damp with anxious sweat. All of us were worried about our first assignment. Would we be going on a weather ship to the stormy North Atlantic or headed to a cozy lifeboat station on Cape Cod? At 0800 hours the duty officer walked into the room holding a folder. A yeoman with a pack of brown manila envelopes followed him. The nervous conversations stopped. We all snapped to attention.
"At ease men. Take your seats," the officer began. We all sat, tense, eyes fixed at the front of the room.
"OK, listen up. I call your name, you sound off, I'll call out your assignment. You will step up here to the table, pick up your orders from the yeoman and go back to your seat. You will remain silent until you are dismissed. You are not to unseal your orders until I've completed the call."
He called out the first name. "Delucia, Carmen." "Yes sir," a seaman called back.
"Cutter Clooney Bay, home port, Boston." As Carmen passed, I saw his face was tense and going pale. The Clooney Bay was a weather ship.
"Cutter Clooney Bay, Boston." As Tony walked back to his chair he glanced over at Carmen and smiled. Carmen broke into a broad grin. Both were from big Italian families that lived just a few doors apart in South Boston. They had grown up together, enlisted right out of high school and gone through boot camp in the same Company. Both beamed at each other as if they had won first prize.
Two more names were called out. One was to a lighthouse in Massachusetts, another to a sea-going tug based in Portland, Maine. What are they doing, I wondered, saving the worst for last? Was it going to be some secret hell-ship going on a suicide mission to Korea? My gut felt like somebody was in there doing laps with an eggbeater.
"Dugan, Scott," he called out. As I launched myself from the chair I heard "Cutter Sweetbriar, Westerville, Rhode Island. Oh, sweet Jesus, thank you for that Sweetbriar, I said to myself as I took my orders. The name alone told me the good news. All Coast Guard cutters named after bushes or shrubs are buoy tenders. This was about the best shipboard assignment a new recruit could expect. Back in my chair, relieved, I thought, Westerville? I wonder where that is? Then, trying not to smile, I thought, Westerville, hell, I'm not even sure where Rhode Island is!
"Laughlin, Frank, Sweetbriar, Westerville, Rhode Island." I gave Frank a big smile and he winked at me as he returned to his chair. He was from North Carolina and we had become friends in boot camp. He had a square freckled face set on a six-foot stocky frame. Blond hair pointed in every direction on the compass. A relaxed walk went with his easy disposition. He spoke with a deep Southern drawl. Like most of the Southern "good old boys" I had met in boot camp, Frank loved to tell homespun stories that usually left me on the floor laughing like a fool.
With the last assignments completed, the officer and yeoman left the room. Frank walked over. "Hey Scotty!" How about that old buddy? We're gonna be shipmates."
"Yeah, good news. I drove my car out here from Chicago. You might as well hitch a ride with me. We'll try and find Westerville and that good ship Sweetbriar."
"Yeah, that's great. Took me two damn days and a night taking a train up here from Smithfield. Sure be nice driving to wherever the hell we gotta go. Hey, you know where we're going?"
"No, but the travel office down on the first floor is supposed to give us directions. I got a bunch of road maps in the car from Triple A. We'll figure it out. Besides, we got all day to get there. Can't be more than a hundred miles. Let's grab our sea bags and get the hell out of here."
We signed out and tossed our bags in the trunk of my '48 Ford. I grabbed a map of the New England states from the back seat. It took a bit of searching but we found Westerville. "Boy, that's some piss ant little town," Frank said, his finger tracing the map. "And would you believe that Rhode Island. Scrunched up like a flyspeck between Massachusetts and Connecticut. Wouldn't be surprised they tie one end of that Sweetbriar in Massachusetts, the other end in Connecticut. Then when you get off in the middle you're in Rhode Island."
Frank's southern humor was going to make this a fun trip. Besides, I was a little scared and grateful for the company. We headed south out of Boston looking for signs to Brockton and Fall River.
The day stayed overcast and cold. The Monday traffic was light. Snow flurries didn't do much to make the grimy factory towns look any less ugly. "Brockton, Massachusetts" a billboard announced after about an hour, "Home of Rocky Marciano, Heavyweight Champion of the World." Hoping some of Rocky's luck might rub off; we stopped at a diner for lunch. The smell of hot grease and onions hung in the smoky air. The jukebox was playing Glenn Miller's "Pennsylvania Six-Five Thousand." We made our way to an empty booth.
"Hey Navy boys," a perky blonde waitress said. "You ready for some chow?" she asked setting down glasses of water. She looked about thirty. Her white blouse with a plunging neckline fit snugly over large breasts and tapered to a thin waist. A tight black skirt barely made it down to her knees. The arms of a gold crucifix were spread just far enough to keep it from disappearing into her cleavage. If I ever got nailed to a cross, this is where I'd want to hang out before going to my glory.
"Meaning no disrespect, ma'm," Frank said turning up his Southern charm, "but we're Coast Guard, not Navy."
"You pulling my leg? Cause those are definitely Navy uniforms," she said.
"We really are Coast Guard," I said. "See this little white shield down here on my right sleeve? That shows we're Coast Guard. Look at this," taking my ID card from my wallet.
"Sure enough, it says 'Coast Guard.' This your picture? You're a lot better looking than this. Can't see those dark bedroom eyes in this lousy picture." I blushed and reached for the card. She playfully pulled it away. "Says your name is Scott Dugan, you're five-ten and weigh a hundred and sixty. And if you were born in 1934, that would make you, uh, let's see, eighteen." She handed back the card. "Ah, too bad," she pouted. "Little too young for me."
Frank sat up and beamed. "Well ma'm, if you're looking for an older, mature man, then this is your lucky day."
"Yeh, my lucky day for sure. You've got to be at least twenty if you're a day." She laughed and pulled out her pad. Now I've got to take your order before the boss comes out here and fires me for cradle robbing." We ordered burgers, fries, a Coke and an Orange Crush. Frank leaned into the aisle and gawked as she walked to the kitchen. "Man, what a pair of knockers. Does she give you a lump in your shorts or what?"
"You better take it easy, Frank. You'll be popping those thirteen buttons right off your pants." I was looking at the pie case when Frank said, "Well, I hope this Sweetbriar is good duty. But to tell you the truth, I'm hoping to hell I'm off it before the summer."
"What you mean?"
"Well you know I wanted to apply to the Coast Guard Academy before I enlisted. I wanted to try for the Academy right out of high school but I waited too long. Missed the deadline for getting the application in. I was scared as hell they were gonna draft my ass and send me straight off to Korea so I just enlisted." He glanced around, lowered his voice and leaned toward me. "And that's some damn dirty, stinking war over there, Scotty. And I'll tell you the God's honest truth. I'd rather drown and be fish bait right here in the good old U S of A than get my balls shot off in some communist chink country half way around the world."
"Yeah Frank," I said, "that's why those Army guys call the Coast Guard 'the draft dodgers yacht club.'" We both chuckled at the familiar joke.
"Well, to hell with those Army assholes," Frank replied. "That's what they get for sitting around on their stupid asses waiting for Uncle Sam to tell them he's got a present for them -- Christmas in Korea." Frank leaned back and gave the waitress a big smile as she brought our drinks. "So back at Cape May I had my career talk with the personnel officer. Told him about wanting to go to the Academy. So he said I could still apply. Said if I was accepted I'd head up there in June. Know what that means old buddy. Means I get to deep-six this goofy-looking monkey suit and dress up in one of those hot-looking cadet uniforms. Beautiful gals be all over me like bees on honey." He laughed and took a drink of his Coke. "Best part'll be me getting to be an officer and giving orders to a bunch of sorry-ass Yankees, " he added with a grin. I'll have them cleaning every damn Coast Guard head north of the Mason Dixon line and the other side too."
We both laughed so hard a few people turned around, wondering what was so funny. In boot camp I'd learned that the Civil War never really ended for the Southerners. The joking always seemed in good fun but it was still the Rebels against the Yankees. The waitress brought our food and a basket of rolls.
"I hope you get to the Academy. Sounds like a good deal. I don't know anything about this Korean War and all this Communism crap." I washed down some fries with a swig of Orange Crush. "I didn't want to get drafted either so I joined right out of high school. But hell, I wanted to be in the Coast Guard ever since I was a little kid. Spent all my summers at a Coast Guard lifeboat station up north of Chicago. They started letting me run the boats when I was about ten. You saw how good a boat handler I was back in boot camp."
"Hell yes. I remember the first time that small-boat training guy gave you the tiller of that power launch. You brought that sucker in and docked it like you'd been doing it all your life. Surprised the hell out of me. But with you being so gung-ho about the Coast Guard, why didn't you apply to the Academy?"
"Oh man," I sighed, "me go to Coast Guard Academy. Some joke. Took me nine years to get out of Catholic grammar school. The only reason they let me out was because I was too big to fit in the seats. Went to a technical high school. Still had a hard time until I got all the math and English out of the way. Then the last two years I majored in Machine Shop. First time I ever got A's in my whole life. Guess I wanted to be a tool and die maker. Hell, I didn't know what I wanted to do. Maybe just see a little bit of life first. Get the hell away from my parents and Chicago. Just seemed like time to join up so I did." I put a nickel in the jukebox and played a Fats Waller record.
Frank looked over the selections, shook his head and said, "People up North just don't know squat about good music! Can you believe it? Not one damn record here by Hank Williams or Roy Acuff. So when you had your career talk what'd the officer say?" Frank asked.
"First he wanted to know if I'd like to stay at Cape May and teach small-boat handling to recruits. Said the Company Commander had good things to say about me and how good I was with the powerboats. Thought I'd be a good instructor. Really surprised the hell out of me. But I told him no thanks. What I really wanted was to get on a cutter and be assigned to the engine room. Use my technical training from high school. So he said I should apply to Engineman School before I left Cape May. Then he said if I get on a cutter, I should ask the ship's Engineering officer if I can become an apprentice Fireman. If I make it, I'd probably get selected to go to Engineman School even faster -- maybe in a few months."
As the waitress took away our dishes, she said, "We do our own baking here. Cook just took an apple pie out of the oven. Put some ice cream on that and I guarantee you'll jump ship to come back here for another piece." We said OK
I leaned over to Frank and said "If I come back here looking for a piece it sure as hell won't be apple pie." We left a good tip, hoping she'd remember us.
The sky was darkening as we headed south for Fall River. I said, "You know Frank, this is some screwy deal. Here we are, headed to our first cutter. Haven't even seen it yet. And both of us are already counting the days 'til we get off the damn thing. Now is that military thinking or what?" I wondered what the Sweetbriar had in store for these two restless greenhorns who couldn't wait to kiss it goodbye.
The Sweetbriar was at her pier on Narragansett Bay. After handing our orders to Mr. Petersen, the Executive Officer, we reported to John Henkel for bunk assignments and an orientation to the ship. Henkel brought us down into the cramped berthing quarters. Men were coming out of the head with towels wrapped around their waists. The fresh smell of Dial soap, Old Spice and Pepsodent was mixed with the faint whiff of diesel oil and hemp. After stowing our gear, we changed from dress blues into our work uniforms -- blue chambray shirt and dungarees. We had to meet Henkel back on the mess deck at 1730 hours. Evening chow was at 1800 hours.
Frank taped a worn snapshot to the inside of his locker door. It showed him in a high school football uniform standing on an athletic field. A short, plain-looking brunette holding a baton and wearing a cheerleader's outfit snuggled to him tightly, their arms entwined. Large blue eyes gazed up at Frank's smiling face.
"That your girl?" I asked.
"Yes sir, that's my darlin' sweet Nell. A coal miner's daughter and the sweetest gal in North Carolina."
"They mine coal in North Carolina?"
"Hell no, we got tobacco, not coal. She's originally from West Virginia. Her daddy was in a mining accident. Couldn't work anymore. She came to Smithfield to live with her aunt and uncle. Didn't know a soul at the high school. And then Sir Frank," he said, doing a bad imitation of Edward R. Murrow, "the greatest football player to ever step on the field at Smithfield High, mounted his mighty white steed and rescued the desperate Nellie Pickles from a life of misery and loneliness."
"Yeah, sure," I said. "More like Farmer Frank dragging his ass up to her house on his old gray mule and begging her for a date."
"You watch that, boy," Frank smiled. "Nell may be small and beautiful but she's tougher than old boots. She finds out you're bad-talking her man, she's like to come up here and whomp you up side the head with that baton. And where's your sweetheart's picture, lover boy?" I took a picture out of my wallet and handed it to Frank.
"Well now, lookee there. How'd an ugly boy like you get such a beautiful looking gal. What's her name?"
"Kate. Kathleen Doherty. We started dating second year of high school. Went steady for two years. Wrote every week while I was in boot camp. Saw her when I went home on leave. But it was different from before. She seemed sad all the time. Said she was lonely while I was away. Hard not to date. Told me she'd been out a couple of times but wouldn't tell me the guy's name. I got really jealous. Didn't have the guts to tell her about the gal I'd gone out with in Cape May. She cried pretty hard when I left for Boston. I don't know what's going to happen now. I have this feeling I'll be getting a 'Dear John' letter pretty soon."
A couple of the crew wandered over and introduced themselves and asked the usual get-acquainted questions. Where you from? What company were you in at Cape May? We asked about Westerville. Many girls around town? Do they put out? Where's a good place to meet them? We said we had to get back up on the mess deck to see Henkel. Joe Kazinski suddenly got serious. "Good luck with that sonofabitch."
"What you mean?
"He's a First Class Boatswain Mate. In charge of assigning the deck crew their duty station. A lifer, been in twelve years. Made it to Chief a few years but got busted back to First Class. Never heard why. Also a first class prick. Don't get on his bad side or you're guaranteed shit duty." Frank and I gave each other a look.
When we got back to the mess deck Henkel was drawing a mug of coffee from the urn. Pots and pans were clanging in the galley. The smell of frying steaks and potatoes should have made my mouth water but I was too nervous to feel hungry. Henkel sat down at one of the mess tables and motioned us to join him. Frank slid an ashtray to him as he lit a cigarette. He was short, wiry and skinny with small black eyes set close together on a narrow angular face. His thin black oily hair was combed straight back without a part. A slanted mouth twisted up at one end and down at the other. He looked like a small-mouthed bass snagged on a fishhook. Something told me this guy was not going to be rolling out the Welcome Wagon.
"Y'know anything about buoy tenders?" he asked. We both shook our heads. "I guess because of the way they're built, civilians usually mistake them for sea-going tugs or icebreakers. The Sweetbriar is a hundred and eighty foot tender. Crew of six officers and forty-six enlisted men. Skipper's name is Morley. A mustang. Came up through the ranks. Been in twenty years. Piloted landing craft in the Pacific during the war. He's a no-bullshit straight shooter. Not one of these candy-ass spit'n polish Academy weenies." Henkel flicked the ash off his cigarette missing the ashtray. He swept it off the table with the back of his hand.
"Coast Guard has more tenders deployed than any other kind of cutter -- East Coast, West Coast, Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes. Most of the work is aids to navigation. Buoys, shore lights, day beacons. Every navigational aid in the U. S., Alaska and Hawaii is Coast Guard. Buoys stay in the water a year." He took a deep drag on his cigarette, inhaled and took a swig of coffee. When he talked smoke came out his nose and mouth. His breath had the putrid smell of cigarette butts and sour coffee. He didn't look you in the eye. He looked over your shoulder or somewhere in the middle of your forehead. When he really wanted to make a point, he arched his eyebrows and talked to the top buttons of your shirt "Buoys get full of rust, sea weed, barnacles and gull crap." Made me wonder if that's what he had growing in his mouth. "We pick 'em up, put fresh ones down, and take the old ones back to the base. They sandblast 'em, fix 'em, and paint 'em. We take 'em out and plant 'em. Damn dangerous work. We handle buoys up to nine tons, nine feet across, thirty-eight feet long. Just hope your ass isn't on the buoy deck if one of those sumbitches gets loose in a storm."
"Mostly we do aids to navigation. Maybe once a month we provision lightships. Usually the Nantucket. Bring her crews back and forth. And we do search and rescue. There's lots of fishing boats that go out even in the worst kind of weather. A lot from New Bedford. Mostly Portuguese. They break down, bust up, all kinds of bad shit happens. We go out and tow the bastards back to port."
"Few things about ship's rules." His eyebrows went up and he started talking to our buttons. "When you're out on deck, you will be covered at all times. In the winter, that means either regulation white hat or watch cap. You get liberty every other night and twice a month you get the weekend. Liberty commences at 1630 hours after you stand inspection. If the ship's on call and we're ordered out on a rescue, the ship's whistle will sound a long blast every five minutes. You got thirty minutes to get back to the ship. If you're late and you miss the ship, your ass is grass. Any questions?" We shook our heads. Some of crew started wandering on to the mess deck.
"OK chow time. See me tomorrow at 0730 for your assignments. I'll issue you foul weather jackets. If we get called out tonight, just stay the hell out of the way." He ground out his cigarette and walked off the mess deck.
"Nice guy," Frank said.
"Yeah, makes those tough bastards back at boot camp seem like Girl Scouts. Let's get some chow. We'll worry about Henkel tomorrow." I had a feeling I'd be having nightmares about this guy tonight.
After chow and the mess tables were cleared, Frank and I sat back down. A few of the crew joined us. When I said I was from Chicago, Jim O'Callahan asked with a chuckle if I knew Al Capone -- the question you were always asked when you said you were from the Windy City. Frank mentioned he was from Smithfield, North Carolina. Billy Watson, said, "Hey, how about that old buddy, I'm from Greensboro. We'll have to pull some liberty together. I know a good bar in town got some real fine shit-kicking music on the jukebox. And there's some good old gals up there that love dancing to it."
Frank's face broke into a big grin. "You got yourself a deal."
"So you eventually are hoping to get back to Chicago? Maybe get on one of those lifeboat stations?" Steve Hopewell asked me.
"No, I spent enough time on a lifeboat station when I was kid. We had a summer home up in St. Joe, Michigan, about a hundred miles from Chicago on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Just about lived at the lifeboat station there every summer. They started letting me run the motor launch when they escorted the sailboat races. I guess I was about ten. They had me stand on a box in the wheel house so I could see out the window." They all seemed interested in what I had to say. Starting to like me already.
"My dad got a twenty-two foot Chris Craft speedboat. Started taking that out by myself when I was about fourteen. It was sure easy picking up girls who were swimming off the pier. They see you come by in a snappy-looking speedboat and start jumping up and down going ga-ga asking for a ride. The summer before I enlisted I was a lifeguard at the public beach. Now that's the way to meet hot-looking girls. Right after one big storm me and another guard rescued a couple who had gotten pulled out by the undertow. Made the newspaper. One girl even asked me for my autograph. Snappy-looking dish too." Some of the guys wandered away.
"Well, hell," Billy Watson interrupted with a smirk, "with all that time you pulled with the Coast Guard driving those life boats and tooling around in that hot little Chris Craft and saving folks, I'm surprised they even made you go to boot camp. Should have just made you an officer straight off. Hell, you could probably go right up on the bridge and give the Old Man a few pointers about how he ought to be running the Sweetbriar." My face started to turn red. Henkel, who'd been playing cards at the next table ambled over. He put his foot up on the bench next to me and took a deep drag on his cigarette.
"So you grew up on a lifeboat station," he sneered, blowing smoke in my face. "On those mean old bad-ass Great Lakes. Hell, I'll bet you could keep us up all night with those 'I barely made it home alive' rescue stories. And when you weren't so busy being the captain of your slick little Chris Craft, you were a hero lifeguard. Well boy, sounds like you're one helluva sea-going cowboy." They all chuckled. I twirled an ashtray and looked out the porthole. The glass reflected the fake smile on my hot, red face. "Looks like I'll have to find some special duty for a hot dog like you." Everybody laughed. "In fact, I got something real special for you already. I'm gonna make you captain. Captain of the head." More laughter. I was laughing too, going along with all the fun. I wondered how long it would take to die in thirty degree water if I jumped over the side bare-assed naked.
I got up. "Well, I better get below and stow the rest of my gear."
Henkel said "Yeah, can't wait to see you in the morning." He glanced at his smiling audience and added, "Old Salt."
A little while later, Frank came down to the berthing quarters and found me on the edge of my bunk, head in my hands. "Hey Scotty, you're not looking too frisky. In fact you're looking so low you could hang your legs off a cigarette paper. What's the matter, Henkel and the boys get to you?"
"Man, what do you think? I'm on this thing only a couple of hours and those guys up there already think I'm a first class asshole. And Henkel is out to make my life miserable. I should've stayed at Cape May. Jesus, what a jerk! What did I say that set those guys off like that?"
Frank leaned on the bunk across from me. "Maybe you were bragging on yourself a little too hard. You never make points doing that with guys you're just getting to know. They're asking you a few questions to check you out. See what kind of guy you are. How you're going to fit in with the rest of the crew? You one of those guys that makes it easier or harder for your shipmates?"
"Goddamn it, I wasn't bragging! I just told them what I'd been doing before I enlisted. C'mon Frank, what did I say that got them so pissed?"
"Hey Scotty, now you're getting pissed at me."
"Sorry, Frank. I just feel like I screwed myself getting off on the wrong foot like that. I've never had a bunch of guys give me such a hard time. What the hell did I say?"
"I learned in boot camp that nearly all of the enlisted guys are from hard working families. Mostly blue collar. Lots of farm boys from the south. Factory workers and mechanics from the north. We all got along real fine but we didn't talk a whole lot about where we came from and what our folks did. We all started as raw boots in the same company. All scared as hell. Then kind of like a team we worked our way up to being the graduating class. We were all trying to help each other survive and get through. The civilian life we left behind didn't have much to do with what we were doing. We all started out on an even playing field. But this is different. Me and you are the new kids on the block. You start off talking about a summer home and living at a Coast Guard station. Even driving a fancy speedboat. What they hear you saying is you got a rich old man who owns two houses and a hot boat. Makes it sound like you're some kinda fancy rich kid who thinks he's better than them."
"Hell, Frank, I didn't mean it that way. I was just -- ah, I don't know. Looks like I really got myself up the creek. What am I gonna do now?"
"You're not going to do anything except what Henkel tells you. I know you're a hell of a good buddy and a damn hard worker. When the crew gets to know you like I do, you'll be one of the boys. Then you'll be ragging on the next set of greenhorns that comes aboard. Take my word, it's gonna work out fine."
The next morning Henkel walked on the mess deck as I was finishing my over-cooked eggs. "Hey Old Salt, get your ass in gear. Find Laughlin and meet me in the paint locker up in the fo'c'sle."
Frank and I walked forward and entered the small space. Cans of paint, brushes, scrapping tools, chipping hammers, and safety gear were stacked in lockers. The air was thick with the smell of solvents and diesel fuel. Henkel was sorting through a small pile of foul weather jackets. All were tattered, spattered with paint and the worn fabric dulled with gray dust. Looked like Salvation Army rejects. He shoved one at Frank and told him to try it on. It looked like hell but seemed to fit OK Frank zipped it up and reached in the pockets. He pulled out a dirty handkerchief from one side and in the other found a penny. Holding up the coin he said, "Hey, maybe this means good luck."
"You won't be feeling so lucky when you report to the paint gang working aft," Henkel said. "You're going to be chipping paint, wire-brushing rust and red-leading. Better get used to it. We do it all year round. Here, take a pair of these goggles. Keep the paint chips out of your eyes. And don't forget to spit and blow your nose plenty. You're going to be sucking up a snoot full of powdered paint and rust." Then he handed me a jacket. "Better hope it fits cause it's the last one that's not ripped." I put it on. It fit OK but the zipper was broken. I stood there trying to get it to work but it was hopeless.
"Fits OK" I muttered.
"Zipper's busted," Frank said.
"The Captain of the head here's gonna be swabbing urinals and crappers most of the day so he's gonna do just fine without a zipper. We're about to get underway so both of you report to your mooring stations. Laughlin, you're on the bowlines up on the fo'c'sle. Salt, you're on the spring lines amidships."
"Any gloves?" Frank asked.
"Let me clue you boys in. If you wanted new gloves and a jacket you joined the wrong outfit. It's damn seldom we get any supplies that are halfway decent. Everything we get is a hand-me-down from the Navy. If they have no use for it, they call it obsolete and give to the Coast Guard. Next time you get liberty, go on up to the Army Surplus store in Westerville. You can get a foul-weather jacket and water-proof work gloves for maybe twelve bucks." He turned and walked aft.
The morning was sunny and frigid. A stiff northwest wind snapped flags and clanged halyards against metal poles. From the bridge, the skipper ordered the stern line let go. After the stern swung out, the remaining spring and bow lines were cast off. As we slowly moved astern, Kazinski and I hauled the freezing wet hawsers aboard. My bare hands were numb with cold. As we coiled the lines on deck a gust of wind parted my jacket. Cold air knifed through my thin shirt. I started to shiver. My watering eyes dripped on the steel deck where the small puddles froze. The idling diesels roared to life and we headed into Narragansett Bay.
Henkel led me into the head on the main deck. It had two urinals, two sinks and four commodes. "I expect you to keep this place cleaner than an operating room. You make sure those urinals and commodes are so clean you could eat out of 'em. I want to see those mirrors over the sinks spotless at all times. The porthole glass will be clean and all the bright work polished. Make sure we never run outta hand soap or toilet paper. Now come out here." I followed him out of the head. "You're also assigned this port passageway." It was about forty feet long, narrow and busy. One door went into the galley and another down to the engine room. "You'll soogee the bulkheads and overhead and keep the bright work polished. The deck will be swabbed twice a day. Every Friday before Captain's inspection, you strip the deck, wax and buff it. If your area fails inspection, you lose liberty. Now go on up to the cleaning locker and get a soogee bucket, soap, swab -- you know what you need. Next time I come by here I want to see ass and elbows turning-to."
Over the next two hours I cleaned and polished the head. Didn't take me long to realize that this job wasn't as bad as Henkel made it sound. During working hours, the head was the most popular place on the ship. I met every crewmember except the officers who had their own quarters. Guys came in regularly and those on the deck gang tried to grab a few extra minutes to warm up. Everyone was friendly and usually made some kind of small talk to drag out the visit. Just before morning coffee break, Frank stumbled through the door. His face was red with cold and he was covered with paint chips and dust. Tattered gloves stuck out of his pockets. He walked up to a urinal.
"Jesus H. Christ, "he blurted through numb lips, "if I grab my dick with these frozen fingers I'm going to be peeing through a popsicle." Doing little knee-bends, he fumbled around inside his fly. "Damn! Where the hell are you, boy? Poor Mr. Winky must of gone into hibernation."
"Yeah, Mr. Winky. That's Nell's pet name for it. What's Kate call yours, Mr. Midget? And what kind of deal you pulling here? Henkel thinks I'm a good guy and puts me out there on some kind of Siberian death gang. He thinks you're an asshole and teaches you a lesson by giving you this cushy inside job. I'll tell you, I've mucked out horse stalls, slopped pigs, plowed fields behind mules and tossed hundred-pound bales of hay up to a loft. But chipping paint and red- leading in the winter has to be the worst damn job I've ever had!"
Frank stomped out and I started polishing the brass goosenecks under the urinals. They were corroded green from splashed urine. Henkel walked in with a smirk on his face. Glancing down, he saw me on my knees. He inspected every square inch of the place as I buffed the brass to a gleaming finish. A nasty look swept over his face as he walked out without a word. Henkel seemed disappointed that I'd done such a good job. Because of what I said on the mess deck last night, he probably thought I'd resent being a swab jockey, especially in the head. Thought he'd humiliate me with menial work. If I do a lousy job, he gets his jollies kicking my ass. If that's what he figured, he figured wrong.
I thought back to the stories my dad told about losing his office job right after the 1929 crash. He picked up a few bucks tuning pianos. Even sold used magazines from the trunk of his car. To make ends meet, he got part-time work mucking out horse stalls at Bowman's Dairy. After I was born in 1934, he got a regular job as a machinist's helper at Chicago Machine & Tool. When WWII came along, his company was awarded defense contracts to manufacture engine parts for tanks and trucks. He worked twelve-hour days seven days a week. By the time the war ended in 1945 he had worked his way up to plant manager. There wasn't anything at the plant or around the house he couldn't fix including the car. When I was six he started teaching me how to use tools. As I got older, we did carpentry, plumbing and electrical repairs and overhauled engines together. Taught me that life's struggles build character. Do the dirty jobs nobody else wants. Be humble and work with dignity. That's how you make something of yourself. Wiping down the sinks, I looked forward to noon chow.
Tim McAlister sat across from me at the mess table. He'd been to the head during the morning. Not hard to figure out he was in the "black gang." His hands and shirt were covered with oily smudges. Said they were having trouble with one of the diesel generators. It started overheating but they couldn't shut it down while they were using the electric-powered boom to work the buoy. They were trying to repair it while it was running.
I scooped some chili out of my bowl with a cracker. "Get that generator fixed?"
"Yup. Bunch of seaweed got sucked into the sea strainer so we lost our cooling water. Cleaned it out and the temperature dropped back to normal. Lots better when it's simple. Not like a couple of weeks ago. We were coming into the pier and the Old Man kicks it astern to slow our forward speed. All of a sudden the starboard engine kicks off line. We got no power and we're headed for the pier at maybe five knots. May not sound that fast but this thing displaces better than a thousand tons. You don't exactly stop it on a dime. I'm on the engine room intercom to the bridge. The chief is at the control panel trying to reset the circuit breakers to get the engine back on line. He yells 'tell the bridge we lost power.' I do and the guy on the bridge says 'hang on.' But I don't know if he means hang on, you know, like 'standby,' or if he means 'hang on' like 'hang on.' So I'm yelling to the chief 'the bridge says hang on.' The next thing I know, we hit the pier and my ass hits the deck. Pulled the headset right off me. The chief smacks into the control panel but nobody else goes down. Everybody was hanging on but me."
"Jesus, what happened?"
"The port bow hit the wooden pilings pretty hard. Busted one of 'em and scraped a lot of paint off the bow. Missed the anchor and no damage to the hull plates. The deck gang saw what was coming. They got two bow lines secured to the pier just in time to stop our forward momentum. Otherwise we would've hit the cement breakwater. Great seamanship from the bridge and the deck gang. Soon as we're tied up, the old man is down in the engine room like a shot asking what the hell went wrong. The chief thought the governor failed."
"What's a governor?"
"It controls the engine speed. The chief figured when the skipper tried to go astern, the starboard engine went way over speed and automatically shut down.
"Diesels can go too fast?"
"Damn sure. It's called 'running away.' Governor fails, feeds too much fuel to the engine, it runs faster. Faster it runs, the more fuel is pumped into the cylinders. Unless the fuel gets cut off, the engine keeps picking up speed. Sometimes they fly apart. People have been killed from diesels running away."
"So how you stop it?"
"Shuts itself down. There's a safety device on the flywheel. When the engine revs up over a certain speed it trips a shut-off valve to the fuel supply. No fuel, no power. Engine stops. The chief figured that's what happened. Problem is, happened so fast, he couldn't be sure. So we yanked the governor and put on a spare. Took us all night."
"I'd give anything to be doing that kind of work." I thought of telling him about all my mechanical experience but after last night, I decided to keep my big mouth shut. "Got any advice about getting assigned to the engine room?"
"That's up to the Chief. He thinks you're qualified and can do the job, he'll recommend to the exec that you be reassigned. If he approves, you're in the black gang. Problem is, I don't think there's an opening right now."
"So what can I do?"
He finished his lime Jell-O and got up. "I'll tell you what. After we tie up tonight I've got the watch. Gotta do some maintenance before we get underway in the morning. C'mon down after evening chow and I'll show you around. We can talk some more about it."
"Hey Tim," I called, walking down the ladder into the engine room. The smell of fuel oil and hot machinery hung in the air. There was an eerie silence. We had tied up an hour earlier and the main engines and generators were shut down. As I made my way to the first landing, I saw the tops of two huge diesel engines through the steel grate. They stood on either side of the lower landing and looked as big as freight cars. My heart picked up a few beats. "Jesus Christ," I gasped. I'd never seen such enormous engines. Everything was spotless. It was beautiful.
"Down here," Tim answered. One more flight down and I was on the main deck standing between the main engines. "Just cleaning out these sea strainers. I can only give you a quick tour. I'm helping the chief rebuild that busted governor." He wiped some grease off his hands and stuffed the rag in his pocket. "The propulsion system is diesel-electric. Each main engine drives a generator." He turned to one of the generators, took out his rag and wiped a streak of oil off the side. "They supply electrical power to the main motor that turns the propeller shaft." I followed him up the ladder. "Two diesel generators on this level." He stepped through a door into another room. "C'mon in the machine shop. I'll introduce you to the chief. Rosy, this is Scott Dugan. Scott, Chief Rossario."
"Pleased to meet you, sir."
He was standing at a workbench peering into an large engine part. The shop was lined with bins and drawers filled with machine parts, screws, nuts and washers of every size and description. Small tools and parts were laid out on the cloth-covered bench where the chief worked.
"Save the 'sirs' for the officers," he said. "Everyone calls me 'Rosy.' " He looked about forty and was dressed in dungarees. A khaki chief's cap smudged with oil was perched at a sharp angle on his head. A bead of sweat ran down his nose. As he dabbed at it with his sleeve, he took off his cap and hung it on the tool board. He thrust out his hand. I returned his firm handshake and warm smile. His dark wavy hair glistened under the bright lamp. Large brown eyes, a pencil-thin mustache and clean-shaven face made me wonder what Clark Gable was doing in the engine room of a buoy tender.
"Tim tells me you want to be transferred down here and become an apprentice fireman," he said, turning back to his work and removing another screw. Before I could answer he said "Hey Tim, scoot up to the mess deck and get me a mug of java. Black, two sugars. I think it's gonna be a long night." Tim ducked out the door.
"Yes sir. I mean, yeah chief." I couldn't bring myself to call him Rosy. It seemed disrespectful. Like calling my dad by his first name. "Before I left Cape May I applied to Engineman School. Even before I joined I knew that's what I wanted to do."
"What made you think that? Work in a gas station?"
"No, I've been interested in mechanical things ever since I was a little kid."
"Don't tell me. You had an Erector Set. You built a ferris wheel and now you're ready to take on a twelve hundred horsepower diesel engine." He glanced at me with an easy smile that told me this was friendly humor, not Henkel sarcasm. Tim returned with the coffee. They opened a manual and began studying a diagram. Glancing to the other side of the shop behind the door, I saw a machine lathe and I walked over for a closer look. It was the same type I'd worked on in high school. It was covered with grime and parts were missing. If I'd left my lathe in this condition, Mr. McNultey, my shop teacher, would've slapped me with ten periods of discipline. I caressed the handles, stroked the motor and tried to rub off a spot of rust.
"Chief, want me to clean up this lathe?"
"What do you know about lathes?"
"Sullivan Tech High School, Chicago. That's all I did my last two years."
Without looking up from his work he said, "Sure, clean it up. And while you're at it, make me a new governor."
Didn't take me long to wipe down the lathe, attach the missing parts, sharpen the cutting tool, lubricate and adjust it. Mr. McNultey would've been proud. "Chief, OK if I try it out?"
"Yeah, there's some one inch round metal in that scrap bin behind you."
This was it. Time to strut my stuff. I wanted to make a fancy tool, my ticket to the engine room, but there wasn't enough time. Instead, I divided the piece into several sections. In each, I created samples of my best skills. Hot steel shavings curled away as I fashioned grooves, a taper and sets of precision machine threads. Using emery cloth, I polished the smooth parts to a gleaming finish. After removing it from the lathe, I found the correct nut and screwed it onto a set of threads I had cut at one end. Proud and satisfied, I was eager to show my work to the chief.
"Sonofabitch," he blurted as I walked toward the bench with my masterpiece. "The damn valve can't work in that position. The goddamn diagram has gotta be wrong." The chief slammed the manual down so hard it sounded like a gunshot. I stood back in silence for a few tense moments. After placing my piece at the end of the bench I left the engine room. I had visions of the chief finding this weird thingamajig on the bench and flinging it in the scrap bin. So much for my lucky night in the engine room.
Dejected, I walked onto the mess deck. It was late and most of the crew had turned in. Frank looked up with bleary eyes from a letter he was writing. "Hey Scotty, we get our first liberty tomorrow night. How about you and me head up to that Army surplus store and get those foul weather jackets and gloves. Find that bar Billy Watson told us about. Give these Westerville gals a taste of what real men are like."
"Sounds good to me. I sure need that jacket. If I ever make it into the engine room, I don't think it'll be any time soon." The berthing quarters were dark and silent except for someone's moaning dream-babble. Crawling under the blanket, I shuddered as my bare limbs met the thin cold mattress. What a day, I thought. Swab jockey by day, frustrated machinist by night. Through the porthole, deck lights illuminated dancing snowflakes. The Sweetbriar swayed from the rippling wash of a rising tide and freshening wind. A dark loneliness washed over me. Kate's beautiful face danced in the swirling snow, her gentle laughter echoed in the rippling tide. I ached for the sweet touch of her lips, the brush of her soft breasts.
Ginny and Tom, our best friends from high school had married the day after graduation. At the wedding reception, Kate and I danced and sipped champagne cocktails. Neither of us felt ready for marriage but we dreamed long into the night about a life we might share. We worried that I'd be drafted and sent to Korea. Over the summer, two of our friends, Eddie Boyle and Sal Gallo, met that very fate. Soon after, we both agreed it would be wise for me to join the Coast Guard. She knew it was something I wanted since I was a small boy. I assured her there was a good chance I'd be assigned to a lifeboat station near Chicago. We'd be separated no longer than my three months at boot camp.
A few weeks into training camp and I was changed. Partly by the Coast Guard but mostly by the sea. I fell in love with its shifting moods, the tidal rhythms freshening the harbors and inlets, the sweet-sour smell of barnacles and kelp at low tide, the haunting cry of gulls skimming the waves, lone cormorants sounding its depths. The sea awakened a mysterious longing that held me fast. When I was asked about my assignment preferences, I just said the ocean. Send me where I'm needed on the ocean. Men were needed in the Boston area, they said. I wrote Kate that I wasn't coming back. They had assigned me elsewhere. She couldn't understand. Neither could I.
"Hit the deck! Hit the deck! Outta those racks!" Henkel's voice pierced my dreamy brain like an ice pick. I squinted awake, the bright light shattering my eyes. Jesus, I overslept. Dad is trying to wake me so I'm not late for school. Did I finish my homework? Bolting up, I banged my head on a steel beam. "Goddamit," I groaned as the pain tore away my stupor. Through gummy eyes I saw it was midnight.
"Who turned on the damn lights?" Kazinski moaned. The main engines rumbled to life. Locker doors clattered as drowsy men stumbled to the deck pulling on clothes. "Hey asshole, those are my boots you're putting on," Billy Watson grunted to a shadow sitting on the next rack.
The ship's PA crackled, "Now hear this, now hear this, all hands to your mooring stations. Prepare to get underway." Heavy wet snow spun through the deck lights as we lumbered on deck. The Sweetbriar backed out of the slip and into the bay. With frozen bare hands, I coiled the line on the snow-covered deck. White exhaust belched from the stack as the main engines powered up to full speed. Away from the sheltered pier, an icy northeast wind caught our starboard beam, slowing our turn to sea. We followed Henkel onto the mess deck. He drew a mug of coffee and lit a cigarette.
"OK, listen up. Boston HQ picked up a radio distress call from the Sophie. She's a fifty-two foot fishing vessel out of New Bedford. Crew of three, engines dead, taking on water. She's somewhere south of Nantucket Island. The bridge estimates a ten to twelve hour run to reach her. Sea's not bad in the bay here. But when we pass Brenton Point and get into Rhode Island Sound we'll be heading right into a nor'easter. Fifty mile an hour winds and twelve to fourteen foot seas is what I hear. When we hit that, some of you are going to be blowing your biscuits. If you're smart you'll get out on deck. Focus on the horizon. Oh yeah, try to remember not to puke into the wind."
He pulled in a lung-full of smoke and blew on his steaming coffee. "Salt and Hopewell, you got the two-to-four bridge watch. Watson and Laughlin, you got the four-to-six." He turned to leave the mess deck. "Hitch up those saddles and hunker down, boys," he snickered out of the corner of his mouth, "we're going to be riding some mean-assed broncos tonight."
Back in my rack, I was tired but excited. My first search and rescue. We were headed into a North Atlantic storm to save a sinking fishing vessel and her crew. Soon I'd be up on the bridge right in the middle of the action. Henkel's comments about the heavy seas didn't scare me. I'd been in lots of heavy weather on Lake Michigan. The rougher the better. I'd never been seasick in my life and knew I never would. I'll show that bastard. I am an old salt.
The ship began rising and falling in a slow gentle rhythm. I drifted in and out of sleep. As the night wore on, the hills and valleys became steeper and wider. We started to pitch and roll. A locker door clanged open and closed. A shaving kit thumped to the deck scattering its contents. The dizziness began with a swirl through my head then twisted deep into my belly. I got up and dressed. Tim McAlister dashed into the head. When I heard him heaving, I knew I had to get out on deck. As I started to go topside, Henkel called down.
"Hey Salt, wake up Hopewell and report to the bridge in twenty minutes." After rousing him I dashed out on the pitching deck and gulped fresh air. Walking to the lee side to escape the howling wind and driving snow, I saw two shadows leaning over the side. I couldn't see what they were doing but I had a feeling they weren't out here to admire the view. Soon I joined the chorus. Over the next ten minutes, I offered up what seemed like every meal I'd eaten since the seventh grade.
From the corner of my eye I sensed a shadowy presence through the blackness. He floated like a ghost across the lurching deck. Sparks flew from a cigarette clutched in the corner of his smirking mouth. "Hey Salt," Henkel yelled over the shrieking gale, "this is probably like a little old duck pond compared to those Lake Michigan storms you told us about." I stared out to the wild sea as he flicked his cigarette over the side. "I don't know about you," he chuckled, "but weather like this just makes me hungry as hell." I glimpsed something white in his hand. My stomach recoiled as I watched him take a bite out of a thick ham sandwich. As he chewed, a glob of mayonnaise dribbled down his chin. Through a stuffed mouth, he blurted, "Time for you to get to the bridge."
I turned to walk away. After one step, my queasy disgust flashed to hot anger. I wheeled around, grabbed the sandwich from his hand and took a full bite. With flecks of ham and bread flying from my mouth, I shouted into his stunned face, "So when's this bad fucking storm you're so worried about gonna hit anyway?" Thrusting the sandwich back, I butted forward into the wind. Out of his view, I made one stop to hang over the rail. It was worth it.
Hopewell and I tugged the bridge door open and stepped inside. Except for a dim light over the chart table, the bridge was dark and quiet. Captain Morley was studying a navigational chart. His foul weather jacket was unzipped and his officer's cap rested on the side of the chart table. He had sandy hair with silver sideburns, sharp angular features and piercing blue eyes. Carl Swanson, the quartermaster, was peering at the radar. He was short and paunchy with a receding hairline. He looked up as the door slammed shut. "Hopewell, relieve the helmsman. You," nodding at me, "go up on the flying bridge and relieve the lookout. Hopewell will relieve you in an hour. Then you got the wheel watch."
Putting my shoulder into the door, I struggled as if I were pushing against a tidal wave to force it open. Buffeted by the gale, I grasped the railing to keep from being blown across the slippery deck. Climbing the short ladder up to the flying bridge, I saw a shadowy figure crouched at the front rail. Kelly, one of the deck gang, stiff with cold, bolted for the ladder as soon as he saw me. As he passed, I yelled, "What am I supposed to do?"
Without turning, he screamed back, "You look out," and was gone.
I was alone on the flying bridge, the highest deck on the ship. When I faced forward into the icy gale, horizontal streaks of stinging snow raked my eyes like pellets from a fire hose. The air was sucked from my lungs as the ship raced down the side of a wave. As the bow knifed into a mountain of black water, my body was thrown forward into the rail. Afraid I'd lose my footing and be blown overboard, I wrapped my bare hands around the thick cable running from the mast down to the deck where I stood. As the bow smashed the wave in two, white water like two huge fountains rose and heaved outward. We rolled hard, pitched up and began our next dive into the rolling seas.
Just below me, snug in the warm pilothouse, I knew Swanson was monitoring the radar. Any vessels within twenty-five miles would show up as bright blips on the screen. As for myself, I could barely make out the bow less than fifty feet in front of me. The broken zipper of my foul weather jacket snapped in my face. Wet, frozen and seasick, I thought of those gloves waiting for me at the Army Surplus Store. Then I remembered. Today was my nineteenth birthday.
Directly behind the forward rail at the center of the flying bridge, a searchlight as round as I was tall sat beneath a canvas-cover. Gripping the cable, I wedged myself behind it and faced aft. It was too dark to see the dial of my watch and I lost all track of time. After what seemed like hours, I heard a distant voice through the wailing storm. Trudging to the side rail, I saw Swanson peering up at me. Through cupped hands, he yelled in my direction but his voice was drowned out by the shrieking wind. He took a step up the ladder. Bending down, I cupped my ear toward his mouth. "You OK?" he screamed. My mouth too numb to form words, I managed only a nod. As soon as he disappeared inside the bridge, I groped back to the safety of the searchlight.
Am I OK? Did he actually ask me if I was OK? No gloves, busted zipper, frozen half to death, trying not to be blown overboard and lost at sea, and that nutty sonofabitch asks if I'm OK Well yesiree, I've never been finer. And let me tell you, I've been waiting my whole natural born life to serve on a United States Coast Guard cutter. And if I'd known you'd try to kill me on my nineteenth birthday, why I would've had my ass here a helluva a lot sooner.
I was beginning to think they'd forgotten I was perched here. Hopewell finally clambered over the top of the ladder to relieve me. I was so thrilled to see him it could have been Marilyn Monroe. He squinted into the driving snow and yelled in my ear, "See anything out there?
"Hell yeah," I screamed over the wind. "Just keep looking to starboard. There's a boatload of bare-assed nymphomaniacs you'll see bobbing right alongside. They keep yelling up here they want some horny Coastal Guardians to screw their brains out. Figure I'll tell the Old Man so he knows what a good lookout I am." I bolted for the ladder and damn near flew with joy off the flying bridge.
Entering the bridge, I saw the Old Man peering at the radar screen. Relieved to be out of the wind and cold, I blew on my stiff hands and rubbed them together. Swanson had the helm and looked my way as I shut the door. "You new on board?" he asked.
"Came aboard three days ago."
"Had a wheel watch yet?"
"Well, I can't train you on the helm in this kind of weather. You go on up and send Hopewell back down here."
Did I hear him right? Did he say go up and send Hopewell back down? Am I supposed to spend another hour looking into the frozen blackness for something that can't be seen? An anger welled up in me as fierce as the storm that raged around us. Fearing I would lose control, I clenched my body to attention. "Excuse me sir," I said loud and clear. The Old Man looked up scowling from the radarscope. He turned a steely gaze on me. I stared back. "Sir, I've not been at the helm of the Sweetbriar. But I have been at the helm of a large ship in heavy weather. I can take this watch, sir." The words sounded so calm and self-assured, I wasn't sure I had said them.
"And where might you have steered a large ship in heavy weather, son?" Captain Morley demanded.
"Ore boat on the Great Lakes, sir. My grandfather was a ship's captain. I sailed with him during the summers. Taught me seamanship and how to stand a wheel watch. All kinds of weather, fair and foul." We stared each other down. I would not be intimidated.
Turning back to the scope he said, "Give him a try, Carl. But if you can't hold course," he said flashing me a threatening look, "you're back on lookout. We're not hauling ore to some goddamn steel mill. We're trying to save some desperate men from this widow-making storm."
"Come here," Swanson said, motioning me to the helm. He did not hide his displeasure. His hands were full navigating the Sweetbriar. "We're taking the sea on our port quarter. When we hit a swell, she'll come right a few degrees. Don't over-correct cause she'll fall back after we break through the swell. Alright, step up here. Take the helm and watch the compass. Steer one one five." He stepped back. "And you better know what the hell you're doing."
My heart started to gallop as I grasped the large brass wheel. I was surprised it turned with such ease. As I focused on the compass, we pitched hard into the next wave. Just as Swanson had warned, she first came right a few degrees but then fell back on our heading after topping the wave. After taking a few more swells, I had allowed the ship to fall off by five degrees. Realizing that we were bucking heavy winds, I knew I had to steer with the rudder a few degrees to port in order to compensate. The Old Man gave me a disapproving look and was just about to say something as I gave the wheel a full left turn and then eased it back. Falling off the next swell, I steered her back on course. In time, I fell into the rhythm of the ship. I began to anticipate her movements as she rolled and pitched. Despite the high winds and steep swells, I kept her dead on course. On this night, a night I would always remember, the Sweetbriar and I became one as we danced into the dark stormy seas.
After being relieved from the helm at four a.m., I made my way below on wobbly legs. I fell exhausted into my rack. I'd been awake nearly all night, but knew I'd never fall asleep before morning reveille at six. My thoughts raced. Though I was grateful to have survived my ordeal on the flying bridge, I was unable to understand the reason for being there. Yet if I'd been asked to choose between being a lookout in a nor'easter or in a foxhole in Korea, there's no question what I'd do. Did it make any more sense to the soldiers why they were dying halfway around the world in a place they'd never heard of? And what had come over me when I was denied my wheel watch? When I stood up to the Captain, was I being brave or acting like a fool?
And why had I lied? Yes, my grandfather had been a captain on the Great Lakes. But he died in 1938 when I was only four years old. My only memories of him were stories my father told. I was never at the helm of an ore boat. I'd never even set foot on one. I learned how to steer by compass headings when I was kid at the Coast Guard Station on Lake Michigan. My "ship" was a thirty-two-foot utility boat. My training was patrolling sailboat races. What upset me were the same feelings of guilt and shame I had experienced when the nuns caught me in a lie. Yet there was also that satisfying sense of triumph when I got away with it.
At first light, a Coast Guard plane was dispatched from Boston to search for the Sophie. We were notified of her position ten miles southwest of Nantucket Island and had her in sight by 1100 hours. The snow let up and visibility was half a mile. Although the storm had moderated, conditions were still hazardous; seas were running eight to ten feet and a northeast wind blowing at thirty-five knots. The Sophie had taken on a lot of water, had little freeboard left and needed to be pumped out before she could be taken in tow. She was in danger of sinking and we had no time to lose.
Henkel and I were on the boat deck with three other men to help get the motor launch into the water. It was lowered from the davits down to deck level. Chief Rosy and McAlister tested the gasoline powered pump, put it in the launch and lashed it down under a canvas cover. Along with a crew of three, they donned life jackets and boarded the open launch. With the high winds and heavy swells, conditions were extremely dangerous for lowering a boat into the water. The skipper headed the Sweetbriar into the swells to minimize rolling. Kazinski and I manned the stern line and Watson and Laughlin the bow. Henkel was at the controls of the davit.
"You mind those fore and aft lines now," Henkel yelled over the wind. "We don't want her swinging out and slamming back against the ship when we roll. We waited for orders from the bridge. The skipper was looking out to sea trying to time the swells. We took a few rolls but were able to keep the launch snug against the side. I was shivering more from fear than the cold wind blowing through my flapping jacket.
"Lower away," came the order. As we held the lines taut, the launch slowly dropped toward the rolling seas. A heavy gust of wind beat across the boat deck. Kazinski, in front of me, grabbed for his hat. As we took a hard roll to starboard, he let go of the line to capture his hat. The launch swung out with the four of us skidding toward the sea. Laughlin and Watson kept their grip and managed to keep the bow from swinging out more than a few feet. Before Kazinski regained his grip, the stern of the launch swung well out. Struggling alone against the swinging launch, I slammed into his back. He lurched toward the stern of the launch where the chief stood. I grabbed a hunk of Kazinski's foul weather jacket, dropped the line and wrapped my other arm around the davit. Henkel leapt from the controls, grabbed the loose end of the line and took a turn around a cleat.
Looking up, the chief saw Kazinski dangling six feet right over his head. Rosy pressed to the side of the compartment but his only escape was overboard. As we took a hard roll back to port, I pulled Kazinski back on deck and the launch swung back. The stern thumped hard against the ship. Rosy and McAlister were thrown to the deck. Kazinski and I took up the slack as they scrambled to their feet. The chief waved they were OK. On the next crest, the launch was in the water. The three-crew members of the Sophie who had been bailing with buckets, stopped to watch the launch make its way to her side.
Below on the mess deck, Henkel drew a mug of coffee as the rest of us slumped exhausted to the bench. Kazinski sat staring at the deck shaking his head. "Jesus, what an asshole," he muttered to himself.
"What the hell was I thinking?"
"That was military thinking," Henkel said. "You were worried about being out on deck without your hat on. You knew that was a violation of ship's rules. Now that's the kind of thinking we need in the Coast Guard. Hell, you didn't screw up, Salt did. If he hadn't grabbed your ass, we could've watched you do a swan dive right into Rosy's arms. Hell, you could of given him a great big kiss on the lips just before taking a header into the engine hatch." Henkel, trying not to laugh too hard, nearly swallowed his cigarette. Glancing out the porthole, his grin vanished. "Trouble on the Sophie," he said. "Salt, you go clean up the head. The rest of you, I'm gonna need you on the boat deck right now."
"What kinda trouble?" I asked.
"Don't know. The pump's not working and Rosy's signaling the bridge." He and the men walked out the door to the forward deck. I trudged to the head frustrated not to be part of the action. Instead, a disgusting mess greeted me. Seasick crew had been trekking through the head all night. As I had learned, when you're heaving your guts out, good aim is not exactly what's on your mind. The ship was still rolling and new waves of nausea began to swirl through my sore and empty stomach. After swallowing fresh air through the porthole, I held my breath while I cleaned the toilets. Back for more gulps, and I swabbed the deck. I never dreamed brown GI soap would ever smell so good.
Looking out the porthole, I saw the motor launch returning with the Chief and McAlister. The Sophie came into view as she crested the top of a wave. The pump was still not working and the men were bailing by hand. The seas were now lapping her gunnels. Without the pump, they were working against time and a determined sea.
Chief Rosy startled me as he burst into the head. "Come with me," he ordered. I followed him toward the engine room wondering what he could possibly want. Henkel appeared behind us at the end of the passageway.
"Where the hell you think you're going, Salt?" he barked.
"I'm borrowing your man," the chief snapped. "If you got a problem with that, go bitch to the Old Man." I followed him down to the machine shop.
"I need your help and I need it fast. Got a leaky propane tank on the Sophie. There's gas in the bilges and cockpit, right where we've gotta run the pump. If we start it with all that gas, any spark from the engine will blow her right out of the water. Here's the problem: There's a busted valve handle on the tank. I gotta remove it before we can shut off the gas. You said you can operate a lathe. I need you to turn a brass tool so I can remove the handle. This is what I need." He grabbed a note pad, made a sketch of the tool and showed it to me. "Can you do it?"
"I never turned brass before but I think so." My heart started hammering.
"How long will it take?"
"I'm not sure, by the time I...."
"I want it in ten minutes."
"Jesus, ten minutes. I need a hunk of brass." Before I blinked it was in my hand. I set up the lathe and started cutting. Golden spirals of brass curled away as I guided the cutting tool. "I saw a whole set of these things on the tool rack," I said, not looking up.
"Those are made outta steel. You use one of those to knock out a steel pin and you'll make a spark. One spark and the Sophie is kindling and the rest of us are fish food."
"Done." I said, removing the tool from the lathe and handing it to the chief.
"Grab your jacket and hat," the chief said. "You're going back to the Sophie with me. McAlister's been sick ever since we left port and damn near passed out from the fumes on the Sophie. I need a hand shutting down that propane tank and you're it." As I followed Rosy out of the shop, I noticed the piece I had made on the lathe a few nights ago. It lay on the bench exactly where I left it.
The men continued to bail as we pulled along side the Sophie. Struggling from exhaustion, fired by fear, they fought back the patient seas that waited to take her down. We leaped on the heaving deck and made our way into the cockpit. Stepping over the silent pump, I was choked by the stench of rotting fish and spoiled food. Floorboards floated on the rising bilge water. A suffocating terror told me to run back on deck. Rosy crouched down and reached into a small compartment next to the wheel.
"Can't we open the windows?" I pleaded.
"No, too low in the water. Might take a wave into the cockpit. Hand me that mallet and grab the tank. Keep it steady." As the frigid bilge water seeped into our boots, he thumped on the brass tool, struggling to remove the small steel pin at the top of the tank. "C'mon you sonofabitch, move," he grunted, as he hammered with mounting fury.
"I thinks it's starting to budge," I yelled.
"C'mon sweetheart," he crooned, quickening the blows. "Come to daddy."
"You got it, Rosy," I shouted as the pin fell into the bilge. He removed the broken handle.
"Hand me that small wrench." He took two turns and the valve was closed. "Before we can start the pump we gotta vent this place." You open the starboard window, I'll do the port. Watch the seas. If the bow takes a dive into a wave, slam the window shut before we ship more water." Gusts of wind flushed the foul air in minutes.
"Time to start pumping," Rosy said. "I'm going out on deck to grab the end of the discharge hose. When I give the word, give the starter cord a strong yank."
"Jesus, how do we know all the propane is outta here?"
"We can only hope, Scotty. Now let's do it before we all have to swim for our lives." I was paralyzed with terror as Rosy left me alone in the compartment. In a few seconds he yelled "do it!"
"Save me sweet Jesus," I said, clenching my eyes shut and pulling with all my strength. A thunderous roar ripped through the compartment as I fell back against the bulkhead. Opening my eyes, I saw blue exhaust billowing from the screaming engine. Bilge water gushed over the side. Out on the deck, Rosy gave me a thumbs-up. I smiled with pride and relief, knowing that the Sophie and I would live to see another day.
Reference is made to the Nantucket lightship. Except for this vessels previously operated by the United States Coast Guard and now decommissioned, the story is a work of fiction. For those eagle-eyed Coast Guard personnel, both active and retired, the fictional Sweetbriar is not to be confused with the nonfictional USCGC Sweetbrier. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Many generous people, including retired members of the U.S. Coast Guard, helped get this story into its final form. Dan Baumbaugh not only read several drafts but forwarded copies to Coast Guard retirees John W. "Bill" Colton, Bob Descoteux, Norman Harrold, M. J. "Sandy" Sanders and John H. Smith, as well as his wife, Margaret, for critical comment. All these individuals helped enormously with copyediting and especially the proper use of shipboard terminology and navigation. Such nautical details were long obscured by forty years of the accumulated flotsam and jetsam of my civilian life. Finally, a singular thanks is owed to Arlene Mandell, instructor of my writers' workshop, who taught me how to stop writing as a scientist and start writing as a writer.
About the Author - Don Hutchings was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1934. Upon graduating from Lane Technical high school in 1952, he enlisted for four years in the United States Coast Guard. He served for several months on the Coast Guard buoy tender Spar based in Bristol, Rhode Island, attended Engineman school and then transferred to Ketchikan, Alaska, where he was assigned to the buoy tender White Holly for two years. His last duty assignment was aboard the icebreaker Mackinaw, based in Cheboygan, Michigan. After returning to Chicago in 1956, he earned a B.A. from Lake Forest College and a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Chicago. From 1963 until his retirement in 1996, he was a Research Scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and a faculty member in the departments of Pediatrics and Psychiatry, Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York City. He is the author of a book, numerous research papers and book chapters. Into The Tempest is his first work of fiction.
Donald E. Hutchings
120 Hackensack Ave
Harrington Park, NJ 07640