The Russians Are Coming

The tall Russian captain, his four gold stripes tarnished by years of salt air, smiled at our Coast Guard boarding party. I was on a factory vessel in the middle of the Bering Sea. It was my thirty fourth birthday, July 20th 1969. The four of us had just made the long climb up the pilot ladder, and stepped through the bulwark of the four-hundred-foot converted cargo vessel. Now we stood before the Captain and two civilian men who greeted us. The Captain smiled, saluted, then shook hands all around, stood back then pronounced, “Gentlemen. Congratulations! Your man has landed safely on the moon.”

This was our first news of the success of the U.S. Appolo Eleven Mission.

From a Russian!

The USCG Cutter Resolute was mid-tour on a sixty-day Alaskan fisheries patrol. We knew this one would be different. The U.S. may have entered an official period of détante with Russia, but that didn’t mean we were all that trusting. We suspected that Russian factory vessels, with far beyond typical antenna arrays, were engaged in electronic eavesdropping. Their gear obviously beat the fickle communication Gods of the Bering Sea; we had received nothing.

Sid Morgan, an agent of the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game, (our Fin and Feathers Guy), was part of the boarding party. We counted on him for the details of the treaties and, above all, identifying the various species.

The captain introduced himself as the ship’s master and the heavy-set civilian next to him as the fleet commander. The thin man in the background was not introduced, but also never went away. I presumed he was the ever present party representative that I had been briefed about.

My beautiful picture

The open deck amidships was piled high with squirming Red Alaskan King Crab.

Their smell filled the air. We watched the ship’s crane swing overhead, the operator expertly lowering a large net to the catcher boat alongside. It soon reappeared, dumping a new load of live crabs atop the pile already struggling to regain their freedom. The purple and white crabs, which can reach twenty-five to thirty pounds, with a leg spread of as much as six feet, their shells encrusted with sharp spiny bumps, tumbled over each other like bizarre outer space creatures playing king of the mountain.

We observed the sorting operation for a while then the Captain gestured us toward a door inviting us into a narrow, dimly lit passageway that led to the wardroom. As a crew member held the heavy steel door, I noticed that Sid, just before he stepped over the shin-busting threshold, caught a glance back at the crab pile. He made mental notes of the size, species, and estimated numbers of the catch.

As we snaked out way to the wardroom, the Captain suddenly took my elbow and quietly said, “Come with me, please.” The rest of the party moved on while I turned to follow the Captain down a side passageway and up to the next deck. Stopping at a beautiful mahogany door with a polished brass name plate, he turned and said, “Please step into my cabin.”

My mind struggling for a scenario, I stepped inside. He followed and closed the door. Before I could say anything he pointed for me to sit in a small leather chair at the side of his desk and, in perfect English, he asked, “Do you own a car?”
“Do I own a car?” I had no idea where this was going.
“Yes, do you have an automobile?
“Yes, Captain, I do.”
“What kind?”
“A Toyota Corona.”
The Captain leaped out his chair, a huge grin on his face, extended his hand to shake mine, pumping it vigorously. “So do I!” I got the feeling he now saw us as some sort of kindred spirits. He sat down and leaned back in his chair.
“How long did you wait?” He steepled his hands, tapping his fingertips in anticipation of my answer. I must have looked confused. I had no idea what he meant. “You know. How long did you have to wait to get your car?”
“I’m sorry Captain. I don’t understand.”
“Well, in my country, as Captain of a fleet factory vessel, I am highly ranked. I got my new car after waiting only three months. How long did you wait?”
“Captain, in my country anyone who wants to buy a car makes a trip a car store. There are usually several in a row on the same street. When I bought mine, I knew I wanted a Toyota, test drove a few models, decided, then bargained for the best price. I drove the car home the same afternoon.” From the look on his face I feared I had embarrassed him. Damn!

He said nothing for awhile, then, “I like the U.S. Coast Guard. They are not like the Navy or Army. You and I are just men who go to sea.” After a slight pause, he added, “ I don’t like our Army or Navy either.” Before I could recover, he placed both palms flat on his desk, pushed out of his seat and pointed to his cabin door.

“We should probably be joining the others in the wardroom.” To this day, I imagine an old Russian sea captain sitting around a fire, stoking his pipe, downing a vodka, dramatizing this same event to his grandchildren, “….yes, that’s what that crazy American tried to get me to believe—he buys his cars in one day!”

A Rough Night Crossing the Atlantic

EagleLookingForward2The chow line was short tonight. The Eagle was heeled at fifteen degrees with deeper rolls. Those that were eating either propped one end of their food tray atop their milk glass or held it level with one hand, while eating with the other. There was not much conversation, only the occasional sound of crashing metal trays, silverware, and glass bowls, as they slid off the tables onto the tiled deck. It was like living in a house on a hillside, with floors built parallel to the ground—that moved—a never ending carnival ride.

I’m standing the mid-watch tonight with the ready boat crew. There are ten of us huddled on the port side of the open main deck, under the pin rail in the shelter of coiled lines. The night is dark, and heavy inky clouds blocked out any semblance of light; the sea and sky have merged. We are encapsulated in a black globe.

The ceaseless yawing, dipping, twisting, and rolling in heavy seas are wearing thin. The wind whistles through the rigging with surprising force, the pitch changing with each gust. The large mainsail snaps and pops with sound like a cracking whip. Block-and-tackles rattle, and chain-rigged clews clink and clank as they dance to the tune of the sea.
It’s not easy staying warm and dry, even with no rain. With every pitch into an oncoming wave, the flared bow of the Eagle coughs up a solid sheet of seawater. Now air conditioned by the howling wind, it builds into a man-chilling spray that blows the length of the entire deck. The smell of salt air fills our nostrils. Nobody escapes it.

The bad weather carries good news too. The barque loves it! Fully suited in her twenty-two sails, Eagle plows through the ocean with ease at fifteen knots as we sail  closer to Santander, Spain. The weather demands an active watch. We are called to cant yards, secure loose gear, rig safety lines, and trim sails. Time passes quickly. Ding ding…ding ding…ding ding. The high pitched ring of the ship’s bell penetrates the howling wind. Six bells, our watch will be over in an hour. Two of us will roust out the relief at 0330.

Entering the berthing compartment is like stepping into deep inner space. A low ambient light from an unknown source creates an eerie scene. Hammocks dance in the dark, swaying together, as if an invisible orchestra was keeping time.Hammocks I brushed aside the dangling spider webs of hammock lashing cords as I picked my way through the cradled bodies, some strung high, others, low.

I squinted along the red beam from my flashlight looking for the stenciled names of the relief watch. The ship was rolling heavily. Actually, the hammocks were still, suspended in space. It was the ship that was swaying around them.

With no room for spreaders, the sleeping bodies were wrapped in curls of canvas, like caterpillars stretched between tree branches. Sounds and smells, made only by sleeping men, presented when I got close enough to shine my red light onto a face.
I found Arvie Pluntz. I tapped him on the shoulder and flickered my flashlight beam across his eyes a few times. “Good morning, Arvie, time for your watch. It’s 0340.”
“Yea, OK, OK.” He didn’t sound like he meant it.
“Come on, Arv. Don’t doze back off,” I said, in hushed tones. “Time for your watch.”
Arvie’s name is Richard V. Pluntz. When we were issued uniforms a year ago, he had set the stencil machine wrong. With no space between his initials— everything he owned read RV Pluntz. Hence, his nickname.
“I’m awake.” Arvie grabbed the overhead stay and swung his legs out of his cocoon. When his feet hit the deck, he stumbled, adjusting from the gimbaled comfort of the hammock to the pitch and roll of the deck.
“It’s pretty rough out there tonight, Arv.”
“OK, Thanks. Let me get my pants on and hitch up my can, and I’ll be right up.”

The can Arvie was going to hitch was an empty #2 spinach can that he got from the scullery. He had learned to cope with his constant sea-sickness last year on the short cruise. A couple of punched holes near the top rim, a strand of twine, rigged through his belt loops–he was set to go–his sea bucket always at the ready.

I never saw Arvie in bad humor. He stood every watch, did everything required, no complaints, and always with a big smile—but never without his bucket. He was smart and fun to be with. Richard V. Pluntz did not graduate with us. I can’t remember the reason he left the Academy, but maybe the thought of spending a major portion of his life with a #2 can tied to his belt had something to do with it.

Party with Ernest Hemingway

The Coast Guard Academy’s long cruise in the summer of 1956, our first class year, took us to the Caribbean. We called at Puerto Rico and Panama, but the port we all waited for lay before us—Havana, Cuba. A small crowd gathered on the estuary waiting for the fleet of taxi-boats to carry them to our berth next to the coal piers. They were doing a brisk business. It was  Sunday and hundreds of visitors swarmed the Eagle, mostly Cubans, but some American vacationers.

The ships PA system interrupted our noisy liberty planning session. “Our Ambassador to Cuba, Mr. Arthur Gardner, and his wife has invited first class cadets to a dance party at their quarters. There is a sign-up sheet on the forward mess deck–it will be filled before liberty is granted.
The uniform is service dress white. A bus will be on the pier for transportation.”
Someone broke the silent disappointment, “Oh, come on guys, it might be interesting. Remember it is an official affair. We’ll hang out for an hour or so, do the receiving line bit, and we’ll be out of there. We may still have time to get to the city. Besides, this is only our first day; we’ll still have time for other stuff.” I followed the lead, and resignedly shuffled my way to the sign-up sheet.
Captain Zittel, our officer-in-charge (O-I-C) stood at the front of the bus. With a practiced glance he gave each a quick once-over as we boarded: whites-ok, cap covers-clean, white shoes-polished. Clearly he expected a zero-defect visit.
The Captain continued his briefing, “This is an official visit. It’s not expected to be long. A departure line  will be formed when I signal. Conduct yourselves in the same manner as in our Academy receiving lines at any monthly formal. Thank the Ambassador and his wife for their hospitality, shake hands, and keep it moving. The bus will be outside for the return to the ships.” Then he paused for effect.

“As to drinking—official regulations forbid it—but we will suspend the regulations for the occasion. If the Ambassador should offer, you may accept, and I know you will conduct yourselves as gentlemen.”
“Well, at least that’s something,” an unidentified mumble rose from the back of the bus, followed by a low chorus of stifled snickers. Captain Zittel said nothing.
We arrived at the Ambassador’s quarters and were ushered directly to the magnificent patio surrounded by lush gardens and beautifully set tables. We could hear the lively beat of a Cuban band above the crowd’s murmur. A number of guests were already there, and our arrival sparked a rise in the background noise. Several adult couples, presumably embassy personnel and Cuban dignitaries, moved to greet us as we entered like a small army.

The first surprise of the evening was when a mini-mob of unaccompanied young women, swaying in pretty cocktail dresses to the Latin rhythms, headed our way. Ambassador Gardner’s plans for the evening thoughtfully included inviting a number of debutantes. They were described in a photo accompanying an article in the Havana Post the following day as “50 Havana beauties.” Judging from their smiles as they mingled to introduce themselves, coaxing us directly to the dance floor, they had been looking forward to the party more than we had.
The Ambassador, slightly heavy-set and balding, along with his gracious wife, mingled, making small talk, generally checking if we were having a good time. “Be sure you take time to meet Ernest Hemingway.” he said. “He and his wife, Mary, have been looking forward to meeting you and are really interested in your Eagle adventures.”
Ernest Hemingway?
HemmingwayIt did not take long to find him. His dark businessman’s suit and plain tie stood out behind the wall of dress whites that surrounded him like bars in a cage. An occasional pop of a newspaper photographer’s flash was a beacon to his entourage. Hemingway sported a neatly trimmed white beard that framed his square face into a block. He was a tall, powerfully built man with deep facial lines from years of outdoor adventures. He seemed to enjoy the animated conversation, drink in hand, asking about our summer on the Eagle.
Havana Party 1I joined a small group across the room to engage in pleasant conversation with Mary Hemingway. She was an attractive woman with short swept-back hair. She had a narrow face, and a small mouth that she pursed into a pretty smile. She was wearing a single pearl choker and carried a small black handbag under her arm. She cradled her drink in white gloved hands. The Havana Post photographer snapped a picture of four of us that appeared in the morning paper.

The party had been in swing for over an hour when Captain Zittel thought it appropriate that we take our leave. He collared a couple of cadets to start the receiving line. When he approached the ambassador’s wife, however, she exclaimed, “Oh Captain, you can’t be serious. These young people are just beginning to have fun. Let them stay and dance for awhile.” The Captain, without much choice, turned to the cadets, hunched his shoulders and ordered, “Well, carry on men.”
And, carry on we did!

Bermuda

“In knocking about on the Royal yards, mind don’t let go one rope till you have hold of another, and if you keep in mind this good advice you will never fall from aloft.
Anonymous mariner, Way Of A Ship

Eagle 8Some days bring you all the excitement you can stand. This was one of them. The Eagle’s visit to Hamilton, Bermuda was cut short by an oncoming hurricane.

The Captain was taking us north ahead of the storm flying as much canvas as he dared.
“Mr. Marcott. Come with me.” Second Classman Al Breed stood in front of the ready boat crew pointing at me. There was urgency in his voice, “There’s something clanging around on the main royal. We’ve got to check it out.”
“Yes, sir.”

The royal is the highest sail on the mast. It meant a long climb up the shrouds then a dangerous move onto the footrope fourteen stories above the ocean. I felt a little surge of anxiety. It was dark and raining, and the storm was tossing the Eagle all over the ocean.
It was summer, but the rain was cold and hurt as it pelted me with a wind driven strength I had not felt before. The rain-slicked steel of the crosstrees and yard arm were slippery. We were hard up on a starboard tack making the dangling footrope a long reach. I was going to have to push off to grab the after jackstay, that one-inch steel safety rod that ran the length of the yard arm. It was the only safety grip when working aloft.

Academy and Eagle memoirs 005We had no safety harnesses in 1953.
The barque was taking heavy rolls. We flailed through a ninety foot arc, like the weights on a 135 foot metronome, first over the deck, then above the black broiling ocean.
“Can you make it OK?” Breed hollered from the shrouds just below me. He cupped his hand by the side of his mouth to overcome the high pitched wind screaming through the rigging. “Don’t take any chances. Be careful.”
“Yes, Sir. I think I’ll be ok.” With that, I timed the pitch of the ship and pushed off. I grabbed the jackstay with my right hand in a vice grip, squeezing it into wire. I had made it onto the footrope, but my momentum pushed the yardarm away. It was moving fast, and with the ship dropping beneath us in a steep pitch, I could feel that sickening moment of weightlessness, like cresting at the top of a roller coaster run.

The yard clanged into the steel stop with a shuddering crash, the lingering vibration numbed my fingers. The braces had not been secured, letting the yardarm dangerously free to move.  Breed quickly took charge.
“You OK? Hold tight and stay where you are.”
“Yes, Sir. I’m all right.”
“On the main deck!” He was calling for the attention of the ready boat crew.

“Main deck, aye.”
“ Secure the main royal weather and lee braces. Now!”
“Aye, Aye, Sir,” the answer came from the dark below and the boat crew responded quickly.
Breed talked me back onto the shrouds, which were closer and easier to reach now. We stood together for a few moments. “Just take a few deep breaths, and when you’re ready, we’ll head back down. Good Job.”
I thought, “I didn’t do anything but hang on.” I was just happy the Academy was not going to have to name an athletic field me after me. (The football stadium, Jones Field, was named for the only cadet to die from a fall from the rigging.)
Safely back on deck, it was all over. I rejoined the ready boat crew, huddled under the pin rail, grateful for what little protection it provided from the pelting rain. The pounding heart beat I could still feel in my ears gradually subsided.

The First Thanksgiving

THE FIRST THANKSGIVING

At noon I joined the mass of uniformed cadets in a dash to the New London train station. I turned from the platform into the first car…to join what seemed like a million college students from every school north of New London. The railroad always claimed they put on extra cars for Thanksgiving. I never believed it.

All I knew was that I made the entire trip standing, suitcase on the deck, squeezed between my ankles, fighting the swaying train with one hand on overhead rack. The air was close and reeked of sweat and stale cigarette breath. The crowd, already worn and hot, had randomly flung their coats, hats, and scarves all over the car.

The coeds, while still chatty, didn’t smile, their beauty lessened by their weary trip. My flesh never touched fewer than three other people at the same time during the two-hour ordeal to New York.

At Penn Station, the car doors opened and before the wheels stopped screeching in a shower of sparks, and a herd of twenty-somethings, like fire ants scattering from their mound, stampeded into the oblivion of New York City. I boarded a shuttle bus to Rockefeller Center and the Erie Railroad office where I would begin my lonely overnight trip to Salamanca, NY. Continue reading “The First Thanksgiving”