The Brotherhood of ’57

I don’t know when it happened—that brotherhood thing—that Class 57 Ringunbreakable bond that tied us together for a life time. It was not foreknown. It just happened. It engulfed us with the subtly of a smell on the wind or a scent from afar that gradually molded our pool of survivors into a band of brothers. I place my awakening at the end of our first long cruise.

Like many of the windjammers of old, coming out of Copenhagen the Eagle needed the favorable easterly winds of the northern route home. We passed north of Scotland and just south of Iceland. Despite the calendar showing we were in mid-summer, it was cold at sixty-three degrees north latitude, and often overcast. When it was clear, hRigging 1 Frontspieceowever, we had a lot of time for navigation sights. We had a good horizon and the stars were out from sunset until sunrise—the land of the midnight sun.

Movie on mess deck
Movie on the mess deck

The navigational chart posted on the bulkhead of the forward mess deck became a center of attention. When the cadet navigator plotted our position on 24 July, we still had twenty-three hundred miles to go.
The days at sea had long since settled into a repetitive routine. We all felt the draw of our fourth, and best, liberty port—home. We did have diversions. Movies again became popular: Cattle Town, Lili, Gentlemen Prefer Blonds, and the all hands favorite, Salome.

Coast Guard Day is August 4th. It is celebrated at every Coast Guard unit, on land or at sea. We enjoyed a holiday routine. We had goofy pie-eating contests, skits, and a rag-tag cadet band whose uniforms of Bermuda shorts and wool watch sweaters were fitting for an open deck picnic in the north Atlantic. They wore blue uniform cap covers, without the cap frame, tilted to resemble a French beret. A brass piece, a bass drum, a guitar or two, and a leader wielding a toilet plunger baton—The Horstvessel Furslugeners—were great fun.

The star attraction of the afternoon was Papa Santos’ Band. A popular first class petty officer cook, Santos led a string-band formed from his Hawaiian, Samoan, and Filipino cooks and stewards. They were good musicians who played snare drums, ukuleles, and guitars. Papa always stole the show with his home-made bass, an upside down metal garbage can with a tall wooden stick mounted on the side. Two strings ran through the drum and stretched over the carved top of the stick. The strings had wood toggles on the end. When Papa manipulated them by twisting and changing the tension, multiple tones boomed from the garbage can. He played a mean bass, in his black derby, with a great sense of rhythm and showmanship.

Finally on the 12th of August, New London Ledge Light hove into view. After a pause for a neat harbor furl, we stepped the mast so we could get under the bridge. In a traditional gesture, we gathered our oldest black uniform shoes, the ones worn only in the engine room–steamers, and brought them topside to the rail. Knowing these battered and scarred shoes would never be wearable in uniform again, we threw them at the base of the raised railroad bridge in tribute to the end of a great cruise.

Hundreds of shoes filled the air in a black arc that splashed like spattered pebbles at the base of the bridge and sank to the bottom of the Thames River. The growing mound of cadet shoes from years past made the strangest fish haven on the east coast.

We had logged 10,339 miles in seventy-six days. Since Copenhagen, we had been at sea for twenty-six. We were ready for home leave.

For over a year we had lived, worked, studied, and played together nearly every day. We had been annealed by the fire of swab indoctrination and shared experiences. We stood tests of self-discipline, physical stamina, commitment to service, and capacity for teamwork. We had been molded into a strong family with shared values of honor and duty, and we held a deep respect for the U. S. Coast Guard.
Our entering class of one hundred ninety-eight civilians was now ninety-nine clinging cadet survivors—the brotherhood of 1957. We missed those who were no longer with us, and cheered for all who continued to march.

The bonds strengthened after graduation. We worked for the same company. We married sisters, cousins, Conn College coeds, and New London girls. We shared duty stations, and watched each other’s families grow. Jack Irwin felt the pull of the brotherhood. He left our class in our swab year. He returned, teary eyed, when he was finally able to make it back to a class reunion—our fiftieth.

We’ll Meet Again

There were sacks of mail stacked on the pier when the Absecon returned from Ocean Station patrol. I had several letters from Carol. I whipped through the highlights, and then went back, not to the first one, but the last one: “Well, the mailman came today–so I guess we’re officially engaged now.” I hadn’t seen her in more than two months.
I eased my ‘57 Mercury onto the end of the car line. The loadmaster bellowed and waved furiously, moving us into position to for the next Little Creek–Kiptopeke ferry. The Del MarVa had pulled out just as I arrived. The terminal agent changed the red arrow on the clock-sign on the overhead archway: Next Ferry at 2:00p.m. I had to wait an hour.
I rolled down the window and tamped a fresh bowl of London Dock pipe tobacco into my favorite straight stemmed briar. I sucked at the Zippo flame, staring down my nose at the growing circle of embers. The rising cloud of smoke encircled my head, spreading its soothing aroma of freshly lit tobacco. With my pipe clinched in my teeth, I surrendered my body to the plush white leather seat, leaned my head back, and thought about Carol’s letter.
She had written that she had rushed home from work every day, and rifled through the mail until she found the orange postal notice for an insured box. “Mom,” she whooped, “The package came. I’m going right back out to the post office. See you in a bit.” Her mailman was still out on the route.
She backtracked what she knew was George’s route. She had known him for years; she babysat for his children. She spotted him, bag over his shoulder, on Henry Street. She tooted the horn and slid her old Dodge coupe alongside the curb. She popped out, waving, “Hey George. Do you have my package?”
“Just this little box from Herf-Jones,” George said, giving her the prize with a smile.
Carol ran home, tore into the box, and yelled, “Mom, it’s here! It’s here! My engagement ring!”

We had missed the traditional moment when many cadets got engaged—the ring dance. Amid the strains of Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White and Unchained Melody, beautiful women in colorful gowns, and handsome cadets in dress whites, swirled by, whispering quietly to each other. Flickering lights, reflected from a rotating crystal ball followed the dancers like flitting moths.

When an engaged couple strolled up the ramp to stand beneath the crown of a giant plaster replica of our class ring, nearby dancers paused to share the moment. The cadet presented his miniature, a traditional engagement ring for all service academy graduates, and kissed his fiancée while they accepted the smiles and quiet applause from the dance floor. Carol missed the moment. She got her ring by proxy, from the mailman, while I was at sea.

The sounds of revving engines, and the staccato thumps of car doors jolted me back to reality; parents were herding their kids back into their cars.
In a practiced routine, big trucks were stacked inboard to outboard on either side of the centerline engine room cowling. The cars followed in rhythmic double bumps over the steel ramp, all according to a weight and balance plan orchestrated by the loadmaster.
The Princess Anne, pulled out, and headed north toward the Kiptopeke terminal on Cape Charles. I knew the crossing would take an hour and a half, so I squeezed out of my Mercury and made my way topside for a ham sandwich and some fresh air.

The sea was calm. The bright blue sky sported a narrow band of wispy clouds on the horizon. People had migrated to the open topside deck to enjoy the beautiful October day. A few couples strolled hand in hand, glancing at those who were snuggled on the rows of benches. A handful of obnoxious kids circled the perimeter in imaginary chase. A growing flock of seagulls swooped and squawked at each other, fighting for the best position over the wake to snatch bread crumbs tossed into the air by giggling teenagers. Sailors were clustered in random groups, noisily sharing their plans for their liberty weekend.

A few remained aloof, retreating to remote benches, their necks crunched deep into upturned P-coat collars, like turtles, deep in private thoughts.
We pulled into Kiptopeke on time, 3:30p.m.
A wolf-pack formation of cars headed north on U.S. 13. One by one, drivers broke off while the big-rigs blew by us like we were out for a Sunday drive. Seven hours to go. With one short stop for a snack, I could probably make it to Roosevelt, NY before midnight.

Finally, a welcome sign alerted me that the Delaware Memorial Bridge was ahead. I had been on the road for four hours. I crossed the bridge, and within a short time merged into heavier traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike. Hunger pulled me into the first Howard Johnson’s Plaza. There were no other choices. They had an exclusive contract. If you were going to eat on the Jersey Turnpike, it was going to be at Howard Johnson’s.

At some point, I became aware of a faint odor that triggered thoughts of home. I cracked the window. Oil! Through the latticed power-line towers, I could see the distant silhouette of tanks: flat, short, tall, thin, and onion domed. They formed a dark base that sprouted tall chimneys. Clouds of billowing smoke rose from some while others stood as silent sentries with red blinking aircraft warning lights. A few flickered candle-like flames.
In the darkening twilight, thousands of white lights built their Etch-a-Sketch profile of tangled pipes, and cracking towers. These huge refineries stood unaware that they owed their birth to the oldest refinery in the world, the Kendall Refinery, back home in Bradford, Pa. I felt a little smug.

My exit to Staten Island was coming up. I crossed the island to the 69th street ferry, and then checked the cheat sheet I had taped to the dashboard. Follow the Belt Parkway to Southern State, then Exit 21 to Nassau Rd. I pulled into the Berlinghoff driveway at 65 West Roosevelt Avenue a few minutes after 11:00p.m. It had been a long day.

I perked up when I saw Carol running to the door to greet me. Her mom, in her bathrobe, stood behind her. She chatted with us amicably: “How was the trip? Are you enjoying the ship? I’m excited for Carol. I’ll see you at breakfast.” Then, in a polite move, she said goodnight and went off to bed. I was so tired that within a few minutes I was headed to the small bed in the attic, and Carol to her bedroom. It wasn’t even midnight.

Oh yeah–she was wearing her ring. So, I had missed the bended-knee-slip-it-on-her-finger moment too. But, although the seahorse tails and eagle wings of her miniature have rounded to smooth gold over fifty-eight years, the magic of the ring still works for us.

Welcome Aboard

New military wives learned very quickly that they didn’t just marry their husband, but his service as well. The Coast Guard is not just an employer. It is a social mechanism that governs behavior. It is a family imbedded with norms, steeped in history, honored, and respected. New Coast Guard wives undergo a different experience than, a new bride of a University of Michigan engineer who goes to work for Haliburton, or a University of Pittsburgh pharmacist who takes a job with CVS.

Neither of them may ever have to adjust to their husband’s employer to the same extent as Coast Guard wives need to adjust to the Coast Guard.
Wives did not generally realize that they could be a significant factor in their husband’s career. If not in the early years, it certainly was true as you became more senior. It was not unusual to have your superior comment on your wife in your official performance report, particularly as to your potential for promotion or command assignments.
Florence Ridgley Johnson, the wife of a well known Navy Admiral, had been down this road before. In 1956 she wrote Welcome Aboard: A service Manual for The Naval Officer’s Wife. Her book was issued to all graduating cadets and was a dog-eared staple in every officer’s home.

 

Official call on the XO
Official call on the XO

Carol and I met our first social obligation when we made our official call on the Absecon’s executive officer, Commander (CDR) Ernie Challender and his wife. While I had been aboard for a year, CDR Challender told me he and his wife would wait until after our wedding and would be “at home” and wished us to call for dinner.
We both read over the Welcome Aboard chapter: Calls, Made and Returned, particularly for the etiquette of calling cards. We both had engraved cards and knew to look for their calling card tray, probably on a side table near the front door. We confirmed that I would leave two of my cards and Carol one. A gentleman calls on everyone in the house; a lady only calls on the lady of the house.
The social call, actually a pleasant custom practiced in sophisticated society of the 19th and early 20th century, still observable in old movies, had pretty much gone the way of top hats and knickers–except in military society. It was actually a convenient means for military families to meet others and become acquainted with their new surroundings, while still retaining a semblance of a “rank and order.”
In a way, I miss calls. There was something civilized and mannerly about them. I dislike how far society has moved away, at times, regrettably, dragging me with it, toward informality. I don’t like casual dress for every occasion. I’m closer every day to removing ball caps from total strangers who sport them at the dinner table while eating in even the better restaurants.

After one trip around the block to avoid being early, I parked in front ofthe Commander’s house. I was wearing my best (only) blue suit, white straight wing tip collar shirt and regimental tie. Carol looked as pretty as ever in a checkered straight skirt and white blouse. With her sparkling eyes and smile, she was going to be an instant hit with the XO and his wife. We moved onto the porch, smiled at each other, took a short breath, and I rang the bell.
The commander answered the door.
“Well, good evening Marcotts. You must be Carol.” He was wearing a blue sport coat, gray trousers, and a plain red tie. Built a little too stocky to cut a neat military figure, the sport jacket fit his grandfatherly image better. He raised one eyebrow, curled his lip into a tight smile and said, “Come in, come in. Welcome.”
“Good Evening, sir.”
“Good evening, Commander, “Carol said, “So nice to meet you.”
The Commander, his head a little too big and square with loose jowls that bobbled as he talked with his eyes, smiled and completed introductions to his wife who had just entered from the dining room. Mrs. Challender wore an attractive casual dress, her slightly graying hair pulled back in a bun. She flashed a welcoming smile and motioned us to the living room, suggesting cocktails. We all had one. (The book said one was OK.)
The Challender’s homey style and genuine warmth helped us respond comfortably to all the normal get acquainted questions. We enjoyed a pleasant conversation that continued when we moved to the table for dinner. When we were finished, Carol helped clear the table and Mrs. Challender brought out dessert. Reaching for the coffee pot on the side board, she hovered over Carol’s cup, and said, “Of course as a good Coast Guard wife, I’m sure you like coffee.”
“Of course, please.”
Carol did not drink coffee. Her family did not drink coffee. They never had it in their house. She hated it. It was too late now for me to bail her out. She left her cup until it passed a touch-to-the-lips test while we continued table talk. Then, in a single move, Carol picked up the cup, tipped her head back and drained it to the bottom in several audible gulps like it were medicine. The always responsive perfect hostess, Mrs. Challender rose and smiling poured her a refill. “I guess you do like coffee.” Carol finished about half of her second cup, in smaller doses this time, obviously feeling it was OK to leave some as a signal that she had had enough.
The Commander escorted us to the door as we thanked both of them for the lovely evening. I surreptitiously placed our calling cards on the small silver tray on the entrance hall table. I had notice several cards on it when we first came in. As we walked toward the car, I turned to Carol with a slight laugh, “What’s with the coffee bit?”
“God! That was awful!”
“Hon, you didn’t have to do that. You could have just said ‘no thank you;.”
“Didn’t you hear her? She relates coffee drinking with being a good Coast Guard wife. I didn’t want to mess up you career on my first outing. AAUUGH!”
It was all Florence Ridgley Johnson’s fault.
Welcome Aboard.

Beware of Russian Wardrooms

Beware of Russian Wardrooms

The Captain and I left his cabin and proceeded to the wardroom. My boarding party was there along with Russian officers including two I had not met before. All were standing behind their chairs. The Captain took his place at the head of the table and indicated the chair at his left for me.

I turned to face the shoulder of the giant officer next to me. I tipped my head back, took in his scraggly face, large nose, and unkempt black hair that hung a little over his ear, and smiled hello.
“Gentlemen,” the Captain spoke the single word of greeting as he took his seat followed by all others. At each place was a dessert-sized plate with cut fruit and a small stack of neatly quartered cold-cut sandwiches. There was a large filled water glass to the right of the plate, and next to it an empty one about the size of an I-Hop juice glass. A single line of Pepsi-Cola sized bottles extended the length of the table. They were clear glass, clear liquid, tops off, standing shoulder to shoulder, like a centerpiece of crystal towers. I couldn’t read the label, but, I figured that the bottles didn’t contain water.
For a few moments we engaged in a babble of awkward introductions, struggling with unpronounceable names. But, congenial sign language set the atmosphere for a friendly meeting.
Before long, the Captain stood in place, everyone pushed their chairs back in unison and stood at attention. He reached for his juice glass and the closest bottle of vodka. He filled his glass, a good four plus ounces, set the bottle back on the table. Extending his arm in front of him, elbow straight, he said, “Gentlemen!” Everyone followed his lead. Lifting his glass as if it were an Olympic torch, he intoned in a solemn bass voice, “A Toast. To all the men who go down to the sea in ships.”
“To all the men who go down to the sea in ships,” we echoed like a practiced chorus, we all raised our glass high. Then with a single bend of the elbow, heads tossed back, the Russians drained their glass to the bottom in nearly one gulp.
Pre cold war briefing notes warned that the Russians might try to get you drunk. So, in a perfectly polite gesture, I took a small sip from my glass, smiled, and returned it to the table to await the inevitable next toast. The boarding party followed. Then, from the corner of my eye, I saw the bear paw of the giant officer next to me, long hair on the back of his hand, a finger twice as big as my thumb, pointed at my glass.
“Vat is dat?” A heavy accent, but I understood.
I turned, faced his blue shoulder, glanced at his unsmiling face, and continued with my prepared speech. “Sir, in my country, when we are honored to share such fine whisky, out of respect for its quality, we sip it to insure its endurance.”
“Bull Shit!”

The bear was roaring now! “In my country we drink like this!” Refilling his glass and inhaling it in one tipping, he then ceremoniously slammed it upside down on the table, rattling the centerpiece, bottles clinking in tones like wind chimes. “That’s the way we drink to honor a country! You drink like the stuffy British!”

Oh Crap!

“What do I do now,” I thought, “Dètente—first American boarding— what could happen? International incident?” So I raised my glass with equal flourish and drained it to the bottom, then slammed it upside down on the table to great cheers, applause, and laughter of the Russians as I choked back an embarrassing cough, my throat burning. My team gave me a questioning glance, then dutifully followed my lead.
It became obvious that protocol dictated, unlike at casual dinner parties at home, no drinking during the conversation. I began to fear interspersed bottoms-up chug-a-lug moments.
I was right. A little business…a little toast.
At one lull in the proceedings, the Captain turned to me, placed his elbow on the table, open hand pointing straight up, pushed his coat sleeve back and poked repeatedly at his wristwatch. He said, “Do you know Ratti? Coast Guard Ratti?”

“Yes,sir. I do know Admiral Ratti. Not well, but I know of him.”
Now a Rear Admiral, stationed in Washington, I knew he had once been the CO of the Storis, out of Kodiak, and he was surely a veteran of fisheries patrols.

“This Ratti’s watch! I beat him.” He chuckled, slamming his closed fist to the table. So, they had been in an arm wrestling contest and the Russian captain now wore the prize. I could not get into this. I turned to Fin and Feathers, “Sid, are you comfortable with what you have?” When he nodded, I rose and charged my glass. Everyone followed.
When all glasses were filled, arm extended, I said, “Gentlemen, we thank you for your hospitality. Our business is done. We appreciate your cooperation. We must return to our ship. But first, a toast.” With all arms raised to the overhead, I continued, “Gentlemen! A toast. To all the mariners at sea working hard to bring food to their countrymen.” God! That really sounded stupid! But the vodka went down the same. This time, however, it only warmed my throat. No burn.
As we emerged onto the bright open deck which had been cleared of the small mountain of crabs, I began thinking that the climb back down the pilot ladder was going to be more dangerous than the climb up. The Captain must have had the same thoughts as he motioned with his arms and yelled something in Russian.

The cargo crane whirred and swung toward us, expertly placing a large wicker fish basket on the deck in front of us. “This will be easier,” the Captain said as he shook all our hands and assisted everyone into the clean basket.
We shot straight up, a rocket-like takeoff, then swung quickly across the deck like a giant pendulum. A crowd of factory women, gathered for a last glimpse of the Americans, laughed and waved to us as we flew over them. Then, a Coney Island parachute drop to an abrupt hover, and we were over our small boat which had been standing by.

The boat crew, grabbed the tether which dangled beneath our gondola and guided us to an easy landing. The carnival ride over, we all got out of the basket, without incident, and returned to the Resolute.
I made my way to the bridge and reported to the Captain. “Sir, the boarding went well; Sid has all the information. I’ll get together with him and prepare a report.”
He leaned close to me, smiled, and quietly asked, “And how are you doing?”
“Actually, Jack, I’m good right now, but I could use a little cabin time. The full force of that vodka hasn’t hit me yet.”
“Yeah, I agree. You better get some sack time, because we’ve got another boarding about five hours over the horizon.”