News & Views

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”

Rescue of the Minnie V. Pt. 2

Cape Knox New photoWhen I ended my last blog post on the Minnie V Rescue, the Coast Guard Cutter Cape Knox CG95312 was trying to save a fisherman from the stormy waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Criss Wolcott, who couldn’t swim, was too scared to let go of the keg he clung to and grab the lines we had thrown right over his arms. He was drifting down the port side back into the dark sea. The Chief was right. He was never going to let go of that keg. I needed to make another pass. 

“Keep that light on him, Chief, and everyone pointing at him as we come about. If we lose him now— he’s done for.” The violent pitch as we knifed through the waves flooded the deck with a soaking spray. Continue reading “Rescue of the Minnie V. Pt. 2”

Rescue of the Minnie V. Pt. 1

His name was Criss Wolcott. I first met him at two o’clock in the morning on the storm tossed entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. He was in near freezing water, desperately hanging on to a small keg. His barge had sunk. He couldn’t swim. He thought he was going to die.

Criss Wolcott
Criss Wolcott

His name was Criss Wolcott. I first met him at two o’clock in the morning on the storm tossed entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. He was in near freezing water, desperately hanging on to a small keg. His barge had sunk. He couldn’t swim. He thought he was going to die.

The buzzer on the sound powered phone jarred me awake.

“Captain!” An automatic response. I was now fully alert.

The CG 95312 was my first command; I was twenty-four, the only officer assigned to the 95-foot patrol boat in Norfolk VA, a busy port with lots of Search and Rescue action.

“Captain, this is Barker on the bridge. The Cherokee has lost her tow! She’s about five miles northwest. Five men are in the water. I just changed course to head to her.”

My feet barely hit the deck when I heard the familiar start-up whine of the two Cummins V-12’s that roared to life just like the big rig truck engines that they were. Sitting on the side of my small bunk, I grabbed my pants. I stumbled as I threw on my shirt; the Bay had really kicked up since I had gone to bed. Continue reading “Rescue of the Minnie V. Pt. 1”