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.

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”