The Calypso

The Cape Knox, one of three 95 foot patrol boats that shared Harbor Entrance Patrols (HEP) was on station at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. We were anchored in Lynnhaven Inlet. The bay was calm with long easy swells.
The operational rules during the Cold War in the late 1950’s required all commercial vessels bound for the U.S. to provide the Coast Guard Captain-of-the-Port (COTP) at least twenty-four hours advance notice of their arrival. The HEP vessel was one member of the Coast Guard team that conducted this mission in Norfolk. The others were a Coast guardsman at Cape Henry Light with long range binoculars, and a man aboard the pilot station where commercial vessels picked up a licensed pilot to navigate the Baltimore or Hampton Roads channels. For the most part, it was not difficult for the team to identify incoming shipping. Most patrols were routine. A notable exception—the day we “arrested” Jacques Cousteau.

Petty Officer Barker, my Quartermaster, was on the bridge making chart corrections, when the FM radio crackled alive.
“Coast Guard HEP, this is Cape Henry. We have one unidentified vessel approaching from the east: dark hull, white superstructure, with exposed deck machinery, approximately 150 feet long. She’s crossing just south of Kiptopeke at Cape Charles turning toward the Baltimore channel.” That meant she was about fifteen miles away and well outside the normal approach to Thimble Shoals Channel—too far to make a visual identification.
“Roger that,” Barker answered. “This is CG 95312 responding from Lynnhaven anchorage.” I heard him call away the anchor detail and I left the paperwork on my cabin desk and headed for the bridge. By the time I got there, the anchor was coming up, and the engines were ready to go.
“What do we have, Barker?” I asked.
“Unidentified, heading for Baltimore Channel, Captain. You can barely see her with binoculars because of the haze.”
If a ship did not take a pilot aboard and the weather prevented direct contact, she was classed as “unidentified.” With no ID we had to assume she was also unexpected.
“As soon as the anchor is up, set an intercept at two thirds speed for now.” Visibility was bad, but we had seen much worse. Chasing an unidentified ship in dense fog is not for the fainthearted. To intercept, you intentionally establish what is aptly known as a collision course.
It was a simple stern chase. She was plotting dead ahead making only seven or eight knots. I increased speed to full, and the Cape Knox responded, pitching slightly into the swells.
As we closed to binocular range, I could see that she indeed had a lot of topside deck equipment, several being small cranes. One of the larger cranes took nearly all the space on the open fantail. I finally made out the name, Calypso. A quick call to Group Norfolk confirmed that she was “unexpected.” I could see nobody on deck, and as I moved the binoculars to the yard arm on the single mast, a blue, white, and red vertical flag filled my binocular lens. Then it hit me, could this be? The Calypso? French Flag?
“OK guys, I think we’ve got something here. This might be Jacques Cousteau, the oceanographer,” I announced. We slowed to match the Calypso speed as we came along side, standing off about twenty yards. I grabbed the bullhorn.
“On the Calypso! This is the United States Coast Guard. You must stop your engines, slowly move out of the channel, and come to a complete stop. This is the United States Coast Guard.”
They responded immediately, and I moved out of the channel with them. As we both came to a dead stop and started drifting, a tall gangly man moved from the wheelhouse to the portside deck, which was at about the same level as our ship’s deck. Now only about twenty feet apart, I could see he was about fifty years old, and had a sharp angular face made leathery from years of outdoor exposure, set off by lightly tinted aviator sunglasses that rested atop his dominant nose. He had a generous amount of swept-back graying hair. I had no doubts now. “Captain Cousteau?” I ventured.
“Yes, Captain, I am Jacques-Yves Cousteau.”

“Sir, the Coast Guard did not receive advance notice of your intentions to enter U.S. waters. Our law requires 24 hours’ notice. I am sorry for the delay, but you may go no further until your agent has filed.”
“Thank you, Captain. My navigator suspected that may be the problem. This was a late decision to divert to Washington, DC, for a meeting with the National Geographic people. We neglected to file. I am sorry. We have already made the necessary contacts and the request should be processed soon.”

“Thank you Captain. You may remain adrift if you think it will not take long, or move a little further east of the channel and anchor. Either way, I must stay with you until you are cleared. Your choice, sir.” I had seen him enough on TV, that I was not surprised how easily he used English.
We stood on our main decks, chatting in a most casual way about some of the Calypso’s equipment and its use for oceanographic research. To my surprise, I discovered that she was built in Seattle, Washington, as a British yard minesweeper, decommissioned after the war in 1947, and refit for Cousteau as a research vessel in 1950.

My crew by now had joined me on the main deck and were taking in the conversation and living in the moment of meeting Cousteau in the middle of Chesapeake Bay. Captain Cousteau explained that the Calypso only made 10 knots, and carried a crew of 25.The cranes on the fantail were for moving diving bells, scientific equipment, as well as a small boat.
We received message traffic in less than an hour that cleared them to proceed to Washington, DC. I said goodbye, and my whole crew waved as he pulled back into the Baltimore Channel on his way to the Potomac River. So, maybe I didn’t “arrest” Jacques Causteau, but I “pulled him over.”
“Let’s head back to Lynnhaven Anchorage, Chief,” I ordered.
At the end of the day, back at anchorage, the setting sun was building a golden backdrop silhouetting the Norfolk and Newport News skyline. The diehard fishermen in the crew claimed their favorite spots on the deck and made a distant cast, hoping for the best, as they buzzed about the Calypso and Jacques Cousteau. Chief Miller and I, both with freshly-filled pipes, leaned against the after rail enjoying the evening and watching the crew. “Well, Captain, I think the troops had a good day today.”
“I think we all did, Chief. It’s not every day you get to ‘arrest’ Jacques Cousteau.”

Out of the Blue

Cape Knox New photoMid-air collisions of small private aircraft off the Atlantic Coast were not unusual summertime incidents. Most of them were small spotter planes, hired to locate large schools of Menhaden, then guide fishing boats to the catch. It was a competitive business in the lower Chesapeake Bay and off the coast of Virginia. It was all about fishing and big money.

I had just left the Cape Knox for home on a late summer afternoon. We were the Bravo-2 standby SAR vessel. As soon as I got home, Carol told me she just got off the phone with the District. We had been recalled. Two of the menhaden spotters had collided fifteen miles off the Virginia Capes a week ago with no survivors. The search had been called off three days ago. But, now someone reported flotsam in the vicinity; we were ordered to get underway and investigate.

I made it back to our Little Creek pier in half an hour. I could hear the quiet rumble of the Knox’s four Cummins engines from the end of the pier, and barely see a shimmering heat wave rising from the funnel. They were ready.
As soon as I stepped aboard the OOD reported, “Cap’n. The ‘312 is ready for sea.” I overheard mild grumbling from some of the crew about false alarms. Nothing plunges crew morale more than being forced to drop dinner, interrupting an already restricted family life for a false alarm. We had had our share of them lately. It was bad enough never knowing on any SAR call if you would be back in three hours or three days.
“Very well, let’s get underway. I turned to Chief Miller, my executive officer and said, “Take her out Chief.” A capable ship handler, he cleared the pier, spun the ship expertly to a northerly heading to enter Lynnhaven Inlet Channel that led into Chesapeake Bay. During the slow transit, I looked over the chart and planned the first leg. As we cleared the #2 Lynnhaven Inlet buoy, I ordered, “Come right to 090 degrees, increase speed to 12 knots.”
Had this not been a rescue mission, it could have been a relaxing summer cruise. Normal SAR missions, almost by definition, didn’t start with this kind of weather. The sky was clear blue, and the hot summer sun was made tolerable by the refreshing breeze created by our 12 knot speed. The prow split the long slow swells as we peacefully made our way in the flat calm sea. Everybody except the engine room gang was on deck, making preparations for the mission.
I looked up from the chart and said, “When Cape Henry Light is abeam, Chief, change course to 105 degrees. That will take us to the crash site.”
“Aye, sir. Course 105.”
“Barker, get this SITREP (situation report) out to the District. SITREP-One: Underway Cape Henry. ETA on scene one hour.” When Cape Henry Light came abeam, Chief Miller changed to the new course and I settled in for the smooth ride and started laying out possible search patterns on the chart.


“Damn, what was that?”
Heads spun toward the sound of the explosion—the sky—and we all knew what it was.
“Cap’n, that jet is in trouble,” the Chief said, as he pointed skyward to two Navy fighter planes heading out to sea. They were probably out of Naval Air Station, (NAS) Oceana. One was losing altitude fast. Suddenly his ejection seat exploded straight up, the powerless plane continued east toward an Atlantic splash down.

His parachute opened like magic. We watched the pilot descend beneath his white chute, framed against the blue sky, his yellow one-man raft, tethered to his ankle, bounced in the air beneath him. He was going to splashdown practically at our feet. Vacationing hundreds who lined the water’s edge at Virginia Beach watched all this unfold.
“Barker, take the helm.” I ordered, “Chief, get the district on the radio and let them know what’s happening. See if we can get Oceana on UHF.” I knew the CG District RCC did not have Ultra High Frequency voice radio, but we did. That could be a good thing. I didn’t need someone 15 miles inland second guessing me now. As the chief managed the radios, I glanced up to see the bailing pilot’s wing man circling. I was sure that he had already reported the incident to his home base.
Meanwhile, the chief struggled to handle two separate conversations, with RCC and Oceana, on two different microphones. He was trying to explain to RCC, that he was not talking about our flotsam search, but a new mission—a man was falling out of the sky! It was just too much. It was turning into an Abbot and Costello routine.
“Chief,” I said, “cut the district off, tell them we’re too busy right now and we’ll explain it all in a few minutes.”
He looked surprised, but breaking into a smile, he said, “CG District Five, this is 95312. You do not understand. We are ceasing all communications this frequency now, explanation will follow. 95312 Out!” He loved it, and so did I.
By now, the pilot had hit the water, deftly gotten into his tiny raft, taken his shoes off, and was swatting at flies as if he were enjoying a relaxing day at the beach. I lined up for the approach. The crew had a ladder over the side, ready to assist. The raft was only 200 yards dead ahead. The wing man made a low fly-by executing an impressive wing roll in salute and headed back to NAS Oceana.
We soon had the Navy rescue helicopter visually and were in direct radio contact. “Coast Guard ‘312, this is Navy Rescue,” the chopper pilot’s voice shook from the helo vibrations. “When you retrieve our man, we recommend you get underway at 5 knots. Clear your after-deck space and I’ll approach from the stern with a sling. Pick-up should be easy.”
“Roger Navy Rescue, I’ll head 270 degrees, 5 knots. ‘312 standing by.”

I met LTJG Joseph Walter, USN, as he scrambled onto the fantail, wet, but seemingly none the worse for wear. We shook hands. “You OK?” I asked.
“Just a little scratch on the chin, I think from a loose buckle when I ejected.”
“Great! What happened?”
“We had barely taken off and I had an explosion and engine flame out at 3000 ft. I tried several restarts, then ejected at 1800. Great to have you guys waiting for me, though.” He laughed.
The pulsating thump of the helo blades was getting closer, the approach looked good, the dangling rescue line moved over the fantail. The crew made sure the static line touched the deck first then moved to assist our new Navy friend into the rescue horse collar. Raising his arms to get the collar in place, he shouted over the noisy chopper, “Hey Captain, did you go to the Coast Guard Academy?”
“Yea, I did.”
“You don’t happen to know Charlie Millradt, do you?”
I couldn’t believe it! “Yeah, I do! Charlie graduated in ’55, two years ahead of me.”
“How about that! Charlie and I went to high school together in Milwaukee. I went to Annapolis, and he went to the Coast Guard Academy.” As Joe was being lifted off the deck, dangling like a puppet on a string he yelled, “If you talk to Charlie, tell him I said you Coast Guard guys are OK. Thanks, Cap’n.”
Fifteen minutes after his flame out over the Atlantic, LTJG Joseph Walter, USN was back in the NAS Oceana operations center having a cup of coffee. I turned to the Chief and said, “OK, Chief. Now, where were we when the Navy so rudely interrupted?”

Morehead City

Mr. Wheeler opened the side cargo door of the North American furniture van parked in front of 110 Gull Harbor Drive. Kimberly bounced on her toes at the top of the driveway, her tiny fists quivering against her chin, watching his every move. He hooked the off-load ramp into place then disappeared into the van. In a moment he reappeared at the top of the ramp holding a red tricycle high over his head. “Well, lookie what I found here, Kimberly”
“Oh Mr. Wheeler, you have my bike! You have my bike!”
Knowing how a move could affect a child, he had made a production of loading her tricycle last. “Now see right here is where I’m putting your bike, and when you see me in a few days, it will be the first thing I get out of the truck.”
I had been transferred from Alameda, California to Morehead City, North Carolina. Every North American van we passed on the five day cross country trek triggered a peep from the back seat, “Do you think that’s Mr. Wheeler, and he has my bike?” You have no idea how many vans North American owns.

We had bought a spec-house, in a new development on Bogue Sound. Other than ours, there was one other occupied house and one empty one. It was only 8a.m. but the rising summer sun and North Carolina humidity would soon overcome us. You could rub your thumb and two fingers together and feel the air. The odors wafting from Bogue Sound at low tide settled over us in what would become a new twice-a-day experience. Mr. Wheeler and his local pick-up crew arrived early, and made quick work of offloading our household goods. We waved goodbye as his van pulled away shortly after noon.
Early in the process of setting up the new house I needed a hardware store. I checked with our only neighbor, Tom.
“Well, if you want a real hardware store, you are probably going to have to go to Beaufort. I don’t think there’s anything in Morehead that will help. “It’s easy to find, can’t miss it. It’s right on the main street.” Then he added, “By the way, Dick, that’s pronounced Bow’-furt (long o). In South Carolina it is Byou’-furt. Folks will know you’re not from here if y’all get that wrong.” He laughed and waved me on.
“Thanks, Tom.”

The highway into Morehead City was lined with ice cream parlors, beach souvenir shops, insurance offices, sundries, and dress shops—most in single story buildings that looked more like homes than retail shops. Set back twenty yards from the road, they were painted blue-grey with porches that held white painted rocking chairs that invited you to “sit a spell afore y’all move on. Thanks for commin’ by.”
The dominant feature of Morehead’s business district is a single railroad track that runs like a boulevard the full length of the main street. The intersections with crossing streets were sparsely landscaped with a few bushes plopped into jagged red lava stones in a vain attempt to distract you from the depressing view of a rusted railroad track running down the middle of your main street atop a mound of grey stone chips.
I crossed over the bridge to Beaufort. Tom was right. The hardware store was obvious. I parked directly in front; I was the only car. When I got to the front door, I knew why. A grey cardboard sign scotch-taped to the door had neatly blocked out red crayon letters, “BLUES ARE RUNNING–BE BACK TOMORROW” It was the middle of the afternoon on a regular weekday—the owner had gone fishing.

Of course, there was a certain quaintness to a town with family restaurants named Sanitary Fish Market, and Cap’n Bills where cute Southern waitresses, with charming accents, kept your hush-puppy basket filled, and left you with a cheery “N’ya’ll come back and see us again, ya hear.”

It was a town with people grounded enough to shut down their business because the “blues are runnin’”, and who saw nothing strange about a railroad track in the middle of main street. It was a town with three and a half hour Sunday church services. A town whose men celebrated Thanksgiving by sitting in duck blinds from the break of dawn, while the women prepared the traditional family dinner that the men were often late for, or even missed.

The permanent population of 8000 seemed content to let Morehead remain a summer respite for the people from Raleigh, New Bern, and the North. During the season, vacationers nearly tripled the population, and when they went home the locals fell back to their parochial roots of fishermen, farmers, and small businessmen.
They were always friendly, and openly expressed their appreciation of the Coast Guard. But, Carol and I soon discovered that if we couldn’t talk about basketball, the bible, or tobacco, (maybe even in that order), any extended conversations would be limited. As one lady expressed it, “We just lo-o-ve having y’all here, but you do know that y’all never be one of us, right?”

Kimberly did not react well to my first rescue call. When Carol told Kimberly, “Kim, daddy will not be home for awhile, maybe a few days. He had to take the Chilula to try to find a man lost at sea.” Kim’s response was crying, gasping-never-ending crying. When we were at Alameda, I had come home from work at the end of the day just like any other dad. Carol tried everything to console her.
“Just think, Kimberly, how happy that man is going to be. He’s probably been scared all night. He’ll be so glad to see daddy’s big Coast Guard ship coming toward him to save him.”
Through gulping, shoulder heaving sobs, Kimberly’s angry response was, “Why didn’t the man just take a flashlight!”

We enrolled Kimberly in nursery school which helped some, but she needed companionship at home too. A dog. That should do it. A nice little beagle that could grow with her— Disaster!
She and the young pup, which we called Sailor, never hit it off. He scratched and nibbled at her; she poked and jabbed at him. When she wanted to go out to play, she begged for us to keep the dog inside, when she played inside, the dog had to go out. We often found one of them under her bed, and the other on top. This was not working. It was worse. One of them was going to have to go. We gave Sailor away to a nice family (any one that would take him) and we had peace again. The second dog was a loving black cocker spaniel who became a member of the family for fifteen years.

One evening, while I was reading the newspaper waiting for Carol to announce dinner, I leaned up from my recliner and yelled to Carol in the kitchen, “Hey, Babe, did you see this article on the front page? They’re going to cut the ribbon for the opening of the new A & P tomorrow. The high school band is going to play in the parking lot. Do you want to go?” Carol leaned back from the stove and peeked into the den.
“Reeeely? Are you kidding me?”
“Oh, my God, Carol, I felt an honest tinge of excitement there!” I put the paper in my lap and just stared ahead for a half-minute. “I feel like I’m in an episode of ‘Mayberry, RFD.”

The Pamir

German sail training ship Pamir
German sail training barque Pamir


Early on the morning of August 10, 1957, the Pamir, a four hundred-foot barque, the last commercial sailing ship to carry cargo around Cape Horn, had just cleared the harbor of Buenos Aires. With her subsidizing cargo of barley stowed below and all her square sails set, she was beginning her 7000 mile journey home to Hamburg, Germany.
The permanent crew of thirty-five professional seamen and fifty-one young teenage cadets, ages fourteen to seventeen, had not been home since July. Everyone was anxious.

Eighty-six souls on board—only six would ever see home again.

I had reported for duty on the Absecon in early September as a deck watch officer. It was great to see my old roommate, Ron McClellan, again. He helped me get my gear into the quarters we would share on the second deck.  They had been used by the Navy for temporary aviators’ quarters when they operated the ship as a seaplane tender. We had a small gray metal desk with a fold down top and a few drawers crammed alongside a metal bunk. We were bombarded by the constant hum of the circulating air vents, and the dank smells that emanated from the Chief’s head across the passageway. As the most junior officers aboard, the Ensign Locker, as the rest of the ship called it, would have to do.
The ship was preparing to sail for Weather Patrol on Ocean Station Echo in the mid Atlantic, halfway between Bermuda and the Azores.
Long lines of crewmen moved nondescript containers hand over hand from trucks on the pier, up the gangway, through narrow passageways, to storage in the bowels of the ship. Engineers clustered on the fantail like children on Christmas morning, hovering over their prized shiny metal pieces carefully removed from straw packing. Huge white balloons and large tanks of helium, and other strange tools for weather observations had already been brought aboard.

On Friday, at the end of my first week aboard, the Absecon slipped cleanly from her berth to begin her five day journey. As we cleared Cape Henry, the Captain set our course to take the ship just past Bermuda and on to Station ECHO.  Before satellites, the National Weather Bureau assigned four weathermen to each patrol vessel. Their weather observations on these patrols were the primary source of weather forecasting for the U.S.

I passed through the wardroom just as one of them was briefing our navigator, LT Jim Fleishell, “As of the eighth, that tropical storm is now Hurricane Carrie, a Category IV, packing winds of 155 MPH. She’s headed just south of Bermuda. Looks like a tough trip.” I watched the wardroom steward scamper back to the mess deck. I knew that in a matter of minutes even the engineer on watch in No. 2 engine room would have the scuttlebutt—the Absecon was headed directly into a hurricane!

By Tuesday we could read the telltale signs. Wind streaks danced like pinstripes on a gray ocean, keeping time with the 30-40 mph gusts. White caps formed, only to be blown flat, like truncated pyramids, spitting their frothy spray downwind to hang above the trough. The eerie music of the wind in the rigging got louder and changed tone with the wind’s speed.

Ocean swells mounted larger and longer. Agonizing human forms, ignoring the pelting rain and wind, bent over the lee rail praying for relief or death—a few not caring which.
As sixty foot waves towered and moved swiftly beneath us, the ship rose like an express elevator, then balanced on the crest, bow and stern sagging under their own weight, as though she were waiting for an unseen force to break her back like a giant snapping a twig over his knee. Screws thumped loudly as they flailed in the free air, the rudder, with no water, was useless. Then the wave slid quickly beneath us leaving the 2600 ton flat bottomed ship to plummet, released by the hand of God, to crash with a shuddering thud into the bottom of the next trough.

The ship quivered in a vibrating fit that seemed to last forever only to have the merciful moment of stillness interrupted by the following crest collapsing tons of angry green water, hammering the foredeck, nearly back to the bridge. The ship buried her nose into the next wave, courageously climbed the steep wall at an eerie angle, only to repeat the action over and over again. Carrie was my first hurricane—ooh, that she would be the last.
On the 16th of September, an upper level shear turned Carrie northeast. The unusual move would now spare Bermuda and the U.S. East coast, but it would take her directly into the northbound path of the Pamir. Even reduced to a Category I with winds just below a hundred miles an hour, she was too much for the Pamir.

“MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY. Four-masted barque Pamir
in severe hurricane–Position 35 degrees, 57 minutes North
and 40 degrees, 20 minutes West–All sails lost–
45 degree list–ship is taking water–danger of sinking.”

W did not get much sleep with the roar and vibrations of all four engines straining as our ship pounded into still heavy seas in an overnight dash to the Pamir’s position.

The Pamir sank 680 miles west-south west of the Azores. She descended to the Atlantic graveyard, 12,000 feet below the still churning surface, confirming her place in history as one of the greatest sea tragedies of all time.

The world was now eager to follow the fate of fifty-one young men, who on Friday were giddy in the romance of sailing a square-rigged Cape Horner. On Saturday, they were scared, cold, and alone in the storm-tossed sea, clinging to life itself, desperately wanting only to get home. The once proud hull of the last Cape Horner took men and boys with her, and released others to fend for themselves.

Merchant ships were reporting their on scene ETA’s and offering whatever assistance they could provide. The U.S. Air Force at Lajes in the Azores promised an air search as soon as weather permitted. Ron and I were taken off deck watch rotation to handle increased communications and direct all search activity. With seventy ships and twenty aircraft from fifteen different nations, over nine days, it was touted as the largest sea search in history, a record at the time.

The U.S. Merchant ship, Saxon, had recovered five survivors. Buoyed by her success, we rotated extra volunteer lookouts. Finally at sunset, an hour away from when we would have to secure for the night, our lookout spotted a badly damaged lifeboat three hundred yards off the starboard bow. A lone survivor slumped on the after thwart, arm weakly strung along the gunwale. The boat was badly broken, barely floating.
Survivor boat 001 - CopyGunter Hassalbach, a twenty-two year old Pamir crew member, was a pitiful sight sloshing in water up to his armpits. His face and lips were swollen. He’d had had neither water nor food for over three days and was exhausted from the sheer effort of staying alive. He said he was one of twenty-five men in the boat at first. There had been eight with him that morning.

Transfer Gunter to Il de France
Gunter transfers to the Antilles

The next day, we rendezvoused with the French Ocean Liner Antilles, and transferred Günter to her where he received treatment from her doctor. He was later flown home from Puerto Rico.The following year, the Absecon, sailed to Europe as part of the cadet practice squadron. We diverted independently to Hamburg where we were honored by the German Government for our effort in leading the Pamir search. They presented the Coast Guard with a large oil painting of the Pamir and the Absecon received a bronze plaque to mount on our ship.

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.