Wednesday, September 30, 2009

It's Only Me- Chapter 21- Baltimore

My earliest memories of Baltimore are from when I was 10 years old. We were passing through on our way to Washington ,D.C. in January 1964. It was a dirty, smoky, blue collar town. Bethlehem Steel was the big employer and Japan had not yet entered the market. It was a decidedly Southern town, the waitresses all called you “hon” and “sweetie.” I had no idea that I would one day live there.

Arriving, as stated, on January 11, 1982 I went to check in with Captain Ellison, who had founded and ran the Baltimore School of Navigation. Hugh T. Ellison was born in Missouri and after serving in World War Two he became a Merchant Marine Officer and eventually Master (Captain) of his own ship. After that he married and started a school for sailors who wanted to become Officers. Not gentlemen, just Officers.

In his time in Baltimore Captain Ellison turned out thousands of Merchant Marine Officers. I vowed I would be one. He was the archetypical, pipe smoking Captain of days gone by. Wise and sensitive, at the age of 67 he still commanded respect and would “brook no nonsense.” His words, not mine.

I was directed to several hotels and rooming houses where I could set up new housekeeping. I chose a furnished room in a rooming house about 12 blocks from the Harborplace and the school. This was in the Mt. Vernon area of Baltimore and around the corner from the original Washington Monument pictured above.

I had always wondered what it would be like to live in a furnished room. I was going to find out. My place was in an old brownstone that had once belonged to a single family. It was built in 1840. It was subdivided into rooms with a toilet and bath at the end of each floor. I was one of 4 tenants. There was a single bed, a hanging light bulb, a chair and a desk with a lamp. Food was not allowed and so I kept milk and stuff out on the window ledge.

The rooming house was on Cathedral Street one block North of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. This meant that there was a lot of foot traffic. During the cold winter evenings, and sometimes even late at night, students and just plain passers by would throw snowballs and ice up at my window trying to knock the milk off the sill. Sometimes I would throw snow back and once even tossed the milk at a particularly rude group. I am proud to state that I never shot at any of them. To me this was all new and I was loving it.

About this time I received a note from MSC asking me what the "Special" designation was on my Coast Guard ID card. I answered that it simply meant that I was special, I knew it because my Mom had told me so. I also pointed out that they had paid me a goodly sum in 1981 for being "special." That was the first and last I heard of the matter.

I had about $20,000 in the bank and expected to take the entire year off in order to obtain my Third Mates License. The exam is 5 days long and 8 hours per day. Then there is the week that it takes to Certify on Radar and Flashing Light/Morse Code. The fact that I already had these skills would not necessarily help me on the test, which is the Bar Exam of the Ocean. So I figured brushing up prior to the test was wise. I hadn’t counted on so many distractions!

First let me tell you that Baltimore at that time was undergoing a fantastic transformation from a blue collar town to a cosmopolitan city. They had just completed the new Harborplace, which was a big draw for the tourist crowd in Washington, D.C. They were also installing a subway and an Aquarium. The City was run by Mayor Donald Schaefer, who was so loved that he went on to become Governor. In short, I had arrived in a boom town. It was also a period of my life that was the most self assured I had ever experienced.

First order of business was to set up housekeeping in my furnished room. I don’t know about others, but at that time I loved nothing more than getting "settled in." I went shopping at the local five and dime for all the stuff you need like a broom, dustpan, mop and bath things. Since the bath down the hall only had a tub I bought a plastic hose and shower head that could be attached to the faucet. With a wire hangar attached to the ceiling I had a shower. I also bought a small black and white TV. This was before VCR and cable etc. So when you were at sea TV was something you missed. With my short wave radio and small stereo I was all set.

Food was not much of a problem. I merely set out looking for affordable places to eat my meals. Places that I could go to on a regular basis and be “known.” I found two good ones right away. The Lighthouse at the bottom end of Cathedral Street served great steaks and salads. For a cheaper and more plain meal there was the Maryland Diner located on Monument Street. They had great liver and onions.

The Sportsmen Club on Park Ave had a great evening crowd that watched TV together. They also had a resident hooker named Marlene. I never sampled her wares- I had a rule- if I was in the States there was no reason for me to pay. I spoke the language and there were plenty of women to meet. But I found Marlene to be a funny and interesting companion so we ended up hanging out together at the Sportsmen Club and sometimes in her room at the Congress Hotel.

This was, as I have said, a time of great self confidence for me and I exuded it. I could feel it in the way I walked and dealt with people. And they could sense it, too.

One of the main differences I found in Baltimore as compared to New York was in flirting. In New York flirting was just that, and meant nothing. In Baltimore flirting was the prelude to something more. If someone caught your eye, or vice versa, it meant there was genuine interest. This was wonderful, but it did interfere with my studies!

I had never been the type to juggle girlfriends and “play the field.” But in Baltimore I found myself surrounded by women, of all ages and backgrounds, who were more than willing to spend time with me. This was actually a great surprise and I loved it!

About 6 weeks after arriving I went into Club Charles on Charles Street across from the Charles Theater. The theater showed all old and art films, which I loved. I went with a friend from school to see “The Four Feathers”, the original 1939 version with C. Aubrey Smith.

After the movie we went across to the bar. As soon as we walked in I saw two vacant stools at the bar. There were two ladies in the stools next to them. Reid went to the bathroom while I sat down. I looked over at the woman next to me and said hello. She said hello back and we were off to the races. Her name was Leslie and we talked non stop for the rest of the night. She was a dead ringer for Jessica Lange and I was falling fast. As bar time came she made it apparent that she would like to see me again. I got her number and walked home in a light snow, singing.

I called her the next day and the next. I went to see her that Tuesday evening and we talked for hours while I worked up the courage to kiss her. When I finally did I said, “Man, I’m glad that’s over!” We both laughed because she was as nervous as I was! She was 32 and I was 27. She was divorced and had a son who lived with her mom. As the weekend approached I had misgivings about going to New York for a planned visit with Mark and Lois but she had plans for a “retreat” so we went our separate ways.

When I got back I found that we had missed one another in equal proportions and a whirlwind relationship sprang up. We saw one another each evening, with me frequently staying over. I even got to meet her son, Noah, who was 11 at the time.

Needing a nicer place to entertain her when we were downtown I decided to get an apartment. I chose one on Park Avenue at Madison Street, just around the corner from the rooming house. It was still winter so I had no idea what the neighborhood was really like. But the apartment was a furnished 2 room deal with an eat-in kitchen and a living room which doubled as a bedroom. It also had a shower with a skylight! I hung plants in the shower making it like a tropical waterfall. A very romantic place.

But the beauty of our relationship was marred by the demons of Leslies’ past. She was undergoing psycho therapy at the time and her Doctor was dead set against her entering a serious relationship. We had planned to move in together- the long absences necessitated by my 6 month contracts were a huge obstacle- so I went down to the Union Hall looking for a 30 day coastal run instead. Things seemed to be falling in place.

On the day I was scheduled to move in she couldn’t do it. It was too much of a risk for her. And so without explanation she told me that she could never see me again. And she didn’t. If she answered the phone she would hang it up or just leave it off the hook. Cards and letters went unanswered. So I left her alone, all the while wondering, should I pursue her with more vigor? I had no answers.

This is last thing I ever wrote to her-

End piece.

How can you just abandon
Such strong feelings?
Am I that weak?
Or are you too strong?

I look at what we had and wonder-
Will I ever feel that much again?
Are there really other eyes out there-
That sparkle like yours-
Or shine like mine?
I really don’t think so.

Turn it over and look
at the other side.
It was worth the changes,
the joy or pain.

I can never forget the way my heart
pounded at our first kiss,
And how time stopped
when I first entered you.
But now we are closed to one another,
And time goes on?

I saw her face in every crowd and the ringing of the phone would send me lunging across the room in the hope that it was her. It never happened. A few years after I married in 1986 I learned that she had killed herself. Too fragile for this world I hope she found peace in the next….

The neighborhood I was living in began to come to life in the spring. As the cold ended the streets began to fill with people in the evenings. It was a colorful crowd. It was also decidedly gay! I had moved in during the dead of winter and so could not really judge the area. But it was a fun and exciting place to be. The gays were creative and had parties all the time. And the amount of available women was a big plus.

Across the street from my apartment on Park Avenue was a halfway house for teenage girls who had run away from home or were just not wanted by their parents. There was one young girl there- Debbie Hoerl- who used to stop me and talk. We were like brother and kid sister. So we hung out together and I learned her story- a mother who remarried and found the daughter “inconvenient”, a step dad who was less than wholesome and all the rest of the story. They only lived 8 miles from the halfway house but never came to see her.

The halfway house had a curfew of 11PM and then they would lock the girls out. Brillant move. The area was filled with gays and lesbians and single guys, who unlike me, would be only too glad to take advantage of this situation. To complicate matters even more, Debbie had started deliberately missing curfew in order to get locked out. I would see her at like 1 in the morning when I came home, sitting on my stoop. I would let her stay over at my place, which was probably not adviseable, but leaving her in the street was out of the question. I had been there and done that, so I couldn’t let it go.

One night when she was staying over things were starting to get out of hand in a delicate way. The next morning I was over at the halfway house raising hell with the managers. They were a group of women who had never spent a night in the street and believed in “tough love.” I told them that I was in jeopardy every time they locked someone out and I took them in. I even threatened to go to the news and have their funding cut. Surely there was a better way to punish someone for missing curfew than leaving them out in the street all night! The policy was changed. Debbie and I remained friends for several years and she eventually moved to Florida. Last I heard she was married with 2 kids and a farm full of animals. She was a sweet kid and I kind of wish she had been my sister. We really had fun together and I will always remember her fondly.

One floor below me was a violin player from the Boston Symphony who was studying at the Peabody Conservatory, which was also around the corner from me. He loathed the term fiddle as it pertained to country music. He also disliked me. The reason was simple. He was in love with Heidi Kohlberg, who lived next door to him. She was an intern at Johns Hopkins doing her surgical residency. We had not met until the weather got warm and I saw her sitting and reading on the front stoop.

I was on my way to the movies one Sunday evening to see “North by Northwest” at the Charles. I asked her if she would like to go. She said no, but when the movie was over I should ring her bell and we could continue our talk.

When the movie ended I fixed a plate of vegetables and grabbed a bottle of wine. Thus prepared I rang her bell. It was about 10 PM. She was in a robe and I asked if I had come too late. She replied that my timing was perfect- she had just stepped out of the shower.

We munched on the vegetables and drank some wine- with me wondering all the while whether I was expected to make a move or not. This went on until 1 AM when she announced that it was time to call it a night. We got to the door and we just couldn’t seem to end it. That’s when I got up the courage to kiss her. I was delighted when she didn’t pull away...

Later in the year she moved to Richmond where she worked at the Eastern Virginia Medical Center. I would arrive at the Greyhound station and find her sleeping in the waiting room, dressed in her surgical scrubs. We saw each other for about a year and then fell out over spiritual differences. She believed that we were all random chemical events and that there was no God. So I just took my chemical self and oozed on down the road...

So in September 1982 I was once again heart broke, almost out of money and ready to head back out to sea. I had taken some of my exams but due to my busy social life I was not ready to complete my qualifications. But that year in Baltimore, for all it’s hurt, will live on in my mind as the most vibrant and joyful year of my life thus far.

I had also found my new home and in short order I would return.

Monday, September 28, 2009

It's Only Me- Chapter 20- USNS Jupiter and Diego Garcia

The CIA had many “fronts” in the 1970’s. Among them were different airlines. Evergreen Airways was one of those. They would be taking us to Diego Garcia on a 21 hour flight from Butler Aviation Terminal in New Jersey via a fuel stop in Athens , Greece. But first you had to get on that plane.

From the moment I approached Butler I knew that this was not going to be an ordinary flight. To begin with there were traffic cones placed to narrow the traffic down to one lane- checkpoint. Then there was the long line to wait for your pre boarding search, conducted by man, machine and dogs. Guys were literally throwing out any drugs they had stashed. Diego Garcia was owned by the British and known to be drug free. And I mean drug free.

The tossing away of good drugs seemed such a waste to me and so I set about picking them up. I even picked up the discarded cocaine, which I did not use. I’m too skinny and nervous for that. Before long I had quite a stash! But what to do with all of this windfall? I had long considered myself to be adept at getting things through, but with the dogs and extensive screening I was perplexed. But not for too long.

I got a hero sandwich and some aluminum foil. I opened the sandwich and placed all the drugs I wanted inside. I rewrapped this twice in foil. This would blur the x-ray imaging sufficiently to pass. I then took a qualude so that I would look and sound drunk. Then I got a shot of Jack Daniels and poured it on my clothes and rubbed some on my face like after shave. Presto- I am an average drunk!

After waiting in line it was my turn to approach the dogs and the x-ray machine. The dog went crazy! I reached out in a drunken fashion, slurring my words as I said, “What a nice doggie! Want some of my sandwich?” The dog began to bark and strain at the handlers leash. I was made to put the sandwich and all the other junk I had bought on the conveyor to be x-rayed. While this was happening a pre cursory inspection of my sea bag was taking place. No worries there. Stepping through the x-ray arch I was asked to open the sandwich. They saw bread and told me to close it. Due to my slurred speech and drunken demeanor I was signaled out to be served no liquor in flight. Mission accomplished.

Settling into my seat at the rear of the plane I surveyed my fellow passengers. 300 government employees ranging from Regular Navy to Military Sealift Command personnel, like me, with a smattering of State Department employees thrown in for diversity. This was going to be an interesting flight!

I immediately recognized an old shipmate named Slim, from the Pawcatuck. His real name was John R. Battle and he was a Third Engineer. But at 6’7” tall he was known as Slim. He was black and from Philadelphia. He was also a friend of Mr. Eldridge and the 3 of us had become fast friends aboard Pawcatuck. He got a seat near me in the rear of the jet. We had good access to the toilet and so we could slip in and catch a buzz whenever we wanted during the flight.

The poor stewardesses really caught hell on this flight. They were approached by every guy aboard seeking to join the “mile high” club. The ladies smiled but you could tell they were annoyed. And as time went on the guys got more and more drunk. This made them even more crude in their behavior towards the stewardesses.

There was a jump seat behind the last row for the stewardess to sit in. I noticed that one particular stewardess was using this seat almost exclusively. Thinking nothing of it I went about my business, listening to music, reading, getting high etc.

As it became dark the cabin lights were extinguished. I was looking out at the stars and kind of talking to myself as I identified the ones I knew. A gentle tap on my shoulders caugt me off guard. It was the stewardess. She asked me what I was doing and I started to point out stuff that let me gauge our course. She then slipped into the seat next to me. She told me that I was the only guy aboard that had not asked for sex. I laughed and told I her I never fished in barren waters. Besides, with 300 guys and only 6 stewardesses I could be in Diego Garcia before my turn came! Not to mention that I was sure the girls were really turned off by all this attention.

So we spent a lot of the flight together, chatting about our lives and travels. We also shared a love of writing poetry. I was really beginning to like this flight!

Landing in Greece we were told we had a 3 hour layover. I set out to get a cab and take a spin about Athens. I had been there before but wanted to go back to the Parthenon for a quick photo. Big mistake!

First I had to clear Customs. Arriving from the US and then going through Customs with no baggage caused some concern. But I got out. Grabbing a cab I imparted my intentions to the driver. About an hour later I had a funny feeling and signaled the driver to turn around and head back to the airport.

When I got there and went through Customs all sorts of red flags stood up. I had just gotten to Athens, deplaned with no luggage and one hour later I’m going through Customs to leave Athens. I was grilled in some form of English by the head guy and then cleared when they realized I had US Government orders to catch a flight. These flights were priority flights as there was only one every 8 weeks.

Racing through the airport I arrived at my gate only to find everyone gone! Worse was the fact that I could see my plane slowly taxiing to the departure line! Thinking fast,or not thinking, I sprinted through the emergency exit and onto the tarmac. Racing out toward the plane and flailing my arms while shouting was the only thing I could think of to do, so I did.

Two jeeps with machine guns and soldiers appeared, converging on me in a vee formation. Raising my hands and holding my Orders aloft I pointed at the plane and myself. They finally got it- I had missed my plane.

A tanker truck was produced and I climbed atop it just at the area of the forward hatch to the plane. The hatch was opened and the co-pilot, laughing, reached down and pulled me up. I walked down that aisle to my rear seat amid applause and cheers from 300 amused Americans, some of whom I knew!

Safe aboard we took off and headed South. That night we crossed the Equator by air. Jane sat beside me and later wrote a poem about it- and me. We were becoming pretty friendly- not sexually- just friendly. And it felt really good to be the only guy in 300 that she really would spend time with. Towards the end of the flight we exchanged contact info and she said we would see each other again. Right…

Arriving in Diego Garcia was a very tedious affair. Diego Garcia was run by the British and drug free. I mean it. They even confiscated tee shirts that said Panama Red! They took my photo of a friend named Helen smoking a hash pipe! They were nuts! It was only by carefully shuffling things about that I was able to retain my stash. The entire process took 12 hours inside a sweltering airplane hangar with no food. We kept reminding the Brits that we had won the Revolution and saved them twice from the Germans, but they were unsympathetic to anything we had to say.

Diego Garcia was a strategically located harbor in which to place a Pre Positioned Force. We needed to be able to insert at least one combat Division and all it’s logistical supplies into the Middle East. The down side was that the private companies sent their oldest ships and least qualified personnel there and collected millions for it.

We were anchored on station, about 4 miles from shore in the middle of the most beautiful lagoon. This meant we almost never went to sea. I spent most of my time swimming, running, playing handball against the superstructure and fishing.

Diego Garcia is in the British Indian Ocean Territory where commercial fishing is banned. But fishing for pleasure is not. So we had a great diet of red snapper, shark, octopus, and everything that we could catch. We also had C-5’s landing daily with steaks and lobsters from South America and mail out of the Philippines. A letter from the states took about 9 days to arrive. It was heaven except that there were no women!

In the evenings I ran through the jungle screaming, coming out by the shore and swimming about ½ mile a day. I also did push ups every mile on the 7 mile run to the airport. I was gaining weight for the first time ever. I was about 146 pounds! I used to tell the Bosun, a mean Cajun fellow from Louisiana who was about 6’3”and 225pounds that when I hit 150 I would kick his ass. Every night when I came back from running I would weigh in. Bosun was always there looking over my shoulder and he always had a cookie for me to help me reach that goal. I am glad I never did!

But Bosun had a separate feud going with Eldridge. And soon it would involve me! As I have stated previously, Eldridge was 1/8 black, or Octoroon, making him legally white. Bosun, who was also from Louisiana was ¼ black, making him a Negro. No kidding, this was law in Louisiana when they were kids growing up. Although it meant nothing to me, it meant a great deal to them.

Realizing how close Eldridge and I were infuriated Bosun. He would never tangle with Eldridge as they were both of equal size and strength. But one day things came to a head.

Bosun had tasked me with a garbage detail. It was not mine to do but I didn’t care and went to do it. Eldridge saw this and was infuriated. Approaching Bosun he demanded that I be relieved of this duty. Words were exchanged and they parted. A few minutes later Bosun approached me with a length of timber and said, “Here, hold this.” As soon as I took the timber Bosun hauled back to punch my lights out! Quickly I stepped to the side and back. With a quick movement I landed the timber on his feet and took off. This man could kill me with one punch! I went to the Captain to report the incident. He asked me if Bosun had “connected” with the punch. When I said he hadn’t the Captain said- “Well then, no harm done.” Infuriated at this I picked up a paper weight and swung at him with it. He flinched before starting to yell at me about assault and filing charges on me. I smiled as I said, “What’s the problem? I didn’t connect.” I was thrown out of his cabin but count it as a victory. A truce was arranged between Bosun and I by Eldridge.

The Jupiter was not an oil tanker like I was used to. It was a Roll on/Roll Off vessel used to carry and transport vehicles like cars etc. We carried tanks, jeeps, cherry pickers and all things military. And accidents happen. And when they do I have found that your enemy will sometimes come to your aid faster than a friend.

It was about 3 in the morning when I slammed a hatch on my hand and the pain was unbearable. I was sure to lose a nail or two- but the pulsing pain was really a problem. Bosun saw me walking the deck and asked me to come to his cabin. Taking a pin he heated it up with his lighter and then twirling it like a drill bit he bored through my nail, releasing the pressure. I have to admit that I didn’t trust him, but I was in such pain that I would have tried anything.

Around this time there were pirates in the Indian Ocean as well as the Straits by the Phillipine Islands. Just like today. These were the only times we went to sea; looking for pirates. Several years ago I wrote a short piece about this. If you will excuse some redundancy I will reprint it here and then pick up the narrative.

Her Majesties Law

Back in 1981, the summer to be exact, I was stationed in the Indian Ocean as part of the US Naval Logistical Supply Force in Diego Garcia. It was there that I first observed those characteristics so unique to the English; the “stiff upper lip”, and “never say die” etc. for which they are known the world over.

I tell the tale with some trepidation, in that over the years since these events occurred, I have, at the urging of family and assorted friends alike, told and retold the story; and as the old adage notes- All tales get better with time and the re-telling.

And so it is with this; that I may have inadvertently created the classic yarn- a “sea story” if you will-without ever having meant to do so. For in my mind this is the story exactly as it happened.

One of our collateral duties that summer of 1981, as support to the British Governor of Diego Garcia, Lt Cdr Wells of Her Majesties Royal Police, was to go out on pirate patrol every two weeks and scour the seas and neighboring islands in the archipelago for gun runners and drug smugglers. Our story concerns the gun runners.

Diego Garcia is the main island in an archipelago in the Indian Ocean. It is located 900 miles from Madagascar off East Africa, several thousand miles west of the Philippines, roughly 1200 miles from Sri Lanka to the North, and of course to the South by thousands of miles is the Antarctic.

Now Diego Garcia is literally a speck in the midst of the great vastness of the Indian Ocean. It is horseshoe shaped, and at 34 miles long with its’ widest point one quarter of a mile, it is not very large at all.

Our closest neighbor was some 60 miles to the Northeast, a sister island, considerably smaller, named Peros Banhos. While Diego Garcia had been used by the French as a coconut plantation up until World War II, when it became an outpost manned by India under the auspices of the British; Peros Banhos had never been anything but what it was- a volcanic eruption in the midst of nowhere-destined for nothing.

Now our story begins with the Governor of Diego Garcia, the aforementioned LtCdr Wells of the Royal Police. A short (4’11”) knock kneed man who wore khaki shorts and knee socks, Lt Cdr Wells was known, despite his appearance, as a tough man. We were about to find out just how tough.

As I said before, we were tasked on the USNS Jupiter with the twice monthly blessing/curse of conducting pirate patrol to the Northeast at Peros Banhos and as far East as the Philippines. I say cursed/blessed to make clear the point that while no one really enjoyed all the work involved in “getting underway”, we were quite glad to be going anywhere at all, as we were officially “on station”, welded to our anchorage in the lagoon at Diego Garcia as part of the Rapid Deployment Force for instant insertion in the Middle East in the event of another crisis on the order of the taking of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1978.

Sometime in July 1981 we received word from aerial reconnaissance that there were people on Peros Banhos and we were sent to investigate.

The 28,000 ton Jupiter was gotten underway with all the usual stress/strain attendant to such an endeavor, for the 60 mile journey to Peros Banhos. Once there, we put the engines on standby and lowered the 40’ utility boat away. We headed toward the island with Lt Cdr Wells attired as usual in his khaki shorts, knee socks and combat boots.

We had intended to go as close in as possible with the 40’ boat and use the Zodiac raft we had trailed behind us should it become necessary to cross over shoals or coral. We never got the chance however, for just as we were about 15 feet off the beach, at that point in these islands where one can stand thigh high in the water, where small shark play and feed, we observed ashore, a man startled by our arrival, jump up and race away into the jungle growth. He was carrying an automatic rifle, what looked to be an AK-47.

Now make no mistake about it, we were well armed ourselves, with several M14’s and 16’s. In addition we each carried a .45 caliber automatic and plenty of spare clips.

My clearest memory at this point is of LtCdr Wells jumping out of the boat and into the water, running through the maze of startled shark and fish alike, toward the shore, shouting at the very top of his lungs, “Halt! In the name of Her Majesty the Queen!” The man paid no attention to this and lit out for the jungle with no hesitation whatsoever. LtCdr Wells was off and running.

I looked at Joe Cardinute, the bow hook, and he at Jeff Kindle, the boat officer, who looked back at me in incredulity. Should we be following the unarmed Lt Cdr Wells into the jungle in pursuit of the armed man, who had by now surely warned his compatriots and who was now undoubtedly waiting in ambush?

It is with a modicum of shame that I report to you that we did not follow Lt Cdr Wells into the maelstrom. I did, however, gain the courage to shout after his retreating form, “Cdr Wells-You are unarmed!” Never breaking stride he looked back and fixing me with a contemptuous glare replied- “Williams- I am armed- with Her Majesties Law!”

More incredulous looks passed between us still on the boat as Lt Cdr Wells disappeared into the jungle, and as afar as we could tell- to his certain death.

We sat- quietly rocking in the boat, as the waves lapped at the sides, waiting for what we felt was the inevitable eruption of gunfire. We were fully prepared to get underway if necessary and beat back to ship at a moments notice.

Fifteen quiet minutes passed; minutes with no sound save that of the waves licking our hull. We were now completely puzzled, 3 Americans, all young and full of piss and vinegar-who on any other occasion would have no qualms about getting into a fight-ANY fight, yet here we sat-armed to the teeth-immobilized as we waited for this ugly scene to play itself out; when out of the jungles edge came a single file of 6 men, hands clasped behind their heads, eyes lowered and looking as if the principal had just caught them smoking in the bathroom.

Behind them marched Lt Cdr Wells, 5 riles slung every which way on his small frame, casually holding the sixth rifle in one hand, pointed at the sky. His calm expression gave way to a boyish grin when he saw us-in the exact same position as when he had left.

No one spoke a word as we loaded the prisoners into the 40 footer for the return to the Jupiter; with the exception of Lt Cdr Wells, who, regarding me with a bemused look said “Williams, I told you I was armed!”

End of her Majesties Law

By November my contract was up and I flew back to the States. We arrived at Newark Airport at 5:30 in the morning. Customs was there to greet us but we had nothing to declare. Diego Garcia was considered isolation duty so Customs was a mere formality.

As I stepped out of the terminal Bosun Browning approached me and asked me to watch his bags. He went to the bathroom. Quickly I took his bags and threw them into a waiting cab. Handing the driver a $50 bill I said, “Here, take these and I don’t care what you do with them!” I grabbed the next cab in line and headed to Brooklyn.

It was 6:30 AM by this time but still too early to wake Mark and Lois so I checked into a hotel in Sheepshead Bay. I was freezing! I had gotten so used to the warm weather that anything below 70 degrees chilled me. It was 28 degrees outside!

I stayed with Mark and Lois for a few days and then headed South to see friends in Florida. But they were having mild weather so I headed West to see my cousin Mary Ellen and her Dad, my Uncle Roy in San Diego. He was a retired navy Captain. I stayed with Mary Ellen and we went down to Tijuana and shopped abit. I really liked a little leather jacket and was getting set to pay for it when Mary Ellen stopped me. Looking at the man who owned the place she indicated that we were newly weds and rubbing her tummy indicated we were expecting! This cut the price by about a third!

From San Diego I went to visit Joey Hickeys old girlfriend Debbie in L.A. where she was living with the guy she would eventually marry. After a week there I flew back to New York and stayed with Mark and Lois for a couple of weeks.

My plans had been to get enough sea time to enable me to sit for the Coast Guards Third mate Exam. This license would allow me to serve as Third Officer on any ship, any tonnage and in any ocean. I was going to brush up my navigation skills at Captain Ellisons’ Baltimore School of Navigation, located on Commerce Street across from the Customs House in Baltimore. It was also down the street from Baltimore's famous “block.” This was the remnant of a once bustling Vaudeville and Burlesque district.

On January 11th I left New York for Baltimore and the next step in my journey.

Movie Review: Kind Hearts and Coronets with Dennis Price and Alec Guiness

Dennis Price plays Louis Descoyne in this brillant British send up of murder mysteries. He plays 13 parts. Narrated by Alec Guiness,this movie is a gem.

When his mother is cast out of the family her son is denied his rightful title of Earl. This leads him to not getting the woman he loves who is only interested in money and power.

When his Mother dies he vows to attain his righful place as Earl. To do this he must ingratiate himself with his estranged family.(All played by Dennis Price.) After becoming acquainted with them one by one,he kills them, one by one,each murder bringing himself one step closer to the title he so eagerly covets.

When he is accused of the one murder he didn't commit, he is sentenced to hang. Recognizing the irony of it all he proceeds to pen his memoirs the night before his execution. When dawn arrives and with it a Pardon, he joyfully leaves the cell a free man.

But a last minute twist of fate, which rivals anything by O. Henry, leaves you with no doubt that crime- while attractive- does not always pay. And things are never quite what they appear to be.

Friday, September 25, 2009

It's Only Me- Chapter 19- USNS Pawcatuck

I arrived in Barcelona on the 4th of December 1980. I proceeded to the Pawcatuck and was logged aboard. Now it was time to confront the reality that I was a Merchant Mariner. There was a fierce reputation associated with this occupation and I was a bit nervous about "measuring up."

The first thing was to get my berthing arrangements taken care of. When you board a ship you are given the next available cabin in your pay grade. This regulation prevents favoritism which can be attributed to race or influence. I was scheduled for a two man cabin outside the crews lounge. I was shown to it and began to unpack my sea bag. I assumed I would be taking the top bunk.

After about 10 minutes an eldery light skinned black man entered the room. Upon seeing me he went crazy. Actually told me that I needed to pack up and get out. He wasn't going to share a room with a young white guy. Everyone knows that young white guys are filthy, do drugs, have wild parties late at night and there was no way he was rooming with me.

Now on a Merchant ship you either swim or get sunk in the first five minutes aboard. It's all up to you and the attitude you take. In the Navy I boarded Neosho and was immediately asked if my Mother still menstruated. I had 2 choices- bust the guy in the mouth and risk the consequences, or rise to the occassion and meet the guy on level ground. I replied "She's flowing like the Nile, how's yours?" This set me apart as a guy who could take it and give it right back. That was what I needed to do here.

I informed the man, who's name was Sylvester Eldridge, that I was not moving. He went to get the Bosun, who is in charge of the deck crew. The Bosun informed me that Eldridge doesn't take roommates and that he had a private cabin for me. I refused. My position was that if I backed down and accepted a better room rather than the one I was legally entitled to, then I would have a rough time with the rest of the crew.

I informed the Bosun that I was staying in the assigned room. That was the end of it as far as I was concerned. The Bosun left and I kept unpacking while Eldridge continued to rave on about how the "Captain will straighten this out!"

The Captain arrived and asked me to change rooms. I informed him of the Union regulations governing assignment of berthing quarters. I also expressed my concerns about sharing a room with a black man. I told Elridge that everyone knew blacks smelled and were filthy. I was also concerned that he would be cluttering the place up with chicken wings and watermelon rinds.

The Captain refused to budge and ordered me to change rooms. I replied that if I had to move I was boarding the next plane back to New York and he could explain to the Command why he was wasting all this time and money. I also stated that if I did change rooms it meant that this old black guy was really in charge of the ship and if I had any future problems I would take them up with Eldridge rather than the Captain. That did it. He turned to Eldridge and told him "Meet your new roomate." And then he walked out.

Eldridge begrudgingly accepted the Captains ruling and I finished unpacking. It should be noted here that Eldridge and I became fast friends and that he followed me to my next 2 ships after Pawcatuck. He was a Bible thumping old Octoroon, that is a man of mixed blood from Louisiana with 1/8 black blood. Legally, in the old days, this made him white! He was one of the first Christians I ever met that didn't try to convert me. Actually he was quite pleased to be rooming with a Jew. He also was one of the first to make me understand the heritage that ran through my blood. Heavy stuff.

That evening I went out for a walk along the Ramblas in Barcelona. This is a huge boulevard lined with every conceivable type of shop. After a good walk about I noticed that every one was crying. I could gather nothing with my limited Spanish and so I headed back to the ship.

Eldridge greeted me at the gangway and told me that John Lennon had been shot and killed in New York outside the Dakota. I was shocked that he even knew who John Lennon was. His exact words to me were "Bob,a man of Peace has been killed." And this is what made John Lennon so unusual, that he could cross racial barriers and generation gaps. Eldridge summed it up best when he observed that because Lennon had not been afraid to be himself it was now easier for everyone to be a bit more free.

Eldridge and I became inseperable. We saved each others legs when they became fouled in the rigging during UnReps. He saved my fingers when I almost lost them while holding a trolley line and the saddle broke loose- sending the trolley so quickly down the line that I actually felt it brush my fingers as Eldridge pulled me away.

He was 65 years old and had been in the Navy from 1942 to 1960, never ranking above Steward in the Mess decks. That was the way it was back then. He had been home for only 3 Christmas holidays in 38 years! I was living with the Ancient Mariner and I loved it.

The Pawcatuck was built in 1946 in Chester, Pa. She was 34,500 tons displacement and could make 16 knots. She was old but pretty. She was named after a river in Rhode Island.

We worked the Med from one end to the other. Ships were literally lined up to the horizon waiting to take station for their fuel. We sometimes worked 24-36 hours, sleeping on our feet while pumping. We got overtime and also "penalty" time when we missed a meal. All in all this was going to be a good job!

When we hit a port we went crazy! Without the constraints of the Navy Shore Patrol we were like Kings in a foreign land. We had stacks of cash which made our behavoir acceptable to the locals, who depended upon our spending for their living. Actually I think they found us amusing the way we dashed about, buying up everything in sight, fighting with one another etc.

One incident still stands out as a true indicator of the difference between Americans and Europeans at the time. We were in Palma on the Island Of Mallorca. A few of us had a truly wonderful dinner at a nice local restaurant. We had sampled all of the local wines and were feeling quite good. One of the guys really admired the hand written menus, which were unlike anything we'd seen in the States. So he took it with him when we left. In the States this would have gone unnoticed.

We got about 150 feet from the restaurant when the waiter came charging down the street shouting "Alto, bandito!" Catching up to us he started stabbing my friend with a fork while unleashing a tirade in Spanish against the pilferer of the menu. It took 4 of us to subdue him and then we had to deal with the local cops. They took a $10 bill from us and gave it to the waiter, who seemed satisfied with the settlement.

There were 108 of us aboard Pawcatuck and we did the same amount of work as a Navy crew of 375 had done aboard Milwaukee. We were in the big league now. 108 was also our hull number- which never occurred to me until this writing.

After about 6 weeks I switched from Deck Maintenance to the Watch Division. This put me back on the bridge full time, most notably as an UnRep helmsman. It also kept me near the charts and navigation equipment which I had grown so fond of on Milwaukee.

The only drawback to the change was one of my new roomates. I had to switch to a 3 man room which was how the watches were set up. 3 men to a watch for 4 hours twice a day. Each team slept in it's own space so as not to disturb anyone else when being woken for your watch. But in every crowd there is one loose cannon and in ours it was Herb Feller.

Herb was a truly obnoxious and drunken fellow from Philadelphia who loved nothing more than to create problems. He soon set his sights on me. My crime was that I loved all the old movies and music that he had grown up with during the 1940's. I suppose he felt that I was robbing him of his memories or something, I'm not really sure. But it all came to a head one night at about 3:45 in the morning. The curtain to my bunk was ripped back and my covers snatched away. I opened my eyes and there was Herb holding a chair over his head with the clear intention of using it to reconfigure my countenance. He was on a tirade about my mother being a whore etc. Anything to get me to jump up so he could use that chair on my head! Not a chance.

Reasoning that a drunk can only hold a chair aloft for so long, I waited. Gradually you could see the chair lowering inch by inch as he became tired. When it was sufficiently lowered I sprung from my bunk. Taking advantage of the ships roll enabled me to knock him and the chair down. The Bosun was summoned by someone and the Captain awakened. Herb was taken away and I went back to sleep.

We weathered a few storms on this cruise, none so severe as the one on the Milwaukee. The worst place to be during a storm was on the tank deck which was one deck lower than our main deck and open to the sea. It would be very easy to get washed overboard from this location. Still it had a strange fascination, being so close to the swells as they buffeted the ship. It has a stark beauty which must be seen and felt up close to do it justice.

In March, after only 4 months we headed back to the US for a drydock period. We would be in drydock at Bayonne,New Jersey. This was directly across from about 57th Street in Brooklyn. I hailed a guy with a small boat and for $40 he took me across to Brooklyn. From there I carried my sea bag to Colemans Hardware on 5th Avenue at 51st Street. Mark Shorr was a part owner of this store with his father in law. It was always fun to see his face and the surprise on it when I would arrive unannounced. I stashed my sea bag with him and went for a walk.

I went home with Mark to the house in Rockaway. I had begun to stay with Mark and Lois everytime I was in port or on leave. Things with my parents would never be right and so Mark and Lois became my family. I was always treated wonderfully by Mark's Mom Estelle and Lois' parents, Aaron and Reva. As a matter of fact, it was Aaron who really started me thinking about what it meant to be Jewish.

Knowing that I had no family to speak of, Aaron and Reva always made sure I was included in the family gatherings on Jewish Holidays. I was still getting very high and although I was probably a sorry spectacle at times, they never once closed the door on me. I was always invited to the family functions and will always be grateful to them for it.

Funny thing is that Lois had a Grandfather who had been in the Navy. And no one in the family seemed to know it! He had actually been aboard the first Milwaukee, which was a light cruiser in the late 30's or early 40's. I used to marvel at that coincidence, and still do.

I remained at Mark and Lois' until May when I left again to join the USNS Jupiter which was on station in Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory. Eldridge was already on his way to join me there. So on May 17th I barely caught my Evergreen Airways flight to Diego Garcia. It would be a 21 hour flight with a pit stop in Athens, Greece to refuel.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb

Neal Bascomb writes in a pulse pounding way that brings urgency to the topic at hand.

When he opens this book on Garibaldi Street outside of Buenos Aires, we already know what is going to happen. But as you are waiting for the bus to arrive you find yourself worried when it is late, that something has gone wrong. This is writing at it's best.

In recounting the tale of one of the largest manhunts in history Mr. Bascomb provides background on all of the lead characters. He also skillfully weaves in and out of the politics that wrought these events.

I was 7 years old and living in Brooklyn, New York when Israels' Mossad kidnapped Eichmann from Argentina and tried him for murder. He was found guilty and hung. I had seen the documentaries about his capture and trial but never gave much thought as to exactly how he got to Argentina in the first place.

I always assumed that Eichmann, along with thousands of other former Nazi's, went there immediatley after the war was over. This is not true.

Eichmann wound his way through several American detention camps in Europe at the close of the war, escaping several times. He carefully kept his identity hidden through the use of false documents provided by an extensive network of former Nazi's.

Mr. Bascomb takes us on a journey through the mountains of Germany and Austria showing us Eichmann on the run. He works as a lumberjack for 18 months before finally making his way to Genoa. From there he obtains the necessary Visa's and Passport to travel to Argentina. His new name is Ricardo Klement.

Carefully woven into the story is the subplot of why Argentina became the haven for former Nazi's. This involved Juan Peron's government and their quest for industrial leaders to become a major power in South America. Ironically, the Argentine government declared war on Germany a few weeks before the war ended. In this way they would remain unlinked to the war crimes trials that were going to take place. Argentina had been the main intelligence gathering point for the Germans during the war, while carefully retaining "neutrality."

This book reads like a master spy thriller. With the Haganah team tracking every possible lead Eichmann still manages to board the Giovanna C in Genoa and actually makes it to Argentina. There he uses his experience as an Architect to gain some employment with the government.

Simon Weisenthal plays a large role in keeping the fires lit so that the search will not die. His efforts are instrumental in bringing Eichmann to justice. A group of Israeli operatives, who have a very personal stake in this chase, are relentless in their pursuit and capture of Eichmann in Argentina.

This book covers the years 1945 through the trial and verdict in 1961. During those 16 years there was always someone looking for Eichmann. With every false report of his death Eichmann hopes that he has eluded his past. He rationalizes his role in the Final Solution as having only obeyed orders.

His wife and children eventually arrive in Argentina. Mr. Bascomb gives us an up close look at the family and how they coped with living this secret life.

This book is the result of painstaking research - even utilizing some of Eichmanns' own account of his time on the run.

Eichmann was transported out of Argentina in a steamer trunk aboard an El Al flight to Israel. There he was tried, convicted and hung for his role in the murder of 6 million Jews.

This book lives up to everything I have come to expect from this author. He lures you in, keeps you interested and then delivers the goods.

It's Only Me- Chapter 18- Merchant Marine

In September of 1980 I was Honorably Discharged from the Navy on the USS Milwaukee. We had been in the Brooklyn Navy Yard since July.

New York City was like a giant cesspool in 1980. After Mayor Lindsay had left office we got Mayor Beam who pretty much raped the City financially. Crime and drugs were rampant. In the 61st Precinct, where I had been raised, all of the Officers were transferred to other Precincts as the result of a massive car theft ring.

My Mom was back in the hospital, still dying. It had been more than 20 years at this point since she was taken ill.

On my birthday, October 8th, I had been to see her at New York Hospital, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was raining and I was walking. I had spent all the money I’d earned in the Navy while seeing the world and sampling all it had to offer. Now I was back in Brooklyn in roughly the same shape as when I’d left.

Walking back towards Columbus Circle where I planned to take the “D” train back to Brooklyn, I decided to pick up a little pot from the many dealers standing around hawking everything from smoke to coke. I had less than $10 to my name. I was approached by a Puerto Rican guy who asked if I wanted some smoke- I explained that I had less than $10 but if he could let me have the dime for $9.50 I would be pretty happy.

He assented and then suddenly started to run away yelling “Lookout- cops!” which was standard street practice when ripping someone off. I slammed him to the fence and hissed “You really don’t want to fuck with me today!” He shoved 3 or 4 bags of weed and my money back at me while yelling “You’re crazy man- crazy- gonna get us both busted!” I let him go as I picked up the weed. He ran away.

Nothing had really changed at all for me at home. My Dad wanted me to work for him and Harry and Al wanted me back but I knew I needed to move on.

I went home by subway and contemplated my options. My plan had been to get my Union card and join the Merchant Marine. But it was the same old run around. The only way to kick start this thing was to go to the Coast Guard (they are the DMV of the Oceans) and give them my Sea Transcript which would allow me to get my Able Bodied Seaman Papers.

The Coast Guard was located in Battery Park at the time so I went to see them. But they would not count my sea time as 100% of time served- my Sea Service Deployment Ribbon not withstanding! They only would give me 50% of Navy time! This was very unfair and so I showed my transcripts and got it upped to 80% and was allowed to take the tests for Able Seaman rather than Ordinary.

I took a lifeboat examination in which you have to successfully lower a lifeboat into the water without dumping anyone. I also took a short written exam on rigging, etc. I now had my AB Document (Able-bodied Seaman.) This would allow me to join Military Sealift Command as a Seaman, working on deck and standing watches. This was a bit of a blow to me as I had hoped to take the exam for Third Mate and start out as a Watch Officer and Third in Command. This was equivalent to what I had done on board Milwaukee as a Quartermaster. But rules are rules.

So on a cold and windy December 1st I went down to Military Sealift Command in Bayonne, New Jersey with my sea bag, to see about shipping out with them. I had already filled out my Form 171 which is required to obtain a Civil Service position. Mine would be an “Excepted” position, meaning that my skills would require no further tests, but rather that I would be hired based on my Certifications.

I was in the office of Mildred Johnson who did the hiring for the entire Command. An imposing black woman, her demeanor hid a heart of gold. She carefully explained to me that there was a waiting list of over 350 people to ship out. Also I did not have my Passport, having never needed one while in the Navy. My Navy ID was considered a Passport as well as a driver’s license while I was on active duty. Obtaining one at this time of year would take days, at the least.

Feeling a bit crestfallen I was prepared to leave when I heard the call come in for an immediate replacement on the USNS Pawcatuck- a fleet oiler currently on station in the Med. Hurrying back to Mrs. Johnson I asked her if I could fill that slot, having just come off of 2 fleet oilers. She replied that the position required Underway Replenishment (UnRep) experience. I showed her my transcripts from the ships I had been on and that’s when I found out just how quickly the government can move if it wants to.

When Mrs. Johnson found that I had UnRep experience she was overjoyed. When she saw my seabag and realized that I was ready to leave now- she was in heaven! She provided me with a letter to present in Manhattan at the place where you got your Passport. I was also photographed, fingerprinted, hired and provided with a new ID Card identifying me as an employee of Military Sealift Command. Then I was issued airline tickets to Barcelona, Spain. I was also given several hundred dollars as an advance on my first pay to be used as expense money along the way. I was told to save all receipts. My flight was at 7PM from JFK and I didn’t even have my Passport!

Racing into Manhattan I walked into the Passport Office and was told by a uniformed guard to take a number and a place in line. I showed him my letter and was ushered to the front of the line. Several hundred people were now grumbling behind me. But with the prize so close at hand I ignored the commotion. I was sent for a photo down the street, returned to the office once again and got my Passport in record time.

From there it was a race to the airport where I had dinner and then a great flight on a 747 Jumbo Jet to Barcelona, Spain. There I would board my first merchant ship- the Pawcatuck.

It had taken me 4 years but I had finally arrived at my initial goal. I was a Merchant Marine.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Movie Review: Talk To Me with Don Cheadle

This is one of those movies based on real life events that we often take for granted.

AM Radio was king in the early 1960's. With fast paced DJ's rapping between songs and commercials often done by the DJ's themselves there was something more intimate about radio back then. But as the Nation changed so did the expectations of the average listener. They wanted something more relevant to what was happening in the community. At Radio Station WOL- 1460 AM in Washington D.C. this was apparent in the falling ratings.

Into this vacumn comes former Inmate Petey Greene. A chance meeting with the Program Director of WOL during the latters' visit to a relative in prison leads Greene to believe that he has a job waiting for him at WOL when he gets out. He has been doing "broadcasts" inside the Correctional Facility and fancies himself to be a top notch DJ.

When he is released after a very comical situation he heads straight back to D.C. and his old girlfriend (played by Taraji P. Henson and you gotta love her in this role!) Together they invade WOL to claim His job.

WOL is a Black Soul station run by a stuffed shirt white guy, played by Martin Sheen. The black Program Director, Dewey Hughes,is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor.He
promises,and then manages to deliver,the job as DJ. The repurcussions of this dramatic change are worth seeing.

The lead DJ at the station, "The Hawk",is played with great effect by Cedric the Entertainer. His story could provide a whole other movie! And his potrayal of the "Nighthawk" is right on the money. He has issues with the new DJ that ultimatley get worked out to everyones satisfaction.

With the racial divisions of the 1960's as a backdrop and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Greene rises quickly to fame. He is changing the way radio is done. He is the precursor to Richard Pryor, Howard Stern, even George Carlin.

But the forces of commercialism and profit propel Greene on a stairway to stardom that he neither wants nor is looking for. It all comes apart when he appears, unwillingly, on The Tonite Show and realizes that he has nothing to say to white America. So he fades away at the height of his popularity.

But he left his mark forever on the media in the form of the freedoms we take for granted today. The movie is very fast paced and with a tremendous soundtrack of Motown and Soul Music this movie is worth the time. First released in 2004 I don't know how I missed this one!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

It's Only Me- Chapter 17- USS Milwaukee

My transfer from Neosho was a low key affair. The Milwaukee was moored 2 piers down from Neosho at Norfolk Naval Station. So on a rainy and cold April day I shouldered my seabags and walked to the Milwaukee. This would be my home for the next 2 and a half years.

If I thought the Neosho was big at 28,000 tons displacement, then the Milwaukee was huge. She carried 7 million gallons of fuel compared with the Neoshos 5 million gallons. Her draft was 36 feet fully loaded. With a beam of 98 feet and a length over 800 feet long she was a behemoth!

She was also a lot newer than Neosho which was built in 1952. On Neosho it was not uncommon to wake up with something scurrying across your chest or crawling up your arm. The Milwaukee by comparison was launched in 1969 in Newport, Rhode Island and was clean as a whistle.

The Captain was a “maverick”. That is someone who joined as enlisted and went on to become an officer. It was quite a feat and the crew loved him. This was Captain Hawkins. He knew every ones name and every ones job assignments. He had an open door policy and encouraged the crew in circumventing the Chain of Command in order to get things done.

She was a hard working ship, never pausing too long before heading back to sea and more assignments. She also dispensed food and ammunition along with all the same fuels that we handled on Neosho. It was clear that we would never go hungry. And that we would always be busy!

We had a sponsor in the Milwaukee Beer Company. They provided us with a supply of beer for recreational use when the ship threw parties ashore. Our engines were painted with the Milwaukee Beer emblem as were the sides of our 2 helicopters. We carried 2 CH-46 Seahawks and housed them in a hangar on our aft helo deck. This was also an area where the crew hung out at sea, playing basketball and Frisbee. It was rumored that you could track us simply by following the trail of Frisbees and basketballs that had gone overboard at various times. Hey, it’s hard to make a free throw while the ship is rolling.

I was assigned again to a deck Division. I stood watches and did maintenance. I was beginning to realize that I should have taken a school.

When you first come aboard any ship you are assigned things like a lifeboat, a duty station, a cleaning task, etc. My first UnRep (Underway replenishment) station was on the flight deck as a "Cargo Hooker." This involves attaching a 6 foot lightweight plastic pole to a cargo net that is filled with supplies. These supplies can range from ammunition to food or clothing. You stand in the center of the helo deck and when the chopper is about 5 feet over your head (an awe inspiring experience to be sure!) you "hook' the pole to the bottom of the helo and away she goes.

I was preparing to go on deck when an old Chief petty Officer handed me a steel shackle and said, "Here kid, better take one of these so you don't get blown overboard." He was joking so I put the shackle down and stepped out onto the helo deck. Here comes the first chopper. It gets about 10 feet over me and the downward force of wind from the rotors has me reeling like a drunk! I get the cargo hooked and run back into the hangar. Finding 2 15 pound shackles I attached them to my inflatable life vest, one on each side near my waist. I would never go out there again without my 30 extra pounds! That old Chief may have been kidding me but the shackles were a great help.

One day while standing watch on the bridge I noticed the Quartermaster laying out the ships course to Spain. He was using a pair of dividers and walking them across the chart laying out our PIM. (Plan of Intended Movement) I was struck then and there as if by lightning. This is what I wanted to do. Navigate.

I approached the Quartermaster who smiled and said- “Oh yeah, well take this copy of Bowditch and when you’re done you can ask for the courses to take the test.” Sounds really simple. But let’s explore the offer.

Bowditch was written by Nathaniel Bowditch in the 1700’s and is comprised of everything known about Navigation since the Egyptians and even includes Navigation in Space. It is also a very math oriented subject. Now I had graduated High School with only a General Diploma due to not having had the required 4th year of math. So I had to set about learning trigonometry and logarithms if I wanted to do this.

I went to the training officer who did all he could to discourage me. I put a request in through the Executive Officer, LtCdr. Martin, who flatly refused me based on my having been busted for grass and also having done 3 days bread and water for an Unauthorized Absence while aboard Neosho. So I took things in my own hands and set about to become a Quartermaster.

In the Armed Forces you can request any courses you want from The Naval Education Training Command in Washington. They send you the study materials and the tests. When the tests are done you mail them in and they grade you. If you pass they send the Notification to your ship and the Captain. This puts him in an awkward position. If he has an opening in that field he must use you or explain to the Commodore why he is going to the extra expense of having someone else assigned and transferred to his ship to do the job when there is already a qualified person aboard. So it was full steam ahead.

This was also around the time that I became known as “Willie”. Everyone in the service gets a nickname. Mine was merely a shortening of my last name. But it was bestowed on me due to my demeanor while on the helm. Casual is the best description. I usually had one hand on the wires overhead and assumed a somewhat slumped posture while steering- as if this was all pretty routine. Like Tugboat Willie.
I passed my course with Excellents and Superiors. I think my lowest score was a High Average. So against their better judgement Cdr Martin and Captain Hawkins were forced to let me become a “striker” for QM3. It was a rank that I would hold and lose several times before my enlistment was over. But my overall responsibilities continued to grow, even when I was demoted.

I loved “star time” which is the time around dawn and again at dusk when you take sightings with a sextant and use the resulting lines of position to correct or at least monitor the error in your electronic gear. This was before Navigation satellites and GPS systems. We had Loran and Omega systems- they were good but were frequently affected by the weather. At times like that we would steam based on a dead reckoning position which theoretically is alright but does not account for the set and drift factors caused by the wind on the surface and the currents below. So it was an art as well as a science.

I became quite good at the sextant as well as the electronics. One time we had steamed 4 days in the Med without a star fix or sunline. We were pretty sure of where we were but needed to prove it. Dennis Laglands and I cranked out the radar to something like 80 miles and picked up a Cape. Consulting the chart we drew a line of postion from that Cape to our assumed Dead Reckoning position and were with in 5 miles! Not bad considering that we had been taking educated guesses at the set and drift of the last several days.

Late in November of 1978 we got word that we would have 2 weeks in the port of Valencia, Spain. This is a city on the East coast of Spain, very cosmoplitan and with several Universities located there. There was a music district with nightclubs and coffee bars. There was hashish available everywhere and we lost no time in making friends with the local college crowd.

We were, as I've said, scheduled for 2 weeks of uninterrupted bliss in this great town for the Christmas and New years holidays. But in the Navy things can change quickly. One night we were out drinking and carousing about when the Shore Patrol came around and ordered everyone back to the ship. It was the 23rd of December and some Admiral wanted us to head out to sea immediatley to re-fuel some ships the next day- Christmas Eve! Having no say in this matter we headed back in drunken groups and in spite of our intoxication we got the Old Milwaukee to sea and made the rendezvous the next afternoon.

We worked until about 11 PM that night, grumbling, as all good sailors do. At about 11:30 PM we heard an announcement on the 1 MC that really shocked us. I don't believe it has ever been repeated on any other ships. "All hands lay to the Mess decks for Holiday Spirits." Captain Hawkins had instructed the Medical Officer to bring all the ships medicinal brandy to the Mess Deck and give everyone a shot. We eagerly complied and when we were done I don't believe that there was any brandy left aboard! What made this so remarkable is the fact that consuming alcohol aboard a Naval vessel is illegal. This could have had bad repurcussions for the Captain. But this was his way of acknowledging our hard work and saying Merry Christmas. I don't think any of us have ever forgotten it.

It was not the first time that the Captain had "bent" the rules. Earlier in the year, about 200 miles off the coast of New Jersey, in the Gulf Stream, we were granted a "swim call." This is so rare that it is easy to find sailors who have been in for 30 years or more who never had the opportunity to swim in the middle of the ocean. We had two 24 foot motor whale boats circling in a designated area around us. They each carried 2 Gunners Mates with M-14's. They were supposed to shoot any sharks that might come around. It didn't take a rocket scientist to know that the guns were to shoot anyone that was being attacked by a shark, rather than shooting the shark, which would be almost impossible to do.

I have never been a strong swimmer but I gladly jumped in and it was the most heavenly feeling to have the "motion of the ocean" buffeting you gently in the current. It was also a little scary, knowing that danger did lurk beneath the surface.

Soon we heard the shouts of "Shark!" but it turned out to be a false alarm. It was dolphins that had come to play. Now I don't know about you but at 135 pounds I was not an appropriate playmate for a dolphin. So when one nudged me, gently I might add, he cracked one of my ribs. I was forced to dog paddle back to the side of the ship and painfully made my way up the cargo net that was strung over the side for us to climb aboard. But I have never held it against the dolphin- after all I was playing in his yard!

In January of 1979 we had a Change of Command and Captain Hawkins was replaced by Captain Page. He immediately closed the door on Captain Hawkins “Open Door Policy.” There was some grumbling but not much we could do about it.

Captain Page was an “airdale” meaning he was a jet pilot. He flew A-6’s and had also been a flight instructor. The day he came aboard we got underway and I was on the bridge at the helm. Captain Page entered the bridge and everyone snapped to attention when “Captain is on the Bridge” was called by the Boatswains Mate. When Captain Page glanced over my shoulder for a look at the compass I turned to him and said, “You’ve got a real ‘can do’ ship here sir. With a real ‘can do’ crew.” I think the candid way in which I spoke with him was a bit of a surprise. He looked at me and said he was glad to hear it.

For the next 2 years and more we would steam across the Atlantic and back 4 times, head down to South America, transit the Panama Canal and visit the Mid East several times. We never missed a single commitment. During that time we were awarded several Unit Citations for Excellence in Engineering and also Sea Service Deployment Ribbons for time spent at sea. We were a hard working crew and consequently we played equally hard.

Our port visits were the stuff they make movies about. We bribed ships agents to load hashish in with the fresh vegetables and smuggled whiskey aboard in great quantities. There were also small group of sailors who would comb the pharmacies in search of Valiums.

A typical liberty would see the crew rushing out to the brothels and bars. I usually hit the grocery stores in search of tea and snack foods. This also gave me a chance to mix with the locals. I carried foreign language dictionaries with me and could have some discourse by pointing out words and the translation in the books. Through this I was usually able to find some smoke without resorting to the really sordid places where you might get more than what you were looking for. But sometimes it was necessary to resort to the bars and the hookers in order to find something. These times were always fraught with peril.

One time we were in Barcelona and had been making a deal down a dark side street. We sensed something wrong and when we turned to go we were faced with about 8 guys slowly coming towards us. There were 3 of us. Realizing that we had been set up we took the dealer down very quickly, keeping the drugs and taking a refund of our money plus whatever else he had on him. Then Ron said he would take the 2 on the left- and Dennis would take care of the right side. I would take the package and head straight for the guy in the middle. Kind of like football.

We ended up breaking through the line and were chased all the way back to the Navy Yard. Liberty expired at 2 AM and it was past that time now and the gates were locked! There was some scaffolding in place on the side of the wall and we scampered up to the top - our friends in hot pursuit. The wall was 30 feet high and there was no scaffolding on the other side. It would have to be a straight drop.

Ron jumped first and then Dennis went. He hung off the wall before dropping, this cut the length of fall by 6 feet. Good idea. So I did the same. I landed on the steel rail of the train tracks and shattered my leg. Our pursuers did not enter the yard. They remained at the top of the wall cursing us in Spanish. If they had eneterd and got caught they would have been shot. It was kind of like “Sanctuary.”

I was fined $100 for having broken my leg and my liberty was restricted for about a month. The rule was that when you got back on board you had to be able to stand on your own, face the after end of the ship and salute the flag. You could not lean on anyone or anything. You had to be upright. I tried but the leg would have none of it and I went down.

Following this cruise we proceeded to the Panama Canal and through it to support the situation in Nicaragua. Like I said, if there was something to be done the brass knew to call the Milwaukee. About this time we were known as the "Mighty" Milwaukee.

In January of 1980 we were berthed in Norfolk at Pier 2. We were "cold iron", which means we were connected to shore power. Typically it takes about 12 hours to prepare a ship like Milwaukee to get underway. We were about to set a speed record.

On the night of January 3rd I was out with Ron and Dennis and Kurt Baker. It was the usual driving around in Ron's AMC looking for girls and smoking pot. We were also doing qualudes and drinking. So we were in "high" spirits as we returned to the ship about 11 PM or so. As we headed down the pier to the gangway we heard the Collision Alarm go off and we thought, "Oh man, someones in trouble for doing that!" As we boarded the ship was rammed by a Malaysian Tanker named Sanko prestige. She had lost power to her steering and left the channel heading straight for us. As a matter of fact she would impact the area just below my berth and as she rode further in tore my bunk clean off! All that was left of my rack was the JP-5 pipe that carried fuel to the helo deck which was located right above our sleeping area. You can see my towel still hanging from the pipe in the picture.

Dennis, Ron and I raced to the bridge. We began to energize all electronic gear and synch in all Navigation Systems. We phoned the Engine Room and the watch down there began to get steam up to the boilers. We weren't sure what orders we would receive, but in the event of fire we needed to be ready to pull out to an anchorage. Carrying 7 million gallons of fuel is no laughing matter. An explosion will take out just about everything for a quarter of a mile in all directions.

Captain Page was called from his home in Virginia Beach and made the half hour trip in about 15 minutes. He was more than pleased with our performance that night. We never did have the fire and so didn't have to pull out- but the point is that we were ready.

The result of this collision was a "yard period" across the river in Hampton Roads. We were scheduled for some major work which was completed in about 3 weeks. At that time we were asked to refuel a task Group across the Atlantic in the Azores. This would turn out to be one of the biggest adventures of my time at sea.

We made the Azores and did some work in the Caribbean on the way back to the US. This was now February of 1980. It was a Wednesday and I believe it was the 6th. I had the Dog watch that afternoon, that is the watch that runs through evening chow and you get relieved for about 30 minutes or so by the oncoming 8-12 so that you can get to eat.

Upon returning from chow I noticed that the barometer had dropped another .02 of an inch for the second hour in a row. Something was brewing along the lines of a low pressure system that would bear watching in the coming hours. I informed the officer of the deck, I believe it was Ensign Tyler that evening- he was a portly, pipe smoking fellow who affected an intellectual air that was mostly a fa├žade. He reacted with a derisive “Hmphh.” This was not all that unusual a response to receive from some of the younger officers. They seemed to look down upon the enlisted as an inferior class of people, lacking the money, or brains, or sometimes both- to get into college and become officers. They never understood that there were people who wanted to enlist, in the ranks, and serve there.

So nothing was done except that I informed the deck officer that heavy weather was approaching and a life line on deck would be a good idea. A 500 foot mooring line was secured to the after and forward bulkheads by means of shackles affixed to padeyes which were welded to the respective bulkheads. For some reason no precautions were taken to secure the ship for heavy seas.

I was relieved by QM3 Baker at 1945 for the 20-2400 watch. Star time was not an issue that evening due to the weather. We were running on Omega and Loran with a dead reckoning tracer as a back up. I entered into the Pass Down the Line log that the barometer had fallen for 2 hours in a row and to be aware of any changes in the sea etc. I left the bridge, and as was the custom of the day, smoked a joint before preparing to shower and retire.

By the time I got back to the after house and the Navigation Division berthing space the ship was being tossed and buffeted by huge swells and violent gusts of wind. The helmsman was a deckhand and the ship was not being handled properly. We were taking a lot of punishment that could have been avoided by having a more experienced man at the helm.

By now, objects all over the ship were being loosed by the storm and there was no way to stop the seeming avalanche of food supplies, crates, forklifts etc that had not been tied down. The 7 million gallons of fuel that we carried started to have its’ own inertial effect upon the handling of the vessel, making it even more unstable. The “Mighty Milwaukee” was taking rolls in excess of her design and the ship would shudder as she laboriously struggled to right herself after each successive roll. Standing was now impossible and most of the men were braced in their “racks” with feet and hands braced against the nearest stanchion or bulkhead, feet dug into the rims of the thin sleeping surfaces that served also as covers to the coffin like clothes compartment that lay beneath each. The coffin like similarities of these lockers were not lost on the men at a time like this.

Lockers were toppling and tables and chairs were being literally pitched as the violence of the storm increased. Most of the crew was now motion sick and those that weren’t were unable to do anything but hang on for the wildest ride any of us had ever been on.

Shortly after 2300 (11 PM) the phone rang and someone told me that the bridge was on the phone. I was told that the Captain was ordering me to the bridge. I went, on the double, expecting that I was about to be chewed out for the storm having taken us by surprise. I started across the deck and made it about 50 feet before turning back and using the cargo deck- which although it had the advantage of being enclosed , had the hazard of forklifts,tools and cargo being tossed and thrown about with considerable violence. Added to this was the possibility of falling into one of the open elevator pits. These were large, seven story deep shafts that were sometimes left open. Tonight , unfortunately, was one of these times. The effect of the ship moving about under me not only prevented me from walking a straight line at this point, but it was now carrying me close to these pits and several times I came near to falling in one. They were located on both the port and starboard sides, increasing this likelihood as I struggled forward.

At the end of this journey on the cargo deck I was faced with 4 interior ladders, steeply angled as compared with a normal stairway, but still an improvement over the exterior ladders which were precisely that, ladders welded to the bulkheads. Unknown to me at this time was that many of these ladders had been torn away by the tons of water crashing against the superstructure.

The bridge was a scene of disaster. There were 22 people in there- way too many. Captain Page was braced in a corner, legs apart and arms against the forward portholes, concerned but very much in command. “Well Willie- what do you think we should do?” Captain Page had been a Pilot– flew A-6’s and also was a flight instructor. With a good sense of humor and a relaxed demeanor among the men, he was a well liked captain and a good leader. He had a hard act to follow, coming on the heels of Captain Hawkins, who had come up from enlisted ranks via the NESEP program, which although not that rare, was quite an accomplishment and the men had idolized him as “one of us.” But Captain Page had more than filled his shoes and it was a ”tight” crew.

My first suggestion was to rid the bridge of as many of the puking , moaning men as possible, placing them in the passageways leading to the bridge itself. Everyone had plastic trash bags to puke in and the stench was beginning to become overpowering.

Standing was impossible at this level, we were hanging on to the overhead and the wire banks and piping that line it. Captain Page ordered me to take the helm.

The compass card was swinging wildly, port to starboard and back again over a field of approximately 180 degrees. We were at the mercy of the sea unless we could stabilize ourselves and begin to make some sort of headway. The Captain then ordered me to steer as necessary to make headway and hold course- I was hanging onto the overhead and steering with my feet- literally counteracting the swells by kicking the helm hard left and hard right.

I then received via the Captain , several course changes prompted by the other officers present on the bridge looking for the course that would give us the “best ride”. Captain Page asked my recommendation and I chose West as that would bring us toward our destination of Norfolk but not put us in shallow waters that could hazard the vessel. I was of the opinion that with 65 foot swells breaking over the bridge and winds of 98 knots (107 mph) with gusts greater than that, there was no course that was going to give a good ride. The Captain ordered me to make it so, which I immediately did.

We spent the next 9 hours or so riding through this maelstrom and upon breaking out of it in the morning and later approaching Virginia Beach, we were greeted by the most dazzling sight- over 12” of snow blanketing the Beach and everything beyond! After the violence of the past 10 hours the contrast was extraordinary and we began to open hatchways and portholes to air the ship out. The crew began to come back to life- restowing all the gear that had been thrown about but not washed overboard. The Officers took toll of the structural damage to the ship- ladders gone, boats torn loose, rigging fouled and ruined.

We moored at D and S Piers on the James River and there my memory fades a bit- we were very tired and I imagine that we cleaned ship and had an early knock off that day.

A week later on the 12th of February we were already back out to sea. We were doing an underway replenishment when Captain Page approached me at the helm with an envelope saying “It’s a little bit late- read it later.”

The remainder of the spring and early summer found us everywhere doing everything. We even played cat and mouse with the Russians off Greece for a week or so.Around this time they were testing the limits of our foreign policy to see how far they could go in provoking us at sea. They were also beginning to become a "blue water" Navy, going out of the Baltic and further into the Med and Pacific. We were not permitted to respond to any of their actions and this was a very hard thing to swallow.

In late July we reported to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for repairs and conversions. It was a real thrill to sail up the Narrows and under the Verazzano Bridge. I had watched that bridge being built and when it opened in November of 1964 my brother and I were the first bicycles over it. When the Milwaukee got to the Brooklyn Bridge we had to cut the mast to pass under. Someone had misjudged our draft.

We entered the Navy Yard and moved into barracks across from the Yard. I stayed with my parents for a few days before finally moving in with Mark and Lois. Their house would continue to be a haven for me over the next several years.

By September I was mustering out and it was especially nice to be getting out in my hometown of Brooklyn, New York. Now it was time to put my experience of the last 4 years into action. I was going to get my Seamans Papers and join the Union. I was going to be a Merchant Marine.