Wednesday, January 13, 2016

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.