Friday, January 8, 2016

It's Only Me- Chapter 23- USNS Sirius and Mississinewa- Strange Days

In August 0f 1982 I closed up my apartment on Park Avenue and left Baltimore for a position as Able Seaman aboard the USNS Sirius. She was a refrigerated cargo and replenishment ship. In addition to fuel we carried all sorts of frozen provisions for the fleet at sea. We were a clothing store as well, carrying all sorts of foul weather gear and tropical uniforms. We also carried movies to distribute to the fleet, which always made us a welcome sight.

First I took a few days in New York, staying as usual, with Mark and Lois Shorr. I even had a friend with me, Frank bell, whom I had met aboard Jupiter in 1981. We partied at Mark and Lois’ for a few days. We ate lots of good food and just relaxed before we each headed out to sea again. One time we bought lobsters for dinner. Mark and I had picked them out with Frank and we completely forgot to get one for Lois! But they were huge lobsters and so none of us went hungry over it.

Leaving was the usual rushing around at the last minute. I had a bad habit back then, which would never work today, of arriving at the airport at the last possible second, frequently as they were closing the aircraft door. Many times I boarded with my sea bag because it was too late to load it as baggage. This time I pushed it way too far. It was like the episode in Greece with the tanker truck.

Unlike today back then your friends could walk, or in some cases run, with you to the gate. My flight was scheduled for 7:00 PM and I was just arriving. The gate was closed, with only one person at the desk. Showing my orders and ticket I was whisked through the door and down to the field. A passenger bus was produced and once again I was carried out to the plane and lifted aboard. No one cheered when I went down the aisle this time. Just some quizzical looks and a few dagger like stares.

I flew to Italy,landing in Rome. From there I went by rail to Naples. Naples was like a second home to the fleet. It was a main port for recreation and sightseeing. With Pompeii so nearby and the old Castle at Fleet Landing it really did have a lot to offer.

We worked the Med again, refueling ships and transferring personnel. We made several trips to take on stores in Sicily and then back to sea.

The best part of this cruise was a trip to Taromina, a beach resort on the Northern end of Sicily. It is a quaint and family oriented town with an arts colony and spectactular views of the bay. It is a favorite with German and even Japanese tourists. It is also the coast below Mt Etna.

It was here that I met a young Italian woman who attended an art college. She was with her family from Catania, also located on Sicily. This was their vacation. The girls name was Flavia and she could sketch anything. She did this drawing of the new York Skyline from memory on a piece of graph paper. It still hangs in my den.

I had dinner with her family at a restaurant one evening. I was in my usual state of inebriation but the family was very accepting of their daughters friend and we all communicated through the use of 2 small dictionaries. The wine flowed and I hope that their memories of me are as pleasant as mine are of them.

We were anchored in the Bay and our ship was constantly buzzed by small speedboats manned by vacationing Europeans. I had made friends with a woman and her 2 male companions while ashore one day and told them to buzz by the ship the next day. They did, causing quite a stir.

Taormina was a clothing optional beach and this extended to the boats that were buzzing about. At about noon my new friends approached the ship, hailing it in Italian. “Ciao! Ciao!” They tied up at the bottom of the accommodation ladder and one of the crew on watch went down to greet them. The woman was topless and the whole crew was manning the rail, salivating at this sight. The watch came back up and passed the word for me to come to the gangway and receive visitors.

Coming topside I was already dressed and waiting for them to show up. I went down that gangway and into the boat as my astonished crewmates watched in awed silence and we sped away.

We spent the day exploring the caves along the shore and taking in the warm sun. It is a great memory and warms me even when I remember it all these years later.

The Sirius had been purchased from Britian the year before and refitted to the needs of our Navy. We worked hard, as always, venturing into the fracas of Beirut. The conflict between Israel and Lebanon was at crisis proportions and only getting worse. We were getting extra pay to fly supplies in by helo to the Multi National Peacekeeping Force. Kidnappings were not uncommon and so in addition to my Navy issued .45 I always carried a small.25 in the small of my back. I was determined not to be chained to a sink for 7 months or more like some of the others who had been kidnapped.

Whenever we went into Beirut by 24 foot boat to get our mail we had to check our sidearms with the Marine Sentry, or wear them. With my long hair and quasi uniform I felt that wearing a sidearm would mark me as a mercenary and put me in harms way. So I stashed my .45 beneath the thwart ship seat and carried only the hidden .25 for my protection. I always said that if taken hostage the last sound I wanted to hear was the F-14’s screaming overhead as they took me out along with my captors.

While in the area we dropped into Haifa, Israel and I went to visit some family friends. Helene and Jerry Dinerman were old friends of my parents. As a matter of fact my mother and Helene were best friends from the age of 6. They were neighbors at 3619 Bedford Avenue, where I was born. In 1971 they moved with their 2 sons, David and Seth, to Israel. They lived in Herzilyah and I stayed with them for about a week.

Israel is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, not so much physically but spiritually. It is hard to describe what it is like on a Friday evening when everything stops for Sabbath. The only comparison I had was Brooklyn on Yom Kippur.

While there I saw the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock and all the other Biblical landmarks we read about daily. It was awe inspiring to walk where the Prophets had walked. It was also the first time that I really began to understand the Middle East.

We had an older black man whom everyone called Lenny Bruce for some unknown reason. He was a Cuban born man of the Catholic faith. He had been a minor league baseball player in Cuba before Castro took over. His only real ambition was to get to the Promised Land. When we did he rushed to the first boat ashore and as we stepped off onto the landing he had a heart attack and died. He was smiling as he went down.

Next we pulled into Alexandria, Egypt for a week or so in February and I got to go on a couple of trips to some of the places I'd always wanted to see. Alexandria is a really poor and run down port. It is also a bustling place with a myriad of Arab Bazzars where you can purchase all kinds of things. The only limit is your imagination. They did a booming business in bootleg CD's and so we all stocked up on those.

We took a horse drawn cab ride and were offered the chance to buy some hashish. We readily agreed and the driver took us on a roundabout journey leaving us disoriented as to our location. When we arrived at an alley we went down in it and the driver took out a small piece of hash. He told us it was $200. We told him what we thought and he said that we should think again. Looking back up the alley we saw 8 guys advancing towards us- scimatars and all! I had my pistol at the ready but the wise course was to give up the cash and go. Which is what we did. Praise Allah!

I wanted to see some more of the country-most notably the Pyramids and the Nile River. I found a cheap tour package run by an old Egyptian fellow and his sons. They would transport you to the Nile and from there pole you down to Giza where the Pyramids are. The cost was $25 for 3 of us. It would be a 12 hour trip and food would be provided.

The trip was tough- the sun blazing down even in February took it's toll on us. We were weary. The old man and his son's worked like mules, poling and steering the raft like boat down river to our destination. The food provided consisted of compacted balls of couscos and some fish. It wasn't bad. We didn't drink the water as it was cloudy and had a foul smell. We opted for Cokes and beers.

Arriving at Giza we went to the Pyramids and took the tour. It was breathtaking and sad at the same time. Breathtaking in the visual sense and sad when you thought of the slaves that were required to build these elaborate monuments to Death.

From there we went on a trip across the desert by camel and driver to Cairo. This was really roughing it but looking back I am so glad to have had the experience. The camel was weak and dirty. The driver was the same. At night we stopped and a meal of lamb was provided along with some Arabic music. With the addition of the hash the whole experience was magical!

In Cairo we saw the great Museum and had a look about the city, which was surprisingly modern. After that my memory fades and I honestly do not remember the return trip and arrival back at Mississinewa. C'est la vie!

Syria was also active as a base for Soviet jets that would buzz us continually. The effect was chilling, especially when you saw the rockets loaded and ready beneath their wings.

The Sirius had some bugs to be worked out and so we headed home in March of 1983 for some yard work. We arrived in Norfolk and I took three weeks leave which I spent with Mark and Lois as usual. I often wonder how they put up with having me coming and going from their home at will. And staying for months on end! I believe I was a good guest, I cleaned, did my own laundry etc. We also ate out alot. Lois and I would stay up late and talk for hours into the night. Those memories will alway stay with me.

3 weeks after arriving, Mark and Lois took me on another break neck ride to the airport for a short flight to Norfolk, Virginia where I joined the Mississinewa. I was never sure if they were just glad I was leaving, but I know I wanted to stay forever.

The USNS Mississinewa was the sister ship to my first ship Neosho. Neosho was number 143 and Mississinewa was 144. It was very familiar and felt like I was back on the Neosho. We went back to the Med- this time we worked the Eastern end supporting the activities in Beirut. This was a very tense time and the crew was very much on edge. At nights we would get within ¼ mile of the West Beirut airport. We would watch the fighting ashore, marking the difference in the size of the explosions. Big ones were trucks and cars, little ones were buildings.

We lost one man overboard as the result of a fight in the middle of the night. We also suffered a loss in Italy when one crewmate knifed and drowned another on the way back to the ship from liberty. He was taken into custody by The Italian Cabinieri, and as the crime took place there our Status of Forces agreement was not clearly valid.

We were making many trips to Iskenduran,Turkey on the Syrian border to obtain our fuel. We would spend several days there waiting for a call to action. This was at the time the Russians were coming out of Afghanistan after fighting what would later become Al-Quieda. They were trading their rifles for hash! And brining in poppy seed from Afghanistan, which the Turks would grow in the valley.

The gold bazaars were fascinating.For a price they would make you anything you wanted, or so I had been told. One day I walked into one of the Gold Markets and not seeing any Stars of David I sketched one out and asked if it could be made. The next thing that I remember is running down the street being chased by a knife weilding anti-semetic goldsmith cursing me in Turkish!

I never did get the star but I did buy several rings and chains made of 18 or 22 Karat gold which was impossible to get in the States. I took it all out through customs later on and sold it back in New York for 3 times what I'd paid. I actually wore it so that I wouldn't have to pay duty on it.

At this time my contract of 6 months was up and I asked to be sent home. They said they could not fly a replacement into a war zone and simply extended my contract. I asked about the 25% tax free bonus pay that we were supposed to receive while in war zones. But this was not a declared war- so in spite of the bombs and bullets going off all around us, we would receive no extra pay. This pissed me off. The Captain told me that as long as I was under his command there was little I could do about it. So being me, I did something.

I packed my sea bag and went down the gangway to the 24 footer tied up at the bottom. I then took the boat over to the USS Eisenhower-“the Ike”- and tied up. After logging aboard I went to see the Officer in charge of travel. This turned out to be a LtCdr. Goldstein from Brooklyn, NY. A fellow New Yorker and a Jew to boot! He got me a spot on a C-130 flying to Turkey. I landed in Adana and thought nothing of it when I left that base on foot to begin my journey back to the States. I was about to begin a month long trip that I will never forget! The travel orders were issued after I got back to the States.

Turkey is an unusual place when it comes to politics. They have a secular government. It is clearly an Islamic country but ever since Ataturk ruled the government has been mandated by law to remain secular. The Fez and Veil were both outlawed in the 1930’s. They can still be seen in the remote parts of the country but not in the cities. Ataturk wanted to bring Turkey into the 20th Century and saw religious factions as a roadblock to that end.

In 1977 the military took control of the government when the people elected an Islamic fundamentalist as President. They promised that they would let the people rule again when they could vote in a responsible way. I remember laughing at that. But I was about to receive an education.

By 1983 the people were ready for an election and so the whole country shut down transportation wise in order to eliminate any terrorism during the election. So I could not get a plane from Adana to Istanbul.

The first thing I did was get a room. Something should have tipped me off when the hotel guy asked for and kept my Passport. Thinking nothing of it I went up to my room. I was enjoying the evening view and the Minarets and unpacking a few things when there was a knock on the door. Opening it I was faced with 2 very serious looking policeman. They spoke no English and I no Turkish. So communicating in gestures they signaled that I was to go with them and take my sea bags!

Now I was scared, I had some very potent marijuana from Iskendurun, which is on the Syrian border in one of my sea bags along with some hashish. I had also seen “Midnight Express” and was sure that I was going to be in some serious trouble!

We went to the police station where there actually was a bench just like the one used in the movie to beat the soles of your feet! I was sweating bullets!

I was seated along the wall with my bags under the eyes of a guard. There was nothing I could do. At last I was summoned into an office. The Commandant was a woman! I couldn’t believe it! She spoke English and we chatted a bit before she tossed my Passport on the desk in front of me asking, “How did you get into my country?” I explained who I was and where I had come from and where I was trying to go. She listened and then asked me to open my bags.

My heart was in my throat as I opened the first one. And her eyes lit up when she saw my portable stereo. This indicated that I was a possible black marketeer intending to sell the radio. I told her that this was not the case. She asked how could she know the truth? I replied that if I made it a gift to her I would not miss it and she would not have to worry about me selling it.

So we searched my bags no further and I watched her write in my Passport. I have no idea what she wrote but the rest of my journey would go unhindered. She then had me escorted back to the hotel! I fell into a deep sleep. When I awoke to the sound of the Call to Morning Prayers mine had already been answered!

Somewhere along the way flights were reinstated and I took a short flight to Istanbul. At this time I met an American woman who was just getting out of the Air Force and traveling alone. We decided to travel together. As an unmarried couple traveling through Turkey we were getting some strange looks but nobody bothered us. We shared hotel rooms and had some fun along the way before flying to Frankfurt, Germany where we could get a flight to N.Y.

It was my intention to get back to Baltimore and finish my exams for Third Mate. I didn’t know it but I was about to enter a phase that would change my life forever.

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