Wednesday, January 6, 2016

It's Only Me- Chapter 25- Licensed

By February of 1984 I obtained my Third Officers License for any tons in any ocean. I went to New York for a week to finish up the Radar Certification before shipping out for what would be my last voyage. I would be working once again on the USNS Sirius.

It was hard to leave Baltimore as Sue and I had been enjoying our new relationship. We ate at Danny's, the best restaurant in Baltimore at the time. I wore ripped jeans and a tee shirt but the old couple that owned the place graciously seated us anyway. Our waiter was a bit odd, being drunk the whole time he served us. At one point he even sat down with us! A few days later we saw the ad in the paper looking for a new waiter at Danny's.

Just before I shipped out we saw "The King and I" with Yul Bryner. This was before his last tour a few years later when he was ill, so he was still in top form. We had 10th row center seats. It was truly wonderful.

But still, lurking in the background was the fact that Sue was engaged to this other guy named Ben. I had been aware of him since Sue and I spent our first weekend together and he lent her his car. Since that time they had become engaged. But we were still spending all our spare time together.

On the 2nd of March I flew to Alicante, Spain on what is known as the Costa del Sol. It was a peaceful little town and there was an historic aspect to my arrival as well. Franco,the Dictator, had died several years earlier and now Juan Carlos was King.

Due to the proximity of Spain to Morocco (the Straits of Gibraltar are less than 10 miles wide)there had always been a large amount of hashish and heroin available on the streets. This caused some problems for law enforcement and so Juan Carlos decriminilized the possession and use of these controlled substances. My arrival coincided with this change.

It was like a huge street party- everyone was smoking everywhere under the watchful eyes of the Federal Police, who at that time wore 3 cornered hats similar to the ones worn during our Revolutionary War. It lent a Sgt. Pepper aspect to the occasion.

We left Spain and worked the Med again for several months. The highlight of this trip was our stopover in England. We were to be at the Navy Yard in Portsmouth for 2 weeks. Ironically this was the original homeport of our ship. The United States had only purchased her 3 years earlier from Britian.

England was wonderful. It was early spring, April, and all the gardens were just blooming. The cottages and houses along the shore of Portsmouth were absolutley beautiful. There was a fish and chips place that stayed open until 2 in the morning and they made quite a bit of money serving all the hungry sailors returning from liberty after a night of drinking.

I arranged to take a trip to London by rail. To do this I had to switch watches with a couple of guys. Doing this would give me 4 days in London to walk about and see things.

The train trip was pretty cool- we had one of those compartments like you see in "A Hard Days Night" or "The Lady Vanishes." I was with a couple of other crew members and we were smoking some hash when an English fellow came in and sat down. We were stymied- surley he could smell that we had been smoking, and also he had to notice the cupped hands holding barely concealed pipes. Breaking the awkward silence I asked. "Do you mind if we smoke?" He replied that he did not mind. I asked again, "Well, we're smoking hashish- do you mind?" His reply was classic- "Young man-you will find that in Britian we don't care what you do as long as you do it quietly."

When we arrived in London I split from the group as they planned on roving the Pubs which didn't hold that much interest for me. I wanted to do my usual walk about town and see and hear and smell the place. So I did.

I took a room at the Savoy on the Strand which parallels the Thames. My first surprise was no shower in my room- just a bath! The other surprise was that everything closed by 1 AM. This was a shock as I had always heard about "Swinging London" and expected it to be different.

The walks about town were wonderful and I bought some gifts to bring home at the shops near the Strand. I also got my haircut. This was at the time of Punk Rock and green Mohawks. The woman who cut my hair asked me "What color will you be having then?" I replied, "Mousey brown" and so nothing needed to be done.

After 3 days I was ready to head back to Portsmouth. Due to my trading watches I would have the midwatch on the eve of our departure. This would turn into one of the most magical nights I would have for a long time.

Arriving back at Sirius I slept a bit, ate and then at midnight I took the watch on the Quarterdeck. In about 5 minutes the phone rang and I answered it, "USNS Sirius, Quarterdeck, Williams speaking, this is not a secure line, may I help you?"

A womans voice answered and asked what time the ship was leaving. I told her that I was not permitted to say. We bantered back and forth for a bit and long story short, we spoke for the entire 4 hours I was on watch. At 3:45 AM I was relieved but stayed on the phone a few minutes longer. The woman wanted to meet! Her husband was an engineer working in Saudi Arabia and she was lonely.

Now I had heard of this sort of thing before- women calling the ships and teasing a guy into taking a fruitless and expensive cab ride to nowhere, or to a place where you could be robbed. But I figured that I would chance it. We were due to leave at 8 AM and this would be my last chance to go ashore for another 2 weeks or so. So I went down the gangway and woke the cab driver at the gate to the Navy Yard and off we went into the English countryside. Tallyho!

I spoke with the driver and he agreed to wait a moment or two after dropping me off just in case this was all a hoax. I had figured all along that if it was I would still get to drive around a bit before sailing and maybe snag a quick English breakfast before heading back to the ship. Nothing ventured, nothing lost- or gained. When we arrived after about 20 minutes of driving I got out. As I did the door to the house opened and silhouetted in the doorway was a beautifully proportioned woman! (I only remark on this as she had told me on the phone that she was overweight.)We spoke for a moment at the door and she invited me in. I signalled the driver that it was okay to go.

We chatted a bit, she was a Chiropodist, and then I heard movement in another room and was a little bit worried. She sensed this and informed me that it was her son. Her son was about 17 and huge! So I decided we should go for a drive. She asked if I had seen the sunrise on the beach and I said I hadn't. So we went for a drive and sat in her little car on the beach and by the time the sun was coming up we were both very contented.

Looking at the time I grew frantic! I had no idea where we were in relation to the ship and knew that 8 AM was only a mere 30 minutes away! I explained this to her and she said not to worry as we left the beach and headed to the Navy Yard.

I was out of that car like a shot! Running through the gate and showing my ID I could already see that lines were being singled up and the ship being readied for departure. I got aboard just as they were preparing to raise the gangway and hurried to my post at the helm.

Phone lines were about to be disconnected when the phone rang. The Captain picked it up and listened a bit before saying, "I'm sorry Miss but Williams is at the helm." After a bit of silence he spoke into the phone again, "Yes M'aam, I'll be sure to tell him." Hanging up the phone he turned to me and said, "That is the first time in 30 years of sailing that I have ever had a woman call to say thanks! Now, Mind Your Helm!" Within minutes the tugs would have us in the channel and we were headed back out to sea and our return to the States.

After a 2 week working voyage we arrived in Norfolk and Sue came to visit. This would become a habit- she would fly down to Norfolk every few weeks and we would spend time together.

Around this time- May of 1984, my Mom began to deteriorate at a rapid pace. She had battled so many illnesses for so many years that she was now about 80 pounds. There was nothing further that could be done to prolong her life. It was, as they say, just a matter of time.

I was driving a cab at night in Norfolk, mostly as a way to kill time between watches aboard Sirius. I was sleeping very little and it showed. One night I was driving through Virginia Beach when I was pulled over for swerving. I was high and tired looking so the cop assumed I was stoned. I told him I always looked that way. When he saw my license he exclaimed, "You really do look like that!" He gave me a verbal warning.

At the beginning of June I went to visit my Mom in New York and we settled any remaining differences between us. There were not too many left. Over the years at sea I had called her from many of the ports in the places that she loved and during those conversations all our past differences were erased. 5 weeks after I saw her last I received a call via Police Radio in my cab that my Mom had died.

Getting home should have been easy. But it wasn't. I had a Captain who was a prick. He actually tried to stop me from going to the funeral without prior Red Cross authorization, which is usually asked only of Active Duty Military personnel. His remarks to me that "It's not my fault that your people bury so quickly" inflamed me!

I called Congressman Steve Solarz office, he represented my Congressional District and was a family friend. I had worked for his earlier campaigns for State Assembly. A call from his office to Military Sealift Command Atlantic got immediate results, as I knew it would. But I can't tell you how the Captain reacted to it- I was already on a plane to New York.

At home for the funeral I was comforted by the fact that my Mom had finally found peace. And now, with her death, I was expecting to find peace too.

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