October 01, 2005

Hooligan days

 Sam Smith - The Greyhound rolled the 180 miles towards Yorktown, passing weathered, weary places where nothing seemed new, nothing shone, nothing smiled. As I sat alone in the dark of tidewater Virginia in the winter of 1961, my own past seemed to fade as irretrievably as the deep, distant line of shadows where the fields and the woods met. When I stepped off the bus, I would, for the first time in my life, be without a story. The only thing that would matter would be what I did next. For four hours I felt empty, stripped and scared.

Thus I arrived at the Coast Guard Reserve Training Center completely unprepared for its normalcy and even subdued hospitality. The classroom and dormitory buildings were standard Coast Guard architecture -- antiseptic white clapboards topped by dull green or red shingles, a sight that has meant home, progress, or security to generations of mariners. Our rooms were basic gray without brutality: a couple of government-issue gray desks, a gray bunk bed and two gray metal wardrobes. My one hundred classmates were either much like myself, apprehensive young college graduates, or somewhat less apprehensive enlisted men attempting to become officers. Unthreatened confidence was restricted to our instructors and to a small group of warrant officers attempting to leave the purgatory of that specialized rank in which they were considered officers but not quite gentlemen and in which they lacked the prospect of promotion. The warrant officers would attend our classes but were not subjected to demerits, marching in formation and other such annoyances. And if they failed, they were still warrant officers, which in the Coast Guard wasn't bad.

My roommate was a journalist mate first class, also surnamed Smith. I called him Bill and he called me Smitty. Some years older than I, Bill was married, had been in the Guard for some ten years and took a avuncular interest in his seaman apprentice roomie. Bill, it turned out, was of what I would soon learn was a familiar Coastie prototype, a competent, enjoyable and decent man without a trace of guile. He showed me the proper mix of spit and polish to make the toes of my black shoes glisten; he instructed me in how to make hospital corners on my bunk and how to clean the white piping on my seaman's uniform with a toothbrush and then suck the dirt and water out with my lips and teeth. In return I helped Bill with his math and together we quizzed each other for the endless multiple choice exams that popped up almost daily.


Because of the massive amount of information the Guard intended to pour into our brains within thirteen weeks, there was little time for harassment or pointless exercises. Between reveille at 6 am and the first class at eight, we did calisthenics, ate breakfast, cleaned our rooms, and were inspected in our fresh-never-sat-down-in whites. The rest of the day was mostly filled with classes and studying, with a little pro forma drilling thrown in. Our training vessel was a 125' patrol vessel, the Cuyahoga, which had been built in 1927 to catch rum runners. Seventeen years later, she would sink in minutes following a collision with a freighter in Chesapeake Bay. Like many of the Coast Guard vessels of the era, the Cuyahoga would never have passed Coast Guard inspection. Every major Coast Guard vessel of that time had seen service during World War II. On a few vessels it was said that the crews wore lifejackets to bed and wagered on whether the ship would make it back to port.

The Coastguardsman's Manual we were given included this description of our training vessel:

These 125-footers were built between 1927 and 1929, primarily as anti-smuggling vessels . . .By the end of [WW2] they were commencing to show their age. . . the survivors are presently assigned to district patrol work where they are still frequently in the news for small boat rescue work. But their slow speed is a disadvantage, ant they eventually will be replaced by larger faster craft.
At the time we trained on the Cuyahoga the manual was fourteen years old.


Both the discipline and the yelling to encourage it differed only in degree from what I had experienced growing up. At the end of the third week I wrote home:

When we're not marching, in class, studying, or cleaning up, we're dressing and undressing. Nine changes was the score for one day. My present demerit score is ten, one of the lowest in the class. I got through five days with none which was a minor feat.

I had also learned at home that rules were made to be circumvented. Thus, I quickly discovered that if one slept on top of one's sheets, rather than under them, they were easier to prepare for inspection. And I took illegal naps under my minimal GI gray desk during lunch breaks, positioning the door of my wardrobe so I would not be seen by a passing instructor.

Not only did I survive the regimen, I seemed to thrive on it. I didn't even mind the two score hour exams we took to reinforce the instruction. I found myself becoming a real Coast Guard officer. It was no longer something I was doing to avoid the draft, but an effort of pride and satisfaction.

I especially liked all the new things I was learning: the difference between carvel and clinker hull; that you mark a lead line with a red rag at seven fathoms; what the strongback (with puddings) is used for; that the safe working load for manila line is the circumference squared times 150; why a two fold purchase can lift more than a gun tackle purchase but is slower; why a single screw walks the stern to starboard (or is it port?) when reversed; the proper lights and signals to use in international and inland waters; international regulations for preventing collisions at sea; that on the radio my name was spelled Sierra Alpha Mike; that signal hoists are read top-down; outboard-in and fore-aft; how to help a plane ditch in the ocean; techniques of anti-submarine warfare; how to use an M1, .45, and a Springfield line throwing rifle; the operation of a 3"/50 gun; how to plot a course using the sun, stars, shore objects, radar, and loran; the history of the US Coast Guard; the duties of the US Coast Guard including icebreaking; aids to navigation, enforcement of the Sockeye Salmon Treaty, customs laws, the Refuse Act, the Loadline Acts, and immigration laws; laws against gambling devices at sea; how to arrest someone and use search warrants; why killing a Coast Guard officer was a federal crime; how to maintain watertight integrity on a ship; the use of a ship's casualty power system; dewatering a damaged ship; the difference between hogging and sagging; how to keep a ship from capsizing; fire party organization and operation; dealing with biological; chemical and atomic warfare; when to use a parallel track, creeping line, or expanding square search during rescue missions; and 48 USC 248a providing for the protection of walruses.


The service I had joined was formed in 1790 by Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury, to put teeth into his program of protective tariffs and to help create financial stability in a shaky new nation burdened by some $70 million in war debts. The Revenue Marine, as it was then called, was organized as a small fleet of ten cutters and in the 1790s proved encouragingly capable of accomplishing Hamilton's goal of arresting smuggling along our coast. When I joined it was still an agency of the Treasury and I swore to uphold not only the Constitution but the US customs laws as well.

For eight years the Revenue Marine was the only navy the country had. Once a regular Navy was established, the Coast Guard would be seconded to it during wartime while being under the Treasury in times of peace. In World War I it suffered the highest percentage of casualties of the any of the services and in World War II engaged in convoy and anti-submarine duty as well as manning landing craft. Coast Guard vessels saved 1,500 lives on D-Day.

On September 11, 2001, Coast Guard Admiral Richard Bennis, captain of the port of New York City, directed the evacuation of over 300,000 people by water from Manhattan following the attack on the World Trade Center. Bennis, suffering from cancer, had had staples removed from his brain just the day before the disaster, yet managed to coordinate the largest maritime evacuation since Dunkirk.

Five years later, the Coast Guard rescued some 33,000 people on the Gulf coast in the wake of Hurrican Katrina.

The peacetime history of the Coast Guard is filled with such stories - like that of Ida Lewis who, as her father before her, was keeper of the lighthouse on Lime rock in Newport RI harbor. During her half-century career, she saved 23 persons from drowning. Once she rescued three men whose boat had been swamped as they tried to pull a sheep from the water; then she went back and rescued the sheep. Her activities brought President Grant to the rock in 1869. Upon landing Grant got his feet wet. He remarked, "I have come to see Ida Lewis and to see her I'd get wet up to my armpits if necessary." When she died, every ship in Newport Harbor tolled its bells in honor of the woman who had lived so long in the tradition of the lifesaving service: "You have to go out; you don't have to come back."

Here's how the Regulations of the Life-Saving Service of 1899, Article VI ("Action at Wrecks"), section 252, page 58, put it:

The statement of the keeper that he did not try to use the boat because the sea or surf was too heavy will not be accepted unless attempts to launch it were actually made and failed, or unless the conformation of the coast -- as bluffs, precipitous banks, etc. -- is such as to unquestionable preclude the use of a boat.
These instructions remain in the instructions for Coast Guard life stations as late as 1934.

The sea seems determined to force men to fight it with their bare hands. It is a teacher of humility, an enforcer of respect, a revealer of fraud. It is indifferent to paper distinctions between men, without regard for fine words, and contemptuous of the niceties of society. Those who live with the sea will probably always be a bit different and those who go to sea in ships and boats as small as the Coast Guard's especially so. As Joseph Conrad put it, "Of all the living creatures upon land and sea, it is ships alone that cannot be taken in by barren pretenses."

In matters of military etiquette and discipline, the coast guardsman often fell short of the requirements of the book. It was the sea and the jobs to be performed upon it that enforced the real discipline. This was tacitly recognized by many in command.

Besides, many of the units were manned solely by enlisted personnel operated with only sporadic direction from their commissioned superiors. When things went awry (particularly when they occur on liberty and did not effect the work of the service) there was a tendency towards leniency. The Coast Guard had the lowest court martial rate of any of the services. But the more relaxed attitude towards matters of military discipline resulted not in operational laxness but rather in a clear refutation of the theory that the military must kill the spirit and independence of a man in order to get the most out of him.

And the legends helped. Such as the story of the cutter Bear which, during a 41 year career in Alaskan waters, served as a floating court, hospital, and rescue vessel. Her most dramatic rescue occurred during the winter of 1897-98 when she went to the aid of whaling ships frozen near Point Barrow. After sailing as far as possible, a party from the ship mushed 1,500 miles across the ice, driving a herd of 400 reindeer ahead of it for food. Not a single life was lost.

Lieutenant D. H. Jarvis in his report said of the whalers: "They were stunned and it was some time before they could believe that we were flesh and blood. Some looked off to the south to see if there was not a ship in sight, and others wanted to know if we had come in on a balloon."

Reaching the stranded whalers in late March, the Bear's crew maintained health and order until the cutter reached them four months later.


In the last weeks of OCS, our status dramatically changed. Up to then liberty had consisted of going to Nick's seafood restaurant in Yorktown and drinking 3.2% beer or driving to Williamsburg for a meal and champagne cocktails (the region was on the conservative side of local option drinking laws). But now we were nearing the time when we would be transformed from our instructors' students to their colleagues, a transition smoothed by inviting us to the Officer's Club.

Also in the last weeks we were asked to fill out a form requesting our first assignments. I applied for three ocean-going tugs -- two on the west coast and one in North Carolina. I wrote: "Beyond the above I would prefer a small floating unit near a city." I had high hopes that my wishes would be fulfilled. After all, among the reserve officer candidates, I ranked second in the class.

My orders finally arrived: It seemed that Ida Lewis and the Coast Guard Cutter Bear and all their heirs would have to wait. I was to report to Second District Headquarters, St. Louis, Missouri, as public information officer and aide to the district commander. Nothing like this had happened to Ensign Hornblower.

As it turned out, the Coast Guard had selected me for OCS not because of my knowledge of the sea but because it was looking to beef up its public relations. I was one of several in our class sent to PIO billets in district officers. The Guard had finally decided to forsake its informal motto, "In our obscurity lies our security."


Before leaving on this odd and somewhat embarrassing assignment, I returned to Washington for visit friends and to attend a party that promised to be out of the ordinary. The party was to be given at a farm in Middleburg, Virginia for Liza Lloyd Mellon. Prior to the ball, I was invited to the farm of Phil and Katherine Graham, whose daughter Lallie I knew. Also, Phil Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, employed as managing editor the father of my friend, Alfred Friendly Jr., who had gone to elementary school with me.

Arriving at the Grahams about an hour before sunset, I found drinks being served on a lawn overlooking dark green hills as three horses wandered as near the guests as the bush border would permit, watched skeptically for a few moments, and then moved on. There were only a few debutantes around but there were Mr. And Mrs. John Kenneth Galbraith, McGeorge Bundy, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Bobby Kennedy, the William Paleys and Joseph Alsop. In a letter later I noted that "Mrs. Paley looked like the eleventh best dressed woman in the United States trying to make the list of the ten best dressed women in the United States. This was quite unnecessary since she is already on it."

On a hill near the Mellon's home were brightly colored tents of medieval design, sleeping quarters for the male guests. Each tent had a wooden raised floor, 15 cots, and an ashtray for every occupant. Several of the tents had been made into heads with showers and electric outlets for shavers included. Another tent housed two separate catering operations. There was room in this canvas city for 268 male souls. The local Episcopal rectory had been renovated for the women.

The main house contained not only the Mellons but an art gallery whose properties ranged from Renoir to Pissarro to Picasso. A large society orchestra alternated with Count Basie's band until six a.m. The fastest omelet maker in France, flown in for the evening, was equally indefatigable. A half-hour of fireworks and a brief visit by Jacqueline Kennedy (who seemed more interested in Rousseau, Pissarro and Picasso than in the other names present) gave a redundant gloss to the evening.

Towards six am we wandered towards a large yellow tent to rest. Al Friendly crawled onto a cot still in his white dinner jacket, pulling the covers up as if he bedded down in this fashion every night, and went to sleep.

By eight I was up for breakfast: a bottle of beer and scrambled eggs. One of the caterers told me he had never seen anything like this either. As our minute Agincourt came to life and spirits returned, we took off again for the Grahams and a swim in their pond. Upon arriving on the second floor to change into a swimming suit, I found Joseph Alsop crawling on his knees searching for something in the hall. He got up, mumbled, "I can't seem to find his shoes" and returned to his bedroom.

After a morning in the sun, we returned to the Mellons for lunch. A hefty buffet had been laid out and twin pianos played for the benefit of those still strong enough to dance. As I left at three-thirty, the omelet maker was still hard at work.


For the next year or so, it would be my job to explain what the hell the Coast Guard was doing in St. Louis. The official spiel I developed went like this:

The Second Coast Guard District covers all or part of 21 states from western Pennsylvania to the Rockies, from the upper part of Alabama to the Canadian border. Within its borders are more than 5,000 miles of navigable water, mainly the Mississippi and its tributaries. There was are also 103 lakes of more than ten miles in length that fall under USCG jurisdiction. There are more than a quarter of all the aids to navigation in the country to be found in the 2nd District. We board 25,000 small craft for safety inspections each year. . . .My unofficial spiel went like this: The Mississippi River is much harder to guard than, say, Massachusetts, since it has two coasts. Well, how do you guard the coast of the Mississippi, Ensign Smith? Listen, wise ass, you don't see any of it missing, do you?

Still, there were some definite pecularities to the post. For example, we lost over 100% of our buoys every year thanks to ice and the huge tows. And we probably had the only search & rescue center whose territorial chart showed the location of bars and restaurants. When a distraught wife would call up looking for her missing husband, invariably last seen in a "small white boat with an outboard," the first order of business would be to check with the bartenders and restaurant managers near the last known location.

Although my own search & rescue activities were limited to patrolling a few regattas on the river, I once almost caused a serious maritime disaster. I had gotten a local TV station down to do a piece on the St. Louis Coast Guard base. As we were talking and filming, we were hailed by a small white boat with an outboard that was drifting helplessly in the stiff river current. The base sent out a crew who quickly hauled in the two couples and their boat. They were clearly relieved until, that is, one of the men noticed the TV camera. "You're not going to use this on TV are you?" he asked with considerable despair. "You can't. These aren't our wives." The film was canned.


If you were to think of a city in terms of color, St. Louis would have been that of dirty, smoke-smudged brick. Back in the 19th century a severe fire burned down many dwellings, leading to a city ordnance against wood structures. The rest of the city lacked brightness as well. I moved in with the son of a St. Louis-Dispatch editor who worked for an advertising agency. He and his friends, and the friends I would make, often spoke of St. Louis as a place to leave. It was the early 1960s and while nobody knew it yet there was a restlessness among the young, particularly in places where everything had been decided and judged, where life consisted of fulfilling a role without surprise, risk, discovery, or mystery.

I was not impressed by St. Louis society, describing its members as buzzing "around frantically like flies trapped in a lampshade." There seemed a singular inability to enjoy status once it had been achieved. Life was taken in dead earnestness and woe to those seen enjoying it. The spirit was reflected in the society pages of the local papers where no one in the photographs appeared to be having a very good time. Most serious of all events was the Veiled Prophet Queen Ball. The Veiled Prophet was a carefully disguised prominent male social leader charged with crowning the leading debutante of the year. This was done in the largest gathering place in town to which 10,000 general admission seats were sold. The papers treated the matter as it would a major league pennant victory -- complete with features such as the one about J. C. Jones who for seventeen years had arrived around midnight in order to be the first in line when the ticket window opened the next morning. The ball was even televised.

Nor did more staid and less prominent St. Louis enthrall me. I wrote that "St Louis is the center of a large German Catholic population that likes Prophet Queens as much as they like Martin Luther. It is perhaps testimony to the universality of the Roman Catholic church that a Boston Irishman would feel completely uncomfortable in such somber surroundings. One gets an almost irrepressible desire to set off noisemakers or play bawdy songs from a loudspeaker while driving through this part of town."

On the other hand, St. Louis did have Gaslight Square, a whole neighborhood devoted to bars and entertainment including Irish bagpipes, operatic jam sessions, Dixieland and modern jazz, quiet trios, comedians, stage shows, twist clubs, and even silent movies shown on a parking lot wall. The common practice was to have one drink at a club and then move on, a practice that not only kept the bars busy but the streets as well.

There was also the Fox Theater. This building on Grand Avenue was built during the days when the screen was still small but the theatres were large. Walk inside and you found yourself in a cathedral for pagans, where a benevolent celluloid god was worshipped continuously from noon on. A guide to St. Louis described its lobby as a "towering space, its encircling colonnade topped by capitals of golden vultures. A staircase, flanked by seated lions with flashing electric eyes, rises to a landing furnished with four high-backed red velvet throne chairs, each with armrests in the form of camels."

The climax came at intermission between the double features. As the first film faded from the screen a spotlight shone on the center of the orchestra pit and a $70,000 organ slowly rose into view. Played by Stan Kahn (who collected vacuum cleaners as a hobby) the organ was one of the most powerful in the world and, in fact, could not be played at full intensity for fear of bringing the entire citadel down upon the audience.

But that never happened nor did much else. I moved into an apartment on Lake Avenue where the nearby movie theatre was playing "Never on Sunday." It still was when I left town.

Then there was the river. It was dirty and smudged and mundane as well and most of the time like everything else in town it just kept right on rolling along. I felt upon seeing it that one more childhood myth, like Santa Claus and fairy godmothers, had been destroyed. Yet I soon would learn that this modest, muddy stream could rise thirty feet about her current height and carry anything with her in a vengeful dash towards the sea; she could freeze, turning into a mass of ice flows that jammed themselves against each other like ice-carved rugby players, laying against the piers of bridges until the first thaw of spring released their awesome energy. In quieter times, tows - with each barge carrying the equivalent of ten freight car loads - would plough quietly along, some carrying more cargo than all the steamboats of Mark Twain's day put together.


I threw myself into the job of information officer and aide with a gusto that quickly distracted me from disappointment over the assignment. My desk was in the reception room of the District Commander where I sat across from his secretary and next to the office of the Chief of Staff. Both men were captains with long sea experience, possessing competence that was as unselfconscious as it was deep. The chief of staff, Captain Gene Coffin treated me with in the manner of a fun-loving, knowledgeable and gentle uncle. The District Commander, Oliver Peterson, while genial enough, didn't seem quite certain of what a public information officer was meant to do or why he had one. Captain Peterson was a man of action not of words. He had once taken the Coast Guard cutter Eastwind to within 442 nautical miles of the North Pole, a record for a surface ship at the time.

Captain Peterson had also in 1952 directed the rescue of 70 of the 84 tanker crew members by several Coast Guard ships during a violent winter storm. When the first call came, a CG plane flew to the location to guide the rescue ships in. The Eastwind, arriving on the scene, spotted part of a tanker and called the plane on the radio. We see the ship, the radioman said, but we don't see you. The plane's crew replied that they could see the tanker but not the Eastwind. It took some time before ship and plane realized they were looking at two different tankers -- identical in class and identical in fate -- both having broken in two 60 in the gale.

In my office, liberated from the District headquarters photo lab, is a large photo taken from the plane that shows the Eastwind bow towards half of a tanker and if you look closely you can see a life raft on a line being pulled between the two vessels. Sometime after this photo was taken, the waves increased and the transfer of crew by life raft was no longer possible, Captain Peterson ordered his own crew to bring up their mattresses and stack them on the fantail of the Eastwind. He then backed the vessel precariously near the stern of the tanker and had the remaining crew leap to safety.

Captain Peterson didn't tell me this. In the Coast Guard you let other people tell stories about you, so I learned the tale from my photographer's mate first class, my mentor and co-conspirator for the greater glory of the public information office, Billy Keys. It was Keys who also told me about a journalist's mate had developed a small trade aboard one of the ocean station vessels that stood search and rescue duty for 30 days at a time in midst of the North Atlantic: he had composed love letters for less literate crew members. With this talent, Alex Haley became a legend in the Guard years before his writing reached a larger audience.

I had one thin gold stripe that circumnavigated my sleeve; Billy had several short white ones. Although Billy called me sir, he also knew that in knowledge of Guard practice and tradition and knowledge, he outranked me.

Together we threw ourselves into creating the district's first real public information office. The first essential was to enlarge the staff. In no time, a journalist's mate appeared, a fine addition save his desire to save my soul. Rollin Hill had been born again, a concept with which I had only the vaguest acquaintance, but I quickly accept the notion that attempted conversion was not a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and thus exposed myself to endless discussions of the matter. By the time I left, the office would have a staff of five -- including the District Commander's driver, carefully selected for his typing rather than his driving skills. Not bad for my first year and a half in a government bureaucracy.

Not long after I got there, Captain Peterson was transferred and the district got as commander its first honest-to-god admiral. To be an Coast Guard ensign in St. Louis was odd, to be an admiral there was truly exotic.

Admiral O. C. Rohnke had commanded six vessels, and had helped to create the Atlantic Merchant Vessel Report Program that used computers to keep track of merchant ship positions. This not only made rescue of troubled merchant ships far easier, it put the ships at the Coast Guard's disposal to help whenever an emergency arose near their position.

Admiral Rohnke absolutely fit the role: tall, gray hair and erect -- yet with a mild manner that never once erupted into misplaced ego during our time together. My job as aide was to do anything the admiral needed. People such as myself were sometimes called dog robbers, dating back to the days when aides got the leftovers from their boss's dining table, thereby depriving the dogs of the scraps. With an aiglette (gold loop) on my shoulder, however, wherever I went in the 2nd District the shadow of a flag officer followed. With Admiral Rohnke's arrival I had received a de facto promotion.

I also knew that Admiral Rohnke and Billy Keys had much more in common than either had with me. Yet in one way Rohnke and I were in the same situation: the gold on our arms only told part of the story.

I learned that in Peoria. Having an admiral in the office was a godsend for public relations and I quickly started using Admiral Rohnke (although never hinting at such crassness) as a sort of roving logo for the Second District. He willingly submitted to whatever scheme I devised. For an inspection trip to the Coast Guard station in Peoria, I pulled out all the stops. Swede Johnson, a huge red-haired warrant officer who commanded the Coast Guard buoy tender Goldenrod, was delighted to cooperate, getting the local liquor wholesaler to throw a big party for the visiting flag officer. Swede also wanted Rohnke piped aboard his vessel.

The Goldenrod, for good reasons, had never before piped anyone aboard. It was, after all, only a tugboat that pushed -- or "towed ahead" in river parlance -- a barge with a crane for doing the buoy work. Nonetheless, with several reporters and television cameras watching, a chief boatswain's mate blew his pipe and his crew saluted as the admiral stepped sharply aboard the barge. I stood looking pleased with myself until I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was one of the cameramen: "Was that it?" he asked.

"Yep," I said.

"Well I wasn't ready, he has to do it again."

I approached my boss. "Er, Admiral, the TV guy says he didn't get the shot. Would you mind being piped aboard again?"

"Sure," Rohnke replied and stepped gamely off the barge and back on the dock.

This time the camera was ready and the admiral marched smartly aboard. As I was beginning to relax, the chief boatswain mate turned to me and said, "Mr. Smith, they didn't shoot that did they?" "Yeah, Chief, they did."

"Well, he's got to go back and do it again. My men weren't ready."

If you were to list three jobs whose practitioners are not generally known for their tolerance, admirals, chief boatswain mates and TV cameramen would be near the top. And near the top of their list of people not to be tolerant towards would be freshly-minted ensigns.

There was, however, nothing to do but to ask. With only a shrug, the admiral stepped ashore once more. This time we got it right.

It was only one of Admiral Rohnke's remarkable performances that day. An hour or so later we were underway on an inspection voyage down the Illinois River. The Goldenrod had a tiny wardroom and around the table sat just the four of us: the skipper, the chief, Admiral Rohnke and myself. A white linen cloth and glassware had been laid on and no sooner had lunch been served than an enlisted man appeared with a bottle of wine.

If we had been in the Italian or French navy no one would have blinked. But drinking alcohol aboard an American naval vessel was verbotim. That's one thing I remembered from OCS. As I was trying to figure out how to handle the situation, the admiral leaned over to me and said very softy, "I won't say anything, Sam, if you don't" "Yes, sir" I replied, immensely relieve as I silently pledged my undying loyalty to the admiral.

For an admiral, it must have been all a bit trying being there in the epicenter of America trying to maintain the appearance of a man of the sea. The official car didn't help, either. The Coast Guard in those days was an orphan of the Treasury Department. Thus it was not that surprising that the admiral's car was a Chrysler Imperial seized by Treasury's alcohol and tax unit during a raid on Chicago mob operations.

It was an asset the mob must have been glad to forfeit. The car was regularly in the shop. On one occasion, I was forced to commandeer my own 1941 Oldsmobile Hydromatic to get the admiral to the airport. I was tempted to mount the admiral's flag on the front bumper but settled for having the driver, Gary Smith, salute sharply and never crack a smile as Rohnke entered the back seat of the ancient beast. On another occasion, I stood along a suburban highway in dress uniform and aiglette hitching a ride back for the admiral and the driver, the former being too distinguished to do the thumbing and the latter unlikely to provoke response by a passing car.

Which is not to say that Admiral Rohnke didn't have his limits. On one occasion, the 2nd District sent a boarding crew into Oklahoma to do safety inspections on a lake that was considered a federal waterway. The crew returned to St. Louis early, reporting that they had been stopped by the Oklahoma state police who told them that the next time they came into the state they had better wear their authority on their hip. Rohnke didn't like that at all and immediately flew to Oklahoma to straighten out the governor, leaving me to bring his Ford Thunderbird to the state capital, a task I accomplished at speeds of up to 100 mph on the straightest, longest and most empty roads I had ever seen. (Senator Robert Kerr once asked Eugene McCarthy to support an exemption for his state from the anti-billboard provisions of the interstate highway legislation. McCarthy not only agreed but offered to deliver a speech on the subject. To Kerr's dismay, the gist of McCarthy's plea was that billboards would actually improved the Oklahoma scenery ).

In between planning and executing the various adventures of my boss, I churned out news releases, set up displays at river-related conventions and gave talks to high schools and civic groups. On one occasion, during a conference for the warrant officers who commanded the various buoy tenders in the district, I enlisted the tough and salty gentlemen to the greater cause of public relations. My technique was simple. First, I had them all over to a party at my apartment and got them good and drunk, which weakened their wariness. The next morning, we met in a conference room and I asked them only one favor: that they call up the local daily paper and suggest that they send a reporter and a photographer on a day long trip down the river to view the exciting business of tending buoys. Several stories resulted, including a full two-page spread in the Des Moines Register. A number of the COs became first-rate flacks for the Coast Guard.


Not only did the Coast Guard tend to run low and poor on ships and cars, but it didn't have enough officers for all the things it was meant to do. One was constantly shifting roles to fulfill the collateral duties thrust upon the lesser ranked. Further, the new president, John F. Kennedy, added to the work load. He had noted during his inauguration parade the lack of any blacks in the Coast Guard Academy contingent and called the Treasury Department the next day to seek a remedy. And so the word went forth, even to the federal building in St. Louis, to do something about it and I found myself, although the name hadn't been invented in 1961, serving as the district's affirmative action officer. I was totally unsuccessful. St. Louisians of any ethnicity were disinclined to think that going out on any of the major oceans was a good idea for either themselves or their sons. The black businessmen and civic leaders I addressed agreed and seemed to regard me as an agent of the devil when I described what a Coast Guard officer actually did and under what circumstances he often did it.

Kennedy had also declare the nation unfit and wanted the military to set an example for everyone else. And so I found myself assigned to run a physical fitness program for the hundred officers and men of the district headquarters. It all went somewhat better than the affirmative action effort, but in the end those who started out fit tended to stay fit while similar trends prevailed among the flabby. Being in charge of all this inertia did, however, inspire my own efforts and I pumped iron regularly in the dingy YMCA gym with that marvelous assortment (including in this instance a professional wrestler) one found in such places before fitness was defined by silly people in spandex jumping up and down and yelling faux encouragement at their bedraggled wards to the sounds of excessively loud rock.

But though there was enough to do, I never doubted that I wanted to be part of the real Guard. So when Admiral Rohnke was assigned to Washington and he asked me, "Is there anything I can do for you while, I'm there, Sam?" I said, "Yes sir, get me on a ship."

Once again he came through. On my next trip to DC, I stopped by the assignment office at Coast Guard headquarters. "My name is Smith and I came by to see how my transfer was coming." The lieutenant commander looked at me, pondered a moment, and without referring to any document, replied, "Smith, Smith, Sam Smith, you want to go to sea, right?"

There were only three thousand officers in the whole service and at that moment I knew I had joined the right branch of the military, in contrast with my friends who wore the same bars in the Army or Navy but were still a number to be shuffled about.

In the Coast Guard if you didn't know someone, you knew someone who did. This after all, was the service in which just one family, the Midgetts of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, provided over two centuries literally hundreds of its members to the Coast Guard and its predecessors, the Revenue Cutter Sevice and the US Lifesaving Service. Seven Midgetts earned the Gold Lifesaving Medal and three the Silver for rescues. I never met a Midgett, but I met those who had served with them, all of us members of an even larger family called the Coast Guard.


My assignment came through: Bristol Rhode Island, operations officer and navigator aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Spar. Bristol sat in the upper reaches of Narragansett Bay, whose huge bite out of the mainland gives Rhode Island its jagged border. It has also provided cover for centuries of illegal activity from slave to rum to drug running to illegal quahogs. Narrow channels led tankers, freighters, and smaller craft to Providence and Fall River. A large island divided the bay into an east and west passage. At the entrance to the East Passage, with its ornate homes posing above the unimpressed sea and sky, was Newport. A little further up the bay was the Navy base with its herd of destroyers waiting impatiently to be released to the blue pasture beyond Brenton Tower. Still further, coming to course 035 degrees true at Castle Island Light, was Bristol.

When I got there, the small town of Bristol -- population 5,000 -- was giving the world rubber soled shoes, golf balls and fiberglass sailboats. For many years prior to that, though, its mark had been more impressive as the magnificent craft of Hereshoff slid down the ways of his Bristol yard to sail to a hundred different ports.

Shortly before I arrived Bristol had tried to restore a bit of its honor by purchasing the second cherry-picker style hook and ladder truck to be sold in the country (the first had gone to Chicago). The proximate cause of the purchase had been a serious fire in the tallest apartment building in town (five stories), but there weren't any more tall apartment buildings and hence considerably less need for a cherry picker.

The fire engine arrived in early spring and was displayed on the town green. Unfortunately, when it was finally time to take the engine to the firehouse, it had sunk into the soggy town green and had to be towed off. When it arrived at the firehouse another problem developed: the building wasn't deep enough. Eventually a deal was worked out with the local trash hauler: the fire engine could be stored in his garage - but behind his trash truck and he would keep the key.

The Spar, one of the newer ships in the Guard, had made Bristol its home for most of its 19 years. The people of Bristol considered the ship their navy. When it was learned that she was to be in the Coast Guard's yard over the town's vaunted July 4th celebration, several Bristolites wrote their congressmen asking that the yard work be rescheduled.

As one of the five officers on the ship, I was invited to make myself at home at the Elk's Club, and otherwise quickly integrated into Bristol's social life. Further evidence of the Spar's status came on a Memorial Day weekend. Two men from the ship went on liberty at ten AM. At eleven PM they were in the local jail having been involved in a roaring fracas that included among its casualties a policeman who had tried to stop the fight and was slugged for his efforts.

I went to the court the next morning in full uniform to bring the two back to the ship. Before the judge passed his sentence, I promised the magistrate that Bristol would not see much of the pair for the next few weeks. He gave them a minimum fine and a minimum lecture and released them into my custody. Everything went smoothly until the judge asked the sailors whether they wanted to say anything. Gilbert, standing at attention in a bloodied tee-shirt and with a black eye, replied, "Well sir, it was like I was telling Mr. Smith here, I was just minding my own fucking business when this fucking guy come up starts giving me shit and so. . . " I gave Gilbert a sharp nudge, the judge smiled indulgently and closed the court for the day.

I was concerned that the town might think unkindly towards the ship as a result of the incident. Far from it, as the tale was told to me several times later in various places, Gilbert was right -- our boys hadn't thrown the first punch. That they had been drinking steadily for twelve hours and had decked a cop didn't seem to matter -- in fact the latter act seemed to inspire a certain amount of awe.

In 1957, the Spar circumnavigated the North American continent, making the first deep draft voyage through the Northwest Passage in the company of two Canadian Coast Guard cutters. Not since Raoul Amundssen crossed the top of Canada aboard his vessel Gjoa had any ship succeeded in this venture.

The voyage had gone without mishap, but two years before I stepped aboard the Spar experienced its worst luck just a few miles from home. On the way back from replacing ice-driven buoys in the bay, she had struck a rock and might have been a total loss had not the crew lowered away her two power boats and used them to tow the stricken ship, in sub-freezing temperatures, to a sand bar, where she settle to the level of the main deck.

One of my men had just that day reported aboard out of boot camp. I asked him what happened. "Well," he said, "I was sitting on the mess deck and someone told me the ship was sinking. I thought it was some sort of drill or something."

The Spar was 180 feet long. Unlike most Coast Guard cutters that were painted barn siding white, the buoy tenders had black hulls and white superstructures. We sometimes sardonically referred to them as The Great Black Fleet. The Spar was equipped to break ice and her rugged construction and towing ability made her an excellent heavy weather search and rescue craft. She was also used to bring fuel, water and crews to the Nantucket Light Vessel and to the several of the nearby lighthouses. But her main task was to maintain 170 buoys from Block Island to Buzzard's Bay. My main task, other than to make sure the ship got where it was going, was to put the buoys where the charts said they were.