Category Archives: Sea Stories

Enchantress

the old mariner stepped cautiously,
a cane steadying his step,
toward the dilapidated wood pier
and
small dinghy at the head of the pier,
but
he wouldn’t board the dinghy today,
not today,
for the sea had chosen to be
belligerent and gray
with the wind whipping up
the spume of white caps:
too rough for old men
to row a shabby dinghy
out for a mile and then back,
which was his custom.

the old mariner sighed,
settling for listening to the sea
speak to him
as she had done
for what seemed like centuries
after­ she, the enchantress,
called him on a calm night,
using the full moon’s path
to him while he stood
at the rail port amidships,
the moon calling him like Circe’s sirens,
and
she, the enchantress, touched him,
gripping him deep inside
and
he fell in love.

little did the old mariner realize
until now
she would possess him
until the end of time
and
others he held close
would recognize
she possessed him,
assume he didn’t care,
and
leave him alone,
as alone as he was,
on this blustery sea day
looking out
at his angry, jealous enchantress.

the old mariner turned from her,
walking away,
carefully placing his cane for the next step
to his shanty on the nearby beach
where he would place the logs
in the hearth,
light the fire
to sit by
until
the next day
when he would row out
on the dinghy
and
speak to his enchantress
again.

Black Oil

Long before Navy ships became sophisticated power chains of today, most Navy ships were fueled by black oil. Black oil was just a step above crude oil. Environmentalists would probably have heart attacks just looking at it.

It was the fuel for ship’s boilers after coal and before “Navy distillate,” a cleaner burning oil. i have a number of sea stories about black oil and Navy distillate. This story is about black oil before that other stuff became the Navy’s fuel of choice. It was a thick, viscous, and clinging substance: think of B’rer Rabbit, B’rer Fox, B’rer Bear, and the “Tar Baby.”

In the summer of 1963, the USS Lloyd Thomas (DD 764) was on exercises in the Atlantic OP areas (operational areas). i was a third class midshipman. We were en route from Sydney, Nova Scotia to Bermuda and were refueling from an old Navy oiler. It was the time of black oil.

During the refueling operation, i was assigned to the “DASH” deck aft. i don’t think the sailors topside who weren’t on the refueling teams were wearing service dress whites as in the Goodrich photo, but they could have been. We were in our dungarees (far and away the most impressive, most effective, and most appreciated working uniforms for sailors ever) and in kapok life jackets. We didn’t wear hard hats but we did have on battle helmets.

Ray Bean, a member of the Facebook group, “US Navy Gearing Class Destroyers” posted some rather amazing photos of the USS Goodrich (DD 831) refueling that same year. Ray’s photo here shows the after refueling station on the DASH deck, just forward of the after gun mount:

The refueling hoses were secured to the post in the middle of this photo and the end was placed in a fitting which was a fuel line to the ship’s tanks. The hose was tied off with what we called a “pigtail” to keep the hose in the fitting.

On this particular evolution, the deck seaman in charge of securing the “Pigtail’ did not do a good job. When the refueling began, the force of the black oil through the refueling lines broke the pigtail. Black oil hit that sailor dead on, carrying him back into the lifelines in the upper left hand corner of the DASH deck as shown in the photo. He collapsed in the corner completely covered with the oily goo.

The disaster was reported to the captain on the bridge. He sent his executive officer back to the station to take handle the catastrophe. By the time the XO got to the station, the pigtail had been secured and fuel was being pumped into the tanks. But this old exec was proud of his self-importance. Seeing the fuel was pumping, he raged about cleaning up the mess. He pointed to the gunky mess in the corner and demanded to the officer in charge to get rags, clean the mess up, and to throw that oily mess overboard.

The officer in charge then said, “But sir, that’s Seaman Jones.”

The XO, startled, mumbled something about cleaning everything up and meekly went back to the bridge.

After we cleaned up the seaman, we all laughed.

Christmas Keeper

i posted this two years ago. Even though it validates i am a bona fide goof ball, i believe the story itself should be retold. Maureen Boggs Jewell remains a wonder, and i think, in spite of me she loves me almost as much as i love her:

i may have written about this before, but i don’t remember if i actually did post it here, or if it was such a seminal moment in my life, it just seems i have written about it a thousand times.

It happened in 1984. Christmas Eve actually. In Mayport, Jacksonville, and Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

The USS Yosemite (AD 19) had returned from its historic deployment to the Indian Ocean eight months earlier. If anything, the executive officer’s workload, a.k.a. moi, had increased. But down time was a lot more fun.

After Maureen had given up on her weekly commute between Jacksonville and San Diego  in early June, she and i had become a permanent couple in the same place. We had been married July 30, 1983 in her father’s home in Lemon Grove, a suburb of San Diego. Yup, the Southwest corner. Ten days later, i had flown home to Lebanon, Tennessee to pick up my Mazda Rx7 and drive to Yosemite’s home port of Mayport, northwest of Jacksonville proper. Other than a romantic Labor Day weekend with Maureen, i would not see her for another eight, almost nine months.

i was elated to see Maureen on the pier when Yosemite moored on her return and even more excited when she gave up the commute. It was not quite two months before our first anniversary and we had been together only two months of our marriage.

Christmas was going to be special, extra special, our first together. Our first married Christmas, Maureen was with her family in the Southwest corner; i was in Diego Garcia.

The Yosemite cooks and mess specialists (MS), nee “stewards” had done an incredible job for a Christmas away from home, but it wasn’t’ home, and the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet — some bozo later decided to change the name because they wanted only the president to be the “Chief” and reduced the title to simply “Commander, Pacific Fleet – wanted to raise the esprit de corps of the tender’s crew and wardroom, which meant Yosemite had a personnel inspection on Christmas Eve and this XO joined Captain Boyle, Admiral Crowe, and his aide for a Christmas Eve lunch. The admiral was a great guy and later became the CNO and then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But it really wasn’t the kind of Christmas Eve i would have preferred.

So the Christmas in Mayport was going to be special. But not in the manner i anticipated.

The ship’s doctor, Lieutenant Frank Kerrigan, and i had become good friends on the deployment and had a common interest in playing golf and racquetball, as well as being ardent sports fans. Frank was my escape from XO in many ways. Fresh out of medical school at the University of Chicago, Frank came to the ship with no Navy experience. i taught him many of the ropes, and he allowed me to talk and act like a human, not a Navy commander, number two in charge of a ship’s crew of 900. Janet, his wife, also had earned her medical degree with Frank in the Windy City, and was the resident doctor at the Mayport naval base clinic. Maureen became her patient, which evolved into them becoming close friends, like Frank and i, until that 1984 Christmas day. The two are the godparents of our second daughter, Sarah.

We were all away from our other families. So we decided to celebrate Christmas Day together at our home in Ponte Vedra Beach. It sounded like an excellent idea and eventually, it was.

But Christmas does not reduce a ship’s exec duties. The holidays actually increase the things an XO must do. So i kept putting off Christmas shopping until Christmas Eve. Frank (a ship’s medical officer is also busy), came up with a plan. To this day, i claim it was Frank’s idea, and he claims it was my idea. We agreed to that strategy.

Regardless, we had it all worked out when we added something we both loved as a Christmas present to ourselves. We got a tee time with a couple of Frank’s friends. The course was a new championship course with the holes entwined with a river on the west outskirts of Jacksonville, about an hour drive from the base.

The plan was to leave the ship around 0930/1000, drive out to the course, play 18, and finish up our shopping for our wives before returning to our homes around 1700. Our wives, aware of the stress and workload we both were under, agreed to our plan.

Great idea.

But then there were some complications.

Just after morning Officer’s Call and Quarters, Frank came to my office.

“XO, we have a slight problem,” Frank said, “One of our enlisted women overdosed on some prescription drugs. We have to get her to the Navy hospital. We’ve called the EMT vehicle.”

“Man, that’s terrible,” i reacted, “Is she going to be all right?” Being the good XO, i added, “Have you told the Captain? If not, i better let him know.”

“I think she’s going to be fine,” Frank answered, “I would appreciate you notifying the CO, adding, “but there is another problem.”

“What’s that?”

Frank responded, “I left my clubs at home in Atlantic Beach, thinking we could pick them up on our way to the course.”

“So?” i asked.

“XO, I have to go in the ambulance to the Navy Hospital,” he explained. The Navy hospital was about a half-hour away on the other side of Jacksonville.

“i guess that means our golf present to ourselves is cancelled,” i said resignedly.

“No,” Frank replied, “If you don’t mind, you can go by my house. I’ll give you the garage opener. You can get my clubs and shoes and pick me up at the hospital around ten.”

Then he explained, “I don’t think it would look very good for the ambulance to stop at my house and put the clubs in the back with the patient.”

i agreed with his explanation, also agreeing to his plan. He gave me his garage opener.

Well, being an XO on Christmas Eve, complications on the ship can arise. They did. My planned departure of 0930 was pushed back to past 1030. i called Frank and told him i was on my way. i picked up his clubs and headed west through the maze of interstates, bypasses, and confusing surface streets. This was long before mobile phones of any kind or GPS navigation. Being me, i got lost.

i finally made it to the hospital about 1230. Frank got in my RX7, and we sped to the course. We were about twenty minutes late. Frank’s friends had already teed off. We guessed they would be on the third or fourth hole. Now, i don’t know if you have noticed or not, but not a lot of golfers play on Christmas Eve in the afternoon, especially on the East Coast where it gets dark, real dark early in December. Frank and i decided we could play really fast and catch up to his friends.

We didn’t catch up. Tough course. As we got to the fifteenth tee, the sun was setting. We discussed our options. Being golfers, whether decent or bad, logic was not included in our decision. We decided to complete the round. After all, it would be a shame to not “see” the last three holes.

By the time we reached the seventeenth tee, the sun had not only set, the stars were out. The course, surprise, surprise, was dark. We played in the dark, guessing the direction where our shots were headed. If the balls weren’t where we guessed, which was nearly all of the time except on the green, we would drop another ball and continue playing. When we finished, Frank’s friends were long gone. There was no one in the clubhouse except the rather anxious pro. He had to finish his shopping as well.

i began driving toward the big shopping center on the coast near both of our homes when Frank told me we had to make a detour and a stop.

He explained, “Well, Janet wanted a kitten for Christmas, and I made a reservation to pick one up from this lady.”

Thinking this exchange would be a slam dunk, i agreed and took Frank’s direction to the lady’s house.

The house was a trailer home in the middle of a swamp of some sort, or perhaps a jungle. i drove the RX7 down the unpaved, one-lane road to the clearing where the trailer home stood. Frank knocked on the door.  The old lady came to the door.

He told her he had come to pick up the kitten and asked how much he owed her. She responded the kitten was free. i thought the deal is done; we’re out of here. But there was another twist.

The old lady muttered, “You’ll have to catch one.” She closed the door and returned to watching the television.

Frank and i spent about twenty minutes chasing all kinds and all ages of cats through the brush and the trees before catching one. We found an empty orange crate, opened the hatchback of the RX7, and i started to place the kitten in the crate.,

The kitten was not pleased with the idea. He or she attacked me like the cat from hell, puncturing my hands multiple times before climbing up my left arm at full speed, leaving claw marks for my entire arm’s length, and departing with a shriek.

We returned to the hunt for about ten minutes before giving up. It was too dark.

Frank was disappointed with this turn of events but okay. He said he could get a kitten later and he had already bought Janet another nice gift.

i had not planned ahead that well. i needed to get to the shopping center. i wanted to get Maureen a nice piece of clothing and nice piece of jewelry. i sped there. The shopping center closed at nine. Except on Christmas Eve, the mall closed at six.

The parking lot was empty.

i was frantic. Frank rode with me looking for something open. The only place we found was…a Pick ‘n Save.

They had absolutely nothing Maureen would want for a Christmas present, especially for our first Christmas together as husband and wife. Frantic, i ran down the aisles looking for something, anything.

Then this yahoo spotted something that would be awful but might somewhat make amends if i told my story, apologized, and promised great gifts beyond her wildness imagination in the future.

This would have probably been a good plan. But the gift i chose was a set of four whiskey sour glasses for $6.99.

I got home at 2100 (9:00 p.m.). i explained most of the misadventure, blaming Frank. She already knew me well enough to believe a little less than half of my tale. We dressed and went to wonderful midnight Christmas Eve service, sitting in the small balcony of an Episcopal Church close to our home. The service was almost completely carols with the sanctuary lit by candles and filled with the aroma of the pine bough decorations. It was romantic. It was so Christmasy.

But it did not assuage my fear of our gift opening the next morning.

The next morning, we had a wonderful Maureen breakfast. Before Frank and Jan came over for the Christmas turkey feast, we opened our presents. There were many wonderful gifts from our families in San Diego, Tennessee, and other places. Maureen’s present to me was wonderful, a sweater, i think. i waited as she took the rather shabby wrapping off of my gift as i once again expressed its inadequacy with my weak explanation, blaming Frank and the failed kitten hunt again. Dread is probably the best way to describe my feelings as my “gift” was revealed.

When she saw the box of whiskey sour glasses with the price tag i had forgotten to remove in my haste…she laughed her crazy, legendary laugh. At first, i thought she was crying, fearing our love affair and marriage might be falling apart before my eyes. Then i realized she really was laughing. She came over and gave me a wonderful hug and kissed me. My relief cannot be overstated.

The story has become legend among our families and our friends.

The whiskey sour glasses made it back to the Southwest corner when i was relieved as XO and headed back to San Diego for my twilight tour (the last tour before retirement). Shortly afterward, the four glasses strangely disappeared.

But that Christmas morning was when i realized i had a keeper and would be married for a long, long time.

That realization came thirty-four years ago.

And she still laughs about it.

And i’m still paying for it.

Merry Christmas, Maureen, dear wife of mine.

A Photo of Another Era, Another Place

i shared a photo memory on Facebook several days ago, and a man, a good man, whom i now consider a close friend, Hays Mershon, made a comment about our not reading the sign:

i responded with a sea story i would like to share with those who read my posts and aren’t on Facebook:

Oh, we read it, Hays. We just decided it didn’t make a lot of sense.

It was the Market Time outpost on the peak across the channel from the Army port of Qui Nhon.

On an earlier trip, we had some beers in the Army’s small O’Club hut on a peninsula at the end of the base. A Vietnamese man in a small narrow boat was coming in from a fishing trip. Apparently, the lookouts in the post in the photo thought the fisherman was a bad guy. They began to fire their .50 cal at the fisherman.

They weren’t very good shots and the Army lookouts at the post at the very end of the base thought someone was firing at them and began to return fire. We were caught in the middle of the crossfire and hunkered down between some concrete and steel piles outside the O’Club.

The fisherman calmly continued down the channel and pulled in boat into a small pier beside his village.

Finally, the two outposts realized they were shooting at each other. The crossfire ceased.

We went back in the club and had another beer before going back to the ship.

On the next trip, we went over to Market Time and the village over on that side of the channel and visited. Thus, we took this photo.

After we came back to the ship in a small skiff, just after midnight, Viet Cong zappers blew a hole below the waterline of the cargo ship aft of us (i’m pretty sure we were the target because we had just dropped off 1500 ROK troops and were to load 1500 the next day to take back to Pusan).

The blast blew through the cargo hold and out the other side. When i looked out my after cabin porthole, the cargo ship had a 30 degree list and the huge tires for pier fenders were bouncing down the pier. The Filippino crew began running of the ship with seabags and suitcases. A number of them tried to hire on our ship, the USNS Upshur to no avail.

The cargo ship finally was secured to the pier with its list. When we came back about 22 days later, it was gone.