He stood tall and alert, a strapping young man, with a stance that reminded me of the Marlboro Man without a cigarette. He cut a sharp figure, in his blue dress uniform, stripes on his sleeve, and the unmistakable “Donald Duck” Coast Guard sailor’s hat perfectly poised on his head.
Standing on a corner on Route 1, waiting for a ride, just inside the Maine border, I only saw him for a second or two, but looking at the Coast Guardsman, confident and strong, I knew somewhere inside I wanted to be like him. Heading to our vacation spot up in Tenant’s Harbor, I had a couple of hours left in that ride to think about my future. A future for an eighth-grader clouded by war drums in Vietnam, and confused by pubescent yearnings.
“You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.”
“The Coast Guard is that hard nucleus about which the Navy forms in time of war.”
“If we don’t have it, we’ll make it; if we can’t make it, we’ll do without it.”
These are all (some might say trite) sayings known to any Coast Guardsman in the early 1970’s. Truth be told, they were all based on fact, so far as we could tell. Ships and helicopters often ventured out into mountainous seas and gale-force winds to rescue mariners, and sometimes, they didn’t come home. It wasn’t top of mind in the moment of rescue, but coming back, a beat-up ship and crew could easily wonder what just happened, and what could have happened.
As the nation’s oldest seagoing service, the Coast Guard has a history of pulling hard duty during war, from the country’s earliest days in 1790 to chasing and sinking submarines, to ferrying troops ashore in slow, vulnerable landing craft during World War 2. During the Vietnam War, Guardsmen patrolled the dangerous rivers and deltas, guarded valuable ports, boarded suspicious watercraft, and provided intense ground support gunfire. Being in the Coast Guard was hardly the escape from war many thought it was. Wartime duty continues to this day, providing vital anti-terrorism duties, and serving in the Gulf War conflicts.
Though funding has allowed for modernization in the last couple of decades, during my time in the Coast Guard, the decade of the 70’s, we got by on less than ideal, if not outright dangerous ships and equipment, and got the job done, day after day. Oh, and we frequently enjoyed ourselves immensely while doing it, in spite of or perhaps because of the unique challenges we faced in a tightly knit brotherhood. Every day was a story waiting to be told; every night an adventure of some sort, whether out to sea or ashore at some nefarious bar.
More than half of this book refers to my service aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Courageous, a 210-foot cork in the ocean with a determined, crazy crew, and a smart, faithful captain who somehow managed to orchestrate us all into a skilled, award-winning team. Although it represents less than a quarter of my total time in the Coast Guard, the Courageous was an endless source of sea stories.
I dedicate this book to former Coast Guard Radiomen everywhere along with my shipmates on the Cutter Courageous, at Radio Station Miami, and at the AMVER Center. Today, the radioman rate is gone, assimilated into a generic “operations” rating, but Sparks everywhere know where they’ve been, what they’ve accomplished, and the often strange ways they’ve achieved their missions. In homage to them for a job well done, and in remembrance of some of the odd things I saw along the way, I commit Always Ready.