By Robert Craig III, USN Retired
While I was stationed in Hawaii during my enlistment in the US Coast Guard in the 1970’s, I took advantage of the tropical schedule. This schedule had the crew muster on the fantail at 0600 and stop ship’s work at 1300. The rationale was, it was simply too hot to work much past noon in the warm tropical sun and high humidity. Without complaint I would put in my work repairing and maintaining the electrical equipment, taking a thirty minute break at 1000 to eat, before returning to finish up the last three hours of my day.
Life was good.
The party started at 1300 hours. Sometimes the party didn’t end until 0400, That is 4:00 in the morning for those just getting their heads around military time. There’s nothing like giving yourself no more than two hours to get some rest before having to start your work day, albeit a short one, all over again.
Tropical life was good, on-board a Coast Guard Buoy tender stationed in Hawaii.
This one particular evening I was low on cash. Instead of bar-hopping and dining in town, tonight, more low-key festivities were in the budget. I purchased a bottle of bourbon and returned to my ship. Cautiously, just after sunset, I smuggled the bottle on-board my ship, past the watch on duty, and slipped off to a secluded section of the ship to finish off my bottle –a party of one.
To my disappointment a roving watch caught me just as I was taking a drink.
Without hesitation I passed the bottle to him. To my surprise he took a good, healthy swig from the bottle after looking over his shoulder, like a good watchman, to see if anyone else was around. He quickly passed the bottle back to me as if it were a hot potato. He obviously didn’t want to be caught with the bottle in his hand, while on duty. He said “I’ll be back in about an hour.”
This continued for several hours until the bottle was almost empty. I waited beyond the eyesight of the Quartermaster of the Watch while my shipmate checked in from his rounds, and I would pass the bottle back to him each time before he began his next round. After four hours, my drinking buddy was relieved from his watch. He immediately slipped off the forward end of the boat and headed over to the base commissary to purchase another bottle for us.
When he returned we headed off to find a more secluded location on the ship where we could continue drinking –a party of two. Minutes in, the new watch joined the party. The three of us sauntered off toward the far end of the fantail and sat upon the gunwale, somewhere in the shadows away from the watch desk. We were finally discovered by the sailor on duty at the watch desk. This added a fourth man to share the new bottle of Bourbon. Never the less, I was getting pretty inebriated.
Eventually, as we stared into the dark water over the side of the boat, a bet was made that someone would bust their head open if they were to fall over backwards.
Testosterone, alcohol and a dare never give birth to brilliant ideas. I took up the bet and began to strip off my clothes. Without a single stitch left to get wet when I hit the water, I perched myself on the gunwale with my back toward the pier. Just before I leaned backwards to prove my point I took one extra large swig from the bottle, almost draining it. Inhaling deeply, I leaned back and fell from the gunwale.
The murky water of the harbor splashed up high when my back hit the water. The pungent odor of the barnacles that get washed into the harbor after a long day of cleaning and resetting channel buoys filled my nostrils as I gulped in air after resurfacing, head unbusted, from my free-fall into the dirty harbor water. The water was warm and felt dirty on my skin, like I dove into a giant bowl of leftover chowder.
As I treaded water my shipmate called out to me “Are you okay?”
I yelled back up “Yeah!” Just then his attention was diverted to the Watch Officer coming up behind him. At this point I thought it best for me to try to sneak back aboard and pretend I was asleep the entire time. I couldn’t figure out how I was going to explain my clothes piled up on the fantail, myself, as naked as a jay-bird. At this point the bourbon was really affecting me and I was feeling sick and sleepy at the same time.
Relaxing, after gulping several swallows of the dirty harbor water, on top of countless swallows of whiskey, I floated on my back, slowly drifting toward an edge under the pier. I heard a noise and saw the reflection of two eyes in the shadows. The creature suddenly slipped out of sight and I knew those two eyes probably belonged to one of the largest rats I had ever encountered.
My shipmates continued to call out to for me, but I didn’t answer them, in fear that I would be busted for the night’s reckless behavior. Without fully realizing that I had no chance of getting back to my bunk undetected, and after puking up half of the contents of the night’s beverage consumption, I staggered back to the boat.
It was too late. By this time the Watch Officer was panicked. He thought I had drowned. He sent the sentry down to wake the Duty Officer. More voices calling out for me came from the ship and I sought out the most friendly one I could find to let him know where I was –my mistake. This voice belonged to the Duty Officer. As I climbed aboard the boat I heard the Duty Officer shout, “What the Hell is this?! How come this man doesn’t have any clothes on?!” He turned to the Petty Officer of the watch and said, “you can’t let this man come aboard ship without a proper uniform!”
I was surprised that the only thing the Duty Officer was concerned about at this time, after finding out I was not drowned, was that I wasn’t in uniform. As he approached me to ask why I didn’t have any clothes on my drinking buddy tossed the bundle of clothes to me, boon dockers (work boots) and all. Out of breath and still reeling from the effects of the booze, I put my clothes back on. The Duty Officer immediately suspended his inquiry and sent me below decks to sleep it off.
Roughly two hours later one of the below deck rovers came by my rack, awaking me with orders to get into my dress whites, and report to Captain’s Mast. I felt sick, not only from the alcohol that was still playing havoc with my insides, but from this news of how quickly Military Justice moves onboard a U.S. Coast Guard Vessel. While I was getting dressed my Department Head came into the berthing area to check on my condition himself, after hearing several different reports.
He looked at me and said, “Petty Officer Craig, tell me the truth. “Why did you strip all your clothes off and jump over the side of the ship?” I explained how I rationalized that it was better to take all my clothes off so I would have dry clothes to put back on when I came back aboard. He accepted my version of the story. It made more sense to him than the stories that were circulating around the ship of my attempt to commit suicide. He asked me if I was still drunk, and without hesitation I responded in the affirmative.
He offered to do what he could for me at Captain’s Mast. He appreciated the outstanding work I did during those short, tropical days, and was probably very relieved that he didn’t have to do all the paperwork that would be required had I drowned. He advised me not to say anything unless I was asked, and to only speak of my own actions, and not anyone else’s who may have been indirectly involved in my drunken, daring plunge. He was confident he could get me off with just some Restrictive Duty.
Looking as good as I could for the condition I was in, I stood before the Commanding Officer within the hour. I was bobbing and weaving as if the ship was rolling on high seas instead of tied to the pier on still water. I was choking down some very wet, salt-water, barnicle and whiskey flavored burps. I stood before the Captain trying hard to stay focused on what he was saying, and concentrating on giving proper responses to his questions.
I was holding my own.
Then the Commanding Officer, quite sternly, asked me if I had anything to say for myself before imposing my punishment. This was my opportunity to show regret, or remorse, or to assure the CO that this bad behavior would never happen again. The alcohol, still affecting my judgement, and unlike my Department Head, not at all willing to help my case, caused me to improvise the following response…
I pulled my wallet from my back pocket, and flipped it open as if it were a Star Trek communicator. I struck a very confident Captain Kirk pose, as I spoke into my wallet and said, “Beam me up Scotty, the life form here is hostile!” A roar of laughter came over the cabin. Everyone was just about rolling on the deck… except the Commanding Officer.
With an angry, cold and somber face he said to me, “I know your kind, and I don’t appreciate you one bit. I know what your Department Head has said about your work ethic, but I don’t buy it.” He looked down at his podium and scribbled a few lines on some paper in front of him and turned to me as he announced my punishment. His voiced echoed in my drunken head, “Ninety days restriction, and half pay for two months. Because of your outstanding performance, and because advancement exams are coming up soon, I’m reducing the sentence on behalf of the good word your Department Head put in for you. Thirty days restriction and half pay for one month.” Then he asked, almost tempting me. “Now, do you have anything else to say for yourself, Petty Officer Craig?”
Feeling like I was going to puke at any minute, and as a sudden wave of sobriety came over me causing me to regain a proper level of humility and respect for our difference in rank, I responded obsequiously with my chin down and eyes up, “no sir.”
With that he dismissed me and turned me over to my Department Head. Out of sight of our Commanding Officer, he patted me on the back and told me to go get plenty of rest, and then check in with the duty Boatswains Mate at 1700 that night, for a much longer work day than I had grown accustomed.