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"Step up to the platform! Step to the edge of the platform! Cross your arms over your chest! Step off the platform!" The first pair of recruits went plunging into the pool. The smell of chlorine was strong as we stood single file by the stairs leading to a big metal platform projecting out fifteen feet above the pool. "Step up to the platform! Step to the edge of the platform! Cross your arms over your chest! Step off the platform!" Off went the next two.
It was January 1983. I had made it known that I enlisted in the Coast Guard a few months after graduating high school the year before. My friends' parents had made bets on how many weeks I would make it through boot camp before being sent home. I suppose the odds weren't bad. After all, I was about thirty pounds overweight, I was nonathletic, and I never swam a stroke before in my life. I can't explain why I didn't doubt myself.
Most of the recruits thought going to the pool during boot camp was recess, a break from push-ups and sit-ups. But to a handful of inner-city black kids and me, the pool was a real nightmare. The instructors would determine which of us could not swim after watching each of us almost drown.
Despite our fear of the water, our terror of the drill instructor was stronger. Or maybe it was sheer determination. In any case, none of the non-swimmers hesitated. One of my fellow "swim failures," a young black female, sank quickly out of sight. We waited. She didn't resurface for what felt like an eternity. How could she survive? Surely the instructors were going to save her? After all, this is the Coast Guard. She finally broke the surface in a mad panic. She was gasping for air when our instructor pressed a very long aluminum pole to her chest. She instinctively pulled on the pole and the instructor let it slip through his hands — she sank beneath the surface once again. He pulled her back up screaming, "I said never pull on the pole!" Then he towed her back to the side of the pool and she climbed out of the water, still trying to recover. The drill instructor simply ordered her to get to the back of the line.
This series of events disconcerted me as I drew closer and closer to the front of the line. I guess some people thought it was ridiculous that anybody would have joined the Coast Guard without knowing how to swim. I don't remember being scared, only nervous. After all, I had a calling.
For me, being in the Coast Guard was a dream come true. As the son of a New York City subway conductor, growing up in a small apartment in a six-story, walk-up tenement, I didn't have much. We didn't have a shower, washer, dryer, TV, or car. Everywhere we went, we had to get there by subway or bus. It was my mother's job to keep two sons and one daughter occupied and out of trouble. For recreation, my mother came up with many different day trips on mass transportation. One of my favorites was to take the Second Avenue bus down to the South Street Seaport. This was during the 1970s, and New York City was very different from what it is today. The Seaport reeked of dead fish from the Fulton Street Fish Market next door. There were more one-eyed alley cats on the streets than people. The hundred-year-old brick buildings were all abandoned except for one nautical junk store and one museum shop. Pier 17 was old and rotten, and the holes were big enough to fall through if you weren't careful. The pier had three museum ships tied up: an old 325-foot square-rigger named Wavertree, a smaller fishing schooner Letti G. Howard, and the Ambrose Lightship. I grew up playing on those ships on a regular basis and dreaming of what it would be like to go to sea one day — I really wanted to be a salty sailor of the seven seas.
When I was a child I also chalked up a great deal of sea time on the Staten Island Ferry, since that was one of our more exciting weekend family outings. I never sought cover from the wind during those half-hour voyages, regardless of the weather. The cool, drizzly days of spring and fall were best. I loved the feel and smell of the sea air whipping on my face. Whenever the ferry crossed the harbor toward Staten Island, I wondered what it would be like to one day turn left, go under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and head out to sea. These ferry rides introduced me to the Coast Guard early on — each trip meant passing the Governor's Island Coast Guard base on the way to Staten Island.
In 1976, the year of the big bicentennial Operation Sail in New York Harbor, I was twelve years old. Of course, my family and I were there watching the parade of tall ships from the Battery. After the parade, we headed over to Pier 17 South Street Seaport and waited in line for hours to take a tour of the Eagle, the Coast Guard Academy's sailing ship. The Eagle is a 295-foot barque with masts 150-feet-tall. We finally got on board. I thought it was the coolest ship in the world and dreamed of what it would be like to go to sea on such a fine ship.
As my high school years came to a close, it was time to make a decision. I had been in the Boy Scouts and the Knickerbocker Greys Cadet Corps. I grew up watching WWII movies, reading military histories, and playing with toy soldiers. The military was definitely in my blood. My grandfather served as a constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary during the Irish War of Independence, and my father had been in the U.S. Marine Corps. I didn't have to think too long about which branch of the service to join, as I was most drawn to the Coast Guard's seagoing tradition and lifesaving mission.
"Step up to the platform!" It was my turn to climb the gallows. God help me.
"Step to the edge of the platform!"
"Cross your arms over your chest!"
"Step off the platform!"
Like the others, I complied without hesitation and then I sank, and sank, and sank. I had never been in water over my head. All I wanted to do at that point was to make it back up to the surface and the safety of the side of the pool. I finally broke the surface and thrashed my way to the side of the pool without the assistance of the pole. Mission accomplished. One step at a time.
My recruiter had bought me a one-way ticket on a Greyhound bus to Coast Guard boot camp in Cape May, New Jersey. What a way to leave town, through the Port Authority bus terminal of the early 80's. Even Penn Station would have been a step up. My arrival was uneventful. Some young Coast Guard people picked me up from the bus station in a government car and said very little to me or to each other. When I arrived, I was told to wait in a big room full of tables uniformly arranged with sets of gear. I stood in front of the set of gear I was directed to and waited in silence. I was the only one there. I would find out the next day from another recruit, a clueless young preacher-man from Alabama, that I had missed all the fun. The rest of the recruits were flown into Philadelphia airport and were picked up by a Coast Guard bus. In the "squad bay" during a moment of downtime, the former preacher-man explained what happened with a high-pitched southern accent and a sense of outrage, "Well, my goodness, I could not believe it. I thought they were going to say, welcome to the Coast Guard, glad to have you ..."
"You missed it, man," said another recruit joining in, "as soon as the bus stopped at the front gate he came on and stood at the front, and stared at us. Then he starts screaming at the top of his lungs, 'You dirt bags have got twenty seconds to get off this bus and get formed up, and nineteen of them are gone. Move, move, move!'"
"Oh, my goodness," said the Alabama preacher-man, looking down and shaking his head as he walked off. Even reliving the incident was proving too much for him.
The squad bay was a long, narrow room with heavy iron bunk beds aligned in two rows. There was a center aisle and the lockers were against the wall. Since I had never had the opportunity to travel farther than 300 miles from my place of birth, I enjoyed meeting different characters from all over the country. The guys shared stories of their former lives that ended a week prior. It seemed like a lifetime ago as we sat around on the floor in between the rows of iron bunks trying to figure out if a spit shine was supposed to be done with saliva or phlegm. There were former high school football players who weren't the least bit intimidated by the physical training. There were cocky, loud guys from North Carolina, an assortment of inner city Blacks, and Hispanics, and even one guy who bragged about how much money he had made as a male prostitute. We all stopped shining and looked up to see if he was serious. He was. We could only hope he wouldn't make it through the eight weeks into our Coast Guard. He didn't. Neither did two-thirds of the guys we started out with. The Coast Guard was very selective. They had their own entrance exam, separate from the other four branches of the military, and boot camp weeded out anyone who couldn't "get with the program."
It was too hard to make our racks as perfectly as required, so we all slept on top of our tight racks with hospital corners; we wore our army green utility jackets for warmth. It was winter in Cape May, New Jersey. At zero-six-hundred, the company commander would come in and yell, "All right you maggots, fall out now! Let's go, let's go, let's go!" We had just enough time to jump off the rack, put on our boots, and run to formation outside for "morning cals."
"Jumping jacks, begin!"
"Sir, one, Sir! Sir, two, Sir! ..."
I was not very good at the workouts, but I never gave up. When I arrived at my push-up limit, I would continue to lift my body up from the floor as far as I could and hold it until all of me began to shake and my arms gave out. As soon as my ribs slammed into the deck, I pushed myself up as far as I could and did it again. I knew if I stayed down I would be on the next bus home. Although I wasn't in the greatest shape, I think the instructors appreciated my perseverance. Sometimes, I even surprised myself at what I was able to do.
"Next up! Climb the rope and touch the ceiling, now."
I didn't hesitate when ordered to climb the knotted rope suspended from the very high ceiling of the gym. I just kept going up and never looked down. I was very surprised when I was able to touch the ceiling and get back down without incident.
"Get over here, let's go!" yelled a boot-pusher to a recruit doubled over by the retracted bleachers grimacing for mercy.
What a crybaby, I thought to myself. He kept bellyaching with his hands on his knees. We were not allowed to talk, but it just came out. "Get over here!" I yelled quietly to the bellyacher. I was embarrassed that one of my fellow recruits could not endure the crucible like a man, and I didn't want any of us to give up. The kid rejoined us, but was eventually sent home weeks later.
I wrote detailed letters home to my mother twice a week, sometimes two or three pages long. Shortly before I went to boot camp we had gone to see the movie "Officer and a Gentleman." I loved the movie and hoped Coast Guard boot camp would be similar. It did not disappoint, and my appreciation was reflected in the letters I wrote my poor mother with quotes such as, "Before I crawl up your ass and explode!" Or, when my zipper was found open during sit-ups, "What the fuck! Are you trolling for queers, boy?!"
Near the end of week one, the company commander was supposed to pick one of us to be the leader. They called the position an "RC," which stood for recruit coordinator. Our company commander still hadn't made a decision.
We had to memorize our ten general orders, such as: I will never leave my post unless properly relieved. We were all lined up against the walls outside of our squad bay, when the company commander would walk up to one of us and yell, "What's your sixth general order!"
"Sir, I don't know, sir!"
"Get down and give me twenty!" He meant all of us. We had to become a team. If one screwed up, all got punished. This went on for a while with none of the recruits being able to answer the general order quiz. We had been told to memorize them when we arrived. It was now my turn.
"This is the sorriest bunch of fuck ups I have ever seen!" He stopped in front of me. "How about you, Gilheany? What's your fourth general order?"
"Sir, my fourth general order is ..." I went on to recite my fourth general order. The company commander was surprised, as he was about to tell us to get down again.
"Oh, is that so? Would you like to try another?" He went on to make some threat about the punishment my mates would receive if I was wrong, just to raise the stakes.
"Sir, yes sir!" I yelled back without hesitation.
"Okay, what's your eighth general order?"
"Sir, my eighth general order is ..." and I went on to recite my eighth general order.
He did it once more and realized I knew all ten by heart.
"Why is it that Seaman Recruit Gilheany knows all of his general orders and none of you dumb asses knows a single one?! Get down and give me twenty!"
When he was done with us, we filed past him and back into the squad bay. When I passed, he said, "Hey, Gilheany, come here."
"Sir, yes sir."
"I'm going to make you the RC. Here's what the job entails ... Hey, wait, you're a swim failure, aren't you?"
"Sir, yes sir."
I had not passed the swim test.
"Never mind, you can't be the RC. But I want you to start a study group and teach these dumb asses how to study, OK?"
I was happy to have been singled out for a position of leadership within one week of joining the Coast Guard, even though it turned out I wasn't qualified for it. I was happy to be able to help my fellow recruits with my memorization tricks. I learned early on everybody has their talents, limitations, and individual roles to play.
Swim failures were given two weeks to pass the swim test. The test lasted five minutes. Swim one hundred yards, and then tread water for the remainder of the time. Touch the side of the pool, you start over. While the rest of the company went to the gym to "get cranked" (do push-ups), the swim failures, six other inner-city kids and me, went to the pool for swim practice. One day, while making my way across the pool, one of the instructors was waiting for me at the far side. He yelled, "Come here!" I climbed out of the pool fast and snapped to attention in front of him.
"Sir, yes Sir!"
"Do you want to go home to your Mama, boy?"
"Sir, no Sir!"
"If you don't get back in that pool right now and swim right, I'm going to put you on the next bus back to your Mama! Do you understand me, boy!?"
"Sir, yes Sir!" I hollered as I hustled back to the other side of the pool. Of all the things that he could have said, he chose the one thing that would terrify me the most. All I could think of were the bets that were made back home on what week I would step off the Greyhound as a failure. I could not allow this to happen. I got back in the pool and swam for my life. The instructor decided to have mercy on me and spared me a trip to the bus station.
Every few days at the pool we had to step up on the platform, cross our hands over our chests, and step off. Each time I made it a little farther, but never more than thirty yards or so, as I always got water in my nose and instinctively grabbed the side of the pool. One day I realized if I was going to pass this test, I would have to come up with a new strategy. I realized I needed to swim far enough away from the side of the pool so that when I got water in my nose I couldn't grab the side of the pool. It worked! On the tenth day of boot camp, as the rest of Oscar Company 114 watched from the bleachers, I finished the hundred yard swim. Now all I had to do was tread water correctly for another two minutes or so. This was no easy task. My mates sat silently and watched from the bleachers while the instructor hovered over me with the long pole. After what felt like hours, the instructor simply said, "Get out."
All I could think was that, after all this, he may have decided my treading water was not up to par and decided to fail me. I had never considered questioning an order before and never did again (in boot camp), but I couldn't help myself. "Did I pass?" I asked, still treading for my life. I must have sounded pitiful. His head snapped around and he gave me a look, with wild eyes and flared nostrils, like you would imagine a drill instructor would give when his order has been questioned by a recruit. Then I saw him check himself.
"Yeah, you passed. Now get out."
The company cheered spontaneously and received no punishment for it. It was one of the proudest moments of my life and one of my biggest accomplishments. Without passing that seemingly small test, none of the rest could have happened.
I felt very sorry for the rest of my boot camp swim failure colleagues, as none of them were ever able to pass the swim test, and they were all eventually sent home.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Minding the Helm"
Copyright © 2019 Kevin P. Gilheany.
Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 / Boot Camp,
Chapter 2 / 402 Lives Saved,
Chapter 3 / A Rough Start,
Chapter 4 / Adventures On The High Seas,
Chapter 5 / Challenger,
Chapter 6 / Airborne,
Chapter 7 / Tall Ship Sailor,
Chapter 8 / Hooligan Navy,
Chapter 9 / Shipmates and Scoundrels,
Chapter 10 / Southern Belle,
Chapter 11 / Hazardous Bars,
Chapter 12 / Life and Death Decisions,
Chapter 13 / Chief Petty Officer "On Leadership",
Chapter 14 / Bagpipes, Blessings, and Bereavement,
Chapter 15 / 9/11 – Operation Noble Eagle,
Chapter 16 / U.S. Coast Guard Pipe Band,