embrace of the sea

I am a happily married man and yet I have a mistress.  No, not that kind.  The Sea.

The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.
– Jacques Yves Cousteau,  ( http://www.brainyquote.com)

The sea used to call to me as a child.  I read stories about life at sea. I was fascinated by Jacques Cousteau’s shows exploring the sea.  As a youth, my family would frequently make the short drive to Half Moon Bay  from Belmont, California.  After body surfing and boogie-boarding in the cold ocean surf we would warm up by a bonfire on the beach.  Moved by my mother to to the Atlantic coast as a young teen,  I would swim and take a sailboat or rowboat out in the waters off Cape Cod, Massachusetts.   Though swept out to sea once by a rip current,  I responded by learning to snorkel and scuba dive.

There is a witchery in the sea, its songs and stories, and in the mere sight of a ship, and the sailor’s dress, especially to a young mind, which has done more to man navies, and fill merchantmen, than all the pressgangs of Europe. -Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before the Mast

I was a captive, not unwilling, during eight years assigned to Navy ships.  Then, I spurned my love-interest. I retired from the Navy.  As I  dallied with camping,  hiking, and cycling,  the sea called me back to her.   It was a recent cruise to the Caribbean that has me spellbound again.  I am not too old to don a wetsuit, or rent a boat, or take another cruise, all the while listening to Jimmy Buffett on the radio.







Jamaican smoke

“The most futile and disastrous day seems well spent when it is reviewed through the blue, fragrant smoke of a Havana Cigar”.
Evelyn Waugh

“Tobacco is the plant that converts thoughts into dreams”.
Victor Hugo

“If smoking cigars is not permitted in heaven, I won’t go”.
Mark Twain

NOTE:  the following may lead some to engage in foolish behavior,  potential pregnancies, fondness for dens of iniquity, and loose talk.  Forge ahead if you enjoy the company of Sailors, and  such things.

Writers, thinkers, curmudgeons, and satirists enjoyed a fine cigar.  Actors, artists, and politicians also, but it seems the powerful’s lesser vices these days involved tobacco.   Only in America, in 2017,  can we have a state, California,  that now frowns on the cigarette, pipe and cigar smoker, but promotes the consumption of marijuana.

What should an old curmudgeon, retired Chief, and blogger do?  Relax.  With a glass of Johnny Walker Black over ice,  and a  Jamaican -label Montecalvo cigar, purchased on my recent cruise in the Caribbean.    As another post-Thanksgiving day wanes,  it was an accomplished day: some writing, dogs groomed,  yard  trimmed, and exercise.  First a hike this morning and then a former pile of stones now have taken the shape I envisioned three weeks earlier.  Christmas yard ornaments are laid out.    Where a stress-filled work-day can be a disaster repaired with a good cigar, it has been a remarkably good day.


Takes one to know one

The last time I boarded a vessel the size of the Allure of the Seas, it was gray and I was an enlisted volunteer(ed) carrying equipment. While an aircraft carrier does not deploy lounge chairs nor launch aircraft, on this voyage, my wife and I saw divers launch into a pool several decks above the waterline. This was all part of an entertaining acrobatic and sychronized diving show.

However, the most entertaining part of this trip has been having brief conversations with passengers who are fellow veterans. You see, I wore my “Retired Navy” ballcap boarding in Florida and disembarking on our first port of call. From the first greeting in the line with a retired Bo’sun while getting registered at the embarkation terminal, to the Air Force vet my wife and I sat with at a dinner, to the Navy Vietnam Nam-era airdale, there have been a lot of quick greetings and instant recognition.

” I can recognize veterans”, one Navy wife said.  I think she actually said, she could “smell ’em a mile away”, but I knew what she meant. I think people who served have an instant kinship. One of my fellow passengers, a man and his wife about half my age went snorkeling with my buddy, me and four others at our stop in Haiti. He smiled knowingly, when I remarked how cool it was to be zooming away toward our dive spot in a RHIB. Most Navy people recognize this acronym as Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat. Yet I think he or possibly his wife, was Dutch or German.

Yeah. The folks who are frequent cruise vacationing people also seem to have that camraderie. Many start around our age. I think cruise veterans and particularly Navy veterans get the best new sea stories to swap with one another from trips like this. It does “take one to know one”.

(Image) The last time I was off the coast of Haiti (USS PETERSON)

Scoundrels, Sailors, and even a spy

Only in America would circumstances bring a first generation Polish-American Jew and a Scot-Irish Protestant together, fall in love and marry.   My parents met in New York City; I was born in San Jose, California. What little I knew of my father’s family, particularly my grandfather’s story,  began with his fondness for fisherman style caps, and a Russian phrase I later learned was a soldier’s response to orders given.   Only from clues from my aunt and searching the internet, was I able to tie a few of them together.

Since my Polish grandfather and his betrothed came to the United States through Canada in the early 1920s,  I can only imagine he learned the Russian if conscripted by the Bolshevik Army after the Revolution. They occupied part of Poland in those days.  He obviously escaped and made it to New York City becoming a U.S. citizen and finding work as a shipfitter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.    I am particularly grateful, as I might have been Italian-American and an Army veteran, as my mother was previously very smitten with an Italian-American soldier,  given several pages of photographs and a few old letters I found after her death.   Then how would I have ever obtained the wife I have and become a retired crusty Senior Chief?   Like my eldest son today,  I am not great at marching nor am I particularly suited to running miles in combat boots.

My mother’s ancestors in Northern Ireland were mainly merchants and businessmen in the flax or finished linen industry.  In Scotland, some were town leaders (burgesses), maintained order, were metal workers, or were in the ministry.  However, in almost every generation going back to the early Sixteenth Century an ancestor served in the military, was involved in combat or insurrection, or had some colorful story that was almost lost to history.  One fought the British Army in a late-Eighteenth Century uprising in Ireland.   Some forebears served in the British Army,  some died in Colonial America, and some went to Australia.   While the British Empire exiled folks there centuries ago, it probably was due to military service or to seek one’s fortune.  And some others went to sea.  There is a story of  James Blaw,  a ship’s surgeon,  who was shipwrecked in the South Pacific and subsequently rescued, whom I identified from accounts digitized and made available online.

While my mother’s family line spent three hundred years in Ireland, they came from  Culross and Dunfermline, Scotland.    It was only due to the second son emigrating to Ulster in the 1600s  (and changing the spelling of his surname)  since it was his elder brother who inherited property.    But James Blow, as Scottish printer’s apprentice and then in Belfast, partner, who was to make the greater mark in family history.   It was his firm that printed one of the very first English Bibles in Ireland.

But our family is not without its scoundrels – or spies.  While descendents of the Ulster Blow  family pursued careers in the military, or life at sea, or emigrated to other lands of the British Empire,  a Scottish curmudgeon,  the printer’s elder brother,  John Blaw, was a courier and spy for Bonnie Prince Charlie, who at that time was exiled in France.

After that attempt to mount a return of the Jacobites failed, it seems Blaw, who never was the businessman his brother was, ended his days as a mean drunk.  After a bar fight -he was in his sixties at the time – he was imprisoned and tried for murder of another pub patron.   He apparently was also a horrible provider for his family.   After his conviction and execution,  his widow sold much of the family possessions.   And his granddaughter and her husband – a descendent of the trial prosecutor – sold the family estate.

Another ancestor of my mother,  sent out to live with a relative, settled in the early Nineteenth Century South, eventually founding banks and railroads.  Even after the Civil War and ReConstruction,  he died a millionaire.   However, his Scotch-Irish relations from Ulster swooped in and “appropriated” investments.  News clippings detailed scandal, the deceased’s questionable marriage, and a missing will.  In hindsight some of my forebears were indeed scoundrels.   But others served honorably. There is one commemorated on a wall in the Belfast City Hall,  to those who died in combat.  Flanders, Belgium during World War I.

Other family branches came to America.  Two from different families served with distinction during the Second World War.  One’s service was shrouded in secrecy- probably in Army Intelligence – he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  Another relation, serving in the Merchant Marine, was awarded for gallantry during a fierce battle of Malta.   I never met him in person, but he wrote me a recommendation to attend the U.S. Naval Academy.  He is commemorated at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York.

My father was never in uniform, but he was a defense contract engineer on integral projects for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Department of Defense.  He helped design the C-5A Galaxy aircraft in the 1960s and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.   I may have found it easier to enter the Navy field that subsequently has given me a lifelong career due to a long family history of service.

Sailors of fortune

Before the advent of  Cyber warfare,  when a ruler wanted to extend his (or her) sovereignty beyond the geographic boundaries of mountains or the sea, sailors were called upon.   Three thousand years BCE,  from their largest settlements on Crete, the Minoans had extensive trade with Egypt and the Syrian people of eastern shores of the Mediterranean.  They were wiped out from the sea– literally.   But the Philistines, whom Ramses III battled (his monuments bear witness to his Philistine captives) were likely either Minoan or proto- Roman Etruscan immigrants.  So once again sailors were prominent in history.

The Homeric tales of Greek mythology reflected actual battles of the Mycenaeans (Greeks) with the Trojans about 1100 years BCE in present-day Turkey.  Scholars think these wars were probably for access to the Black Sea through the Dardanelles.  Sailors as soldiers of fortune again made history.  Troy, whether or not fooled by a wooden horse at the time,  was laid waste, and likely sailors had some role.   About 500 years BCE,  the Mycenaeans battled and eventually repulsed invasion of the Persian Xerxes empire (attacking from the sea).   And as Greek seapower grew, sailors extended their reach and culture all through the eastern Mediterranean.

Alexander the Great, the Macedonian, about 300 BCE, created a Greek empire from Europe east to India and south into Egypt.  And the Romans about that time started to extend their reach by land and the sea.  For hundreds of years,  sailors extended the Roman influence from Britain to Egypt and North Africa.

Since the age of Christ,  European sailors have extended empires and trade to and from all corners of the globe. While squabbles between armies and navies are now over football games,  I think each is beholden to the other.   Sailors may have a tradition of rowdiness in ports around the world, but also gained a reputation for “girl in every port”.  FB_IMG_1491759647178From sailors, over the thousands of years of our known history,  we all potentially have some  DNA of people they encountered:  Assyrians, India,  Egyptians, Carthaginians,  Mongols, Polynesians, Chinese or aboriginal (native american or australian).  If not for Sailors of Fortune,  the dust of time would perhaps cover us.

Lessons of a military life

Lesson #1: You’ve got two rights in this world

My early blog post is being retitled and reposted to first in a series of memories that shaped my adult life.  This story is forty years old as of 2018.   

Thirty years ago, a Navy Senior Chief, his name forgotten to history, made a lasting impression on an 18-year old Sailor.  In what was then the Correctional Custody Unit (CCU) at Naval Training Center San Diego, I was a Petty Officer assigned to escort the nearly-bad-but-salvageable characters who were not sent to the brig for various offenses.  On the Monday of the beginning of every other month, a group of malcontent, mostly 18 to 20 year old,  “bootcamps” or fresh recruits and apprentices were lined up at 0700 in the courtyard of a nondescript half-century old building with bars on the windows and a locked front gate.  This was CCU and the Senior Chief, the LCPO.

The Senior Chief was a burly man with a crooked grin, intense eyes and was all-business. He had spent ten years as a combat Marine and then switched services to the Navy as a Gunners Mate.  His deputies were equally salty, the soon-retiring Snipe Chief with weathered skin, alcoholic eyes, missing front teeth — he was busted in the face decades before in a drunken brawl with Shore Patrol in some liberty port.  The  incoming deputy was a hefty Boatwains Mate First Class (“Boats”) who shared the same passion for the Navy and making Sailors out of these men in their charge.

“You’ve got two rights in this world, shipmates”  the Senior Chief bellowed, “One, to live; the other, to die.   And when you F*** up, I’m going to take one away from you!!”   At this, he usually got a snicker from some fool who also had his hands in his pockets.   After an hour of push-ups and eight-count body-builders, while we all enjoyed our coffee, the jokers were then quieter, sweating heavily and not inclined to disrespect their wardens.


Flying trucks, drive-thru homes, and miracles

Bang, Screech, and BANG!  Two A.M on Saturday morning, out of a dead sleep Sheri and I leaped out of bed to see what the commotion was.  (Must be the druggies partying down the street). A few minutes go by. Sheri and I stepped out front,  looked down toward the main road and saw nothing,  only a couple people coming out to the street.  I went inside and then back out as the fire trucks pulled up the street a few moments later.  One of our neighbors joined us. A minute later I saw a couple people from the other direction coming down the street, saying that a truck has driven INTO the house at the top of the street. 
After several minutes we walked up the street to see a truck buried in the corner of a house.  There’s several neighbors gathered, the police and the firemen were moving about.
Our neighbors were first responders. Robert pulled a teenager from the rubble of his bedroom, and Brian shut the power off.   Brian grabbed the passenger who was trying to get away.  By the time we walked up to the house, the sheriff has both occcupants of the truck under arrest.  The twenty-ish woman driver was incoherent as she was escorted to the car past me.  She and the man military-looking seemed to be without a scratch.  An ambulance passed by, taking the teenager who was in the house, to the hospital.   His brother was unhurt simply because he fell asleep in the living room and not in his bedroom which was completely demolished.
A few moments later we found out that these two drunks had smashed into a small trailer, then bashed into a car in the driveway of the house next door, backed up and went forward in the driveway again, smashing it again, pushing a pickup truck behind the first car THROUGH the garage door, then backed up and careened through the victims’ brick mailbox post.  They missed all the cars and trucks parked along the street, and, six houses where the street tees,  launched up a  driveway, over a cement wall and into the bedroom of the other home.  When the F150 was hauled off by the wrecker, it didn’t seem to have suffered that much damage.  (Wonder if Ford would advertise that as “Ford Tough”. )  It was miraculous that no one was killed and that no other cars were smashed on the way.  Oh, and the idiot kids –  the son and his buddies weren’t responsible. The mom, whose two cars and garage was plowed into, kicked them out of the house recently.  Our neighborhood, once insulated, is becoming more crime statistically average.  And to think, all I used to worry about was the probability of an airplane coming down, living in the runway approach to the Gillespie Field airport.