Confessions of a Drunken Coastie, Part 8
Editor’s Note: From 1988 until 1991, Crash Barry — then known as “Egg” — served as a sailor in the U.S. Coast Guard aboard a 210-foot-long ship that patrolled from the Gulf of Maine to the Caribbean. This is the eighth of his true stories about fighting the War on Drugs and the War on Haitian Refugees.
Randomly rifling through stacks of paper on the operations officer’s desk, I found a list of user names and passwords for the ship’s new computer system. The Tumultuous, built in 1968, had just been upgraded from stand-alone word processors to a network with a dozen workstations installed throughout the cutter. As a lowly seaman, computers weren’t part of my shipboard life, but I perused the list anyway. All the user names were the officers’ rank and last name. The passwords were their first name. I was sure this info would come in handy someday.
My daily snooping usually didn’t involve digital records. My temporary assignment as wardroom messcook provided many opportunities to eavesdrop. I served as maid, laundress and waiter for the Captain and the officer corp. After a couple weeks, like any good servant, I became invisible. So the zipperheads didn’t see me in the corner, polishing the silver or checking on the coffee pots. And since it was also my responsibility to clean each officer’s stateroom and head, my presence in their private quarters was welcomed and appreciated. I always worked with my ears and eyes open, alert for useful gossip.
I hated the gig, but the alternatives were galley slave or dishwasher. To me, scrubbing burnt pots and pans was the worst option. The wardroom assignment seemed easy at first. But soon, cleaning up after these older men grew tiresome. Serving them meals became an unpleasant, and sometimes difficult, chore, especially while underway in stormy weather.
Equally awful was the derision of my shipmates. Didn’t matter that the job was assigned — they viewed me as a willing representative of the ship’s ruling class, and relentlessly mocked me as a traitor and catamite.
“Oh look, ya’ll, here comes slurp-boy in his fancy, cum-resistant coat,” Staples drawled every time I appeared on the messdeck or in the berthing area wearing the mandatory white servers’ jacket. “How many officer cocks did you suck today, boy?”
“Yes, sir.” Chief Stone grimaced into the ship’s phone. “We’ll make sure that happens.” The chief cook hung up, then moaned. “Friggin’ bastards want a chocolate cake for tonight. For the friggin’ First Lieutenant’s birthday.” He turned to me. “I hate that little bastard. When I got drafted, we were still fighting those friggin’ gooks. Now I’m baking cakes for ’em. Whaddya think of that craziness?”
“Crazy,” I said. “That’s nuts.”
Thing was, the chief was sort of right. The First Lieutenant — a personable, smart, short fella — was Vietnamese. As a young kid, he and his family escaped their war-torn nation on a boat after Saigon fell. After being resettled in California, the boy studied hard and did well in school, ultimately earning an appointment to the Coast Guard Academy, where he excelled.
None of that mattered to the old Chief or the rest of the enlisted crew. The gap between the officer and enlisted classes was so vast, bridges were impossible to build. For the most part, the enlisted folk viewed officers as inept bureaucrats with useless college degrees. Book smart, if anything — not knowing a damn thing about being a sailor. And the saltiest old dogs, like Chief Stone, especially resented the twenty-something academy grads who reported aboard driving fancy cars, newly addicted to being saluted and called “Sir!”
Conversely, most officers treated the crew in a condescendingly paternal manner, in accordance with the military-college educational system that encouraged such behavior to maintain order and command respect. The enlisted, in their eyes, were children in need of constant direction. Yet, like many parents, the officers had no idea how the kids really behaved when they weren’t around.
“That li’l bastard is a lucky son-a-bitch,” Chief Stone barked. “Lucky. Lucky. Lucky.”
“Here’s the special lunch, Captain.” Chief Stone handed the skipper a brown paper bag. “For you and Seaman Barry,” he said with a snort.
“Thanks, Chief. Wish us luck.” The Captain smiled broadly. “If we land a tuna, we’ll give you some nice steaks to cook for the crew.” He pointed at me. “Ready, Egg?”
“Then cast off.”
“Aye, aye, Captain.”
While I coiled the mooring lines, the Captain put his 21-foot Bayliner in reverse and backed away from the Tumultuous. We’d returned from a North Atlantic patrol a couple days earlier. With the crew enjoying five days of holiday routine, the skipper, a geographical bachelor whose family lived down south, was the only officer aboard. And he was jonesin’ to go tuna fishing. Who better to take along than his wardroom messcook?
A half hour later we were past the Isle of Shoals and headed further east. While I had zero interest in fishing, the boat ride was a million times better than cleaning shitters or waxing decks. Didn’t matter to me that we wouldn’t find any tuna. I spent much of the voyage looking overboard, hypnotized by the gray sea.
Our conversations were superficial and banal, but then again, I already knew a lot about him. Two months of making a man’s bed, washing his dirty laundry and perusing his desk can tell you plenty about a fella. Like how, as a 45-year-old, overweight male, he needed to lose 50 pounds or he’d be discharged under the Coast Guard’s latest “fat boy” purge. How his wife didn’t seem to need him around the house. How headquarters was angry we hadn’t made any drug seizures during our last two Caribbean patrols.
I knew he was just killing time, trying to finish his career and get a pension without screwing up. Pale and flabby, he seemed so old and tired. Five hours of chasing non-existent tuna was enough. He turned toward shore and we headed home as fast as the engine could carry us.
“Budget cuts are making it so we can’t test the entire crew,” Doc said to me months later as we stood at the edge of the flight deck, smoking cigarettes. “But tomorrow” — the ship’s corpsman looked around to be sure we were alone — “tomorrow, we’re testing all the fives and nines.”
“Uh-oh.” The last digit of my Social Security number is nine. That meant I was about to be piss-tested for drugs. “That’s not good.”
“Yeah.” He shook his head. “I figured you ought to know.” Doc and I were buddies. He knew I occasionally smoked herb.
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll take care of it.”
At the end of the workday, when most sailors went ashore, I surreptitiously accessed the computer in the yeoman’s office. Using the First Lieutenant’s name and password, I signed into the system. Took me less than a minute to find the ship’s sailing list and change the last digit of my Social Security number to four.
The next day came and went without incident.
On Sat., Oct. 5, Crash Barry will be speechifying at the Harvest Festival at Harry’s Brown Farm in Starks. On Fri., Oct. 11, Crash will be participating in the Literary Death Match at SPACE Gallery in Portland.