Confessions of a Drunken Coastie, Part 11
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 eleventh of his true stories about fighting the War on Drugs and the War on Haitian Refugees
Mid-afternoon, the First Lieutenant received the news via the handheld radio. Both of the Tumultuous’ small boats were broken and we would be stranded in Jeremie, Haiti for an unknown period of time. Perhaps overnight.
Five of us had been ashore for the last four hours. We were there because the Haitian government requested assistance from the U.S. to deal with a coastal freighter suspected of smuggling cocaine.
That morning, when the Tumultuous arrived at the remote town in southern Haiti, we’d discovered the harbor channel was too shallow for our deep draft. So the ship remained on station offshore while her small boats ferried the crew to where the vessel in question was tied up, under guard, at Jeremie’s main pier.
We were the second shift of Coasties taxied to the decrepit vessel moored to the long, rundown wharf. The 175-foot freighter’s multiple holds were stuffed to the gunwales with thousands of 94-pound bags of cement mix.
The real labor was done by scores of young Haitians, happy to have paying work, supervised by machine-gun-toting bosses in shirt and tie. Jeremie’s harborfront was dilapidated, almost abandoned. Back in the 1960s, rebellion had fomented in Jeremie. In response, dictator Papa Doc Duvalier punished the community by shutting down the port. That’s why the channel hadn’t been dredged and why the stevedores didn’t have a crane or a forklift or lights or even electricity. The vessel was unloaded with manpower, blocks and tackle. The men grunted as they heaved and hoed on ropes that made the cargo nets rise. The boom swung and the load of heavy sacks came ashore. The work crew barely paused to wipe their sweaty brows, their black skin turned white and ghost-like, caked with cement dust.
The Coasties had the easy job. Armed with knives, they stabbed and slit each bag, checking for hidden stashes of cocaine.
“This is crazy,” said Gunner’s Mate Third Class Jimmy Kenneth. A thoughtful and fastidious fella, he was usually gung-ho about our law-enforcement duties. “Seems like a dumb way to search for contraband.” Kenneth shook his head as he poked his knife into his 500th bag. “Very unlikely we’ll find coke. Unless by accident.”
“C’mon, Guns,” said the First Lieutenant. “Headquarters ordered us here.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Kenneth put up his hands. “I know.”
“We’ll keep doing what we’re doing until told otherwise,” said the First Lieutenant. “Simple as that. And we’re here until one of the small boats is repaired.”
“What about food?” I asked.
“We still have sandwiches, right? And we can sleep on the freighter if necessary. Hopefully, they’ll pick us up before then.” The First Lieutenant frowned. “But first, I gotta deal with the freighter’s captain. He’s not very happy with the situation. He says the Haitian government is stealing the cargo. He claims they know he doesn’t have any cocaine.”
“Sun sets in another four hours,” Kenneth said, scratching his head as the First Lieutenant walked away. “And these folks can’t work in the dark.”
“I’m gonna see where they go,” I said, pointing at the laborers pushing wheelbarrows loaded with cement. “I’ll be back in a little bit.”
By a stroke of good fortune, the Skipper and the XO had selected me, a mere seaman, to bring the ship’s video camera ashore and record footage of the activity. To my shipmates, this made me the least useful member of the team — I wasn’t stabbing bags.
I followed the wheelbarrow parade and focused my camera on one strong teenager in particular. Down the wharf and up a path to the top of the hill he went, then took a right, rolling past a row of shanties and shacks. My guy was the fastest worker in the crew, passing other laborers taking breaks or plotting to steal the bags for themselves. Eventually we reached a metal government building, where the booty was unloaded and stacked.
Half an hour later, I returned to the waterfront. The tide was high and the pier had grown crowded with townsfolk. A ship’s whistle sounded and a ferry — much like the ones that service Maine’s islands — came barreling down the channel. As the vessel approached, I was shocked by the number of passengers aboard, packed like sardines from stem to stern, hanging from ladders and railings. A rust bucket overloaded with life.
The atmosphere on the pier was like a festival. Kids, mostly boys, were everywhere. I was soon surrounded by a group of youngsters, surprised to find a goofy white guy in their midst. To further entertain them, I picked up three rocks and began to juggle.
The ferry docked and unloaded its human cargo, then reloaded and headed back out to sea. The crowd vanished as quickly as it had appeared. When I returned to the cement pile, Kenneth shook his head and grimaced. “It’s official,” he sighed. “We’re spending the night.”
“Seaman Barry,” the First Lieutenant said, approaching me. “I need you to go into town.”
My new assignment, he explained, was to scavenge food and drink for the rest of the team while they continued their search for cocaine. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a tall white man wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt appeared.
“Who is in charge?” he called out in perfect English.
The First Lieutenant raised his arm and approached the fella. He was from the State Department and had heard through the grapevine that Americans were in Jeremie. He warned us not to drink the water or beverages made with local water, then walked away.
I headed into town to see what was available. Thing was, we didn’t have any money. No one had expected we’d be ashore long enough to need any cash. I stumbled upon a small outdoor café, where a smiling barkeep accepted my Timex wristwatch and the divers knife on my belt in trade for a cold 12 pack of Beck’s, two packs of Newport cigarettes and a couple quick shots of rum at the bar.
A warm dusk was falling when I got back to the freighter. The First Lieutenant was unimpressed by the bounty of beer. He’d been expecting me to rustle up food, not brew. Then, almost magically, a smiling, chubby man wearing a white shirt, black tie and shoulder holster appeared, carrying a pot of rice and beans. A minute later a couple more men showed up, lugging tommy guns and offering handshakes, plus a case of Prestige lager, Haiti’s most popular beer.
The rest of the evening turned blurry. We drank and drank, but weren’t able to communicate very well with our hosts. My pal Chamberlain’s high-school Spanish and one of the local’s equally shaky Español were our only shared language. After much laughter and a boozy sing-along, our generous guests departed, leaving us to find berthing on our own.
My shipmates boarded the freighter in search of a place to sleep while I stayed up to finish the last two lagers. When I climbed aboard, I opened doors, crawled through hatches and scaled ladders, but couldn’t find my posse or a bunk.
I happened upon a shower stall stacked tight with cement bags. No matter — I just needed the shower curtain. I was suddenly in desperate need of slumber. With a quick yank, I tore the damn thing from the rod and rings, then drunkenly stumbled outside and made my way forward, to the foc’sle. Back on the Tumultuous, during warm Caribbean evenings, I occasionally slept on the bow. This wouldn’t be much different, I told myself, laying down on the hard steel deck.
Except for the rats, who quickly discovered my presence. I curled up and huddled under the shower curtain. The rodents crawled and scurried over the plastic sheath as I fell into a deep sleep.