Confessions of a Drunken Coastie: The Finale
by Crash Barry
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 Gulf of Mexico. This is the twenty-first, and last, of his true stories about fighting the War on Drugs and the War on Haitian Refugees.
January 17, 1991
“Gimme another bourbon,” I grunted to the bartender, trying hard to hold back tears. For the past hour, I’d been drinking alone in an almost empty Chinese restaurant in a strip mall a couple miles from downtown Portsmouth, watching the TV tuned to CNN’s simulcast of the precision bombing of Baghdad. Operation Desert Shield was turning into Desert Storm before my eyes. “Then gimme another beer,” I added, and lit a smoke. “And get yourself one. On me.”
“Thanks,” he said, pouring the brown booze. “But it’s not allowed.”
“Stupid rule.” I downed the shot and frowned. “Bunch of friggin’ bullshit.”
Everything was friggin’ bullshit. An illusion. For the first two decades of my life, I’d been conditioned to believe the Soviets were my enemy. Suddenly I’m expected to shift my hatred to Iraq? Last I knew, Saddam Hussein was our ally in the war against Iran. Prior to enlisting, I’d worked with a couple Iraqi fellas who were wicked cool. Now I was supposed to despise their homeland enough to justify dropping bombs on it from 20,000 feet? Because of something to do with Kuwait? Bullshit.
My three years aboard the Coast Guard cutter Tumultuous, fighting the War on Drugs and the War on Haitian Refugees,taught me to question all official directives. The waste and unfairness of the drug war, coupled with our historic complicity in Haiti’s dire poverty and brutal dictatorships, had become painfully apparent. The blinders were off. I now understood how misinformation, incompetence and outright lies were standard government procedures.
The barkeep slid me a new beer. I took a long sip as the screen showed another bombing run from the bombardier’s point of view — a remote perspective, muted and pixilated. Missiles guided down chimneys and programmed to chase targets — it was more like a video game than a battlefield. Vastly different than the graphic TV news stories from the jungles of Vietnam that haunted my childhood. A talking head babbled about the computerized blitzkrieg’s accuracy and mentioned that the U.S. government wouldn’t be releasing body counts. From the footage, it was clear to the military analyst that our destructionist behavior would force Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait. Victory would soon be ours.
I drained my beer and pointed at the TV. “We can’t hear the people screaming,” I said.
“Huh?” The barkeep, busy wiping counters and washing glasses, wasn’t watching the war. “What?”
“We can’t hear the people screaming,” I repeated. “Or crying. We don’t see them bleeding.”
“Oh.” He wrinkled his forehead and pointed at the clock. “You want some food from the kitchen? It’s getting late.”
“No.” I sighed. “Just more bourbon.”
“I must say, Egg, I’m shocked you don’t know anything about Neil Young.” Electronics Technician Second Class Skip Castle coughed as he exhaled a huge cloud of blue smoke, then grinned widely and handed me the bong. “Neil Young is by far more important, musically, than Crosby, Stills or Nash. He’s a better songwriter. Better guitarist. Hell, his voice is so distinct and strong” — he laughed— “makes the rest of those guys sound like Wilson Phillips.”
“Well, I’m digging this album, for sure,” I said, then put the lighter to the weed for another colossal hit. By this point, we were halfway through side two of After the Gold Rush. And we were super-high. “This herb is friggin’ awesome.”
“Yeah.” Skip smiled and reached for the bong. “Looks spent.”
As I kicked back on the couch in the living room of his Kittery rental, Skip cleaned and refilled the bowl. Buddies for the past year, we had a lot in common. We both loved reading, the Grateful Dead and smoking herb — a pair of hippies wearing Coastie clothing. Provided the war in Iraq didn’t mess with the discharge process, both of us were due to become civilians in less than three weeks.
“So, Egg,” Skip said, after he sparked the fresh weed and inhaled deeply. “How serious is your anti-war stance?”
“Very serious,” I said, swigging from my can of beer. “We’ve got no right…”
“Hold on,” he said, pointing the bong at me. “No need to preach. I’m asking because some pals are chartering a bus to the March on Washington this Saturday.”
“What’s the March on Washington?” I asked, grabbing the apparatus.
“Gonna be the biggest peace march since Vietnam. I’m going. Bus tickets are $75. You wanna come along?”
“Hell yeah!” I fired up my lighter and took a deep hit.
“Alright,” he said. “I had a feeling you might. I think it’s gonna be a historic event. The people united…”
“Hey, I got an idea,” I interrupted with a cloud of smoke. “Maybe you and I should wear our friggin’ uniforms. Right? Make a real statement about the war. Maybe carry a sign saying ‘Sailors Against the War’!”
“I think you’re high,” Skip said. “’Cuz that’s one of the lousiest ideas ever. Pull a stunt like that and we’ll both end up in the brig.”
“How about wearing our Tumultuous baseball caps?” I nodded. “That shouldn’t cause any trouble.”
“C’mon, Chief, I’m getting out in less than a week,” I said to the new Boatswain Mate Chief. We had just arrived in Norfolk for a couple days of training and drills before continuing south to Florida, where I would disembark from the Tumultuous for the last time. “Give me a break, will ya?”
“You heard me.” The BMC cackled as he poured himself a cup of coffee. He’d been aboard the ship less than a month and didn’t intend to cut me any slack. “You have until 1600 to get your hair cut at the base barber shop. And trim that ridiculous mustache, too.”
“I don’t think my hair is really that long, and besides…”
“Are you questioning an order?” the chief barked. “Is that what you’re doing?”
“No, Chief,” I sighed. “I’ll get a regulation cut. Right after chow.”
“Good.” He took a sip of coffee. “And another thing.”
“What’s this I heard about you going to Washington D.C. to protest Desert Storm? Is that true?”
He knew the answer — I could tell from the way he sneered when he asked the question. He probably also knew that when I returned from the march I discovered someone had used bolt cutters to remove the padlock from my locker. Inside, with thick black magic marker, they tagged the metal drawers, door and shelves with epithets like “Die commie scum” and “Egg is a pinko commie faggot.” Initially, I was pissed. But I was getting out and the graffiti artists weren’t. That made me feel better.
“Well?” The chief sipped more coffee. “Did you?”
“Yeah, Chief. On my day off.”
“What are you, some kind of anti-war pussy? Afraid to fight, are you?”
“No, Chief.” I shook my head. “I just believe I should get to know someone, on a personal level, before I kill ’em.”
He stared blankly for a couple seconds, not knowing whether to take me seriously. “Get the frig out of here,” he growled. “And get your friggin’ hair cut.”
I opened the door to my government-issued condo, tossed my seabag on the couch and rushed to my bedroom closet, where my stash of weed was hidden. It was sort of surreal to suddenly be a civilian again. Early that morning, in Jacksonville, I’d had a final breakfast aboard the Tumultuous,then crossed the gangway one last time. After a flight to Logan and a bus to Portsmouth, a cab delivered me to the condo complex just as the sun was setting.
After being surrounded by 70 guys, practically around the clock, for the last three years, I was so glad to be alone. Thanks to a loophole, I had the Coast Guard’s condo for one more month, until the first of March. Plus, I had about a thousand bucks in the bank. So lucky. The month was gonna give me some breathing room to ponder my future.
Packing the bowl, I assessed my situation. Whatever my next move was, I would travel light. The furnishings I had, all third-hand junk, would easily fit in one of the condo complex’s dumpsters. My remaining gear didn’t amount to much: Coast Guard uniforms, black boots, a couple pairs of jeans, boxers, socks and a bunch of tie-dyed t-shirts. A winter coat. My dictionary and thesaurus. A quilt my mother made me. A Sony Walkman, along with a half-dozen Neil Young albums that Skip dubbed onto cassette, plus my Grateful Dead show tapes and Pink Floyd collection. On the kitchen counter was an almost full gallon of cheap red wine. On the coffee table was an eighth of weed. All my worldly possessions could fit in a cardboard box.
A lot of big decisions loomed ahead. Would I join the Merchant Marine, traveling into war zones as an able-bodied seaman and making the big cash? Where would I live if I didn’t? Who would I work for? These questions deserved serious consideration, but first things first: my eighth of weed wasn’t gonna last very long. Now that I was a civilian and didn’t have to worry about piss tests, I needed more drugs.
“Oh my friggin’ word! Hahhahah!” I laughed until I was almost crying. I turned to Jed, a Bates College dropout who dealt good weed, mushrooms and acid. “This is friggin’ hilarious.”
“Yeah, I know.” Jed took a puff off the joint and handed it to his roommate sitting next to me on the couch. “Everyone knows that.”
“Whaddya mean ‘everyone’?” I asked, staring at the yellow-skinned characters on the screen: the wiseass skater punk, the smart little girl, the loutish dad, the mom with a tower of blue hair. “I’ve never seen this show before.”
“Dude,” Jed said. “You gotta me kidding me. You’ve never seen The Simpsons?”
“No.” I shrugged. “Never heard of ’em.”
“Oh, man!” Jed frowned. “Where have you been?”
“Fighting the War on Drugs, mostly,” I said, reaching for the joint and wondering what else I’d missed while out at sea.
“I’ve been worried, Egg,” Debbie said. She was blonde, beautiful and 27. We’d been pals for a couple years. And I was in love with her, secretly. Maybe. As much as a guy can be in love with a woman he’s never kissed. A prior romance with a shipmate of mine had soured and Debbie instituted a moratorium on dating sailors. So even though she was smart, funny and sexy, I never let her know how I felt. “What are you going to do?”
“Not sure.” I took a long sip of the white wine she’d brought, along with a pizza, to my humble abode. I normally avoided white wine, but tonight I couldn’t afford to be choosey. With a rapidly dwindling bank account — I’d given Jed $250 for an ounce of weed, a quarter of ’shrooms and a dozen tabs of acid — any free food or drink was welcome. “Actually,” I said, looking into her smiling blue eyes, “I don’t have a friggin’ clue.”
“Oh, Egg!” she sighed. “Why? It’s not like you didn’t know you were getting out. What happened to the idea of become a merchant marine?”
“Yeah, that.” Now it was my turn to sigh. Free of the constraints of shipboard life and fueled by hallucinogens, I’d spent much of the past couple weeks having solo psychedelic adventures around the condo complex and the neighboring woods and strip malls. My drug use would make it practically impossible to get a gig chipping paint and standing wheel-watch aboard a merchant vessel.
Then again, did I really want another job that required urinalysis? Plus, I was wary of working in the Persian Gulf. Not due to danger, but because of my conscience. How could I be both a hippie and a war profiteer? “Unfortunately, I don’t think I could pass a piss test right now.”
“You don’t think?” She frowned. “That’s too bad, ’cuz you were really excited about the opportunities.”
“Oh, I still am. It’s just that I have to stop smoking weed for 30 days to get the THC out of my system. Then go down to Boston and hook up with the union and get my AB card, and then…”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” She put her hands up. “What are you gonna do until then? Don’t you have to be out of this place soon?”
“Yeah.” I paused and felt a pang of worry. What was I gonna do? “Fifteen more days.”
“Oh, Egg!” Debbie stood and stretched and rolled her shoulders. “My neck is killing me. I strained something at the gym yesterday.”
“Do you want me to rub your neck for you?”
“Would you?” She smiled. “I’d love that.”
“Sit in that chair,” I said, rising from the couch. I’d never given her a massage before. Barely ever touched her, except for hugs. “Let me work my magic.”
I started gently at the base of her skull and worked my way down and around. I wasn’t going to limit myself to her neck, because if her neck was sore, so were her shoulders and her upper back, her spine. Maybe her biceps and triceps could also use some healing. All I could reach, I would touch. Her skin was so soft to my fingers. So warm and smooth, malleable under my kneading.
Eyes closed, she didn’t speak. For 20 minutes, I listened to her breathing and rubbed. When I hit a trigger, she’d whimper and I’d focus on the tender spot, applying pressure incrementally, eliciting groans of pain, or moans of pleasure, or both.
I turned my attention to her right arm, working my way down, ending on her wrist and palm. As I stroked her, I noticed a change in her breathing. More hurried, it seemed. Then I massaged her left arm, and when I reached her hand she entwined her fingers with mine. I looked into her face. Her eyes were open. Wide and wanting. We leaned toward each other and kissed.
A minute later, she pushed me away. I knelt next to the chair, feeling excited, surprised and confused.
“Oh, Egg!” she said. “This isn’t supposed to happen. You’re not my type. Look at you. Practically homeless. Broke, right? No job. No leads. No car. No plan. You drink too much. Smoke too much. And, as far as I can tell, never turn down any drugs.” She shook her head. “Not my type.” Then she sighed. “But you’re so tall and strong. And sweet. And sensitive, when you’re not totally wasted. And I think your beard is kinda sexy.” She grinned. “I’ve never seen you with facial hair before, other than that cheesy mustache. You’re a big, goofy bad boy. But not my type.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I wish I was.”
She laughed and scratched my stubble and pulled my face closer and kissed me, then pushed me over to the couch.
“You better not tell anyone about this,” she warned. “This is a one-time deal. Got it?”
“Who am I gonna tell what?” I asked. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She laughed and kissed me again, unbuttoning her shirt as she straddled me. I reached for the bare flesh and muscles of her lower back, the area I couldn’t caress while she was in the chair. As my fingers walked north along the sides of her spine, she leaned into me, on fire and ready. Her bra came off and her breasts, firm yet soft, pressed against my chest. Her full satin lips met mine, then the tip of her tongue — a tease at first, then growing more aggressive, a dance portending the event to come.
A few minutes later, we were finished. Sweaty and breathing heavily, I wrapped my arms around her.
“I’m so stupid!” she suddenly shouted, pushing me away again. “So stupid!”
Jumping off the couch, she began a frenzied search for her panties and bra, her skirt, her shirt.
“Wha… what’s the matter?” I stuttered, half-clothed and wishing for my trousers.
“Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” She was dressed again in seconds. “We didn’t use a condom.”
“Are you gonna get pregnant?”
“No, stupid, I’m on the pill. But I have a gynecological exam tomorrow morning and I just had unprotected sex with you.” She let out a yelp. “With you! Oh my God! I can’t believe this. Where are my shoes?”
She found them under the coffee table and quickly put them on. “Listen to me,” she said, pointing. “You need to forget that this ever happened. And not a word to anyone. Especially my sister.”
“OK,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
She paused for a moment, then softened. “Oh, Egg.” She shook her head slowly. Her eyes weren’t laughing anymore, but they were still as blue as the Caribbean. She spread her arms. “Put on your pants and give me a hug.”
The phone would be shut off in five days and I had to be out of the condo two days after that. Along with my honorable discharge certificate and the DD214 that came in the mail, I’d received a packet from the VA explaining G.I. Bill benefits and federal job opportunities. It mentioned extra points awarded to vets who take the postal exam.
Suddenly, I was excited again. The Postal Service! Why hadn’t I thought of that before? The idea of being a mail carrier was enticing. Lots of fresh air and exercise. Lots of time away from the bosses. A great job for a stoner like me who loved to walk.
The next morning, I phoned the local postal center and asked if they were hiring veterans. Indeed they were. They invited me to come and fill out an application. It was a pain in the ass to get there by public bus, but by noontime I had the paperwork in hand. Pretty straightforward, I thought — until I read the drug-testing policy.
Drat! Foiled again. Now I was really starting to worry. What the hell was I gonna do?
When I got back to the condo I was tired, depressed and hungry. The reality of my situation was starting to sink in. I was woefully unprepared for the transition to civilian life, and woefully alone. I missed my pals from the ship. Most the guys aboard the Tumultuous were decent, hardworking people. There were a couple assholes, but that’s the norm in any workplace. And the Drug War and War on Haitians weren’t my shipmates’ fault. They were just following orders. Most of them, like me, had joined thinking the Coast Guard was the fire department of the ocean — only to discover they’d enlisted in a paramilitary anti-drug task force, instead.
I packed and sparked a bowl of fresh weed. Now that I was out, I could appreciate aspects of Coast Guard life I’d previously taken for granted, like the free food and housing, and the steady paychecks. I realized that if I hadn’t enlisted I would’ve missed out on all the adventures in exotic ports of call. I never would’ve became pals with Staples, Chamberlain, Red, Turmoil, Doc or D-Man. If I hadn’t joined, I probably would’ve been dead by now. Or in prison. Or dead in prison.
How the hell was I gonna transfer the skills I’d learned aboard the cutter to a position in the private sector? I could scrape rust and paint. I could drive a small boat and man the helm of a large ship. I could tie a dozen knots. I could punch, kick and brawl. I could tolerate long periods of tedium mixed with bouts of hard physical labor, interrupted by drunken shenanigans and substance abuse. But I couldn’t pass a piss test.
I wouldn’t make the connection for another month, but after some couch surfing and a two-week stint as a door-to-door canvasser for the League of Conservation Voters, I realized there was a civilian job that perfectly suited my skills and experience. That’s how I ended up on the stern of a lobster boat, living and working 20 miles offshore on Maine’s toughest island.
Crash Barry’s gritty memoir Tough Island, along with his rollicking novel Sex, Drugs and Blueberries and the true story Marijuana Valley are available wherever books are sold. Signed copies available via crashbarry.com. Next month, Crash begins a year-long series on neo-homesteading in the foothills of eastern Oxford County.