Down East 2013 ©
On board the USS Francisco, the sailor who was my “guide” did a good job of following orders — assuming that his orders were to get this hopeless little aspiring journalist totally lost. He led me up a series of grey, metal staircases and down a series of grey, metal hallways, circling the ship and winding through a maze of twisty passages, all alike. Approximately forty miles later, panting and low on provisions, we arrived at the Captain’s Quarters.
Being a Captain in the U.S. Navy, apparently, sucks. The room was no bigger than most people’s underwear drawer, and it contained the Captain’s bed, closet, wash basin, desk, and reading chair. It also housed a small conference table at the head of which, at this moment, sat the Captain’s twelve-year-old son. The cute little lad was dressed in his father’s uniform, which fit remarkably well. The sailor who led me here saluted the young man, mumbled something to me, and left.
“Hey,” I said, trying to sound pleasant and harmless. “Any idea when your dad will be back? I’d like to ask him a few questions.”
Remember, I’m a trained professional. As I learned in the Journalism School of Eastern Maine University, an essential element in any interview situation involves the gaining of the subject’s trust. Building rapport and all that. So it’s critical to get the interview off on the right foot. Unfortunately, I vaulted swiftly past “the right foot” by mistaking Captain Randall Bergman for a twelve-year-old boy. But it’s not entirely my fault. Old “Bomb ’em Hard” Bergman isn’t even shaving yet.
After we got past the frosty glare, the crisp offering of a seat at the conference table, and the summoning of several adult sailors — apparently for the sole purpose of giving them orders in front of me and proving that I had, indeed, found the actual skipper — Captain Bergman leaned back and glowered at me again. He looked like a cocker spaniel puppy defending a squeaky toy.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Graham?” he said evenly.
I was impressed that he knew who I was. In fact, I was downright floored. I must have looked as shocked as I was — Capt. B gave a slight smirk.
“You don’t really think I’d let some idiot in a rowboat board this vessel without knowing who he was, do you?” he asked. “I just got off the phone with your editor at the Sun.”
Dazzling. I was impressed that he was quick and thorough, and I was also impressed that he could use a phone on this big metal boat.
I decided to forget my ungainly arrival and my unfortunate assumption that the Captain was pre-pubescent, and I got down to the business of the interview. Capt. Bergman gave me about half an hour of his time, and we actually had a decent chat.
I found out, for one thing, that the Francisco has orders to show the flag, remind the people of GSI of their solemn loyalty to the United States of America (a loyalty I don’t think anyone on the island signed up for), and make sure the Canadians know that the good ol’ US of A isn’t going to give up real estate without a fight. How much fight the Francisco could muster remains unclear. Capt. B was deliberately vague on the subject.
I also found out that the Francisco was Bergman’s first command (surprise!) and that he intended to carry out his orders with such vigor that his superiors in Norfolk would have no choice but to notice him and shepherd him up the ranks. I think he wants to command an aircraft carrier when he grows up.
Bergman declared that the Francisco was going to remain in port for another day or so, make some efforts to win over the hearts and minds of the people of GSI, and then head back to Virginia. From there, it was his understanding that the ship was going to head southward, cross through the Panama Canal, and join up with the Pacific Fleet, where it would play an instrumental role in making sure that Red China keeps its guns in its collective holster. I don’t know whether he was kidding me about that or kidding himself, but I’m sure there was a joke in there somewhere.
He then summoned another member of his crew, a sailor named Crain, and ordered the poor swabbie to show me around the ship. “Keep him away from the bridge and all sensitive areas,” Bergman clipped. “Dismissed!”
Apparently, the “dismissed” part applied to both Crain and me, because it was obvious the interview was over. Crain, an unsmiling young man who spoke with a Southern accent, showed me down various corridors and up various stairways. We nosed into a few supply closets, most of which were responsible for keeping our fighting sailors well supplied with mops and buckets, and Crain pointed to several doors and informed me that we were not allowed to go in there. Ultimately, I ended up back at the external stairway that led down to my bobbing dinghy.
The stairway was lined with sailors. I thanked Crain for the tour and did my best to return his salute. I then marched down the stairs, returning the crisp salute offered by each sailor along my descent. Some of them seemed to find my attempt at military courtesy amusing.
When I reached my dinghy, two sailors helped me climb into it without tipping over. Then they pushed the little rowboat away from the Francisco.
“Bon voyage,” one of them said.
“Anchors aweigh,” I replied, hoping that that wasn’t the Marines’ slogan. I picked up the sole remaining oar and tried to paddle my little boat like a canoe away from the ship. Overall, I was pleased with my first encounter with America’s military machine — I met the guy in charge, got some answers, and generally carried my share of journalistic gravitas with dignity and respect. Not bad at all. I’ll be reporting from behind enemy lines before you know it. There’s nothing like experience to make the impossible seem easy.
I was about a quarter of the way to the dock when I felt chilly seawater creep up my shoes and soak the bottom of my jeans. The dinghy wobbled a bit in the water. It didn’t take me long to realize that my helpful friends on board the Francisco had removed the drain plug from the bottom of my boat. At the rate with which the Atlantic was gushing up between my ankles, I figured I’d better paddle quickly or risk losing the dinghy to the bottom of the sea.
I pulled mightily on the oar again and again, the water level rising — and my level sinking — with disturbing speed. I made it to the beach, exhausted and gasping, with hardly any of the boat above water. I dragged the dinghy onto dry land, rocked it to splash out most of the water, and then flipped it over to dump out the rest.
At that moment, I heard a cannon fire on board the Francisco. I looked up and saw three sailors on the side deck. Two of them held the ends of an inner tube or something, and the third pulled it back in the middle. A second later, a bright red missile soared through the air toward me. It was a balloon — a water balloon — and it landed with a splat just a few feet away from my already soaked body.
Tied to the now-shattered red balloon was my drain plug.
—Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment — NavyBrat414: Love it! They should have put some cinder blocks in the boat and let you sink to the bottom. When will you learn? You don’t mess with the Navy!
Comment — PeaceNick: Grow up, Brat!!! Donovan’s just trying 2 EXPOSE the CRUELTIES that R standard in military. How can U defend such an immoral institution???
Comment — Anaconda6645: Outrageous. You should sue the whole military.
Comment — NavyBrat414: Immoral? Like Greenpeace is full of nothing but angels.
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here .