2015 03 29 Sunday
I stand on the fantail and stare out at the buildings across the bay from the cutter. We’re moored in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, one of the more popular spring break destinations in this part of the world. Having spent the previous day driving back and forth between the resort and the boat, I can see why; it’s pretty well-developed. There are plenty of first-world amenities, several malls, a Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club, high-rise hotels, booze cruises, and miles of white beaches and clear tropical water.
The resort was… well, a resort. The staff was smiling and friendly, and 95% spoke excellent English. The guests looked like they had been sampled from every middle-class family on the planet. Americans, Chinese, German, South African, Israeli, Russian; I heard it all. I dozed and watched a Pacific sunset before heading back to the cutter to get a full night’s rest (and sleep off the margaritas). Then it would be time to report for watch.
In foreign ports, someone has to staff the Operations Center (OPCEN) just in case a critical message comes through one of the secure networks. To date, it hasn’t happened. No one in their right mind expects a cutter with more than half its crew on liberty (and very likely inebriated) to be able to respond immediately. Technically we’re supposed to be able to do precisely that, and in a pinch, probably could, but there would be operational hell to pay afterward. I very much doubt anyone would have the patience to try and conduct a boarding while hung over. At that point, we would likely sink their boat without bothering to collect contraband or arrest anyone to keep from having to do the paperwork. “Drugs? Bales? Nah, just a bunch of guys with holes in their boat.” Not saying that it’s happened before, but if it did I can guarantee it wasn’t pleasant for anyone involved. Gunfire post-drinking binge is a particularly exquisite and visceral kind of discomfort.
Anyway, when we pull into a foreign port, the Operations Specialists and Electronics Technicians man the OPCEN. At the moment, I am in between watches and therefore “on break”.
For now, it is a quiet port. Most of the mooring spaces are free and clear. The only other ship in sight is what looks like a “replica” of Columbus’s flagship, the Santa Maria. It has about as much in common with a tall ship as I do with a flamenco dancer. The waterfront, such as it is, is little more than a busy highway with a mall on its eastern side and the sheer concrete cliff of the dock on the other. One hundred years ago, it probably looked a little different but not by much. Staring at the nightlife walking by on this sleepy Sunday night, I can imagine steam-powered clipper ships down from San Francisco moored next to loud sailors’ taverns set between the jungle and beach. The cruise ships have replaced the coal-fired cargo ships, and the high rises and night clubs have been built where the taverns and warehouses once stood. Even so, the place has the feel of an old port. Hundreds of thousands of souls have passed through this place to make their way up and down the coast. The international airport has only increased that traffic. We are supposedly on the cusp of spring break season. I, for one, am glad we are missing the influx of 18- to 20-somethings.
I puff contently on a short, narrow Cuban cigar. At least the label says it’s Cuban, it could be Honduran via Miami for all I know about tobacco. I’m grateful that it’s not much longer than my index finger. This thing is so tightly rolled that I had a devil of time lighting it. I thought it was unusually heavy when handed to me, and now I know why. I’ve handled less dense rope. My shipmate, who shares my appreciation for good sipping whiskey and earthy Caribbean cigars, sits next to me as we watch the water. Like most enlisted men, we discuss two things: our officers and women. In some cases, both simultaneously, since we have four female officers assigned to the cutter. Though where women are concerned, the topic usually centers on our wives, which is much safer than speculation on other women. The air is cool, and the breeze is barely perceptible. Thankfully, the smell of finely aged tobacco overwhelms the ever-present scent of diesel exhaust and bilges.
He is expecting a little girl sometime soon. My mind drifts, and I only devote half my attention to the conversation. What would it be like to have a child at home, waiting on his or her dad to come striding through the front door, bags in both hands, fending off dogs, and reeking of three months on a 50- year-old ship? He asks me the inevitable question everyone does when they see my wedding band. “So, when are you going to have one?” I break away from pondering and say something noncommittal about getting out of debt first and going from there. Inside, my heart breaks a little at the thought of leaving a newborn and my wife alone for three months at a time. Military families do it all the time – and for longer than three months at a go. It doesn’t mean I want to make it a habit, but you lie in the bed you make, and for now, that bed is aboard a Coast Guard cutter. I shift the topic back to the far less painful subject of officers.
I can feel nausea and a headache coming on. I have had far too much coffee, too little water, and smoked this very rich cigar too fast. Some younger shipmates show up from liberty with enormous stogies in hand, looking for advice and wanting to join in. I am grateful that mine is down to the end, and it is time to pitch it over the side. I do so and pound down a canteen of water. I do my best not to grin as I watch the two 19-year-olds get their 8-inch-long smokes lit and slowly turn green. It is immediately evident that they wish they were doing anything else. Bigger is not always better. Had we a reliable humidor aboard, I’d secure a bundle for my father, in-laws, and uncle. However, we do not, and I decide, out of courtesy, to spare them the unpleasant task of smoking dry cigars.
I need to catch a nap before watch. I’ll be up there from 2350 to 0550, and I’m not looking forward to it. Too much time to sit alone in a dark room and think, especially when all I can think about is getting home to my wife and family. I excuse myself and hit the rack. I will try and get a dive trip in tomorrow before we leave. With any luck, I’ll have another adventure to share with you.
K.C. Aud has made a career of being lucky and has managed to find something positive in nearly every poor decision he’s ever made, even if it was only a new perspective on how not to do something.
Enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard in 2010 he became an Operations Specialist (radio and navigation) and did his first tour in Georgia guarding submarines from drunk fishermen. In 2014, tired of the heat and the bugs he transferred to a 210-foot medium endurance cutter in Washington state. The cutter then regularly deployed to the hot and buggy west coast of Central America to hunt down drug runners. Aboard USCGC Active he traveled 94,194 miles and personally handled enough cocaine to keep a small country high for a decade. Somewhere in there, he learned to write, if not spell.
Three years later, daunted by the prospect of spending the rest of his career in a windowless command center, he separated from active duty. After 13 different jobs ranging from beer brewer to dairy farmhand, to machinist, to Navy civilian contractor, he reenlisted in 2020 as a Coast Guard reservist, changing rates to Maritime Law Enforcement Specialist. When not helping the Navy assets in the Puget Sound troubleshoot radios, he’s on drill in Seattle doing water cop stuff and or flailing away at his keyboard. Though married and now a father, he misses the mission.
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